Dragons: Riders of Berk arrives on UK TV


There was some good news at the weekend for British fans of 2010’s animated film, How to Train Your Dragon, as the TV spin-off arrived on the Cartoon Network.

Dragons: Riders of Berk picks up a short time after the events of the Dreamworks film, when (and this is a spoiler if you haven’t seen How to Train Your Dragon) the Vikings of Berk and their dragon neighbours are living in harmony.

Well, as harmoniously as can be expected when you’re talking about flying beasties that breathe fire.

Now it’s up to the humans to stop killing the dragons and train them to help them in their daily chores, with the first double bill of episodes neatly reminding fans what had gone before while informing newbies what they’ve missed.

The young voice cast from the film has been retained for the TV series, including Jay Baruchel as lead Hiccup, while the adult actors are now Americans pretending to be Scottish as Gerard Butler and Craig Ferguson are off doing bigger things.

Thomas Wilson (Biff from the Back to the Future series) is Bucket while ex-Doctor Who David Tennant is also due to pop-up in a future episode as Spitelout Jorgenson, recreating his role from the movie.

The series retains the computer generated look of the feature film and much of John Powell’s terrific score, a soundtrack I’ve been listening to regularly for a few years now. Composer John Paesano joins the series for weekly scoring duties.

Two seasons have been commissioned and 40 episodes are in the works, with season two to be called Defenders of Berk. Season one began in the US in August 2012 so we’re a bit behind, but judging by these first episodes it’s a programme worth sticking with and I can’t wait to follow the adventures of Hiccup, Toothless and co.

We’re also promised two new feature films in 2014 and 2016, meaning the How to Train Your Dragon franchise should be a long and fruitful one, something worth celebrating in this world of soulless sequels.

Dragons: Riders of Berk airs on the Cartoon Network on Saturdays at 10.30am and 6.30pm.


Introducing Cannell Channel Day

“I sit down and I try really hard to do something I’d want to go home and watch myself. How could I know what 30 million people want? I didn’t, but I know what Steve Cannell wants. If I sat in a screening room looking at an hour of television that was really good I’d go “yes, that’s what we’re trying to do!” Stephen J Cannell, Pioneers of Television

Stephen J Cannell was the guy who brought us such TV classics as The A-Team, The Rockford Files, 21 Jump Street, Hunter, Wiseguy and The Greatest American Hero back in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

Here are a few more of his series to jog your memory:

Cannell knew he wasn’t writing Shakespeare but he also knew that popular hour-long dramas didn’t have to appeal to the lowest common denominator. He entertained the masses and is still doing so years after his biggest hits have left prime time TV schedules, these days through DVD releases, cable channel reruns and YouTube clips.

Sadly, Stephen J Cannell passed away on 30 September 2010 at the age of 69, soon after a film adaptation of The A-Team had hit cinemas and a 21 Jump Street adaptation was being mulled over in another part of Hollywood.

I’ve written on this blog before about Cannell’s influence on my life and my love of TV and film, with one of my earliest memories involving the watching of The Greatest American Hero on Australian TV in 1982, at the age of five. Those memories mainly involve Ralph (William Katt) flying into walls and hearing the incredibly catchy theme tune over and over again…

With The A-Team pulling in audiences around the globe during the mid-80s, Cannell cemented the reputation he’d built up with his earlier award-winning drama, The Rockford Files, as one of the most successful, and most prolific, creator/writer/producer/directors in the business.

He not only made deals with the networks to make his shows, he made a deal with the viewer. We gave him an hour of our time and he gave us some dramatic, funny, smart, knowing and memorable TV in return. Everyone was a winner.

OK, so what’s the point of this lengthy preamble?

Well, with Sunday marking the second anniversary of Cannell’s passing, I wanted to celebrate his life by rewatching some old episodes of his TV series, as I’ve got a fair few in the house…

Part of my Cannell collection

Part of my Cannell collection

But, in this age of social media (if Cannell was making The A-Team now you could probably tweet the guys for help), I realised I could spread the word a bit further than my living room, alerting a few others to the fact that Sunday is a day for sticking on an episode of a Cannell production, effectively tuning it into the Cannell Channel for 50 minutes.

As a result, I’ll be sending out a few tweets from now until Sunday using the #cannellchannel hashtag, advising that anyone with a passing interest in Stephen J Cannell take some time to remember his legacy by creating their own Cannell Channell.

