Dr Who at Christmas: the 1970s Christmas omnibuses: Part 3

A little taste of the times…

Christmas 1974 positively sparkled with an excellent, perhaps the most excellent, adaptation of David Copperfield starring Patience Collier, Martin Jarvis, Arthur Lowe and Jacqueline Pearce whilst in 1975, Crackerjack’s Christmas Pantomime, Robinson Crusoe, featured Windsor Davies, Don Estelle, John Inman and John Lawrie, a different kind of sparkle perhaps.  

Both Christmases were lit up by the annual Dr Who Christmas Omnibus: Planet of the Spiders in 1974 and Genesis of the Daleks in 1975.   

And in 1976..?


1974: Dr Who 
Friday 
27th December, 2.45-4.30
pm 

1.10 Grandstand – introduced by Tony Gubba
2.45 Dr Who: Planet of the Spiders
4.30 The All Star record Breakers
5.00 National News – with Richard Whitmore
5.10 Tom and Jerry [Regional News – not London]
5.20 Top of the Pops – Noel Edmonds and Dave Lee Travis

‘A complete adventure in one programme starring Jon Pertwee as Dr Who… A Tibetan style monastery in rural England; a stage magician with uncanny powers; an alien crystal… these are the strands of the sinister web woven by the Metabelis Spiders’  – Radio Times billing.

 

Or Jon Pertwee regenerates into Tom Baker – again.

Even the fact that this omnibus began not at 4.00 or 3.30 but at 2.45pm was exciting to me as a ten year old. The earlier time made the screening feel somehow more ‘urgent’ and it was less long to have to wait.

Indulgence

For all its shortcomings and accusations of indulgence (actually the much criticised chase takes up only half of episode 2) Planet of the Spiders remains underappreciated.  A well-crafted story arc gently builds on seeds sewn in The Time Monster (the Doctor’s teacher), The Green Death (Jo) and Invasion of the Dinosaurs (Mike Yates) to provide a coherent and poignant close to the Pertwee era.

Thus a moral tale (the emptiness of power, the innate healing quality power of mind, surrender of ego followed by rebirth) coupled with an end-of-an era, retrospective feel makes for an ideal Christmas recipe.

The regeneration game 

Most touchingly of all, this was transmitted only the day before Part 1 of Robot in which Tom Baker picks up the mantle and a whole newplanet-of-the-spiders-byline era of Dr Who begins.  “Tears, Sarah Jane?”  I’m sure I shed some of my own as my familiar white-haired hero was transformed before my eyes into a brown curly-haired stranger for a no less traumatic second time.

As a six-parter, this would have been 2.30 in episode format, so approximately 45 minutes have been lost.

8.6 million viewers tuned in as against a shade over nine million viewers on average for the original.  Throughout the two weeks of Christmas and New Year, BBC-1 showed Holiday Star Trek each weekday morning at 11.45am.  Possibly this may have bumped-up Planet of the Spiders‘ viewing figures.

ITV screen the film Half a Sixpence at 2.25 all the way up to Looks Familiar at 4.50.

Transmutation

Planet of the Spiders is the first omnibus repeat still held in the BBC archives and is included on the DVD release along with the trailer.

 

 

No illustrations accompany the billing in Radio Times but on the Saturday 28th December page we have a Pertwee-Baker transmutation across four photos as if in imitation of the superb Radio Times 10th Anniversary Special artwork which blended the features of the first three doctors across a double-page spread, thus creating Hartnell-Troughton and Troughton-Pertwee hybrids.  This Pertwee-Baker version is rather more basic and it’s clear Pertwee’s head has been matted onto Baker’s be-scarfed body but still it’s a nice try and gets the idea across.

For the first time in the 70s, the new Dr Who season is not marked by a Radio Times cover, odd really considering Tom Baker’s debut the week before.  All my research has drawn a blank as to what did make it onto the New Year edition cover.

 


1975: Dr Who: Genesis of the Daleks
Saturday 27th December, 3.00-4.25pm 

12.15 Grandstand – Introduced by Frank Bough
3.00 Dr Who: Genesis of the Daleks
4.25 The Basil Brush Show – with Roy North
4.50 Final Score 
5.05 News/Weather – with Michael Fish
5.15 It’s Cliff & Friends 
5.50 Saturday Night at the Movies: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, mad World

‘A complete adventure in one programme, starring Tom Baker, written by TERRY NATION… The Time Lords have a mission for the Doctor. He finds himself stranded on Skaro -the planet of the Daleks where a war of attrition is reaching its bitter final stages’ – Radio Times billing.

