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Edge of Darkness August 20, 2007

Posted by John Hodson in : Television, Action / Adventure / Thriller , 5 comments

In 1985, heavily pregnant with our first child, my wife was admitted into hospital, doctors concerned at her steadily rising blood pressure. There was nothing to be alarmed about, we were constantly assured by Labour Ward staff; ‘…just routine’, ‘…everything will be fine, no need to worry’. And yet there was, there really was.”Did you remember?” said my partner, clutching at my arm as she lay in her newly made up bed, her brow knotted with anxiety, “Did you remember to tape Edge of Darkness?”

Katherine Louise - Katie, Kate, or just plain Kat to her contemporaries - was born on December 2, that same night episode five, ‘Northmoor’, was broadcast and duly captured on VHS. Just over a week or so later, my wife returned from hospital with our beautiful daughter swaddled cosily in a blanket. Exhausted, relieved, glowing, she relaxed on the sofa and, while our child slept soundly (a miracle in itself), demanded we sit through all six episodes of this majestic BBC series back to back.

Music rises to a crescendo, fade out, cut to:

2007. That little baby, my little baby, is now 21-years-old and on a different medium - DVD - ’Detective Ronald Craven’ is still red eyed mourning the death of the his 21-year-old daughter, his little girl. This most significant of television dramas suddenly takes on a whole new significance. We’re joined at the hip, this bluff Yorkshire cop and I, he’s living in a horrifying world of pain that I can at long last - but have no real wish whatsoever to - truly empathise with. The crushing weight of his grief suddenly reaches out of the screen and becomes suffocating. I stifle a sob, silent tears prick my eyes.

Just as that opening, gut-wrenching scene in Don’t Look Now during a TV showing a couple of decades ago, roused my wife who said quietly: ‘I’m just going to check on Kate…’, I glance at the window, urging her car to turn into the drive. Powerful stuff, the ties that bind. And they only get stronger. I feel a certain synergy at work…

Edge of Darkness

…He cried like a baby
He screamed like a panther
In the middle of the night
And he saddled his pony
And he went for a ride

It was the time of the preacher
In the year of ‘01
Now the lesson is over
And the killing’s begun…

The Time of The Preacher - Willie Nelson 

Hark! What is that noise like ten thousand honey bees? A host of angels, a veritable celestial choir of cherubim, a’plucking at instruments fashioned by omnipotent Titans? Better than that, gentle reader, for it is Eric Clapton. God himself, in fact, who, with Michael Kaman’s orchestrations, and a few choice popular songs (Tom Waits, New Order, and let’s give a really big hand to Mr Willie Nelson, whose lyrics above almost form a libretto …) gave the BBC TV nuclear thriller Edge of Darkness a great and wonderful gift, something that would enable it to defy time itself. A score that was written in the mid-’80s.

But doesn’t sound like it.

Of course, it’s not the only reason that Edge of Darkness is still so very powerful, so relevant today. Far from it, but, unlike many contemporary productions the score doesn’t set it firmly and irretrievably in the period, like a mosquito caught in amber, or Axel Foley trotting through Beverly Hills to a Harold Faltermeyer riff.

Clapton’s agonised guitar, gently weeping for, well, any number of things as we are soon to find out, is the first thing we hear as the curtain rises on this finely crafted six part series. Eric’s guitar, backed by the irritating honking of an alarm, guards peering warily into the murk, and the clank and rattle of train carriages, one of them routinely carrying an innocent looking flask containing enough nuclear material to irradiate a good part of the western hemisphere for two lifetimes or more.

If you aren’t hooked now, even after these few seconds, you probably never will be.

[Watching a recording of ‘Come Dancing’] Nobody dances like the British! They deserved the Falklands.
Darius Jedburgh

The story. While investigating a union ballot rigging scandal, Yorkshire CID officer Ronald Craven’s daughter Emma is brutally murdered. Craven subsequently finds that Emma is part of a shadowy ecological action group, Gaia, that has broken into Northmoor, a nuclear waste processing plant, and the subject of an American takeover. With the help of a larger than life CIA officer, Darius Jedburgh, Craven determines to get into Northmoor, to retrace the Gaia team’s footsteps, and unlock the underground plant’s dark secret.

