Tuesday, 25 February 2014

'Doctor Who: The Web of Fear' DVD review

Set in the London Underground, the 1968 Doctor Who story 'The Web of Fear' is finally available on DVD. For many enthusiasts, it's the story that defines the Patrick Troughton era of the series.

Hammer horror... (Image: BBC)
Memory’s a funny thing. Back in the 1980s, when nobody could see Series 5 of Doctor Who and we only had scratchy, off-the-TV soundtracks to go on –  aside from telesnaps, the frame-by-frame photographs archivist John Cura provided for programme makers – we bought into the idea, put around by some older fans, that the fifth season was the high-point of Doctor Who in the 1960s. Single episodes tantalised us with the promise of a slew of base-under-siege classics that established once and for all what the series was really all about: a quirky hero and his plucky chums versus a variety of towering, preferably robotic, monsters.

Of course it’s not as simple as that. When ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’ turned up, I couldn't square the classic of fandom folklore with a 1967 TV production that sported untidy direction and wildly variable characterisation and performances. In the 1990s, the delightful surprise was the return of ‘The Ice Warriors’: a science fiction story that featured monsters rather than a science fiction story about monsters, with innovative production design and direction, as well as startlingly modern dialogue.

Fast forward to 2013, and against all odds, ‘The Enemy of the World’ and ‘The Web of Fear’ were recovered together. It’s going to sound churlish considering the astonishing discovery of eleven old episodes forty-odd years on, but I found ‘Enemy’ similar to ‘Tomb’ in its not entirely successful mixture of impressively staged film set pieces – the location filming, the confrontation with Salamander in the TARDIS – and crushingly leaden direction. Predictably, the best things about it are Patrick Troughton’s dual roles: he was such a good character actor that you really believe the Doctor and Salamander are two separate people.

The beginning of a nightmare. (Image: BBC)
I remember ‘The Web of Fear’ so well from 1968. Having first watched Doctor Who (I think) during ‘The Power of the Daleks’, I was by then hooked, and of all the 1960s stories, it’s the bizarre images in ‘Web’ that captivated my nearly four year-old imagination the most: the TARDIS snared by web in space, the dead newspaper seller who keels over, the web/fungus of the Great Intelligence squirming through the tunnels, the battle with the Yeti, the web guns, a Yeti control unit bleeping across the floor and terrifying a soldier. The trailer, with the Doctor talking to the audience and warning them about the return of the Yeti, is a particularly vivid memory, but I have no memory whatsoever of 'The Enemy of the World' episode six, even though I must have watched it.

So – would ‘The Web of Fear’ turn out to be the second upward curve on the graph of reappraised quality in Series 5...?

146 minutes later...
Good news: the Great Intelligence’s rematch with the Doctor may not be as intellectual as ‘The Ice Warriors,’ but (as you’d expect from Douglas Camfield, one of Doctor Who’s best directors) ‘The Web of Fear’ is pacy, acted with conviction and overflows with images of the uncanny in an everyday setting. No other programme could offer such a – an overused word, but I’m going to use it – surreal mixture of elements: robot versions of legendary animals who fire guns full of lethal web, in a London Underground being choked by a fungus-like organism. Considering what was going on elsewhere in society at the time, I do wonder if recreational chemicals might have played some part in the story’s origination.

A base under siege and a traitor within... (Image: BBC)
There’s so much to enjoy (an unnecessary and unfortunate Jewish stereotype aside). The characterisation of the soldiers trapped in the Goodge Street fortress is particularly authentic. Like a khaki Greek chorus, Corporal Lane (Rod Beacham) and Craftsman Weams (Stephen Whittaker) discuss their situation, speculating that the Yeti are robots created by a foreign power for germ warfare or – far, far more unlikely – invaders from outer space…. Staff Sergeant Arnold (Jack Woolgar) is a seasoned, tough-but-with-a-heart-of-gold leader of men, and Woolgar’s salty performance is so convincing that the final episode revelation about him is a genuine shocker. Captain Knight (Ralph Watson) may be a bit of a chinless wonder with a bizarre pronunciation of Charing Cross, but he gets a wonderful moment of disgust, reacting to the statement by Harold Chorley (the excellent John Rollason) that the killing of soldiers is ‘great stuff’ for his news story. Among all the Rourke’s Drift stiff upper lippery, it’s wonderful to have an unrepentantly cowardly character in Driver Evans (Derek Pollitt). Nobody can stand him, and when he does decide to help, he gets shouted at by the Doctor. They should have brought him back – imagine how different Doctor Who would have been with Evans taking the role of Sergeant Benton.

