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Posts Tagged ‘comedy’

Philip Levene turns in his third script in a row with Escape in Time, which is possibly the most peculiar one yet. I remember being quite baffled by it the first time I saw it – not because the plot is particularly difficult to follow, but because it is just so preposterously far-fetched. It opens in the time-honoured style with one of Steed’s colleagues finding his way into a rather grandly appointed house. Poking around, he tumbles through a door and finds himself in a room appointed in the style of the 17th century, where he encounters Peter Bowles (his third Avengers-baddie engagement) in a spaniel wig, who shoots him with a flintlock pistol.

At least this time Steed knows what his colleague (whose corpse is fished out of the Thames a short while later) was working on – miscreants and evil-doers have been dropping out of sight, never to be seen again. Clearly some kind of escape route is in operation, but what? Luckily, someone else is on the case, gets himself mortally stabbed (Bowles again, in a different wig and facial hair), and staggers off to Steed’s new flat (he’s moved again since series 4), where he flops carefully onto his mark and gasps a few key expositional phrases to get Steed and Mrs Peel on the right track.

A fairly witty and deftly directed sequence follows, as Steed and Emma trail a fugitive South American dictator around a warren of jokily-named shops (the barber appears to be called Todd Sweeney, for instance). The man is replaced by a double while he’s out of their sight, while Mrs Peel’s attempt to follow one of the people he meets just leads to one of several filler action sequences, where she’s menaced by a guy on a scooter in hunting pink. Naturally, Steed decides to follow the escape route himself, and meets Waldo Thyssen (Bowles again, in modern dress), who claims to have invented a time machine which he’s using to allow wealthy fugitives to elude their pursuers…

As I say, even on first viewing I was saying to my fellow watcher (this was at my Avengers viewing party, as mentioned previously), ‘It can’t really be a time machine, can it?’ (This is the point at which one inevitably says: but it’s a Philip Levene script, so you never can tell.) Well, it’s not. The plot is basically this: Bowles is playing a lunatic who likes dressing up as his ancestors. He has somehow hit upon a way of convincing wealthy criminals that they are in the past, by putting smoke and lights in their faces and then wearing a selection of wigs. They then cough up their money, at which point he kills them and disposes of the bodies so they are never found (on the face of it, it looks like he just sticks the stiffs in boxes around his house). Why doesn’t he use his infallible disappearing-corpse technique on Steed’s associate from the start, rather than dumping him in a busy river like the Thames? Why are such financially-successful crooks so gullible? How is this operation remotely profitable? (There seem to be an awful lot of people on Thyssen’s payroll, to say nothing of all the properties he seems to have a stake in.)

Oh well. Fridge logic is the enemy of a lot of these episodes, and this one at least has a few funny moments and a nice set of performances from Bowles as Thyssen’s various personae. The general surrealness of the episode and its obsession with garish dressing up (various costume changes for all the characters) means that, for me, it is the first Avengers episode which seems to anticipate the style of The Prisoner (one of that series’ more whimsical episodes, anyway). The two series were obviously in production at the same time, although this episode was broadcast in early 1967, a good eight months or so before Patrick McGoohan’s magnum opus premiered. I expect it’s a general cultural trend from around this time, which we shall see more of as we progress through the colour episodes.

Yet another Levene script follows, in the form of The See-Through Man. This is that rarest of beasts, a near-sequel to a previous Avengers episode – or at least one featuring a returning guest-star, which is nearly as unusual. Rather like Escape in Time, it’s constructed around a very peculiar piece of narrative legerdemaine, which we shall come to in a moment.

An unseen individual breaks into a Ministry of Defence facility and steals some apparently trivial documents – not just unseen, but apparently unseeable (invisible, if you prefer), as Steed and Mrs Peel arrive mid-break-in and can’t see in anyone. It turns out that the missing papers were a proposal from a mad scientist named Quilby (Roy Kinnear, in the third of his four Avengers guest spots), concerning his new invisibility formula. Quilby admits selling the formula to a company which is a front for the Other Side for an eye-watering sum.

It turns out that a couple of top agents for the Other Side (literally: they are married) are in the country and making Ambassador Brodsky (Warren Mitchell reprising his role from Two’s a Crowd, in the last of his four guest spots) rather nervous. Could it be that the opposition have actually got their hands on the secret of invisibility and are using it to ensure the British authorities can’t get Quilby to replicate his discovery for them?

The tipping point that The Avengers seems to have passed during its transition to colour is this: in one of Levene’s scripts for the previous season, the twist would be that the opposition were aliens or psychics or killer robots. In these two scripts, the twist is that they’re not – the time machine was a hoax in Escape in Time, and the invisible man in this one is a fake too. (Though quite how they manage it is utterly perplexing – I am reminded of the Douglas Adams quote about actual invisibility, specifically that ‘the technology involved in making anything invisible is so infinitely complex that nine hundred and ninety-nine billion, nine hundred and ninety-nine million, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a trillion it is much simpler and more effective just to take the thing away and do without it’. It would almost seem to be easier to actually create an invisible agent than to attempt the kind of hoax depicted here (and, if one were to be awkward, one might point out the Other Side do just that in one of the Tara King episodes, which features killers who are genuinely invisible – from some angles anyway).

Apart from this much of the episode is broad farce written around big comic turns from Roy Kinnear and especially Warren Mitchell. I don’t find these to be quite as wearisome as some commentators do, but it does seem like Diana Rigg in particular gets a bit sidelined as a result – though she does get a good scene where she reveals that she’s rumbled the Other Side’s nefarious plan to bankrupt the UK by tricking it into investing millions in researching an impossible weapon (shades of the story about how Robert Heinlein and some American SF writers came up with the notion of ‘Star Wars’ weapon satellites in the 1980s after Reagan asked them to win the Cold War for him). Possibly also notable for an odd reference to the Beatles – Brodsky claims to have concert tickets, which is rather unlikely given they’d stopped gigging by the time this episode was made. But these two episodes and the previous pair are odd in all kinds of ways; a return to something closer to normality would almost be welcome at this point.

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Now, here’s a genuinely odd thing: having been watching an average of four or five episodes of The Avengers a week since April, I figured a little mini-break between series 4 and 5, coinciding with some time with my family, might not be a bad idea. So away I went, leaving all my DVDs at home. And it was all very relaxing, thanks, I have nothing at all to complain about. But, as I say, one genuinely weird thing did happen – at one point I stepped out of the room for a few moments, leaving my parents in command of the TV remote, and when I returned what should I find them watching? The first episode of series 5, which one of the high-numbers TV channel had decided to rerun with near-perfect timing. As I say, very strange.

The first episodes of series 5 were the ones I initially watched as a swivel-eyed devotee, anyway, so I know them quite well. The year was 1991 and a rerun of The New Avengers had recently concluded – this had woken up all my memories of the repeats of the original show I’d seen in the late 80s. I happened to know that the man who advised my parents on their insurance was into classic cult TV (it’s better not to ask, honestly), and on his next visit he lent me his tape of the first three episodes, which I duly had a friend copy for me. I was possibly the only teenager of my generation to organise an Avengers viewing party – one friend came along, mainly because he’d enjoyed the New Avengers repeats, I think. (Looking back on my youth sometimes, I’m almost astonished that I’m able to function in society as well as I am, these days.)

Anyway, series 5 begins with Philip Levene’s From Venus with Love, a script which was rejected for the previous year because it was ‘too bizarre’ (what, and Man-Eater of Surrey Green wasn’t?). An astronomer about his viewing is stricken by a sudden heatwave that causes his lucozade to erupt into froth. Moments later he falls dead, his hair bleached white, as a strange noise echoes about the place. The same thing happens again to another astromomer, which gives Steed and Mrs Peel something to do other than just discuss the state of the corpses – a pattern is emerging.

Yes, someone is killing off stargazers, a group who seem to get more and more eccentric as the episode goes on: there’s an aristocratic chimney-sweep, and an old soldier intent on recording his memoirs on tape, complete with sound effects. (This character, the Brigadier, is played by Jon Pertwee, a fact which invariably causes clanging cognitive dissonance in members of my former tribe. Pertwee is routinely described as the main guest star despite only being in the episode for a few minutes.) It all seems to revolve around the British Venusian Society, a club planning on launching a private space probe to the second planet – but have they inadvertently provoked the secretive Venusians into a pre-emptive strike against them?

This being a Levene script, you wouldn’t rule it out, but the actual revelation, when it comes, is possibly even weirder and certainly more convoluted: a disgruntled opthalmologist (Philip Locke, in the last of three appearances as an Avengers baddie), annoyed at the way funding for medical research has been redirected to pay for the BVS’s project, has bolted a laser gun onto the front of a sports car and is using this to kill off the society’s membership (everyone assumes the vehicle is a UFO, for some reason).

On the other hand, the credibility of the script is certainly matched by its scientific accuracy and its general coherence: at one point, Mrs Peel is telling Steed about the BVS for the first time, at which point the chimney-sweep is killed by the ‘UFO’. She promptly jumps into her Lotus and gives chase (apparently not giving much thought to why the UFO is using the public highway). We then have a series of scenes in which Steed locates, visits, and talks to members of the BVS (Barbara Shelley and Derek Newark turn up in decent roles). Then the action cuts back to Mrs Peel, who is still chasing the UFO. How long has she been doing this for? Common sense suggests it must have been hours.

Of course, we have departed the realm of common sense now: The Avengers, which was once a fairly straight detective show, and then became an off-beat adventure series, has now entered the realms of total fantasy, where the simple fact that things happen is much more important than how or why they happen. This is reflected in the increasingly formalistic and stylised nature of the show, with the ‘we’re needed’ and tag scenes bookending each story (Channel 4 cut these for the 1980s repeat run). One wonders how much of this was a natural development from the previous season, and how much a deliberate choice to court the American market which the producers now had half an eye on (the attentive viewer will note the opening title card announces ‘The Avengers in Color‘ – note the spelling).

Speaking of which, the switch to colour does encourage some spectacular, if not downright garish, decisions from the costuming and art departments: at one point we see Steed lounging about in what appears to be a maroon silk tuxedo with a mauve shirt, while a purple jumpsuit seems to have become Emma’s outfit of choice. (It’s not just them: in the next episode one of the villains is wearing magenta socks.) One is almost inclined to feel sorry for the retinas of our American cousins, given that this show wasn’t broadcast in colour on its original UK showing (colour TV didn’t start here until the end of the decade, and remained something of a minority pursuit until the mid-1970s).

Anyway, the script department was probably right: From Venus with Love is just too weird to work as a coherent episode. Nevertheless, Levene has another go with The Fear Merchants. This opens with a man in his pyjamas waking up in a sports stadium and promptly having a fit of the ab-dabs. It seems he is a leading figure in the UK ceramics industry, a number of whom have recently had complete psychological breakdowns in equally odd circumstances: turning up on mountain tops, in canoes out at sea, and so on. Evidence points towards one Jeremy Raven, an ambitious young businessman who seems intent on cornering the market by any means necessary…

Watching the episode again now, one’s first reaction is that something very odd seems to have been going on in the casting department: solid character actors like Andrew Keir, Bernard Horsfall and Edward Burnham are cast in one-scene parts (Burnham and Horsfall barely get any dialogue), while as the ambitious and ruthless young Raven they have secured the services of Brian Wilde (then 40), best known for playing the timorous screw Barraclough in Porridge and ex-army bore Foggy in Last of the Summer Wine. On the other hand, Patrick Cargill plays the villain (again) with his usual aplomb, while there’s a nicely underplayed turn as his henchman from Garfield Morgan (resembling a young Eric Morecambe somewhat).

In the end the plot makes a bit more sense than the previous week’s, but it’s a near thing. Cargill and his cronies have set up a management consultancy firm (the ‘Business Efficiency Bureau’) which functions by eradicating their client’s competitors. How do they do this? Psychological analysis identifies their underlying phobias, which are then ruthlessly exploited. Fair enough, it is a reasonable basis for the episode (much of it is a series of set-piece ‘phobia’ sequences) – but if you have hit upon a method of giving anyone a nervous breakdown, isn’t there an easier way of monetising this than going through all these shenanigans with management consultancy? The Business Efficiency Bureau is not, itself, the most efficient of cover operations: one wonders just how many small businessmen they have to drive into a stupor to pay for their office space. Still, Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg are clearly not taking it too seriously, which is sensible, and as a result it stays watchable and fun. One does sense that the edge of the best series 4 episodes has been dulled, though, perhaps permanently.

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Anyone who’s been reading along with this cruise through The Avengers – an attempt to find some positivity in fairly dismal times – may recall that I started shortly after the death of Honor Blackman back in April. Since I wrote the above the news has broken of the passing of Dame Diana Rigg, giving these current pieces a resonance I could frankly have happily lived without. While it was The Avengers that brought Rigg to fame, it was really only a relatively small part of a tremendously distinguished and successful career, ranging from doing Chekhov on stage to being (briefly) the first Mrs James Bond. There was also a terrific performance in Theatre of Blood, and an award-winning one in the 1989 BBC drama Mother Love. However, one way or another I think it is for Emma Peel and The Avengers that Diana Rigg will be remembered, and remembered for a long time. An exceptional talent. RIP.

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The penultimate episode of The Avengers‘ fourth season is How to Succeed… At Murder, written by Brian Clemens. This is the fourth episode out of the last five to be written by Clemens; given how strongly he started this run he could be forgiven for flagging a little bit by this point, and a totally impartial observer might suggest this is indeed the case.

The story opens with a typical office scene: a hard-working businessman giving instructions over the intercom to his long-suffering secretary. She clearly feels she has suffered quite long enough as she proceeds to don a tin hat and blast him out of the window with high explosives! Very quickly it becomes clear that a secret society of murderous secretaries has been formed and is doing its best to advance the interests of the people who really do all the work in big business…

Of course, the deaths of eleven top businessmen by foul play is likely to be noticed and Steed and Mrs Peel are soon on the case, with Steed doing his best to come up with a motive for the string of deaths – nothing seems to connect them, nor those benefitting from them – while the whiff of a clue – the faintest trace of a perfume, left at the scene of one of the killings and captured in a tyre pump – sends Emma to the offices of the owner of the greatest nose in London, Mr J.J. Hooter (Christopher Benjamin).

Unfortunately, Hooter’s own secretary is part of the plot and bumps him off, which at least gives our heroes the inkling of a clue as to what’s going on: all the secretaries are introducing such fiendishly byzantine office management systems that, when the ostensible boss dies, the only person capable of taking over is them (diabolical scheme or not, I must confess that this was part of my own sacking-avoidance strategy in my last substantial office job). Soon enough Steed is advertising for his own secretarial assistance, while Emma is working hard to position herself as a potential recruit for the scheme…

It sounds like a set-up with potential, and there are some typical Avengers touches going on – the diabolical mastermind delivers their instructions to the group via a remote-controlled ventriloquist’s dummy, while Christopher Benjamin – a character actor quite at home giving a very big performance, given the right script – has fun with his small role as Hooter. But the villain’s real motivation, when it comes to light, drags the episode off into the realm of melodrama, which isn’t a place where the series feels particularly comfortable, and in places it all feels a little bit strained – trying too hard to be whimsical.

There’s also something not-quite-right about the whole main thrust of the episode, which concerns put-upon secretaries rising up in an act of rebellion. You could argue that this is Clemens actually being a bit prescient about the rise of the women’s liberation movement, given that some accounts indicate it didn’t really establish itself in the UK until 1968 (this episode was first shown in 1966), but – quite apart from the fact that the feminists are the bad guys – it doesn’t really present the women killers as particularly bright or effective: they are basically stooges for someone whose motivation isn’t as it first appears, and haven’t been bright enough to figure this out for themselves. When Steed finds himself attacked by two of them, he ends up sitting on the first, with the second over his knee as he tickles the information he needs out of her. Other than (as ever) Mrs Peel, this is hardly the most stirring depiction of emancipated womanhood. I mean, it’s not awful, but there are other much better episodes this season.

(Also perhaps worthy of mention is a prop noticeboard which bears a curious resemblance to one from Quick-Quick Slow Death: at least some of the names – the non-plot-relevant ones – are the same. Whether this is just an example of the producers being thrifty (some other props get re-used across the series) or if there’s an in-joke going on here I don’t know.)

Yet another Clemens script closes out the season – which, for anyone keeping score, means that practically the last fifth of it is all the work of the same writer (which to me suggests at least a minor crisis in the script department). This final episode is entitled Honey for the Prince and opens with Clemens deploying a device he would later work practically to death on The New Avengers.

Two agents enter a room filled with cod-Arabian decor and objects; there is inevitably a small oil lamp, which one of them rubs. Poof! An assassin with a submachinegun appears in a cloud of smoke and opens up at them both. After the title card we are into a charming scene (virtually the only one on location in the episode) with Steed and Mrs Peel practically skipping home together from a party, clearly having a wonderful time in each other’s company. This changes when they get to Steed’s flat, of course, where they find an about-to-expire agent waiting for them. Naturally he can only utter a couple of suggestive words – ‘genie’ and ‘honey’ – before pegging out.

A quick trip to the apartment of the other dead agent – he is the kind of man who keeps a framed photo of himself on his desk, just so the audience know whose room this is – reveals about forty jars of honey in the cupboard, and all this after a suspicious character is stumbled upon burning key papers (he gets away). The honey is from the shop of the first of this episode’s eccentrics, a Mr B. Bumble, while a fortuitous phone-call to one of the dead men, intercepted by Steed, suggests a connection to a company called QQF.

It seems that QQF – run by another eccentric, this one played by Ron Moody – specialises in making people’s fantasies a reality (being a cowboy, winning the battle of Waterloo, and so on). The owner’s suggestion to Steed is that he leaves reality behind by trying the life of a glamorous secret agent for a bit, which Steed treats with a straight bat. It turns out that someone has been using QQF’s services to live out their fantasy of ‘assassinating the Prince of Barabia’ (one of those obscure but important countries that often turn up in these episodes), which is of course a wonderful way of planning to do it for real.

Not-bad stuff so far, but the episode takes a bit of a left turn in the closing stages, most of which take place within the Barabian Embassy. The Prince himself is played by Zia Mohyeddin, and is a cricket-loving Anglophile, who can’t stand honey but whose wives – of which there are a very great number – love the stuff, forcing him to buy it in bulk. As the assassination is set to be carried out within the Prince’s harem, this presents Steed with a bit of an issue, as only eunuchs and the Prince himself are allowed inside…

Cue what I believe the kids call ‘fan service’, as Mrs Peel is pressed into service as a belly dancer to grab the Prince’s attention and join his collection of wives. It’s fairly amusing stuff, though I kept finding myself thinking of Carry On Up the Khyber – not that there’s anything wrong with this classic film, of course, but it’s a very different viewing experience from the traditional Avengers episode. Probably there are a few too many traditional Arabian stereotypes on display for comfort, too, although the script isn’t afraid to be inappropriate in other ways too. ‘I counted only six veils,’ says a slightly disappointed Prince following Emma’s dance routine. ‘Very poorly educated,’ replies Steed – but the gag is then soured when (to try and dissuade the amorous nobleman) he suggests that Mrs Peel is also ‘retarded’, which any way you slice it is a bum note by modern standards. Not the best way of ending a run which has, by any rational standard, been a slice of TV heaven, but back before the advent of the ‘season finale’ this sort of thing used to happen fairly regularly, and it’s only because the series at its best has been so exceptional that the occasional slightly wobbly instalment stands out.

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There was a time when I prided myself on seeing pretty much every interesting-looking film that came out. Nima Nourizadeh’s American Ultra, released in 2015, didn’t make the cut: I wish I could remember why. Certainly, as a slightly batty-looking genre movie, it’s the sort of thing I would usually take an interest in. But there you go.  Finally seeing it now, do I regret not catching it on the big screen? (Bear in mind I have often knowingly turned up to see the most outrageous tripe at the cinema.)

The protagonist of the movie is Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), a twitchy stoner and general loser who at the start of the film is being questioned for his part in a series of spectacularly violent events in a small West Virginia town: most of the film is thus a flashback. It transpires that Mike has been living a quiet and unambitious life here with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart – and yes, you might be forgiven for thinking that Eisenberg is once again punching above his weight a bit) for as long as he can remember, although this is not entirely of his own choosing. Every time he tries to leave the area he suffers a crippling panic attack, which is a real deal-breaker when it comes to his desire to fly Phoebe to Hawaii so he can propose to her.

Unfortunately, Mike’s failed attempt to leave town still attracts the attention of elements within the CIA led by a man named Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), who decrees that he is in danger of breaching their security and orders that he be liquidated immediately. This goes against the grain as far as senior agent Lasseter (Connie Britton, in a role which feels like it was written for a bigger-name actor) is concerned: she gets to Mike first and gives him a code-phrase which just seems to him to be gibberish. Until two of Yates’ assassins appear and try to kill him, at which point his conditioning kicks in and he rapidly and spectacularly executes them both.

Yes, it transpires that Howell is a former subject of one of the government’s mind-control and conditioning programmes (the title of the movie alludes to MKUltra, a project along vaguely similar lines which ran for a couple of decades from the early 1950s): he has been trained as a covert operative and assassin, but has no memory of how or why this happened. Will he figure out who he is and how he got this way? And, more importantly, will he be able to manage this before Yates’ men kill Phoebe and him?