Perhaps you have The A-Team on DVD (TV show or film) or fancy downloading an episode from iTunes, have Netflix in the US to watch The Rockford Files or want to sample an episode of his series via YouTube, including:

Then simply tweet your thoughts on the show using the #cannellchannel hashtag or leave a comment below, including suggestions for any other videos worth checking out. On the off chance that anyone who worked with Cannell is reading this, please feel free to leave a memory of him in the comments.

You can also find out more about Cannell over on IMDb or hear him discuss his career on the excellent Archive of American Television website.

In the event that nobody else wants to join in on Sunday I’ll watch a few episodes of Cannell series I haven’t got around to yet, mainly from the Prime Time Crime Collection.

Of course I do hope a few others can find the time to remember Cannell, after all I love it when a plan comes together…

The Search for Fraggle Rock

It shouldn’t happen to a TV show. The result of months of work by a team of professionals, who then pass it on to a broadcaster to transmit to a few million viewers who then (hopefully) embrace it to their collective bosoms, a great TV programme should then be allowed to retire to an archive somewhere, occasionally receiving visitors in the shape of satellite channels or a DVD company.

In the case of Fraggle Rock, Jim Henson’s 1980s series which brought weird puppets and conflict resolution to teatime telly, something seems to have gone badly wrong in those archives.

Henson’s dream was to have series that appeared to be small-scale to the casual observer, but which underneath was a complex network of international co-production deals and filming schedules. The theory was that children would react better to a series made in their language and with references they understood.

Each episode would start in the “real” world with some business about an old man called The Captain (Fulton Mackay) living in Fraggle Rock lighthouse with his dog, Sprocket. After a few minutes the scene would then switch to an underground world of Fraggles, led obstensibly by young Gobo (Jerry Nelson). There would then follow an adventure in which one Fraggle would get into trouble and the others would save him/her while learning a valuable lesson about life.

If you watched Fraggle Rock in the UK then the lighthouse “wraparound” bit will sound familiar, though Fulton Mackay was replaced by John Gordon Sinclair and Simon O’Brien in later years. If you lived in America, Australia, Scandinavia, Spain or numerous other countries you would have seen Doc (Gerry Parkes), an inventor, interact with Sprocket. Doc’s mini-adventures took place in his garage.

French and German audiences again got their own wraparounds with local actors playing Doc.

Though Fraggle Rock went on to become a huge success around the world, spawning 96 episodes in total, that simple idea involving co-production deals would be the series downfall when it came to repeats, at least it was here in the UK thanks to TVS, a now defunct TV station, producing the UK wraparounds.

When TVS lost their licence in 1992, their back catalogue, and the documentation detailing it, was a victim of massive upheaval behind the scenes, resulting in only 12 episodes of the UK Fraggle Rock now officially remaining in the vaults. These were released on DVD a few years ago from HIT Entertainment on Region 2.

A bit of research (well, Googling) over the years from yours truly leads me to believe that, despite HIT contacting The Jim Henson Company to enquire about the episodes, the original master tapes are indeed missing. As is usually the way of these things, the fans are also doing a bit of digging around and, according to some recent posts on a missing episodes forum, we can add a further 17 broadcast quality episodes held by the BFI to the 12 that came out on DVD.

According to that post, fan Alex Taylor has a further 28 episode recorded off air (on his own video recorder), bringing the total number of Fraggle Rock UK episodes known to exist up to 57 – he’s kindly listed them all over on his own website.

I was fortunate enough to interview the producer of the UK wraparounds, Victor Pemberton, a few years ago and he mentioned that he at one time had every episode on VHS but that he wasn’t sure if he still had them in the basement.

The reason for my summing all of this up is that this week saw The Jim Henson Company upload six new clips to their excellent YouTube channel featuring Fulton Mackay as The Captain. Of the six clips, three now only exist as fan owned, off air, non broadcast quality episodes – The Trash Heap Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Sir Hubris and the Gorgs and The Garden Plot – and yet they all look in perfect condition to me:

So what does this mean for the existence of more UK episodes at The Jim Henson Company? Are these merely clips that have been lying around that have now been put online in isolation? Or are these excerpts from full episodes held by Henson that could, theoretically, be released in full? Do they have more clips still to be put online?

I’ve been holding back publishing this post for a few days as I’ve emailed the team at Henson to ask what the situation is, but assuming they’re busy with more pressing issues I may not hear back for a while.

