Archive television fans have been rejoicing over the past few weeks with reruns of some of the Thames episodes of Armchair Theatre on Talking Pictures TV.
Armchair Theatre was a series which ran on the ITV network between 1956 and 1974. It was originally a production of ABC (Associated British Corporation) until its successor Thames Television took over in mid-1968.
Network on Air have released several volumes on DVD, beginning in 2010 with a two-disc set of Thames episodes and then in 2012 with another two-disc set. Since later in 2012, subsequent releases have been purely of ABC episodes, licensed to the company by Studio Canal, and have so far numbered two four-disc releases in the general range, and four Armchair Theatre Archive releases of one-disc each.
There are approximately 170 episodes which have survived the widespread wiping of video tapes in the past, from a total of around 450. As well as official releases a number continue to circulate on the collectors’ market either as DVD-Rs or uploads to streaming sites.
Made during a time when plays were regular fare on television (The Wednesday Play/Play for Today, Theatre 625, Thirty Minute Theatre, Play of the Month, Play of the Week, ITV Playhouse, and others), Armchair Theatre stands out as a groundbreaking training ground for writers and directors finding their feet as well as stand-out performances from a wide range of actors, both veteran and new faces.
Although some actors rated performing on the stage over the new medium of television in the 1950s, writers were far more pragmatic, with Harold Pinter as one who recognised that an at-home audience of just over 6 million for A Night Out (1960) was far more lucrative than a theatre audience for The Caretaker, which was running at the same time.
I’ve started putting my thoughts together on the various episodes on the associated Armchair Theatre review project page here, and eventually all the episodes I have seen will have capsule reviews. Not every episode is a winner, but the standard, at least in the ABC years, seems consistently high, especially in the years where Sydney Newman was in charge (1959-1962).
There were spin-off series (Armchair Mystery Theatre), later Thames series using the same prefix but little in common (the group of TV movies under the title Armchair Cinema and the serial thrillers under the name of Armchair Thriller), and even a parody on radio in Round the Horne’s Armpit Theatre. The titles gave a sense of occasion, too, whether theatre masks or something more abstract, and in an era of two TV channels at the start of the series, Armchair Theatre could guarantee a captive audience, as well as giving the new upstart ITV a bit of class.
In the early days plays were performed live, and were a mix of new drama, titles imported from the USA, and adaptations of well-loved classics (The Emperor Jones, The Importance of Being Earnest). Later the plays were more or less original, and if a slight dip in quality occurred in the later Thames years, it coincided with what many archive TV fans class as the end of the golden era of the television play.
With the wide variety of television channels now available it is possible to see a wide variety of films from the 1940s onwards (and even, occasionally, one earlier: the 30s films of the Marx Brothers have recently shown on one of our comedy channels). Films back to the beginning of features just over 100 years ago can be viewed and celebrated, and in the case of silent cinema, new scores and restorations maintain interest. If you go back to the birth of cinema it is still possible to engage with works back to 1895.
For older television, though, the picture is far different. There are some repeat screenings on TV for the likes of Dad’s Army (1968-1978), the Blackadder series (1983-1989), Lovejoy (1986-1994), One Foot in the Grave (1990-1995), Porridge (1974-1977), and the revered Pride and Prejudice (1995). Largely, though, with the exception of cult favourites Doctor Who (1963-1989) and The Avengers (1961-1969), archive TV series are restricted to DVD and Blu-Ray releases aimed at small groups of enthusiasts, or screenings at the likes of the BFI Southbank or events such as those set up by organisations like Kaleidoscope, dedicated to the preservation and sharing of classic material.
Let’s consider the definition of ‘archive television’. Assuming that the earliest examples of TV broadcasts available in either the UK or the US are from the 1940s (or more likely the 1950s), the term probably encompasses material up to the turn of the century, 2000. I first found myself interested in older examples of period drama in the VHS age, while simultaneously drinking in the chance to see material such as the work of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (1965-1966), Monty Python (1969-1974), and the aforementioned Avengers.
For me as a lover of classic cinema, I like to follow the careers of performers, writers and directors in all mediums. If the likes of Michael Powell, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach made material for TV, I want to assess it alongside their more showy film output. I want to see the early US versions of material which had a second life in cinema remakes (Bang The Drum Slowly, Marty, Judgment at Nuremberg, Requiem for a Heavyweight).
I want to see small scale material featuring my favourite cinema stars (Richard Harris in The Snow Goose, Richard Burton in The Gathering Storm, Alec Guinness and Lauren Bacall in A Foreign Field, Peter O’Toole in The Dark Angel, Oliver Reed in The Debussy Film, Dan Dailey in The Four Just Men, John Mills in The Zoo Gang, Rex Harrison in Platinov, Judi Dench in Talking to a Stranger). I discovered Play for Today just after I had lived through the marvellous era of Film on Four, Screen One and Two, Performance, and Without Walls.
If people miss out on black and white TV purely because it is not in colour, they’re missing out on not just The Forsyte Saga (1967) but also two superior Sherlock Holmes series (1954 and 1965), the gritty early episodes of Z-Cars (started 1962), the Northern cobble saga of Coronation Street (1960- ), science fiction like Out of the Unknown (1965-1971), comedy like The Strange World of Gurney Slade (1960), early music shows like Beat Club (1965-1972) and Ready Steady Go (1963-1966), and plays like Armchair Theatre (1956-1974) and The Wednesday Play (1964-1970) (where many cinema directors and performers cut their teeth).
I read on an archive TV forum today that there is little chance of a wide population being interested in this stuff because it is only of interest to small and discrete cults. I disagree – the releasing schedules of the likes of Network, Acorn, Simply, DD, Delta, Second Sight, and more have shown there is an appetite for the likes of Roots (1977), The Lotus Eaters (1972-1973), Lost Empires (1986), Hancock’s Half Hour (1956-1961,which I discovered from TV repeats in the 90s that would likely not happen now), Mystery and Imagination (1966-1970), Pipkins (1973-1981), Elizabeth R (1971), I Claudius (1976), Two’s Company (1975-1979), Crown Court (1972-1984), Public Eye (1965-1975), Tales of the Unexpected (1979-1988, which does get regular repeats, still), Ghost Story for Christmas (1971-1978), and Marriage Lines (1963-1966).
Interest in these titles is not exclusive. One may enjoy Widows as much as Rock Follies, Callan as much as Emmerdale Farm, Steptoe and Son as much as Justice, Outside Edge as much as Mr Rose, The New Avengers as much as The Duchess of Duke Street, Poldark as much as The Singing Detective. You may see a different side of a favourite performer by reaching back to their earlier work, or appreciate a fledgling writer’s lesser known screenplays.
While one can still enjoy and appreciate (although with increasing difficulty, often requiring a need to purchase DVD material or assess material via the grey market of YouTube, bootlegs, or torrents) a range of films made for the cinema, archive TV is often derided as cinema’s poor relation, stilted, badly made, unwatchable for recent generations. This is simply not true – yes, not everything is great, but this is also true of material released to the big screen, and one person’s highlights will be another’s rubbish.
