More musings on Doctor Who and national identity from me have been published at John Connors's Time Lines blog. I've written an introduction with more ideas at The Event Library, and the posts themselves are available at part two and part three.
On Tuesday night I was discussing broadcasting history with someone and mention was made of Asa Briggs. Within an hour his death was announced. A few hours later, I learned of Sylvia Anderson's death; and now, Cliff Michelmore, a broadcaster who was moving into a retirement phase in my childhood but who still loomed large. The sense of twentieth-century Britain tidying up after itself through the death of people who seemed to epitomise aspects of the mid-late century spirit which animated last year is even stronger this. Some links:

The BBC Archive Cliff Michelmore page

Cliff Michelmore switches off Lime Grove studios, The Late Show, 1991

Cliff Michelmore interviews David Jones (the future David Bowie), Tonight, 1964

The Shadows: 'Lady Penelope' from Thunderbirds are Go - shared by [ profile] outonbluesix as a tribute to her alter ego, Sylvia Anderson

Sylvia Anderson interviewed for the third or fourth generation of fans of Lady Penelope and Thunderbirds, Blue Peter, 1995

I've not watched this, but here's Asa Briggs in discussion early last year at the University of Sussex

An episode of The Seven Ages of Radio with Asa Briggs, starting with part of one of my favourite broadcasting quotations from David Dunhill, with added Tony Blackburn, though the structure of the series seems somewhat pessimistic.

While I'm making a link post, here's a Kickstarter worth exploring: Duel for Citizenship by Holly Matthies
As alluded to earlier... Richard Marson's biography of Verity Lambert, first producer of Doctor Who and guiding force behind much, much else, reviewed by me at The St James's Evening Post.
sir_guinglain: (Default)
( Apr. 12th, 2015 09:16 pm)
So much for evading a social life on the grounds that I had a conference paper to write. The conference paper is not yet begun; a day off tomorrow, I think, to begin it. Instead, some recycling has been done and I've almost finished Richard Marson's biography of Verity Lambert; a short review might appear here or elsewhere at some point.
The userpic associated with this post is from a Doctor Who comic strip drawn by Gerry Haylock for TV Action, and Countdown to TV Action by Steve Holland tells the story of this comic and its first incarnation Countdown. Unexpected characters in its tale are Rupert Murdoch (whose role in the decline and demise of TV21 I had not known) and John Selwyn Gummer; the enterprise seemed based on poor market research, nostalgia for happy working conditions at former employers (especially the pre-Murdoch TV [Century] 21) and a publisher which was focused on editorial, advertising and circulation being dealt with by its parent who commandeered pages as required. Good to see a picture of Polly Perkins House, the office of Polystyle Publications for most of the 1970s, too - I'd wondered where it was for years, and had been misled by its 'Paddington Green' address, because strictly speaking it isn't there. Holland specialises in the indexing of British comics and there are full content listings and many, many reproductions of art, though apart from the cover it's in black and white. Nevertheless it's a valuable addition to Paul Scoones's The Comic Strip Companion, the first volume of which looks at Doctor Who in the pages of TV Comic, Countdown and TV Action, a must for historians of the creations of Gerry Anderson (whose characters and series were the original lead features of Countdown) a strong source of information about the careers of several British comic professionals and the comics industry in the early 1970s, though being me I have to note that the common ownership of Polystyle and TV Publications (from whom Polystyle 'bought' TV Comic, Playland and Pippin in 1968) isn't picked up, nor the nature of Independent Television Publications (a subsidiary of the ITV companies acting together under the ITA's supervision) and its acquisition of TV Times from TV Publications in 1968 quite understood. The shake-up of the youth market from ITP's Look-In is a constant presence and one Polystyle never quite dealt with - Look-In relied on more than constant promotion on ITV to help it, but its rivals could never get past that fact, it seems.
sir_guinglain: (Zen)
( Jun. 6th, 2014 09:33 am)
I watched Weapon last night for the first time in years, and in company dominated by a generation who had little familiarity with Blake's 7. The question kept being asked: Why spend so long on set-up before reaching the action? I could only answer flippantly that people talking in rooms was something that BBC multicamera studio drama did well. June Hudson's costumes were as ever pleasingly literal in the way they solidify character traits: John Bennett's Coser looks absurdly pompous in his high collar, but in profile on a two-dimensional screen the collar becomes a shark's fin. The medieval accent is present too, with Servalan and Blake presiding over competing courts with their long-cloaked knights in their armour, black for Servalan, green, brown or red for the outlaws of the greenwood vacuum.
I've not seen this play, but would like to. Directed by Douglas Camfield, starring Katy Manning as a lesbian threat to middle-class domesticity, produced by Joan Kemp-Welch (wife of Peter Moffatt), almost directed by Darrol Blake, and featuring Neville Barber probably looking more in his depth than in K-9 and Company (though looking out of place in a conventional sort of way was his stock in trade) it's tempting to view it as a sort of Doctor Who awayday, for lots of people who didn't actually work together on Doctor Who, though of course it isn't that at all. More at the Spaces of Television project blog.
Brief reaction as I have to get up and cross London to the ExCel tomorrow for the 'Celebration'... but it was corny, with some overdone sentiment and dramatised the mythology and communal memory of Doctor Who as much as it did (very selectively) the facts and personalities - but it was still a tremendous achievement within eighty-five minutes, with lots of groans here as dialogue was transplanted or the in-references were made. Shoulder to Shoulder indeed. It annoyed me and tugged at my heartstrings in equal measure. There was some overacting from the principals when in character, particularly during the first recording of An Unearthly Child, but David Bradley was superb.
sir_guinglain: (Devil's Crown)
( Oct. 10th, 2013 12:09 am)
[ profile] nwhyte has directed me towards the long-sought The Devil's Crown, the BBC's lavishly non-naturalist drama about the early Plantagenets from 1978. A French edition, though with English soundtrack, has turned up on YouTube. I'm only a few minutes into the first episode, with Brian Cox's Henry not-yet-II courting Eleanor of Aquitaine (Jane Lapotaire) despite her being married to the pious guilt-ridden Louis VII of France. Lots of familiar faces from British television drama in the 1970s wander through, including (so far) Charles Kay, Bruce Purchase and Paul Greenwood, and Brenda Bruce choosing to play the Empress Matilda with a German accent (slightly confusing if one doesn't know her backstory). All wholeheartedly perform a vigorous script from Ken Taylor. A pity that the BBC's illuminated-manuscript title sequence (IIRC) is missing from this version in favour of the less dramatic French titles.
sir_guinglain: (RadioTimesRichardDimbleby)
( Feb. 4th, 2013 02:18 am)
There has been more uploading of archive television onto YouTube than I realised... so following a suggestion of [personal profile] magister I've watched the first twelve minutes or so of episode 1.1 of Colditz. It takes almost a full ten minutes for the episode to reach the multicamera video studio, the fixed abode of BBC drama, the end of a progression from newsreel footage to new footage posing as newsreel, to colour location filming maintaining a cold quasi-documentary realism, to an intense two-hander scene on video. I'll be back to watch the rest.
sir_guinglain: (TVTimes1967Avengers)
( Feb. 3rd, 2013 01:17 pm)
If I were to write a longer post about Danger UXB, now watched, it would include:

- the knack some episodes have of telling a story around a location, such as 'Digging Out''s lengthy factory sequence, or 'The Pier'. The former is particularly effective for the lingering hand-held camera shots of Corporal Salt (Kenneth Cranham) as he follows a voice which may or may not be that of his wife through the ruined works in the afternoon light, his mind adrift in place and with hindsight time as well.

- John Hawkesworth's character arcs, comparable in structure to those in his earlier series Upstairs Downstairs. That concerning the brittle insecurity of Major/Captain 'Fanny' Francis (casting presumably against type an actor then best known to audiences for a long on-off stint in Coronation Street, and more recently a regular in Emmerdale) is memorable and perhaps the most successful

- the disappearance and reappearance of the supporting cast depending on production block. Particularly noticeable is variety artiste Sapper Baines, played by variety artiste Bryan Burdon in just two episodes, 'Butterfly Winter' and 'The Pier'. The former just happens to include a sequence filmed presumably in Chipping Norton Theatre (given where the relevant exteriors are shot) where Burdon/Baines can do his act.

- the timescale of the series is mapped out but left unstated directly, again following the precedent of (early) Upstairs Downstairs, so it can be adjusted retroactively should a second series have been commissioned

- though dismissed as a "potboiler" by one television historian, and "not... an important series" fixed on "nostalgia and noise" according to Nancy Banks-Smith in The Guardian (9 January 1979), the juxtapostion of lectures on bombs with melodramatic elements (largely the male protagonists' rollercoaster love lives) and the substantial special effects budget and extensive location filming make it interesting, and (as suggested above) there is some opportunity for real psychological insight.

- at least two unexploded World War Two bombs were discovered as a direct result of one episode, 'Butterfly Winter', so the series helped boost ITV's public service credentials.

- the question of the second series. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Anthony Andrews and Judy Geeson were looking forward to working on series two when the Imperial War Museum's related exhibit opened in spring 1979, and around the same time Jeremy Sinden and Judy Geeson did some charity fundraising connected to keeping the series' profile up after it aired. However, by autumn 1979 and the ITV strike, Anthony Andrews is photographed at Heathrow by the Daily Mirror moving to Los Angeles to look for work, thanks to the cancellation of filming on Brideshead Revisited, suggesting that any hope of a second series was gone by the summer.

- the series drew attention to a change in fashions in leading men. Anthony Andrews was hailed by Nancy Banks-Smith as "one of those golden lads with sensitive mouths", and the Daily Mirror contrasted him, Patrick Ryecart and later John Duttine with a more brutal machismo personified by actors such as Martin Shaw of The Professionals.

Hmm, that's rather a lot of text anyway...

ETA: Reminded of the chapter title 'Circulating stars and satellites' in Doctor Who - The Unfolding Text, the eclipsing of Norma as the principal female character (I don't think there is a female lead as such) by Susan could show how women are used by the series. Judy Geeson initially plays Susan as tough and unsmiling as if she hasn't seen any of the later scripts (probably the case). She is demure and self-sacrificing, and causes pain by being dutiful, where Norma is introduced as a sexual fantasy turned nightmare, ultimately tamed by marriage into the lower ranks. Susan also expresses Brian Ash's increasing confidence in his roles as bomb defuser and officer; Norma personifies the social and material chaos of the Blitz and has little development beyond the 1940 episodes until her wedding in 'With Love from Adolf'. Norma, and Deborah Watling, fulfil their roles in the drama well enough. Given the publicity boost Judy Geeson seems to have had in spring 1979, one suspects she and her agent were hoping for something more to arise for or from Susan.
sir_guinglain: (TVTimes1967Avengers)
( Jan. 31st, 2013 04:23 am)
As I can't sleep, I will share how much I've been enjoying 1979's Danger UXB, recommended to me by [personal profile] naraht and a matter of curiosity to me ever since it was mentioned in the context of the career of either Deborah Watling or Douglas Camfield or both in one of Jeremy Bentham's Matrix Data Bank columns in an early 1980s Doctor Who Monthly. Thirty years is a long time to wait before getting round to something, and this has been expedited by the availability of the entire series, currently, on YouTube. The run-down London of the late 1970s lent itself to being dressed as the blitzed city of nearly forty years earlier, and while the mixture of characters could have been twee - the sappers in the bomb squad at the centre of the series being composed of almost every regional stereotype - it's executed in such a way that it doesn't show. Anthony Andrews is a convincing Brian Ash, transferred from being a private in one regiment to a commission in the engineers and learning how to defuse unexploded ordnance, command men and fend off the advances of his landlady's daughter (a compelling performance by Miss Watling as an unsubtle would-be seductress) all at once. I'm only five episodes in, so Judy Geeson is only beginning to make her presence felt as Susan, daughter of unfairly-labelled "mad professor" Dr Gillespie (Iain Cuthbertson, initially and misleadingly echoing Lionel Jeffries in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and transgressive love interest for Brian. There are intriguing observations on gender roles in wartime - men governed by hierarchies, women addressing all the "brave boys" by their first names, irrespective of rank - and possibly on politics as well, though my take on this might be governed by authorial fallacy, co-creator, producer and head writer John Hawkesworth being conservative by reputation, but production company Euston Films being generally less respectful towards traditional social order. With a large cast, high production values - with at least one explosion required a week - it's not surprising that it was reputedly too expensive for ITV to renew.
In another place... thoughts on Children of the Stones, HTV's legendary children's serial from 1977. Seasonal greetings to all!
Comparing The Six Wives of Henry VIII, made in late 1969/early 1970, with the contemporary seventh season of Doctor Who raises questions about value judgements. The Six Wives walked off with BAFTAs, no doubt deservedly so, though I haven't made any evaluation of the competition. The scripts of The Six Wives (on my acquaintance with two) are concerned with the themes of adult life, of gender relations and politics, of a society where women of high social status are diplomatic chattels or likely to be treated as political inconveniences whose lives are forfeit when their fertility challenges the king's masculine and regal potency. Doctor Who is concerned with soldiers shooting at non-human life forms, and though the forces of UNIT have their moral ambiguities they retain the fallback position of white hats. In The Six Wives, there is no operational bias towards a power-wielding side; the "word of a Henry" is good for nothing without an ability to rig the context in which it is shaped and reshaped.

In terms of design The Six Wives of Henry VIII can be surprisingly simplistic. The first episode, directed by John Glenister, has some location (or perhaps Ealing) filming, including scenes in the billowing tent complex of the Aragonese special embassy where Henry VII and his heir Arthur first greet Catherine of Aragon (a bright-eyed, auburn-locked Annette Crosbie, lovely but considerably less of a dolly-bird than Caroline John's similarly-coloured Liz Shaw). In contrast the second episode, directed by Naomi Capon, places its exteriors in the electronic television studio, with short scenes of hawking performed behind tufts of foliage against a plain cyclorama. Doctor Who placed a far greater emphasis on naturalism, perhaps because it was much less concerned with the inner lives of its characters. It's difficult not to be distracted, during Anne Boleyn, by the speckled grey wall flats which are fastened together to represent Anne's cell in the Tower of London, impassioned and cogent though Dorothy Tutin's performance is. The reliance on the vaseline-smeared lens to suggest an altered state of consciousness, whether the erotic bliss of Catherine's early marriage or Anne's visualised imagining of the executions of her supposed lovers, is a reminder that if a director found available electronic effects inappropriate for the subject, there were few other options to take up.

Doctor Who in 1970 is fast and involving by comparison with The Six Wives, where the audience is expected to commit to the actors and dialogue over long periods with little in the way of scene or shot changes. The script editing is more consistent too, though in a prestige-hungry series of individual plays the roles of the two script editors may have been devoted to different objectives than the consistency of development of continuing characters across the narrative. Nevertheless it's not clear from the writing that the Henry VIII seen crushing Catherine's last letter to him is the same man single-mindedly compressing his one-time love for Anne into cold-hearted assessment of her as a brood-mare of state. Doctor Who was wholeheartedly a series of serials rather than a sequence of plays with continuing cast and characters, and a case can be made that it does better by its regulars than its distant Tudor stablemate.

I could go on, but the compare-and-contrast exercise is an unjust one given the qualifications one has to make regarding the different programmes' expectations of their audiences. Nevertheless, when members of the irony mob start celebrating Doctor Who as 'bad television', I think of examples like those above to remind me, and them, that it isn't and wasn't, but most of the time quite adventurous, and good at it.
A very good preliminary exploration of the culture which allowed Jimmy Savile to prosper, in the online edition of the London Review of Books. I don't agree with everything, and some of the contextual details are wrong which skews Andrew O'Hagan's argument. 1963 is the age of Carry On Jack or Carry On Spying rather than Carry On Camping, and there is lots to be drawn from the contrast. I'm not sure that Savile was ever loved - bewitchingly possessed of some energy late twentieth-century Britain found preternatural, perhaps. Revealing interviews with Joan Bakewell and Nicholas Parsons, and just as revealing bewilderment from David Attenborough, frame historical cameos from people now mainly remembered as people who paid their visits to Roy Plomley to reveal their Desert Island Discs.
A few years ago I watched the reflective Michael Eaton BBC/HBO telefilm Fellow Traveller, starring Ron Silver as Asa Kaufmann, a blacklisted Hollywood writer working in 1950s Britain on a film adventure series for television, patently Sapphire Films‘s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-1960). I’d not seen very much of The Adventures of Robin Hood, bar catching the odd episode on satellite channel Bravo in its ITC back catalogue phase, but watched the first four episodes tonight. All were written or co-written by Eric Heath, a pseudonym for Ring Lardner Jr., one of the ‘Hollywood Ten’ sacked from their studio positions in 1947 following their refusal to confirm or deny their present or sometime membership of the Communist Party before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Richard Greene is a reliable Robin, somewhat heavy-set by the standards of Flynn, Praed, Connery (J.) or Armstrong, but this physical solidity is used to underscore his moral integrity. Found sick by a pilgrim at the gates of Jerusalem, and nursed back to health before returning to Nottinghamshire to claim his estate, this knight back from the dead is sick of killing, but finds himself in an England where he is told by an ailing old retainer that the law has been reduced to the rule kill or be killed. Robin’s enemies are killed only when they attack - and they are often faceless, helmeted soldiers who by collaborating have either surrendered their humanity to become automata in the service of the Norman lords, or adopted their materialist value system - or die when their own plans turn against them. Robin is egalitarian: he wants to wait his turn when told he can jump the queue and see the Sheriff, after first having been told to wait in line by a jobsworth clerk who thinks returning soldiers expect preferential treatment, which must have elicited nods of identification from many viewers. He abandons his aristocratic identity when among the outlaws in Sherwood and claims no preferential treatment, rising to succeed Will Scathlock on grounds of intelligence and the inspiration of his redistributivist, compassionate message. It is not for nothing that at Scathlock's death Robin breaks the outlaw chief's sword and places the stump of the blade and its hilt on his chest as a funeral cross, and Robin's friar's outfit in 'Friar Tuck' is perhaps not just a disguise.

