The Strange World of Gurney Slade on DVD

Vintage TV fans will probably know all about this, but I thought I should mention that The Strange World of Gurney Slade is coming to DVD. The Strange World of who? I hear you ask. That’s a perfectly valid question, as the series in question was transmitted in 1960 and only lasted six episodes, but it’s lingered long in the minds of those who saw it.

Anthony Newley stars as the lead character of Gurney, an actor starring in a situation comedy who breaks through the fourth wall and into our world, or a close approximation. Exploring the very nature of television production and viewers’ consumption of the medium, the programme has been described as The Goon Show meets The Prisoner and perhaps baffled more people than it entertained on original transmission, one of the reasons it didn’t last.

Now restored from the original 35mm, The Strange World of Gurney Slade is out on Monday from the ever-brilliant Network DVD, whose site is currently down following problems caused by the London riots, and it’s screening at London’s BFI tonight. You can read a review over at Cathode Ray Tube and my order has been in for a while now – I hope to be able to report back on the show in a week or two.

In the meantime, here are some trailers from the Network YouTube channel:

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.

Continue reading

DVD Review: Doctor Who – Paradise Towers

They say that the memory cheats. They’re wrong. I still remember being banished to my bedroom to watch Doctor Who back in October 1987, at the same time as Coronation Street was being enjoyed in the living room downstairs. The same thing happened every week, and every week I expected a classic episode.

Then along came Paradise Towers.

Even as an 11-year-old I knew something wasn’t quite right about this one. The way the actors just spoke their lines rather than investing them with any feeling. The way Bonnie Langford seemed to think she was on the stage,  shouting every line to the gods. The way the music seemed to actively be fighting against any attempts at drama that might escape from the script and onto the screen.

Paradise Towers

Watching this new DVD release 24 years on it’s fair to say that nothing much has changed, with 2entertain sadly avoiding any sort of special edition treatment that might excise most of the actors and replace them with CGI replicas.

The plot, for those of you who haven’t moved on to the Wikipedia entry by now, sees the Tardis land on the Paradise Towers of the title, a rundown tower block where a war is being waged by different factions as a group of caretakers attempt to keep things under control.

The Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) manages to become embroiled in the various goings-on, while the death toll rises around him.

What is perhaps more apparent on this viewing is that Stephen Wyatt’s script does have darker undertones that, had they been given free reign, would have seen Who’s position as prime time family entertainment being questioned by TV watchdogs in the 80s. Cannibalism by two old ladies? Allusions to Adolph Hitler by Richard Briers? Bonnie’s costume?

Director Nicholas Mallett could have been trying to tone down the darker aspects for the pre-watershed crowd, but if so it was hardly worth putting the script into production in the first place, meaning we’re left with something that doesn’t really cater for anyone.

McCoy tries gamely with what he’s given but there’s little of substance for him to latch onto, his Doctor, only in his second story, still something of a blank canvas with a Scottish accent. Richard Briers is clearly in another of his sitcoms and it’s only Clive Merrison who comes out of this with anything vaguely resembling dignity, managing to balance humour and menace (what little there is) equally.

Extras

For the extras we’re given a commentary featuring actress Judy Cornwell, writer Stephen Wyatt, special sounds supervisor Dick Mills and moderater Mark Ayres, which touches on various aspects of the production without giving it quite the kicking one might expect.

Horror on the High Rise, a new documentary featuring contributions from script editor Andrew Cartmel, writer Stephen Wyatt and actors including Richard Briers and Howard Cooke, does contain some honest opinion from those involved, and it’s the highlight of the disc. Wyatt remains unimpressed with the BBC’s take on his script, though he did undertake the writing process with the best of intentions.

Another short documentary, Girls! Girls! Girls! – The Eighties, brings together Janet Fielding, Sarah Sutton and Sophie Aldred to discuss their time aboard the Tardis and it’s nice to see the various companions reminiscing, even if Fielding’s comments are tend not to deviate from her standard views on the era.

A fun production notes track helps keep up the viewers’ spirits during the long haul of the episodes, while an alternative score for the story lets us hear what it would have been like had composer David Snell not been replaced by Keff McCulloch. Deleted scenes, photos and PDFs are also present and correct.

Story ★★★★★
Extras ★★★★★

The Culp Collection #1: A Cold Night’s Death (1973)

Following the death of Robert Culp in 2010, I made it my mission to try and watch more of his performances in films and on TV. It’s taken a while but I’ve finally got around to it, mainly thanks to YouTube and the appearance of a number of Culp TV Movies on the video channel.

To kick things off I started with A Cold Night’s Death (also known as The Chill Factor), directed by Jerrold Freedman and first shown on ABC Television on 13 January, 1973.

Culp stars as Robert Jones, a research scientist sent to a snowy research base along with colleague Frank Enari (Eli Wallach) when contact is lost with a Doctor Vogel. Snow storms have prevented previous attempts to reach the Doctor, and as we hear in a voiceover at the start, radio transmissions from Vogel had suggested that he’d been in discussions with Napoleon and Alexander the Great.

Flying in by helicopter, Jones and Enari soon discover the frozen body of Vogel sitting at the radio transmitter, with no obvious signs of anything suspicious. The pair bring with them a monkey for research purposes, a companion for the other primates being tested for the US space race.

From here the story begins to enter psychological thriller territory, with the two scientists trying to understand what happened to their predecessor while undertaking their own work. Needless to say, a type of cabin fever descends on the men, leading them to question each other about strange goings on during the night. Meanwhile, the monkeys quietly watch and listen.

It’s a simple tale that’s given a sheen of quality due to the performances of Culp and Wallach, while Freedman, a veteran of TV Movies, manages to find some interesting angles in the confined set.

While YouTube is hardly the best place to watch a film, 10 minute installments not the best viewing experience, it’s better than nothing and A Cold Night’s Death is well worth 90 minutes of your time.

DVD Review: Shelley – The Complete Series Five

Returning for a fifth series of less-than-heroic adventures in 1980s Britain, James Shelley (Hywel Bennett) is a man of his time. Or rather, he’s a man of every time, particularly if that time involves a Tory Government, unemployment and an economy that’s well and truly knackered. Sound familiar?

With his wife and landlady long gone, Shelley decides to rent his mate’s (Warren Clarke) flat, instantly falling foul of the doorman (Garfield Morgan) before realising that the single life he had once tried to leave behind has now well and truly returned.

Like that other comedy stalwart, Frank Spencer, Shelley is constantly on the lookout for new work. However, while Frank would happily go for an interview and end up roller skating down the local high street, Shelley is more likely to end up debating the state of the nation or bunking off down the pub for a booze-sodden afternoon of despair.

The plight of the (not) working man is very much at the heart of the series, Bennett’s incomparably bemused look and stinging replies to those in authority as important a record of the social disquiet of the era as any contemporary newspaper report or documentary.

Perhaps the highlight of the series is Shelley’s new temp job, filing: it’s one so menial that the viewer instantly knows it can’t last. His reaction to the instructions are classic Shelley.

With most episodes taking a while to gain momentum – this is a series that revels in dialogue rather than sight gags – this could be too slow for modern viewers, but stick with it. With its themes as relevant in 2011 as they were in 1982, this really does feel like timeless comedy: quite whether we should be glad of that or not is another matter.

When you coming back, Shelley?

Shelley: The Complete Series Five is available from Network DVD

DVD Review: Cannon and Ball – Complete Series Two

Pulling in 12 million viewers a week during their 1980s heyday, some easily imitable catchphrases and a cheeky chappies routine making them popular with both older and younger viewers (a weekly strip in junior TV Times, Look-In, helped the latter) Cannon and Ball were ITV’s golden boys for over a decade.

This release of their second series sees a change in title sequence and set but the same old set-up which proved so successful in series one: have the boys take centre stage and engage in some banter before acting out a few sketches, invariably involving one or both of them trying to pull a bird or outwit some new foe.

A quick scan through the guest list reveals names such as Diana Dors and Peggy Mount, about as ITV as one could get at the time, and hardly likely to lead to controversial television.

Indeed, writer Sid Green, perhaps best known for his work with Morcambe and Wise, sticks to traditional set-ups and pay-offs and the half hours are all the better for it, with the performers even struggling to keep a straight face at times.

Those looking for anything deep and meaningful will be disappointed, but then they’re unlikely to have picked up this set in the first place. For a trip down memory lane, and a glimpse at how simplicity is often best, Cannon and Ball really can’t be faulted.

Cannon and Ball: The Complete Series Two is available now from Network DVD

DVD Review: Doctor Who – Earth Story

Rather uncomfortably bundling together a First and a Fifth Doctor story together in a collection known as “Earth Story”, the thematic link with the latest Doctor Who release is, well, that they’re both set on Earth. Simple, really.

Combining one story not known for its popularity in Doctor Who fandom – the overt humour in William Hartnell’s The Gunfighters often branding it unwatchable – with another praised for its ability to condense a complex tale into just two episodes in the shape of Peter Davison’s The Awakening, the set makes for an odd combination.

In The Gunfighters, the Tardis brings her crew to the famed town of Tombstone when the Doctor finds himself suffering from toothache. Deciding that America in the 1880s is the best place for medical attention, the Timelord seeks out Doc Holliday (Anthony Jacobs), a man who is currently somewhat at odds with the Clanton brothers, leading to much confusion regarding the Doctor’s identity and a gunfight that really isn’t OK.

In The Awakening, modern day (1984) England is the location for some village war games, recreations of a Civil War battle. As the Tardis materialises, it becomes clear that an alien war machine known as The Malus has started to meddle with the timelines, merging the 1980s with the 1640s and leaving the Doctor, Tegan (Janet Fielding) and Turlough (Mark Strickson) to try to put things right.

With its dodgy American accents and a script which attempts to play too much for laughs, The Gunfighters isn’t an easy watch. The overuse of the Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon, a not-so-witty little ditty sung at various points of the four episodes is wearisome to say the least, while the change in character of the Doctor, Steven (Peter Purves) and Dodo (Jackie Lane) to facilitate them misunderstanding the gravity of their predicament is insulting to the audience.

Taken as a piece of throwaway 1960s TV this is just about passable, with Hartnell on good form and the set design and direction impressive, but as a piece of drama it’s pretty average.

Eric Pringle’s The Awakening is a much better example of Who at its best, the series regulars supported by a high quality guest cast, including ex-Liver Bird, Polly James, and ex-Stig of the Dump, Keith Jayne. Both actors are believable and level out some of the more outrageous performances.

With yet another member of Tegan’s family making an appearance and no sign of the padding which inevitably creeps into multiple part adventures, The Awakening is a lean slice of 80s Who which more than makes up for any weakness evident in The Gunfighters.

Extras

With the Doctor Who range’s commentary moderator of choice, Toby Hadoke, in charge of proceedings for both stories, things go smoothly as cast and crew come together to recall their time on the series.

Peter Purves continues his love-in with Who alongside actors David Graham, Shane Rimmer and Richard Beale plus production assistant Tristan DeVere on The Gunfighters, while director Michale Owen Morris and script editor Eric Saward are the slimmed down pairing for The Awakening.

Both tracks are entertaining and informative throughout, an honesty about mistakes made and an admiration for what was managed all those years ago evident from all participants.

The standout documentary in the set is The End of the Line, a frank look at the production of the programme’s third year. Contributions from those who were there are backed up by excerpts from memos and letters written at the time, while today’s fans also help put past events into some context.

It’s an impressive production which, like all the best documentaries, deserves a wider audience than just Doctor Who fans, and one can only hope that at some point in the future 2entertain consider releasing a documentary-only set charting the Classic era’s development.

One of the odder additions to The Gunfighter’s set is the latest installment of Tomorrow’s Times, which sees a badly miscast Mary Tamm looking at how the series was covered in the press in the 1960s. Tamm’s reaction to one piece of Dalek news is quite the strangest thing you’ll see on a Who DVD this, or any other, year.

The Awakening benefits from a return visit to the fictional village of Little Hodcombe by the cast and crew, with contributions from local residents, and it’s a charming insight into the story’s production and legacy. Elsewhere there’s a look at the making of the story’s creature and some extended and cut scenes that didn’t make the final cut.

As ever, both stories feature PDF Radio Times clippings along with photo galleries and production notes, which by no means deserve to be mentioned last but which are hard to do justice to in a review – just make sure you read them and your enjoyment of any Doctor Who adventure will be enhanced.

