Following an abortive attempt to breathe new life into this blog back in January (my time has been spent over on itsonitsgone.com and with my Edinburgh Evening News work), I’ve now realised that the current dire state of UK television means we all need more pointers towards decent new and classic television than ever before.
To this end I recently asked friend, neighbour and TV guru Walter Dunlop to cast his trained eye over 1969 ITV series Manhunt, out now on DVD, and tell me what he thought of it.
Rather than write a few hundred words on this near-forgotten show, Walter sent me over 2,500, devoted to the first seven (out of 26) episodes…
Strange thing, the way television gets remembered. It seems almost random sometimes. A handful of series get chosen for posterity, and repeated into oblivion while others, despite their own merits, languish after their initial broadcast, watched by millions but remembered by a few.
There are any number of shows that deserve another airing, to be enjoyed all over again. I’m slightly Reithian in my view of television and radio – sometimes, people don’t know that they want something. But if they get the chance to sample it, they’ll find that they do. So don’t give ‘em what they want, give ‘em what they don’t know they want yet as well.
If only there was some sort of durable, mass-produced, commercially viable format onto which these series could be placed, and unleashed upon a hungry public!
Hello then to Network and their marvellously eclectic collection of DVD releases.
Network has probably attacked my credit card more often than any other company. Every new release seems to bring even more television arcana shuffling back into the light, blinking sleepily and ready to be enjoyed again. I’ve lost count of the number of shows I’ve discovered, rediscovered or simply caught up with thanks to them. Not all of them have been undiscovered gems, but most of them have had something to recommend them.
Occasionally, they’ve been so good, so heartstoppingly compulsive that it beggars belief that they’ve slipped from the public consciousness so completely. ITV drama, especially – the thing that ITV were always fantastic at was that particular strand of drama that everybody watched. Your Sherlock Holmes’s, your Brideshead’s.
But for every series that sticks in the mind, there’s one that wiped the floor with the opposition and then disappeared.
Public Eye, for example, effortlessly brilliant for nearly ten years, top of the ratings or thereabouts every season. Now, apart from a repeat of the colour seasons back at the dawn of UK Gold, it’s only thanks to the DVDs that anyone’s had the chance to appreciate it at all.
Which brings me to Manhunt. Made in 1969 for LWT, and broadcast from January of the following year, to the best of my knowledge it’s only had a single repeat since when the hugely uncharacteristic episode, Intent To Steal, was aired as part of TV Heaven in the early nineties. Manhunt was (so I’m told, Frank Muir said so on TV Heaven, and who am I to argue?) compulsive viewing for the entire nation, and yet it disappeared without trace. I’ve spoken to numerous people about it over the last few weeks and without exception the response has been a blank stare and a query of “what’s that? Never heard of it…”
Very little information exists about it on the internet – there are no devoted fansites out there.
No lovingly detailed retrospectives, or interviews with any members of the production who are still with us. This doesn’t seem fair. Hopefully the DVD release will bring it to the attention of a few more people, because – and this is on the evidence of the first seven episodes, which I glutted myself on yesterday – it is absolutely stunning television.
I’m not resorting to hyperbole here. It really is that good. From the first scene, it goes for you and doesn’t let go. So, let’s get the usual clichés out of the way early, shall we? Yes, it’s slow. Yes, it’s very, very talky. That’s television in the early seventies for you. I imagine that thirty years from now, people will be posting reviews of today’s output offering blanket condemnations of the way everything is shot ridiculously fast, with hundreds of shots where they’re not needed, and frenetic running about from scene to scene.
If I ever lose the ability to absorb myself in a drama that relies on the interplay of several superb actors talking to each other and concentrate on how big the effects budget is instead as a mark of quality, I might as well lie down and pull the earth in on myself.
The premise is simple enough. It’s World War II. In occupied Paris, a young woman (real name Anne-Marie, codename Nina, played all-too convincingly by Cyd Hayman – the early episodes feature numerous occasions of the character losing it in pure hysteria and it’s upsetting how well Hayman does it) is assigned to take notes at meetings of the resistance. Nothing goes down in paper, it’s all in her head. Initially somewhat frivolous, the reality of war is brought brutally home to her when a meeting is invaded by German troopers. A massacre ensues: only Nina escapes.
Sometime later, in another part of France, a British plane comes down, depositing one Jimmy Porter into the middle of occupied territory. Jimmy will become one of the series’ central figures, and the series got lucky by casting Alfred Lynch. Sparky, witty, quipping like mad, and with a certain rumpled charm, Lynch is brilliant and incredibly watchable.
It’s a wonderful performance, and it makes me terribly sad to compare Jimmy – full of life, vigorous, agile in both mind and body – to the shattered husk of Commander Millington in 1989’s Doctor Who story The Curse of Fenric. Although both characters are played by the same actor, the passage of nearly twenty years and (one presumes) illness appear to have drawn all the life out of Lynch, and it’s terribly sad.
Although we initially believe that he’s landed up in France by accident, suspicions begin to mount that he is not all he seems, but all that’s to come. Meantime, he makes his way to the school hall in a neighbouring village, there to meet with the nearest resistance cell who will attempt to get him home. Unfortunately, they have other matters occupying them as news reaches them of a hysterical girl, just off the train from Paris and babbling out essential resistance details to anyone who’ll listen.
The girl in question has had the misfortune to arrive at the school hall, and her inability to keep her mouth shut puts the resistance in danger. What to do, what to do? It’s a hard decision: “Vincent” must be called. Vincent is obviously the top man, the one who knows what to do. And it certainly seems to be the case when Vincent arrives, and instructs his colleagues to shoot Nina. Shortly afterwards, Jimmy reveals himself to be present, and Vincent decides to dispense two birds with one stone…
Vincent turns out to be played by one of Britain’s finest actors: Peter Barkworth. In this series there are no heroes or villains, only people. There are good people on the German side, there are complete sods on the resistance side. And squarely in the middle sits Vincent, a fundamentally good man who has to do unpleasant duties in order to fulfil what he sees as his role in the war.
Barkworth brings out every nuance of the conflict within the man, somehow switching back and forth between personable and pleasant to steely-eyed maniac, sometimes within the space of minutes. It’s an astonishing piece of work.
Following an intervention from the town priest (great British thesp Peter Copley) which keeps Jimmy and Nina alive temporarily, and following the receipt of a communiqué from London, Vincent discovers that Nina knows everything about the main resistance movement, but it’s all in her head. She’s essential to the war effort and must be got to London at once.
Meanwhile, Jimmy is revealed to be Vincent’s superior officer, but London want him back too, so he is instructed to place himself under Vincent’s command, and so begins the first phase of the series – a desperate game of hide and seek through occupied France in a desperate attempt to get the fugitives to the coast.
There are moments over the next few episodes which make for uncomfortable viewing.
On being left in the custody of someone who she quite rightly views as a homicidal maniac, Nina makes a break for it. In their attempts to get her back, Vincent and Jimmy encounter all sorts, from a patriotic farmer to members of the Communist resistance. Rape appears to be if not condoned, then at the very least goes unpunished as to stop to save the victim would mean the possibility of losing Nina and thus a vital component of the war effort.
Our “heroes” kill those who get in their way – not with any sense of enjoyment, but because there’s something driving them on to succeed in their goal. Virtually everyone who encounters them in the first seven episodes comes away with their lives blasted to pieces as a result. Farmers lose their livelihoods. Entire communities are evicted by the German army in an attempt to find the fugitives. People die, others will never be the same. And yet somehow, Vincent, Jimmy and Nina contrive to keep you onside – just – because all three are such powerful actors that you’re convinced by them and keep rooting for them even when they’re being unpleasant.
Highlights? Far too many in the first seven episodes to list everything. But I can’t let episodes three and four pass unmentioned, for the simple reason that they are, quite frankly, as good as virtually anything produced by British television in the last fifty years.
Episode three, Only The Dead Survive, is written by Roy Clarke, and it makes me wonder why the man isn’t more famous for his drama work. Episode four, What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?, is an Arden Winch script (who I know primarily for upping the ante considerably on Moonbase III with the wonderful View of a Dead Planet. Shame it was the last episode, really).
Vincent comes up with the clever wheeze of taking refuge on the estate where he grew up, which is currently occupied by a garrison of Nazi troopers. The officer in charge of the garrison has some clearly defined ideas about honour in the army, and thus wishes to know nothing about the more unpleasant side of war. Hiding in plain sight essentially, Vincent reckons without one fairly major flaw in his strategy: the sudden arrival of the SS in the form of Phillip Madoc.
Followers of The Madoc’s work will know that he’s at his absolute best when he’s being icily polite, and so it proves here. He also puts into play that quiet smile which is so much more unnerving than any amount of mad shouting or ranting would be. To give away too much more of the plot would be a crime, but I have to give mention to two standout guest performers – 1990‘s George Murcell as the family retainer, a Corsican who just can’t keep his mouth shut – and Rosalie Crutchley as the housekeeper/governess.
Rosalie’s obviously born to this sort of thing, as she manages to be the definitive Mrs Hudson while Jeremy Brett was on the Sherlock Holmes watch. She plays it like Diana Rigg as Mrs Danvers, until a shocking moment when her reserve goes completely – it’s all the more affecting for her total control in all the preceding scenes.
And this is where Barkworth comes into his own, managing to control the viewers’ emotions.
At the start of episode four he’s so controlling as to be stifling, and you sympathise with Jimmy and Nina, stuck at close quarters with the maniac. Shortly after that, he discovers that his mother – who he’s not allowed to see, given the circumstances – is slowly going senile. The emotions play across his face. He attempts to suppress them all, and sits down to a meagre meal with the other two. “What’s wrong?” Jimmy and Nina ask. And just for a second, as he’s saying grace, Vincent’s control deserts him, and the words come out in a gulping, angry sob before he gains his control again. I wanted to hug him and tell him everything was alright at that point. Even if it patently wasn’t.
If the succeeding episodes don’t quite live up to that high, it’s surely no shame. Nothing really could. But there’s still loads to get your teeth into: a tense chase across country in an attempt to get into free France on One More River, with an ending that’ll leave you feeling like someone’s kicked you in the stomach; the succeeding Open House, the very definition of a bottle show, featuring no-one outside of Lynch, Barkworth and Hayman; and the remarkably odd Better Doubt Than Die, in which events overwhelm Nina and she retreats into a catatonic state.
On being rescued from a seemingly impossible situation by Vincent’s extremely unwilling cousin and passed along to another Cell operating out of a village undertakers, we’re greeted to the some remarkable scenes in which the young, fit and extremely vigorous Jimmy is taken down several dozen physical pegs by the middle aged and extremely short Bernard Hepton and Leslie French.
Hepton in particular is remarkable in these scenes, going from placid politeness to outbursts of extreme violence without any sign of the gears grinding. He obviously acquires a taste for this sort of role, as he crossed the floor (and jumps channels as well) shortly thereafter in order to portray a shades-of-grey German commander for the BBC in Colditz, then heading back to resistance France for several series of Secret Army.
What of Nina? How is she jolted out of her catatonic state? Believe it or not, by the love of a good man. Or at least, the physical benefits of having a good man around. Yes, the way to deal with a trauma so major that the mind of the victim shuts down, is to have vigorous, repeated and presumably spectacular sex with them until they’re all better. Remember, you heard it here first. Even in the middle of this, Jimmy shines – furiously abstaining from the suggestion that he be the one to go upstairs and sort Nina’s problems out by claiming that “the RAF are strictly honourable fornicators!!!”, amongst many other choice splutterings.
And that’s where I’ve got to so far. Honestly, if the rest of the series is this good, it’s in with a shout as ITV’s best ever drama.
Reservations? Very few.
Although Nina is utterly believable at all times, at this point she’s not a likeable character in the slightest. If someone’s going to get into trouble, fall over, twist their ankle or have hysterics, it’s going to be her, and it gets wearing after a time, almost to the point where you wonder if despite the loss of the vital information Vincent might not be better just sticking to his original plan.
Apart from that, perhaps the video look for exteriors isn’t the best idea: a series this classy really deserves to have that lush film look. But as it is, the flat video look coupled with virtually no incidental music at all (what there is comes from series composer, Ludwig Van Beethoven – he’ll go far, that one), means it’s virtually documentary at times.
If that’s all I have to complain about, I’ve got nothing to complain about at all.
Extras on DVD? Perhaps because very few of the main players are still with us (no Barkworth, no Lynch, very few of the production team), there’s no supporting material. No documentary, no interviews. Nothing except a photo gallery. But when a series is this splendid, you don’t need anything extra. Sometimes the content in itself is enough.
So far, unreservedly recommended.
To be continued…in a few weeks.