 

That’s not Terry Nation but TERRY NATION.

Blast off Basil  

No really, Blast Off Basil.

In a bizarre reversal of the usual BBC-1 Saturday evening schedule, Dr Who now precedes Basil Brush which is incongruous given Genesis of The Daleks’ hard-edged, adult themes.  The omnibus would have benefitted immensely had Basil’s twenty-five minutes been added to its running time.  You really need the full exposition to feel the effect.

At the time, I wondered whether the change from Jon Pertwee to Tom Baker might signal the end of the Christmas omnibuses.  Added to that, Season Thirteen had begun not around Christmas 1975 but back in autumn of that year and so was a little past mid-way by Christmas.  There was no longer a need to refresh viewers’ memories and whet their appetites after a six month break.

Butchered 

And yet I was pleased to see Genesis of the Daleks appear in the schedules for 27th December in time honoured fashion.  But with approximately 65 minutes removed, it was the most excised of the omnibuses.

The tough cut was presumably to meet the demands of a crowded schedule.  In retrospect, it perhaps suggests the BBC losing interest in the idea of Christmas omnibuses.

Changing times

Even as an eleven year old comparing my memory of the episodic broadcast nine months earlier with this butchered version, I was aware that dramatic impact had been sacrificed.  For the first time, Igenesis-of-the-daleks-byline felt less than entirely satisfied.

Having made the change from primary to secondary school three months earlier, in retrospect, my more critical response also seems like one which prefigures adolescence.  Three or four years earlier I’d have been grateful for anything.

Added to that, by this time my parents were ignoring Dr Who, my father not being a fan of Tom Baker’s more ironic, send-up style (he really should have seen this though).  Watching alone and being in a new house I didn’t warm to took away something of the cosiness.

Stopgap Who

In Radio Times, Frank Bellamy’s artwork is captioned: ‘The most important mission the Doctor has ever faced – can he prevent Davros creating his Daleks?’ and depicts all three ‘Ds’.

8.5 million viewers tuned in compared to an average of almost 9.6 million for the spring screening.

The ITV Network runs with ski-ing and wrestling as part of its usual Saturday afternoon World of Sport package.

This was the only time an omnibus was screened on a Saturday.  The Genesis omnibus was used as a stopgap as there was no Dr Who serial later that day with The Android Invasion’s final episode screened on 13th December and Brain of Morbius not commencing until 3rd Jan 1976.

 


1976:
Bank Holiday Monday 27th  December 

1.25 [Racing from] Wincanton
2.34 Walt Disney’s Babes in Toyland
4.20 The Superstars

5.30 Evening News – with Richard Whitmore

Tuesday 28th December 

1.00 Racing Grandstand 
2.35 The Nutcracker
4.20 James and the Giant Peach

5.15 Evening News – with Richard Baker

christmas-1976-radio-times

 

And so to my bitter disappointment on discovering that The Seeds of Doom, my favourite Dr Who story since The Green Death some three years earlier was not to be comped come December.

A repeat was planned but then dropped for unknown reasons.  What those were, I can’t imagine. Seeds of Doom even had snow!

Scrooges! 

The unexplained absence marked the missing of a much-loved tradition.  Christmases felt truncated, colder even, accentuated for me by a passing from childhood innocence to self-aware adolescence

1976, aged twelve, was the last year I had a Christmas stocking.    

Cold, cold Christmas 

Perhaps the omnibuses ended because Dr Who seasons no longer ran January- June.  Perhaps new producer Philip Hinchcliffe didn’t favour the format, preferring episodic repeats which became a fairly common feature of the mid-late 70s when scattered across the early-evening weekday schedule usually as summer filler.  Or perhaps there were changes to BBC senior management come 1976.

Had the tradition continued, both Seeds of Doom and especially 1977’s Dickensian/Holmesian The Talons of Weng Chiang, with its fog shrouded London streets and mysterious magic cabinet, present1976-dr-who-byline themselves as obvious high calibre candidates.  I struggle once we reach The Invasion of Time (1978) and The Armageddon Factor (1979) admittedly.

For whatever reason, the Christmas feasts were no more.  Inextricably bound to the early-mid 1970s and coinciding exactly with my remembered childhood, the Dr Who Christmas Omnibus tradition had become a magnetic, essential part of my Christmas and still engenders feelings of great warmth forty years on.