The Gunfighters ★★★★★
The Awakening ★★★★
Extras ★★★★★

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

DVD Review: Doctor Who – Frontios

If there’s one thing that Doctor Who loves, it’s Earth colonists (or descendents of Earth colonists) having a hard time of it somewhere in deepest, darkest space. 1984’s Frontios takes this premise and runs with it, the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) arriving in the midst of a particularly nasty meteorite bombardment, the results of which requires the time traveller’s help.

FrontiosAs the Doctor, Tegan (Janet Fielding) and Turlough (Mark Strickson) try to assist the planet’s inhabitants, the Time Lord getting confused for an enemy spy by leader Plantagenet (Jeff Rawle) in the process, the viewer becomes embroiled in the politics and confusion of a populace who are tired of being attacked by an unseen enemy.

When that enemy is discovered to be closer to home than anyone expected, the story is flipped on its head to become something much more complicated than a base, or rather planet, under siege tale.

Christopher H Bidmead’s return to Who is a welcome one, his script removing much of the romp-factor from the programme and swapping it with intelligent dialogue and what feels like a genuine challenge for the Doctor and his crew.

Indeed, Turlough gets a decent share of screen time here, the reawakening of dormant memories handled well by Strickson, even if his reaction to the Tractators could be seen to be a tad OTT. Tegan is also given something to do here, Fielding reacting well to Davison whether he’s in breathless or comic mode.

Of the guest cast, while Rawle is strong as the out-of-his-depth Plantagenet, it’s William Lucas as Range and Lesley Dunlop as his daughter, Norna, who are the most interesting additions. The pair have a chemistry that makes their relationship believable, something that’s important when you’ve got power-hungry aliens vying for attention.

Though Frontios’ budget was tiny (as alluded to by Rawle in documentary, Driven to Distractation), designer David Buckingham managed to make the interiors look suitable lived in, although the occasional exterior shot, in reality a BBC studio, does let things down.

Still, a Doctor Who fan can forgive iffy FX and dodgy monster costumes when the story is as good as this, and in Frontios we have something of an overlooked gem that reminds us just why Davison was so special and his era ripe for rediscovery.

Extras

Without his usual partners in crime, (Fielding, Sutton and Strickson I’m looking at you!), the Frontios commentary may not be quite as buoyant, but it’s still worth booting up to hear Rawle and script editor Eric Saward have their say.

The documentary is another honest look at the production of a Doctor Who adventure, something that can only come almost 30 years after the fact. It’ll be interesting to see what sort of insights we get for the Davies/Moffat-era stories when they’re reissued in special hologram editions in a few years time…

Add to this an informative set of production notes, an isolated music score, deleted footage, Radio Times cuttings and a few other nice-to-have’s, and Frontios becomes yet another important addition to the Doctor Who range.

Story ★★★★
Extras ★★★★

Fan made Doctor Who anime is complete

I’ve been keeping an eye on this fan production for the last few years, a labour love by Paul “Oatking” Jackson which takes audio clips from Jon Pertwee-era Doctor Who and places them in a very different setting.

Now it’s finised and it’s a thing of beauty: it might just keep us occupied until the recently-announced Reign of Terror DVD arrives in 2012.

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.

DVD Review: The Boy Merlin

★★★★★

Typing the name “Merlin” into Wikipedia is a frustrating exercise, particularly if you’re attempting to summarise the facts behind the legend which resulted in Thames Televison producing their 1979 series, The Boy Merlin: fact is, there aren’t that many “facts” out there.

The legend portrayed in Anne Carlton and Stewart Farrar’s six-parter, spun-off from the anthology series Shadows, takes as its basis Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, the 1139 tome which itself took elements from various sources to portray a wizard called Merlin Ambrosius living under the rule of King Vortigern.

The Boy MerlinAs its title suggests, The Boy Merlin gives us a younger Merlin (Ian Rowlands) who is living in Wales with his foster family: Dafydd (Donald Houston), Blodwyn (Margaret John), and Myfanwy (Rachel Thomas). Merlin’s mother is a princess who lives close-by in Vortigern’s castle, knowledge of the boy’s magical prowess (which is nurtered by Myfanwy) suspected by the royals and their servants.

As established in the original pilot, Merlin’s powers are still a little rough around the edges, his abilities resulting in concern from his family when they fear he may “out” himself to the authorities. As the series progresses Merlin learns new tricks, such as refilling empty cups with wine and making his foster mother invisible, but the threats he faces remain minor until towards the end of the run.

Rowland may not be the most natural of child actors but he does well with the straightforward scripts. In just six episodes there’s not enough evidence of the character’s development, but his confrontation with Grimbald (Derek Smith) in The Book of Magic, showed promise.

Rachel Thomas is the most enjoyable aspect of the series, her old granny character initially an irritant before it becomes clear that she’s wiser than all of those around her.

Budget was clearly something of an issue for the production team, much of the series filmed indoors, including the exteriors of Merlin’s home. For anyone used to dramas of the period this isn’t a major problem, but it can be jarring when actual exteriors make an appearance straight after an interior.

These six episodes suggest that an interesting world was being formed around Merlin, one which deserved further exploration. As it is we’re left with a fun little entry into the Merlin cottage industry, one which may not have generated its own magic in such a short run but which, with a little of Myfanwy’s assistance, could have gone on to bigger and better things.

The Boy Merlin is out now from Network DVD

DVD Review: Doctor Who – Mannequin Mania

In the sort of scheduling quirk rather befitting of a Time Lord, Jon Pertwee’s first Doctor Who adventure, Spearhead from Space, comes to DVD just a few weeks after his final story arrived on shiny disc, a chance to see how it all began for the dandiest of Doctors.

2entertain’s Mannequin Mania boxset bundles a special edition of Spearhead, previously released in a bare bones edition in 2001, with the following year’s Terror of the Autons, both stories featuring the Nestene Consciousness and the Autons while marking the debuts of various characters and a new look for the programme.

Having run for six years and already on its second incarnation of the Doctor in the shape of Patrick Troughton, things were looking grim for Doctor Who in 1969. With the threat of cancellation hanging over it at the end of The War Games, the decision to reboot the series and bring it down to Earth, quite literally, saw the start of a new era for a show which thrived on the ability to go anwhere and anywhen in space and time.

Mannequin ManiaCharged with taking Doctor Who into a new decade, with a new lead and in colour, veteran scriptwriter Robert Holmes crafted a classy slice of sci-fi in Spearhead, which echoed the BBC’s Quatermass serials in its opening moments as alien pods arrive on Earth, just at the Tardis materialises with a regenerated Doctor.

The Nestenes are planning a full invasion of the planet, using shop window mannequins as their army, headed up by authority figures such as General Scobie (Hamilton Dyce) and Channing (Hugh Burden). Still recovering from the regenerative process, the Doctor teams up with UNIT’s Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) and new assistant, Liz Shaw (Caroline John), to fight his latest foe.

The Nestenes returned to open the next season in Terror of the Autons, a story also scripted by Robert Holmes which saw him also incorporating the introduction of the Master (Roger Delgado), Jo Grant (Katy Manning) and Captain Yates (Richard Franklin).

Though the Nestenes were the main reason for concern in Spearhead from Space, here it’s the Master, a fellow rogue Time Lord, who is the real enemy of the world, and the Doctor. In Delgado, the series gained someone for whom the audience could almost feel sympathy, if not for his methods then for his determination and sheer style in carrying out his plans.

The Master has arrived on Earth with domination in mind, roping in the Nestenes and the Autons to do his bidding. Deadly daffodils, terrible toys and chilling chairs are all used by Holmes to depict the everyday nature of the Nestene threat, the terror present in the most suburban of situations rather than the usual laboratories and bases-under-siege.

As in Spearhead, the Doctor must contend with a new companion and opponent, plus another Earth invasion, Pertwee now comfortable in the skin of the time traveller who is firmly rooted in present-day England.

Under the leadership of Derrick Sherwin and Barry Letts, these two Third Doctor adventures are examples of Who at its very best. It helps that Robert Holmes is behind the typewriter for both tales, his ability to combine humour and drama one which would serve him, and the series, well for years to come.

Shot on film and on location, Spearhead has an extra sheen of quality which shines through on this new DVD. Confident and classy, it’s hard to believe that this is the same series that went off the screen the previous year seemingly on its last legs, something reflected in the ratings and the fact that Pertwee, Letts and script editor Terrence Dicks were allowed to collaborate for five seasons.

