Thursday, 24 September 2015

Five brilliantly bonkers British TV series

Something weird happened in British telly in the 1960s. I'm not sure what drove it - the euphoria of leaving the ration-blighted 1950s behind, perhaps, or the increasingly multicultural nature of the place, or even the growth of the free-love-and-drugs culture. Who knows? At any rate, as far as weird programmes go, the decade was a goldmine.

The Avengers
The death of Patrick Macnee got lots of people talking about The Avengers. Usually they think of Steed - Macnee's character - and Emma Peel, played by Diana Rigg, but she was far from Steed's only, or even first, partner in espionage. The show started in 1961 in black and white, with Steed the junior agent to Dr David Keel. The actor who played Keel only stuck around for one series, and after that Steed was partnered by a succession of glamorous female agents: Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman), Emma Peel and Tara King (Linda Thorson).

The first series was by all accounts (very few episodes survive) relatively 'straight'. As the decade rolled on, the storylines got increasingly batty, before straighening out again rather in the Thorson years. My favourite programmes are the Steed/Peel ones, because the two have such an equal relationship, and seem genuinely delighted to be in each other's company. Among the adversaries Steed and Peel face are a gang of rich libertines who've re-founded the Hellfire Club, a murderer disguised as a comic-book character, a spy-ring of butlers and some terrifyingly efficient secretaries led by a ventriloquist's dummy. 

A film version of The Avengers was made in 1998. AVOID IT.

The Prisoner
As much as I love The Avengers, this is my favourite BBBTV series. It makes sense, but it also makes no sense at all. An agent, played by Patrick McGoohan, tries to quit his job and wakes up in The Village, with a number (Six) instead of a name. Where is The Village? We never find out.

Someone is trying to extract information from Number Six, but it's never clear who. They drug him, plant agents around him, and try all sorts of things to get him to talk. Number Six repeatedly tries to escape, but surveillance cameras and microphones, plus 'rovers' - huge white balloons that capture runaways - make this impossible. The Village itself adds to the strangeness, as the programme was filmed in the Italianate setting of Portmeirion in North Wales, and the Villagers wear gaudy capes and drive golf carts, giving everything a sinister yet holiday-like air. It's idyllic, yet sinister, half holiday camp and half gulag.

An American mini-series remake was broadcast in 2009. AVOID IT.

The Champions
If you're going to crash your plane, it might as well as be in Tibet so you can learn superhuman skills from an ancient civilisation. That's the lesson I learned from The Champions, at any rate. The trio of special agents use their skills to sort out the usual 60s spy-fi problems (bullion robberies, nuclear explosions, mad science research) from their glamorous base in Geneva. Alexandra Bastedo as Sharron Macready, one of The Champions, is one of my style icons - she rocks a superb combination of big hair and 60s chic in the show. As storylines go, it's fun, but it's no Avengers.

Adam Adamant Lives!
Nearly every decade has its burst of nostalgia, and in the 1960s the Edwardian period and 1920s seems to have been the era of choice. (Just think of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band's covers of 20s novelty songs, or the influence of the flapper dress on 60s styles.) The premise of Adam Adamant Lives! is that the titular hero gets frozen in a block of ice in 1902, to be discovered under a building being demolished over six decades later. Skilled at boxing and using a swordstick, the hero swashbuckles his way through villains while getting to grips with the swinging sixties. Sadly, while it is available on DVD, a lot of the episodes have been lost so it's hard nowadays to appreciate it fully. The mighty Avengers killed this one off, trouncing Adam soundly in the ratings.

Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased)
Just sneaking in at the end of the 1960s is this comedic detective drama. It's mostly pretty normal, except for one thing... Marty Hopkirk may be dead, but he hasn't departed. The only person who can see him is his partner Jeff Randall, though Marty is able to use his limited powers to move small objects.

Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer starred in a remake at the beginning of this century, and apparently SyFy have acquired the rights to do another remake, though going by their awful version of The Prisoner I would be very wary if it ever gets off the ground...

Anyway, that's my pick of Brilliantly Bonkers British TV Series from the 1960s - is there anything you would add? Am I too harsh on the modern versions of The Prisoner or The Avengers?

Be seeing you...





14 comments :

  1. Yes Miriam, but why did you resign!

    Great article, I've never seen any Adam Adamant Lives! but all the others resonate. As I recall the champions was all done on a backlot, with lots of stock footage of glamorous places they weren't in!

    I actually like the Vic and Bob version of Randall and Hopkirk Deceased (and not just for Emilia Fox). The worst thing about the Avengers film is that you can tell they almost got it, but they failed and it might have actually worked better if they'd played it straighter. They got the surreal bits but they made no sense (why are they dressed as teddy bears for example)

    I know it's from the 70s, but I'd give an honourable mention to The New Avengers, which I loved even though it's a curious halfway house between the flamboyance of the Avengers and the gritty "realism" of something like The Professionals.

    Linda Thorson was of course the only female Avenger not to be a Bond girl, although if we're being fair about this Thorson and Gareth Hunt are the only Avengers not to be in a Bond film.

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    1. Linda Thorson was cute, but really no follow-up to Diana Rigg. But then, I'm hard pushed to think of who could have been.

      I didn't mind the Vic and Bob programme. It worked. I dread to think what the SyFy version will be like, though.

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    2. Yeah Thorson is probably the weakest female Avenger (I'd probably go Rigg, Lumbly, Blackman Thorson...)

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  2. I haven't seen so many of these, but I was an avid fan of the Champions, I adored the fashion in it! I might have to order a few boxsets to get me through winter, Avengers is on the list for sure xx

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    1. Yup, the clothes in the Champions are real winners. Alexandra Bastedo's HAIR - it was probably all wigs, but it looked amazing.

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    2. You know it never crossed my mind that it would be wigs and hair pieces, but they used those a lot in Mad Men didn't they, Roger's wife Jane in particular. So you're probably right!

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  3. I love The Prisoner and as for Randall and Hopkirk, well that was of my favourite programmes as a child which is a bit weird considering I was born in the 1990s!

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    1. A good show is a good show, regardless of when you watch it :-)

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  4. Currently enjoying the avengers on free TV, I did enjoy the vic and Bob version , of Randall and hopkirk .
    Quartermass and outer limits need to be dragged back

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    1. Ooooooh, Quatermass! One of my faves, that. You'd need exactly the right actor for it, and I'd want them to play it straight - no postmodern knowing nods or attempts at comedy.

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  5. Do you know that apart from the odd episode of The Avengers, I have only really watched Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), which I adored when I was a child. Nothing to add on the telly front. I seem to have lived under a rock for most of my life. These series sound great though. Xx

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    1. Well, I probably watch enough telly for both of us. I'm a terrible square eyes. (It gives me something to knit along to.)

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  6. The Prisoner was my favourite of them all. After a human chess game, there's just nowhere crazy left to go. The clothes were great too. Thanks for the warning about the rebooted version-think I'll skip that.

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    1. The reboot was dire. An even more ill-judged attempt than the US Life on Mars, which was dreadful enough. British surreal whimsy is something best left untouched, I reckon - it seems that big network execs get their hands on things with a cult following, then try to make them mass-market, in the process removing the bizarre elements that gave them their following in the first place.

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