Ever since 2005, Dr Who has had a Christmas Special shown on Christmas Day, as if that somehow picked up on a longer established tradition which, like many mythologies, was actually never the case.

A Christmas toast

So perhaps at about 3pm on Tuesday 27th December 2016, I’ll sit down to Seeds of Doom on DVD with a glass of ginger wine and a mince pie or two.

Until then, in the words of William Hartnell in 1966’s The Feast of Steven (the only old Who episode actually broadcast on Christmas Day): “A Happy Christmas to all of you at home!”

img_2523


Dr Who 1970s’ Christmas Omnibuses Part 1
Dr Who 1970s’ Christmas Omnibuses Part 2
Scraps of Dr Who
Dr Who: 1976 and all that 

 

Soldier and Me: incredible afterthoughts

Soldier and MeHaving watched Soldier and Me again (my second and inevitably more critical DVD viewing) a friend and I spotted a few slightly incredible aspects to the plot.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re holes, just unlikely though quite endearing coincidences.

Given that the chase covers such a wide area both in Stockport and across the Lake District, it’s highly improbable that Jim and Pavel’s pursuers could have kept such a near constant tab on them.   The boys are out of reach yet curiously close at hand.

The most unlikely moment of all is Smiler boarding the same train out of town and turning up in the same carriage.  His face emerging from behind a newspaper is a great ‘reveal’ moment until you stop to think about how it could have come about.

In a curious way, the ‘never too far away’ chase does fit in with Jim’s diminished, city-boy notions of the vast Lake District – if you head for a farm near a lake it’s bound to be Nichol’s farm.

Still, where would thrillers be without coincidences?  It’s all exciting stuff especially when viewed through my ten year old – rather than 50-something – eyes.

Soldier and Me review

Soldier and Me

Original TV series: 9 episodes [23-24 mins] • tx. 15.09.74 – 11.11.74 • Granada for ITV • Network DVD 2-disc set released 17th August 2015.  


Soldier and MeIf you think that 70s children’s television drama means cramped studio sets, received pronunciation kids and bad CSO then think again.  BAFTA winning Soldier and Me dispels all these expectations.

Fundamentally a thriller, Soldier and Me is also action adventure, a road movie, a buddy drama and a kind of coming of age film – not to mention the more obvious grand chase.

It remains intelligent, compulsive, gritty and funny over forty years on.

 

The unravelled thread

Set against the fallout of the 1968 Prague Spring uprising (an interest in the iron curtain countries was something of a preoccupation for left-leaning Granada), the drama centres around two boys, Czech refugee Pavel Szolda ‘Soldier’(Richard Willis) who involves the older and more streetwise Jim Woolcott (Gerry Sundquist) in a plot by a Czech gang to murder a dissident.

The boys try to unravel the plot but end up being pursued by gunmen across open countryside.

Authentic

Director Carol Wilks, producer Brian Armstrong and lighting cameraman Ray Goode had all worked on Granada’s World in Action and bring something of that series’ uncompromised authenticity to bear on Soldier and Me.  Filmed entirely on location, the series doesn’t flinch from showing the toughness of survival in harsh terrain and the sense of genuine threat from the armed plotters.  

The dramatically lit sequence in which the boys witness a night time interrogation, are discovered hiding in the language school and then make their initial getaway – rapid action intercut with telling stills –  is particularly well done.

Best buddies?

The boys’ incongruous relationship, unsentimentally portrayed throughout as irritability (on Jim’s part), gradually matures into mutual respect.  I like the late scene in which Jim realises that they will always remember what they have been through together.

Soldier and Me still

Gerry Sandquist and Richard Willis are both excellent, Jim’s deadpan commentary adding a drily sardonic edge to the drama.  Richard Willis probably had the harder part here, burdened with large round spectacles, school uniform and a tendency to whine and wriggle rather a lot but there is a vulnerability and fearlessness to his accident prone character which is endearing.

I won’t give the ending away except to say that there is a little learning about the adult world which isn’t nearly as heavy handed as that perhaps sounds.

Run for your life 

Every road movie needs strong, seemingly incidental scenes to add interest and spectacle along the way and Soldier and Me has some particularly vivid ones such as Jim’s struggle for air amidst a smother of women in a small clothes shopSoldier and Me paperback and the boys’ night time school break-in which leads to a direct descent into a toilet bowl.  Although comic, these scenes feel genuine and well observed.

