Mar 012015

“RABBIT FOOT.” An episode of Schlitz Playhouse, CBS, 9 July 1954 (Season 3, Episode 45). Stephen McNally, Paul Langton, Harry Shannon. Screenplay: Lawrence L. Goldman. Director: Christian Nyby.

   When the series went into syndication, the Schlitz had to go, so they called it Herald Playhouse, under which guise this episode ended up on a DVD of old television mysteries from Alpha Video.

   What’s remarkable, something that I didn’t realize before, is that Schlitz Playhouse was on CBS for eight years, first at 60 minutes, then 30, then alternating with Lux Playhouse for its final season. If I added up the numbers correctly, there were nearly 350 episodes in all.

   I wonder where that puts it in the ranking of longest-running anthology series? It’s a lot of different sets, different actors, and a brand new script from scratch every week. I know there had to be some comedies and straight dramas in the mix, but I imagine a good percentage of the episodes were crime-oriented, such as this one.

   Everyone involved with this episode had long careers in movies and on TV, with the star, Stephen McNally, probably the most recognizable name today. But Harry Stanton has the almost unique distinction of being the only person involved in the making of both Citizen Kane and High Noon, being in the cast of each. (The other is William H. O’Brien, but he almost doesn’t count, since he was an uncredited member of the cast of each; in fact, almost his entire career was uncredited.)

   I’ll leave you to check out the careers of the others in this particular cast. What caught my eye was the name of the scriptwriter, Lawrence L. Goldman, whose name came up on this blog as the author of Black Fire, one half of an Ace Double paperback that I reviewed here not too long ago.

   I should say something about the story, which has only three sets, the couple of storefronts along the main street of a small southern town, inside the local police station, and a swamp somewhere outside of town, filled with bubbling quagmires and alligators, and when you see that at the beginning, I think you know immediately what the ending is going to be.

   And you’d be right. A bedraggled stranger comes into town with a satchel of stolen bank loot, claiming to be a detective from a couple of towns over who has killed the real robber in the swamp. We the viewer sense something is wrong with the story right away, and with less than 30 minutes of running time, it doesn’t take the police chief and his second-in-command to catch on either. But they need proof, and by means of a lucky rabbit’s foot, prove it they do.

   Not so lucky for the rabbit, of course. It never is.

 Posted by at 10:38 pm
Feb 252015

“POSSESSION.” An episode of Thriller, ATV, England, 21 April 1973. (Series 1, Episode 2.) John Carson, Joanna Dunham, Hilary Hardiman, Athol Coats, James Cossins, Richard Aylen. Story: Brian Clemens. Director: John Cooper.

   An all-British cast this time — recall that Barbara Feldon co-starred in the first episode, “Lady Killer,” reviewed here — and instead of being an out-and-out Alfred Hitchcockian crime story, this one borders on the supernatural.

   But of course, it’s a crime story as well, with a newly married couple in their new home — an isolated manor, of course — with the body of the previous owner found cemented over in the basement. When the female half of the married couple starts hearing whistling in the house at odd hours, mostly during the night, and the rooms ransacked while the two of them are in bed and the doors tightly locked, that’s when they call in a mystic, who helps them hold a seance, with even more deadly consequences.

   I’m sorry that that last sentence was such a long one, but it happens sometimes. I’m not overly fond of ghost stories, but if I’m going to watch one, the British do them best. I’m not sure why, but England is a country that for some reason, ghosts seem to find a likelier place to not find a final resting place than the US.

   Adding to general overall spookiness of the proceedings is the lighting, very effectively done, plus a very minimal musical score, often non-existent while the camera work focuses on a rack of knives in the kitchen, a set of rickety stairs leading to the dimly lit basement, and of course the whistling coming from seemingly nowhere.

   It is the male half of the couple who is seemingly possessed (John Carson, who sounds a lot like James Mason), while it is left to his wife (the beautiful Joanna Dunham) to look concerned, then worried, then out-and-out frightened. Not everyone leaves this story alive, nor is the ending convincing that all things supernatural in the tale have been entirely explained away (deliberately so).

   Nicely done.

 Posted by at 3:47 am
Feb 222015
Reviewed by MIKE TOONEY:

  McMILLAN & WIFE. NBC, 40 episodes, 1971-77. Regular cast: Rock Hudson, Susan Saint James, John Schuck, Nancy Walker.

   This TV series, a star vehicle for Rock Hudson, came close to being a fantasy, what with Police Commissioner Hudson personally solving murder cases best left to the homicide detectives. (Quincy had a similar premise.) McMillan & Wife was also too long, an hour and a half to two hours, inevitably leading to a lot of “padding” and “business” that had little or nothing to do with the main plot.

   Sometimes the padding was more interesting than the story — which is hardly a recommendation — with Nancy Walker as the McMillan’s housekeeper stealing most scenes. Still, the cast was amiable even if the stories dragged.

   So it is something of a pleasant surprise to note that several stories by Edward D. Hoch, master of the impossible crime tale, were adapted for this series. The results, of course, were predictably mixed.

“Cop of the Year.” Season 2, Episode 3. First broadcast: November 19, 1972. Guest cast: Martin E. Brooks, Edmond O’Brien, Lorraine Gary, Kenneth Mars, Charles Nelson Reilly, Michael Ansara, Paul Winchell, John Astin. Teleplay: Paul Mason and Oliver Hailey. Director: Robert Michael Lewis. Based on “The Leopold Locked Room” by Edward D. Hoch, EQMM, October 1971.

   In Hoch’s story, it’s Captain Leopold who gets framed for murdering his ex-wife; in the show it’s slightly off kilter Sgt. Enright (Schuck) who’s in a jam. In both cases, the central problem is the same: How could a bullet from the accused’s gun kill the victim without him firing it — and from twenty feet away instead of inches as the forensics data show? While there is some padding, this episode doesn’t waste too much time.

“Freefall to Terror.” Season 3, Episode 3. First broadcast: November 11, 1973. Guest cast: Barbara Feldon, James Olson, Tom Bosley, Dick Haymes, Edward Andrews, Tom Troupe, John Fiedler, Barbara Rhoades. Teleplay: Oliver Hailey. Director: Alf Kjellin. Based on “The Long Way Down” by Edward D. Hoch, AHMM, February 1965.

   A business executive crashes through a window in a high rise and hits the ground — over three hours later. If memory serves, both the story and the show have the same solution. Once again we have padding, such as the attempt on the victim’s life just after the opening credits, but it could have been worse.

“The Man Without a Face.” Season 3, Episode 4. First broadcast: January 6, 1974. Guest cast: Dana Wynter, Nehemiah Persoff, Stephen McNally, Donna Douglas, Steve Forrest, Vito Scotti, William Bryant, Ross Hagen, Catlin Adams. Teleplay: Don Mankiewicz and Gordon Cotler. TV story: Paul Mason. Director: Lee H. Katzin. Based on “???????” by Edward D. Hoch.

   It’s spy vs. spy, with a “dead” espionage agent bumping off former colleagues. This one gets a few points for a plot twist but then loses them for being rather predictable, overlong, and just plain boring.

And there you have it. On Mystery*File a few years ago it was noted: “As prolific as Edward D. Hoch was — with over 900 short stories to his credit — the movie and TV media have made virtually no use of his output. The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) lists just 9 films derived from his works (9/900 = 1 percent). No more eloquent testimony against the obtuseness of Hollywood can be adduced.”

PostScript: I must confess that I have no idea what story the third episode is based on. Could it be “The Spy Who Didn’t Exist,” EQMM, December 1967? Any ideas?

 Posted by at 7:31 pm
Feb 152015

MATT HELM. ABC-TV. Made-for-TV Movie: 7 May 1975. TV series: 20 September 1975 to 3 January 1976. Meadway Production in association with Columbia Pictures Television. Cast: Tony Franciosa as Matt Helm, Laraine Stephens as Claire Kronski, and Gene Evans as Sergeant Hanrahan. Based on characters created by Donald Hamilton. Developed for television by Sam Rolfe. Produced by Charles B. Fitzsimons and Ken Pettus. Executive Story Consultant: James Schmerer. Executive Consultant: Irving Allen.

   As with many fictional characters, Matt Helm has an identity crisis when it comes to his life in books, films and television. Matt Helm has always adapted to what was popular at the time. The character created by Donald Hamilton for a series of books, starting with Death of a Citizen in 1960, was a government assassin fighting the Cold War during a time when such a paperback series character was popular.

   The movie Helm was one of the endless numbers of James Bond parodies popular in films during the 60s and 70s. And the TV version joined the large group of ex-something (be it ex-con, ex-cop, or in Helm’s case ex-spy) turned 70’s PI with a fast car. Matt Helm liked to join the crowd.

   The TV movie version of Helm developed by Sam Rolfe was an ex-spy turned PI with a beautiful lover, a liberated lawyer who didn’t mind supplying the cheesecake. This Helm had a dark side, while he still was able to contact The Director and his old agency The Machine, Helm had quit the spy business after tiring of all the lies and bad things he had to do. While reformed and sanitized for 70s TV, this Helm was closer to Hamilton’s version than the movie version ever got.

   Sadly the TV version had something in common with the film version: both were made by Columbia Pictures and producer Irving Allen. What saved the TV Movie was the talent of writer Sam Rolfe who had created or developed such TV series as Have Gun, Will Travel, Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Delphi Bureau. His screenplay (with Harold Jack Bloom) for The Naked Spur (1953) received an Oscar nomination.

   Yes, it is a 1970s TV Movie, so there were cheesy moments and it was not quality drama, but it was and still remains a mindlessly fun entertaining TV mystery thriller. Rolfe’s script featured a strong plot and enough twists to keep the viewer involved. Rolfe, one of the best TV Movie pilot writers of the time, was also able to make Helm interesting, and the film had enough possible story directions to inspire several seasons of story lines. It would be something the weekly series would not take advantage of.

   The rest of the production was above average for the standard 70s TV Movie, thanks in large part to the work of Producer-Director Buzz Kulik. Tony Franciosa played his usual character, the same guy he played in Name of the Game, Search, and every other character he played on television. Laraine Stephens (Mrs. David Gerber. Gerber was an award winning producer (Police Story) and at the time head of Columbia Pictures Television) was fine as liberated and sexually active Claire Kronski. The only other character from the pilot to make it to the series was Helm’s police contact and friend Sergeant Hanrahan played by the capable Gene Evans.

MATT HELM. 7 May 1975. Written by Sam Rolfe. Executive Producer: Irving Allen. Produced and Directed by Buzz Kulik. Guest Cast: John Vernon, Ann Turkel, Patrick Macnee, Michael C. Gwynne. *** When a PI she hired is killed Maggie turns to Matt for help to find her father’s killer.

   Maggie’s father had been killed when she was very young. Now a successful actress Maggie can afford to hire someone to find her father’s killer. She and Matt meet through Kronski who is the actress’ lawyer. When Matt learns a casual friend and fellow PI had been killed he takes the case.

   Maggie’s father had been a Captain in the Army who was murdered by his Sergeant when he uncovered the Sergeant’s smuggling ring. The killer vanished. The murdered PI thought he had found the killer, now known as Harry Paine. Matt remembers Harry from his days with The Machine. It is not a happy memory. As Matt searches for Maggie’s father killer, everyone including an old friend from The Machine warn Matt to drop the case.

   As with most TV shows there were changes made from the TV Movie pilot to the weekly series. Jerry Fielding’s theme from the TV Movie was replaced by a theme written by Morton Stevens. The series added a new character to the supporting cast, Ethel (Jeff Donnell), an annoying woman who took Matt’s messages. On the plus side the one bad subplot from the TV Movie featuring the angry PI hating Police Sergeant (Val Bisoglio) was dropped.

   Irving Allen remained, now credited as executive consultant (there was no on air credit for executive producer). Buzz Kulik and Sam Rolfe were gone. Charles B. Fitzsimons and Ken Pettus became the producers. James Schmerer, who had been the associate producer for the film The Silencers (1966), was the series executive story consultant.

   The dark ex-spy side of Helm was basically gone. The character now was just another TV PI, closer to being Tony Franciosa than any version of Helm. The stories were inferior PI procedurals with enough plot holes to turn the cheese to Swiss, bad acting doomed by cardboard characters, directors missing shots, and enough padding to fill a mattress warehouse.

“Now I Lay Me Down To Die.” 27 September 1975. Written by Gerry Day and Bethel Leslie. Directed by Earl Bellamy. Guest Cast: Shelley Fabares, Burr DeBenning, Ian McShane. *** Rich woman known for her charity work hires Matt to find a serial killer whose last victim was her surrogate father.

   This is a cheese fest even Wisconsin would wince at. So lets play 70’s TV PI Cliché Bingo!

   It featured a serial killer. The Killer was female. She was nuts. She had duel personalities. Chris the good girl was rich and spent her time working for charities. Tina the bad girl was a hooker. She killed her johns after sex. She loved her work.

   The audience knows who the killer is before any of the characters including Chris. There is a gratuitous subplot about Chris’s evil husband. He is in debt. He is going to steal her fortune. She won’t get the money from dead Daddy’s will until next week. This subplot will be ignored at the end.

   There is more? Yep, Matt had barely started when someone (we never are really sure who or why) tries to kill him. Car Chase!! Matt tracks down Tina and gets knocked out from behind. Talking head scene where an expert refuses to answer questions while answering questions to explain killer’s actions.

   Female expert flirts with Matt. Police know where possible clue is but can’t get search warrant. Licensed PI ignoring rule of law plans illegal search believing a court of law would not toss out such evidence. Chris confesses before talking to her lawyer a few feet away. Ending ties things up in neat little bow as if victims were mere plot devices. BINGO! Extra point – famous ex-teen queen plays World’s most overdressed psycho killer hooker!

   The series faced even more challenges than bad writing and acting. ABC put it in a suicidal time slot, Saturday at 10pm-11pm, opposite of two popular series, CBS’s Carol Burnett Show and NBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies. And there may have been behind the scenes problems with Tony Franciosa’s temper.

   According to gossip columnist Maggie Daly (Chicago Tribune, 30 October 1975), while on location at the Burbank Water and Power plant Franciosa and director Richard Benedict (an ex-fighter) got into a physical fight that didn’t stop until the two fighters and the entire cast and crew were tossed off the location.

   Not surprisingly, Matt Helm lasted only thirteen episodes. The final episode to air “Die Once, Die Twice” (January 3, 1976) began with Matt happily leaving on a spy adventure for The Machine. Sadly, the mission was kept secret from us, and instead we got a 70s cheesy lawyer show featuring Kronski.

   I certainly recommend the TV Movie. But while I am curious what TV series Matt Helm might have inflicted on the spy genre, after watching four episodes of this series and its attempts at the PI and lawyer genre I rejoice ABC put TV series Matt Helm out of my misery.


And thanks to the always informative Thrilling Detective website for filling in my gaps of knowledge about the book series by Donald Hamilton.

 Posted by at 3:42 am
Feb 082015

“LADY KILLER.” An episode of Thriller, ITV, England, 14 April 1973. (Series 1, Episode 1.) US title: “The Death Policy,” as part of ABC’s late-night program Wide World of Entertainment. Robert Powell, Barbara Feldon, Linda Thorson, T.P. McKenna, Mary Wimbush. Screenwriter & series creator: Brian Clemens. Director: Bill Hays.

   I have some good news. According to TVShowsonDVD, the complete version of this highly acclaimed British TV series will be available on DVD in the US sometime early this year. The first series of 10 episodes came out here in 2006, but while I have a copy, the set has been out of print for quite some time. All six series, 43 episodes in all, have been available in the UK for a while, but that’s been it for anyone in the country without a multi-region player.

   This is good news, indeed, so I wish I didn’t have a few nits to pick with the story line. It isn’t the players. Robert Powell (The Italian Job, The Thirty-Nine Steps) does a villain very well, and Barbara Feldon (Get Smart) is a marvelously wonderful victim, an innocent from Indiana and on a leisurely visit to England, only to fall prey to a clever con man’s scheme.

   Part of the fun of watching a program such as Thriller are the twists and turns of the plot, so I’ll do my best not to tell you more than I should. Linda Thorson is part of the story, and she’s excellent as well, something I thought I’d never say, having “hated” her for such a long time for her audacity in replacing Diana Rigg in The Avengers.

   Even though I think the world of Brian Clemens, who died about a month ago — the producer of such noted shows as The Professionals and the aforementioned The Avengers among several other ventures — it’s the writing, most surprisingly, that I had a few issues with. Perhaps it’s the British style, or perhaps it was in 1973, but the suspense in “Lady Killer” is allowed to build only gradually, and then sputtered along on matters that puzzled me more than thrilled me.

   You know from the beginning that Jenny Frifth is going to be the victim, but of what? An ordinary scam, with only money involved, or does Paul Tanner (Powell) have murder in mind? (Well, so says the title.) And who is his accomplice?

   But here’s the rub. If I were to be carrying out a plot such as his, I’d be sure to carry out my conversations on the telephone with my accomplice somewhere other than in a room downstairs when my victim is supposed to be asleep upstairs with a phone next to her bed. I would also confront and take care of an interloper in my plans the same way, not downstairs with the lady sent upstairs.

   And for a gentleman supposed to be such a cool-minded criminal, why does he go to pieces when the lady decides to please him by putting on makeup and redoing her hair?

   What for me was even more off-putting was the business with the phone and the lady picking it up. For whatever reason, it was never brought up again. The aforementioned interloper also played his role very poorly, not thinking his plans through carefully enough. Here was a perfect example of Too Little Too Late, or at least Too Late, but thankfully (and luckily) not for Barbara Feldon’s character.

   You may think at this point I hated this little play, but I didn’t. The acting is superb throughout, and so are the settings, including a manor house of some magnitude, of course, and an isolated path along a rocky cliff overlooking the sea. I enjoyed this first episode in the series immensely, trying to outguess the writer at every step of the way, maybe even trying too hard. I’d still have to say that I’d have staged it a bit differently. It would not have been difficult. My nits are just that, major in their own inimitable way, but they could easily be overcome.

 Posted by at 1:57 am
Feb 052015
by Michael Shonk

   Before you begin, may I suggest you read my earlier review of T.H.E. Cat here.

   Since the sixty-minute drama became common in the 1960s, it has become rare for a half-hour drama to be successful on prime-time TV. Today the thirty-minute drama has virtually vanished from television.

   I decided to take one of my favorite TV series T.H.E. Cat and examine how it worked and how it didn’t due to its thirty-minute format. Would adding a half-hour to each episode have made the series a success?


   Airing in the TV season of 1966-67, the series was a rating failure in a way that made the audience rejection clear. T.H.E. Cat aired on NBC, Friday at 9:30-10pm. It followed rating success Man from U.N.C.L.E. With the last half hour of U.N.C.L.E. beating the first half hour of ABC’s hour long Milton Berle and competitive with CBS’s Friday Night Movie, one would expect the audience not watching the movie to stay with NBC’s T.H.E. Cat. Instead much of the audience changed channel to the movie on CBS and to a lesser extent ABC’s Milton Berle.

   Chicago Tribune (September 17,1966) critic Clay Gowran liked the series citing “the spectacular photography, dramatic change of pace, and the human talent…” He also believed many would be upset by the “bloody action and the bizarre plots.”

   Later (October 31,1966) Gowran would interview star Robert Loggia who was on a publicity tour for the series. Gowran expressed his surprise that there had been no complaints about the violence. Loggia claimed that was because of how the violence was visualized and the “bizarre quality of the show.”


   One can argue that the failure of T.H.E. Cat was not due to its episodes’ length but to the series surreal world. This may explain the series ratings failure but what about creatively? What worked and what didn’t and could it have been fixed with more time per episode?

   One of the things that worked best for the series was the opening. There was no time to slowly introduce the hero or the story of the week. Instead episodes began with an action scene. At the end of the short scene someone would ask Thomas who he was. In the style of the famous “Bond, James Bond,” Cat would reply, “Cat. T. Hewitt Edward Cat.” One of the best TV intros ever would follow featuring exciting animated titles with a great jazz theme written by Lalo Schifrin.

   Arguably, the most successful form of drama for the thirty-minute TV series is the morality play. A good example of this is the episode “Crossing At Destino Bay.”

   Special note: this is one of the few T.H.E. Cat episodes where some of the color remains. The series color consultant Alex Quiroga would be disappointed to learn that the quality is so poor in most of the surviving prints that the color has usually vanished.

   “Crossing At Destino Bay.” Written by Robert E. Thompson. Directed by Boris Sagal. Guest Cast: Robert Duvall, Fred Beir and Suzanne Cramer. *** Hired to protect a man he has yet to meet, Thomas finds Scorpio a paid killer holding four people, including Thomas’ client, hostage. They are waiting for Scorpio’s client to arrive and tell the assassin which one of the four to kill.

   This is a morality play, so it is no surprise that all four of the characters held hostage have reason to fear, each guilty of his or her own sin. The adulterer couple, the killer, and the embezzler who had associates hire Thomas, all are trapped not just by the killer but their own fears and guilt as well.

   As all wait to learn who will die, killer Scorpio’s attention turns to Thomas. Duvall plays Scorpio with an odd soft-spoken accent and pride in his professionalism. He sees Thomas as his equal and knows one of them will not survive.

   This is one of director’s Boris Sagal’s best works, as he takes the stylized dialogue and heavy symbolism of this virtual stage play and makes it visually interesting. Thompson’s script with one great twist is another plus for the episode. Thompson wisely sets the action in the waiting area for the Destino Bay ferry, a place where people escape from one side to the other, but now it is a prison for the characters surrounded by walls and an iron gate.

   More time would have weakened the story, exposing the logic flaws and plot holes. Realism had no place here — expanding the mystery, developing the characters or the story would have just distracted from the story’s point.

   Another way to create a successful story for the short format is with a simple plot and stock characters. The episode “The Sandman” did this well.

   “The Sandman.” Written by James D. Buchanan and Ronald Austin. Directed by Boris Sagal. Guest Cast: Signe Hasso, Lee Bergere and Dennis Patrick *** Once the world’s greatest thief and mentor to Cat, a man known as The Sandman has returned for one last crime. A return to his first crime where he stole a famous jewel, now he plans to steal it back and return it to the museum he had stole it from many years ago.

   Hour long series such as Perry Mason would spend a great deal of time introducing the mystery and characters. But by using standard characters such as the great old thief in the tradition of Cary Grant in It Takes a Thief, the patient forgiving lover, and Thomas as the old thief’s former student, the audience fills in the blanks reducing the need for exposition.

   While at times dull, series such as Perry Mason used the extra time it had to give the story a more interesting complex mystery, its characters more depth, and showed us exposition rather than having the characters artificially tell us.

   Set in such a strange world T.H.E. Cat entertained through its unique style. Yet sometimes an episode needed more. In “Payment Overdue” there are too many characters, too many story lines, to fit in just thirty minutes.

   “Payment Overdue.” Written by Robert Hamner. Directed by Boris Sagal. Guest Cast: Laura Devon, Paul Stewart, and Dean Harens. *** Why does the Mob want press agent Arnie Bliss dead? Arnie wishes he knew.

   The plot of Arnie and the Mob could have filled the thirty minutes without adding the subplot of the relationship between Arnie and his client Jerri the singer working at Casa del Gato that week. The backstory of the singer and her guilt about her past was wasted, and it distracted from the central plot.

   Worse, the viewer was left half satisfied, wanting to know more about the Mob that used a mortuary as a front, more about loser Arnie, more about the relationship between Arnie and the singer, and more about the life of the regretful singer. This is a story that would work well in today’s modern sixty-minute drama with a main plot and subplot.

   So why has the thirty-minute drama vanished from television? Ignoring the commercial reasons, the longer hour series offers an easier path to better drama. There is more time to develop the characters, not only the guest characters of the week but the regulars as well.

   One of the appeals of the weekly series are the regular characters who become like friends, people we want to spend time with every week, people we want to learn more about. In these times of long story arc and an audience that care about continuity, it is difficult for the half-hour series to find the time to satisfy those needs and still tell a story. It is not that it is impossible for the thirty-minute series to entertain us it is just easier for the hour-long episode to tell a story and satisfy the audience other needs.

   If I were to pick one TV series I think should be remade it would be T.H.E. Cat. Its style and bizarre world would fit in well with today’s popular series of fantasy, strange mysteries and superheroes. More importantly an hour long weekly episodic series would have the time to develop Thomas and his world, a world where I would have liked to spend more time.

 Posted by at 7:06 pm
Feb 012015

“THE BEARDED LADY.” An episode of Hetty Wainthropp Investigates. BBC, UK, 3 January 1996. (Season 1, Episode 1.) Patricia Routledge, Derek Benfield, Dominic Monaghan, John Graham-Davies. Based on characters in the book Missing Persons by David Cook (also co-screenwriter). Director: John Glenister.

   The book Missing Persons itself had been adapted for television nearly six years earlier (30 May 1990), also starring Patricia Routledge in the leading role. It was the pilot for a proposed series by Yorkshore TV, but the project went nowhere until it was finally picked up by the BBC in this series and later shown in the US on PBS.

   This first episode begins with Hetty Wainthropp waking up on her 60th birthday, married but with no pension of her own, and two years short of qualifying for one. She decides on the spot to go to work, and while on the job as a postal clerk, she finds herself intrigued by the mysterious death of a local homeless woman.

   Assisting her (reluctantly) is her elderly husband (Derek Benfield) and 17-year-old Geoffrey Shawcross (Dominic Monaghan), whose street smartness gives the new private detective agency a dimension that Hetty herself, with an inborn curiosity and a knack for putting details together, soon realizes she is lacking.

   The characters are wonderful, especially Benfield’s puzzled reaction to his wife’s new vocation. He is at first vehemently opposed, but he gradually (and grudgingly) finds himself assisting, while his wife and their new ward go off detecting, using buses and the occasional motor scooter for transportation.

   As for Hetty herself, she’s what I can only call a middle class Miss Marple, and quite active for her age. Her environment is that of a midsize city, crowded and a bit rundown, with plenty of ethnic minorities (definitely unlike Midsomer Murders). No scenic villages or large manors for her. What ever the opposite of the word “posh” is, that’s the word I think would fit best.

   While the detection is fun (and more than a little dangerous), this first case is, in all honesty, not very interesting (something to do with mollusks) and worse, more than a little muddled. The ending came much too abruptly, before all of the loose ends had been tied up, or so I thought. Some of the accents were tough to follow, though, so I admit that I may have missed something.

   But it is the characters that make or break shows like this one. It went on from this first episode for four seasons, so the original viewing audience seems to have become attached to them fairly quickly. All quibbles aside, both major and minor, I’m willing to watch more of them myself.

 Posted by at 7:29 pm
Jan 132015

“PLAYING FOR THE ASHES.” An episode of The Inspector Lynley Mysteries. BBC television: Season Two, Episode One, 10 March 2003. Shown on PBS television in the US. Nathaniel Parker, Sharon Small, Lesley Vickerage, with Clare Swinburne, Phylllis Logan, Joe Duttine, Neve McIntosh, Curtis Flowers. Based on the novel by Elizabeth George. Director: Richard Spence.

   This is the first of the second season as shown in England in March 2003. It’s not quite clear to me yet, but I believe that each season has consisted of a month’s worth of four adaptations of Elizabeth George’s novels, following a one-shot pilot show which appeared in 2001. [Season Six, 2007, the final season, had only two episodes.]

   In the US they’ve been shown as part of the PBS Mystery! series, and this sample of size one was enough to show me that they’re hands-down better than 99% of the mystery and detective fare that US networks provide.

   Not that I have ever read any of the books they’re based on. They’re huge, and sometimes I intimidate easily. Truth be told, though, I tried one and (a rarity for me) I stopped after two or three chapters, thinking the book to be only one of those gloomy class-based rants where one’s socio-economic status is the primary factor in one’s standing with the rest of the populace.

   Well, it could be that I was right, but if I’m wrong, you can tell me. All I’ll do is to promise that I’ll go back and read another as soon as I can, either way. I have the feeling, though, since the paperback version of this particular book consists of over 700 pages of small print, and the TV movie is only 90 minutes long – well, they couldn’t have gotten it all in, could they? So they streamlined the story (I’m assuming) and concentrated mostly on the mystery – the mysterious death by fire of a soccer star who’d been having problems recently, domestic and otherwise.

   There are class differences between Lynley (Nathaniel Parker) and his partner in investigation, Sgt. Barbara Havers (Sharon Small), to be sure, emphasized by the fact that I had to concentrate quite a bit to follow the [lower class] accent of the chirpy Havers. The soccer star was black, his wife white (Swinburne) and their son Jimmy (Flowers) in this hugely dysfunctional family is an emotional mess, and he is the one who confesses to the murder. (Lynley doesn’t believe him.)

   The soccer star’s benefactor, the wealthy Miriam Whitelaw (Logan) has an estranged daughter Olivia who is even more of a mess, doing tricks on the street, doing drugs, and doing things for the pro-animal activists led by Chris Farraday (Duttine), who has taken Olivia in off the streets for his own reasons.

   So, OK, there’s still enough socio-economic differences between all of these people to make a pretty good book, even without the mystery, but the detective work is solid and well above average in competency, and that’s what will have me coming back for more. The rest is a bonus, and altogether it makes for an excellent hour-and-a-half’s worth of entertainment.

   Definitely a highlight: Neve McIntosh’s performance as the mostly distraught and definitely disturbed daughter. Somewhat puzzling: Lynley’s attraction to case profiler Helen Clyde (Lesley Vickerage). There’s no chemistry between them at all, and she makes her disagreements with him on the investigation seem as much personal as they are professional.

– September 2004

[UPDATE] 01-12-15.   Note that two additions to the original text, which appeared in one the paper editions of Mystery*File, which issue not known at this time, appear in brackets.

 Posted by at 2:35 am
Jan 082015

LINE OF DUTY. BBC-2, 5 60-minute episodes, 26 June to 24 July 2012. Lennie James, Martin Compston, Vicky McClure, Neil Morrissey, Craig Parkinson, Gina McKee, Kate Ashfield. Screenwriter: Jed Mercurio. Directors: Douglas Mackinnon & David Caffrey.

   Lennie James plays DCI Tony Gates in this first series of a well-written police procedural drama produced by BBC Two in England. Gates is a highly decorated and widely admired police officer, a black bespectacled man, almost professorial in nature, happily married with two young daughters whom he adores. He has his place in the sun, and yet.

   As in all good noir dramas, for that is exactly what this is, what goes wrong? Firstly, Gates is having an affair with a former lover, who (we learn later) once jilted him but has come back into his life, with a vengeance. But secondly, what it isattracts the attention of AC-12, the British anti-corruption unit that’s the equivalent of Internal Affairs in the US, is merely a free sandwich at a lunch counter.

   From this small beginning, things escalate faster than Gates can control them. His extramarital lover asks him to cover up a hit-and-run accident she has had. A dog, she says at first, but Gates soon learns that it was her accountant who is dead. AC-12 also suspects that Gates’s success is due to “laddering,” which means he has been adding charges to criminals already in custody, thereby boosting his conviction numbers.

   Hot on Gates’s trail from the outside is DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) while working undercover at the same time from the inside is DC Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure), and soon the previously unshakeable Gates has fewer and fewer options, especially once it is learned that his lover had made some bad enemies, enemies who begin targeting Gates as well.

   There are lots of twists and turns in the plot before the five episodes are finished, with biggest surprises coming (not surprisingly) almost every time the 60 minutes allotted per episodes are up. One might think that DS Arnott, as the leading protagonist, would be the one the viewer is meant to side up with, but the young bantam-sized and policeman, newly transferred from an anti-terrorist squad which made a terrible mistake in a recent would-be raid, besides his obsession to bring down Gates, has issues of his own to work through, .

   It is Gates, really, whose fate is slowly twisting in the wind, who is the more fascinating, and yes, sympathetic character. The story has several layers, all of which are very well developed. It is difficult to not start the next episode in recently released set of DVDs as soon as the previous one has finished.

   The police work as shown seems real. Policemen need approval from superiors at each step of the way — there is little room for mavericks to go out on their own — paperwork is always there to be done, and risk assessment and the cost of overtime always have to be considered.

   But it’s the story of good versus evil, and the people who are caught up in it on a daily basis, that makes this series a success, and when it gets personal, as it does in also every minute of this 300 minute production, so much the better.

 Posted by at 9:04 pm
Jan 032015
by Michael Shonk

GRAND JURY. Syndicated, 1959-60. Desilu Productions in association with National Telefilm Associates, Inc. / NTA Release. Cast: Lyle Bettger as Harry Driscoll, Harold J. Stone as John Kennedy, Douglas Dumbrille as Thomas Grant and Richard Travis as Bill Thompson. Created and produced by Mort Briskin.

   With Grand Juries in the news I thought it might be interesting to check out the forgotten TV series Grand Jury. A full-page ad for the syndicated series in Broadcasting (November 9,1959), Grand Jury was described as “…the new, exciting television, half-hour series…” and “This big-budget show offers the added prestige of “Public Service” program identification…” (Yes, the entire ad was that badly written.)

   The series featured two investigators for the Grand Jury. This allowed Harry Driscoll and John Kennedy to deal with all forms of crime. Other regulars featured the head of the Grand Jury, Thomas Grant and the Grand Jury lawyer, Bill Thompson. This was a typical syndicated crime drama of the era with simple plots, characters with little to no depth, humorless dialog, and stilted acting. While Desilu spent the money on sets and larger than usual guest cast, it never overcame the usual dull no surprises dramatic story problems of fifties TV half-hour crime dramas.

“Condemned.” (Title according to IMdb.) (1960) Written by Don Martin. Directed by Lee Sholem. Guest Cast: Wendell Holmes, Jack Orrison and Cindy Robbins. *** Investigators Driscoll and Kennedy hunt for the cause of a recent tenement fire that took twenty innocent lives.

   The sets are impressive and more interesting than many of the characters or actors. Together our heroes, bland and interchangeable Driscoll and Kennedy use standard police procedures and the villain’s stupidity to uncover the truth so the Grand Jury could bring those responsible for the fire to justice.

   The history of Grand Jury is not a simple one. According to Broadcasting (December 8, 1958) Desilu Productions had completed the pilot for Grand Jury six months before and it had nearly sold. But the buyer insisted on airing the series opposite of Desilu Theatre on CBS so Desilu turned the buyer down. The project was now back filming, but for only four episodes with hopes of selling it to a network as a January replacement series.

   March 31, 1959 issue of Broadcasting reported Grand Jury theme written by Ray Ellis would be released by MGM as a recording. This indicates the series was on the air, so January 1959 is the series most likely premiere date. It is also likely there was no interest from the networks for Grand Jury, as the series ended up syndicated through National Telefilm Associates.

   When Desilu announced its TV series lineup for the fall 1960-61 Season it included eighteen series one of which was Grand Jury (Broadcasting, May 23 1960). But soon Desilu would begin to have problems with NTA.

   The February 13, 1961 issue of Broadcasting reported that SAG (Screen Actors Guild) was pressuring Desilu to do something about the late residual payments from NTA for six series, Grand Jury, U. S. Marshall, Sheriff of Cochise, This Is Alice, Walter Winchell File and Official Detective.

   Broadcasting (May 1, 1961) reported the two companies had settled their differences. Distributor NTA agreed to buy the six Desilu produced series that had SAG residual problems. Grand Jury would end with 39 episodes completed and part of NTA syndication library.

   Several episodes are on YouTube at the moment. Two warnings – many of the episodes show up under more than one title (the episode above can be found as both “Episode 10” and “Episode 22”), and someone has copied the episodes and added them to its YouTube Channel. Those copies were done at the wrong speed so the voices are at a comically high pitch.

 Posted by at 3:23 am