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Posts Tagged ‘Brian Clemens’

After well over a month of viral post-apocalyptic gloom, I find that I want to make it clear that not all genre TV from the 1970s was cut from the same depressing cloth. When I find myself in the mood for this sort of change of pace, more often than not I find myself reaching for an episode of either The Avengers or its bell-bottomed progeny The New Avengers, and so it proves this time too. The episode my gaze fell upon on this occasion was Sleeper, written (like most episodes of this show) by Brian Clemens.

A demonstration of a new knockout gas, S-95, is scheduled, and so a gathering of top scientific and intelligence boffins is in progress in London. Unfortunately, no sooner has one of these boffins arrived at London Heliport than he is bundled into a cupboard and beaten senseless with his own briefcase by this week’s villain, Brady (Keith Buckley). Brady goes on to observe the demonstration, along with Steed, Purdey, and Gambit, and they all (pay attention, this is a plot point) receive injections granting them temporary immunity to S-95.

One of the more notable revelations which Sleeper treats us to is the news that the British security services have sunk serious R&D money into – and there’s no other way of describing it – magic, because that’s what S-95 seems to be. It’s not a gas, because someone says it isn’t, being more a sort of cloud of magic dust. If you breathe in the magic dust you go to sleep for six hours, unless you’ve had the antidote of course. The dust doesn’t blow away or dissipate or anything like that; it remains just as potent (for, presumably, the six hours previously mentioned).

Oh, who am I kidding, it’s a preposterous plot device that works the way it does solely to enable the episode to function. Much the same is true of the way in which Brady manages not only to impersonate the boffin without anyone suspecting it, but also single-handedly steal a couple of cannisters of S-95 and a supply of the antidote, again without the alarm being raised. They should probably have spent less money on magic plot device secret weapons and more on padlocks and burglar alarms.

Anyway, Brady has assembled a rather suspect squad of ne’er-do-wells who have penetrated to the heart of London by the cunning ruse of pretending to be a coachload of tourists. Everyone on the coach is a bad guy, but they still go through the motions of listening to the guide’s spiel (the guide is a bad’un too), simply in order to preserve the surprise of their true identity for the viewer.

The plan, of course, is to dump a load of S-95 on central London just after dawn on a Sunday morning, putting the whole city to sleep and allowing Brady and his gang of ruffians to knock over every bank in the affected area. What they have not reckoned on is the fact that their operation has been infiltrated by an associate of Steed’s, not to mention that Steed, Purdey, and Gambit are still immune to the S-95 and will be up and about and able to throw a spanner in the slightly ridiculous works.

This is one of those episodes where it’s fairly clear that the main idea – the trio of protagonists contending with a much larger group of enemies in an effectively deserted London – came first, and the rest of the episode was written to facilitate it, no matter how absurd the necessary narrative gymnastics became. Most of the episode is a series of gently comic set-pieces as Steed and Gambit (who are paired up this week) and Purdey deal with various opposing parties.

The scenes with Steed and Gambit are fairly humdrum – the two of them exposit to each other a lot before deciding to go to the pub – but Purdey’s adventures are given an odd little twist by the fact she gets locked out of her flat and spends most of the episode in a fetching set of turquoise silk pyjamas. I first saw this episode early in 1991 on a late-night repeat (showing just before Mike Raven in Crucible of Terror, fact fans) and I have to say my teenaged self found many of Purdey’s scenes to have a subtle erotic charge to them (at one point she has to pretend to be a shop mannequin, and of course her pyjama bottoms start falling down). Nothing very much comes of this except a fairly absurd fight between Joanna Lumley and Prentis Hancock (ah, Prentis Hancock, one of the unsung heroes of 70s genre TV).

(Other before-they-were-famous members of Brady’s gang include David Schofield, who’s been in everything from An American Werewolf in London to a couple of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, and Gavin Campbell, who was briefly an actor but these days is best known as a presenter of That’s Life and a celebrity marathon runner. One of the pleasures of watching these old TV shows again is spotting these incongruous faces in the minor roles.)