A number of bold sequences wouldn’t make it into children’s drama today – a leap off a moving train (prompting a warning at the time), riding two to a bike across rough terrain, an encounter with a gun toting farmer (Jack Woolgar) not to mention teenage smoking.  A memorable scene in which Jim flirts with a grinning woman on a train, hoping she might pass him one of her sandwiches, certainly wouldn’t.

Northern grit

A strong sense of locale, characteristic of Manchester-based Granada, is another of the series’ strengths.

The opening episode features stark, almost expressionist black-and-white shots of Salford’s back-to-backs and open spaces whilst in the second half the rugged beauty of the Lake District is more than just a back-drop (changed from the original Norfolk of David Line’s novel Run for Your Life).

Grainy darkness

Extensive use is made of what looks like genuine night-time filming which would have been expensive in the mid-70s.

Sometimes, the action seems to emerge from a grainy darkness, so much more atmospheric than the blue tinged, theatrical approximations of night often seen in television drama today though, having said that, the film stock hasn’t aged too well and would have benefitted from a  little loving restoration.

Familiar faces

Richard Wilson (One Foot in the Grave), Harry Markham (Kes, This Sporting Life, A Kind of Loving), Fred Feast (Coronation Street) and Derrick O’Connor (Hope and Glory, Pirates of the Carribbean) are among the well known faces in supporting roles.

The gun shot which pre-empts the opening title credits is fired by Jack Woolgar  Soldier and Me bylinestalwart of 60s and 70s film and television, perhaps best known for playing Carney in Crossroads in the mid-70s.

And it’s all rounded off with a funky theme.  I particularly enjoy the scenes when it sounds as if there is a guy at an electric piano happily noodling away to the action.  There is a suitably doleful flute rendition of the theme at the mid-point of latter episodes.

The Czech gang listen to Smetana’s Vltava on a car radio and this gradually becomes an emerging soundtrack to the end-drama itself – most effective.

No subtitles

A single flaw is that at times the gang members speak in English so as to let the audience in on the plot whereas subtitles over genuinely Czech dialogue would have preserved the series’ uncompromised feel.

The notes to accompany the DVD insist that Soldier and Me was broadcast on Sundays whereas I am fairly certain I remember it in the 4.50-5.20 weekday slot on Thames.  Richard Willis’ notes say that broadcast was delayed until 1975 whereas the DVD gives dates of September – November 1974 and I’d say that falls in with my recollections.

Oh, and we learn that the memorable slow-motion title sequence in which Gerry Sundquist tumbles down a hill until his bottom crashes into the camera was exactly what happened and entirely by accident.

The (not so) long chase

If you remember Soldier and Me, you have probably seen it again already.  If not, and you’re feeling a little sceptical, give it a try and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Some might find the chase sequences a little spun out but when I’m reminded that the BBC’s The Long Chase (seemingly wiped) was 26 episodes long to Soldier and Me‘s nine, I think I’ll forego that criticism.

Richard Willis’ personal reminiscences of making the series

A terrific, eclectic review by Frank Collins looks at the book as well as the TV adaptation, drawing on features in TVTimes and Look-In.

Soldier and Me: incredible afterthoughts

Jackie Trent: Where Are You Now – The Pye Anthology, Part 2


Mr & Mrs Music, 1967

In Part 1 last week, I reviewed Disc 1 of Jackie Trent: Where Are You Now – The Pye Anthology [Sequel, 2000, NEECD 396]  covering 1963-67.

Disc 2 launches us into 1968 and a slightly different style of arrangement on With Every Little Tear – percussion is more prevalent, orchestration pared back and vocal somewhat gentler.  Jackie has acknowledged the similarity between this song and Vikki Carr’s ‘It Must Be Him’, released around the same time.  It was Vikki’s release which charted.

1968’s Hollywood was written after Jackie Trent and Tony Hatch visited Los Angeles and strongly shows the influence of Do You Know the Way to San Jose both thematically and rhythmically but its chorus –‘ Hollywood! You’re a millionaire, Hollywood, You’re just Fred Astaire’ opts for show time rather than insight.

I’ll Be There, from 1969, was Jackie’s third Top 40 entry in a full orchestral style while B-side, Close To You, is a vaguely Humperdinck-like ballad, interesting for verse one’s string patterns which prefigure those of Tony’s Hadleigh TV theme some three years later.  Both are workable and enjoyable enough while they last but fail to lodge in the memory.  In terms of quality and impact either song could have been A or B side.  The flamboyant harp glissandi at the chorus endings tell us we are firmly in cabaret territory.

