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TV Tomb: The Sandbaggers – Season 1 May 10, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : TV Reviews , add a comment

Neil Burnside, the lead character in this classic ITV series, lets the viewer know early on that this isn’t going to be a series full of 007-style outlandish plots and over the top action –“If you want James Bond go to a library” he informs a colleague in the first episode. The Sandbaggers is more interested in the backroom boys than with the agents in the thick of things, it’s the political wrangling that’s at the heart of the show and it’s the characters making the life and death decisions (with other peoples lives) who are the most compelling.

The Sandbaggers of the title are an elite group of covert operatives under the command of Neil Burnside. The seven episodes in this first season see them tracking down defecting government officials, finding kidnapped scientists and plotting to overthrow a foreign government. But the real battles are between Burnside and his superiors, not to mention his own conscience.

Ray Lonnen, who would go on to star in the well regarded Harry’s Game, plays Sandbagger 1, Willie Caine. For Caine it’s simply a job, one he often doesn’t like but is extremely good at, and Lonnen plays him as an honest working stiff, with none of the airs and graces of the higher-ups. Caine is the most honest character in the show, and because of that he’s far less interesting than some of the more politically savvy characters.

I’ve always associated Diane Keen with comedy but she’s surprisingly good here. She plays Laura Dickens, the emotionally scarred trainee agent who’s seconded by Burnside into his Sandbaggers outfit. Her relationship with Burnside becomes more than merely professional, which allows us to see a human side to the career focused Sandbagger chief, and it’s testament to how good she is that we accept this change in character.

But the star of the show is Roy Marsden’s and he makes Neil Burnside one of the most complex characters ever seen on British TV. At times he’s an egotistical, ruthlessly ambitious bastard but he’s also fiercely protective of his Sandbaggers and his relationship with Laura Dickens is touching, partly because he’s so inept at dealing with emotional issues. The political battles between Burnside and his superiors (Richard Vernon as Sir James Greenley aka ‘C’ and Jerome Willis as Deputy Chief Matthew Peele) and his attempts to manipulate his ex-father-in-law Sir Geoffrey Wellingham (Alan MacNaughton) are the show’s highpoints, with the planning usually more enjoyable than the missions themselves.

Series creator and chief writer Ian Mackintosh (he wrote all the episodes for this first season) brings an authenticity to the show, with the writers Royal Navy background and (possible) ties to the intelligence community giving him an insider’s perspective. Mackintosh’s scripts all had to be vetted by the Government before they could be made, with one proposed second season episode a casualty of the Official Secrets Act.

The Sandbaggers was a firm favourite of my Dad but had little to appeal to a thirteen year old boy, which is how old I was when the show first aired. Watching it now I can see why he enjoyed it so much and why he became a lifelong Roy Marsden fan. I’m looking forward to discovering seasons two and three immensely.

TV Tomb: The Guns of Will Sonnett – Season 1 April 19, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : TV Reviews, Westerns , 3 comments

While I remember several of the western TV shows of the ‘60s this one escapes me, in fact I’m not even sure it was ever shown on UK television. It’s your typical man/men on a quest type of series with Walter Brennan playing the title role while Dack Rambo, later of Dallas fame, plays his grandson Jeff. The pair are searching for Will’s son, legendary gunfighter Jim Sonnett, the father Jeff has never seen. Their search leads them into all sorts of adventure, from both old acquaintances of Will and enemies of Jim.

Walter Brennan relishes being the star of the show, making the most of the series format to develop Will beyond the stereotypical cantankerous grandfather he starts out as, into a fully rounded character. The series fills in the details of his past as an army scout and his estrangement from his son as it progresses, giving us little nuggets every few episodes.

If Brennan provides the acting then Rambo is there to handle the action, getting stuck in to the fight scenes with gusto while also providing eye candy to appease the ladies in the audience. His acting is nothing special but he does a serviceable job, mostly just needing to look hurt, confused or occasionally, angry.

Unlike many series of its type, the object of their search does make an appearance or two. In fact Jason Evers as Jim Sonnett features in the series best episode “Message at Noon” a story that keeps the action until the end, instead focusing on the loneliness of the professional gunman. The bulk of the episode takes place inside a saloon, with Evers talking to the bartender, played with customary excellence by Strother Martin, about his past regrets and the son he hasn’t seen for years. It’s a touching and intelligent half-hour of television.

Guest starts are plentiful, with some familiar faces making appearances. Charles Grodin is a hot-headed young gunfighter with a bell on his holster for every man he’s killed, while Jack Nicholson, Harry Dean Stanton and Dennis Hopper all try their luck against the Sonnetts to their cost.

The quality of the episodes is mostly good, with the occasional standout where the series breaks with its format a little. There’s only one real dud, the Christmas episode “Sunday in Paradise” which has Will Sonnett behaving out of character and features a feel good ending that isn’t the series norm.

For the most part though this is an excellent example of a half hour ‘60s western TV show, with a strong central performance from Brennan and some thought put into developing the characters, something unusual for the period.

Next on TV Tomb: The Sandbaggers - Season 1

I Spy: The Spy with My Face April 15, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, TV Reviews, Action, Thriller, Science Fiction , 3 comments

Evil organisation THRUSH (the series never explained what the acronym stands for) attempts to infiltrate UNCLE (that one stands for “United Network Command for Law and Enforcement”) by replacing their top agent, Napoleon Solo, with a doppelganger. There aim is to crack an operation codenamed “The August Affair”, and get their hands on Project Earthsave, a top secret energy source.

Unlike Flint and Helm, The Man from UNCLE series played it (relatively) straight, at least it did until its third season. This “movie” is really a couple of first season episodes cobbled together, along with some extra footage that was a bit too risqué for television at the time. The film holds together relatively well considering, although it does plod a little in the middle. The series and these spin-off films would get better as the series found its feet. The villains improved as well, with some big name guest stars making an appearance. Here all we get is Senta Berger, who, while certainly not unpleasant to look at, isn’t particularly threatening.

Still at least Mr Smooth, Robert Vaughn, is on hand. Snappy dresser, seducer of beautiful women and no slouch when it comes to mixing it up with the bad guys, Napoleon Solo is America’s answer to James Bond and Vaughn is the perfect choice to play him. Here he also gets to play his double but doesn’t really get to have much fun being evil as he’s just pretending to be the real Solo.

David McCallum’s Illya Kuryakin also seemed the more professional of the two, less inclined to let his libido lead him into trouble. Kuryakin must have felt a little inferior next to Solo but McCallum makes him the more likable of the two. You might want to be Solo but you’d rather have Kuryakin for a buddy.

Rounding out the regulars is Leo G. Carroll as Mr Waverly, UNCLE’s answer to M. He doesn’t really have much to do here, other than send Solo on his way but then that’s pretty much the nature of the role, just as it is with M in the Bond films.

With no sign of the complete series being released on DVD in the UK, and only available from Time Life in the USA (who won’t ship outside American) the only choice for UNCLE fans wanting a super-spy fix is the Region 2 box set containing five of the eight feature film versions. The film of the pilot, To Trap a Spy, isn’t included in the set, with things kicking off with this, the second movie, instead. It’s not vintage Man from UNCLE but it has some entertaining moments, with Vaughn and McCallum getting to grips with their characters. They’d become a better double act later on though.

TV Tomb: Tales of the Unexpected – Season 1 February 7, 2008

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This first season of Tales of the Unexpected was made up exclusively of Roald Dahl’s stories (later seasons would include adaptations of Ruth Rendell and Jeffrey Archer, amongst others). Dahl also introduced each tale during the first few seasons, sitting by a fireplace all nice and cosy.

In this day and age, with the likes of M. Night Shyamalan making a career out of the twist ending, the stories presented here should really be called Tales of the Occasionally Surprising, but watching them again, what is really surprising is how many have stayed in my memory.

“The Man from the South”, “Lamb to the Slaughter” and “Neck” all brought back fond memories. The best stories are those with a healthy dose of black humour to go along with the twist ending and all of these fit the bill nicely.

The series featured a surprisingly starry cast. “Neck” gives John Gielgud a dry run for his butler role in Arthur while “Edward the Conqueror” sees Joseph Cotton go to extremes in order to dispose of the feline reincarnation of Franz Liszt. Other notables include Jose Ferrer, Joan Collins and Jack Weston.

They’re nothing special to look at, particularly those shot on video, but it’s the story that’s the main attraction. Julie Harris stars in the dullest of the tales, Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat (she made a second appearance in the episode “The Way Up to Heaven” at the end of the season) but even this features a wryly amusing, if unsurprising, conclusion.

The best of the stories though is the deliciously amusing (and amusingly titled) “Lamb to the Slaughter”. Susan George’s husband is murdered and Brian Blessed is the copper who’s leading the investigation. Both are very good, particularly George, but what makes this one such a joy is the ending. It’s not that you don’t see it coming, rather that you do, with the audience one up on the befuddled police.

Also memorable is Ron Grainer’s theme tune. Grainer is responsible (or at least partly responsible) for the greatest theme tune to a TV series everDr Who – and he also wrote the opening music for The Prisoner. Tales of the Unexpected doesn’t come close to matching them and is, at least partly, memorable for not really fitting the series it introduces; it’s far too upbeat and jolly.

There’s nothing here that will give you sleepless nights but they will provide the odd surprise and more than a few chuckles and, for those of a certain age, they’ll doubtless bring back fond memories.

TV Tomb: McMillan & Wife - Season 1 December 28, 2007

Posted by Ian W in : TV Reviews , add a comment

This is a real blast from the past. NBC’s Mystery Movies from the ‘70s, which also included Colombo and McCloud, were essential weekly viewing in our household when I was growing up. Colombo always seemed a little dull (I enjoyed it more as I got older), McCloud appealed to the western addict in me, but McMillan & Wife provided pure mindless fun.

The premise is ridiculous, I’m not sure what a Police Commissioner actually does but I’d put money on it not involving car chases, shoot-outs and fist fights, but such was the daily life of Stewart ‘Mac’ McMillan as played by Rock Hudson.. I also doubt any high ranking police officer ever had a wife as lovely and kooky as Susan Saint James.

Hudson and Saint James had a great onscreen chemistry and give the impression of having just as much fun making the series as the viewer did watching it. While the absurdity of the central concept wouldn’t get of the drawing board today, the series has a certain retro charm. The murder plots may be ludicrously convoluted but they were, at least in the best episodes, secondary to the banter between the shows stars. They were a ‘70s Nick and Nora Charles, just not as pickled.

When the show deviated from that formula, like in the final episode of the first season with Saint James relegated to a secondary role (due, I think to her real life pregnancy), it drags, feeling like a standard 50 minute show padded to 70+ minutes. It was little wonder the series folded after just one season without Susan.

There are plenty of familiar faces for long-time TV fans, the pilot alone features Rene Auberjonois, Jonathan Harris (Lost in Space) and Kurt Kasznar (Land of the Giants). Also making appearances are a pre-Cagney and Lacey Tyne Daly, Don Stroud, Claude Akins and a host of others. None of the guest stars get much of a look-in though, the focus was also on the two charismatic leads.

It’s hard to imagine it having much appeal to new viewers; it’s dated (particularly Hudson’s suits!) and looks cheap compared to today’s shows. There is also some unintentional humour, given later revelations about Hudson’s sexual preferences, with Mac something of a babe magnet who has a past with almost every attractive woman he bumps into. It feels like the star was overcompensating to cover his secret life but it’s so unsubtly done it’s hard not to chuckle. With stars now far more open about there sexuality and mainstream shows featuring openly gay characters, this macho posturing just adds to the show’s dated feel.

TV Tomb: Beasts November 27, 2007

Posted by Ian W in : TV Reviews , 1 comment so far

A new, semi-regular (depending on how long it takes me to watch them) series on Mine Was Taller, TV Tomb will take a look at some bygone shows. Ranging from the ‘50s to the modern day with shows from the UK, USA and maybe even further afield, the only criteria for inclusion will be that the series has ended its run and thus been consigned to the “TV Tomb”. First up is an ITV show from the mid-seventies that lasted only one season.

Beasts is a series of six self contained dramas with a horror bent from the pen of Quatermass creator Nigel Neale. I didn’t watch the show when it first aired back in 1976, I was eleven at the time and it was probably shown after my bedtime, so this DVD release from Network was my first exposure to it.

It looks dated in its production values but for the most part the stories still stand up. As with many television dramas of the time is was shot on video tape and on the kind of ‘70s sets that never fooled anyone into believing they were the real thing, so it’s not particularly pleasing on the eye. Some of the acting is a little too broad, having more in common with stage acting than film, but there are some standout performances.

High points are the episodes “Baby” and “What Big Eyes”. The first deals with the mummified remains of a baby (of unknown species) found in the walls of a country cottage owned by a young vet and his pregnant wife. The episode’s creepy atmosphere and a fine performance from Jane Wymark manage to overcome a lack of action and the overly dramatic performance of Simon MaCorkindale. The final scene closely mirrored that of Inside which I’d seen just days before at the FrightFest all-nighter and may have added to the unsettling nature of the episode and enhanced its ability to creep me out.

“What Big Eyes”, as you probably guessed, is a werewolf tale but one with a difference. Loopy scientist Leo Raymount is convinced that man has an inherent ability to transform into a wolf and, with a serum created from wolf blood and himself as a test subject, he’s determined to prove his theory or die trying. The episode is virtually a two-hander with Patrick Magee giving a tour de force performance as Raymount opposite a young Michael Kitchen as an RSPCA officer trying to find out what happened to the wolves used in Raymount’s experiments.

It’s clear that Neale was keeping up with his horror reading with two episodes “borrowing” from a couple of then current horror novels. “Special Offer” is Stephen King’s Carrie moved from a school to a supermarket with Pauline Quirke as a girl with telekinetic powers that she can’t control. The episode doesn’t really work, with the story not strong enough to support the fifty minute running time and the performances lacking the scene stealing power of Magee.

Far better is the oddly titled “During Barty’s Party” which plays like a chapter from James Herbert’s Rats. Another two-hander, this time with Anthony Bate and Elizabeth Sellars playing a married couple terrorised in their country home by marauding rats. The fact that the rats are never seen, only heard, adds to the tension and the small cast helps give the episode a suitably claustrophobic feel with the tension mounting steadily throughout.

The oddest episode is “Buddyboy” about the ghost of a dolphin haunting its old pool. Martin Shaw is pretty good as a sleazy porn entrepreneur who plans to turn the disused pool into an “adult” cinema but the story is too weird to really work.

“The Dummy” is another interesting failure. An actor playing a monster in a horror film runs amok when he immerses himself a little too much in the part. The story is a sly jab at Hammer after Neale’s less than happy experience working with the company, with the creature dubbed “The Dummy” a surrogate for the author who perhaps felt himself something of a dummy for being taken in by the studio.

Also on the DVD is an episode of Against the Crowd written by Neale and titled “Murrain”. Superstitious villagers become convinced that a local woman is a witch who’s responsible for a run of ill luck in the area and they try and enlist the aid of an out of town vet, with disastrous results. The episode feels like a dry run for Beasts, with a similar mix of the real world rubbing shoulders with the unknown. Bernard Lee, as a local farmer and ringleader of the witch-hunt, gives a great performance that’s a world away from his most famous role as M in the Bond films.

Beasts is always entertaining, with even the weaker episodes having some redeeming features and at its best it’s a fine example of how good TV horror can be.

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