It’s also useful to raise the subject once again in case any reader of this post has an episode on VHS that is missing, presumed gone. If so, feel free to let me know in the comments and we can try to get it into some new archive…

Maverick returns to British TV

James Garner as Maverick

Great news for fans of Maverick, the 1950s TV series starring James Garner and Jack Kelly as Bret and Bart Maverick: it’s finally back on UK television, every day at 12.30 on TCM UK.

I say “fans” of Maverick but in reality I mean “those perhaps aware of the 1994 movie but who are unlikely to ever have seen an episode of the TV show as it hasn’t been shown here in decades,” but that’s a bit clunky.

I only noticed the repeat run after a bit of scrolling through the cable channels and a run through the TCM line-up, even though it’s not one I subscribe to. A quick email to TCM confirms that they have the rights to at least the first season, which debuted on US TV on 22 September, 1957. Although the website doesn’t make it clear where they’re up to, they will at some point be repeating the season again, going back to the first episode, The War of the Silver Kings.

I’ve been slowly making my way through the series on DVD (sadly, it’s not officially available anywhere, these are off-air copies) and this initial run is hugely enjoyable stuff, with Garner finding his feet straight away as the charming gambler travelling the old West and finding trouble in every town.

The series, created by Roy Huggins, who also gave us The Fugitive, was the first TV Western to add humour to its scripts, making it stand out from the glut of serious cowboy shows on American television.

Rather than start a fight, Maverick will try to talk his way out of a bad situation, looking after himself as much as possible. Sure, he’s a coward, but he’s a living coward, which beats being a dead one.

After a few episodes we’re also introduced to Bret’s brother, Bart, who’s up to the same game, only a few hundred miles down the road. Once in a while the Maverick’s team up to take on a particularly tricky foe, episodes such as The Wrecker and Trail West to Fury allowing Garner and Kelly to bounce off each other with the programmes trademark humour.

The latter episode also features a guest appearance by Dandy Jim Buckley (Efrem Zimbalist Jnr), one of many fellow con men encountered by the pair during their adventures.

Warner Bros stage 25The first few episodes are notable for the fact they were directed by Budd Boetticher, the famed B-movie Western director who reused many of the guest cast in his Randolph Scott collaborations, something I noticed while watching the Budd Boetticher Collection earlier in the year. The series isn’t just a series of one-liners, with a hefty dose of drama in amongst the humour and more than a few dead bodies.

The show would also go on to inspire the creation of The Rockford Files in the 1970s and Garner played the character of Maverick in a sequel series, Bret Maverick, as well as making an appearance in Richard Donner’s 1994 big screen version, with Mel Gibson making a decent addition to the Maverick clan.

In April 2011 I toured the Warner Bros set in Los Angeles, home to Maverick in the 1950s, and made a point of looking out for any signs of the show. If you enlarge the photo on the right you’ll find a mention, along with some of the distinguished films and series which were crafted on Stage 25.

Garner’s hat from the series is also on display in another part of the complex, but photos were banned

That’s a long way of saying that if you have TCM I’d recommend tuning in one of these days. Unlike today’s TV series there’s no arc or ongoing plot that you won’t understand if you miss an episode, just good, old-fashioned, entertainment that hasn’t dated too badly.

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The Culp Collection #2: Last of the Good Guys (1978)

Denis Dugan and Robert Culp in Last of the Good Guys

This week’s entry into The Culp Collection, my irregular trawl through the various Robert Culp TV movies which have appeared on YouTube over the last year or two, is Last of the Good Guys, a 1978 effort from Columbia Picture Productions.

The 1970s saw Culp star in a raft of made-for-television films, with the genre a popular one for US TV networks keen to give their audiences 90 minute movies that they didn’t have to leave their homes to watch. Actors such as Culp, who was still appearing in the odd theatrical release, were still big draws for TV viewers, and he became a regular in films such as 1973’s A Cold Night’s Death and Last of the Good Guys.

This time around Culp is cast as the establishment figure of Sergeant Nichols, a no-nonsense cop running an LA precinct of oddballs which includes Dennis Dugan’s Officer Johnny Lucas and Larry Hagman (who’s given Special Guest Star billing) as Sergeant Frank O’Malley. When we meet him, O’Malley is close to retirement, which immediately sets alarm bells ringing in the minds of experienced/jaded TV viewers.