There are some quite well-mounted action sequences in the deserted city streets, especially a car chase with Purdey at the wheel of a commandeered mini, but on the whole it’s not nearly witty or entertaining enough to justify the sheer level of contrivance and preposterousness involved. Being knowingly silly is pretty much the sine qua non of Avengers and New Avengers episodes, but this one is a bit too silly and not nearly knowing enough. Still kind of memorable in that 70s New Avengers way, though.

 

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I can’t let the passing of the great Brian Clemens go without some kind of comment, or indeed a bit of a tribute. Throughout the 60s and 70s, and arguably beyond, Clemens was one of the hidden masters of British TV drama, writing dozens of episodes for many different series, many of which he created himself. As late as the launch of Bugs in 1995, other distinguished writers were attracted to projects simply by the opportunity to work with Clemens. He also did some good work in the cinema, too, writing a couple of fun late-period Hammer horrors (Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde and Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter, the latter of which he directed himself), although the less said about his involvement with Highlander 2: The Quickening the better.

In any case, it is of course The Avengers for which Clemens will be remembered above all else. He wrote the very first and very last episodes of the original run, overseeing its transformation from a gritty crime drama to something utterly eccentric and distinctive in the process, and went on to write many of the episodes of The New Avengers, which brought proceedings back down to earth somewhat. (I suppose one should also mention The Professionals, which on reflection takes The New Avengers format back into realms of slightly absurd grittiness.) Where does one start, faced with such a multitude of riches?

Well, you have to go to mid-period Avengers, of course, with one of the Diana Rigg episodes, and of these perhaps the most notorious, and almost certainly the most influential, is A Touch of Brimstone, originally broadcast in February 1966.

The story opens with, we are assured, the British government thrown into turmoil by a series of bizarre and sinister practical jokes – Russian diplomats are given exploding cigars live on TV, whoopee cushions are snuck into the House of Lords, and so on. (The Avengers quite often resembles a slightly kinky version of the 60s Batman TV show, and never more than here.) On the case are knight-errant-cum-intelligence-hard-man John Steed (Patrick Macnee, of course) and his amateur partner Mrs Peel (Diana Rigg).

As luck would have it, Steed and Mrs Peel don’t have to do a lot of that tedious investigating in order to uncover who’s behind these various outrages, as the first suspect Steed suggests – based on the fact he’s been seen hanging around all the various crime scenes – turns out to be guilty as sin, and perhaps quite literally so. He is John Cleverly Cartney (Peter Wyngarde), an aristocrat with a taste for anarchy, and one of the founders of a revived Hellfire Club. Having only really stirred things up prior to this point, Cartney and his cronies are intent on a much more spectacular coup – once again, perhaps literally so…

Brian Clemens himself would gleefully tell the tale of how A Touch of Brimstone was omitted from the series’ original run, due to the rather pronounced sado-masochistic overtones and cheerfully dwelt-upon debauchery in the latter sections of the episode. (He would also mention that the same US network chiefs who banned the episode on moral grounds organised a private viewing for themselves.) By modern standards the episode is pretty tame stuff, but even to this day one can’t deny a certain frisson when Mrs Peel makes her spiked-heeled-and-collared, corseted appearance as the Queen of Sin (Dame Diana apparently designed this, dare I say it, iconic ensemble herself), and in any case it’s hard to shake the impression that this sort of big set-piece moment is the episode’s raison d’etre – the rest of the plot is frankly pretty thin and spurious.

brimstone

Sorry, this picture is really obligatory when you write about this particular episode.

 

But then again, classic Avengers is all about big set pieces, rather than tight and innovative plotting, not to mention servicing its two leads with some properly beefy material. While it may be Diana Rigg as Mrs Peel who lingers in the memory, most likely for her climactic battles with a man in tights and a whip-cracking Wyngarde, but Steed gets a full-blooded sword-fight and lots of other good stuff too – it hardly needs saying that Macnee takes to dressing and acting like an 18th-century rake like a mallard to a particularly placid pond. Both benefit from James Hill’s direction – Hill knows exactly what this episode’s about, and takes great care to give both his stars reaction beats they can utterly nail.