Razzle dazzle

Similar problems blight Jackie’s cover of Jacques Brel’s If You Go Away as Bob Leaper’s orchestrations, at first stylish, turn to razzle dazzle on the chorus.  Still, Jackie turns in an expert vocal.

I find it hard to listen to Such a Small Love because the arrangement is far less subtle, far less innovative than Scott Walker’s where every sound and tone is made to count.  But it’s good to hear Jackie tackle more daring lyrics outside of romantic love and its complications.  She sounds completely involved in this enigmatic song.

1970 single Look at the Rain is in a by now dated Italian style but things look up with the melodic and catchy I’ll Be Near You from musical ‘Nell’ (in which Jackie played the part of Nell Gwynne) although Johnny Worth’s appealing song appears here as a slow number with trumpet breaks underscored by oboe.  This is one of the most attractive and enjoyable tracks on CD2.

After two Hatch-Trent joint albums on Columbia (not covered by this set) we jump to 1974.  We Need You with its electric piano, signals a welcome break into a livelier more contemporary style with hints of Motown (it was recorded by Diana Ross) and a Jackie Trent 2harder edge to Jackie’s voice in places.

Then a full blooded new sound – gospel, soul – emerges on 1975 album Can’t Give It Up No More.  On the title track, Jackie’s voice even rocks (briefly) at times, sounding like Dionne Warwick at others.  The orchestra is firmly in the background now.

Everybody Rejoice, an early Luther Vandross song, is refreshing for its good-time liveliness with an almost snappy vocal style we haven’t heard from Jackie before.

My Love is given a radically different treatment from the famous Petula Clark hit.  The sleeve notes give away that this was a Hatch-Trent composition credited to Tony only as he didn’t want Petula Clark to know that Jackie wrote the lyrics.  Jackie’s version aims at a kind of late evening sultriness and all credit to her for delivering a radically different take but I prefer Petula’s sunshine-brimming optimism.

Final score

Jackie Trent leaves us a plethora of material – she recorded 28 singles and six albums in the 60s alone.  There’s an overall classiness to much on this 2CD set and there’s no faulting Jackie’s professionalism but she veers towards safe choices which means much of her output has been left behind with the demise of cabaret.

I’m sometimes too well aware that what I am hearing is little more than a polished performance and I’m not sure why that should be as it’s not as if Jackie sings without feeling.  But her songs and their stylings cannot transport me to another place as can, say, the grandeur of Scott Walker’s ‘Such a Small Love’.

It’s a shame Jackie didn’t try an album which showcased a more daring selection of material, moving into new territories, creating a unified sound and vision of an artist through a set of carefully curated songs, much as Dusty Springfield achieved in Dusty in Memphis.  But I don’t think this was ever what Jackie Trent was about.

That said, several songs on this set do reach out.  It’s All in the Way You Look at Life deserves greater recognition, This Time has a memorably fine melody and I’ll Be With You charms with its simplicity.  Some of the 1974/5 material succeeds in breaking the conservative mould whilst 1965’s Faces sees Jackie’s lyrics at their most impressionistic.

But Jackie Trent’s lasting legacy from the 60s/70s is, and will continue to be, Where Are You Now (My Love). 

Jackie Trent – 6th September 1940- 21st March 2015.

Jackie Trent: Where Are You Now – The Pye Anthology Part 1
Tony Hatch: a life in song

Full track listing

Disc 1

1. Melancholy Me – (Hayken, Hawker, 1963)
2. If You Love Me – (Really Love Me) (Monnot, Parsons, Piaf, 1964)
3. Autumn Leaves – (Mercer, Prevert, Kosna, 1964)
4. I Heard Somebody Say – (Monnot, Parsons, 1964)
5. Don’t Stand in My Way – (Hatch, Trent, 1964)
6. Where Are You Now – (My Love) (Hatch, Trent, 1965)
7. When Summertime Is Over – (Hatch, Trent, 1965)
8. It’s All in the Way You Look at Life – (Schroeder, Brooks, 1965)
9. Time after Time – (Cahn, Styne, 1965)
10. Fly Me to the Moon (In Other Words) – (Howard, Bart, 1965)
11. I’m a Fool to Want You – (Wolf, Herron, Sinatra, 1965)
12. Faces – (Hatch, Trent, 1965)
13. You Baby – (Mann, Weil, Spector, 1965)
14. Send Her Away – (Hatch, Trent, 1965)
15. Love Is Me, Love Is You – (Hatch, Trent, 1965)
16. This Time – (Hatch, Trent, 1965)
17. If You Ever Leave Me – (Hatch, Trent, 1966)
18. There Goes My Love, There Goes My Life – (Clark, Hatch, Ballay, Trent, 1966)
19. Open Your Heart – (Hatch, Trent, 1967)
20. Either Way I Lose – (McCoy, 1967)
21. Take Me Away – (Hatch, Trent, 1967)
22. Baby Are You Puttin’ Me On – (Randazzo, Harp, Gentry, 1967)
23. Make It Easy on Yourself – (Bacharach, David, 1967)
24. Humming Bird – (Stevens, 1967)
25. I’ll Be With You – (Hatch, Trent, 1967)
26. Your Love Is Everywhere – (Hatch, Trent, 1967)
27. It’s Not Easy Loving You – (Trent, 1967)
28. That’s You – (Andrews, 1967)

