Wednesday, 26 August 2015
Wolcott Blu-Ray Review
In somewhat of an about turn from our usual backwards outlook on the world we're actually tackling some of that contemporary technology nonsense.
Yes, we're gonna be dealing with one of them new fangled Blu-Ray things, but before you renounce your membership to our nostalgic landscape, don't worry, because this high definition optical disc contains Wolcott. And those tellywaves was broadcast in 1981.
Curiously swept under the carpet and ignored since 1981 it's finally been released by Network Distributing. And, yeah, it's rather inexplicably been released in full 1080p. You can't even get Lovejoy in 1080p and everyone loves that mulleted scoundrel.
Anyway, let's take a ganders at our Wolcott Blu-Ray review and see what exactly we can learn from it.
On the Beat in a New Town
The brilliantly titled Winston Churchill Wolcott (George William Harris) has found himself promoted to the ranks of CID in an East End police station. Apart from his name (amazing, aint it?) it all sounds fairly standard procedure, but there's something unique about this promotion. Because Wolcott's black.
And, yes, it's a peculiar thing to be happening in 1981. That's not to say he's greeted by institutional racism at every corner down the nick, but people such as PC Fell (Rik Mayall) certainly ain't letting off fireworks in some celebratory fashion. And a high percentage of the black community see Wolcott's chumming up with the white pigs as some bleeding traitorous act.
So, yeah, it's fair to say Wolcott's walked into some type of faeces filled storm, but really, he's got bigger fish to fry. You see, there's a bit of a turf war kicking off in the East End and Wolcott's determined to get to the bottom of all this racketeering and drug dealing.
Terry Rowe (Warren Clarke) is a legitimate businessman with a nice line in haulage, but we all know he's a right proper ne'er do well with his fingers in all types of pies. He's a bit of an East End Tony Soprano, but without all the psychoanalysis. And it's Rowe who currently runs the manor, but there's a new pretender to his crown in the form of Reuben Warre (Raul Newney).
Reuben - constantly dressed like a reputable pimp - is steadily inching his way through Rowe's patch with a healthy dose of violence and extortion. He's indicative of the changing face of crime on the gritty East End streets and has a loyal army behind him and in the community.
Intrigued by Wolcott's sudden rise through the ranks and unique perspective is American journalist Melinda Marin (Christine Lahti) who, at first, Wolcott is happy to bat away due to her stereotypical nosy journalistic ways. However, this fractious relationship soon warms up and it looks like a relationship is on the cards, especially as Marin has her snout in a number of interesting places.
Meanwhile, salt of the earth right proper geezer DI Charlie Bonham (Christopher Ellison) is publicly trying to uphold the law, but behind closed doors he's a bent copper if ever there was one. Bonham's in with Rowe on a number of his criminal dalliances and creams off a share of the profits as a result. However, Rowe's had enough of being squeezed by Bonham, so is working on blackmailing him with a taped admission to profiteering from criminal scrapes.
Sounds like a bit of a tinderbox waiting to go off and, good heavens, bloody go off it will!
Caught by the Fuzz
Wolcott had been mentioned to us, in hushed tones, several times, but getting hold of a copy proved to be more impossible than sneaking a cow up a tree. Sure, we could have headed to the BFI Archive for a marathon 3 hour session, but even our obsessive thirst for analysis of retro TV would flag over that duration.
We was right overjoyed, then, to discover that Wolcott was finally being released a cool 34 years after it first aired. Quite why it's suddenly being released, however, is somewhat of a mystery. We did read some utter baloney, online (where else), that the untimely death of Rik Mayall had prompted it's release. But come on, mate, he's only in it for about 8 out of 180 minutes.
Whatever the reasons, though, God bless Network Distributing and all who sail in her for consistently digging up forgotten gems such as Wolcott and dumping them right in front of our old eyestalks. We ain't ever gonna moan about that and that ain't no mistake.
So, Wolcott, what exactly did we make of it?
Wolcott himself is an intriguing mix of righteousness and short tempered punching from the soul. He don't want them bad guys ripping the heart out of communities and he certainly don't want no punk denouncing him for who he is. And when his temper's in check he swans through racial hatred with a smile on his face and a wry line tucked up his sleeve. Insult his old dear, though, and get ready to get involved in a bit of fisticuffs.
And Wolcott's charm and engaging nature is all brought to life brilliantly by George Harris who runs up and down the emotional chart with an achingly cool Caribbean accent.
Wolcott has few true allies, but in Melinda Marin it's the closest thing to a friend he's going to encounter. Of course, she's got a journalistic agenda and there's a certainly a whiff of sexual attraction at play, but her intrigue into Wolcott as a man finally transcends her earlier hollow interests. The gorgeous Christine Lahti (she's still gorgeous nearly 35 years on) brings an effortlessly cool American charm to the role and her accent goes down like a fine Scotch.
In between Wolcott and the bad guys is the law toting maverick known as Charlie Bonham who barely raises an eyebrow at first, but is gradually woven into the plot as a right dodgy feller with all sorts of acquaintances a man in his position oughtn't to have. Who else, but Christopher Ellison could play Bonham? He's in full on Burnside mode here a few years before he first stepped foot in Sun Hill. That charming cockney tongue's in full flow and you get the feeling he could use those steely blue eyes to simultaneously kill a man as he charms said man's wife into bed. And, blimey, don't he look young here?!
The first real antagonist that Wolcott has a brush with is PC Fell and it's he who embodies the notion of not only institutionalised racism, but also the fears and prejudices of Old Britain as its cultural landscape changes. In a nutshell he's your quintessential racist coward. To be honest, PC Fell's a bit of a footnote in the whole affair, but it's one of Rik Mayall's earliest roles so earns a few curiosity points. His performance is in stark contrast to his trademark anarchic comedy roles, but it's a decent stab at straight acting and manages to conjure up a particularly venomous little toad.
Early on in Wolcott someone remarks to Reuben Warre that they "Wonder whether you wanna be Malcolm X or Fagin", but believe us, he ain't got his brother's best interests at heart and he's got his eye on more than a few pretty hankies! Reuben's a dangerous man with plenty of goons around him to do his bidding, but he's clever, damn clever. He knows he needs to tread carefully as the new boy in town and avoid unwanted attention, hence why he gets in a right grump when one of his goons murders a pensioner in episode 1.
Raul Newney portrays Reuben with a menacingly friendly grin, but one that can slip, in the blink of an eye, into a violent tirade of threats. And it's this disturbingly chilling performance which manages to inject a modicum of psychopathy into Reuben which, let's face it, is pretty much a prerequisite for becoming a tyrannical megalomaniac.
Reuben, of course, is going head to head with old Terry Rowe whose family has been running the manor for the last 17 years. Again, there are shades of insanity in Rowe's persona, but it's always delivered with such hilarity and relish you can't help but wanna side with Rowe. And he's a proper East End villain, one you can imagine snuggling up with the Kray twins whilst rifling through their pockets.
Warren Clarke, looking damn young, parades around the East End like he truly does own the place and we wouldn't be surprised to discover that he'd run a few real life gangsters out of town. And Clarke channels the frustration that Rowe feels at the changing cultural landscape around him to infuse Rowe with an almost obsessive desire to topple Reuben. It reminds us just how much Warren Clarke is missed.
What happens, though, when all these finely tuned characters come together for a right old knees up in the East End?
The writers - Patrick Carrol and Barry Wasserman - have delivered a delicious plot in Wolcott which concentrates on the main stand off between Wolcott, Reuben and Rowe, but also finds time for a number of elegant little subplots such as Wolcott's relationship with Marin and the full extent of Bonham's activities. And Wolcott also acts as an intriguing slice of urban social life in the early 1980s.
We're treated to disturbing and aggressive scenes where National Front yobs (hello, Keith Allen) clash with liberal spirits (hello, Alexie Sayle). The 80s horror drug heroin rears its ugly head as it infects the streets causing but nothing but pain and misery in its wake. And then there's the racism, the full filthy gamut of racism.
Now, to our tender 2015 ears, the racial slang being bandied about by all comers really stood out. We're not saying racism don't exist these days, but we're certainly not privy to much more than casual racism (which sounds rather fluffier than it is). But, remember, this is 1981 and race riots are kicking off all over the country, so with the simmering tensions having built up over a generation or so, it's no surprise to hear the characters spitting bile in this fashion.
With the plot, though, we felt that Wolcott was given a bit too much room to breathe. Sure, all the avenues are explored nicely and tension builds up, but sometimes it does feel like a bit too much of a slow burner. Times have changed, obviously, and pacing in TV is generally much sharper these days, but the Wolcott story could have been told in three episodes. Too much time seems to be spent waiting for that Reuben / Rowe standoff to come, but the tension between them develops at a less than dramatic pace and the majority of their standoffs feel rather impotent as a result.
Finally, the production on the series is absolutely magnificent for its era. Sure, the cod funk score comes across a little naff and too indebted to US cop shows, but the cinematic look and feel of the show is amazing. ITC and Colin Bucksey have pulled out all the stops to maintain the gritty feel of London's decaying streets, but somehow coat them in a delicious sheen.
The Lowdown on the Disc
Wolcott was filmed on 16mm, so questioning whether there's any grain in the picture is somewhat of a redundant question. Darker scenes tend to suffer the most and the naturally gritty nature of 16mm, at times, upgrades to picture noise, but it's not terribly distracting. Well lit scenes seem to pop with clarity, though, and skin tones are particularly well presented to promote that glossy transatlantic look that ITC were striving for.
The sound, we suspect, was never spectacular due to it coming from an era of poor sound systems when it came to TVs. As a result the sound is decent enough with no muddying or muffling of the dialogue and the music powers out quite acceptably, but those surround sound speakers you've invested in probably ain't gonna get much out of this.
Extras! Now there's something we absolute love about Blu-Rays, so will our Wolcott Blu-Ray review be able to wax lyrical about the extras on offer? Well, no. Sadly all we get is a picture gallery where surely we should have had commentaries and interviews. A right missed opportunity if ever there was one.
*HUGE SPOILER AHEAD*
Wolcott is an amazing slice of drama which really stands out against other UK police dramas of its time. Not only does it herald the arrival of the first leading black policeman on our screens, but the fantastic performances aren't restricted to just one or two leads. And it looks great with a really gorgeous production which provides a nice bit of glossy glamour to the resolutely grainy world of 80s British drama.
It's not a perfect series, but these are very much early days with the whole production finding its feet. It's a shame, though, that Reuben and Rowe don't survive as they would have made for a compelling backdrop for more short term 'crime of the week' episodes to play out against. Sadly it never happened for one reason or another, but at least now we can take a look at what might have been rather than relying on a few dusty memories.
If there's one thing you should take from our Wolcott Blu-Ray review then it's BUY IT!
An amazing overview to the genesis of the series and its production can be found at Patrick Carrol's website.