The world of the Sapphire Robin Hood is on first acquaintance a masculine one, where women are motherly figures or else sycophantic adornments. This changes with the third episode, which includes a brief glance of Marion and establishes that she has turned down all proposals of marriage, most of them from the Sheriff, as well as introduces the semi-regular character of Joan, barmaid at the Blue Boar Inn where the enforcers of the regime loosen their tongues. The first female guest star in the episode is the Countess of Bedford, who exists to demonstrate aristocratic decadence and the racialism of her husband the Earl of Bedford, who disparages his wife as a ‘Latin’ and justifies his treatment of Little John as a chattel by boasting of Norman intellectual superiority to Saxon stock, in a scene with echoes of the American slave market as well as the racial policies of the Third Reich. Strong stuff, perhaps, for a series broadcast by a US network as well as by ITV in the UK, even if it was innocuously placed in early-evening children‘s/family viewing. Uncomplicated stories of good and evil they may be, as The Times remembered on Richard Greene's death, but it is these political notes which sound the series’ moral chorus.

There is fun recognising actors in guest roles. Leo McKern appears in two different parts in two consecutive episodes, and this is nothing given the doubling-up by other performers within the same episode, with some actors appearing among the outlaws and the Sheriff’s men almost simultaneously. Leslie Phillips appears in the fourth episode, ‘Friar Tuck’, as the curiously-named Sir William of Malmesbury - approximately anticipating the 'Geoffrey of Monmouth' of the latterday BBC/Shine Merlin. Phillips makes the most of his role as a young member of the foppish ruling elite whose passion for his intended bride, Mildred, runs less deep than hers for her blacksmith lover. The intended bride herself is introduced in jerkin and hose and knocks Robin out with a bottle, mistaking her protector Friar Tuck's satisfaction with his credentials. Robin awakes to find Mildred changing into feminine attire, represented first by the camera focusing on her hose-clad hips as she removes the jerkin, and then her feet being washed from under a petticoat. Richard Greene's face expresses the alarm of a serious adolescent who doesn't want to acknowledge the existence of that, and he pretends to be asleep. Sadly with her masculine outfit goes Mildred's assertiveness and she has some particularly fragile dialogue. Nevertheless after nearly fifty-seven years The Adventures of Robin Hood remains spirited entertainment on its own terms as well as a capsule of 1950s concerns.

ETA: A slightly amended and illustrated version of this review now appears at The St James's Evening Post
I can't keep away from the archive, and have scanned and uploaded issue 27 of Tides of Time, published by the Oxford University Doctor Who Society in October 2001. This is another good one from the years after the McGann TV Movie and demonstrates the society's wide focus at the time, with reflections on the similarities between Robin of Sherwood and Blake's 7, a study of Blake's 7's Travis, a look at the obsession with the rural in British telefantasy, ponderings on possible interpretations of The Daemons, The Professionals fiction, an exchange of views on why Doctor Who was taken off air in 1989, and the usual much more.

The PDF is over here - it's just under 27Mb so right-clicking is recommended.

ETA: A fuller listing of the contents is available here, with another link to the PDF.
Richard Carpenter, creator of Robin of Sherwood, died at the weekend. I first encountered him on BBC schools television as the host and writer of the Look and Read serial Cloudburst; aimed at slow-reading eight-year-olds this series was essential viewing for the literate pre-schooler in the 1970s. His credits as a writer of family television series for ITV were long - Catweazle, The Ghosts of Motley Hall, Dick Turpin and of course Robin of Sherwood. He also wrote the first series of The Scarlet Pimpernel for the BBC in the late 1990s, but while he started work on the second, the transmitted series was credited to other hands. I remember Mark Ryan, Nasir in Robin, praising 'Kip''s imagination when he visited the Oxford Arthurian Society in 1995. A few years later I went to a National Film Theatre retrospective of Carpenter's work. He deserves more attention than he receives.


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