And then there’s one Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney). If you can blank out his major role in the series in the 1970s, here he’s clearly designed to be the main suspect as the Great Intelligence’s agent, as no-one knows anything about him and sabotage only starts happening when he turns up; bearing that in mind, his sole survival of the Yeti attack takes on a very sinister aspect. This Cold War paranoia about infiltration by an enemy occurred in 1960s series as varied as Callan and Counterstrike, and would have struck a particularly mature chord with the adult audience, particularly as we’re kept guessing about the identity of the traitor until the last moment. Chorley is the other candidate, disappearing for two episodes and leading you to wonder if he’s manipulating events behind the scenes.

The stuff of childhood terror. (Image: BBC)
There’s so much other good stuff: the bewilderment of Professor Travers (Jack Watling) at the Doctor’s companions Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Victoria (Deborah Watling) not having aged since he last met them; the very contemporary dig by the impressively tough Anne Travers (Tina Packer) at the ‘gutter press’; the brilliant model work of the tunnels and the Goodge Street lab and, of course, the Yeti. Some Doctor Who monsters look great in still photos but a bit silly when they move, but the reverse is true of these furry robots: they’re quick, savage and brutal, and unnerving when they suddenly switch off and stand still. A great monster.

As I’ve said, ‘The Web of Fear’ is a straightforward story well told, and Camfield has to take most of the credit for that. He recognised that Doctor Who had more in common with horror films than science fiction movies, and here we get an edgy vocabulary of extreme close ups – Troughton’s characterful, lined face was made for black and white – and film noir style photography so expressionistic that some backgrounds to the scenes are pure black. This not only adds to the claustrophobic feel, but hides the budgetary limitations in the sets, so we don’t get anything as stagey as the Gravitron control room in ‘The Moonbase’. No one’s doing ‘children's TV’ or hammy acting (unlike in ‘Tomb’ and ‘Enemy’) and Hines, in particular, is more muscular than usual.

In February 2014, I’m delighted to report that ‘The Web of Fear’ is, next to ‘The Ice Warriors’ and ‘The War Games’, the best (nearly) complete Troughton Doctor Who story resident in the BBC archives. In many ways, for me, it is the Troughton era, and you could show it to today’s children and they’d be excited and thrilled by it.

I’ve believed since 1968 that ‘The Web of Fear’ was brilliant. All these years later, it's gratifying to know that I was right.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

TV COPS: 'WPC 56' and 'The Line of Duty'


Internal affairs: Dunbar, Compston and McClure. (Image: BBC)

BBC TV has delivered two on-form police dramas based around female officers - WPC 56 and The Line of Duty. Here's why they're worthy of your time.

I'm happy to report that the British TV police drama is, if not in completely rude health, polishing its buttons and cutting a dash again on the streets. By police drama, I mean shows that are about the demands and contradictions of police work, rather than the gloomy psyche of the title protagonist (I’m looking at you, DCI Banks and Inspector George Gently).

"Make us a cup of tea, luv." (Image: BBC)
What’s most surprising is that one of these returns to form hails from the middle of a weekday afternoon, with none of the quick, get-on-with-it-because-we’re-on-a-shoestring-budget feel you sometimes get from midday TV drama. And WPC 56, set in the 1950s and starring Jennie Jacques as the tough but put upon WPC Gina Dawson, is anything but bland. The second series, which finished last week, dealt with sexual harassment, prostitution, conmen and repressed homosexuality, content that would, perhaps, have been more at home after the watershed than in the same cuddly zone as Pointless. I have to say that I thought the assault of Dawson, by the sexually predatory Assistant Chief Constable Arthur Coulson (John Bowler), was rather too strong for 2 in the afternoon.

