Saturday, 27 April 2013

Fox Tales Episodes Turn Up...

We're pleased to announce that episodes of Fox Tales are currently being uploaded to YouTube. This provides the first opportunity to watch the series since it last aired. We were alerted to the videos by Danny Kodicek, whose mother Susan/Hannah Kodicek was the brains behind the series along with Rosta Cerny. The episodes can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/user/flatfrog00

Danny also took the time to chat to us about his memories of Fox Tales and his mother's work, so this has been included in the updated Fox Tales article which can be found at http://curiousbritishtelly.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/fox-tales.html

Saturday, 20 April 2013

No Excuses


The old cliché goes that rock stars should live the lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. This is a fair summary of what rock stars - and maybe even polka stars - invariably get up to. It only tells half a story though as No Excuses revises the cliché to sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, family drama, class warfare, christenings, self harm and a drop of incest. To be fair, rock 'n' roll probably covers all these revisions - apart from christenings - but we need an introductory paragraph.

Genre: Drama
Channel: ITV
Transmission: 17/05/1983 - 28/06/1983


No Excuses was a rock 'n' roll drama which unfolded over the course of eight 50-minute episodes on ITV in 1983 and was produced by Central. The main focus was upon flame haired rocker Shelly Maze (Charlotte Cornwell) - frontwoman of the late 60s band Angels. After 16 years as a professional musician, Shelly is tired and at a creative crossroads. Looking for comfort and somewhere to rehearse - she buys up a large stately home which is later revealed to have been the venue of her big break. Surrounded by a rockstar circus, we witness Shelly leaping upon a seemingly neverending carousel of tragedy which touches all around her.


In amongst the various dramas, were interstitial videos of Angels performing live in concert. These songs were written by real life keyboard player Andy J Clark and performed by Charlotte Cornwell - who has a surprisingly good rock voice. Central appeared to have invested a large amount of faith in the songs as the final episode of the series was a compilation of the live videos and an LP release followed. This LP can easily be found on Ebay and other music marketplaces.

One of the most iconic images in No Excuses is the stately home that holds unresolved issues for Shelly. The stately home is better known as Kentwell Hall and is located in Long Melford, Suffolk. Dating from the 11th century - in some shape or form - the house had fallen into a state of disrepair until being purchased by Patrick Phillips who began restoring the building in 1971. Due to it's attractive exterior, Kentwell Hall has been used in many TV/film productions over the years such as Witchfinder General, The Wind in the Willows and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.


Following hot on the heels of The Long Good Friday, No Excuses was the latest project from writer Barrie Keeffe. The origins of No Excuses actually started as a four act play entitled Bastard Angel and first produced by the RSC in January 1980 at the Warehouse (now Donmar Warehouse) in Covent Garden, London. Keeffe had been writing plays since the early 70s and would carry on penning dramas well into the 00s. Producing the series was Simon Mallin who would later go on to produce Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire - a TV film about a snooker playing vampire which truly, truly boggles the mind.

Curious British Telly was pleasantly surprised to find a good standard of acting present for an early 80s British TV series. Not to say that the acting is up there with Ben Kingsley and Meryl Streep - Oscar winners that year - but it's decent fare compared to some of the horrors we've been subjected to. Charlotte Cornwell has the look - and voice - of a female rock star and she captures the freewheeling highs and the desperate lows of rock stardom authentically. David Swift - playing Maze's manager, Brian - steals the show whenever he's on screen with his well rounded, almost brandy like, tones and wonderful hats. Unfazed by all the maelstroms caused by Shelly, Brian has seen it all before and knows what's best for Shelly. Paul Barber pops up only fleetingly as Bonner, but he manages to linger in the memory with his warmth and charisma - something missing from the majority of the supporting characters. It's frustrating that, given his ability, Paul Barber never rose above supporting roles. He gives masterful performances in Gangsters and Survivors, but after establishing himself in Only Fools and Horses, he was never pushed into any leading roles. Still, The Full Monty made him internationally famous and was probably a nice little earner, so we doubt he complains too much.


We found there was a lack of tightness to the plots in No Excuses and this left us feeling a little muddled. For such a short series, the plots seem to come and go with little reverberation into future episodes. The purchasing of the stately home reopens old wounds, but is soon forgotten once sold - apart from one section where Shelly returns to witter on about Pim's ashes which felt a little disjointed. The plot strand which sees Shelly engage - unknowingly - in incest with her unknown son, is a curious piece which could have been examined more, but again is mostly glossed over afterwards. Lacking little reflection or acceptance of these events portrays Shelly as a cold character willing to forget the past and live selfishly in the present.

There are a number of two hander scenes throughout the series and these give Barrie Keeffe time to bring some strong dialogue to the screen full of nuances. The standout two hander is between Shelly and her father (Tony Melody) in episode 7. This twenty minute scene gets deep into one of the more interesting elements of Shelly's life - namely her family. Unable to comprehend the appeal of an international rock star, Shelly's father bitterly grouses that the family are nothing but an afterthought. Shelly attempts to justify and explain her way of life, but the two characters are from different planets. It's a telling scene which paints Shelly as an alienated figure within her own family and hints at why she left the family to join art school down in London.

Curious British Telly loves some gritty, bleak television and No Excuses is fairly generous in feeding our dirty habit. Following the revelation of her incestuous relationship with her son and the re-emergence of drug shattered, former bandmate Pim, Shelly suffers a manic depressive breakdown in the lonely echoing halls of her stately home. Some dark scenes follow which feature drug abuse and self harming. The most disturbing scene, however, comes earlier with the ritual humiliation of the home's in house butler Max (Alfred Burke). Shelly had played a gig at the house back in 1967 for the owner's daughter, but it appears Max had looked down upon Shelly and this cut deep into Shelly's memory. She gets her revenge by stripping - literally and figuratively - Max of his grace and dignity at the dinner table. It's a nasty scene which sees the 60s rebel spirit going too far in attacking the establishment. We wanted - at one point - to jump inside the TV screen and level several punches to the crowd attacking Max and it's not often we get this emotionally involved.


The music throughout the show is a good reproduction of the music being produced by 60s stars in the 80s - turgid adult rock in our esteemed opinion. However, that may be your cup of tea, so might be worth seeking out the LP release if you liked it that much. The decision to make episode 8 a compilation of all the live performances from the previous seven seems like a ludicrous idea. As we began to watch the episode, we thought "Is this it? Really? Just the videos?! This is a complete waste of time!". Frankly, it annoyed us and we imagine that the audience of 1983 were equally bamboozled to be subjected to 50 minutes of music from a fictional band. To be fair, the series did seem long at seven episodes, so we were glad that we could skip episode 8. Thanks for that, Central!

Our overall impression of No Excuses is that it's a bit of a mixed bag - much like The Beatles 'White Album' if you want a rock analogy. There's the good acting which draws you into some of the deeper two handers, but this is cancelled out by the loose structure of the piece and the lack of compassion raised for for Shelly. There's very little mention of the show online and fewer memories from the viewing public too. This makes us think that it didn't score that highly in the viewing figures or appreciation indexes. This must have been a disappointment for all involved as Central and ITV seem to have put a lot of effort into it. Ultimately, it's not that entertaining though and is perhaps why it never saw a commercial release. All eight episodes are available on YouTube and we would recommend searching out the scenes we've praised above, but it may be a step too far to watch the whole series.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Sebastian Episode Turns Up...

About a week after our recent visit to the BFI Archives, we received an email concerning our piece on Sebastian the Incredible Drawing Dog. It had been sent by James who just happened to be a vintage television enthusiast. Interestingly, he also just happened to have found a 1987 Betamax tape which contained an episode of Sebastian. And would we be interested in it? As you can imagine, we kept our calm, downed a glass of Courvoisier and then bit his hand off at the offer.

James forwarded us a DVD conversion of the episode - Tall Hat Joe - and finally we owned a copy of Sebastian. To be honest, we had long given up any hope of recovering an episode. How many people out there still have old videotapes lying about from 25 years ago? There's not many and what chance of there being a forgotten show such as Sebastian would be of them? An episode of The A-Team - that's likely, in fact we have one in a box somewhere! We were wrong, of course, to doubt this and it makes us wonder what else is out there on old discarded tapes.

Whilst this discovery is not exactly finding episode 6 of Doctor Who - The Tenth Planet, it's important to Curious British Telly as it's our first real achievement. One of our aims was to get hold of some screenshots of Sebastian - particularly of Michael Barrymore in action. We've managed to do this thanks to the generosity of James and have an internet first regarding a TV show. It's renewed us with confidence in pushing forwards with the blog and seeing what else we can uncover.

The updated Sebastian article can be found here: Sebastian

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Stigma


Whilst pottering about in the garden the other day, we found ourselves involved in the backbreaking task of moving a small rock a few feet. Upon lifting the rock, a number of woodlice came scuttling out in a blind panic which we found a little disturbing. There are, however, worse crustaceans to find lurking under a rock - king crabs for example. What could be worse than a decapod crustacean though? Perhaps Stigma could shine a little light (and blood) upon this thought.

Genre: Horror
Channel: BBC 1
Transmission: 29/12/1977


The 1970s were a decade which saw platform shoes, three day weeks and the death of Elvis, but amongst all this horror was a curious BBC 1 anthology of films entitled A Ghost Story for Christmas. Airing between 1971 - 1978, each of the eight installments were tasked with recreating a classic ghost story for television. The aim was to reconnect with the tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas - not something we've ever done, personally, but beats fighting with the family over who gets the last of the mulled wine. Sadly, the producers missed a trick by not basing the 1977 edition around the recently deceased Elvis hauting a pair of blue suede shoes. Instead, they eschewed the traditional ghost story format and went for Stigma - a supernatural slice of horror which screened on 29th December and was an original screenplay by Clive Exton.

Clive Exton's first writing credit was in 1959 for the television play, No Fixed Abode made for Granada Television. This was followed with six episodes for ABC Television's Armchair Theatre series. Known for challenging social norms in the early 60s with productions such as The Big Eat and The Trial of Dr Fancy, Exton's later years as a writer saw him writing more friendly fare such as the David Suchet starring Poirot and Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie's turn in Jeeves and Wooster. These two periods bookmarked an unhappy time in Hollywood as a screenwriter where his best known work was Red Sonja.

This difficult spell did however produce Stigma which sees a middle class family moving into a village cottage next door to an ancient stone circle. Katherine (Kate Binchy) and her twelve year old daughter Verity (Maxine Gordon) arrive home one day to find workmen renovating the garden. Blocking the extension of the lawn is a large stone that the workmen say must be removed. A stone whose power is intimated with an ominous pan of the camera towards the stone circle as one of the workmen remarks "I wouldn't move it.". The first attempt at removing the stone is unsuccessful, but a powerful blast of wind emanates from beneath it and hits Katherine. The wind appears to send Katherine into a trance, but she gradually recovers in time to prepare dinner for Verity and her husband Peter (Peter Bowles).

However, Katherine becomes plagued by a mysterious bleeding of her skin which, strangely, has no visible wounds. She manages to keep the bleeding under control, but throughout the night she loses pints of blood and is found unconscious by Peter. The local doctor is bemused by her condition and, as he recommends an ambulance, the workmen manage to lift the stone and find a skeleton underneath. Accompanying the skeleton are several knives and the workmen deduce that the demise of this individual was not a pleasant one. Luckily, Verity is on hand to inform the workers (and audience) that she has read about how witches were murdered and buried beneath stones. Katherine then passes away on route to the hospital

Curious British Comedy has a few reservations about Stigma. The acting is the main downfall - it's as incredibly wooden and poor as anything you'll see on British television. Peter Bowles appears to be the only actor present and it's good to see him in such a serious role. He's more famous for comedy roles in Only When I Laugh and To The Manor Born, but Stigma and his small role in Survivors show how versatile he was. The camera work - ominous panning shot aside - is fairly mundane too, but again this is 70s TV, so what else would you expect?

Aside from these reservations, we were blown away by Stigma. The story itself is a rich tale taking in themes of sexual maturity and the menopause which are foreshadowed and highlighted with  symbolism. The titlescreen of Stigma features a red blob travelling towards the screen - symbolising the imminent blood - before morphing into a harmless Citroen Dyane. A strong wind is heard as the Dyane drives along the country road and at first we thought this was down to poor sound work, but later we realised this is a premonition of the wind soon to afflict Katherine. At one point, a radio presenter discussing the Voyager spacecraft, is heard to say "We don't even know what's coming out from the Earth yet." which is a subtle nod to the mysterious fate awaiting Katherine beneath the stone. Verity is at a difficult age and her determination to leave behind childhood is displayed as she stuffs a doll upside down into a vase before sneaking looks at the attractive, young workman. These little teasers slipped in by Clive Exton and director Lawrence Gordon Clark may not be noticed at first, but are worth going back over a second time to appreciate their masterful weaving.

One particular scene that stood out to us was Peter waking up in the night - unbeknownst to the fact that Katherine is bleeding to death - to find the oven turned on downstairs and a knife seemingly possessed by an unseen force. It's a tense moment where you fear the worst for Peter, but he survives and any tragedy is temporarily put on hold. The tragedy, when it does come, unravels fairly quickly, but is still full of symbolism. Katherine - complete with blood red nails - is seen to be unpeeling an onion last seen in Peter's late night kitchen scene. We suspect it symbolises the end of Katherine's life and the beginning of Verity's, but it's a little abstract to be sure. Our final praise is for the length of the story - at just half an hour, Clive Exton has managed to piece together a three act story which is never rushed or drags. Verity's explanation, at the end, about the "old religion" does feel a little bolted on to tie things up, but the length of the piece is effective and manages to pack in so much subtext it's remarkable.

Stigma is uncompromisingly bleak and feels like a breath of fresh air compared to modern television. Where these days, there would be some semblance of hope portrayed, no punches are pulled as Peter is left distraught on a roadside. The powerful wind begins to whip up again and the camera alights to the sky where the audience are forced to confront the stone circle once more as the credits roll. Stigma is available on DVD packaged with two other episodes from the Ghost Story anthology or it's immediately available on YouTube. We suggest you watch Stigma as soon as possible and learn why the least of your worries are woodlice.