We soon discover that O’Malley has been ill for a while, but doesn’t dare tell anyone in case his pension is affected. As this film aired in the same year as the first season of Dallas, in which Hagman became a household name around the globe as JR Ewing, I’m assuming the two were filmed around the same time, but this is a very different Hagman to the oil tycoon. Hagman ensures O’Malley is a sympathetic character and it’s easy for the audience to feel for him.

It’s tricky to explain the plot without giving away what could be considered a spoiler, but what happens next is the crux of the film; look away now if you’d rather not find out. Still here? OK, well O’Malley dies, leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves, until Lucas decides that he’s going to help his old buddy by pretending he’s alive right up until his retirement date, by which point he’s guaranteed a pay-out.

Knowing that Nichols won’t agree to the scam, Lucas convinces his colleagues to set up an elaborate set of tricks and ruses which essentially mean O’Malley doesn’t attend morning roll calls while Nichols slowly begins to twig that his men are up to something.

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New Stephen J Cannell website

Part of my Cannell collection

Well done to the team at Stephen J Cannell Productions for keeping the legacy of one of television’s greatest assets alive after his death: they’ve just launched a new website which remembers him and celebrates his career.

Regular readers will know that my love of Cannell’s output, whether that’s The Greatest American Hero, The Rockford Files or The Rousters, knows no limits – those are a few of my Cannell DVDs above.

A look around the new website reveals that they’ve ported a lot of content from the previous version but also added some new items. As well as information on the majority of his shows you can download Cannell’s scripts from each of them for free. Combine those with the online writing tutorials, both written and in video, and there’s a writing course just waiting to be taken.

I’m hoping that they keep adding new information from the Cannell vaults over the coming year, certainly some clips from the rarer shows that didn’t quite make it as big as The A-Team. Interviews with Cannell production staff would also be good to see.

For my own part in publishing more Cannell content, I managed to interview long-term Cannell friend and collaborator, Mr Jo Swerling, Jr, while on a recent trip to Hollywood. Jo produced many of Cannell’s series and had a lot to say about TV production in the 1980s. I want to get it online in the next month or so, but as our discussion lasted for almost two hours, it might take a while to write up.

In the meantime, head over to www.cannell.com and enjoy yourself. You can also join the Stephen J Cannell Facebook page for more updates

James Garner brought to book in The Garner Files

It’s taken me a while to mention here that James Garner has finally agreed to publish his memoirs in November.

The Garner FilesSimon and Schuster announced the news in March that The Garner Files: A Memoir is being written by Garner and author Jon Winokur, with the actor noting that he’d avoided writing the book before now because he feels he’s “really pretty average”.

Garner went on to say “I’m still a little uncomfortable, but I finally agreed, because people I trust persuaded me people might be interested and because I realized it would allow me to acknowledge those who’ve helped me along the way. I talk about my childhood, try to clear up some misconceptions, and even settle a score or two”.

This is a book I thought we’d never see, a chance to hear first hand about the life and career of one of Hollywood’s finest leading men (I’d suggest the finest). I’m interested to hear more about his time on Maverick in the 1950s and about some of those legal cases which saw Garner taking various film studios to court.

Hopefully we’ll also get some insight into his own acting process and perhaps his theory as to why he was never quite on a par with Eastwood or McQueen when it came to starring roles.

I’ve pre-ordered my copy from Amazon.co.uk, though it seems to be the US edition. I’m not sure if a UK edition is in the pipeline and I’d welcome any news on the subject.

As an aside, I stumbled across this excellent new article which asks whether 2011 could see a reapappraisal for Garner, thanks to the release of the biography and a raft of new DVDs from Warner Archive.

Freaks and Geeks reunion at the Paley Centre

It was in Australia in 2000, while I was backpacking for a year and had very little chance to watch much new TV, that I stumbled across an episode of Freaks and Geeks for the first time.

It wasn’t immediately clear what year it was set in or if there was any arc to the series which meant I wouldn’t be able to work out what was going on with just one episode, but what was obvious was that this was Something Different.

Set in Michigan in 1980, the series follows the lives of schoolkids who are simply trying to get their grades and avoid the humiliation that comes with being a teenager. Split roughly into two groups of the freaks (those kids who were always smoking in the toilets and who never bothered to study) and the geeks (the Bionic Woman-loving kids who watch from the sidelines as their cooler contemporaries got drunk and got the girls), the series was created by Paul Feig and executive produced by Judd Apatow. Yes, that Judd Apatow.

