Saturday, 10 December 2016

Missing Believed Wiped 2016: Whack-O! 7.5 - Jim's Better Self

Jimmy Edwards in Whack-O!
The first in a series of observations from Missing Believed Wiped 2016, held at BFI Southbank on Sunday 4 December 2016.

I’ve never understood entirely the ascendancy of Frank Muir and Denis Norden as comedy gurus in British broadcasting in the 1950s and 1960s, though it’s doubtful that I’ve really heard or seen enough of their work to judge it. This recently recovered penultimate episode of the original run of Whack-O! broadcast on 20 December 1960 at first seemed that it wouldn’t really help. The first half of the episode was ho-hum. Jimmy Edwards stars as a development of a schoolmaster persona he developed as a student performer in the Cambridge Footlights. It’s surprising to someone who watched him as a prematurely aged figure in the 1970s and 1980s to see Edwards (aged forty in 1960) with dark moustache and unlined face and with a more vital performance to match.

In this episode, ‘Jim’s Better Self’, Professor James Edwards, headmaster of Chiselbury School, finds his plan to spend the Christmas holiday abroad skiing frustrated by an outbreak of measles forcing him and his fellow schoolmasters – principally his cringing sidekick Pettigrew, an audience-eyeing Arthur Howard – to remain at Chiselbury for the Christmas holiday looking after the confined boarders. Edwards refuses to spend his holiday fund – the proceeds of his rigged one-armed bandit, to which he has successfully addicted and used to subject teachers and boys alike – to pay for the boys’ Christmas dinner, and banishes Pettigrew for the suggestion that he might have a ‘better self’. Come night-time, the better self appears as a ghost of Christmas or at least careers past, played in on film as an Edwards attired in a white version of his mortarboarded headmaster costume, and mixed with nightshirted Jimmy Edwards as live in the studio. The ghost reminds Edwards of the origins of his association with Pettigrew. The audience learns that one Wing-Commander Pettigrew, running the RAF’s education division a few months after the end of the Second World War, forgave a deserter – one Aircraftman Edwards, with Jimmy looking even weightier than usual probably because he was wearing the RAF uniform over part of his night costume. Pettigrew entrusted a letter to Edwards to post, only for Edwards to open the letter, copy the job application within, and duly become headmaster of Chiselbury School himself. He then appointed the well-meaning but humiliated Pettigrew boilerman and so began the cycle of appeasement and exploitation which results in the sapping of Pettigrew’s strength and decency and in the abusively co-dependent relationship at the centre of this episode at least of Whack-O!

The above summary might make the episode seem more profound than it is. It was pointed out to me that the writers were probably more pleased with a structure which built up to the scene of a dejected Pettigrew in the snow, with Howard declaiming theatrically that his tiny hamster was frozen as a pun for Puccini lovers, than they were bothered with exploring the Edwards-Pettigrew nexus. There is, though, a lot about the expectations Muir and Norden had of their audience’s taste which makes ‘Jim’s Better Self’ a period piece worth some consideration. Whack-O!’s title implies corporal punishment and a satisfaction taken in doling it out. A film version was even called Bottoms Up! The staff (we see little indeed of the boys in this episode) are irresponsible, impoverished but reconciled to their dependency on the monstrous Jim who lives off them as much as he does the parents who send him their sons for education. This was after all comedy for an institutionalized world, where the school with its hierarchies and petty disciplines and (lest we forget) single sex environment perhaps resembled many people’s workplaces and (as the episode as good as makes explicit) the peculiar security of wartime service in the armed forces. Pettigrew’s unexpected former persona as a wing-commander is something of an in-joke given that (though of a lower rank than the exalted wartime Pettigrew) Arthur Howard had been Frank Muir’s superior in the RAF during the war, while far from being a deserter Jimmy Edwards had been awarded the DFC for an act of life-saving heroism as a pilot at Arnhem. The schoolteachers are all of an age to have served (elderly Mr Dinwiddie perhaps in the Great War) and all cling to Chiselbury out of evident desperation. Conventions were comforts in a world that might not forgive if you offended. These included Edwards’s barrack-room insistence that he was going skiing to enjoy the company of women; one doesn’t have to import awareness of the sexuality of actors Edwards and Howard to remark that the character Edwards seems more anxious to ensure that Pettigrew comes with him on holiday to continue to act as dogsbody and willing dupe. Likewise, it’s taken for granted that a private boarding school, however run down and venal its regime, will have parents willing to send their sons there and help Edwards inflate his begowned academic pretensions.

‘Jim’s Better Self’ ends with Pettigrew finding the Christmas pudding sixpence and Edwards confiscating it for his slot machine, only for the machine to get into the Christmas spirit and pay out. Even though this wasn’t the final episode – there was one more episode of the original run before, according to Muir’s A Kentish Lad, I gather, Arthur Howard’s arrest and imprisonment for importuning in a public toilet in 1961 ended the series – it might have made a satisfying end, with harmony restored in the interest of all the characters and Edwards losing his monopoly on wealth and power in his closed world for the time being. Comparisons have been made between Professor Edwards and Sergeant Bilko, and while Edwards does owe something to Bilko he seems much less charming and much more brutal in his willingness to exploit everybody else with little or no reward for his closest associates. He’s a reminder that for all the nostalgia for social solidarity in the Britain of the 1950s, what solidarity there was rested on tolerance for a good deal of institutional and individual cruelty and acceptance of petty injustices; and that to no doubt varying degrees Frank Muir and Denis Norden and their viewers knew this and laughed with and at their own accommodations with a flawed world.

Edited 11 December 2016 to resolve the author's confusion of Charles Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop and Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa's libretto to Puccini's La bohème.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

The Avengers: Season Six, Disc Six - The Rotters, The Interrogators, The Morning After

Occupations and preoccupations preclude many updates here, but circumstances (well, a slow and annoying cold of the type that wreak havoc in university towns at the start of the academic year) have allowed me to catch up on one of my viewing programmes,  The Avengers - The Complete Collection, acquired in 2015 in the wake of Patrick Macnee's death.  I'm now in the latter part of season six, on disc six of that season in this set. It's difficult to write a review without acknowledging the lore and reportage which have accumulated over the years. Producers Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens had not cast Linda Thorson as Tara King, and reportedly found her an unenthusing screen partner for Patrick Macnee's Steed. By this stage the two stars were given few opportunities to attempt to spark off each other in the way Macnee did with Diana Rigg in seasons four and five or (with a touch more acid) with Honor Blackman in seasons two and three. Season six was made between eighteen and thirty-six months before I was born, and there are details, more so than in the earlier seasons, which remind me of the world of my early childhood: Thorson, as Tara King, wears a short green dress in The Rotters I could imagine scaled down for the little girls of a few years later, while the payphones seen (including that in the as-good-as dimensionally transcendental call box of The Interrogators) have become the grey-painted buttonless type, with notices reminding customers that subscribers in the main conurbations now have 'all-figure numbers', a reminder of a service change still making ripples in the 1970s. It's this detail which grounds most of the Thorson-era Avengers in their time and place more prosaically than the fantasias seen in many of the Diana Rigg episodes.

The three episodes on this disc began with the most outlandish, Dave Freeman's The Rotters which involves a lot of fast cutting and sound effects to achieve the (deliberately semi-serious) illusion of a fast-acting dry rot spray getting to work. The main villain isn't that compelling, but the emphasis instead is placed on two supposedly upper-crust assassins, played by Jerome Willis and Gerald Sim; while they don't entirely convince, they are more memorable and performed with more deliberation than the main villain unmasked towards the end of the episode. It's worth being reminded that Gerald Sim could be sinister rather than officious or clerical as he was more often seen, the latter coming most to mind in the wake of the recent afternoon repeat run on BBC Two of To the Manor Born, where he played the Rector. There's some apposite juxtaposition in design choices. Mother, Steed's boss for this season played by Patrick Newell, works in this episode (coincidentally, from the point of view of the plot) from an office of inflatable plastic furniture and one withered-looking plant upon which, had they burst in, the dry rot-spraying assassins could have had little effect.  Pity poor Rhonda, though; Mother's silent assistant, played by Rhonda Parker, is the only human dressed in plastic - as if to show she is part of the furniture - and has to spend all her time inflating Mother's chair. 

The Interrogators followed, with Christopher Lee's Colonel Mannering being a more substantial and subtle part than the ghoulish Professor Frank N. Stone and his robot double he played in the previous season's Never, Never Say Die. The central gag in the story from Richard Harris and Brian Clemens has enemy agents using espionage bureaucracy to hide in plain sight, Chinese Red Army uniforms and all, conducting often brutal interrogations interspersed with upper-class chit-chat and cups of tea. This is carried off, though the tone is slightly miscalculated, with the cast perhaps not all resonating at the same theatrical frequency, something which happened before but which is more noticeable once The Avengers has lost the arched and arch eyebrows of Diana Rigg. Linda Thorson manages reasonably well; being separated from Patrick Macnee more frequently than were Diana Rigg and Honor Blackman was probably the best move, enabling her to interact on screen with actors she better complemented than Patrick Macnee, or playing in her delivery on Tara's frustration with being a dogsbody for her superiors, sent out to establish facts and rarely to take action. Tara King is often nonplussed among eccentrics but Linda Thorson learned to do something with these scenes, here with Cardew Robinson as the balloon-selling informant Mr Puffin. Though an ingenue in comparison to her predecessors, and more easily presented as a damsel in distress, it's Tara's exclusion from masculine clubbability which renders her less prey to manipulation by the smoothly charming and seemingly sporting Mannering, whose skill as recipient of confidences in his 'training centre' bar after proving his victims' resistance to a spot of torture in and out of the dentist's chair has left many agents dead. By this time in the season, Steed is re-established as more of an authority figure, evidently senior to the uniformed military intelligence officers from whom he tears strips; the ironic deflater of deluded megalomaniacs of the Rigg era is subsumed beneath a more literal interpretation of the power conveyed by bowler hat and Savile Row suit.

The most consistent of the three episodes is probably The Morning After. Knocked unconscious for twenty-four hours, Steed and his adversary, quadruple agent Jimmy Merlin (Peter Barkworth, suave and chippy by turns) find themselves in an almost totally deserted town, which is mostly St Albans, including the abbey, but which also (so Bowler Hats and Kinky Boots by Michael Richardson, tells me) includes parts of Old Hatfield and Watford, combining conventional if misplaced impressions of half-timbered or gothic Avengerland with a grimier world of run-down factories and working-class terraces. There's also some stock footage from the film Seven Days to Noon (1950) which throws Western Avenue in London into the mix as well as establishing the episode in a genealogy of deserted urban landscapes. Terry Nation was script editor of the series by this point and it's tempting to think that he suggested Seven Days to Noon's use, as he'd already proposed it as a source for stock footage in his Doctor Who serial The Dalek Invasion of Earth in 1964. The plot recalls several earlier Avengers episodes, including The Town of No Return, The Hour That Never Was, Esprit de Corps and The Danger Makers, but takes everything a little further and plays with images such as the abandoned milk float, the symbol of the upturning of the nurturing society used in a comparable situation by Doctor Who in Invasion of the Dinosaurs (1974), though it's as now as redundant an image as a sack of coal which also appears.

The Morning After is the only episode on this disc where Mother does not appear; his role as problem-maker and bowler of drolleries for Steed to bat back with added spin is filled by Merlin instead. Given the town's desertion and isolation from communications it would be too convenient for Steed to have phoned Mother for some plot information. Meanwhile Brian Blessed plays an sergeant in the military force which occupies the town: Blessed's bellow is managed on a tight rein here, implying his Sergeant Hearn is a man who enjoys violence for its own sake almost before we learn that he enjoys executing civilians without trial for looting. Tara, meanwhile, misses most of the episode by not recovering from Merlin's gas capsule as quickly as the hapless crook and Steed do, allowing writer-producer Brian Clemens to substitute her with Penelope Horner as Jenny Furstin, an initially assertive leather-clad television reporter with distant but fading echoes of Honor Blackman's Cathy Gale, which contrast with the 'vulnerable' Tara. While competent Horner's is by no means as dominant a character or performance and so doesn't outclass the largely absent or dozing Thorson, who manages a short fight scene nevertheless. All the performances in this episode are well-pitched: while perhaps Brigadier Hansing (Joss Ackland) is one of the more lightweight 'diabolical masterminds' of the series, that makes him seem all the more deranged when he orders summary execution as preferable to capture and interrogation. Hansing's scheme, though, has some resonance for our times, with a population being scared into believing the 'Eastern Hemisphere Trade Commission' left a primed atomic bomb in their building before they vacated it, leaving the town where the commission was based en masse, allowing Hansing and his international troop of mercenaries to instal their bomb and blackmail the country into acceeding to their demands. There are at least two doses of xenophobia here, but the tale of the communal interest of a specific place being manipulated by a group of rootless chancers for their own ends could be claimed for both sides of the Brexit debate. Aptly and knowingly, Tara naps in an outfit patterned after the uniform of the Yeomen Warders of the Tower of London, as if unaware the ravens are running amok. Perhaps Britain has barely moved on from the anxieties about Britain's post-imperial state which The Avengers often used as fuel for its whimsies.

The Avengers - The Complete Collection is released by StudioCanal and is available at Amazon UK and other retailers.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Newspaper history notes from Northumberland

A footnote now to my earlier posts on the Ponteland Observer and the Morpeth Herald, particularly Ponteland Observed - Part Three and Goodbye to the Gothic at the Morpeth Herald. When I wrote in the second of those posts that the Morpeth Herald had been published under mastheads based upon an 1892 cast of the Morpeth Herald title from that date until the redesign of 2014, I was unaware of a variant which appeared on only two issues, those of 5 July 1984 and 12 July 1984. It's pictured here. It was clearly a companion to the masthead of the Ponteland Observer introduced on the same day, as seen on the front page reproduced in my third Ponteland Observed post, which featured a line drawing of St Mary's Church, Ponteland, Ponteland Bridge and the Diamond Inn. The equivalent Morpeth Herald drawing shows St James's Church, Morpeth, and Morpeth Bridge. It's not difficult to guess why this sketch was short-lived; unlike the Ponteland drawing this view is an artificial juxtaposition of elements which aren't found together in the environs of Morpeth; and like the Ponteland drawing the style is less detailed than the quality and identity of the paper really deserves, though it is at a level with which the photopolymer-on-letterpress technology can easily cope.

The 5 July 1984 issue of the Herald, like that of the Ponteland Observer, carried an editorial by Tweeddale Press Group chairman Jim Smail on its front page. As with the Observer, Smail anticipated reader resistance to the changes, though he struck a different tone, explaining that it seemed more sensible to move the Herald away from association with the Alnwick Advertiser and the middle of the county and turn it and the Observer into a 'traditional weekly newspaper' for the Castle Morpeth local authority. The Observer would retain its own masthead and editor but would contain 'certain common pages' with the Herald - becoming a slip edition, in press terminology.

As explained in my earlier series, the personalities of the two papers were very different and they seem to have pulled apart even in the weeks following their mutual 'incorporation'. Three weeks into the arrangement the Herald had returned to the previous version of its masthead, dropping the church-and-bridge drawing and the 'Incorporated with the Ponteland Observer' strapline, replacing the latter with the earlier 'Incorporated with the Alnwick and Morpeth Advertiser' carried since the Tweeddale Press had relaunched the newly-acquired Morpeth Herald in 1983. This was replaced a week later with the return of 'Incorporated with the Ponteland Observer', which endured until the reorganisation of the Tweeddale Press series in September 1984 and the decision to emphasise the papers' individual identities. That the association with the Ponteland Observer might not have been popular with traditional Herald readers was indicated in Jim Smail's front page editorial of 23 August 1984 which assured them that 'the recently acquired Ponteland Observer... will, from now on consider the Morpeth Herald nothing other than a sister paper'. Meanwhile in Ponteland Observer readers were being cautioned that the new group policy would not affect the Ponteland Observer in the same way as other titles, and until the end of the Observer in 1986 it continued to share a considerable amount of editorial with the Herald.