In short, it doesn’t take itself remotely seriously – the tone of it all is a slightly detached, slightly tongue-in-cheek sardonicism – and while it features none of the full-on SF elements that had started to appear in Avengers scripts by this point, it’s quite clearly not set in the world as we recognise it. And it is supremely entertaining.

And, as I say, influential: somehow this little black-and-white TV episode ended up inspiring an X-Men comics storyline and a bunch of characters who went on to be popular in their own right. I’ve no idea if Brian Clemens ever knew about this, but I expect he did, and I suspect he was highly amused. We shall not see his like again, I suspect. I’ve no idea what happens to us when it’s all over, but if there is anything waiting, I hope he gets the good stuff he deserves. RIP.

 

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Horror movies are a slightly culty genre as a whole, and within that genre the movies made by Hammer have a very healthy cult following of their own. Even so, some of these films have a particularly dedicated following far out of proportion to their profile or financial success – which makes them cult movies made by a cult studio within a cult genre. Cultiness cubed! Is this even possible? Well, anyway: one such film is Brian Clemens’ Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter (this is one of those films where no-one seems able to agree on how to punctuate the title), made in 1972 but only released a couple of years later (a fate which befell a few late-period Hammers). The only way to describe Captain Kronos is as ‘different’ (well, Sir Christopher Lee has gone on record as saying it was ‘the worst film Hammer ever made’, which surely only suggests he hasn’t seen Prehistoric Women, to name but one). I’ve always really liked it; it’s one of the very few Hammers that I recorded off the TV and kept, back when commercial VHS releases were beyond my pocket. (Happily the copyright holders have made it freely available to view over a popular video-sharing website.)

kronos

Our story opens in the tiny village of Durward, somewhere in central Europe in the 18th century (according to the trailer, anyway: the film is typically vague about this, but we’re definitely in the heart of Hammerland). Durward is a tiny little place, as you’d expect from a very low-budget film, and its young people are living in fear: a dark figure has begun preying on the rosy-cheeked young maidens of the village, reducing them to raddled old hags who peg out from old age almost on the spot.

Luckily, local doctor Marcus (John Carson) knows someone who may be able to help, calling in his old army buddy Captain Kronos (Horst Janson, but dubbed – bizarrely retaining a German accent – by Julian Holloway) and his sidekick, hunchbacked professor Hieronymous Grost (John Cater). Kronos and Grost are professional vampire hunters and are quickly on the case, assisted by a young gypsy girl they’ve picked up on their travels (Caroline Munro, in probably her best role for Hammer). But, given the wide variety of vampires apparently on the loose in Hammerland, the question is not just one of finding the beast, but working out exactly how to kill it, too…

As I say, for a long time Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter was a very obscure film, but its profile does seem to be rising: a novelisation was released a few years ago (the 39-year gap between film and book may constitute something of a record) and when Midsomer Murders did their Hammer-pastiche episode a while ago, it was two of the stars of this film that they recruited.

I think one of the reasons for its obscurity was that in many ways it inverts the traditional horror formula. It occurs to me that, structurally, the traditional monster or vampire movie has a lot in common with the classic superhero film, in that you’re waiting for the set-piece sequences where the central character appears and starts doing their thing, whatever that may be: these moments are pretty widely spread in the early part of the film, but slowly get more substantial until the climax rolls around. The main difference is that superhero films are invariably focused on and named after the protagonist, while horror movies tend to much more about the antagonist. When you get what’s purporting to be a horror, or horror-themed movie, but which is named after the hero, it’s usually a sign that you’re really in for much more of an action-adventure caper.

This is a rule-of-thumb I’ve just made up, but it holds true of Van Helsing, Solomon Kane, and Captain Kronos too. The film’s emphasis on action and colour over suspense and atmosphere probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the film is a product of the same creative team responsible for The Avengers and The New Avengers (it has been widely commented that Captain Kronos, which is relatively light on gore and nudity for a late-period Hammer, often looks more like a feature-length TV pilot than a proper movie). Certainly the film has some of the freewheeling style and offbeat humour of The Avengers, with an equally quirky hero – there’s a touch of the Man With No Names about Kronos, who smokes cheroots made of ‘Chinese herbs’ (yeah, right) and carries a samurai sword as well as a cavalry sabre.

Clemens directs with a huge amount of invention and energy, if not much subtlety: flowers wither with the passing of the vampire and the shadow of a crucifix warps as one attacks a young girl in a church. To be honest, he’s making a huge amount of the ‘vampire lore’ in this movie up out of whole cloth – different kinds of vampires attack and can only be destroyed in different ways, vampires have a resuscitating effect on the corpses of toads, and so on – but this is done with enough conviction and imagination to be convincing.

It’s almost enough to stop you noticing the clearly tiny budget on which the film was made – the village of Durward only appears to contain one family, who are progressively wiped out by the vampire as the film goes on (the script doesn’t play this for black comedy, which almost comes as a surprise). If the film is short on peasants, it sometimes seems a little short on plot too: the need for incident results in a large number of set-piece vampire attacks, which get a little repetitive, and a rather preposterous western-pastiche sequence in which a mysterious stranger hires Ian Hendry (who looks vaguely embarrassed to be participating) to pick a fight with Kronos down the local pub. Hendry’s dying-acting is extremely funny, but you have to be paying really close attention to note that the mysterious stranger is actually the villain’s butler (the viewer is bombarded with red herrings as to the vampire’s identity, but there’s never much doubt that the trail is going to lead to the door of the local aristos), rather than just some random bloke.

In the end, everything is resolved with a cameo from Wanda Ventham, a near-enough continuity reference to the Karnstein family from other early 70s Hammer vampire films, and a rather spiffy sword-fight between Kronos and the villain. The villain is played by William Hobbs, for many years the doyen of cinema fight choreographers (other works include the 1973 version of The Three Musketeers, Excalibur, and Musical Chairs Game of Thrones) and so this duel is significantly better than you might expect from a low-budget genre movie. Kronos rides off into the sunset, heading for new adventures which never actually materialised.

How much the box-office failure of Captain Kronos was a result of poor distribution, and how much down to the quality of the film itself is a little difficult to say for certain. Perhaps a film as distinctive and strange as this one, with its peculiar juxtaposition of swashbuckling action, vampire horror, and deadpan black humour, was always going to struggle to find a mass audience. At least it seems to be more appreciated now. I could not honestly describe Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter as a classic Hammer horror, but it is still a hugely entertaining film.

 

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I have felt for a long time that there is a strange and not immediately obvious connection between horror stories and comedies – that these two genres in particular share a common link. They are defined, primarily, not by a particular setting or subject matter, as with most others, but by the response they are aiming to produce in the audience. Perhaps then it isn’t so surprising that the ideas for many comedies, when written down on paper, sound shocking and not really the stuff of humour, while the premises of many horror movies seem equally laughable.

Indeed, I’ve always said that there’s nothing more horrific than a bad comedy and nothing more laughable than a bad horror film. (Perhaps this is why comedy-horror is such a difficult beast to get right.) Perhaps sailing closer to the wind in this department than most is Roy Ward Baker’s 1971 Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde, which really does sound like a joke (and actually started life as one, if you believe the anecdotes about this movie’s genesis).

dr-jekyll-and-sister-hyde-martine-everett

This movie finds Hammer back in fog-bound Victorian London, albeit one which is clearly being realised on a budget stretched to breaking point. The streetwalkers are living in terror of the activities of the murderous Ripper, a crazed killer who inflicts oddly precise mutilations on his victims’ bodies. Perhaps brilliant young scientist Doctor Jekyll (Ralph Bates) can shed some light on the matter?

Obligingly, Dr Jekyll tells his strange tale through the wonders of flashback and narration. Working on the universal panacea of a comprehensive antivirus (don’t worry, this is just a McGuffin), he is dismayed to realise that life is literally too short for him to see his researches through to fruition: it will take many decades to complete the project. This is not enough to dissuade a mad scientist in a Hammer movie, of course, and he starts to investigate the possibilities of extending the human lifespan.