Terror is similarly excellent, a tale boosted by the appearance of Delgado and the ball of energy that is Katy Manning. The birth of the “UNIT family” is a joy to behold, the questionable nature of the Master’s scheme (should it really be so easy for the Doctor to change his foe’s mind when he’s already gone to such great lengths?) forgivable when the rest of the story is so much fun.

Extras

For this set the Restoration Team have pulled together an impressive selection of extras, offering those of us who bought Spearhead first time around a real reason to double dip.

The addition of a new commentary for Spearhead, Sherwin and Dicks providing a spikier discussion than those we’re used to from Terrance and Barry, offers a different view from the original commentary from Caroline John and Nick Courtney. The pair tell us little new but it’s interesting hearing it from the men who were there.

The two documentaries provide a fascinating overview of both the need for the series to change upon its 1970 return and on the move from black and white to colour, Sherwin’s honest opinions a highlight.

Over on the Terror disc, the commentary is provided by the late Letts and Courtney alongside Ms Manning. As usual, Letts is keen to point out the technical aspects while Manning has fun and Courtney comes along for the ride, their entertaining banter the result of years of friendship.

We’re spoiled by the inclusion of three documentaries, perhaps the best of which is Life on Earth, a comparison between the production process for Who in the 70s and in 2005’s revived version. Discussion about Delgado and the decision to use plastic as an enemy provide the focus for the other two featurettes.

Both stories also feature on-screen production notes, which are easy to take for granted but which provide incredible detail for both the long-term fan and newbie to the series. PDFs of Radio Times listings and features plus photo galleries are also part of the set, a wealth of information which add greatly to the overall package.

Stories ★★★★★
Extras ★★★★★

DVD Review: Super Gran – Complete Series Two

★★★★

Arriving DVD almost two years after series one appeared, Super Gran: The Complete Series Two, mirrors the programme’s original transmission: it was in January 1985 that Forrest Wilson’s eponymous heroine made it to ITV screens courtesy of Tyne Tees, but it wasn’t until March 1987 that she returned.

A quick scan of IMDb reveals some upheaval behind the scenes, with the change of three young leads, a new producer in Graham Williams and a new composer in the shape of Dudley Simpson.

At first glance nothing much has changed, with Gudrun Ure back as super granny Smith and Iain Cuthbertson stealing every scene as Roderick “Scunner” Campbell, a baddie so useless that he spends most of his time plotting naff money-making schemes rather than carrying them out.

Filmed on location in Tyneside in clearly freezing weather, with a smattering of thick Geordie accents in amongst the Scottish brogues of the leads, there does seem to have been a decision to add more comic book elements to proceedings, various animated inserts making an appearance.

Ahead of series two making it to screens, Supergran-starved fans were treated to a 1986 Christmas special, a 50-minute romp set during the festive period in which the town of Chisleton becomes the backdrop for a Battle of the Circus’s, a chance for the locals to show off their skills as Scottish circus entrepreneur, Mac McLock (Rikki Fulton), arrives in competition.

An excuse to put Supergran through her paces on the trapeze, the episode has little to distinguish it from the rest of the run, bar the opportunity to see Fulton and Cuthbertson reunited on-screen eight years after the glorious Charles Endell, Esquire.

For the full 1987 series we’re back to special guest appearances – Barbara Windsor, Leslie Phillips, Bernard Cribbins and Ken Campbell just some of those heading to windy Newcastle for a few days filming – and plots which don’t stand up to much scrutiny.

Whether they’re setting out on the annual Chisleton treasure hunt, becoming snooker playing celebrities or trying to get the Scunner back onto the list of top criminals, it’s the bad guys that provide most of the best moments here, Iain Cuthbertson appearing to relish the chance to wring out every available joke from the script.

Indeed, Ure may be the supposed star of the series, but Cuthbertson gets more screen time, even allowed a few flashbacks and dream sequences here and there. The final episode, in which the Scunner must try to prove that he’s the long-lost son of Patrick Troughton’s Roderick of Roderick, Great Sporran of the Isles, is one of the most memorable of the lot for the Scunner, and makes one wonder if a spin-off wasn’t deserved for the tartan terror.

The scripts from one-time comics writer, Jenny McDade, have enough incident to keep the kids entertained for 25 minutes, the meagre budget just about stretching to meet her demands.

Also included on this two disc set is a documentary made during the first series in which the cast and crew appear a happy, if cold, family. It’s also nice to hear Cuthbertson speaking without gruff affectation for once.

Quite why Super Gran didn’t make it to a third series is a mystery, but in just 27 episodes it managed to leave an indelible mark on popular British culture and give us a theme tune that remains a bit of a classic:

Super Gran: The Complete Series Two is out on Monday 16 May from Network DVD.

DVD Review: Doctor Who – Planet of the Spiders

It’s the end of an era for both viewers and Jon Pertwee in the latest Doctor Who DVD release, Planet of the Spiders taking the Third Doctor across the universe as he tries to right a wrong after his actions have great consequences for the Earth and his own mortality.

As the Doctor investigates ESP with the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney), at the same time as the disgraced Mike Yates (Richard Franklin) looks into strange goings on at a Buddhist meditation centre in deepest England, an artefact from the Time Lord’s past reappears: a blue Metebelis crystal first seen in The Green Death.

Planet of the SpidersThe crystal’s original owners, a group of deadly spiders from Metebelis III, have a plan to take over Earth by using mind control, forcing the Doctor and Sarah Jane (Elizabeth Sladen) to travel to the planet with the intention of brokering peace between the spiders and humanity.

As with all good adventures, things don’t go quite according to plan, leaving fans to watch as time runs out for the Doctor as his eight legged foes.

Stuffed with car/Whomobile chases, fight sequences, alien planets, evil spiders and a dose of science vs religion, Planet of the Spiders is, at first glance, a fitting swan song for the dandiest of Doctors. While Spiders may not reach the dizzy heights of Peter Davison’s final story, it does give him a stronger farewell than poor old Colin Baker enjoyed.

Pertwee is on decent form throughout, even if the Doctor is beaten up, kidnapped or rendered comatose a little too often in a story that should have seen him firing on all cylinders.

The decision to return to the character of Mike Yates is a welcome one, showing some maturity for the series when it would have been easy to simply move on and forget. His redemption just about makes up for the treatment of the UNIT family, the Brigadier relegated to the sidelines too often and his military skills ignored.

Where the story falls down badly is in the depiction of the spiders and their Earth-bound lackeys, the eight legged foes never the most convincing of enemies. The idea of the spiders attaching themselves to the back of their victim is sound enough, but watching them in their lair or facing up to their rather hapless minions on Earth does show their limitations.

There’s also the iffy CSO, the system generating the scenery that sits behind many scenes. With actors’ hair frizzing and an odd depth-of-field to some shots, viewers would be forgiven for being distracted from the story itself.

While it may be hard to view Planet of the Spiders as a glorious celebration of the Third Doctor and his tenure, and one wonders what might have resulted from the planned Master vs Doctor finale that was scrapped following Roger Delgado’s death, this should still satisfy those who miss the frilly jacketed hero and his era.

It’s also worth saying that the episodes look quite stunning, restored and rejuvenated for the benefit of new fangled TV sets which show up the flaws so easily.

Thankfully the extras of this two disc set make up for any perceived failings of the actual story to give the Third Doctor a fitting send off.

First up we have the commentary, a banter-heavy affair featuring the late Barry Letts and Nicholas Courtney alongside Terrance Dicks, Elisabeth Sladen and Richard Franklin. There’s much love for the series, Pertwee and everyone involved, with Dicks providing much of the self-deprecating humour and Letts pointing out the flaws. The recent death of Courtney makes this all the more poignant and it’s good to hear him on form.

The main documentary is The Final Curtain, a look back at five years of mainly Earth-bound Who which saw a great many changes in the series, both in front of and behind the camera. With contributions from most of those who were there, including archive footage of Pertwee and Letts, it might lack some of the frankness now emerging from some other eras of the show, but perhaps that’s because it really was one big happy family.

John Kane Remembers features the actor who played Tommy recalling his time on the show, while Directing Who with Barry Letts does what it says on the tin, with Letts explaining some of the secrets of his trade. In addition, the ever-excellent on-screen production notes offer yet another take on the episodes.

With a second disc offering an unrestored Omnibus edition of the story (for completists only), this is another top-notch effort from the Restoration team, a loving tribute to one of the most important production teams Doctor Who has had.

Story ★★★★★
Extras ★★★★