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: Strangers – The Complete Series 1 – 5

The Complete Strangers


British television in the 1970s was something of a haven for cop shows, a place where men were men, slags were slags and Guv was seemingly the preferred title for any officer above the level of Constable.

Viewers more used to the gentle methods of PC George Dixon would soon be choking on their TV dinners as a decade of The Sweeney, The Professionals and a whole new lexicon comprised of shooters, blags and shouts was introduced to the national conscience, not to mention a host of imitators and rivals to Regan and co.

It was in 1976 that ITV brought author Kenneth Royce’s novel XYY Man to the small screen, the story of cat burglar William ‘Spider’ Scott (Stephen Yardley), his extra Y chromosome and the resultant criminal tendencies.

Co-starring in XYY was gruff actor Don Henderson, a man with a face for playing villains, who went against type to portray DS George Bulman, a no-nonsense copper with a violent edge.

XYY would only last 13 episodes, after which Bulman should have been relegated to TV history along with colleague DC Derek Willis (Dennis Blanch) – that is until Granada TV decided they wanted their own version of The Sweeney and lured Bulman away from the safety of the Met to the frozen North West of England circa 1978.

Thanks to Bulman and Willis’ anonymity in the north (they are the Strangers of the title), and after being joined by WDC Linda Doran (Frances Tomelty) and DI David Singer (John Ronane), the pair could go undercover in various operations which would have proved impossible for the local police.

Series One was clearly a something of a baptism of fire for all involved, the desire to create a fast-paced crime show somewhat neutered by the decision to shoot the series on video and give it a Light Entertainment-style theme tune which wouldn’t have seemed out-of-place on a Bruce Forsyth game show of the era.

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Tutti Frutti’s Bomba speaks: Stuart McGuigan Interviewed

Scottish actor Stuart McGuigan has starred in some of the best known TV shows on British television, including It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Hamish Macbeth and, most famously, Tutti Frutti.

I recently caught up with Stuart to discuss his career and we touched upon his role as ageing rocker Bomba MacAteer in John Burns’ iconic series.

This interview took place before the DVD release was announced.

Jonathan Melville: What was it like working on Tutti Frutti?

Stuart McGuigan: John Byrne’s scripts were the best I’ve ever worked with on in television, without a doubt.

The director, producer cast and script just gelled.

I don’t know what you have to do to get the BBC to release it, who you have to pay to get it out. There’s still and audience for it, I still get stopped in the street about it and they ask can I buy it and I have to say no.

I have a theory that if the Scots were in charge of their own broadcasting there’s no way you’d have the best comedy drama series ever made in a country lying dormant for 20 years.

There should be a monument up to John Byrne as he’s a hugely talented man. He’s a writer and artist, he’s designed stage sets. Lovely guy, the show was the happiest six months I’ve ever spent making something – being paid by the BBC to learn drums, you can’t get much better than that.

Put it out on DVD and expatriate Jocks around the world will snap it up.

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The Return of Minder


Shane Richie as Archie Daley on Channel Five

It’s been all over the UK press recently that Minder, the classic 70s and 80s TV series starring George Cole as Arthur Daley and Dennis Waterman as Terry, is making a comeback.

Only this time we have Shane Richie as Arthur’s nephew Archie and Lex Shrapnel as his minder, Jamie.

I wrote a while back that I grew up watching Minder, at least in its latter years, and I loved its brilliant mix of drama and humour set among the seedy backstreets of London.

Even in its final few years, when Terry went to Australia, to be replaced by Gary Webster as Arthur’s nephew Ray, I would tune in to see what scam was being perpetrated this week.

A few years back I picked up the first series on Australian DVD, complete with a couple of George Cole commentaries, and admired the grit of the series and the clever plots, as well as the interaction between the leads.

Sadly it all ended in 1994, Arthur hanging his hat up for good and perhaps spending a few more evenings with ‘er indoors as he grew old disgracefully.

I have mixed feelings about the new show, even though I’ve not seen it yet (it’s due to start in February I believe). A review on the Guardian website this week was pretty evenhanded about the first episode, though they couldn’t quite work out who the audience is going to be for the series: the fans will think it’s a bad idea while the kids won’t think its cool enough.

I’ve read that the Winchester Club will make an appearance and it would be great to see the return of Arthur for a one-off appearance, or even Mr Chisholm (Patrick Malahide).

The makers have said they’d love to get Waterman or Cole back for series two, but we’ll have to wait and see whether this can run for as many years as the original or if it’ll be a flash in the pan. I truly hope this can do some justice to the classic series and that they don’t spoil the memory.

I’ll add a review to the blog following the first episode, in the meantime here’s a short trailer for Channel Five with some Minder clips followed by the revamped theme tune from Glasgow band the Attic Lights – I really hope that Richie’s annoying tie straightening gimmick seen in the music video isn’t going to be his “trademark” in the series:

Photo copyright Channel Five

DVD Review: Fox

As someone who watched countless episodes of Minder while growing up in the 80s and early 90s, and also as a fan of the much missed Verity Lambert, I recently decided to try and track down some other productions from Euston Films, the company where Verity did much of her best work and where some of the UK’s finest series originated.

I decided to start with Fox, a series from 1980 which I’m too young to remember but which I’ve read enough about over the years to know that I really should be checking it out.

The thirteen-part series is set in South London and concerns the actions of the Fox family, a tight-knit clan headed up by Billy Fox (Peter Vaughan) and consisting of his five sons – Kenny (Ray Winstone), Vincent (Bernard Hill), Ray (Derrick O’Connor), Joey (Larry Lamb) and Phil (Eamon Boland) along with wife Connie (Elizabeth Spriggs). That’s a cracking cast, and those are just the leads, with other characters making appearances as the episodes go on.

As the series opens, the family are making do under the watchful eye of “King” Billy, an ex-market trader and a well known face in the manor who rules the roost with a stern-but-fair hand. At some point in the past Billy was obviously a major player in town, well known to all the local gangsters, though it’s never explicitly explained how far his reach actually went.

His sons are all working hard to make a living, whether that’s in the building trade, as a boxer, a taxi driver or, in Phil’s case, as a mature student. Thanks to the number of episodes given to the series, characters are allowed to build up naturally, with all the flaws and traits growing as time passes.

While major events do occur, there’s usually some background to them so that the viewer actually cares about what’s happening and can see the ramifications and the effects on the family.

The nature of family is central to Fox. While to Billy family is the most important thing in the world, uniting people and bringing them together, to Phil it’s almost the opposite. To him it’s stifling and oppressive, his desire to escape Clapham leading to issues with his dad which play out over the eleven-hours of the series.

Of the actors it’s hard to single anyone out for particular praise. Vaughan is both tender and terrifying at the same time, Boland impressive as he shows his struggle between being an individual and staying part of the family. For me the standout performances come from Derrick O’Connor and Larry Lamb, both of whom are given some great material to work with. Watching the latter mature of the course of the series is particularly rewarding.

O’Connor was a real revelation. Having not seen him in much before I didn’t realise his range. He’s able to do both funny and dramatic at the drop of a hat and I found myself wanting more and more scenes with Ray as the series progressed. Again, the length of the series means that when events do spiral out of control for him near the end of the series it really means something.

There is one slightly odd storyline concerning Ray Winstone’s character which I’m still not sure about, but to say much more would spoil things. Coming so soon after the traumatic repercussions of his boxing match, the introduction of The Bill’s Mark Wingett as a small-time criminal makes for a strange few episodes which could almost be from another series, but it does again give O’Connor some major screentime so I should be pleased.

I’d recommend this series to anyone who’s a fan of great British drama and who is willing to spend a bit of time with some talented actors and scripts which aren’t dumbed down. TV just isn’t made on this scale in Britain anymore, and we’re the worse of for it. Writer Trevor Preston knows his characters inside out and isn’t afraid to take his time making them real. He also wrote the songs which appear in each episode and which play an important part of the narrative.

I’ve now ordered Euston Film’s Out starring Tom Bell and my old mate Derrick O’Connor, and written once more by Trevor Preston. Here’s hoping it’s as good as Fox.

Fox is available on DVD from Network.

Return to Fraggle Rock: Victor Pemberton interview

Victor and Sprocket

In late 2007 I was lucky enough to spend some time chatting with veteran television writer Victor Pemberton about his time working on cult 80s series, Fraggle Rock as script editor and producer.

While today the phrase “dance your cares away, worries for another day” could be a mantra used on Strictly Come Dancing, twenty five years ago these words introduced viewers to a world of Fraggles, Doozers and conflict resolution in the programme conceived by Jim Henson.

Henson, a key contributor to the success of Sesame Street in 1969 and later the creator of the phenomenally successful Muppet Show in 1976, had a vision of an allegorical world of creatures that would reflect real world issues such as prejudice, social conflict and the environment. Heavy stuff for early afternoon on ITV…

Jonathan Melville: How did you get involved with Fraggle Rock?

Victor Pemberton: It was through a very dear friend of mine, Duncan Kenworthy, producer of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, who I’d met while working in Kuwait for American television.

He’d joined forces with Jim Henson and said to me one day “we’re going to do new show, based on material shot in Canada and each country will do their own segments – can you come up with an idea for what we can do with the UK segments?”

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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: