Network DVD Sale

I’m a bit late with this news about the Network DVD sale as it’s been running for the last 24 hours or so, but the good news is that it’s on until midnight tomorrow, Sunday 8 August, so there’s still time to nab a bargain.

As a (slightly obsessive) TV fan who mourns the loss of quality drama from UK screens, bar the odd Life on Mars or Being Human every few years, Network’s dedication to archive telly is to be applauded. This new sale finally brings a number of box sets and single volume series down to an affordable price for those who might want to dip their toe in classic (or is that “old”?) television.

The real highlights in the sale for me are the two Callan sets, a series I discovered earlier this year and which I’ve been trying to spread the word about for the last few months. I’ve reviewed both The Monochrome Years and The Colour Years so won’t go into detail here, but the black and white Callans are really a must for any spy fans with even a passing interest in the genre: with dark, gritty and multilayered scripts, Edward Woodward and Russell Hunter are perfect foils for each other, while Anthony Valentine threatens to steal any scene he’s in.

Sticking with adventure and intrigue, the recently released 4 Just Men from ITC is the template for many of the genre series which would see them through the 1960s and 70s and which have now fallen out of favour in the UK. Strangers is an often overlooked police series starring Don Henderson as George Bulman, a copper relocated from London to the mean streets of the north of England who has some odd peculiarities. Later seasons would see Taggart’s Mark McManus join the cast. Continue reading

DVD Review: The 4 Just Men

The 4 Just Men

★★★★

Four men who fought together during war time band together to fight injustice on a weekly basis in this latest release from Network, and no, it’s not another repackaged A-Team DVD set: it’s The 4 Just Men, which first aired on UK TV in 1959.

Jack Hawkins, Dan Dailey, Richard Conte and Vittorio De Sica are the Just Men of the title, each with their own unique place in society: Dawkins is London MP Ben Manfred; Dailey is Paris-based US reporter Tom Collier; Conte is lawyer Jeff Ryder and De Sica is Italian hotelier Ricco Poccari.

Introduced in the pilot episode, in which their ex-commanding officer gathers them together to recall their first encounter and send them on their mission as the 4 Just Men, each episode features a different adventure for one of the heroes. Rather than have them in a group every week, we see them take off on their own, only interacting by telephone if things get really tough, though occasionally two actors are allowed to meet.

With episodes only running at 25 minutes each, there’s little time for padding or exposition, and we’re off and running in no time. The problem of this format is clear in the first handful of stories, with a couple almost identical in their plots, and it takes a short while for the writers to get the pacing right. Thankfully, with a whopping 39 episodes on this set, there’s a chance to see things develop, and if you don’t like one story just hand around and another will be along in a little while. Continue reading

DVD Review: The Avengers Series Four

The Avengers Series Four cover

★★★★★

Exit Cathy Gale and enter Mrs Peel, as The Avengers truly hits its stride and the 1960s really start swinging. Series four of the classiest programme ever made saw Honor Blackman leave to fly aeroplanes for Auric Goldfinger as Patrick Macnee’s John Steed welcomed a new sparring partner in the shape of the sumptuous Diana Rigg.

Shifting from videotape to 35mm film, one eye firmly on the burgeoning US market who wouldn’t accept anything less, 1965 was the year The Avengers really made its mark on TV audiences. Previous seasons may have introduced the populace to killer nuns, mad scientists and the odd loopy plot, but all this was taken to another level as Avengersland was created in the country lanes of middle England and behind the closed doors of every London gentleman’s club.

Avengers Series FourBeginning with The Town of No Return, in which Steed and the newly introduced Emma Peel (her name coming from the idea that she had Man Appeal or ‘M Appeal’) visit a seaside town where ghosts from the past seem very much alive, the season moves from science fiction (The Cybernauts) to bizarre fantasy (Too Many Christmas Trees) and onto sado-masochistic camp (A Touch of Brimstone) with ease.

Watching Steed fight with a baddie atop a miniature train with Mrs Peel strapped to the rail track may sound ludicrous, as might the end sequences which see the pair vanish into the distance by bicycle, in a coach and horses or on a magic carpet, but give in to the fun and you’ll have a ball.

To put it bluntly, this is a series which has found the formula for success and manages to riff on it for 26 episodes that could only be improved by a dash of colour…but then that was only a year away as those Yanks demanded even more from Steed and Peel. Of course, whether colour actually made the series any better is debatable, as there’s undoubtedly something to be savoured in these crisp black and white episodes that look as good as new.

This set also comes packed with extras, including commentaries from writers Roger Marshall, Robert Banks Stewart and Brian Clemens and directors Gerry O’Hara, Roy Ward Baker and Don Leaver plus a number of alternate sequences from episodes, stills galleries and PDF material from various sources. Perhaps the most welcome extras are the reconstructed season one episodes, Kill the King and Dead of Winter, screen captured photos tied together with narration.

A more perfect piece of home entertainment you’ll struggle to find this year…at least until series five arrives in a few months time.

DVD Preview: The Corridor People

Spend more than a few minutes on this site and you’ll find much love for UK DVD label Network, one of the only companies actively mining the ITV archives for series that would otherwise remain an obscure entry on Wikipedia. Network’s latest discovery is 1966’s The Corridor People.

While present-day ITV audiences are lucky to have quality drama series such as…well…there are bound to be some somewhere, back in the 1960s and 70s there were a number of production teams striving to put out a variety of action, adventure, fantasy and drama series for a public that expected something more than just soaps and reality TV. Some, such as The Avengers and, to a lesser extent, Callan, may have lived on in popular culture, but others, such as The Corridor People, aren’t so well remembered.

Described by Network on their website as “a surreal crime/fantasy adventure series in the mould of the The Avengers”, they go on to say that the series features “a host of unlikely characters include Kronk, a paternal CID agent, his henchmen Inspector Blood and Sergeant Hound, and American, Bogart-worshipping private eye Phil Scrotty; each episode sees them pitched against the avaricious schemes of Syrie Van Epp, a beautiful, treacherous Persian millionairess.”

The series is out on Monday 19 July and I hope to have a review up on the blog next week, but in the meantime here’s a clip from Network’s YouTube page:

DVD Review: Callan – The Colour Years

Callan - The Colour Years

★★★★★

Were it possible to corrupt the ratings system of this website, the five stars you see above this review would right now be flashing, in big, friendly letters, the words BUY ME NOW!, with a direct link to a well known DVD retailer and a recommendation to take a long weekend off work to watch all 22 episodes of Callan: The Colour Years.

As it is, I need to write some more about seasons three and four of one of the most consistently high quality series to ever originate from these shores, two years worth of spy-based drama which provided the late Edward Woodward with some of his finest moments caught on celluloid.

David Callan (Woodward) is an agent for a shadowy branch of the British Government, a section which must remain hush-hush while undertaking missions of a sensitive nature involving rival spies and state secrets.

Aided by his very own bête noire, Lonely (Russell Hunter), Callan is briefed by the enigmatic Hunter (William Squire) and for the majority of this run sent on missions alongside the younger, less experienced Cross (Patrick Mower).

While many spy series portray their central characters as strong, upright and in possession of the moral upper-hand, Callan refuses to adhere to any such mores. Instead, series creator and frequent writer James Mitchell (When the Boat Comes In) ensures that the darker side of espionage is always at the forefront of the scripts, Callan’s personal views often infringing on his job and invariably causing him grief.

Opening a few months after the close of the black and white 1960s series, Where Else Could I Go finds Callan recuperating in hospital while the world outside keeps on moving, his old sparring partner Toby Meares (Anthony Valentine) relocated to Washington and the cocksure Cross in his place.

Now free from the noirish confines of the monochrome episodes, the programme embraces the colour revolution by jettisoning Callan’s inner monologues but otherwise maintaining the feeling that a spy’s lot is never a happy one. There are no backlot jaunts to warmer climes à la The Saint or the outlandish adventures of any other number of TV agents here: this is a world of discredited backstreet doctors, rainy suburban streets and the odd back alley.

Episodes such as Summoned to Appear and Suddenly – at Home highlight the expendable nature of innocent (and not-so-innocent) bystanders, while Stephanie Beacham and Michael Jayston’s turns in God Help Your Friends are a salutory lesson in what it really means to be a pawn in the game.

As with the previous DVD set, this truly is a must-buy for the dedicated spy fan, a series which rewards the viewer with layered plots and intelligent scripts performed by actors who clearly knew they were involved in something unique. Buy them now. You won’t regret it.

DVD Review: Callan – The Monochrome Years

Callan Banner

★★★★★

Perhaps best described as the “anti-Bond”, David Callan was for six years one of the more unique portrayals of the career spy on British television, an embittered man for whom bloodshed was to be avoided where possible and loyalty to Her Majesty was almost a thorn in his side.

Professional killer Callan (Edward Woodward) stalks the shadows of British espionage in these remaining episodes from series one and two, including the atmospheric pilot, Magnum for Schneider.

Sent on each mission-of-the-week by the mysterious Hunter and both helped and hindered by fellow spy Meares (Peter Bowles and Anthony Valentine), Callan is drawn into the sort of situations where a conscience is left at the door.

Sadly, for Callan’s superiors at least, the assassin does think about what he’s doing, usually in a noir-style voiceover, his disgust at killing leading to most plots spinning off into unseen directions as he carries out his own private investigations.

CallanCallan’s only “friend” is professional thief Lonely (Russell Hunter), so-called because his personal hygiene leaves much to be desired. Whereas Bond has Q and his never ending supply of gadgets, Callan has Lonely and the odd stolen gun and ammunition: glamorous this ain’t.

Clad in dark suit and trenchcoat, spouting a series of sardonic put-downs and a tendency to call people “mate”, Callan is a very British spy, more likely to be found lurking in a back alley on the trail of a Russian spy than in the tropical climes so beloved of other series.

The result is a complex series of misadventures the like of which hasn’t been seen before or since on television, Woodward’s layered performance a world away from his contemporaries such as The Avengers suave John Steed or self -assured John Drake in the globetrotting Danger Man.

Episodes such as You Should Have Got Here Sooner, the finale of series one, highlight the elements that made the programme unique, with violence and double-crossing between colleagues showing both Callan’s ruthlessness and his loyalty to Lonely, even if he himself threatens him more than once.

With the Cold War never far from the streets of London, even if we rarely see outside the offices and homes of Callan’s victims, the series is always tense, though there are enough touches of humour present to ensure our “hero” remains vaguely believable.

A crucial part of the spy genre, coming to DVD for the first time anywhere in the world, this set represents a momentous moment in the world of TV on DVD releases and deserves evaluation – and enjoyment – from a new generation of fans.

Callan – The Monochrome Years is out now from Network DVD

DVD Review: The Avengers, Complete Series 2 and Surviving Series 1

*****

Bowler hats, kinky boots, scheming scientists and preposterous plots are probably the first things that spring to mind when The Avengers is mentioned to anyone of a certain age.

Images of the dapper John Steed and the leather-clad Emma Peel driving around the English countryside thwarting bonkers baddies may be most familiar to audiences today, but rewind a few years to the series early days and you’ll find a much different series.

Designed as a new starring vehicle for actor Ian Hendry, familiar to British audiences as Doctor Brent in TV series Police Surgeon, The Avengers premiered in 1961 with a new theme tune and a new premise.

In the pilot episode, of which only the first 15 minutes still exist, Dr Keel’s (Ian Hendry) girlfriend is killed before he then comes into contact with the mysterious Steed (Patrick Macnee) who is investigating the crime.

Determined to “avenge” the murder, the pair would go on to solve various crimes and misdemeanours for another 23 episodes, before a strike cut the season short and the creators retooled it to promote Macnee to series lead.

The return of the show for a second season, complete with new co-star Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman), would see it become appointment television, if not for the strong scripts then certainly for its treatment of woman as equal – if not superior – to their male counterparts.

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DVD Review: Manhunt – The Complete Series: Part Four

The final part of Walter Dunlop’s mammoth review of 1960’s drama Manhunt comes to an end with more shocks, surprises and double dealings from wartorn France.

Please note that this is not a review in the normal sense, much space given over to understanding a series mostly forgotten by today’s viewers. As such there are spoilers within the text, so please be careful if you don’t want to know what happens in the series.

Parts one, two and three of this review are also recommended if you haven’t yet read them.

Back again for the final stretch. It’s been a little while since the last report, and it’s simply because there’s a lot in these four episodes to process. So much happens, and I really couldn’t come to grips with it at first. I needed time to gather my thoughts.

As we rejoin the gang, there’s another escape plan in progress. Alfred Shaugnessy’s The Train May Be Late sees several of the cast regulars making their way to the coast by rail. Vincent and Adelaide are attempting to get the piece of metal they nicked during Intend To Steal out and across the English Channel.

With typical audacity, they’re doing it by travelling on a train packed with Germans. Adelaide’s the one with the responsibility for carrying the metal, and she’s doing it with characteristic elan – even accepting help from one of the soldiery as he offers to place her basket in the luggage rack for her.

Adelaide eyes the other occupants of the carriage with amused detachment, and a touch of the predator. Every time the train went through a tunnel, I kept expecting the camera to cut back and reveal one less occupant, and Adelaide sitting back with a happy burp.

Further up the carriage, Vincent is stalking the corridors. Presumably there as lookout and general aide to Adelaide in case anything goes wrong, he’s unfortunately reckoned without Manhunt’s resident chaos magnet.

Yes, several carriages up, Nina is on board. Rather sensibly Jimmy’s sitting this one out, said to be working back at the factory. A factory which, lest we forget, was bombed to oblivion last week. Presumably there’s a lot of sweeping up to do.

It’s interesting the way this episode is framed, switching between carriages. Nina and Adelaide are more or less in the same position, each having acquired a high-ranking German officer who won’t leave them alone. In Adelaide’s case, she handles it effortlessly, carrying out polite conversation (and dropping Lutzig’s name into the conversation occasionally when things get too fresh).

Predictably, Nina handles things with considerably less skill, unravelling at the seams so fast that it’s a surprise the carriage isn’t full of wool by the end of the episode. She’s got a younger officer draped over her – one who gets violently drunk as the episode wears on (presumably to stave off the boredom, or maybe it’s the only way he can stand to be anywhere near Nina. I know how he feels).

Of course, this being Manhunt, Nina’s pulchritudinous charms bring him under her spell almost immediately and he’s trying it on before the first advert break. Meanwhile, across the carriage is Spiegel, Geoffrey Whitehead making a welcome return to the series after Degrade and Rule. He’s watching with an eagle eye – in fact, he doesn’t take his eyes off Nina. But it’s all a feint on the part of the writer – he’s actually after the officer, who turns out to be a Polish escapee, making a break for it in disguise.

All of which is a hindrance to poor old Vincent, who continues to have the worst luck of anyone in television drama – as the train is boarded by Special Intelligence Officers, his slight resemblance to the description of the Pole is enough to cause him to be arrested and taken for interrogation. Poor sod.

Of course, he’s acting suspiciously because he’s been thrown into a tizz by encountering Nina again – there’s a veddy veddy British encounter in a not-veddy veddy British location, as the two reacquaint themselves in the train’s lavatory. It’s all cheek to cheek embraces and extremes of quivering, restrained emotion on Vincent’s part. Poor man – no good can come of this.

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DVD Review: Pardon the Expression, Series 1 and 2

Taking a break from his mammoth review of Manhunt, Walter Dunlop returns with a look at 1960’s sitcom Pardon the Expression.

Series One –

*****

Series Two –

*****

You wouldn’t expect your average British soap opera to be fertile ground for a sitcom. Indeed, I’m hard pushed to remember many spinoffs at all, if you discount all those tedious direct-to-video hour long specials that EastEnders, Brookside et al keep pushing out.

Coronation Street’s always had a wide vein of whimsy running through it though – certainly any time I’ve ever tuned in there’s been some sort of bizarre subplot happening, or banter between characters which leaven the dark goings on elsewhere.

It has, rather astonishingly, managed not one but two spin-off series in its time. The first, The Brothers MacGregor, careered out of a brief cameo at Eddie Yates’s engagement party in 1982, with the original actors Tony Osoba and Carl Chase replaced for the series main run by Paul Barber and Philip Whitchurch.

It managed to entertain the nation for 26 episodes before being quietly cancelled. Many watching, I imagine, were unaware of the series origins. This isn’t the first time a character from the Street walked out of his cosy little niche and ended up a long way from where he started. Some seventeen years earlier there was Pardon the Expression.

From 1960 to 1965, dedicated worker at Gamma Garments and sometime lay-preacher Leonard Swindley was one of Coronation Street’s most loved characters. No wonder, given that he was played by one of Britain’s most loved actors, Arthur Lowe.

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DVD Review: Manhunt – The Complete Series: Part Three

Part three of Walter Dunlop’s marathon viewing of ITV drama Manhunt (you might want to check out part one or two if you haven’t already) continues, episodes 15 – 22 coming under the spotlight as things get even more serious for Vincent, Nina and Jimmy in World War Two France…

Warning – spoilers ahoy! It’s going to prove impossible to discuss these episodes without letting things slip, so…you have been warned!