Though Freaks and Geeks must rank as one of the most acutely observed, beautifully written, well acted and all round near-perfect series made for television, it only lasted 12 episodes before it was pulled from the air. The other six episodes eventually made it to TV, but it was too late. The series, like so many teenage dreams before it, had died.

A funny thing happened though. In 2007, Time magazine added it to their 100 Greatest Shows of All Time, as well as placing it third on their list of the greatest television shows of the 2000s, just behind The Wire and Lost. In 2008, Entertainment Weekly ranked it the 13th-best series of the past 25 years.

Many of its stars, including James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segal and Linda Cardellini went on to have bigger careers and Apatow created a comedy genre of his own.

Elsewhere, TV fans around the globe heard it was pretty good and bought the DVDs or borrowed them off their friends. At least, any friends that were brave enough to let their Freaks and Geeks DVDs out of their site. I think I’ve only managed it once, and that was before I hassled Judd Apatow to sign the set while he was in Edinburgh a few years ago.

The point of all this was really just to say that some video from a recent reunion at the Paley Centre in Los Angeles is now online, both official and fan made over on YouTube. Only 11 minutes of the official stuff can be seen on the Paley website, but it’s better than nothing.

Enjoy, and please head over to Amazon to buy the DVDs (if you can afford them, sadly they rarely come down in price).

There’s also some footage from the Freaks and Geeks “sequel” series, Undeclared:

An open letter to Jason Segel re: The Muppets

Dear Jason,

How are things over in Hollywood? Right about now you’re probably knee-deep in felt as your dream project, The Muppets, slowly comes to fruition. I’ve been reading the various casting rumours and potential plotlines that seem to leak from every corner of the internet, and it all seems to be shaping up nicely.

Knowing your love for the characters of Kermit, Piggy, Gonzo and the rest of the gang – is it true you’ve always had Muppet pictures and figurines in your house? You’re a fanboy like the rest of us (except for the fangirls)! – you must be in your element and I’ve got high hopes that this won’t be another Muppets from Space.

There’s just one thing that’s worrying me. Well, me and the rest of the population of the United Kingdom. That’s the fact that while the film is being released in the USA on 23 November 2011 (happy Thanksgiving in advance), we won’t be seeing it on these shores until Friday 17 February 2012.

Now, I know that you know your Muppet history. You know that back in the mid-70s Jim Henson was having trouble getting his Muppets into a regular, weekly, TV slot on a US network. You also know that Henson ended up pitching the idea of The Muppet Show to UK TV impresario, Lew Grade, who agreed to produce the programme at Elstree Studios, just north of London, for worldwide distribution.

For five years, Henson’s gloriously bonkers world of talking frogs, bears, pigs and whatever Gonzo was, took the world by storm, with the second Muppet movie, The Great Muppet Caper, also filmed in the UK.

According to the brief blurb on IMDB, your film sees the Muppets team up to save their old theatre. The same one which was first built on a soundstage at Elstree back in the day. The one which was crafted by workers fuelled by British bacon butties and cups of tea as they stood proud for the national anthem and saluted the Queen every lunchtime. Maybe.

Since then the Muppets have left Blighty behind as their careers have peaked and troughed (that’s not a slight on Miss Piggy, by the way), TV specials, movies and online videos appearing sporadically as fans wait patiently for someone to recapture the magic of the Henson years and return them to their former glory.

With Walt Disney Pictures now the owners of the Muppets, we’re likely to get a big budget, well promoted picture with enough spin-off merchandise to fill each Disney Store a few times over. You’ll know all about that, and I’m sure children everywhere will be demanding Jason Segel action figures this Christmas.

Exciting times then. Well, exciting if you’re going to be in America on 23 November. As I mentioned above, here in the UK we have to wait for three months, as highlighted today by Muppet fansite, The Muppet Mindset. Even Germany, the Netherlands and France will see it before us and we all know where Doc Hopper got his ideas from…

Clearly something has gone wrong somewhere along the line. Does it really take three months to ship a print or digital copy of the film to the UK? Staggered release dates across different territories may be common practice, but sometimes there need to be exceptions.

As an example, the most recent Harry Potter film was released in the UK and the US on the same day, 19 November 2010, meaning it can be done if the property is seen to have value, and those pesky illegal downloaders are considered a problem.