Otherwise, WPC 56 is an afternoon delight. The characters live in a 1950s pleasingly fashioned from film noir movies, all high and extreme-angled camera shots, murkily lit interiors and a dark clubland that wouldn’t shame Kiss Me Deadly. A lot of thought has gone into the historical context of the series, as in contrast to the proactive Dawson, the women characters are often portrayed as victims or helplessly reliant on men, while Dawson, an empowered young woman – significantly, she's allowed to have sex out of wedlock – struggles against sexism and prejudice.(The only thing slightly wrong with the period tone is that no one smokes at all.)

The plotting is rewardingly sophisticated for an afternoon series and WPC 56 isn’t afraid to be downbeat either. As the second run ended, even though she’s seen off Coulson, there was a shadow over Dawson's future in the force because of an investigation into a shooting she was involved in. I’ll go as far as to say that the series is far too good to languish where it is, so here's a suggestion: swap WPC 56 with the antiseptic and annoyingly sentimental Call the Midwife. Dawson and co. would be good for Sunday nights, as WPC 56 is Heartbeat with a scar down its cheek and a flick-knife hidden behind its back.

Between the lines

Curiously, the other the police series the BBC are fielding at the moment, the second series of The Line of Duty, is also built around a female police officer. In what’s shaping up to be a career best performance, Keeley Hawes plays Detective Inspector Lindsay Denton, accused of complicity in the deaths of a witness and several police officers. AC12, the police's internal investigation unit looking into her case, is peopled by the same fine actors as it was in the first series, namely Adrian Dunbar, Vicky McClure and Martin Compston.

Jack or knave? (Image: BBC)
The most enthralling aspect of The Line of Duty are the interrogation scenes where Denton faces off against AC12. They sing with tension and authenticity thanks to writer Jed Mercurio’s evident research. Wednesday's second episode featured a great confrontation near the end, as Denton called into the question her interrogators’ integrity because of debt, inappropriate relations with a witness and compromising texts, a scene that was possible because of Mercurio's creative diligence.

The Line of Duty began with a show-stopping stunt. Played by Call the Midwife’s Jessica Raine, DC Georgia Trotman looked as if she was going to be a major character, but was killed off at the end of the first episode. It was an impressive shock, but the series doesn't really need gimmicks like that: it's astute writing, committed performances and edgy directorial vocabulary, using jittery camera shots and crash zooms, are more than enough to make you watch, particularly as the theme of the programme is so compulsive – flawed, professional people doing an extremely hard job.

I can’t wait to see how this second series pans out. As Denton said, “People have underestimated me my whole life,” so it’ll be fascinating to see if the woman with the face of a disappointed angel has simply been unlucky or has, in fact, been bought off. I have to say it again: I really haven't seen Hawes as good as she is here in anything else. She gives a remarkable, understated, underplayed performance lit with shocking flashes of violence.

Well done, BBC. The black and blue lamp is in good hands.

Friday, 7 February 2014

TV COMEDY: 'Outnumbered' and 'Inside No.9', BBC, 6 February

From Hancock to The Thick of It, British comedy hs excelled at making us laugh at the darkness lurking just below the civilised veneer of British life. Outnumbered and the brilliant Inside No.9 continue this fine (and disturbing) tradition.

No. 9: quality black comedy with a quality cast. (Image: BBC)

Outnumbered: a sitcom with the never-fails-to-be-funny gimmick of a bunch of endearing dysfunctional kids moody Karen (Ramona Marquez), jovial Ben (Daniel Roche) and I’m-more-grown-up-than-you-are Jake (the unlikely named Tyger Drew-Honey) – getting the better of their equally dysfunctional parents Pete Brockman (a constantly bewildered Hugh Dennis) and Sue (Claire Skinner, seemingly always a hair’s breadth from a nervous breakdown). The random, surrealist dialogue and physical comedy that the child actors improvised when they were younger was often inspired as well as being laugh-out-loud funny, so with the kids now teenagers, I wondered if the show would still work as well. The good news is that it does, with a mature, darker slant to Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin’s writing.