American Ultra didn’t make much of an impression on its release, and only barely recouped its budget – the dark arts of Hollywood accounting mean that as a result it actually lost the studio money – despite headlining two bright young things like Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. This occasioned another notable person involved with the production, screenwriter Max Landis, to take to social media and publicly wonder whether it was possible for a movie which wasn’t a sequel, remake, spin-off, or adaptation to succeed in the summer marketplace – and given that some of the duffers outperforming American Ultra at the box office that year were films like The Man from UNCLE, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Terminator Genisys, one might concede he had a point.

It is a good question: only a tiny number of directors have sufficient clout to get original scripts made for a mainstream summer audience these days. What’s more debatable is whether Landis is the right person to be making this point, and American Ultra the right film to be making it on behalf of. Now, leaving the murky issue of Landis’ personal life to one side (google, if you really must), it’s not as if he’s been turning out great, underappreciated gems in the course of his career: he wrote Chronicle, which was very good, and was apparently involved with Power Rangers at some point (not enough to get a credit, though) – but since then, the movies with his name on them have been Bright (significantly flawed, at best), Victor Frankenstein (terrible), and this one. Which is…

Well, as you may have noticed, I don’t normally go in for the lazy ‘this film is like X meets Y’ formulation, but American Ultra almost demands it – the basic premise is The Bourne Identity meets Clerks, the central gag the image of a slacker played by Jesse Eisenberg gorily disposing of large numbers of big tough enemies. It also almost feels like an Edgar Wright pastiche – it seems to be aspiring towards the same kind of twitchy energy and breezy cool, underpinned by genuine heart.

The problem is that however you slice it, at its heart it’s a comedy, and that as a comedy it just isn’t funny enough. The premise is sort of vaguely amusing, but it needs to be shored up with better gags than we get here. Instead of genuine wit and snappy dialogue we end up with a sort of splatstick, by I mean very graphic violence apparently played for laughs, some of it extremely cartoony (at one point Eisenberg throws a frying pan in the air and ricochets a bullet off it to dispose of a bad guy). For the most part, though, the action is just not expansive or inventive enough to make the film distinctive or enjoyable as a piece of kinetic art, and the characters aren’t well-drawn enough for even charismatic performers like Eisenberg or Stewart to do much with (and Eisenberg doesn’t quite have Stewart’s gift of coming across well even in a bad movie).

In the end it passes the time reasonably pleasantly, provided you can deal with the fact the story mainly progresses through outbursts of rather bloody violence. It’s not completely without laughs, nor is it without ideas, and there are touches of cleverness here and there in the script. Not enough, though: it doesn’t come close to the level of the films which appear to have inspired it. Given the actors involved, at least, one would have been forgiven for hoping for something a bit better.

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Nostalgia’s a funny old thing, and it can get you in different ways and come at you from unexpected directions. I was a couple of years too young to see Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys on its initial release in 1987, but I was certainly aware of it and keen to actually watch it (1987 being the year in which I discovered Hammer and started actually watching proper horror films). Those were the days in which you actually had to wait for films to turn up on TV, and it wasn’t until the very end of 1990 (if memory serves, anyway) that The Lost Boys turned up on terrestrial UK TV. Back in those days the long gap between release and small-screen premiere sometimes meant the later was almost an event in its own right, and I do vaguely recall there being something of a boom in interest in The Lost Boys in early 1991: songs off the soundtrack being re-released, and so on. It was a strange and vivid time, for all sorts of reasons, both personal and historical, and watching The Lost Boys again brings them all back to me: I have no great associations connected with the actual theatrical release of this film, but I can get very nostalgic about its first couple of TV showings. As I say, it’s a funny old thing.

Happily, the film itself bears up well all these years later. After some preliminary scene-setting stuff in the small Californian town of Santa Carla (people being dragged into the sky by unseen monsters, etc), it settles down to being about the travails of the Emerson family, who are just in the process of moving to the town from Arizona: mum Lucy (Dianne West) has got divorced, and is moving in with her eccentric old father (Barnard Hughes), bringing with her her less than impressed sons Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (Corey Haim).

While Lucy gets a job working at the local video store – oh, it’s so 1980s! – and finds herself courteously wooed by her employer, Max (Ed Herrman), it seems that romance is on the cards for Michael, too, when he meets a mysterious young woman named star (Jami Gertz) – although she seems to be in the orbit of a slightly menacing gang of youths led by a chap named David (Kiefer Sutherland). No chance of any such amatory entanglement for Sam, however, although he does make friends down at the local comic book store (the fact that this movie was made by Warner Brothers, owner of DC Comics, means this the only 1980s comic book store in which there doesn’t seem to be a single issue of X-Men on display). His new chums the Frog brothers (Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander) keep giving him horror comics, indicating they could somehow prove useful.

And indeed they do, as Michael’s various escapades with David and the gang have unexpected consequences: a sudden lust for human blood, a tendency to show up in mirrors as a translucent phantom, a distaste for sunlight, and so on. Sam is not impressed: ‘My own brother, a goddamn vampire…! You wait till Mom finds out…!’ However, Lucy is happily oblivious to all of this as she is courted by the mild-mannered Max, and it looks like the only help the boys can call upon is that of the less than impressive Frog brothers…

Historically, The Lost Boys is quite an interesting movie – it wasn’t quite the first vampire movie to be made by a major studio in the 1980s, as there was a whole batch of these around this time – the original Fright Night, Near Dark, The Hunger, and so on. Of all of these, The Lost Boys is probably most influenced by Fright Night in the way it manages to blend comedy with horror, but its innovation is to suggest that vampires can be young and cool and ride motorbikes – Fright Night is to some extent spoofing the conventions of the traditional vampire film, but The Lost Boys is doing something new, and its influence on later films and TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer is obvious.

That said, I would add that I think this is probably a better film than most of those others in the teen vampire-comedy-horror subgenre – Near Dark is, I would suggest, the best actual vampire horror movie made in America in the 1980s, while it’s a long time since I’ve actually seen The Hunger; too long to comment on it with confidence. The Lost Boys is funny when it’s trying to be funny, and – well, it’s not actually that scary, but does a good job of actually looking like it’s trying to be scary in the appropriate places.

Plus it’s much cleverer and more subtle than you would expect from what initially looks like an unusually slick and atmospheric teen comic horror. You expect the gag here to be that the parental figures stay secure in their world of misguided conservatism, leaving the teenagers to save the town from the vampires – but the great twist of the movie is the way that it subverts this. It is a surprisingly good twist, but then I may just be saying that because it took me by surprise the first time I watched the movie: knowing my vampire lore, I noticed the major clue that the writers drop into the script, but didn’t clock it as being significant. It seems to me that it turns the whole movie into a comment on the self-obsessed self-importance of teenagers, with much of the significant plot work being done by much older characters whom they tend to ignore or dismiss; it also sets up one of the funniest last lines of any movie that I can recall.

As I say, it is very 80s, which means gribbly special effects, interesting hairstyles, Corey Feldman and Corey Haim, and some good-looking actors in the principle boy and girl roles who never ended up making much of an impression anywhere else. You can sort of see why Kiefer Sutherland was the only young performer to go on to significant stardom, although this is not to say that the more senior actors are anything other than capable in their roles. My memory of this film from initially watching it is mainly of the soundtrack, which stands up unusually well – there are a few songs which I will hear and instantly think of this film, most obviously the cover of ‘People are Strange’ which plays over the titles. Schumacher covers it all with his usual style: I still don’t think his Batman films were any good, but this one definitely was. I don’t think this is a guilty pleasure or even a Good Bad movie, really: it’s just a lot of fun, which manages to be both slick and clever.

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As I have mentioned before, as we get towards the close of The Avengers‘ fourth season, there is perhaps the faintest sense of things becoming a tiny bit formulaic – but with a formula as good as this one, where’s the problem? Roger Marshall’s The Danger Makers opens with a lone motorcyclist doing dangerous high-speed runs across a rural junction (apparently this was known as ‘chicken-running’). Soon enough the inevitable happens, and he bounces his bike off the side of a lorry, bringing his biker career to a permanent halt. But rather than someone young and foolish, the dead rider turns out to be a distinguished, white-haired army general, wearing a black rose on his uniform…

And not the first senior military figure to die or be seriously injured in unusual circumstances recently – or so Steed tells Mrs Peel. There seems to have been quite a crop of them doing insanely hazardous things – chicken-running, climbing St Paul’s Cathedral, crossing the Atlantic in a canoe, and so on. What on earth is going on? Steed’s investigations take him to the most recent victim’s posting, where he meets his colleague Major Robertson (Nigel Davenport), who speaks in glowing terms of the dead man. So do the junior officers, but they also report the general was prone to doing odd things – swimming the local reservoir in full battle-dress, for instance.

We the audience are already aware that Robertson has some odd personal habits – playing Russian roulette by himself, likewise playing chicken with live grenades – so it is not really a surprise when he receives orders (unofficially) to silence one of the few survivors of these acts of military eccentricity. This he does – leaving the four white feathers of cowardice on the body…

Steed receives a clue from a soon-to-be-killed minor character (there’s that formula again) that leads him to Manton House, a military museum (run by a sort of low-key version of the crazed innocent stock character, played by Fabia Drake this week) and home to the Danger Makers, a society of black-rose-wearing military types longing to place themselves in mortal jeopardy (they are quite disgusted by the push-button nature of modern warfare), all with Roman and Greek-type codenames (Mercury, Pegasus, Apollo, etc). On infiltrating the group Steed assigns himself the nickname Bacchus (presumably from his aspect as god of wine rather than religious ecstasy). ‘I might have guessed,’ says Emma, on hearing of this. But who is the mastermind behind the Danger Makers and what’s he up to?

Nothing especially distinguished about the first half, but the home straight of the episode is filled with cracking scenes – Emma tries to join the club, and has to play a version of one of those wire loop games, but on a massive scale, and with lethal voltage running through the wires. There’s another big sword fight between our heroes and the club members – everyone grabbing weapons off the walls, and of course Steed ends up with a feather duster. Best of all is what I think is one of the definitive Steed scenes, in which he starts off hand-cuffed to the wall and awaiting his executioner. Just how he persuades Robertson to uncuff him and hand over his gun I will not reveal (go and watch the episode), but it is brillantly written and performed by Macnee and Davenport and very, very funny. The revelation of the identity of this week’s diabolical mastermind is hardly a surprise (there’s only really one candidate) but this hardly spoils another very entertaining episode.

Next up is Brian Clemens’ A Touch of Brimstone, which I find I have already reviewed at length, upon the occasion of its writer’s passing in 2015. Like The Danger Makers, it features a secret society, someone taking a fancy to Mrs Peel, and a rousing climax with Steed getting a great character moment and a big sword-fight: but the overall impression is quite different, mainly due to the highly kinky atmosphere the episode generates. Looking back I see that past-me was pretty much on the ball, although he didn’t clock the unusually dominant role given to the villain, who comes across almost a malevolent anti-Steed. Nevertheless an iconic and justly famous episode.

Clemens turns in two on the trot with What the Butler Saw, which makes up for the lack of mystery in the previous episode by having a diabolical mastermind whose identity is almost impossible to guess (largely because it doesn’t make a great deal of sense). After a hook scene with said (unseen) mastermind listening to a complaint from an unhappy underling, then summoning his own butler (who brings a gun to dispose of the malcontent), the episode opens with Steed getting a tip-off that someone is selling secrets to the Other Side – naturally, his source is bumped off seconds later.

The three possible candidates are an admiral, a brigadier and a group-captain, which is the cue for one of the most absurd sequences in the whole of The Avengers, as Steed adopts a different identity to check up on each one. It’s largely the same scene played out three times, except for variation’s in Steed’s cover, as he visits the admiral (Steed is Commander Red, with an impressive beard, arriving by motor launch), the brigadier (Major White, pencil moustache, arriving by armoured car) and the group-captain (Squadron-Leader Blue, handlebar moustache, arriving by helicopter). It seems the admiral likes to gamble, the brigadier likes to drink, and the group-captain likes girls. I leave it to the attentive reader to guess which of the suspects he asks Mrs Peel to get closer to.

Meanwhile, Steed has noticed that two of the possible traitors have butlers who came from the same place – a school for butlers and gentlemens’ gentlemen (motto: ‘They also serve who also stand and wait’), mostly run by Thorley Walters (a fine and very watchable actor, not much remembered these days) – an odd coincidence is that as well as Walters (who played one of Dracula’s thralls in Dracula: Prince of Darkness), the cast also contains Ewan Hooper (who played Dracula’s thrall in Dracula Has Risen From The Grave). It’s a small (or possibly thrall) world sometimes.

There is indeed a sliver of plot buried here somewhere about secrets being stolen and sold on, but this is the most blatant Maguffin: the episode is almost a pure comedy, and not a particularly black one, either. From Steed’s facial hair and silly disguises, we move on to Mrs Peel’s unorthodox manner of attracting her target’s attention, and the highlight of the episode follows, as she has to contend with the over-amorous gentleman (a fun performance by Denis Quilley) with Steed in the vicinity as his new butler. This is before we even get to the scene depicting security arrangements for the three suspects’ secret meetings (they climb into a plastic sack together) or Steed battling (or possibly butling) with an enemy domestic played by John le Mesurier. All the jokes land, but the action sequences are decent too, and the results are almost wholly joyous.

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The Thirteenth Hole is one of the episodes I have particularly strong memories of from the mid-80s Channel 4 repeat, which I think is probably because it has a very distinctive setting with some strong gags arising out of it. Watching it now, there is a deeply ironic subtext to the whole thing, too, which just adds to the fun of the piece. And I don’t even like golf. (Tony Williamson is the writer who deserves plaudits.)

It opens with slab-faced alpha-male Patrick Allen out and about on the golf-course with his caddy, brusquely calling for clubs as he needs them. When he spies someone poking about on one of the greens, he stops asking for three and four irons and calls for a three-oh-three – rifle, that is, which the caddy promptly whips out of his golf bag. The interloper is duly plugged, within putting distance of the thirteenth hole (cue title card).

It inevitably turns out that the dead man was a colleague of Steed’s, working on routine security issues. The only oddities amongst his personal effects is a receipt for a lot of recently-purchased golf gear and some course cards – although it seems like he never played past the twelfth hole…

In a naturalistic series, Steed and Mrs Peel’s biggest challenge would probably be being allowed to join the golf club, but here of course they get membership off-screen with no trouble at all. In the clubhouse, they meet the predictable array of eccentrics – the president, the captain, the pro (Francis Matthews, a year or two before he became Captain Scarlet) – and also note that Allen’s character, Reed, is hanging around with noted boffin Dr Adams (Peter Jones). Reed and Adams are demons for teeing off exactly on schedule, but mysteriously disappear between the twelfth and fourteenth fairways (can you tell I’m working hard to avoid repeating the episode title too many times?). Lots of peculiar things are going on, and when the pro makes his own investigation, he gets shot in the head with a supersonic golf ball (ouch).

In the middle of the episode there’s a great sequence where, in order to keep to his schedule, Reed must defeat Steed on the greens, which leads to a bravura display of cheating from both participants, not to mention a chance to see Steed’s magnificent tee routine (which involves a small portable weather station and a sextant). When the bad guys are forced to take desperate measures, it’s only Steed’s lucky chain-mail-lined golf hat which saves the day.

It all turns out to be about an attempt to transmit secrets to the Other Side via a new communications satellite which occasionally passes over the UK (hence the precision scheduling), with the villains operating from their own bunker – which, in a terrible pun that’s presented with wholly commendable verve, is hidden in a bunker. As I say, it seems to me that there is the implicit gag that, of all the English institutions likely to be harbouring communist sympathisers, the average golf club would be absolutely bottom of the list (the joke when General Pinochet was held under house arrest near London for a while back in the 1990s was that he wasn’t allowed to join the local club due to his unacceptably liberal attitudes). This works as a spy story, but is also a preposterous and very funny comedy. One of my favourites, I think.

Virtually the only thing I can remember of my original encounter with Robert Banks Stewart’s Quick-Quick Slow Death is a sliver of the climactic sequence and the line ‘You’re dancing with garlic sausage,’ which is pretty outre even by Avengers standards. It opens with a chap pushing a pram down a busy high street – various members of the public appear, a bit unusual for a filmed Avengers sequence – before there is an accident: he is injured, and the contents of the pram go flying: it seems he has been nursemaiding a corpse in full evening dress.

The injured man turns out to be an agent for the Other Side, specialising in establishing new agents when they first arrive in England. But who is the corpse? There is perhaps just a little bit too much faffing about with false addresses, banks, suit hire agencies and tattooists before the trail leads to a ballroom dancing school, run by Eunice Gayson, who I think wins the prize for being ‘First Person Mentioned in an Avengers Review Who I’ve Actually Met’. Thirty-seven or so years after this episode was made, I met Ms Gayson at one of those big memorabilia events, where she was doing a solid trade based on her undisputed status as First Bond Girl Ever (not to mention first Bond girl to do two movies). Playing Sylvia Trench in Dr No and From Russia With Love was fairly thin stuff, but she gives a fine and entirely correctly-pitched performance as one of the main villains here.

This is another episode with a cherishably absurd premise: the Other Side are sneaking agents into the UK and substituting them for British citizens – not British citizens who might have positions which could be useful in the great game of international espionage, just single men who are bad dancers. Needless to say Mrs Peel joins the school as a dance instructor and Steed rocks up as a just-back-in-the-country gentleman looking to brush up on his terpsichorean technique: he was married, he claims, but his beloved was eaten by a crocodile on a trip up the Amazon. Naturally, Steed finds himself on the list to be substituted…

All highly enjoyable stuff, with wonderfully understated physical comedy from the two leads, especially in the climax. Diana Rigg in particular is on top form, inserting throwaway little looks and bits of business every chance she gets. This is, obviously, one of those episodes which brings a new meaning to the notion of fight choreography (the tussle between Diana Rigg and Eunice Gayson is a little on the brief side), but it’s another inventive episode from what we have to conclude is The Avengers‘ imperial phase – even if the usual tag with the duo departing via some unlikely mode of transport is replaced by them dancing off together. But this too seems entirely appropriate.

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Philip Levene’s Small Game for Big Hunters has the feeling of being the product of a finely-tuned machine operating at peak efficiency, even if assiduous viewers may be at the point where they can sort of anticipate the various story beats as they come. This one manages to incorporate all the Avengers silliness one might hope for, while also sort-of addressing some topical sixties concerns (this also leads to this being another of those episodes which could be perceived as a touch problematic for a modern audience).

It opens with a man in ragged tropical kit staggering through swamps and undergrowth, clearly on the edge of exhaustion: drums pound ominously as he stumbles past trees decorated with human skulls. Just as it seems he has made his escape, an arrow takes him in the back… and the camera pans off his prone body to a road marker with the legend ‘London – 23 Miles’. It’s the kind of studied piece of weird juxtaposition that the show is making regular use of at this point.

Well, cut to Emma arriving at a house in the countryside, where Steed and the local doctor are tending to the wounded man. Something is up with him: he has lapsed into a kind of coma or deep sleep, from which he cannot be roused. Apparently a group of local men have all vanished recently, and this is the only one to reappear. A local expert named Professor Swain (Liam Redmond) is called in, who diagnoses that the man is under the influence of a kind of magic similar to voodoo, native to the African nation of Kalaya (which has declared independence from the British Empire fairly recently). Clearly not realising she is in a Philip Levene script, where just about anything could happen, Mrs Peel is a bit dubious about this.

Well, Steed has gone to the maker of the man’s tropical gear and learns that it was sent to Kalaya – but in 1929 (exemplary record-keepers, these tropical-kit makers). It also turns out that all the missing men are ex-servicemen who spent part of their careers in Kalaya, and the club for veterans of colonial service in Kalaya is just at the far end of the garden. Add an attempt to swipe Steed’s files on the subject by what looks like a native tribesman and it looks like a pattern is beginning to develop.

Following the previous week’s communist-prison-camp-inside-a-London-hotel, the discovery of a Kalayan officer’s club and plantation on the outskirts of the city barely raises an eyebrow, and neither does the presence of this week’s exponent of the ‘crazed innocent’ stock character – in this case, a veteran soldier played by Bill Kerr, who still thinks he’s in Africa. It turns out a lot of the Kalayan old hands feel they were unfairly driven out of the country following independence, and are planning to return and reassert their old authority, with the help of specially-bred tsetse flies spreading a new strain of sleeping sickness…

One of the odder expressions of Britain’s post-imperial angst, yes, but on its own merits this is another fairly typical episode for this period (which is to say it’s consistently enjoyable) – plus the climax features Mrs Peel in a sarong. There’s also a cheeky parody of Dr No at one point – ‘That’s a Mauser single-barrel, and you’ve had your five,’ declares Steed, contending with a villain who’s been blazing away at him. (Connery has a virtually identical line in the Bond film.) Naturally, the weapon goes off again: ‘Oh, my arithmetic is shocking!’ beams Steed. (There’s a fairly excruciating Tarzan gag, too, complete with ‘Me Steed!’ ‘Me Emma!’)

On the other hand, of course, there is inevitably something a bit awkward about all the jungle-drumming  and the use of spear-carrying ‘native tribesmen’ as henchmen. Even the fact that this is one of those rare Avengers episodes to give a significant role to a non-European performer (Paul Danquah plays a member of the Kalayan intelligence service, working the case from the other end) is unlikely to assuage anyone who gets nervous about this sort of thing. In the end, it is what it is: the imperialists and colonialists are the bad guys, and there’s never the faintest suggestion to the contrary. Everything else I can live with, personally.

Roger Marshall’s The Girl from Auntie (opinion seems to be split as to whether the last word should be capitalised; I see no reason why it should) sounds like a spoof of a certain other light-hearted sixties spy series (maybe even two) but it isn’t, really. Given the cast list you might be forgiven for expecting something particularly light-hearted, and you might be satisfied (although the episode does feature a fairly spectacular body-count).

It opens with Mrs Peel leaving a fancy dress ball (her outfit is memorable, to say the least) and coming to the aid of a sweet little old lady who takes a tumble off her bike; she is understandably surprised when the old dear drugs her into unconsciousness. Cut to Steed coming back off holiday and taking a taxi from the airport; Lord knows what his luggage allowance is like as the cab is stuffed to overflowing with canoe paddles, butterfly nets, golf clubs, and so on… the running gag is that the taxi driver basically has to chauffeur Steed around for most of the episode, and passes the time by playing with his luggage. What’s Steed so preoccupied with? Well, he arrives at Mrs Peel’s flat, only to find Emma is not herself: she is, in fact, a different woman entirely now (played by Liz Fraser, a semi-regular in the early Carry On films, with her usual comic skill). The impostor is an actress named Georgie Price-Jones, who’s been hired to give the impression Mrs Peel has not, in fact, vanished.

Steed tries to get to the bottom of this, but finds only a pile of corpses, all impaled with knitting needles (half a dozen of them, in fact – ‘Six bodies in an hour and twenty minutes. What do you call that?’ says Steed. ‘A good first act,’ replies Georgie, rather knowingly). The trail leads to Arkwright’s Knitting Circle, where a sort of crazed innocent (played by Bernard Cribbins, another Carry On semi-regular around this time) has become a yarn-based lifestyle guru. Just down the hall is a very exclusive and discreet agency, run by one Gregorie Auntie (Alfred Burke), which specialises in acquiring beautiful and unique objects, no questions asked, as long as the price is right…

Yes, Auntie has bagged Mrs Peel and is keeping her in a giant birdcage ahead of her being auctioned off (the keen interest in her is due to her massive intellect and knowledge of cyphers, apparently – friends, elevate your thinking). As you can see, the episode really doesn’t have much to do with The Man from UNCLE and is basically just a rather broad and preposterous comedy, obviously structured to give Diana Rigg some time off mid-season (she only really appears at the very beginning and end, and briefly at that). You would have thought the episode might flounder a bit without the presence of the future dame, but it has a good cast and many engagingly daft scenes: Steed goes undercover as one ‘Wayne Pennyfeather-ffinch’ to infiltrate Auntie’s operation, persuading the National Gallery to lend him a priceless masterpiece for verisimilitude’s sake, while there’s a ludicrous sequence in which Georgie fends off Auntie’s geriatric assassin, referring to one of Emma’s self-defence manuals throughout the fight. To cap it all, it’s strongly implied that Steed busts the actual Mona Lisa over Auntie’s head during the obligatory final tussling. Very entertaining throughout, and a good example of how to do one of these ‘regular cast member on leave’ episodes.

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I have a pretty good memory when it comes to films: I can probably tell you which cinema I first saw every film of the last twenty years in, and in some cases which screen within that cinema. When it comes to things I have only seen on TV, well, then I can probably have a good guess at when and where. So – Dawn of the Dead would have been on videotape, on a long Monday afternoon just before Christmas 1997, The Legend of Boggy Creek would have been on a Thursday evening in the autumn of 1981, and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed would have been on a Saturday morning in the summer of 1988 (again, videotaped).

The Blues Brothers would have come my way in the early summer of 1989, I think, on the same VHS as a recording of Beverley Hills Cop, but in this case I have no idea why. I didn’t record it, a friend of mine did, and he ended up lending it to me. I don’t know why; I wasn’t particularly aware of the film and certainly wasn’t burning to see it.  At the time I don’t think it had quite the same cult status it has since acquired. But my friend was (and remains) someone of strong enthusiasms, particularly when it comes to comedy and music, and I can imagine him foisting it on me with his usual energy.

The film (directed and co-written by John Landis) is amiable and straightforward, anyway, opening with the reunion of the titular siblings when one of them (John Belushi) is collected from prison by the other (Dan Aykroyd), having just done time for robbery (the crime was necessitated by the need to pay the members of their band, for – as you might expect – the Blues brothers are musicians).

Well, the nun in charge at the orphanage where the duo grew up is unimpressed by their moral development after all these years, but a more serious problem is looming: the orphanage has a considerable outstanding tax bill and will be closed down unless it is settled in a matter of days. Nevertheless, this all seems a bit out of the brothers’ hands until Jake Blues (Belushi) has a religious experience at the local church and realises that God has given him the mission of redeeming himself by saving the orphanage. All the brothers have to do is get their old band back together and play a fundraiser to raise the money the nuns need! What could be simpler?

Quite a few things, to be honest, as circumstances conspire to put the Blues brothers and their associates on the wrong side of a large number of people, including the Chicago police department, the American branch of the Nazi party, a bad-tempered country and western band, and Jake’s ex-fiance (Carrie Fisher), who keeps popping up and trying to kill them with military-spec weapons. But they are on a mission from God…

The cult status of The Blues Brothers is not really surprising given it contains such an eclectic mixture of styles, genres, and people. It’s a knockabout, somewhat profane comedy; it contains some impressively spectacular stunts and chases; it’s a musical. It is also generally accepted to be the only movie derived from Saturday Night Live it’s worth bothering with. As well as Belushi and Aykroyd, the cast features names like John Candy, James Brown, Cab Calloway, and Aretha Franklin. It feels very much like a bizarre one-off in the annals of cinema.

Well – maybe, but I think there is something significant in one of the final scenes of the  film, in which the brothers foist their tax money onto a hapless clerk. The clerk is played by one S. Spielberg, before he grew his beard, only four films into his own directorial career at the time. At the time the most recent one was an only moderately-successful comedy entitled 1941, in which both Aykroyd and Belushi prominently appeared (without ever really sharing a scene).

The Blues Brothers doesn’t have the complex, multi-stranded structure of 1941, nor are most of its gags quite as sophisticated – but, on the other hand, it doesn’t have the relentless, breathless pace that can make 1941 an offputting experience for the uninitiated. But the two films do share a similar kind of freewheeling brashness, almost an interest in taking all the machinery and techniques of late 70s film-making and putting them to work in the name of comedy. The Blues Brothers has a kind of swagger and playfulness that seems to me to be very much like that of 1941 – but where the Spielberg movie often feels like it’s on the verge of turning into a cartoon, The Blues Brothers says goodbye to the real world early on (probably around the time Carrie Fisher attacks the duo with a rocket launcher and they blithely pick themselves up and go on about their business).

By the end of the movie, Landis’ more-is-better approach, while initially exhilarating – vast numbers of police cars being trashed, and so on – is beginning to have diminishing returns, but I would still probably say the film peaks about the right time. It does know when to go pedal to the metal with slapstick comedy and when to take a break and include a musical number.

It’s hard to shake the impression, with this kind of film, that it’s basically just the product of a deep-seated desire on the part of comedians to be proper rock stars. It’s probably to the film’s credit that Belushi and Aykroyd don’t do any real singing themselves until nearly halfway through, and when they do it’s in a comedy sequence (the band find themselves having to perform to a surly and unappreciative country and western crowd and have to make some unusual song choices). Before this all the heavy musical lifting is done by supremely qualified guest stars like James Brown, John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, in what are mostly diegetic song sequences.

Certainly it’s the music which helps to make the film as successful and entertaining as it is – and here again we find ourselves considering the film’s origins at the end of the seventies, a decade which had seen the beginnings of a new kind of Hollywood. Many great films from the seventies and early eighties indulge in homages to the golden age of American film-making – it’s there in the Casablanca-style trappings of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the Howard Hawks references in some early John Carpenter films. For all the profanity and occasional crassness of The Blues Brothers, there’s something similar going on here in the way it celebrates classic American music, up to the point of giving Cab Calloway his own number.

So maybe The Blues Brothers isn’t such a one-off as it first appears: it connects to a number of trends and movements in mainstream American cinema of the time – of young directors pushing the boundaries of genre, while still retaining a kind of reverence for the past. Now it feels like a bit of a period piece itself: Dan Aykroyd still looks young and thin, while John Belushi… well, whether or not it’s indeed better to burn out than fade away, Belushi seems to have lived as though he believed it. The Blues Brothers is possibly the best known of the films he left behind, and whatever its flaws as a movie, it’s an enormously likeable memorial.

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The rather variable nature of late-third-season Avengers is once again apparent with the arrival of Build a Better Mousetrap, written by Brian Clemens. This is, I suppose, quite a high-profile episode, inasmuch as the publicity photos from it depicting Mrs Gale on a motorbike seem to have circulated quite widely.

The episode opens with Cathy indeed having joined a youth motorcycle gang. I would not be so ungallant as to say exactly how old Honor Blackman was when this episode was made, but let’s just say she makes for a fairly unlikely member of the gang. (Then again, the actor playing the leader of the gang is in his early thirties, so it’s not like she’s alone in this department.) The bikers have got permission to use a meadow for their various pursuits, which happens to be near an old mill, inhabited by two elderly sisters. The sisters do not respond well when the bikers stop by to ask for directions, and threaten to put a spell on the gang to ensure their peace is not disturbed.

Strange as it seems, it appears there may be an element of truth in this, as the local area has been plagued by mysterious cases of machines of all kinds inexplicably conking out. The locals are not happy, and blame is falling on the nearby atomic research centre. This has led Steed to get involved, planting Mrs Gale with the bikers, and generally nosing about the neighbourhood and flirting with the young ladies thereabout (the actress who gets to flirt with Patrick Macnee this week is Alison Seebohm, who is as telegenic as anyone else assigned this role). It turns out there genuinely does seem to be a mysterious force at work in the area, knocking out mechanisms and electronics – and it seems to be centred on the old mill where the sisters live…

The thing that makes a typical Clemens script distinctive, I’m starting to realise, is the fact that it is not particularly tightly-plotted or tense, but that it goes all-out when it comes to quirkiness in the characterisation and atmosphere. His late season three scripts really do feel like the advance guard for the direction the show would take when it went onto film – at the centre of this story is a borderline-SF maguffin, wrapped up in an improbable tale of eccentric old biddies, biker gangs, and various colourful locals some of whom are not what they appear to be.

And as such it is lots of fun: you can see Macnee having a whale of a time reacting to some of the big performances of the guest cast, plus he gets an uproarious scene where he talks his way into the old mill by passing himself off as an inspector from the ‘National Distrust’, which is apparently like the National Trust but rather more suspicious-natured. Honor Blackman seems to be enjoying herself too, and she seems to be a bit more indulgent of Steed than usual, too. This is possibly the most comedic episode so far, and certainly very enjoyable.

There’s a good gag at the start of The Outside-In Man, which opens with Steed turning up at a butcher’s shop in search of (but of course) some venison: he follows the head butcher into the meat locker at the back of the shop, which leads into a suite of offices. Yes, the butchers’ is a front for a secret government agency, and the butcher himself is Quilpie, Steed’s de facto boss for the week (played by Ronald Radd, whom we have seen before – seventeen actors).

The actual plot is rather more serious in tone. Some years earlier, a British agent named Sharp defected to an unfriendly foreign power and has risen to quite a position of importance in their government. Now he is returning to the UK, protected by diplomatic immunity, to negotiate an important arms deal. Steed is responsible for looking after him, which isn’t a particularly enjoyable assignment, but he is nothing if not pragmatic.

The situation is (inevitably) complicated by the reappearance in London of Charter (James Maxwell), one of the agents sent to assassinate Sharp around the time of his original defection. The mission failed and Charter has spent five years in an enemy prison – some of his colleagues were executed. Now he has either escaped or been released, which coincides rather suspiciously with the arrival of Sharp in London. After making a claim for five years of back pay, Charter sends an even more alarming message to Steed and Quilpie – he still intends to carry out the mission he was given and kill Sharp…

As you can see, this is a much less whimsical story than Mousetrap, and if you took out all the gags about the butchers’ shop it would work as a completely straight spy drama. But as such it is good stuff – there are a couple of strong guest performances from Radd and Maxwell, and the main thrust of the story – can they find Charter and stop him in time? should they? – is also effective. (Mrs Gale selling Charter a second-hand car proves to be significant to the plot.) In the end, of course, all turns out to be not quite as it first appears, but not improbably so. An episode in a very different mode to the preceding one, but nearly as engaging in it own way.

Another Brian Clemens rounds off this selection, in the shape of The Charmers. If you have been following along it will not come as a great surprise if I reveal that this is yet another one of Clemens’ videotape-era scripts which was touched up and remade for the first colour season of the show, when it was retitled The Correct Way to Kill.

Someone is bumping off agents of the Other Side. Steed assumes they’re having another one of their purges – but when an assassin turns up at his flat, it seems that he is a suspect, and the Other Side themselves are in the dark as to who is responsible and what their motive is. Steed goes along and meets the Other Side’s local chief, Keller (Warren Mitchell. giving a much more comedic performance than in The Golden Fleece, earlier this same season – seventeen actors! I’m sure of it!). Some very droll interplay follows, with Keller left very envious of the size of Steed’s expense account, and a prominent board with pictures of ‘Wanted Agents’ on it. The in-joke is that, apart from Steed, all the photos are of Avengers production team members, including Brian Clemens himself.

Do the ‘Mind if I smoke?’ gag if you really must.

Well, Steed and Keller do a deal where they will work together and investigate the murders: Steed volunteers Cathy without asking her, resulting in another very funny scene of her getting cross with him about taking her for granted. While Cathy indeed teams up with one of Keller’s men, the Other Side pull a fast one and just hire an actress (Fenella Fielding) to pretend to be a spy and escort Steed, telling her that he’s just an eccentric spy novelist who likes to live his stories before he writes them.

The trail leads to a dentists’, a gents’ outfitters, and ultimately to a sort of finishing school for anyone aspiring to become an English gentleman (needless to say, the principal is left awe-struck by Steed’s style and deportment). Not that the plot strictly matters, because, once again, Clemens is writing with his tongue firmly in his cheek – this is a spoof much more than a serious drama, but it’s a tremendously entertaining spoof. You can see why Clemens was essentially given the job of showrunner from the start of the next season onward.

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