You know that the Muppets aren’t just another brand name to be exploited by multinational organisations. OK, so Rowlf the Dog may have been created to promote dog food in the 1960s, but things have changed since then. Kermit, Piggy, Gonzo and the gang aren’t just bundles of felt. They’re bundles of felt with personalities and a global fan base waiting to welcome them back.

I’m not saying that just because The Muppet Show started here we have the right to watch the film on the same day as you. I’m not even saying that if it wasn’t for Lew Grade and a bundle of British bacon butties, you might not even be making your pet project right now.

However, I’ve read that your take on the Muppets will be “hilarious, fantastic, heart-wrenching, beautiful, nostalgic and remarkable”, and that’s admirable. So why wait so long to let the rest of us see that vision? We all suffered the bad times together (cough…Studio DC…cough) so why not let us share the good stuff as well?

If it makes a difference to your bosses, we’ll each go to our nearest burger chain and buy the relevant meal deal with free Animal glass on the day of release. Twice.

So, to wrap things up and let you get back to the set, can you perhaps have a word with those Disney execs who make the decisions? You managed to get a multi-million dollar movie into production starring a bunch of hand-operated puppets, so you’ve experience in achieving the unexpected. Ask them nicely to release your film around the world on the same date, or as near as possible to it.

Do this and you’ll make a nation proud of you. We’ll even make you a round of bacon rolls and a cup of tea when you come over to do the promotional work. The Queen may even salute you this time around.

Do it for Britain. Do it for yourself. Above all, do it for furry blue weirdos, talking vegetables and the next fan who buys all the merchandise and decides that in 20 years time he or she will bring back the Muppets in a movie, with a cameo from some old actor called Jason Segel.


Jonathan Melville

Remembering Stephen J Cannell

“So that’s it. Cue the end music. Roll the production logos. Bring up the final end card and we’re at: The End.” The final words in Stephen J Cannell’s last novel, The Prostitutes’ Ball

There’s been something missing on this blog for a while now, something I’ve been acutely aware of but which, thanks to time pressures, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do justice to: a tribute to TV producer Stephen J Cannell.

It was last September that the man who created/co-created/produced/wrote/directed series such as The A-Team, The Rockford Files, Hunter, The Greatest American Hero, Stingray, Wiseguy, The Commish and many, many more died at the age of 69.

I’ve noted before that one of my earliest TV memories is watching The Greatest American Hero at the age of five while in Brisbane, Australia. My family had emigrated there in 1982 for what would turn out to be a very short time (we didn’t see the year out Down Under), but certain things linger in the mind. Barbeques. School assemblies. Ralph Hinkley in the red jammies.

A combination of Joey Scarbury’s annoyingly brilliant music and some fast-paced action with a healthy dose of humour meant that to my mind it was televisual manna from heaven, far better than most of the cartoons being thrown my way. At least, I assume that was the thought process. After thirty years things get a little hazy.

A few years later, now back in Scotland, we had a weekly adventure for The A-Team on ITV to look forward too. These days I’m a big Doctor Who fan and I now realise that I was missing the good Doctor each Saturday on BBC1 as I waded through the adverts on The Other Side to see what Hannibal, Faceman, BA and Murdock were getting up to. But The A-Team was shiny and fresh and you could play with the toys in the garden or at being the characters at school. Nobody spoke about Doctor Who back then.

Since then I’ve stumbled across various US series that grabbed my attention and stuck in the mind, usually thanks to their wit and action scenes. Episodes of Hunter and Renegade, mostly only half-watched, screened late night while at school. James Garner in the Rockford Files on weekday afternoons while at university. Repeats of Riptide at 3am on weekends on Channel 5, again while at uni.

What I didn’t realise for a long time was that all of these programmes had something in common, namely Stephen J Cannell. Born in Los Angeles in 1941, Cannell may have had severe dyslexia but he graduated from the University of Oregon in 1964 with a degree in journalism.

It was in 1968 that Cannell sold his first TV script to Universal for the Robert Wagner series, To Catch a Thief. After a few years as a jobbing scriptwriter, Cannell rose through the ranks of TV to end up one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, running his own independent studio and bringing numerous hit series to our screens.

I spent some of Christmas 2010 watching the Archive of American Television’s excellent interview with Cannell, which takes around three hours to get through but which offers a fascinating look into the mind of the man and his dedication to the writing process.

I could go on for multiple blog posts about the skill behind Cannell’s work and the way he makes it all look so simple. He admitted that much of his action/adventure output was targeted at the average Joe who gets home after a hard days work and who wants to be entertained by his TV set. Cannell was happy with being part of mainstream and so were his viewers.

Interestingly, while my love of Cannell shows hasn’t wavered over the years, my own interest in the mainstream has. It’s dangerous to generalise about TV in 2011, but I’ll have a go anyway. While the odd piece of scripted television still comes along that has the power to entertain, excite, scare, chill or in some other way engage the audience, much of it is simplified to the point of being offensive.

A Cannell show may have been dumb fun, but it was never dumbed down. Cannell was happy to keep things looking simple on the surface, but there was usually something more going on beneath. Just watch one of his Rockford’s, where a plot may begin like a standard private eye show before spiralling off into something much odder and always unique.

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James Garner on the Archive of American Television

Over the holiday season I’m catching up with some long overdue viewing, much of it on DVD but part of it online. For the past year I’ve had a website bookmarked, the Archive of American Television, specifically their interview with my favourite actor, James Garner, and the time has finally arrived to watch it.

The Archive was set up by the Television Academy Foundation in 1997 to house over 700 interviews with the pioneers of television, with over 2,500 hours now online. One of my aims in 2011 is to reach back into the murky past of television and cinema as much as possible, and this is a useful way to find out more about the background of some of my favourite series.

First up is James Garner, star of Maverick in the 1950s (which I recently began watching), The Rockford Files in the 1970s and various films such as The Great Escape, Support Your Local Sheriff and The Americanization of Emily. Recorded in March 1999, Garner talks for around three hours about his life and career, including his appearance alongside Marlon Brando in Sayonara which saw him selected for the role of Bret Maverick in 1957.

Garner also discusses his subsequent blacklisting in the TV industry when he chose to sue Warner Bros in the 1960s (the first of many times he would sue a Hollywood studio) and the strain of trying to produce The Rockford Files when his health deteriorated during production.

The actor is tough but fair about those he worked with, including Maverick creator Roy Huggins, noting that he enjoyed the role but not the treatment from Warner Bros, who paid him a pittance compared to their earnings from the hit Western.

If you have three hours to spare, take a look at the six-part interview and listen to one of our finest actors in conversation.

Next up for me is the interview with the late, great, Stephen J Cannell, the writer-producer-director who sadly died this year and whose work I plan to revisit in some detail in 2011.

Robert Culp and more remembered by TCM

The annual TCM Remembers video has been released, a montage of stills and clips of film professionals who passed away over the last 12 months.

The death of actor Robert Culp was the big one for me this year, someone I’ve admired for the last 30 years in one way or another. I started out as a fan of the knockabout humour of The Greatest American Hero in 1982 before going on to recognise his more nuanced performances in films such as Hickey & Boggs and Hannie Caulder.

The death of Greatest American Hero creator Stephen J Cannell has meant it’s been a double blow this year for fans of that particular show.

Watch the full video, which also contains nods to Leslie Neilsen, Kevin McCarthy, Irvin Kershner and more, below:

James Garner in 1961’s Angel

Looking out for your favourite actor in an unfamiliar setting is nothing new, the chance to see them in a role other than their hit TV show or film usually a welcome one.

The downside to being a fan of actors who enjoyed much of their fame in the 1950s, 60s or 70s, on TV and at the cinema, is that trying to track down their various TV movie exploits or guest appearances on other series can be tricky. Thanks goodness then for YouTube.

While carrying out a periodic search for new James Garner and Robert Culp clips (we all do that, right?) I stumbled upon an episode of a US comedy called Angel from 1961, starring French-born American actress Annie Fargé as the lead character.

With its title sequence looking like a dry run for Bewitched, which wouldn’t air for another four years, this short-lived CBS comedy from the creator of I Love Lucy found Fargé playing a heavily accented French woman, who now lives in America with husband Marshall Thompson. Hilarious escapades follow Angel as she battles with American culture, while the series keeps cutting away to commercial breaks, which even the actors are forced to take part in.

There’s not much to recommend about Angel, even though TIME Magazine went for Fargé in a big way, claiming she was the “brightest newcomer to comedy.”

The reason I mention the programme at all is that the February 23 episode, The French Lesson, features James Garner, playing himself. Garner needs to learn some lines of French for his new role, and Angel is recommended to him. His arrival turns Angel’s head, and she soon begins to think she too can become a famous actor, changing from meek housewife to glamourous wannabe in the space of 15 minutes.