Disc 2

1. With Every Little Tear – (Hatch, Trent, 1968)
2. Don’t Send Me Away – (Hatch, Trent, 1967)
3. You’re Gonna Hear from Me- (Previn, Previn, 1967)
4. Here’s that Rainy Day – (Van Heusen, Burke, 1967)
5. Hollywood – (Hatch, Trent, 1968)
6. I’ll Be There – (Hatch, Trent,1969)
7. Close to You – (Hatch, Trent, 1969)
8. Goin’ Back – (Goffin King, 1969)
9. Remember Me – (Trent, Holding, 1969)
10. If You Go Away – (McKuen, Brel, 1969)
11. Such a Small Love – (Engel, 1969)
12. Look at the Rain – (Hatch, Trent, 1970)
13. I’ll Be Near You – (Worth, 1970)
14. We Need You – (Richards, 1974)
15. Corner of the Sky – (Schwartz, 1974)
16. Come Home My Love – (Hatch, Trent, 1974)
17. Send in the Clowns – (Sondheim, 1975)
18. Can’t Give It Up No More – (Bristol, Jones Jnr., Brown Jnr., 1975)
19. Everybody Rejoice – (Vandross, 1975)
20. Didn’t I Say I Love You – (Hatch, Trent, 1975)
21. My Love – (Hatch, Trent, 1975)
22. Just a Little Piece of You (Wonder, Wright, 1975)

Created by Brian Clemens – ‘Thriller’

Brian Clemens 1976

Brian Clemens died on January 10th at the age of 83.  His name is inextricably linked with television action-adventure and crime series of the 60s and 70s from Danger Man and Adam Adamant Lives to The Professionals.  Surely his most notable achievement remains The Avengers, a series so innovative and original it almost defines 60s cool.  Clemens himself was responsible for casting Diana Rigg as Emma Peel.

But for me, the name Brian Clemens is most closely associated with the 1973-76 ATV series Thriller.  Clemens created Thriller, wrote the majority of its 43 episodes and storyboarded the others, adding to his already prolific output.

Thriller had a number of good things going for it.  Each episode lasted seventy-five broadcast minutes (typically 65 minutes without commercial breaks), a very specific and unusual length for a British TV drama series.  That schedule-stretching extra twenty minutes seemed to symbolise the import of the series and, when well used, allowed room for a mood of mystery or menace to slowly develop.

Harpsichord stings

Even the shrill blasts of the ATV ident seemed to announce a deliciously terrifying seventy-five minutes was in store.

ThrillerThen there was Laurie Johnson’s doom laden opening music – creepy woodwind and those dreaded dissonant ‘ker-drrrrmmm!’ harpsichord stings accompanying a blood red framed, fish-eyed view of the locations to come – a forbidding old house (often with pillars) or bare trees clawing at a wintry sky.

The anthology format of self-contained episodes had the advantage of providing fresh actors in a new story each week.  It’s a shame that this flexible but reliable format has virtually vanished from television screens today.

Casts were stuffed with well known names – Dinsdale Landen, Peter Vaughan, Hayley Mills, Jenny Agutter, Jeremy Brett, Nyree Dawn Porter, Patrick Allen, Richard Todd, Patrick Troughton, Diana Dors, Tom Conti, Peter Bowles, Denholm Elliott to name but a handful.  To help sales to the States, American actors were planted in some episodes which could make for a slightly contrived feel.

Having seen the entire Thriller series on DVD forty years later, it’s a largely positive experience.  Unfortunately the series lacks the charm of The Avengers and there is a sense that the gin-and-jag world it portrays is a pretty corrupt place where seemingly anyone is prepared to kill, usually for money.

Some of the characters feel interchangeable but that could be down to box-set syndrome.

I don’t have a problem with the studio-bound sets which are actually pretty lavish by 1970s’ TV standards and were something of a hallmark of ATV.

Experiments with supernatural-themed stories work rather less well and the series feels on a firmer footing when these are phased out though Diana Dors is creepily enjoyable as evil nurse Bessie in Nurse Will Make It Better (1975).

I feel a little uneasy that a prevalent theme is a female menaced by a male (Clemens claimed audiences identify more closely with the vulnerability of a female lead) but my favourite Thriller, A Coffin for the Bride  (1974), turns the tables magnificently.

The series can descend into schlock, sometimes nerve-rackingly so as in A Killer in Every Corner (1975) with Max Wall’s first straight role as an obsessive shoe-polishing psychopath much talked about at the time.

When Thriller was sold to the States as a collection of standalone made for TV movies, the atmospheric original titles and music were excised to be replaced by truly terrible garishly coloured openers with generic music plastered over the top and some episodes renamed.  British TV viewers got to see these cheap and nasty versions when Thriller surfaced sporadically across the ITV regions around 1981 though many viewers would have missed these repeats altogether as there was little indication they belonged to the 70s Brian Clemens series.  Thankfully the Network DVD release restores the original fish-eye credits though the export versions are included as extras if you can stomach them.

Several Thrillers do stand out. Here are my two favourites.

The Eyes Have It

I missed the majority of Thrillers first time round.  Nine year olds were not the target audience (although, surprisingly, some episodes began as early as 8.15, well before the 9pm watershed).

But I did get to see one of the best stories, 1973’s The Eyes Have It on a 1975 repeat.   The sense of excitement at being allowed to stay up to watch this adult drama – and it felt exceedingly ‘adult’ – was immense and, that night, Thriller certainly did not disappoint.  A certain aura surrounded the series, handed down from parents and passed around in gossip at school and it felt great to at last be inducted into this exclusive club.

In 1975, ‘The Eyes Have It’ thrilled and terrified me in equal measure.  The clichés of ‘glued to my seat’ and ‘unable to look away from the screen’ could not be more apt. My childhood favourite, Dr Who, was moving into its Gothic period at this time which meant more realistic portrayals of the darker side of human nature in stories like ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ (Sarah being sadistically dangled high over the edge of a rocket’s scaffolding, Nyder’s cruelly complicit smile as the Daleks’ slaughter commences).  In many ways ‘Thriller’ felt like a natural step-up and satisfied a need in me to be both chilled and excited in greater measures.

The Eyes Have It pre-credits teaser (a key aspect of the series) shows us a doctor murdered by strangers as a young woman stands by apparently unconcerned.  The killer waves his hand across her line of vision as she continues to smile.  Only then, after this unnerving opening does the camera pan to ‘Clinical Training Centre for the Blind’ and we’re into the title sequence.

A group of terrorists have infiltrated the school because its location offers an ideal vantage point from which to carry out an assassination.  The story is of how the blind students gradually become aware of what is happening and, despite the odds being severely against them, seek to overcome the terrorists.

The acting (Peter Vaughan, Sinead Cusack, William Marlowe, Denis Waterman) is very good and there are some wonderfully poignant scenes which stick in the memory, such as the students continuing life as usual while, unbeknown to them, the body of the doctor lies only feet away.  In another nail-biting scene, one of the students seeks help from a stranger only to realise from the familiar feel of his ring that he is one of the terrorists.  The precision of the storytelling and the sense of menace is almost palpable.

A Coffin for the Bride

Once you get over the slightly tacky double murder scenes at the start, this opens out into a thoroughly original mystery.  Michael Jayston plays Mark Walker, a charmer who makes a living out of marrying and then murdering wealthy women.  But his well oiled schemes fall apart when he meets the beautiful Stella Mackenzie (there’s a clue in her being a set designer…)

A Coffin for the Bride relies hugely for its effectiveness on a strong performance from its female lead and a young Helen Mirren is terrific.  I can’t say too much here for fear of spoiling your enjoyment if you’ve not seen it.  Suffice it to say that the ending is as devastating as it is completely unforeseen (well, by me, anyway though I do think Mark might have noticed those dentures before they are pulled out on him).