Edge of Darkness was, and remains, a television phenomenon. Eerily prescient, touchingly human, unbearably moving, gently humorous, it struck gold at the 1986 BAFTAs winning a clutch of awards, after receiving seven nominations. Bob Peck deservedly took ‘Best Actor’ or his role as Craven, a characterisation that must have put the 41-years-old Peck through an emotional wringer for weeks on end. Craven spends most of the piece in utter despair, willing to risk all to try and make sense of his loss, but more importantly perhaps, to discover simply who his daughter, Emma (Joanne Whalley), was, who she had become, and why. There’s a quite marvellous shot, Edge of Darkness’s most iconic perhaps, of a completely uncomprehending Craven, lying blank eyed on his dead daughter’s bed, the room still full of the detritus of Emma’s childhood, her teddy bear clutched to his chest in one hand, her gun lying casually across his crotch in the other; a neat Freudian touch.

Edge of Darkness

Craven’s relationship with his daughter is central to the narrative, and any queasy ambiguity I may have sensed in it in the mid-’80s, has now evaporated. After she’s blasted into bloody eternity by both barrells of a sawn off shotgun, Emma returns to haunt her father. She appears and disappears randomly, post mortem, to tell her father some unwanted home truths, to drop the odd hint. Craven’s mind, trying to make sense of a senseless murder, begins to slot piece after piece into the puzzle with these clues ostensibly and dramatically, from beyond the grave. But of course, Emma’s dead and buried, and it’s the grief stricken copper’s imagination that simply won’t, can’t, let her rest in peace. Not yet, not until he knows why.

It was the stoic Emma, barely 10-years-old, who comforted her father when Craven lost his wife to cancer. She was the rock on which Craven clung in sheer desperation, the only constant in his world. But Emma has been living a life of which Craven knows nothing; she’s the daughter of a police officer and a suspected ‘terrorist’, and it’s this duality that’s a recurring theme in Edge of Darkness. Most everyone appears to be playing a double game, while themselves being relentlessly played.

“Well, bodies kept turning up in the bunkers, and you need air support to play outta the rough. Kinda puts you off your game.”
Darius Jedburgh

Peck isn’t given the choicest lines in Troy Kennedy Martin’s densely packed and convoluted story - those go to Joe Don Baker, also nominated, for his juicy portrayal of the hugely enjoyable CIA spook Darius Jedburgh - but, the camera doesn’t lie, constantly roaming over Peck’s face in tight close-ups that shriek volumes. Peck defines Craven’s implacable, truly haunted stillness perfectly, he is the calm at the heart of the storm that wheels around this irresistible, immovable detective.

Director Martin Campbell and Producer Michael Wearing lifted their award for ‘Best Drama Series/Serial’, Andrew Dunn, who produced some memorable imagery won ‘Best Film Cameraman’, and ‘Best Film Editor’ was shared between Ardan Fisher and Dan Rae. Of course, messers Clapton and Kaman took the ‘Best Original Television Music’ category, and Joanne Whalley, an actress who showed so much promise before flitting to Hollywood to become a hyphen, was nominated but did not win.

There was no BAFTA for Best Script; had there been, Kennedy Martin, a veteran scriptwriter with The Italian Job, Z Cars, The Sweeney and many others to his credit, would have been a shoo-in. Delightfully, it’s a script that rewards on multiple viewings, those quick-fire, almost throwaway, lines revealing new depths of character, new twists and turns as cross becomes double, triple cross. No-one is quite whom they seem, no-one appears to have a clear motivation. Except Craven.

It’s almost extraordinary, in these days of bloated TV franchises, that Kennedy Martin manages to fit a narrative with such scope into this neat package. ‘Nuclear thriller’ almost diminishes the scale of what’s on offer here. From almost parochial beginnings, it becomes apparent that at stake is the future of the human race itself, whose fate of first becoming the slaves of the new atomic demi-Gods, and then crossing the universe as some sort of star hopping nuclear stormtroopers is clearly mapped out by the chairman of the ‘Fusion Corporation of Kansas’ (a sly allusion, I believe, to The Wizard of Oz) Jerry Grogan (Kenneth Nelson). This diminutive, fascistic American, is heading what to all intents and purposes is a putsch, in his thrall, the most destructive power on the planet both freeing and enslaving mankind. As Edge of Darkness demonstrates, decades on from Oppenheimer, the wielding of such ultimate power can also bring ultimate destruction, especially under the immature stewardship of homo sapians. If man is willing to glibly offer up his home world as sacrifice for such a nightmare, then what can save the Earth…or is the planet, is she, more than capable of defending herself?

That’s the problem with plutonium, Craven; it’s limited in its application. It’s not user-friendly. But as a vehicle for regaining one’s self-respect, oh, it’s got a lot goin’ for it. Damn right I turned it into a bomb!
Darius Jedburgh

These were controversial issues that were at the cutting edge of the news agenda back then, far more so today. The ‘Gaia’ theories - that living and nonliving parts of the earth are viewed as a complex interacting system that can be thought of as a single organism - postulated by Professor James Lovelock in the 1960s, and dubbed ‘crank science’ by the scientific establishment at the time, were key to Kennedy Martin’s story, as the hypothesis gained new credence by what was still a nascent ecological movement. That man would sow the seeds of his own destruction, that the planet would fight back, seemed like the stuff of science fantasy however, even the blink of an eye that was 22 years ago.

This is heady stuff for a story that begins with an almost mundane police investigation in deepest Yorkshire. For Kennedy Martin, it was a deliberate dramatic device: “The art is to start with a familiar idea and take the audience with you on a plane, so that when they look down they are thousands of miles above the Earth.”  Edge of Darkness; it’s a wide-ranging thriller, it’s an intimate human tragedy, it’s also a very hefty swipe at the nation’s contemporary nuclear strategy, wearing it’s left leaning politics so very visibly on it’s sleeve that then Labour Shadow Cabinet member Michael Meacher MP was given a small ’acting’ role (as himself). The Tories were apoplectic. Oh, goody…

Kennedy Martin has said his series was driven by a feeling of political pessimism, (which this writer shared), Reagan and ‘Star Wars’ in The White House, the jingoistic Thatcher in Number 10, and a feeling that Britain was being herded towards becoming a nuclear state. But there is also, he says, a moral optimism, inspired by the very notion of ‘Gaia’, the birth of  new movements and new ideas.

Intriguingly, Kennedy Martin initally intended Craven and Grogan to be polar opposites in every way, our Yorkshire hero to be the embodiment of the ‘Green Man’ “…the spirit of the planet” he recalled “whose destiny was to confront and destroy in the name of the planet the free-market forces of modern entrepreneurial capitalism.”

At the end of the story, Kennedy Martin famously had to be dissuaded from the ultimate ‘green’ denouement - turning Craven into a tree, an idea both Peck and Campbell baulked at. In Troy Kennedy Martin’s introduction to Edge of Darkness (Faber and Faber, 1990) the writer says: “This aspect of Edge of Darkness usually separated the men from the boys at Television Centre. “I am writing a story about a detective who turns into a tree.” “Oh, yes,” would be the guarded reply. “Who’s this for, Channel 4?” Eventually I was persuaded out of the notion but not before some of its spirit had rubbed off on Craven’s character.”

For Joe Don Baker, his portrayal of the golf-obsessed Jedburgh is probably the role of his lifetime. Jedburgh is old-school CIA, he knows all the dirty tricks, invented most of them, he’s a wildly eccentric loose cannon, almost teetering on the edge of insanity. Baker’s performance is as huge as Peck’s is subtle, and he makes his red, white and blue warrior not only Craven’s best ally, but also the one most likely to put a bullet in his brain. As the mob hit man in Charley Varrick, Baker was deadly and detestable, as the unpredictable and unstable Colonel Jedburgh he simply lights up the screen, but his character, if anything, is every bit as dangerous. Baker was fulsome in his praise of the production: “In America, they just churn these things out, you mess it up and it’s ‘move on son’. They just couldn’t have been better, they asked me time and again did I want another take and I could do it as often as I needed until I felt it was right. Quality was everything.”

They said get into the ball game, and steal the ball.
Darius Jedburgh

It’s Jedburgh who immediately sizes up Craven, croons Willie Nelson’s ‘The Time of The Preacher’, which Craven, smiling a knowing smile, duets. Favourite Jedburgh moments are plentiful; the sight of this bear-like killer hunkering down on his sofa with a bucket of popcorn and a recording of Come Dancing; upending his golf bag and tipping balls, clubs, a carbine and several hand grenades on the floor; realising that Craven is going to break into Northmoor, his face wreathed by a huge grin at the prospect; producing two poisonous, panic inducing bars of plutonium from a briefcase - ‘Get it while it’s hot!’; skittering purposefully round the Highland cottage for that last grim showdown.

The rest of the casting is perfection; the gorgeous Zoë Wanamaker as ‘Gaia’ activist Clementine, Tim McInnery as Emma’s slimy lover, Charles Kay and Ian McNeice as a pair of British spies, the very antithesis of Bond, John Woodvine, Jack Watson, right on down to the Gordon Wharmby as the ’Caretaker’ - the devil is in the detail, and the detailing is really quite special. I wondered about Jedburgh, and how much like Brando’s Kurtz he looked in his uniform. There’s also the scene where Craven and Jedburgh break into a secure room piled high with art and luxury goods, antiques, an MG sportscar, fine wine and food - tinned lobster, caviar - stashed away during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Watching the pair tuck incongruously into a candlelit dinner deep beneath the earth, also reminded me of Apocalypse Now. It is likely coincidence, but I like to think of it as a nod.

Edge of Darkness is one of the great television highlights, certainly from my lifetime. Most TV is really quite ephemeral, but any decent drama can stand the test of time, while some actually improve with age, with each viewing. Edge of Darkness is that rare beast, a critically lauded production that’s as satisfying, as relevant, and - for this viewer at least - more gripping, more personal and thought provoking than it was in 1985. Even if someone may have to ask: ‘What’s a union leader? And what’s a coal miner..?’

I am NOT on YOUR side!
Ronald Craven

The BBC’s two-disc DVD set has been around for a while now in the U.K., superseding an inferior release from Revelation. The transfer is quite decent, blocking occasionally on the darker scenes, but overall it’s clean, with good sound; it looks and sounds exactly what it is, two decades old telly. There are a number of extras; a 35 minute featurette ‘Magnox - Secrets of The Edge of Darkness’, a clip from the BBC’s ‘Did You See?’, Bob Peck - who tragically died in 1999 - relaxing with Frank Bough, and his knitwear, on the ‘Breakfast Time’ sofa, BAFTA interviews with Peck and Baker, plus two more interviews post the Broadcasting Press Guild Awards from 1986 with Peck and Michael Wearing. There’s also an isolated score, but, as it’s used sparingly and infrequently (unlike today), it’s not something you’d listen to recreationally.

New Zealander Martin Cambell, has, of course, gone on to grander productions - Casino Royale is just one - but none better. Five years ago he expressed a desire to bring Edge of Darkness to the big screen. I close my eyes and think all-action car chases, explosions, a Yorkshire cop transmogrified to one of New York’s finest, Grogan replaced by a Russian oligarch. Dear God, Martin, nooooo…

The Chattering Cyclops… August 10, 2007

Posted by John Hodson in : Television, Film & DVD Reviews , add a comment

‘How naive of me to think a mere atom bomb could fell the chattering cyclops!’
Sideshow Bob - The Simpsons; Sideshow Bob’s Last Gleaming

There’s a danger inherent in watching anything, I suppose, that you aren’t too familiar with, something you admired only in a dim and dusty past. There is the awful possibility that you now see it for what it is and always was, a total clunker. A blessed memory, forever to be thereafter indentified as ‘fools’ gold’. Dear God in heaven, what kind of numbskull could ever have seen anything in that? Please sir, it was me; I was that numbskull…

Nowhere is this better expressed than in the arena of archive television, the endless hours of safe, homogenised, conveyor belt entertainment, acted out on rickety cardboard sets, appalling formulaic scripts mouthed by those of little talent, directed by those with little interest. All we have to protect ourselves is a butter-hued glow of nostalgia, strip that away and it’s another piece of your past exposed to the withering gaze of cruel reality, trodden underfoot by the grim march of time, expunged from the file marked ‘happy memories’.

I was glued to the box when Starsky and Hutch were roaring round the mean streets of, well, wherever the hell it was shot, in that big red phallus of theirs (my car at the time, a red Escort 1100, was trimmed accordingly - eat rubber suckers…); have you even tried to sit through the first five minutes of this buddy cop flim-flam recently? Don’t get me started on The Six Million Dollar Man, and did I really think that thirtysomething was essential viewing? The Thought Police will surely come and cart me away right after I admit, at chez Hodson, there were guffaws as the nuclear family sat around and gawped at Love Thy Neighbour. Gulp.

Television cooks up huge amounts of material, chews it up and vomits it out. Sometimes it’s simply crafted (and I use the term loosely) for the ‘now’, instant culture, digested and plopped into the toilet bowl of history (dare I mention repeats, or is that enough, already, of the bodily functions analogies). Odd times it’s good enough still to call down the years, but with all this, this…stuff, you have to be careful when you’re mining the archives. What’s that? They’ve released Big Breadwinner Hog on DVD; I think I liked that. ‘Think’. Not good enough with limited shelf space, limited time (limited funds). Watching the ‘chattering cyclops’ today, most shows seem to have outstayed their welcome almost by the time the opening credits fade. It’s hard to believe now isn’t it, for example, that both The World at War, and Brownlow and Gill’s Unknown Chaplin were broadcast by the U.K.’s premier commercial channel during ‘prime time’; those were days when documentaries were possibly the only examples of ‘reality TV’.

I’ve not been big, then, on revisiting old TV shows, my DVD collection betraying relatively few examples, and mostly those that I’m truly certain that I will enjoy again and again - Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I Claudius, The Prisoner, The Norman Conquests, Pennies From Heaven, ‘Sherlock Holmes’ (both Jeremy Brett and Peter Cushing), Fawlty Towers, what exists of ’Quatermass’, a handful of ‘Who’ - for old times sake, I was there when they broadcast the first episode - Shooting The Past, ‘Blackstuff’, well, you get the idea. A mixture, I would hope, of genuine classics and barefaced nostalgia. But what is becoming apparent is, I’m turning to more and more of it.

Now that may be as a result of the desperate need to fill up the many dozens of channels now broadcasting via cable and satellite, so, I’ve been able to catch a few gems - and a few scruffy examples of cheap and nasty fake jewellery - that haven’t seen the light of day on terrestrial telly for years. And it’s the tip of the iceberg. Both ITV and the Beeb are planning on opening up their archives to enable downloads of decades of programming - from Hughie Green to Camberwick Green, The Newcomers, Callan, Brucie at The Palladium, The Squirrels, Bootsie and Snudge, Tony Hancock, Space City, The Forsyte Saga et al. TV heaven or hell? I can’t quite make my mind up; my head says loftily ’Civilisation‘, my heart snatches the remote and yells: ’sod off! I wannna watch Howard’s Way…’

Adam Adamant Lives!

Unlike film, when it comes to actually slapping down the cash for archive televsion material, I rarely plunge into the unknown, one recent exception however being Adam Adamant Lives! Having clear recall only of who our hero was, the title sequence and theme, a couple of scenes, and the fact I once owned a genuine plastic ‘Adam Adamant’ swordstick (complete with rubber safety tip - play nice now kids), a few months ago I bought the series on DVD when it dropped into my budget. It was a bit of a whim, and these gambles rarely pay off, but on this occasion the set turned out to be not only a beautiful time capsule, but a genuinely delightful surprise.

Gerald Harper is our eponymous doer of derring, a wealthy Victorian/Edwardian adventurer who, when called on to do his duty for Queen (or King, it being 1902 at the start of the adventures), does it with great relish; Adamant, secure in the knowledge of his own invincibility, loves nothing better than a good punch-up in the service of his country. While battling his arch-foe ‘The Face’ (for every hero there has surely to be a nemesis), Adamant’s eye for the ladies proves to be his Achilles heel, he is captured, drugged, and frozen in a state of suspended animation. The damnable fiends! It isn’t until the Swinging Sixties that the ice-pop that is Adamant is discovered, thawed and revived, using methodology that scientists today, finding permafrost pickled mammoths, would give their eye-teeth for. Once again Adamant is ready take up the cudgels against the forces of evil, the new barons of crime - after first, of course, visiting his boot-maker and finding they handily still have his measurements on record. A true gentleman must have his hand made boots, a fresh cape and starched wing collars.

Adam Adamant Lives!

Conceived in 1966 by Doctor Who creator Sydney Newman and producer Verity Lambert, Adam Adamant Lives! is a hybrid of 007, Sherlock Holmes and Bulldog Drummond; indeed but for a rights hiccup, the series would have been Sexton Blake Lives! Of course, the core idea of the series - the return of a legendary, long thought dead, crime fighter into unfamiliar modern day surroundings -  has since been yoinked out of the Beeb’s pocket for the ‘Austin Powers’ series, and gifted Stuart Goddard his stage name. Though the show was originally scheduled by the BBC as post watershed adult viewing, that sub-Bondian mixture of sex and sadism, watered down for mass consumption on the telly, appealed quite naturally to children of all ages.

Adamant’s characteristics, his old world charm, dress, and manners, the kittenish sidekick, and his array of villains set on world domination (or simply the domination of Blackpool’s Pleasure Beach), put the series head to head in the battle for viewer’s affections with The Avengers over on ITV, which was, after all, the Beeb’s aim. However, ever careful with the licence payer’s cash, ‘Auntie’ was a little stingy with the budget; ‘Adamant’ was shot quickly, lacking the glossier production values of the opposition, the shaky sets redolent of ‘Who’ and it’s more forgiving target audience. After two series, it was gone, back in the deep freeze…but not for good.

Last year BBC DVD and 2 Entertain produced a handsome U.K. R2 five-disc set, containing all 17 of the remaining Adam Adamant Lives! episodes and a real feast of extras; a thoroughly interesting 52 minute documentary ‘This Man Is The One’, commentary tracks, with a genuine warmth of feeling for this long dead - or should I say dormant - project, by the urbane Harper, Lambert and the lovely Juliet Harmer on the first and last episodes broadcast. Harmer plays ‘Georgina Jones’, Adamant’s decorative, but not quite so swinging companion; they make a decent enough pair, but oddly lack the sexual chemistry of the opposition on the commercial channel. There are also featurettes, outtakes, full scripts in PDF format plus audio extracts from the dozen missing episodes, a photo gallery and more.

The icing on the cake is author Andrew Pixley’s superbly informative 64-page booklet of viewing notes - a goldmine of stills, wonderfully well-researched episode guides, including the background to the untransmitted pilot, and an overview of the whole project, one that briefly shone so bright, but ultimately, like so many other adversaries, failed to knock Steed and Mrs Peel off their pedestal.

Adam Adamant Lives! DVD

Watching the set today left this viewer’s mug wreathed in smiles. Harper is a sheer delight as Adamant; ever dapper, not a crease, not a hair (not an eyebrow) out of place, he despatches his foes using sword, fist or martial arts. Harper occasionally glances straight at the camera, staight at us, which could be disconcerting, but this slightly post-modern nod seems to render us inclusive, part of the action. He addresses his companion as ‘Miss Jones’ in a manner that’s possibly a little too reminiscent of Rising Damp, and the fact that the Beeb broadcast episode two as episode three thinking no-one would notice (had they suddenly cast Arthur Mullard as Adamant mid-story, mid-scene, it would have been slightly less apparent), simply adds to the charm. Adamant has hardly shaken off the freezer frost and he is instantly accepted back to the bosom of H.M. Government, who whistle him up quicker than you can say ‘Victorian values’; much more fun than a gunboat. By episode two (which is in fact episode three…), this man who has ridden nothing more powerful than a, well, one horsepower horse, is suddenly zooming around Britain in a hopped up Mini Cooper. Yeah, baby…

The quality of the transfers, like the quality of the episodes, are mostly excellent, some better than others, depending on the source. The first episode, ‘A Vintage Year For Scoundrels’ is beautiful, the last, ‘A Sinister Sort Of Service’, thought to have been lost, but found on 16mm film, is less so; but none are truly offensive. Ironically, in view of the Beeb’s aim to try and topple The Avengers, writers for the series included Avengers alumni Tony Williamson and Brian Clemens, and one Ridley Scott, whose major credit to date had been directing a handful of Z Cars episodes, was behind the camera for ‘The League Of Uncharitable Ladies’. It was not, then, for the want of trying; as Newman wrote to Harper in 1967 after Adam Adamant Lives! was cancelled: “The series, from where I sat, was a near miss - we were so close to having something really great…”

The title sequence is superb, and it’s that, more than any other aspect of this utterly charming show, that has been lodged in my mind for the past 40 years. Kathy Kirby belts out the theme song (also presented as a whole in this set), Adamant, cloak billowing, springs his cane-sword menacingly from it’s innocent looking sheath, smiles that deadly smile - ‘Bold as a knight in white armour/Cold as a shot from a gun…This man is the one…’ sings the gorgeous, the pouting, the tragic, Kathy.

Close my eyes and I’m 10-years-old. Funny what gifts a shiny little disc can bring you…

Reed All About It… August 6, 2007

Posted by John Hodson in : Film & DVD Reviews, British Film, Crime / Noir / Thriller , 3 comments

A Kid For Two Farthings (1955) 

Carol Reed’s A Kid For Two Farthings tends to divide opinion. There are those that see it as a frankly soppy piece of contemporary nostalgia, filled with stereotypical characters, who inhabit a mythical, rose-tinted cityscape. And there are others who see a film with a great big heart, an extraordinary evocation, from Wolf Mankowitz’s novel and screenplay, of the post-war East End of London. I’m a cynic by nature, but, gentle reader, I fall unashamedly into the camp of the latter.

As if it wasn’t already obvious from Odd Man Out, The Third Man, Oliver! and The Fallen Idol, A Kid For Two Farthings is further evidence that Reed is a wonderful director of children, and in the lead as ‘Joe’, Jonathan Ashmore gives a stupendous performance - his only film performance - a boy who believes utterly in the magical powers of his pet ‘unicorn’, the eponymous pocket money purchased one-horned animal of the title.

A Kid For Two Farhtings

Living above an impoverished tailor’s shop with his careworn mother, Joanna (Celia Johnson), Joe spends his days weaving between market stalls, chatting amiably with the spivs and the hawkers, beguiling kindly shop owners or staring wide-eyed at the wrestlers who bounce off each others bloated muscles in the gym. As in The Fallen Idol, we see the film unfold mostly from this innocent’s perspective, our perceptions tuned to his; the sights and incredible cacophony of the East End markets, the vivid colours that stand out midst the grimy, slum-like, post-war surroundings, the larger than life, almost Runyon-esque, characters. And a life-affirming belief, not only in magic - or the merest possibility that it exists - but that things can only get better.

Joe is told by the benign Jewish tailor Mr Kandinsky (David Kossoff - who else?), that unicorns exist and grant their owners wishes. When Joe buys a sickly goat with a single twisted horn, his childish innocence convinces him that his ‘unicorn’ will change life for the better not only for himself but also for those around him.

Woven into this tale we have body-builder Sam (Joe Robinson) and Sonia (the truly gorgeous Diana Dors), seemingly doomed never to name the day, ‘Ice’ Berg (Sid James), purveyor of dodgy diamond rings, ‘Python’ Macklin (played with impressive relish by former World Heavyweight Champ Primo Carnera), the bad-guy wrestler determind to get Sonia into his patented ‘Python grip’.

Home Vision’s US R1 DVD is open matte (it was most likely projected at 1.66:1), but the Technicolor cinematography of A.S. Bates is, if not perfectly presented, sometimes eye wateringly beautiful. Benjemin Frankel’s score is quite spare, most of the ‘music’ provided by the location, the occasional radio or record playing in the background, but the main theme wafts in and out played on an old gramophone wheeled around the East End on a pram by a wandering tramp (Joseph - father of Frances - Tomelty), another touch of whimsy, one of many in this wholly whimsical film.

It’s just one, I think, of the interesting aspects of a fascinating production that’s packed with familiar faces; as well as the aforementioned, the cast boasts such familiar faces as Brenda De Banzie, Irene Handel, Danny Green and Sid Tafler.

Where there is life, there is hope; it’s not an unwelcome message even in this most determinedly optimistic tale (especially in these determinedly pessimistic times). And while not everyone ends with their wishes fulfilled, A Kid For Two Farthings, tells us, while there is a glimmer of hope, to hang on tight to our dreams.

There are no extras on the R1 disc, but it’s available quite cheaply. A Kid For Two Farthings is also available in the UK, but from public domain specialists Orbit Media so I cannot vouch for the quality. However, it will be part of what looks like to be a super Diana Dors Collection from ITV DVD released this month in the UK, which also includes Good Time Girl (1948), The Calendar (1948), Oliver Twist (1948), It’s Not Cricket (1949), Diamond City (1949), A Boy, A Girl and a Bike (1949), As Long as They’re Happy (1955), and Three for All (1975). The set is completed by a couple of documentaries from the Granada Ventures catalogue: The Blonde Bombshell, and Who Got Diana Dors’ Millions?

The Man Between (1953)

If you’re searching for a theme that connects Carol Reed’s sublime Odd Man Out, The Third Man and The Man Between, then, I suppose, ‘men on the run’ is the most obvious. But while James Mason’s Johnny McQueen is a doomed idealist, crucified by accident and circumstance, and Orson Welles Harry Lime is an utterly charming, yet chilling moral vacuum, in The Man Between Mason’s Ivo Kern is the post-conflict everyman for whom the start of the war brought an abrupt end to everything he held dear. Though Ivo is German, his fate was mirrored by millions of others round the globe - the war brought an end to the former lawyer’s life of easy rationality and social order; it shattered his belief in basic justice and humanity. Ivo is, simply, a hybrid of the first two characters. And all of them are ultimately doomed by love.

Critics saw The Man Between as a somehow failed The Third Man, the two sharing blasted post-war backdrops and a protagonist who ghosts between the West and the netherworld of a Soviet controlled sector. Here it’s Berlin rather than Vienna, but the similarities do the film a disservice; Ivo is no Harry, he’s no serial user of friends and lovers, a criminal from cradle to grave. Ivo is damaged goods, a man who served his country at huge personal cost, who cannot accept that even broken by an overwhelming burden of guilt, he is still capable of an altruistic act. As Kerns Mason is, of course, typically brilliant.

Claire Bloom is also superb as the resourceful Susanne Mallinson, the girl who gets unwittingly caught up in Ivo’s world of gangsters and political thugs when she visits her Army medico brother Martin (Geoffrey Toone) and his wife Bettina (Hidegard Knef). When Susanne suspects Bettina of an affair with the charming Ivo, she can’t imagine that she’ll become the kidnapped pawn in a plan to capture allied spy Olaf Kastner (Ernst Schröder). With the pieces moving swiftly around the board in Soviet East Berlin, can Ivo get Susanne safely back to the West?

The Man Between

Having earlier mentioned Reed and children, it would be remiss of me not to spotlight Dieter Krause as the young look-out, ‘Horst’ (kitted out, deliberately, to resemble the all-American ’kid down the block’), and, ironically, it is this child’s love for Ivo as much as the blossoming relationship between Susanne and the German, that precipitates tragedy.

The Man Between is beautifully scripted by Harry Kurnitz and an uncredited Eric Linklater from Walter Ebert’s story, with Mason given some delightfully spry one-liners - ‘The Germans always had to learn languages - the army never knew where it would be going next’. It might not be quite as sharp as Greene (but then who is?), and it suffers the tricky problem of having a multi-lingual cast of characters. Reed solves the problem of Germans speaking to Germans by first having them speak in their mother tongue then switching abruptly to English, a solution I never find satisfying. I missed Robert Krasker’s signature stark cinematography, but that doesn’t mean to say Desmond Dickinson doesn’t do a fine, if workmanlike, job, and he’s given lots of opportunity as Ivo and Susanne dodge through Berlin’s pock-marked nightime landscape. There’s an atypical John Addison score, a decadent clarinet sounding out the theme for a Berlin, the ‘city between’, that is caught in a tug-of-war - the acceptable face of capitalism pulling harder than granite hearted communism.

The Man Between is part of Optimum’s excellent UK R2 James Mason: Screen Icon Collection. There’s an oddity inasmuch as it’s presented in anamorphic 1.66:1, and I’m almost certain this 1953 film was framed for Academy; the German R2, I am told, is presented full frame. Wide, The Man Between is a little tight and there are too many shots that leave tops of the actors heads out of the top of the frame. It may be that it’s one of those films that was indeed shown wide, as the widescreen boom took hold, but I’m not entirely convinced it was shot that way. In fact, I’m nigh on certain it wasn’t. The good news is that it’s decent transfer with nice contrast and very few marks or blemishes. The only audio track is English mono, which is good, and there are no subtitles or extras of any kind.

The third link, I suppose, between the three Reed films mentioned in this review, is the sense of despair and futility as the end credits roll, a sharp contrast to the reaction to A Kid For Two Farthings, but strangely, somehow, not a million miles from it. It might be something in the English psyche that I can see even that as a positive reaction, and I ache to put myself through it again, and again.


Just a quick word on the rest of the titles that make up Optimum’s James Mason: Screen Icon Collection which is in the usual space saving folding digipack arragement typical of this series. I’ve had a quick look at the rest of the titles and it’s interesting to note that three of the discs precisely replicate - transfers, extras, disc art and all - the extant versions; 5 Fingers, currently available from Optimum, plus Network’s The Man in Grey and the sublime, the spectacular (I do like it…) Odd Man Out. Only Network’s rather nicely put together booket, Soldier in The Snow, from that title is missing.

Ealing’s The Bells Go Down is a fair transfer, a little grainy, some flecking here and there, and like The Man Between, no extras whatsoever. There’s a bigger budget at play, and a recognisable cast of star names, but, as a visceral document of London’s Firefighters during the Blitz it can’t hold a candle (no pun intended) to the same year’s I Was A Fireman (aka Fires Were Started) from Humphrey Jennings. More on that some other time, hopefully.

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