The mechanism he eventually settles upon involves – and I promise you, the actual film really doesn’t seem quite as ridiculous as this sounds – female hormones, apparently because women don’t go bald, or something. Procuring the necessaries from the local mortuary attendant (a droll extended cameo from Philip Madoc), he first succeeds in massively extending the life of a fly, even if the male insect does appear to start laying eggs as a side-effect. Not to be deterred, Jekyll presses on, even if a shortage down the morgue requires him to retain the dubious services of the grave-robbers Burke and Hare.

Soon enough the scene everyone’s been waiting for arrives and Jekyll swills down the potion himself. Cue a lot of staggering about and gurning from Ralph Bates and a genuinely clever shot where he appears to turn into Martine Beswick without the use of either cuts or dissolves: I suspect this was done with mirrors, but anyway. It’s Martine Beswick! Hurrah! The film has been fairly salacious so far but creeps still further in the direction of the nudge-nudge-heh-heh joke, as the very first thing sister Hyde does on arrival is cop a proper feel of herself in front of a mirror.

Hyde is initially the secondary persona, but this changes as Jekyll finds himself running short on, er, supplies again, and is forced – after some fairly brisk moral soul-searching – to procure them himself by putting on a cape and top hat and going out into Whitechapel after dark with a big knife. But as the police close in, Jekyll realises he needs a better disguise for his bloody activities, and what better disguise than the body of a woman?

But Hyde, unleashed, turns out to be very much her own woman, with her own priorities and her own desires. The two personalities rapidly become locked in a curious metaphysical battle, with various confused members of the family upstairs involved too. And all the time the police continue to hunt for the Ripper, whoever he (or she) is…

As I say, written down, the plot of this film makes it sound like a much trashier proposition than it actually is – or, perhaps, the production of the film does a good job of masking most of the trashiness. Given the tiny budget, Victorian London is convincingly evoked, and the sets and costumes are as classy as you would expect from any Hammer horror. The performances, too, are pretty good, even if some of the supporting turns are a little over-ripe. The script (from telefantasy legend Brian Clemens) does a decent job of selling a fairly outlandish idea.

That said, this film has a harder, darker edge than the horror movies from Hammer’s golden age five years previously, and there’s that lurid, salacious quality to parts of the film as well. It always feels in a hurry to get to the flesh and blood sequences, which is why it feels a little strange that the gore is relatively restrained and Martine Beswick only has two very brief nude scenes. Possibly Roy Ward Baker, a quality director, couldn’t bring himself to go all-out in this particular area. Certainly he does an impressive job, including some clever, witty juxtapositions – a sequence of Jekyll at work with his knife is intercut with close-ups of a butcher gutting a rabbit, for instance.

I suppose Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde qualifies as a very, very early example of the sort of Victoriana-mashup which has become increasingly popular in recent years: here we have Jekyll and Hyde, Jack the Ripper, and Burke and Hare all lumped into the same narrative. It’s hard to shake the impression that, on some level, the whole thing is intended as a sick, black joke, and this may be why some of the plotting and characterisation hasn’t been approached as rigorously as one might have hoped for.

For instance, Jekyll does come to the conclusion that the benefits of his work morally justify him going out and carving up prostitutes very quickly, for all that he does so on sound utilitarian grounds. This compromises the character, and when the drama focuses on the conflict between Jekyll and Hyde, it’s can’t really be framed as good vs evil – both of them are murderers, after all. Both Bates and Beswick give very serious, committed performances, and it’s a shame that Beswick in particular doesn’t get quite enough to do – the whole Jekyll vs Hyde angle doesn’t appear until very late on in the film, and the director apparently later regretted not exploring the whole gender-related split-personality angle in more detail. There’s also a bit of an issue that the film feels like it’s lacking a third act: the climax feels like it comes out of nowhere in a rather arbitrary way.

So, not the most typical of Hammer films, with only Bates present from the usual rep company, and a distinctly different tone and emphasis. But it is definitely a memorable one – even if that is, perhaps, for the wrong reasons. The idea of Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde sounds like a joke, and perhaps the biggest failing of this film is that, to some extent, it treats it like one: a black, deadpan joke, but a joke nevertheless.

 

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