Much of it prior to the 1980s is not simply unavailable, but lost due to videotape wiping. In comparison to films from the same era so much has gone – although perhaps not forever, as material does occasionally come back to join the creative ranks once more. You may have to dig hard to locate some material, but there is pleasure in the chase and the discovery of something fresh and new.
So I would say to you if you come across this post and like the old films for their performances, direction, charm, humour, tension or entertainment – you may be pleasantly surprised if you make the acquaintance of the material made for the days where a TV screen was the size of a postage stamp. For me much of this programming is ground-breaking, well-written, beautifully made, and intelligent material.
Don’t let this material disappear to become the preserve only of an elitist group who are ageing and, in the words of some of them, becoming more split into cult factions. Don’t let the huge fandom of Doctor Who swallow up the recovery and rehabilitation of other contemporary material. Don’t allow TV to become isolated as a present and ephemeral medium unable to set itself within the canon of the past. Discover and celebrate the material broadcast on the small screens of the golden age of television and, like me, you might never look back.
Network catalogue no: 7953736. 2 disc set. Released 2/7/12.
I have fond memories of both the Adrian Mole series from their first transmission in the 1980s. However until this DVD was released in 2012 I had not seen either series for over twenty-five years.
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 was shown from September 1985, with The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole following in May 1987. Although Gian Sammarco appeared in both series, there was a casting change relating to Mole’s mother Pauline: in the original series, she was played by Julie Walters, but was portrayed by Lulu in the later series. Surprisingly this change did not hurt the show in any way.
The theme song ‘Profoundly in Love With Pandora’ by Ian Dury was indicative of the time, and Sue Townsend’s books were done proud by these adaptations which pull out the quiet comedy and pathos of growing up as an 80s teenager.
My trip to the BFI Mediatheque yesterday afternoon gave me an opportunity to see another one of the ‘Six Plays by Alan Bennett’ which were first broadcast in 1979. Sadly none of them have been released on DVD (although there is a listing on the BUFVC website for a VHS compliation – can anyone confirm if this was ever released?). I had already seen four of the other plays (‘Me, I’m Afraid of Virginia Woolf’, ‘Afternoon Off’, ‘Doris and Doreen’, and ‘The Old Crowd’) but many critics, including the BFI’s own Screenonline, have described ‘One Fine Day’ as the most powerful of the series, so I put it top of my viewing list.
Bennett is rightly known for his powers of observation in terms of conversation patterns and the minutiae of life, and this play is no exception, opening at a board meeting at the estate agents headed by Welby (Robert Stephens in a relatively rare television role), which deals with the sale of both residential and commercial property. The biggest white elephant on the commercial side is Sudley House, the sale of which is being handled by Phillips (Dave Allen in a non-comedic role), who is clearly remote from the world around him and heading for some kind of mid-life crisis.
The play does have a wide range of character parts for the likes of Benjamin Whitrow, Bill Paterson, Liz Crowther, Barbara Leigh-Hunt (as Allen’s wife) and – in a tiny but revealing part – Antony Sher; but it is mainly a solo piece for Allen and a soundtrack rich in operatic arias, whether heard in his head or through the headphones he uses to block out the chatter of his wife, son, and son’s teenage girlfriend, who seems to be in permanent residence in their house.
The peace and power of Sudley House does strange things to this 40-something businessman who longs to escape the inanity of lift-bound conversations about the best time to play squash, or the ingratiating ambition of a young residential agent (Dominic Guard) who feels he had the nous to sell on the unloved building. So Phillips takes up residence in the building’s unloved top floor, with a sunbed, radio/cassette player and a Bible – a place where his colleagues and family can’t get to him, but where he can observe a couple in residence on the roof of the local Odeon (first all loving and affectionate, but eventually bickering and violent), sleep in his deckchair on the roof of the building, and have a quiet cup of tea and a cigarette while enjoying the view over London.
It is to the credit of the director, Stephen Frears, and Dave Allen’s acting ability as the main (and quite often mute) character, that we retain our interest in this odd person who flouts convention in order to do what he pleases, against the norm of his workplace and home-life. A nice bit of drama comes when the security guard locks the route to the roof, leaving our Mr Phillips to find his way down by another route; while snippets of dialogue and situation which impressed me included the girls in the office talking about beards becoming ‘too popular’ to be interesting, the discussion about hedgehogs and fleas the family have at the dinner table following Phillips’ encounter with a hedgehog on the road, and a delightfully oily performance from Stephens (‘I’m glad they’re Japs. So reliable.’).
But in the main, this operatic and sweet little gem is quietly brilliant and very enjoyable, only occasionally breaking into situations one could call amusing, until the final few moments where we feel as exhilarated as Phillips that things have worked out in his favour, and to the expense of characters we might find less sympathetic.
It is the best of the Six Play series that I have seen so far, and I lament the fact that it hasn’t had a television showing since the 1980s and is probably not known at all to a lot of people. Do take the time to watch it if you can.
Update: this is now available on DVD from Network along with the other five plays in the series as of February 2017.
The much-hyped third series of ‘Sherlock’ has come to an end and I have to say, I wasn’t that impressed. When Benedict Cumberbatch hit our screens with his sociopathic amateur sleuth in the clever ‘A Study in Pink’ back in 2010 we all thought “wow’ and were blown over by the mix of modern situations and locations, technology, and the central friendship between the detective who keeps clear from people and the doctor invalided out from Afghanistan. The first series picked elements from Conan Doyle’s stories like ‘The Dancing Men’ and brought a believable dynamic between characters we knew (Mrs Hudson, Inspector Lestrade) and those created for the series (Molly the nurse) and our central duo. And despite being an extremely annoying character as played by Andrew Scott, the swimming pool stand-off between Sherlock and Moriarty at the close of the third episode, ‘The Great Game’ (with plot elements taken from ‘The Bruce-Partington Plans’) was excellent.
The second series had our heroes escaping from their nemesis, meeting the famous ‘Woman’, Irene Adler (here a dominatrix), doing their revision of ‘The Hounds of Baskerville’, and eventually came to a close with ‘The Reichenbach Fall’ in which Sherlock falls to his death from St Bart’s Hospital … or did he? Our expectations of finding out just how he escaped was thwarted by the non-revelations of ‘The Empty Hearse’, the opener to series three, which had a throwaway reference to the ‘Moran’ of the Conan Doyle story, a nice bit with a video dealer which echoed the bookseller’s “bargains” of Jeremy Brett’s Holmes three decades earlier, but little else.