Garner, who had recently left Maverick but who had a number of film roles to his name, fits in perfectly to the set-up, his effortless style well suited to the sitcom role. This must have been an easy pay cheque for Jim, as there’s nothing particularly taxing about the role, he gets a few decent lines and it’s all over before it even began. Had he not decided to settle on a movie career, I suspect a role in a weekly sitcom would have suited him, something he did finally manage to do 40 years later, when he arrived in Eight Simple Rules as the grandad.

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Being Human USA

Being Human poster

I know, I know: never judge a book by its cover (unless it’s a Dan Brown novel in which case you know to avoid it) and never judge a US remake of a UK TV series by a 90 second preview. I know the rules, but I’m still going to state that my first glimpse of Being Human USA doesn’t fill me with confidence.

Being Human has been one of my favourite shows of the last few years, the story of the vampire, werewolf and ghost flatsharing in Bristol a real oddity in the BBC 3 schedules, mainly because it’s good. Earlier this year I carried out a fairly pointless yet still pretty enjoyable blog-a-thon of the first series and I also started previewing some of the second series, which I may try again in 2011 when the third comes along.

Now, following in the footsteps of other great transitions of UK programmes to America, Red Dwarf and Coupling two which spring to mind (and something called The Office which has done OK), the BBC are sending the format of Being Human Stateside, with 13 episodes of the retooled show due to air there in January.

The downside of this is that original stars Aidan Turner, Russell Tovey and Lenora Crichlow won’t be reprising their roles of Mitchell, George and Annie. Instead, Sam Witwer will be appearing as vampire Aidan, Sam Huntingdon will be the werewolf, Josh, and Meaghan Rath will be the ghost, Sally, with all the action relocated to Boston.

The interaction and rapport between the original actors was one of the main reasons for Being Human’s success, though I’m sure the producers have done their best to find replacements who are worthy of the roles. The main reason for concern is the lack of involvement of series creator Toby Whithouse, who jokingly(?) commented that he was happy with the programme being made as long as saw a pay cheque:

Though the UK version had a pretty substantial creative team, Whithouse deserves some major credit for shaping the series. Without him are we only going to get a knock-off, albeit an expensive knock-off, of the parent programme?

The first clips are now online and don’t look that promising, the kitchen scene looking like a rehearsal for the final shot and a few fast cuts suggesting it’s going to be a flashier programme. Again, you can’t really judge the first episode on a few clips, and I’m still not sure if I’ll actually watch the American version or stick with the original.

Hopefully it’ll be a welcome addition to the family and American fans will go on to discover the British version as a result. Stranger things have happened, like a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost sharing a flat in Bristol back in 2009, as the original trailer explained:

Keep an eye on the excellent BBC Being Human blog for more updates on the third series of the original Being Human.

Six Million Dollar Man comes to R1 DVD

I spotted this today on The Los Angeles Times’ Hero Complex blog (you’ll want to RSS it, it’s always a good read), the announcement within an interview with Lee Majors that there’s been a release of the complete five season run of The Six Million Dollar Man on DVD in America, in an impressive box set.

The show, which ran from 1974 until 1978, featured Majors as Steve Austin, a former astronaut who has a rather nasty accident and is subsequently rebuilt by the US Government with various bionic implants. Each week saw Austin go undercover on some new mission for the OSI, under the watchful eye of Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson).

With its trademark slow motion running sequences, ludicrous plots and appeal to family audiences thanks to the lack of bloodshed, Six Million Dollar Man was a huge hit, leading to a spin-off series in The Bionic Woman and numerous sequel TV movies, each one worse than the last.

Still, this DVD release is one to be welcomed, though us UK residents are still stuck with the bog-standard sets that came out a few years ago. This new package has five discs worth of extras, including commentaries, interviews, featurettes and Bionic Woman crossover episodes and is available only on the TimeLife website just now, but it’ll be released elsewhere soon – start saving those pennies now.

In the meantime, head over to read that Majors interview and enjoy this trailer for the release:

I also can’t resist adding a link to another video, the title sequence of The Fall Guy, the 80s action series which I remember watching every week. Lee Major starred here as Bounty Hunter and stuntman, Colt Seavers, getting beaten up, arrested, chased and generally abused while trying to make movies and catch the bad guys.

This version is an extended one with an elusive third verse: