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

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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.

Continue reading