Saturday 24 October 2015

Codename Icarus

Science is a magnificent enterprise which has helped us develop new technologies, make exhilarating postulations about the universe and even clear up athlete's foot.

And we're all exposed to it at school for several long years - science that is, not athlete's foot - so we're more than capable of holding a little scientific wizardry in our brains, even if it is just how to work a bunsen burner. However, some of us - not us obviously - are right science whizz kids and are adept at working out fiendishly complicated science riddles to help advance mankind.

Are these advances always put to good use though? It's a highly complex question and certainly not one that can be answered in a retro TV blog, but we can take a look at a TV program which brought this question to the fore in Codename Icarus.

Genre: Children's
Channel: BBC1

Transmission: 08/12/1981 - 22/12/1981

Martin Smith (Barry Angel) ain't the most popular of pupils at his secondary school due to his nonchalant approach to studying and, in particular, his maths teacher's fury. Martin's grades are hardly setting the world alight either, but then one day he decides to solve a perplexing equation with consummate ease after being challenged by his ranting maths teacher.

The school take this not as a sign that they have a brilliant thinker on their hands, but more that Martin's a bloody cheat, so they call in his parents to relay their utter disdain for Martin's attitude. However, old Martin is actually a child prodigy and spends his spare time working on a school computer solving exceedingly difficult equations set by some mystery taskmaster.

And this mystery taskmaster turns out to be John Doll (Philip Locke) who runs Farleigh School which specialises in nurturing child prodigies and preventing their talents from going to waste. With the rabid approval of Martin's family, young Martin soon finds himself enrolled at Farleigh School where he finds himself in the strange position of being in charge of his teachers due to his undeniable genius.

Things are looking pretty peachy for Martin, but there's a few things bugging him. The school is shrouded in mystery and he keeps getting hypnotised, drugged and put through the psychological washer by the staff and, in particular, his 'teacher' Peter Farley (Geoffrey Collins). And it all seems to be in order to isolate Martin from reality and twist his genius to their own nefarious needs.

Meanwhile, Andy Rutherford (Jack Galloway) is having a treacherous old time from his boss Sir Hugh Francis (Peter Cellier) as someone or something keeps blowing British test missiles out of the sky only seconds after being launched. It spells disaster for Blighty's defence and after Rutherford is unable to pinpoint who's behind it all he finds himself suspended.

However, Rutherford, being of the espionage persuasion, ain't going to let it lie, so decides to go it alone and solve the mysterious goings on which are eating into him. And he's not on his own as he has a scientific expert and confidante in the form of ex-Farleigh pupil, Frank Broadhurst (Gorden Kaye) who certainly knows his onions when it comes to advanced laser techniques.

Will Rutherford discover what the devil's going on and stop Britain tumbling into a state of vulnerability? And who exactly is The Wanderer (John Malcolm) and what are his machiavellian plans? Only time will tell, but Rutherford needs to be careful as there are some very powerful forces at work.

The Inner Workings of Icarus

Codename Icarus may sound like a chivalrous wartime operation where kicking the Hun's posterior and un-annexing Poland is the order of the day, but it is in fact a TV programme with all types of productional facts attached to it.

The writer behind Codename Icarus was Richard Cooper who also wrote Quest of Eagles, Knights of God and Eye of the Storm. Cooper, of course, was so tickled pink with his scripts that he also novelised the serial which was published by the BBC/Knights Book in 1981. And a familiar, and favourite, name of Curious British Telly's, Marilyn Fox, took on the role of director.

Curiously, the show also featured a scientific advisor in the credits and pertained to the enigmatic Professor John Taylor who no doubt had a brain the size of Saturn.

Codename Icarus first aired over a two week period in December 1981 with episodes airing on a Tuesday and Wednesday evening at 5.10pm on BBC1. A repeat of the serial followed in Spring 1984 and was the last transmission of the series. However, a compilation VHS was released by the BBC in 1985 and a region 1 DVD release eventually followed in 2006, but frustratingly a region 2 DVD release is yet to surface.

Luckily, the whole series is up on YouTube or available to download from a few torrent sites.

Flying High with Icarus

We were whiling away our life reading up on the life and times of Gorden Kaye when we came across a little snippet of information about one of his early roles. And, yes, that was his 1982 performance in the barely heard of sitcom Allo, Allo. No, don't be silly, it was of course his role in Codename Icarus. It sounded an intriguing concoction of tellywaves, so we just had to dive in head first.

And Codename Icarus is that rare children's TV show which manages to combine both intelligence and a sense of simplicity without alienating the audience. Kids, you see, just wanna be given respect and treated like they're adults, but at the same time still be allowed to mindlessly run round with their pants down.

There's absolutely no condescending on show during Codename Icarus, but neither do they take the ruthlessly adult route of concentrating on weary political discussions which bore us to tears. And it demonstrates Richard Cooper's (and the BBC's) trust that the audience could engage with such a sophisticated serial which takes in cold war paranoia, child abuse and complex investigations into the concept of free will and choice.

It also helps the series cause that it's perfectly paced over 5 episodes. Many children's serials fall into the trap of being overlong with mind numbingly boring treks where nothing happens and we're left gasping in exasperation at the sense of tedium and bludgeoning repetition. Richard Cooper, however, manages to keep matters brisk and each episode unfolds in an advancing manner, but never once feels rushed.

The characters, too, are equally well formed. Sure, Martin looks like he should be in some Yorkshire Britpop band, but he's layered with depth and his battle with his own genius makes for a captivating watch. John Doll, blimey, he ain't half sinister with his menacingly calm approach to exploiting young genius like some type of diamond mine owner. And Andy Rutherford brings a nice helping of espionage heroism to the table with a sense of determination whose teeth are so gritted he ought to see a dentist after Codename Icarus.

Sir Hugh Francis, we suppose, is a bit of a cliché of a posh espionage boss, but he's a good guy at heart and we found his constant referral to Frank Broadhurst as "the fat man" absolutely hilarious. Talking of Broadhurst, he, again, is well drawn, but we kind of felt as though we didn't get to see enough of him and exactly why he was rebelling against the beauty of his beloved science. A small quibble though as he still makes up a nice part of the jigsaw. 

Acting's pretty damn professional too. We suppose Barry Angel ain't exactly on BAFTA award winning form, but let's be fair, it was one of his first roles, so we can't be too harsh on the old chap. Gorden Kaye is certainly less René Artois in this piece and more nuanced, but as we said earlier he doesn't get any truly huge scenes or amount of screentime which is a shame, but he'd certainly go on to make up for that in his career. Finally, Jack Galloway is not only amazingly handsome with his fantastic coiffure, but he's a bloody good actor with a steely British determination and intelligence flowing through his veins.

Not everything, of course, works as is the nature of the imperfect world that we live in, but Codename Icarus comes pretty damn close. However, a few little bits niggled for us. Firstly, how on God's green Earth, did John Doll manage to get in touch with Martin online? It being the early 80s means the internet was in its completely and utterly most basic form, so quite how he managed to zero in on Martin is rather dubious. And the Sue Kleiner character seems rather redundant as she's mostly relegated to acting as a feed for working out Martin's mood.

Overall, though, Codename Icarus is an amazing testament to the intelligence that can be imbued into a children's TV show. Demonstrating such a clever examination on the beauty of science and how it can be twisted by man's greed is a scintillating setup and keeps you on the edge of your seat. God knows why it ain't had a UK DVD release yet, but we live in hope. In the meantime, get over to YouTube and digest its majesty.

Monday 12 October 2015

Paddington Green

Humanity thrives upon communities coming together and co-operating in order to ensure society has some sort of common objective to work towards that will preserve our sometimes feckless ways. And this is why we've managed to upgrade our lives from crouching in dank, dark caves into a society where, at least for the majority of us, we can now stretch out in the comfort of centrally heated and fully lit homes.

Man's advancement is a compelling one, but due to the vast amount of time involved in this evolution, the narrative has generally concentrated on society as a whole rather than individuals. Come the late 1990s, though, we began to wonder about the stories behind the people scurrying around in these bustling societies and, thus, docusoaps were born.

They were a fantastic exercise in voyeurism and allowed us to peer into the lives of "people just like us" and see how they dealt with the rigours of life. Perhaps we should have been investigating our own lives and trying to better ourselves, but the stars of docusoaps were cast and edited to ensure that their lives were much more exciting. And it was perhaps never done better than in Paddington Green.

Genre: Docusoap
Channel: BBC1

Transmission: 28/12/1998 - 24/07/2001

Paddington Green is a curious little corner of West London which, when first recorded in 1549, consisted of little more than wastelands and a medieval church. Hardly a startling backdrop for people's lives to play out against, but by 1617 there was a fishpond there, so heady times indeed. I'm on a bit of a schedule, though, so can't fanny about and discuss the introduction of the first bird table in Paddington Green. Instead, I'll nip forward about 380 years and take a look at what was going on in Paddington Green in the late 1990s.

Perhaps the most notable event was that the BBC were sticking their cameras and boom mics into the lives of those living in Paddington Green. And it wasn't just a random selection of people they'd met down at the pub, no, in fact, it was a highly varied cross section of the bubbling community of Paddington Green.

The most famous face followed around the Green was Jackie McAuliffe who was a highly complex soul. Jackie, of course, started off as humble Jason McAuliffe, but by the mid 1990s underwent gender reassignment surgery and the chirpy Jackie was born. And how did Jackie earn her crust? That's right! She was a prostitute down at Sussex Gardens. I told you she was complex.

Whilst Jackie was coming to terms with her new life, there was plenty of people finding themselves locked out of their houses or even needing ancient safes unlocking. Enter Jason Osborne, a 24 hour locksmith who laughed in the face of 'uncrackable' safes and appeared to never sleep. Now, this hectic on-call lifestyle probably pays well in the cash stakes, but in terms of love, it was putting a huge strain on his relationship with his beloved Anna.

Harry Gilbert, though, seemed to have finally - at the age of 85 - snared himself a sweetheart in the form of dear old Joyce. However, even in his twilight years, he was being kept on his toes by more than his beau as old Mr Gilbert was still running his wig shop. And a 'hotel' above it. Then there was his revolutionary 'skin cream' he was formulating in his basement which looked like a health and safety officer's nightmare. Give him his dues, though, Harry didn't look too bad for 85, so maybe there was something in his dubious goo after all.

Those three were perhaps the most famous and most featured, but plenty of other memorable characters popped up throughout the series' run.

There was the wonderfully curvy and beautiful Claudia who relentlessly fought with her Dad to revolutionise their scooter shop and bring it up to date. Testing his business partner's mental health on a daily basis was Dave, a good old fashioned wheeler dealer in the mould of Del Boy who could sniff a 'bargain' at 50 yards. And who can forget the good time, laid back bus conductor Danny?

Oh and we also got to follow the early tentative steps of Kelly in the world of modelling, but she's now best known as Kelly Harrison who's barely kept off our screens since.

The Docusoap Boom

Big Brother was still a couple years away, so the British public hadn't been exposed to the full insanity of reality TV and were being kept busy with a sudden interest in docusoaps - kickstarted in no small part by some crazy Welsh learner drive by the name of Maureen Rees in Driving School. And what better place to set the latest docusoap than London? It's a thriving old place, so just perfect for plucking out a few stories to titillate the viewers.

Paddington Green was created by Lion Television and filming began in the summer of 1998 with the first series airing just after Christmas 1998. A total of six series aired between 1998 and 2001 with Ross Kemp narrating the first three series before handing over the torch to his Eastenders co-star Todd Carty for the final three. Paddington Green did not receive any terrestrial repeats, but some episodes were re-aired on BBC Choice in 1999 and episodes also received screen time in 2006 on UKTV People. The first two series are currently up on YouTube, but nothing else is available from the later series!

The jazzy score to Paddington Green was cooked up by the amazing composer Guy Dagul, so we asked him for a quick recap of his involvement with the show:

I followed the producers Bridget Sneyd and Ludo Graham straight from scoring the complete DK Eyewitness Films for them at BBC Worldwide. The brief was simple…raw, urban and sexy.
Thus using "Take Five" (Brubeck) as my template, I let rip! I knew Phil Todd (sax) from my days working on films such as Angel Heart, Mississippi Burning and Arachnophobia. The theme tune was weaved in and out, as variations, throughout as the underscore.

Taking a Trip To Paddington Green

Blimey, Paddington Green! It only seems like yesterday that we werr glued to our screens watching the residents' intriguing lives unfold, but, oh Christ, it was actually 17 years ago which reminds us we're not getting anything but a little further over the hill with each passing day.

Anyway, we bloody loved Paddington Green!

You see, as a 16 year old squirt, these tales of suburban life in the big smog filled monster of London seemed like amazing little glimpses into this exciting adult world we were clamouring to be part of. "Oh please let us into the party and let us dance with Jason at the Notting Hill Carnival and then go pick a few locks! PLEASE!" our teenage self would scream.

In fact, we did, at some point, plan some type of pilgrimage to Paddington Green to visit all the landmarks, but, as with most teenage follies, it didn't happen and we just sat at home reading the NME, dreaming about girls who were well out of our league and wallowing in the sickening reality that we weren't a rock star.

Fast forward nearly 20 years, though, and we were over all that teenage angst nonsense (yeah right!) and decided it was high time we rewatched Paddington Green. Luckily, the first two series went up on YouTube earlier this year, so we could finally reconnect with it.

The first aspect of the show that got the old nostalgia juices flowing was Guy Dagul's jazzy theme. Again, to a 16 year old Britpop fan, the world of jazz was a mysterious world which tempted us in to a new world of time signatures and complex sax arpeggios. And it still stands up. It's bright, it's cool and it sums up a late night stroll through London's beguiling streets.

Oh and the characters! They made such an indelible impression on us at the time, so we were quite literally hysterical with excitement over the prospect of revisiting this old bunch of charmers. And, you know what? They've still bloody got it! Well, some of them...

Because, you know, with such a diverse cast it's obvious that some are going to be that little bit more sparkling than others.

Jason the locksmith was always our favourite due to him being bestowed with an almost shamanistic ability to magically open locks with just a few furtive twists of his wrist. It created a sense of amazement, plus he seemed to get paid big wodges of cash for about 5 minutes work - nice work if you can get it. Jason, though, wasn't purely a one dimensional workaholic. He also had a couple of fractious relationships on his plate with his mother and his girlfriend. And God knows we've all been there - gender specific of course.

Mr Gilbert, too, was a charming old stunner of a gent. Completely rude to his customers, but this he promised was simply down to his no-nonsense dispensing of the truth and, come on, all he wanted to do was make them ladies look their prettiest. The wig shop side of things was rather sedate though due to a lack of trade, but his skin rejuvenating cream was a marked piece of genius. God knows what went in it, but again it was an intriguing angle to his character and highlighted his sense of enterprise even in his twilight years.

Jackie, of course, brought a huge helping of poignancy to Paddington Green and was a real case study in the trials and tribulations of humanity. Despite numerous setbacks throughout life such as being fostered as a child, gender identity crises and having to work the seedy streets of west London as a prostitute, she generally remained resolutely upbeat. A world away from the rest of the cast, Jackie helped bring a unique story to the show to stop the series being mired in the mundanity of life.

And, yeah, some of the characters were a little mundane and failed to inspire that devotion to giving two hoots about their unstimulating lives. Thankfully, the editors of Paddington Green soon seemed to cotton on to who the more curious characters were and either consigned the lesser characters to the dustbin or shunted them to the sidelines for nothing more than brief appearances.

That's not to say the main characters didn't slip into mundanity at times. You see, life on this ever revolving, but never truly changing globe is, generally, one quotidian event after the other, so that's why we bear witness to such earth shattering events as Danny going overdrawn. Oh man, he's overdrawn! Jesus! Whatever next? He's lost his favourite scarf?!

But, you know what? By this point we've invested a substantial amount of interest and empathy in Danny's cheery way of life. Seeing his freewheeling ways come off the rails and not being able to afford a night down the pub cuts deep. It's not like Hitler's gone and got himself overdrawn buying one too many lederhosen for his upcoming rally, is it? So, remember: Danny - YES! Hitler - NO!

The original characters, however, slowly started to leave Paddington Green after the first couple of series and, as so often happens, the replacements were unable to imbue that initial connection now that our sensory receptors had been filled by their predecessors. That's not to say the later series weren't full of insightful social intrigue, just take the story of Gary, a survivor of the 1999 Soho pub bombings trying put life in perspective after such a harrowing ordeal.
But the horse had bolted and our attention waned. Although, to be fair, this was also partly down to us finally getting the keys to the adult world and wanting to make our own mark on the world i.e. get drunk and act stupid.

Final Thoughts

Paddington Green was a great piece of late 90s television. Sure, it didn't always reflect the true horrors of urban life, so, in some ways, is very misleading in it's representation of society, but it was able to deliver a fantastic examination of the humdrum life of a living, breathing human chasing those highs and hot tailing it away from the dreaded lows which so often define our character.

One aspect of the show which really stood out was the real sense of enterprise on show by the characters which sums up the power of money in the modern society. Jason relentlessly chases another job sometimes at the expense of his relationships, Dave is constantly searching for that next big deal and Jackie seizes back the power from her schoolhood bullies by exploiting their leering lusts financially.

It's this aspect which gives the show an aspirational feel, but at the same time underlines how us humans can be a magnanimous, but foolhardy bunch. So, we're a bunch of twits, but we don't half love having a fiver in our back pocket at the end of all our endeavours and to hell with the mental ramifications!

What followed in Paddington Green's wake has perhaps tarnished it slightly in the annals of TV history, but come on, it's not like any of the Paddington Green characters were directly responsible for the ignominy of Kinga and that wine bottle in Big Brother was it?! Regardless, it's not actually as well remembered as it perhaps deserves to be. Despite being a popular show to discuss at the time it seems to have faded from many people's memories, so perhaps it's time to start working on that 20th anniversary reunion special.

In the meantime, head over to YouTube and reacquaint yourself with the genteel charms of Paddington Green and let us know who your favourite characters were and why!