Crossing the Pond

April 25, 2017

A frequent and legitimate complaint about this blog has noted its author’s ignorance of British television, apart from a few oft-imported staples like The Prisoner and Are You Being Served?  Be careful what you wish for: Here is a primer on four live and/or videotaped dramas of the sixties that remain largely unknown on my side of the Atlantic.

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The Man in Room 17 (1965-1966) inverts the locked-room mystery in a clever way: it’s not the crime that occurs in the locked room, it’s the detection.  It’s about two criminologists (why, one wonders, is the title of the series singular rather than plural?) whose skills are so rarefied and irreplaceable that they remain sequestered inside a chamber deep in the confines of the British government apparatus.  On paper it sounds a bit like the American series Checkmate (1960-1962), which was created by a prominent British novelist, Eric Ambler, and had some vague pretensions toward emulating brainy literary whodunits.  But Checkmate saddled its plummy British sleuth (Sebastian Cabot) with a pair of dullard underlings who spent most episodes getting conked on the head.  The Man in Room 17 comes closer to fulfilling the rigor of its premise.  Even when the crimes are routine, the dialogue is allusive and witty, and the intellectual vanity of the heroes is something no American series could conceive.  Oldenshaw (Richard Vernon) and Dimmock (Michael Aldridge) – the first stuffy and acerbic, the other intense and arrogant – not only never get their hands dirty, they seem to revel in the cushiness of their surroundings.  The two men evince no masculine vanity, no aspirations to physical courage.  The only other regular character, portly, easily-flustered Sir Geoffrey (Willoughby Goddard), isn’t the bulldog one might expect, but an ineffectual liaison to the higher-ups in the government.  He’s less of a boss than a glorified manservant.

Sir Geoffrey somewhat reluctantly takes a case to the supersleuths in the opening scene of the first episode, which is cannily designed to emphasize the secrecy and exclusivity surrounding Room 17.  After that, the series largely avoids showing any of the bureaucratic tissue connecting Oldenshaw and Dimmock to the legal system.  The show’s creator, Robin Chapman, isn’t interested in the mythology around Room 17 (which would be an irresistable temptation if the show were remade today), but in the limits imposed by the claustrophobic premise.  Like the corpulent Nero Wolfe, these puppetmasters can’t operate without tentacles in the outside world.  The easy way out would have been to assign them a regular legman, but instead the Room 17 gents recruit a different proxy for each operation – often through blackmail, trickery, or some other dubiously ethical machination.  In one episode, their operative is discovered and killed by the bad guy.  Dimmock and Oldenshaw react with shock and anger but not remorse.  The episode “The Bequest” finds the fellows at their most mischievous and sinister.  An American is advised to buy a chemical formula known to be fraudulent, and Room 17 finds this hilarious.  Later Oldenshaw has the option to rescue an imprisoned operative but declines.  “We always disavow our agents,” he shrugs.

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The idea of the top-secret crimefighter’s lair isn’t unique – think of the Batcave, or the kid-lit characters the Three Investigators, whose hideaway is a mobile home deep inside a junkyard, accessible only by secret passage.  Room 17 is an irresistable hangout, by stuffy bow-tied genius standards.  There are no windows and one foreboding metal door, but also some comfy leather couches and a backgammon board.  (The fellows play regularly, and backgammon pieces inspired the opening title graphics.  I guess the idea was that chess was child’s play for these brainiacs.)  The pleasure of visiting Room 17 today is trying to puzzle out how its occupants acquired and analyzed data back in the analog era.  Somehow, via daily newspaper deliveries and just a handful of file cabinets and reference books (the prop budget was sparse, apparently), all the world’s knowledge is at their fingertips.

The bulk of The Man in Room 17’s cases involve espionage of one sort or another, which is probably a shame; it dates the show within a certain skein of Cold War paranoia, and attaches it as a sort of also-ran to the sixties spy craze.  It offers an occasional frisson of the fanciful glamour of Bond, but lands closer to the grit of Le Carré.  In the best of the first year’s segments, “Hello, Lazarus,” the men suspect that an industrialist has faked his own death in a plane crash, and set out to lure the fugitive into revealing himself.  Chapman and Gerald Wilson’s script emphasizes the extent to which Room 17 operates without a mandate – Sir Geoffrey and his superiors do not share the men’s view that their quarry is still alive, and yet Oldenshaw and Dimmock brush that off and set to work anyway.  The glee that Dimmock takes in manipulating the world bond market to solve a relatively inconsequential crime, and his not-terribly-sheepish concession that this represents a self-indulgent folly, are very funny.  The writers permit the audience to consider that their protagonists may be ridiculous or even dangerous.  Another standout 1965 entry, “The Seat of Power,” has a startling last-act twist, in which the men realize that the target of an enemy’s up-to-that-point routine espionage operation is them: the whole scheme was designed as bait to flush them out of hiding, and it almost works.  If the series were in color, you could see just how pale Dimmock and Oldenshaw turn when the caper suddenly acquires the life-or-death stakes that their isolation was designed to prevent.  Though it is primarily procedural and apolitical, what is most intriguing about The Man in Room 17 is that Deep State subtext.  It is, in the most literal way imaginable, about how the world is largely run by nondescript men in three-piece suits, invisible to most of us and subject to no one’s oversight.

*

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Nominally a cop show, It’s Dark Outside (1964-1965) has grander ambitions.  It stars character actor William Mervyn, a sort of tamped-down Robert Morley, as a posh, portly, utterly unflappable, and somewhat egocentric police inspector.  In an American police drama the seen-it-all cop tends to come across as a borderline psychopath who spends most of his off-screen time tuning up suspects with the butt of his pistol: Joe Friday or Vic Mackey.  Mervyn’s character, Detective Chief Inspector Rose, has the opposite sort of authority, the kind that suggests he can tie a neat cravat but likely has never deigned to pick up a firearm.  Rose, with his perilously rounded R’s, seems to have wandered in from an Agatha Christie novel, but the world he polices is the modern one, awash in sexual perversion, racial violence, and other sordid, straight-from-the-headlines social ills.  The gimmick of It’s Dark Outside is that it mixes traditional crime elements with aspects of other genres in a pretty explicit bid to declare itself as a serious drama.  The show’s story editor, Marc Brandel, was a rare transatlantic television scribe, who had put in time on American shows like Playhouse 90 and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour; it’s tempting to speculate that he had been exposed to liberal dramas like East Side / West Side and especially Naked City, and took a bit of inspiration from them for It’s Dark Outside.

The supporting cast of It’s Dark Outside steers the show outside the squadroom.  Rose’s stuffy, upper-crust old friend Anthony Brand (John Carson) is a top executive in a human rights organization.  His work triggers a running dialogue of liberal social theory versus the implicitly conservative law-and-order stance of the police (although DCI Rose is more of a hard-headed pragmatist than a right-wing ideologue, so the debate is more proscribed than in any comparable American work).  Unlike the seemingly celibate Rose, Brand is married, to a smart, sophisticated beauty who chafes at the do-nothing activities her sex and social position force upon her.  Just why a cop show should take an interest in these society types isn’t clear at the outset, but the show’s unexpected and ultimately very rewarding focus on Alice Brand (June Tobin) turns It’s Dark Outside into a stealth domestic melodrama.

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The fourth regular character is the inspector’s apprentice, a brash young cop in whom Rose insists on seeing promise despite all evidence to the contrary.  Rose actually goes through two of these: Sgt. John Swift (Keith Barron), a novice whose carelessness gets a suspect killed in the first episode, and later Sgt. Hunter (Anthony Ainley), who barely conceals his contempt for a boss he thinks of as a pompous old duffer.  Brandel may be seeking to upend the traditional mentor-mentee relationship, although I can’t make out quite what It’s Dark Outside is trying to do with it, particularly in the case of the insubordinate Sgt. Hunter, since most of his episodes are now lost.  I tend to view Rose’s confidence that he can mold these unyielding lumps of clay into top-shelf sleuths as evidence that his solipsism has a down side.

In any case, Sgt. Swift has a more important purpose than teasing out the shadings of Mervyn’s character.  The secret heart of It’s Dark Outside is the flirtation that develops between Swift and Alice Brand – a smoldering May/July attraction that had to have been one of the most erotic relationships on British television in the sixties.  During the initial episodes, it’s not even clear that this element is intentional – is Brandel playing a long game, or are the actors just getting creative with subtext?  Often in sixties television this sort of running character element came with no guarantee of a payoff, but It’s Dark Outside turns out to have been a proto-miniseries.  The last three episodes of its initial arc are explicitly serialized, and the penultimate one, “A Case of Identification,” brings the Swift-Alice storyline to a complex and satisfying conclusion.  When they drift into a mostly guiltless affair, the dynamic between Swift and Alice Brand turns on their age difference.  Alice likes the cop because she thinks he’s “weak”; he replies, “I don’t want to be mothered.”  The older woman has the power in the relationship, but the writing doesn’t caricature her as either pathetic or predatory.  Alice is sexually assertive and sympathetic; Sgt. Swift never counters with an assertion of machismo; and neither expresses any remorse at having flouted Alice’s marital bond.  It’s a more truthful and less judgmental sketch of an extramarital dalliance than American television could have undertaken for another decade or more.  Another serial thread runs parallel to that one – a blackmail storyline involving Anthony Brand – and while it’s less involving overall, it sets the stage for a shocker ending to the 1964 cycle.  Genteel on the surface, It’s Dark Outside proved capable of dispatching secondary characters as ruthlessly as 24.

*

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The fascinating The Plane Makers (1963-65) is one of the few television shows to make a full transition from (themed) anthology to standalone drama to serial.  In its first year it told one-off stories with a shared setting, the vast airplane factory Scott Furlong; in its second it tightened its focus to a common set of characters; in its third it placed the most charismatic of them at the center of a thirteen-episode continuity.  Like some of the Camelot-era shows in the United States – Dr. Kildare or Empire or even The Dick Van Dyke ShowThe Plane Makers cultivates a sleek, technophilic optimism.  Instead of the characters, the opening titles show a jumbo jet as it lumbers across a taxiway and into a hangar – lumbers rather unsexily, as it happens, but the soaring music gets across the idea that this show is about the movers and shakers who are making our future.  However banal the lives of some of these salarymen might prove to be, the notion that prosperity is the key to a modern world of ever-expanding possibilities surrounds them.  It’s no surprise that The Plane Makers founders on the same class disparities that Peyton Place, which is the closest American analogue I can come up with, struggled to encompass.  In its second year, the show tried a split-lead approach, with two main characters starring in alternating segments and rarely sharing the screen.  Patrick Wymark plays John Wilder, the company’s corporate managing director, a charismatic bulldog who’s good enough at his job that he gets away with being a complete asshole.  His counterpart is Arthur Sugden (Reginald Marsh), a middle manager who runs the factory and takes a soft-spoken, staid approach to solving problems.  Sugden smokes a pipe, while Wilder chain-smokes cigarettes – just one of many details that carefully delineate these characters as moral and temperamental opposites.  (Wilder is a Londoner and Sugden from Yorkshire, a sort of city-versus-country mouse cultural distinction, although the subtleties are lost on this American.)  Sugden’s patience and reserve, his allegiance with blue-collar labor, his quaintly old-fashioned way of dressing and carrying himself all designate him as the show’s conscience.

The problem, of course, is that Sugden is incredibly dull – almost perversely so, as if Wilfred Greatorex, the show’s creator, wanted to make the point that the best men among us are often the milquetoasts and mediators who don’t get any credit or attention.  Good luck turning that into exciting weekly conflicts, especially when a raging monster like John Wilder is on the other end of the seesaw.  The clash between the two men arises in the second week (“No Man’s Land”), in which Sugden squares off against Wilder over management’s scapegoating of a lowly workman for the failure of an expensive test flight.  Wilder’s quest to push his new plane, the Sovereign, to completion provides the backdrop for the second cycle, occasionally boiling over into open showdowns with Sugden or other supporting characters (Barbara Murray plays Wilder’s poised wife, Jack Watling his fidgety yes man, and Robert Urquhart a stolid test pilot).

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The Plane Makers strives to contemplate capital and labor with the measured, cerebral approach of the editorial page.  “Don’t Worry About Me,” the first episode (and the only anthological one that survives; as Doctor Who enthusiasts well know, many videotaped British dramas of the sixties and early seventies were recorded over, a fate that consumed early Tonight Shows and daytime soaps but spared most American prime time shows), addresses a cross-section of professional concerns surrounding a skilled but overbearing metalworker (Colin Blakely) with a casual attitude toward safety and a promising apprentice (Ronald Lacey) given the choice of leaving the shop floor for a less lucrative but more upwardly mobile office job.  Writer Edmund Ward emphasizes the resentment that both men express toward their superiors, which seems to conceal a more existential dismay as to how little control either man has over his future.  As they play out, the stakes for Blakely’s and Lacey’s characters are lower than they sound on paper – a momentous career decision for a young lad is so inconsequential to the bosses that they have to be reminded about it every time it comes up.  The melodrama in The Plane Makers is consistently pitched at a lower level than in any similar American project.  Devastating verdicts on a man’s prospects or character are delivered in offhand remarks: at the end of “No Man’s Land” Sugden prevails, and is granted a contested promotion, but a board member adds that there is “no particular confidence in you or your ability.”  That’s a line that drops like a hammer if you’re in tune with Greatorex’s show.  I always roll my eyes at the idea of “slow cinema,” or critics who condescend by urging allowances for it, but The Plane Makers does reward the American viewer who recalls the old cliches about British reserve and pays attention to all the unspoken or primly articulated nuances that pass between the characters – except of course for John Wilder, the show’s id, who must have been refreshingly easy to write for.  Contemporary reviews of The Plane Makers fawn over Wymark’s performance and the dynamism of his character, which proved so obviously the breakout element of the show that some of its subtler elements had to give way.

Although Wilder’s anti-hero charisma is undeniable, the best Plane Makers episodes are vignettes that describe the impact of progress on the Scott Furlong rank and file.  Factory stalwarts get crushed in the unforgiving maw of rampant capitalism; executive suite schemers self-destruct when they imitate Wilder’s ambition but lack his panache.  “A Question of Sources” concerns a sleazy security chief (Ewan Roberts) on a witch-hunt for the source of a leak.  “All Part of the Job” dissects an unscrupulous climber (Stanley Meadows) who sets out to dispose of a rival – a decent, competent purchasing executive (Noel Johnson) – after he discovers the older man has taken bribes from a vendor.  The first episode has a spy-movie suspense driving the story, while the second feels like Mad Men without a historical frame drawn around it.  And while The Plane Makers is unabashedly about the men in the grey flannel suits, it makes time to sketch sophisticated, sympathetic portraits of the Joans and Peggys in its world.  “A Condition of Sale” explores how a seasoned secretary (UFO’s impressive Norma Ronald, a semi-regular) fends off scuzzy sales reps, and contrasts her efficient, blasé rebuff of a crude pass favorably with Sugden’s chivalrous but counter-productive bluster when he learns of the offense.  In “Sauce For the Goose,” the long-suffering Mrs. Wilder contemplates an affair with a solicitous American; in a hint at the limits of The Plane Makers’ perspective, it’s less successful than the earlier “A Matter of Priorities,” which chronicled the sordid details of Wilder’s own extramarital indiscretion.

*

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Public Eye (1965-1975), the best-known and most beloved of the four shows I’m looking at here, centers upon a seedy, modestly-appointed “enquiry agent,” a lean, taciturn chap named Frank Marker.  It has the feel of a rain-slicked jazz noir, like Hollywood’s Peter Gunn or Richard Diamond, Private Detective, but it’s even more downbeat – at times Public Eye is almost as terse as a Parker novel.  (It’s a literal jazz noir, by the way: Robert Earley’s theme song is one of the greats.)  Like Jim Rockford, Marker comes off as a loser on the surface, a fringe figure in an absurdly cramped rooftop office who skirts the law because it’s the only way he can make a living.  At the same time he’s dogged and has a moral code and, when it really counts, he can kick ass.  Marker even has a bit of style: most of the time he wears a light-colored tie over a dark shirt and coat, like a reversal image.  It was a career-making role for the great Alfred Burke, a small-part character actor whose hangdog face adds layers of dignity and pathos to the literate dialogue.

The mobster’s beating Marker takes in the early episode “Nobody Kills Santa Claus” is startling because violence happens so rarely in Public Eye.  Marker’s job is tedious and grubby – a world away from Joe Mannix’s weekly gunshot wound to the shoulder.  Written largely by its versatile co-creator Roger Marshall, who was barely out of his twenties at the start of it, Public Eye could encompass milieus both seedy and urbane.  “The Morning Wasn’t So Hot” is a frank depiction of the prostitution racket, filled with vivid little portraits of feral pimps and the callow young women who flourish in the trade.  It climaxes in an amazingly blunt, poetic exchange between Marker and the hard-bitten girl he’s been searching for, who is too far gone to return to the straight life.  The divorce case “Don’t Forget You’re Mine” introduces a missing husband (Roy Dotrice) who quotes T. S. Eliot and a kooky mod girl (Diana Beevers) for Marker to flirt with; it also has one of the cleverest midpoint reversals I’ve seen in a private eye story, one with devastating emotional consequences.  A courier for strangers’ miseries, Marker takes cases that limn the seedy underside of human nature – his work isn’t so much solving mysteries as handling, by proxy, the personal interactions that his clients can’t bear to endure themselves. “The Bromsgrove Venus,” my favorite early episode, is sad, funny, and absurd.  It’s about a petty blackmail scheme over a tame nudie pic (so tame we even see it on-screen!), which succeeds only because the repressed, middle-class husband and wife it targets won’t talk to each other at all.

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Public Eye doesn’t transcend genre – it doesn’t try to pretend it’s more than a private eye show – but like all great crime stories it’s expert at using the conventions of genre to explore all the heartbreaking ways in which humans do harm to one another.  The seven episodes made in 1969 comprise a contemplative serialized arc, in which Marker, having done a stint in prison for corruption, is released on parole in an unfamiliar coastal town.  “Welcome to Brighton,” the premiere, is the story of a man coming slowly and humbly back to life.  No longer licensed as an investigator, Marker works as a laborer, breaking rocks on the beach to build a retaining wall.  This is an optimistic depiction of prison, of a piece with the U.S.’s Great Society television dramas.  Marker’s parole officer is sympathetic, his support system works, and the implication is that Marker may not be just rehabilitated but rejuvenated by incarceration and its aftermath.  The off-the-books cases in this septet are trifling (a stolen pay envelope) or intimate (a young woman’s suicide attempt).  The emphasis is unequivocally on the personal, especially Marker’s tentative romance with his new landlady (Pauline Delany).  The arc’s final episode has no detecting at all, only relationship counseling, as the landlady’s estranged husband returns and Marker must gently dissuade him from making trouble.  All seven of the 1969 episodes were written by Marshall, who, after four years, must have decided he wanted to get to know his creation better: without a professional life to fall back on, Frank Marker, depicted in his earlier adventures as little more than a sponge for his clients’ negative energy, has no choice but to try to become a whole person.

The last Public Eye of the sixties is also the first that exists in color.  Watching it is a bit like the moment at the end of a dark, smoke-filled party when the host flips on the lights to urge everyone home: the atmosphere instantly vanishes.  Finally we learn the true color scheme of Marker’s trademark tie and shirt (spoiler: light purple on dark blue), but it feels like a poor trade.  Public Eye would continue, mostly in color, until 1975.  Like Marker himself, it was incapable of stasis; during its eleven-year span, under the auspices of two different production companies, the peripatetic show shifted production from London to Birmingham to Brighton to Windsor to Surrey.  Despite its limited capacity for exterior filming, Public Eye captured a fair amount of regional color in each setting.

*

Americans often remark, either with contempt or relief, on the smaller size of the typical British TV run – never mind that The Plane Makers toted up a whopping 28 hours during the year it groomed Patrick Wymark as its star.  Equally notable was its creators’ and sponsors’ capacity for metamorphosis.  One thing I set aside in describing the shows above is how each represents a snapshot in a fairly complex continuity.  The Plane Makers not only changed formats three times during its three-year run, it also morphed into a sequel series – called The Power Game (1966-1969) – that followed John Wilder into a new job.  The Man in Room 17 shed a cast member (Denholm Elliott replaced Michael Aldredge) and then, when Aldredge returned, adopted a change of setting and a new title, The Fellows (1967).  The Fellows in turn launched a spinoff mini-series from creator Robin Chapman, Spindoe (1968), which itself spawned a follow-up, Big Breadwinner Hog (1969), that was narratively unrelated but originally intended as a direct sequel.  It’s Dark Outside was the second of three shows, each from a different creator/producer, that featured William Mervyn as the same character.  I haven’t seen the first, The Odd Man (1960-63), which survives but isn’t commercially available; the third, though, is wholly different in tone and structure from its predecessor.  Sending DCI Rose off into suburban retirement, Phillip Mackie’s Mr. Rose (1966-1967) is erudite but bloodless, a Masterpiece Theatre-ish concept with less distinction than It’s Dark Outside.  The best thing about Mr. Rose is the running gag of how the ex-cop keeps stumbling upon, and solving, crimes because doing so is easier and more appealing than his stated purpose of penning his memoirs.  As a so-called writer who has published only one other piece in the last nine months, I wish I could report that I’d nabbed the Zodiac during the hiatus.

Just as U.S. television encouraged maximalism – when Peyton Place breaks out, put it on three times a week! – it also shunned any tinkering with a winning format.  The only series that were given makeovers were those that flailed in the ratings.  For Bonanza or The Beverly Hillbillies, sameness was the only option, no matter how tedious the formula might get – and of course Nielsen existed to endorse that kind of conservatism.  If viewers ever abandoned a show because they wanted to see its characters change and its stories evolve, that was a subtlety Nielsen couldn’t measure.  What was it about the British that allowed for portion control, and made them able to bid farewell to a popular entertainment before it wore out its welcome?

Stephen’s adventures in transatlantic television may or may not continue later this year with a look at more ’60s British program(me)s, thanks to Network, BFI, and few other UK labels that have released a bounty of hard-to-see shows on DVD or Blu-ray during the past few years.

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