I played this story a second time and noticed a crucially placed lookalike figure in the background at the health resort.  Whether this passer-by is a purely incidental inclusion or a deliberate one, her presence acts as a subliminal decoy, steering you off the scent of what’s really happening and making the outcome all the more shocking. Subtle and clever.   I got as much enjoyment seeing ‘A Coffin for the Bride’ for a second time just to enjoy the careful setting up of the story at each stage.

‘A Coffin for the Bride’ is reputedly Brian Clemens’ own favourite from the series.

The wrap-up

In some ways, Thriller reminds me of a traditional ‘good night out,’ at a provincial theatre where thrillers have long been a production mainstay and always seem to star Gerald Harper or Christopher Cazenove.  The mood would be one of deadly melodrama threatening to burst through English middle-class self-restraint.

It’s quite rare to see anything approaching genuine psychological motivation in thrillers (Psycho, is a notable exception) and to an extent you have to accept the limitations of the genre to enjoy this collection too.  The thrills are indeed psychological but they stem from imposed plot devices rather than from characters of subtlety and complexity. Thriller takes a premise, setups a scenario which implies a certain endgame and then deliberately subverts that or, in some cases such as I’m the Girl He Wants to Kill (1974), simply plays it out relentlessly.

Thriller Box setYou can enjoy the sense of manipulation when it’s in the name of suspense – and suspense, Thriller delivers in spade-loads.

For all the thrills you could ever want, visit the Thriller website.

The entire series is available on DVD box set.

Lynsey De Paul – No Honestly!

 

Singer-songwriter Lynsey De Paul died yesterday at the age of 64.

She was one of those early-mid 70s figures who always seemed to be ‘around’ whether as a Whodunnit panellist (I got her muddled with Anouska Hempel) or as a Top of the Pops regular and, I would imagine, the musical interlude in countless comedy and variety series, introduced as ‘And now, adding a little glamour to proceedings, it’s the lovely – Lynsey De Paul!’.  But that is how it was for many women in the 70s, set to play second fiddle to the men.

Like many young males at the time, I was probably a little in love with Lynsey De Paul.  As well as glamour, she had a cheekiness and a slight air of mystique as if willingly trapped in the femme fatale role she often chose for herself.   She was looking to be rescued by a knight in shining armour.  There was a definite coy sexuality at play too as some of her record sleeves show (1974 album Taste Me, Don’t Waste Me and 1975’s frankly tacky Love Bomb though chart success was proving a little more elusive by this time).  Her music often had a 20s/30s feel which wasn’t uncommon in the early 70s.  It was the way to go if you were pure pop rather than glam or prog.

Three Sugars

Today I’ve listened to the three songs of Lynsey De Paul’s which I remember best:  Sugar Me [1972], Won’t Somebody Dance With Me [1973] and No Honestly [1974].  It’s probably the first time I’ve heard all three in nearly forty years.

I’m quite surprised that Sugar Me was her breakthrough single as it doesn’t really seem to do a lot beyond that cutely, boppy feel. It comes and goes without leaving much of a trace, well maybe a sweet aftertaste.

Won’t Somebody Dance With Me (why never a question mark at the end?) took the period mood to greater lengths and appropriately perhaps, won an Ivor Novello Award.  Inspired by Gilbert O’Sullivan’s pre-pop style, it’s coyly enticing with a pretty melody sung in Lynsey’s demurely sultry voice and is easily the best of these three songs.  It also forms my most personal associations of Lynsey De Paul and a memory of a particular weekday afternoon around late 1973.  A friend of mine, Richard, had bought the single and wanted to play it to me after school one day.  He was hugely excited about it.  So we sat on the floor beside his sister’s record player, he put the needle on the record and the music played.  He was clearly in love with Lynsey and, I think, with the song’s air of fatalistic romance.

No Honestly was the theme to the London Weekend sitcom of the same name and is still insanely castanet-catchy.  I used to tune in just to hear the theme at the start and was disappointed when the ‘No’ became ‘Yes’ and a new, hugely forgettable theme, Yes Honestly, replaced Lynsey’s.

It’s been said that she wrote a song for the 1983 Conservative Election Campaign, or was it the Party Conference?  I’m hugely relieved to find there is no trace of it.

So these three De Paul songs will suffice for me though I’d swap ‘Sugar Me’ for Storm In a Teacup (which she co-wrote) if it could be The Fortunes‘ version.

There are a couple of 2CD compilations if you want the full Lynsey.

Lynsey de Paul – 11th June 1958 – 1st October 2014

Take Three Songs… by Cilla Black
Take Three Songs… or early 60s instrumentals
Take Three Songs… on Suburbia