Into the second half of the series we go, and things aren’t exactly looking positive for our jolly band of regulars.

With Nina sleeping with the enemy, Jimmy having alienated his one ally in the resistance by refusing to leave France when he’s told to and Vincent in the hands of the SS – it’s difficult to see how any of this is going to end well.

By this point the weekly grind of the production schedule must have been exhausting. Splitting things off into different plot threads makes sense. It also enables the writers to make good use of their magnificent range of guest actors.

Although Lynch, Barkworth and Hayman are more than capable of carrying things on their own, adding Robert Hardy, Philip Madoc, George Sewell and many others makes this series an actor-spotters treasure house.

If you’re reading this, I suspect you’re more than familiar with the pleasure of seeing a familiar actor pop up when you weren’t expecting them. This series is full of such moments, even down to the spit-and-a-cough parts.

Case in point – episodes 15 and 16, Little Man, Big Gun. Manhunt’s first official two parter, although earlier on Only The Dead Survive and What Did You Do In The War, Daddy? formed a self-contained storyline within the overall narrative.

The experiment worked then – god, how it worked – and it obviously gave them the confidence to try another longer story because here the plot really has room to breathe.

This is a Nina showcase, pretty much. The Forties answer to Amy Winehouse (similar looks, similar mode of behaviour) continues to be consistently inconsistent.

One week she’s a mewling ball of tears, the next, icy cold reserve. The next week again she’ll be taking the difficult decisions and showing steel beneath the exterior, after that she’s making herself the centre of attention and usurping plotlines in a manner which makes you wish she’d just get the hell out of the series and let everybody else get on with it.

It’s a shame because none of this is Cyd Hayman’s fault – she’s never less than rock solid in every episode but it’s obvious that the writers don’t know what to do with the character.

I wonder if it’s the result of the series getting unexpectedly extended? A victim of its own success, suddenly having to stretch to 26 episodes at short notice must have set everyone on the back foot.

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DVD Review: Manhunt – The Complete Series: Part Two

Following his in-depth analysis of the first seven episodes of 1960’s drama Manhunt, Walter Dunlop continues his mission behind enemy lines to bring us his thoughts on the further adventures of Vincent, Jimmy and Nina. Let the examination commence…and beware of spoilers.

Right, here we go again! I seem to be watching this series in batches of seven episodes, which makes for neatness if nothing else.

Doing so makes plain some alarming leaps about in continuity, with one major cliffhanger glossed over the next week, and some chopping and changes in characters. Rather wonderfully, the opening titles change to reflect this, so you can play a little guessing game as to which character is going to turn up this week.

Dealing with the age old problem of who-gets-top-billing? Lynch and Barkworth’s credits swap over each week more or less from this point, with each being credited first on every-other episode. Cunning, although I’d hate to think there was any backstage rivalry between those two – the chemistry onscreen is just so strong.

Following his introduction in episode nine, Robert Hardy gets two credits – initially a title card reading “As Gratz”, followed by his name emblazoned in white-on-red glory on a second card. Presumably this is to reflect the absolutely bloody seismic effect his appearance has on the series.

The initial chase, evade capture, chase a bit more format of the earliest episodes gives way to something altogether darker, more disturbing and even more intriguing than the show’s already been.

Before all that though, at least one of our intrepid heroes has some difficult questions to face as we career into episode eight – A Different Kind of War. This – unbelievably enough – is what passes for a Christmas episode in Manhunt, as Jimmy, Nina and Vincent pitch up at the house of one of Vincent’s oldest friends on Christmas Eve.

Greeted with suspicion at first by the female occupant of the house, Vincent’s name produces a surprising warmth and affection, before the introduction of Vincent’s old friend following a delayed build-up.

And no wonder, because no British drama series is complete without an appearance by good old Julian Glover, as “Paul”. Bristling with Bonhomie, hospitable to a fault, and guaranteeing a safe haven for our fugitives, Paul seems the perfect host, but before Christmas Eve is out, we’ll discover a very different man behind the facade.

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DVD Review: Manhunt – The Complete Series: Part One

Manhunt

Manhunt

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…”

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DVD Review: I Spy, Season One

I Spy

As the world once more goes Bond mad, with Quantum of Solace fever spreading across the globe as it opens in each new territory (pity poor old Uruguay where Bond fans have to wait another month for the film), it seemed apt to take some time to watch the first season of I Spy, a show which debuted in 1965 when the original Bondmania was at its peak.

The premise of I Spy was simple enough, though oddly the scriptwriters don’t go overboard attempting to explain it in the first few episodes: Kelly Robinson (Robert Culp) is an international tennis player, while Alexander Scott (Bill Cosby) is his coach. Together they traverse the globe, Robinson accepting invitations from the rich and famous to play against them or simply taking part in tournaments.

But all is not what it seems as the pair are actually American spies working for the US Government, investigating nefarious goings on in various exotic locations. Mad scientists, rogue agents and gorgeous women are present in most of the first 28 episodes as the two spies move from Hong Kong to Vietnam to Japan and onto Mexico at the behest of their bosses.

There are a few things that make I Spy stand out from most of their contemporaries. Firstly, unlike most TV series of the day (and of the present day), the production team actually went on location to the places they were meant to be. The first batch of episodes are set in Hong Kong so we see the Culp and Cosby on and around the island, taking the Star Ferry and pacing the backstreets of Kowloon. This gives the series a fantastic energy and colour that is lost when series are filmed on back-lots in Burbank.

The other element that made me want to sit through this first season was the interaction between the leads. It’s fair to say that the show survives repeated viewing thanks to the banter of Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, the two constantly bouncing off each other from scene to scene. I’ve mentioned my admiration for Robert Culp before on this site and it was nice to see a younger Culp on form once again.

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Sean Connery in Person!

It’s tempting to think that the topics on this blog are getting samey, what with the title of my last post shouting about yet another ex-Bond who’s going to be appearing in public and who I have tickets for. This time it’s Mr Sean Connery.

Sean will be at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse on Sunday 24 August to present a screening of Sydney Lumet’s fantastic 1965 film, The Hill. I wrote about The Hill in February 2007 on this very blog (head over to have a look if you have a spare few minutes) and I’m delighted the Filmhouse have managed to secure the presence of Big Tam himself.

I hear he’ll be doing a 15 – 20 minute interview before the screening and I doubt there’ll be questions from the audience, but I’ll try and have one handy anyway. Visit the Filmhouse website to see if there are tickets left…

So with Sean in August and Roger in October, I wonder if George, Tim or Pierce can be persuaded to do any appearances in September, November or December, to round the year off in style?

Photo pinched from the Filmhouse website…

James Garner: Legend of the West

James Garner. That’s the answer I always give when asked who my favourite actor is. Recently I had to try and justify this to someone who seemed to have some pretty major Garner prejudice.

James Garner as Jim Rockford

James Garner as Jim Rockford

Although I like my films and telly, I do try to steer discussion onto other topics when meeting new people, at least for a while. On this occasion I mentioned James Garner, only to be told I was wrong.

While trying not to appear too bothered with this slur, I felt I had to defend his honour in his absence. I like to think I did alright, even after a few Jack Daniels and cokes, but it left me thinking more needs to be done to raise the profile of America’s finest.

So I’ve dug out an article I put together last year for a film course I took (written just after watching The Americanization of Emily) and, before that, here’s what I said about Jimbo back in this blog’s first post:

The blog is dedicated to Mr James Garner: Bret Maverick in Maverick, The Scrounger in The Great Escape and LAs finest, Jim Rockford PI in The Rockford Files.

His work and style epitomise everything I like in my entertainment. Heroes that aren’t black or white, but black and grey. Characters that would rather talk their way out of a situation than fight (who would have the guts to fight someone with a gun in real life? A Garner character would rather leg it). Humour that is understated rather than puerile or OTT. And a bit of realism in amongst the nonsense makes for good entertainment.

And now the article…

James Garner: Legend of the West

For the lowly television actor, the road to movie stardom is one littered with casualties. For every Bruce Willis there’s a David Caruso, for every George Clooney a Matt Le Blanc.

TV audiences will happily sit down each week to watch their favourite show/actor/actress, so why should they pay money to go to the cinema to see them in their latest artistic endeavour? For James Garner, the road has been something of a hazardous one.

In 1956, Hollywood screenwriter Roy Huggins was working on an episode of anthology series Conflict. Huggins was in the stages of planning a new TV series, a Western different to the then-current glut of cowboy series. But he lacked a leading man.

While casting for Conflict, Huggins saw a new young actor in action, one James Scott Bumgarner. As Huggins remembers, “I really had stumbled on something wonderful, the rarest thing there is in Hollywood: an actor with an unerring instinct for a funny line.” That actor would soon change his name to James Garner.

Birth of a Maverick

Born in Norman, Oklahoma on 7 April, 1928, Bumgarner had served in the Army in the Korean War. Injured and awarded the Purple Heart, he ended up in Los Angeles, taking supporting roles in a host of TV shows and commercials. At 6’1”, dark haired and with a knowing glint in his eye, he was prime leading-man material.

Support your Local SheriffCollaboration between Huggins and Garner led to the creation of the both the role and the character type that would define the actor’s career: Bret Maverick, reluctant hero and gentle grafter.

Maverick brought something new to the Western genre: humour. The series divided its episodes between Garner’s character and his brother Bart, played by Jack Kelly. It soon became clear that Garner’s episodes were the more popular with audiences, his easy-going charm and laconic delivery of lines making him a primetime star. Then the movie people came calling.

During summer filming breaks, Garner started to make his mark as a leading man. Roles in Up Periscope (1959) and Cash McCall (1960) were diverse enough to show Garner’s action-hero and romantic lead credentials, while the 1960s saw Garner’s film career take off.

He was soon being offered scripts for a series of high profile pictures, including The Children’s Hour (1961), a complete tonal shift from most of his other work, The Thrill of it All (1963), second-billing to Steve McQueen in The Great Escape (1963), The Americanization of Emily (1964) and Support your Local Sheriff (1969).

At home on the Range

Most of these films allowed Garner to hone the characterisation of the relaxed, combat-shy Everyman, who’s idea of living an easy life is interrupted by events around him. While Robert De Niro may eschew the virtues of method acting, the ability to sustain a note perfect, reliable and audience-friendly character through each of his movies meant that Garner was seen as a safe pair of hands.

If the 1960s were a golden period in Garner’s film career, the 1970s brought new demands. Ironically, it was one of Garner’s friends and TV contemporaries, Clint Eastwood, who would help define the era in such films as A Fistful of Dollars (1954) and Dirty Harry (1971). Garner tried gamely to respond to this with A Man Called Sledge in 1970, a spaghetti western in which he played against type.

His own production company helped him develop more personal films, such as Skin Game (1971). It was as a cowboy that Garner had made his mark, and a cowboy it seemed he would remain. He returned to TV briefly in semi-western Nicholls (1971-1972), which bombed with viewers and critics, before making some little-remembered movies that didn’t appear to tax him.

Saviour came in 1974 from an old collaborator, in the shape of Maverick’s Roy Huggins who, had decided to do for the detective series what Maverick had done for Westerns. The Rockford Files brought something new to the genre of private eyes, and was to all intents an updating of Garner’s previous persona for a new generation. This return to the small screen would revive his career once again.

Moving on

Maverick (1994)Garner was once quoted as saying, “When I left Rockford in 1980 I decided I want to do films that have interesting characters, people with human emotions and feelings and I’ve been very fortunate to do that.” This seems to sum up much of his film career post-Rockford.

Cinema beckoned again with films such as Victor Victoria (1982) and Murphy’s Romance (1985), for which he was Oscar-nominated. He would go on to produce some of his most interesting performances in a number of acclaimed TV movies for which he was Emmy nominated, such as My Name is Bill W (1989) and Barbarians at the Gate (1993).

An appearance in the movie version of Maverick (1993) could be seen as something of a closure for the Maverick character, a dovetailing of his TV and film careers.

While it’s fair to say that Garner never had the cinematic draw of Clint Eastwood, his failure to break into the Hollywood A-list often attributed to his ‘safe’ persona that lacked the edge offered by contemporaries such as Steve McQueen, his presence has always been a sign of quality.

More recent appearances in films such as Space Cowboys (2001), Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002) and The Notebook (2004) have cemented his position as a respectable, dependable actor from old-Hollywood. His return to primetime television in family comedy Eight Simple Rules in 2004 showed that the small screen wouldn’t let him go and that perhaps that’s just the way he likes it.

To finish off, here’s a decent little interview with Jim on the Charlie Rose show from 2002: