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.
If 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.
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.
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.
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 shop 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.
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).
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.
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 stalwart 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.
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