Cumberbatch was never going to be my favourite Holmes – half a dozen names would make the list before his (Brett, Arthur Wontner, Douglas Wilmer, Peter Cushing, Rathbone, and Eille Norwood in the Stoll silents). His tedious pseudo-autism is wearing thin after the charming cleverness of a fish out of water of the early first series episodes, and I hope that the planned series four gets him back on track and stops our ‘Great Detective’ being the tedious show-off you want to avoid at parties. There have been many actors who have tackled the role of Sherlock Holmes: some excellent one-shot performances of which I would have loved to see more, including Nicol Williamson and Robert Stephens, Jonathan Pryce and John Neville, Raymond Massey and Tom Baker. Of series level Holmes, the Russian Vasily Livanov is excellent, while in cheap 1950s and 1980 TV series retrospectively I rate Ronald Howard and Geoffrey Whitehead very highly, even if they have to work with scripts of the calibre of ‘The Baker Street Nursemaids’ or ‘Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard’. John Barrymore made a decent stab at the role in the silent era, just the once (in a play remade less successfully years later with Frank Langella).
Of the trio of modern Holmes brought to the screen (not two, as the recent Timeshift documentary had it, ignoring the US reboot named ‘Elementary’ in which Jonny Lee Miller is proving an excellent 21st century Holmes), I haven’t much time for Robert Downey Jnr, as he is only really good at playing himself and his own personality is miles away from the complex contradiction needed to depict Sherlock Holmes. His Watson (Jude Law) is good though. Miller’s Watson is a woman (not the first – Joanne Woodward was a Dr Watson to George C Scott’s delusional Sherlock character in ‘They May Be Giants’ and Margaret Colin was the granddaughter of the original John Watson in 1987’s ‘The Return of Sherlock Holmes’) played by Lucy Liu, and she’s brilliant, easily a match for her strange friend. Cumberbatch is blessed with Martin Freeman as Watson, although I still find his acting technique limited – his Watson is the same as Bilbo Baggins, is the same as Arthur Dent, but it hardly matters.
So who failed to present the creation of Conan Doyle as we would expect him to be? Christopher Lee may be a devotee of the stories, but his trio of films in which he plays Holmes suffer from bad dubbing (‘The Deadly Necklace’) and poor scripts and Watson (‘Leading Lady’, ‘Victoria Falls’, with Patrick McNee, himself a terrible Holmes in ‘The Hound of London’). Stewart Granger looked as if he belonged in the Wild West in his ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’, and the less said about Peter Cook’s Jewish Holmes and Dudley Moore’s Welsh Watson in their ‘Hound’, the better. Reginald Owen was poor in ‘A Study in Scarlet’, Charlton Heston may have played the role on stage in ‘The Crucifer of Blood’ but was far too old for the film. Richard Roxburgh and Rupert Everett were miscast opposite Ian Hart’s solid Watson in a TV ‘Hound’ and an original story ‘Case of the Silk Stocking’. John Cleese was, well, John Cleese for Comedy Playhouse’s ‘Elementary, My Dear Watson’ and ‘The Strange Case of the End of Civilisation as We Know It’.
I like my Holmes, and I’ll watch any of them, from the odd defrosted versions of Michael Pennington and Anthony Higgins, the pouty youth of James D’Arcy, the clipped tones of Clive Brook, the teenage sleuths of Guy Henry and Nicholas Rowe, and the intensity of Christopher Plummer in ‘Silver Blaze’ and ‘Murder by Decree’. And although the third series of ‘Sherlock’ has made me lose the love and admiration I had for Cumberbatch’s performance, just a little bit, I will be back to watch him when he returns.
There’s something about our detective that brings us back time and time again. Long may he live to be adapted and enjoyed, and long may his intellect and odd view of the world endure.
This was a superb TV adaptation which was far better than expected – I had seen a few clips before.
Stanley Baker shows us a Rochester who lives in torment but who also has some humour as you see the love between him and Jane (Daphne Slater, who plays her from childhood, and is excellent) develop.
Studio bound except for one episode’s film sequences, this overcomes the technical and budgetary limitations of 1950s tv to provide a satisfying version which raises some smiles and gives a touching ending.
It starts with the young Jane screaming with fear in the locked room at her Aunt Reed’s, where her uncle had died and every noise and shadow causes her to jump. We then see her life at Lowood with only the kind Miss Temple and the consumptive Helen Burns as friends – and later, when Helen has died and Jane has grown she answers Mrs Fairfax’s advertisement for a governess.
The story has been covered in many adaptations since, but I have only seen a handful of earlier ones, and none of them have gone into this depth (three hours and twenty minutes of episodes). We have the gypsy scene, the fall from the horse (which can be found on the internet, one of the two clips I had seen before), the first interview (although this time Rochester does not send for Jane, she walks in on Adele unannounced and there he is), the attempt to burn Rochester in his bed – but missing the ‘friends and shake hands’ bit, the abruptly ended wedding, and so on.
There is a lot to admire here, notably the interplay between the leads and the fact that despite the actors being only one month apart in age, they portray a twenty-year age gap accurately here. I liked the fact that Mrs Fairfax obviously knows something is hidden on the second floor as she pulls away from Jane and does not wish her happiness, and I particularly liked the ending, which was handled well. And the pious clergyman Rivers is truly awful, all full of Christian charity.
This version is in the BFI archives and is in fairly good condition for a 1950s TV broadcast, one of the earliest to survive from the UK. It has lovely music and interesting opening and closing credits, starting with a silhouette of Jane and ending with one of Rochester, perhaps a nod to the ‘threads between us’ speech which is missing from this version, which alludes to the pair being one being joined together at the heart.
An early TV attempt to do justice to the classic novel in 95 minutes doesn’t quite come off, although it has the correct Gothic chills by the end.
Claire Bloom is a radiant, free-spirited Cathy, although her accent is a bit wayward. As her Heathcliff, Keith Michell smoulders with rage, passion and arrogance, but he would improve in acting range over the next decade.
Rounding out the cast, David McCallum as Edgar, June Thorburn as Isabella (her decline from flighty and flirty to desperate is sad to see), Jean Anderson as Ellen, Patrick Troughton as Hindley, and Ronald Howard as Mr Lockwood – his entrance to the house in a driving snowstorm is well-realised, even if we do realise it is a studio set.
This Rudolph Cartier production was showing as part of the BFI Gothic season. His production of Anna Karenina from the previous year, also featuring Bloom, is available on DVD, but this Wuthering Heights is sadly locked in the archives.
Dinsdale James Landen was born on 4th September 1932 in Margate, Kent, one of twin boys (his brother Dalby practised as a solicitor). From his first appearance on television as a juvenile lead playing Pip in ‘Great Expectations’ (1959), through to stage and screen roles over the next four decades, he became well-regarded as a character player in drama as well as an accomplished comedy actor, especially in farces.
In recent years much of Landen’s work has become available on DVD or been shown in archive cinema screenings, which has allowed this unusual performer’s talent to become ripe for assessment. An early film role in ‘The League of Gentlemen’ and a leading appearance in the Edgar Wallace Mystery ‘Playback’ show promising screen presence, but it seems to me that it was when his roles allowed him to drop the ‘mockney’ accent and take on a more cultured persona that he came into his own.
One exception to this run of comedy silly-asses which could be seen to great effect in productions from Marty Feldman’s ‘Every Home Should Have One’, TV plays ‘Absent Friends’ (by Alan Ayckbourn) and ‘What The Butler Saw’ (by Joe Orton), and the flamboyant detective Matthew Earp in two episodes of Brian Clemens’ anthology series ‘Thriller’ is Landen’s appearance as a bisexual pub landlord in John Mortimer’s play written for ‘Thirty Minute Theatre’, called ‘Bermondsey’. In this play Landen and Edward Fox share a lengthy screen kiss, and the play is disarmingly frank about this character’s love for his wife and his old friend Pip, during a Christmas Eve where lots of secrets tumble into the open.
If Landen was vulnerable and touching in ‘Bermondsey’, despite his obvious weakness for infidelity, he could play darker characterisations too, none more so than the abusive stepfather in Henry Livings’ play for ‘Plays for Britain’, called ‘Shuttlecock’. Here the gifts he used in comedy make the character more frightening and grotesque. This also gave strength to his wheelchair-bound possessed scientist in the ‘Doctor Who’ story ‘The Curse of Fenric’, an episode from the Sylvester McCoy era which seems to divide viewers.
Landen was not an unattractive man, so often played lotharios (and lushes) – the bored lecturer in ‘The Glittering Prizes’ who eventually returns to his loveless marriage, the adulterous and boozy executive in Simon Gray’s ‘Two Sundays’ (for ‘Play for Today’), Diana Rigg’s unreliable lover in ‘After You’re Gone’ for ‘Three Piece Suite’. Eventually he got a comedy lead, in ‘Devenish’, and was torn between Liza Goddard and Joanna Van Gyseghem in ‘Pig in the Middle’ (he’d been a sitcom Alfie-type in the 1960s series ‘Mickey Dunne’ but sadly no episodes survive).
By the time the 1980s came around character parts (mainly military) in long-running series (like ‘Lovejoy’) and period dramas (Catherine Cookson’s ‘The Wingless Bird’ and Edith Wharton’s ‘The Buccaneers’) were more the norm but he was still seen in the classics like Bernard Shaw’s ‘Arms and the Man’ and the acting workshop series ‘Shakespeare Lives!’.
There was even a foray into the musical stage, alongside Michael Ball in ‘Aspects of Love’. Watching the production from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sydmonton Festival, it is clear that although Landen might not have been able to hit the notes required for George’s songs, as an actor his portrayal even in a ‘reading’ of the part gets to the heart of the character.
In the mid-1990s an enforced break from the stage and screen due to oral cancer pretty much ended the long career of this versatile player – just one rather sad swansong appearance in an ‘Inspector Linley’ episode was to follow.
Long married to classy Welsh actress Jennifer Daniel (they’d met on ‘Great Expectations’ and wed within weeks), Dinsdale Landen passed away just after Christmas 2003 from pneumonia. There are few character players with the range he had displayed throughout his career – whether as a blustering military man in ‘Morons from Outer Space’, the eccentric Uncle in children’s series ‘Woof!’, or a chilling assassin in ‘The New Avengers’.
Incidentally, that ‘Great Expectations’ from 1959 survives almost complete. The missing episode is right in the middle. Frustrating, isn’t it?
The first in an occasional series, looking at a group of titles from my viewing collection. These may include titles available in Region 1, 2, 4 or 6, or items transferred from videotape (commercial VHS or off-airs).
1. Bloomers. 1979. 5 episodes recorded and broadcast out of a planned series of 6. Richard Beckinsale stars in his final role as resting actor Stan who is currently working in a florist’s shop (the ‘Bloomers’ of the title). Anna Calder-Marshall appears as his wife Lena, with David Swift as his boss Dingley. This series was unfinished after its star’s untimely death and although it has elements of the ‘cutes’, it just doesn’t have the laughs it could have had. Watchable, but not very memorable. Not available commercially.
2. Anne of Avonlea. 1975. 6 episodes. This was a sequel to the 1972 series Anne of Green Gables, also starring Kim Braden as Anne, but unfortunately now wiped. Based on the novel by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Notable for featuring 11 year-old Nicholas Lyndhurst as Davy. Often compared unfavourably to the 1987 version with Megan Follows citing a low budget and poor locations. It drags a bit and Braden doesn’t quite convince in the lead. Curious how the sequel has survived but the earlier series has not. Available Region 1/2 DVD.
3. Lady Killers / Ladykillers. Two series – 1980, focusing on women who kill; 1981, focusing on men who kill women. With introductions by Robert Morley which are often archly amusing (inappropriately, given the gravity of the subject matter), these dramas are showcases for actors – John Fraser as Dr Crippen, Joan Sims as Amelia Dyer, Elaine Paige as Kate Webster. Not the kind of drama to watch before bedtime but good for Crown Court addicts as there is plenty of courtroom action, verbatim from transcripts. Available Region 2 DVD.
4. Shock Treatment. 1981. Musical film sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, also written by Richard O’Brien. Where Rocky Horror was a parody of horror films, Shock Treatment pokes fun at TV game and reality shows. Brad and Janet are recast from the original film, the sultry Jessica Harper replacing Susan Sarandon. Little Nell and Patricia Quinn return alongside O’Brien. The score is more modern and varied than the fun pieces in the earlier film. Looks great too. Available Region 1/2 DVD.
5. Person to Person: Edward R Murrow. 1953-1961 TV series where Murrow interviews movie stars in their homes – they have a camera there, while he is in the studio. Interviewees include Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando (and Brando Snr), Frank Sinatra, JFK, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren. Murrow is perhaps best known now for Good Night and Good Luck, the George Clooney film. Here he shows his lighter side, on a best of DVD collection. Available Region 1 DVD.
Recently restored and released to DVD, this television version of the three-times-filmed story of the cantor’s son who rebels and becomes a popular singing star was made for NBC’s ‘Lincoln-Mercury Startime’ series in 1959, and survives both as original black and white kinescope, and restored colour version. Both are presented on this DVD.
Jerry Lewis remains an acquired taste when it comes to musical comedy, and continues to polarise audience opinion. I regard myself as a casual fan; that is, I can watch most of his films, but recognise that sometimes his work can be embarrassing and mawkish. However, this being a largely serious piece, it at least proves that Lewis can act, and in his supporting players (Eduard Franz and Molly Picon as father and mother, Alan Reed as his agent, and Anna Maria Alberghetti as his young lady friend) he is surrounded by professionals who keep the story moving.
In 52 minutes the story is necessarily truncated to a few key scenes, but the message remains the same, and the closing scenes where ‘Joey Robin’ takes his father’s place in the synagogue are no less moving than in the versions featuring Al Jolson, Danny Thomas, or Neil Diamond.
Released by the Inception Media Group on Region 1 DVD.
The BFI Southbank has a new series showing during June 2012 showcasing productions of Greek tragedies made for television, and this is the first screening in that ‘Classics on TV: Greek Tragedy on the Small Screen’ season, curated by Amanda Wrigley.
Two productions of the first Theban play by Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, opened the season last night. First up, a BBC Play of the Month from 1972 entitled ‘King Oedipus’, in a translation by E.F. Watling (the same one which is used in the Penguin Classics Theban Plays collection); and following that, a production for the Open University in 1977 called ‘Oedipus Tyrannus’, which abridges the play to the closing act only, in a translation which is rather more up-to-date (notably where Oedipus states he was told he was a ‘bastard’ rather than ‘not his father’s son’.
‘King Oedipus’, then, is a modern dress production – which is timely, given the National Theatre’s current stage production of another of the Theban plays, Antigone, which also has a modern setting – and stars Ian Holm as the central character, Anthony Bate as Creon, and Sheila Allen as Jocasta. All are excellent but I was especially impressed with Holm, who is perhaps underrated these days as an actor.
In the early scenes he invests the king with quiet military dignity, but becomes more troubled and disturbed as the play progresses until, finally, in one deep exhaled breath, all his world comes crashing down. It is a tour de force performance. The play as produced here also doesn’t flinch from the scenes which Sophocles originally intended to be ‘off-stage’ (the suicide of Jocasta, the blinding of Oedipus), and in a modern depiction of the chorus uses recurring musical motifs in different settings to show the increasing chaos in Oedipus’ adopted land. Also of note within this case are Alan Webb as blind prophet Teiresias, wheelchair bound and with thick dark sunglasses denoting his blindness, Alan Rowe as a Corinthian ambassador who seeks to do good but brings calamity and destruction, and George Coulouris as the shepherd frightened to reveal the secrets only hinted at by the Gods.
I was familiar with the play from studying it at school, and from the film with Christopher Plummer (Oedipus the King, 1968) and the television production with Michael Pennington (Oedipus the King, 1986). I cannot therefore comment on whether the play would make sense to a new observer; however, the modern setting works well, with the marches and dancing of the soldiers standing in for a more traditional chorus, and the contrast between Creon as the king’s brother-in-law, content with a quiet life, and later as the military leader, calm in uniform and following the rules in condemning the now blinded Oedipus to exclusion and eventual exile (‘I do not come to mock’).
This production, now almost entirely unknown, is a superb version of a play which can now seem ridiculous with all its coincidences and oracles, but in the expert hands of director Alan Bridges and producer Cedric Messina, never becomes so.
The second screening of the OU’s ‘Oedipus Tyrannus’ could have been more problematic – Patrick Stewart is the king, Rosalie Crutchley the queen, Ronald Radd the man from Corinth, John Citroen the shepherd, and John Forbes-Robertson Creon. There is also an early appearance from Roy Marsden as a herald. But all are half masked and wearing woollen wigs, and there is a simple set of a door, a walkway, fronted by a chorus who perform as the Ancient Greek theatre would require, with measured words and fluid movement. For all the traditional look, the translation is more akin to contemporary speech in places, and undoubtedly the sight of blinded Oedipus with red mask, painted stripes on his neck, and flowing red ribbons, is touching indeed. I felt that Stewart shouted the part rather than inhabited it though; Crutchley did better, more suited to the mounting frustration and desperation of a Queen who simply wishes to snatch at happiness in ignorance, whatever the cost.
There is no denying that the staging is distracting and the wigs and masks not needed; however, the play survives undamaged, albeit with the first scene-setting act missing. The production clearly has a much smaller budget that the 1972 ‘King Oedipus’, but was aiming at a different auidence, one who pored over the text rather than sitting down for an evening’s entertainment. It was directed by Richard Callanan with music by Judith Bingham.
A pair worth watching then (although I suspect this play may be on school syllabuses again judging by some of the audience, especially the one who could not quite suppress the urge to text and email throughout!), although opportunities to do so will probably be slim, given the BBC’s track record for commercially releasing their treasure trove of television dramas.
A companion website including this season can be found at http://screenplaystv.wordpress.com/, which features John Wyver’s project on televised plays from 1930 to the present day on British television, which is based at the University of Westminster and funded by the AHRC.
As part of both the World Shakespeare Festival (for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad) and the UnLOCked season (showcasing material thought lost from the archives which was located in the Library of Congress in 2010), this adaptation of Shakespeare’s 1623 play ‘The Winter’s Tale’ was the first done for television, transmitted on Good Friday, 1962, on the BBC.
Running 144 minutes, there is little pruning of the original play, which centres on the kingdom of Sicilia, where the jealous King, Leontes (Robert Shaw), accuses his Queen, Hermione (Rosalie Crutchley) of adultery with his good friend and neighbouring monarch, Polixenes (Patrick Macnee). In his murderous hate he attempts to have Polixenes murdered by his faithful servant Camillo (Nigel Stock), and casts Hermione’s baby daughter into the wilderness to die as he is convinced she is not his. As for Hermione, when she comes to trial her innocence and piety causes her to expire in front of the court, sending a penitent Leontes into a sixteen year period of repentance and sorrow.
Don Taylor directs this sparse version of the play, which employs minimal settings, close-ups, and a set of excellent performances to put across a play which has its difficulties (coincidences, Apollo, statues, and a bear). As well as the principals, there are comic turns from Ron Moody (Autolicus), Norman Rossington (Clown), and a measured performance from Brenda Bruce as Hermoine’s faithful maid, Paulina. Other memorable turns include an Antigonus from Geoffrey Bayldon and a Perdita from Sarah Badel which fit the next perfectly, and there is an early appearance from William Gaunt in a minor role.
Although Crutchley might not be everyone’s first choice as the wronged Queen Hermoine, she does well here and convinces, especially in her trial scene – less so in her early, flirty scenes with Macnee (perhaps because he doesn’t really go well with Shakespeare). And despite being missing from screen for a whole act of the play, Robert Shaw is an excellent Leontes, with his Northern grit and desperation adding to the portrait of a King possessed, and finally, (‘O, she’s warm …’) lost for words and emotion.
These BBC recoveries are real gems, and another restored piece in the history of Shakespeare on screen. With only one other production of this play having been made for television (during the BBC Shakespeare season of the 1970s-80s), this is surely a valuable and fascinating recovery. A pity, then, that there were so few to watch it in the BFI Southbank cinema last night – audiences are missing a treat.
Prompted by the recent showing of ‘The Unforgettable Gordon Jackson’ on ITV1, this time we’re taking a look at this incomparable Scottish actor (1923-1990). Best known for his television roles as the pious butler Angus Hudson in the long-running series ‘Upstairs Downstairs’, and CI5 head George Cowley in ‘The Professionals’, Gordon Cameron Jackson had achieved prominence as something of a sensitive character in a range of war films (a good example being ‘Millions Like Us’, in 1943), plus typical Scots parts in films like ‘Whisky Galore!’ in 1949.
Never a showy lead or a romantic face, Gordon Jackson was seen as a professional actor, modest and level-headed, which kept him in constant work in the films. He might have appeared in small character parts, but he was always memorable, and classy. In ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ (1962) and ‘The Great Escape’ (1963) he contributed memorable performances to major draw movies. By 1965 he was starring opposite Michael Caine in ‘The Ipcress File’, and followed this by stage roles including Horatio to Nicol Williamson’s Hamlet at the Roundhouse Theatre (later filmed).
The role of Edwardian butler Hudson, however, made Gordon a household name and a most recognisable face. In the stiffly proper and religious persona of the Scottish head of the Bellamy staff, he became the quintessential butler. It’s a marvellous performance, full of nuances – we even see him having something of a breakdown during the Great War (in the episode ‘The Beastly Hun’), and falling in love with a young housemaid (in ‘Disillusion’). Without this actor in the cast, ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ would still have been a great series, but he certainly helps to make it rather more.
By ‘The Professionals’ Gordon was ready for a change of scene, and if anyone worried about his typecasting as Hudson their fears were allayed once he took on the mantle of Cowley, the tough professional taking charge of the young agents Bodie and Doyle. The series ran from 1977 to 1983, and was another great success for the unassuming actor.
Following his award of OBE in 1979, he went into his final years still appearing in memorable dramas – he was a police detective in the film of Holmes and Watson’s later years, ‘The Masks of Death’ (1984); and one of his final roles was as the father of ‘The Winslow Boy’ in 1990. This popular and mischevious actor died at the age of 66 later that year, of bone cancer. He would be greatly missed by television viewers and friends alike, and left behind his actress wife of forty years, Rona Anderson, and their family.
Part of the UnLOCked series of screenings at the BFI Southbank, showcasing British television plays which were wiped by the BBC (mainly) and then rediscovered in prints sent to American for showing on public television, this adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is notable as it was the first time the entire play had been adapted for television.
In 1965 Franco Zefferelli had directed this production for the National Theatre, and most of the cast reprised their roles for the screen (with one exception – Ronald Pickup replaced Albert Finney as the evil Don John). This is part comedy, part mistaken identity – and there are some delightful performances here, notably Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens as the sparring Beatrice and Benedick (they would soon become a married couple in real life), Caroline John as the unjustly accused Hero, Frank Finlay as dumb policeman Dogberry, and Derek Jacobi, oddly accented, as the good Don.
Using a mix of extreme close-ups and clever sets (including a number of ‘living’ statues) to highlight the text, the audience is pulled right into the action, and despite a poor print which has muddy picture and sound, the play transfers across with all the wit and energy it must have had when first staged. It’s also a good game of ‘spot the familiar face’ including Graham Crowden (‘Waiting for God’), Christopher Timothy (‘All Creatures Great and Small’), Michael Gambon (‘Harry Potter’) and Barry Evans (‘Mind Your Language’).
This play though belongs to Smith and Stephens. Even in her youth she has the imperious vocal tones we recognise from her recent stint in ‘Downton Abbey’, while he has all the buoyancy and energy of an actor who was at that time feted as the new Olivier.
Hugely enjoyable, although whether we will get a chance to see it again in any form is debatable. But I’m glad it has been found, if only for the wonderful way bushes and a washing line are employed while Beatrice and Benedick are teased of each other’s professed affection!
Born on 17 November 1937, Peter Edward Cook was one of the brightest lights in British satirical comedy in the 1960s. Born in Torquay and educated at Radley College and Cambridge University, the young Cook was set for diplomatic service but during his undergraduate studies he discovered a flair for both writing and performing skits, and so eventually followed the lights of showbusiness.
His club The Establishment, which opened in 1961, showcased many comedians from other countries, such as the USA’s Lenny Bruce and Australia’s Barry Humphries (perhaps best known now as Dame Edna Everage). He also provided financial backing for the magazine Private Eye, which remains Britain’s best-selling news and current affairs magazine, again with a satirical slant.
By the middle of the 1960s, Cook had started a partnership with Dudley Moore which led to a number of television, film and other projects including ‘Not Only … But Also’, ‘Goodbye Again’, ‘Bedazzled’, and ‘Derek and Clive’. These projects allowed both Cook and Moore to venture into music – Moore with his jazz band, and Cook with his single ‘Spotty Muldoon’. However this partnership came to an end once Moore found some success on screen in Hollywood in projects such as the film ’10’. In many ways it was curious that the diminutive Moore found success in leading roles – he was by far the most talented of the two when it came to music but Cook was very much the pin-up of the moment and looked far more of a Hollywood lead during his twenties.
It seems clear that Cook’s alcoholism and rocky personal life (divorce from Wendy Snowden and subsequent marriage to actress Judy Huxtable) affected his career which went in odd directions during the 1970s, with appearances on punk programme ‘Revolver’ and a couple of brilliant, but uneven, performances for the ‘Secret Policeman’s Ball’ stage franchise in support of Amnesty International. A 1970 film in which he starred, ‘The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer’, showed flashes of brilliance but was a failure at the box office.
By the 1980s, following an abortive and unsuccessful TV series in the USA, ‘The Two of Us’, Cook’s star had begun to rise again as he was acknowledged as a comedy leader by his younger followers – an appearance in ‘The Black Adder’ as King Richard III was inspired, as was the eponymous role in the Comic Strip’ ‘Mr Jolly Lives Next Door’, a black comedy about a serial killer.
Settled in a happy third marriage to Lin Chong at the end of the 1980s, the 1990s saw a further resurgence in the career of Peter Cook – performing as Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling for radio, and portraying a range of characters in a special edition of ‘Clive Anderson Talks Back’. Sadly, it was the final hurrah, as death came to the funnyman on the 9 January 1995, at the age of just 57.
Peter Cook was the golden boy of 1960s British comedy, and eventually came to be regarded as a high point of satirical wit to aim at. His television programmes and films are timeless, and there is still a lot of fun in watching the Devil, George Spiggott, proclaiming the magic words “Julie Andrews” while sending Stanley Moon on a never-ending quest to win his ideal girl.
Born in Ipswich in 1931, the late Ian Hendry is one of the UK’s lost screen stars, only really remembered now by archive television buffs. While others in his peer group became household names (Judi Dench and Vanessa Redgrave in particular, who were both in the same year at Central School of Speech and Drama), his career floundered into character parts after a strong initial start.
Now thought of as something of a cult actor (if at all), he seems to have been a complex character, ambitious, something of a hellraiser (but one who wrote songs and poetry), and with a love of the sea (spending most of his life in the spotlight living on Pharaoh’s Island in the River Thames, near Shepperton).
His full name was Ian Mackendrick Hendry, reflecting his roots with a Scottish father. His early jobs included working as an estate agent, a stunt motorcyclist, and working in amateur dramatics as a clown’s stooge – his professional debut took place in 1956, when he was already a mature twenty-six years old, with an uncredited role on screen in the film ‘Up in the World’, and the following year appearing in a succession of stage roles at the Oxford Playhouse.
Further small roles in 1957 (in the film ‘The Secret Place’), 1958 (in a succession of episodes of the early medical soap ‘Emergency: Ward 10’), and 1959 (a small role as a rehearsing actor in the Laurence Harvey film ‘Room at the Top’; an appearance in the film ‘The October Wedding’, and episodes of ‘The Invisible Man’ and ‘Television Playwright’) led to his first major role, as the physician assisting with crime in ‘Police Surgeon’, in which he played Dr Geoffrey Brent – the surviving episode shows an actor with a raw sex appeal and personality. Also in 1960 were appearances in episodes of ‘Probation Officer’ , ‘Inside Story’, and ‘In the Nick’, with another uncredited role in the film ‘Sink the Bismarck’ as a naval officer.
But it was the role of Brent, in a dozen episodes of ‘Police Surgeon’, that led directly to his breakthrough role in one of the great iconic series of the 1960s, ‘The Avengers’. We may think now of this series as being about the bowler-hatted John Steed and a succession of strong-willed and physically-adept ladies, but the original premise was avenging the murder of the fiancee of Dr David Keel (Hendry), and Steed was simply a second lead. Of the twenty-five episodes recorded for series one of ‘The Avengers’ only two and a half remain, a sad reflection of the policy of wiping unwanted television programmes no longer required for repeat screenings or overseas sales. The sole remaining episode for years was ‘The Frighteners’, which was a revelation to me when viewing on a Channel 4 repeat screening in 1993. It was exciting stuff, it was proper action, cops and robbers yes, but not a comedy as the series became in its later seasons. The loss of most of the first series of ‘The Avengers’ and thus of Hendry’s compassionate, calm and yet tough Dr Keel is one of the great tragedies of archive television wipings. He is the embodiment of my ideal television hero.
At the same time as ‘The Avengers’, Hendry would be cast in a television play called ‘Ben Spray’, an entry in the ITV Television Playhouse. This would seem to have survived, but I have been able to track down very little information about it.
Production of ‘The Avengers’ being held up during the 1962 Equity strike, the dazzling young actor would gain the prize of a film contract, and temporarily turn his back on the security of a television lead role. In hindsight it might be true to say that this was a huge mistake, but surely at the time it must have seemed the pinnacle of a career which had begun to catch fire – and the first film in which he played the lead, ‘Live Now, Pay Later’, a prototype of the now more familar ‘Alfie’, would seem to support that theory. As Albert, a salesman who ascends the ladder while romancing the lady clients he encounters, Hendry is a mix of charm and energy, a wide boy who overreaches himself but picks himself up again to try another day. In support were names like June Ritchie, Nyree Dawn Porter, and, making his screen debut, a very youthful Peter Bowles. The film stands up well today but because of ownership issues and poor distribution is not remembered and has become rather obscure.
A frustratingly missing television role in the play ‘A Case for Treatment’ (later filmed with David Warner), followed, then an ‘Armchair Theatre’ entry, ‘Afternoon of a Nymph’ (which paired him with the actress Janet Munro, who would become his second wife, following his divorce from film make-up expert Joanna), and ’54 Minute Affair’ (an entry in the Drama ’63 series) hot on its heels. A trio of films which were really at best comfortable B entries premiered in 1963 – ‘Girl in the Headlines’ (a decent enough watch, but not spectacular), ‘This is My Street’, and ‘Children of the Damned’. Although still gaining leads, Hendry’s career was beginning to slow down and his descent into a character player was already in evidence. It could be argued that ‘Afternoon of a Nymph’ was his last really interesting leading role, a drama which is frustrating to watch but also extremely absorbing due to the obvious screen chemistry between him and Munro, with whom he would go on to have a turbulent and ultimately tragic marriage.
1965 saw two memorable supporting roles, as Michael, the married boyfriend of Yvonne Furneaux in Roman Polanski’s horror thriller ‘Repulsion’, and as the sadistic Staff Sergeant Williams in the tough Army prison film from Sidney Lumet, ‘The Hill’. In both he was excellent and managed to upstage his more showy co-stars, particularly Sean Connery in the latter film. During the same year he appeared in two plays for television on ‘Theatre 625’, Strindberg’s ‘Miss Julie’ and Clive Exton’s ‘Are You Ready for The …’, plus a final appearance for ‘Armchair Theatre’ in ‘A Cold Peace’, and an excellent guest spot in the Patrick McGoohan vehicle ‘Danger Man’ in ‘Say it with Flowers’.
In 1966 Hendry again landed a major television role in ‘The Informer’ – of which all twenty-one episodes are sadly lost. This was a very popular series which led to an appearance on the greatest showcase on children’s television at the time, the storyteller on ‘Jackanory’. Then it was back to the familiar tread of character roles in the films ‘Cry Wolf’ and ‘The Southern Star’, while also finding time to appear in Roger Moore’s tongue in cheek series ‘The Saint’ in the two-part episode ‘Vendetta for the Saint’, enjoyable fluff as you would expect for that series.
In 1969 he first teamed with his future ‘Lotus Eaters’ co-star Wanda Ventham in an episode of ‘The Gold Robbers’, while a sci-fi re-imagining of the story of Don Quixote in 1970 placed him in the comedy ‘The Adventures of Don Quick’ (of which one episode of six survives). 1971 was a year of some disappointment as he lost out on the plum lead role of Jack Carter in ‘Get Carter’ to Michael Caine (the second such loss, as he had been considered for ‘Zulu’ back in 1963; however, this time he had been cast before Caine came along). He had to be content with a supporting role of driver Eric Pace instead, a pivotal role, but clearly a crushing disappointment, and the tension between the actors made for a couple of crackling scenes in the finished film.
By 1971 Hendry’s marriage to Janet Munro had disintegrated, with both of them reported as having problems with alcohol. Their divorce was quickly followed within a year by Munro’s death at the age of thirty-eight from an heart attack, a blow from which her ex-husband never recovered. They had two daughters together, Sally and Corrie. Hendry went on to marry Sandra Jones, who had been the girls’ nanny, and a further daughter, Emma, was born to the couple.
Appearances in ‘The Persuaders’, ‘Suspicion’, the film ‘The Jerusalem File’, and ‘Tales from the Crypt’ eventually led to what he (and I) consider to be his best role on television, that of Erik Shepherd in ‘The Lotus Eaters’. His portrayal of the recovering alcoholic settled in Crete with his mysterious wife was outstanding. This series should have propelled him back to the public consciousness, but it does not seem to be the case, and although well received, the series ended in 1973 after 15 episodes, partly due to his failing health due to alcoholism and his growing reputation for being difficult to work with (a perception Wanda Ventham dismisses, however, in an interview on the DVD release of the series).
The Vincent Price film ‘Theatre of Blood’ was the first time I ever saw Ian Hendry in anything, as the head of a group of critics who had given their honest opinion on the acting talents of the ham actor Richard Lionheart, who then vows to dispatch them all in the manner dictated by Shakespeare. Fellow critics include Harry Andrews, Dennis Price, Robert Morley, Arthur Lowe, and Coral Browne, and they were dispatched in inventive and gory methods. In an interesting twist of fate, Lionheart’s daughter was played by Avengers lovely Diana Rigg. Anyway, once I saw this film I was smitten by this attractive and dynamic actor (who had died by the time I first saw the TV showing) and I have been interested in him ever since.
His last really good film role was as the geek in ‘The Internecine Project’ in 1974, which starred James Coburn – another film which does not get much exposure nowadays. Nervy and bespectacled, Hendry was as watchable as ever, and definitely a high point in a starry cast. But by the time he guested in ‘The Sweeney’ (and played stooge to Tommy Cooper on one of his shows) he was starting to show signs of deterioration on the screen, which was sad to watch. There would be occasional glimpses of the old Hendry in appearances in ‘Thriller’ (in the episode ‘Killer With Two Faces’) and ‘The New Avengers’ (in the episode ‘To Catch A Rat’, where he is greeted by Patrick McNee’s Steed as ‘old friend’) but they were getting few and far between. A double episode of ‘Supernatural’ is probably best left in the past, as should his appearance with moustache as Thrush Feather in Joan Collins’ ‘The Bitch’ in 1979. However in 1978 he appeared on stage at the Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford in a production of ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’, so he must have still be able to perform with lucidity at times.
The television series ‘For Maddie With Love’ reunited him with Nyree Dawn Porter and took some focus away from his widely publicised money problems (following attempts to pay off former wife Munro’s debts), and recent sight of an episode (on the Network release ‘Soap Box’) confirms that this was a good role for him – if perhaps a little insensitive, as he was cast as a husband dealing with the impending death of his wife – and I hope the series gets a full DVD release. In the same year, 1980, he appeared in the film ‘McVicar’ in an uncredited role, but a memorable one.
His final years, it seems, were troubled ones but he remained employed to the end, in episodes of ‘Smuggler’ and ‘Bergerac’, in a recurring role in ‘Jemina Shore Investigates’ (from which he was unfortunately fired due to his drinking and unreliability), and finally, in the soap ‘Brookside’. Perhaps he was regarded with fondness by colleagues in the business who made allowances for any shortcomings. A sad final public appearance on Patrick Macnee’s ‘This Is Your Life’ in 1984 closed the curtain on a long but sometimes rocky career, and Ian Hendry died on Christmas Eve that year from an internal haemorrhage, his health and looks destroyed at the age of just fifty-three.
I don’t believe in dwelling on the personal problems on those in the public eye, but the story of Ian Hendry and his decline is a heartbreaking one. Blessed with good looks and talent when he first appeared on the screen, his star quickly fell (some say due to his refusal to wear a toupee once he started losing his hair), and he was unjustly replaced in some key roles in which he would have shone. Perhaps he just never found the right role to keep him up there as a leading star. I feel he has also been dismissed as simply a drunk or a tragic figure when there was undoubtedly much more to the man. Much of his work has been lost or become unavailable, which means he can not properly be assessed alongside his peers born around the same time (Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris, Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Michael Jayston, Ian Holm, David Janssen, Robert Vaughn, Robert Shaw). I feel that were more work to come to light he would be reassessed as one of our great acting talents.
For me, Hendry should have been one of our greatest film exports, and whether it was fate or his own doing, the fact that this did not happen is a missed opportunity. I salute the original Avenger, with affection.
Ian Hendry’s television roles – the ones which were wiped:
Emergency: Ward 10 (all his appearances)
Television Playwright (27 episodes of 20 missing, including Ian’s)
Inside Story (complete series missing)
Probation Officer (78 of 109 episodes missing, including Ian’s)
Police Surgeon (12 episodes of 13 missing)
The Avengers (only 2 and a half episodes of series 1 remain)
BBC Sunday Night Play: A Suitable Case for Treatment
Blackmail: The Case of the Phantom Lover / The Man Who Could See
ITV Play of the Week: Beyond the Horizon
The Informer (complete series missing)
Jackanory: Stories from East Anglia and the Fens (all Ian’s episodes missing)
The Adventures of Don Quick (5 of 6 episodes missing)
Late Night Theatre: We’re Strangers Here
Existing, but not commercially available:
Drama ’63: 54 Minute Affair
Armchair Mystery Theatre: Time Out of Mind / Flight from Treason
Theatre 625: Miss Julie / Are You Ready For The …
ITV Play of the Week: Crossfire / On the Island
Armchair Theatre: Afternoon of a Nymph / A Cold Peace
ITV Sunday Night Theatre: A Summer Story / Dangerous Corner / Love Doesn’t Grow on Trees
ITV Playhouse: The Tycoon / A Splinter of Ice / The High Game / Thursday’s Child
Red Letter Day was a series of one-off dramas which focused on a ‘big day’ in a character’s life. It is now available on DVD in the UK, released by Network, and here are my thoughts on the first two episodes.
‘Ready When You Are, Mr McGill’, written by Jack Rosenthal – who also devised this series – is perhaps the best known of the plays as it has been shown the most and has enjoyed a previous release as part of the DVD boxset ‘Jack Rosenthal at ITV’. It centres on a small television production shoot and the big day is for the extra, Joe McGill, who has been given a sixteen-word speaking part much to the chagrin of the other, more experienced extras on the coach. It is a wickedly funny piece with the egotistical director (Jack Shepherd), the sound engineer with over-sensitive ears (Fred Feast, a familar face from 1970s Coronation Street), the harrassed assistant director (Mark Wing-Davey, Hitchhikers Guide’s Zaphod), and other familiar faces including Jill Summers as ‘gossiping housewife’. A running gag throughout the play – aside from Joe’s attempt to get his line right – is a building being painted throughout the aborted attempts to film the one scene.
‘The Five Pound Orange’, written by Donald Churchill, is a drama about a man who has had something of a mid-life crisis, having ten months previously left his wife for a younger model with terrible taste in interior decorating. The title refers to a set of Queen Victoria stamps which he discovers are worth rather more than he imagined, and which currently reside in a tea chest at his old home. This slight tale involves his attempts to get the stamps back and in doing so, realising that the grass might not be greener on the other side after all. Peter Barkworth plays the errant husband, Natasha Parry his wife, and Sarah Badel the young mistress. I rather enjoyed this thanks to the performance of Barkworth in particular (who might be a familiar face from ‘Melissa’) and it is generally nicely done, with the stamps just becoming a peripheral device in something far more of the heart than of the pocket.