The one-liner strike-rate of Outnumbered hasn’t been compromised, with a classic, witty and quotable slice of dialogue being delivered roughly every thirty seconds:

Pete: (on Jake's driving lesson): At one point I yelled ‘pedestrian!’ and he thought it was a criticism.

Sue: Ben, I’ve told you before: no gladiator nets at the dinner table.

and many more.

The battling Brockmans (Image: BBC)
What’s more prominent than ever is the theme of exasperation, exhaustion and paranoia regarding modern British family life. Sue tried to get her children and husband sitting at the dinner table in a bid to counteract her family becoming increasingly ‘fragmented and anti-social’, only to look up and find none of them talking to each other and all of them texting. Obsessed with Sigmund Freud, Ben made Sue question her parenting abilities and worry about the effect her own shortcomings had on her children. Over at the local swimming gala, the aggressively competitive Karen threw her medal for coming third into a bin, demanded a drugs test on the other competitors and flounced out of the relay team. Pete, meanwhile, tried to convince a worried parent and the pool security man that he wasn’t a paedophile, even though he was filming Karen’s race on his phone.

The playing by the gifted line-up of actors, adult and adolescent, is as sprightly, engaging and as hilarious as ever. It’ll be fascinating to see how they interact with Outnumbered’s new theme of regret and sadness at the state of contemporary family life, summed up as Sue sat alone at the dinner table and imagined her children giving her compliments for cooking such a nice meal – compliments she knew she was never going to get for real.

Tales of the very unexpected 

Half an hour after Outnumbered, on BBC2 at 10pm, ‘masters of horrorcom’ Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, late of Psychoville – ‘Mr Jelly and His Box of Hands’ – and the genre-busting The League of Gentlemen – ‘Are you local?’ – were back with a new anthology series Inside No.9. I’d seen Mr Shearsmith on Wednesday morning’s Breakfast Time and been impressed by his comments about his new series: like me, he regretted the passing of shows like Armchair Theatre and Play for Today, where there was a different story every week, and the well-remembered Tales of the Unexpected, in which a horror story would follow a crime story would follow a comedy and so on. The pitch – different stories that took place behind a door with a 9 on it – and the finished product has clearly impressed the BBC, as a second series has already been commissioned.

Two funny men in a very funny wardrobe.
It’s easy to see why. The first tale, ‘Sardines’, was innovative, original, chilling and revisited Pemberton and Shearsmith's favourite landscape, where dark secrets hide behind the closed doors of an apparently serene middle England. This was quite literally the case, as approximately one third of all Britain’s character acting talent – Katherine Parkinson, Sheaarsmith and Pemberton themselves, Anne Reid, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Timothy West and Anna Chancellor, among others were shut in a wardrobe in a game of sardines, while the consequences of jealousy, incest, repressed desire, child abuse and various dysfunctional relationships seethed around and through their characters.

‘Sardines’ was an immaculate piece of plotting, too, as the various quirks of the characters – body odour, intimacy issues, low self-esteem, bullying – gradually all connected and led up to the stunning closing scene, which more than equalled the signature final twists of Tales of the Unexpected. In short, ‘Sardines’ was a delight: deceptively simple, blackly funny, grotesque and hugely entertaining.

Although most of the money must have gone on the cast, ‘Sardines’ was notable for the innovative budget saving of filming in one room. One brilliant shot focused on the empty bedroom for nearly a minute, as characters hiding under the bed and in the wardrobe bitched at each other. Like the whole story, it was a brilliant and inspired piece of comic staging.

Inside No.9 and Outnumbered may mine the dark seam in British life, but if the comedy that results is as good as what was on offer on Wednesday night, as far as I’m concerned they can keep digging. Expect, though, to suddenly find yourself questioning just why you’re laughing...