As is TMINE’s want at this time of year, let’s celebrate the birth of Christ with a scary story by MR James.
Part of BBC Two’s legendary annual A Ghost Story For Christmas strand, The Ash Tree documents the tale of Sir Richard Fell, who has just inherited Castringham, a country seat with an unfortunate history. The house has been cursed since the day his ancestor, Sir Matthew Fell, condemned a woman to death for witchcraft. It is soon discovered that the ancient ash tree outside his bedroom window is the root of the problem…
Directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, it stars Edward Petherbridge as Sir Richard and features that Lalla Ward off of Doctor Who as well. It was also written not by Gordon Clark for a change, but by David Rudkin of Artemis 81 and Penda’s Fen fame.
Just in case for some insane reason you don’t already have them on DVD, this is just a quick reminder that possibly the best TV programme ever made, Callan, is getting a very rare repeat, thanks (of course) to Talking Pictures. I think the last time it was repeated was on UK Gold in the early to mid 90s, so don’t expect it to come round again for another 20 years.
The action starts with the original Armchair Theatre production that launched it, A Magnum for Schneider, which coincidentally again is this week’s Weekly Play. It sees working class ex-spy David Callan (Edward Woodward) blackmailed by his former boss Colonel Hunter into returning to ‘the Section’, SIS’s dirty tricks department responsible for everything from extortion through to assassination. His task? The murder of the titular Schneider, a German businessman who may be more than he seems. But has Callan’s nerve gone? And if it has, will his former employers kill him?
It’s a brilliant, unshowy piece of work, with Woodward showing his star credentials from the outset. But Russell Hunter as his informant ‘Lonely’, Ronald Radd as Hunter and Peter Bowles as Callan’s posh fellow agent Meres are all stand-outs. In an era of spy escapism, Callan was a welcome bit of gritty, down at heel British drama.
After A Magnum for Schneider, Talking Pictures will continue airing the series proper with the show’s surviving black and white episodes (no, the BBC wasn’t the only broadcaster to wipe its archives from time to time), in which the marvellous Anthony Valentine took over from Bowles as Meres, and a legion of other great actors eventually took over, Number 2-style, from Radd as ‘Hunter’.
After that, we head into the colour Thames episodes, which thankfully still survive. If you miss it, you’ll be sorry!
UPDATE: Actually, checking Talking Pictures schedules, it looks like A Magnum For Schneider isn’t getting an airing, so it’s straight into the black and white episodes tonight with The Good Ones Are All Dead at 9pm. That means you should definitely watch this week’s Weekly Play!
Readers of the somewhat irregular and increasingly badly named TMINE feature The Weekly Play will recall classic ITV play strand Armchair Theatre, which as I mentioned here, resulted in numerous classics of the small screen.
While at least some of those plays have been releases on DVD, it’s never (AFAIK) been repeated on TV, beyond the occasional special, but this month changes that. Talking Pictures TV, one of the ‘nosebleed’ channels on your EPG (Virgin 445; Freeview 81; Sky channel 328; Freesat 306; Youview 81), is one of the rare channels out there on UK TV worth watching these days, particularly if you’re a classic film or TV buff. Airing all manner of rarities of both the silver and the small screen – it had Hannay last month and I can see it’s got the Roger Moore The Saint next month, too – it’s worth checking out if you can, although it really could do with a Roku/iOS/Android app, if you ask me.
And starting this Sunday, every week, it’s going to air a play from Armchair Theatre.
The season starts on Sunday with 1973’s A Bit of A Lift, directed by Dennis Vance and starring Ronald Fraser, Ann Beach, Donald Churchill and Denise Shaw.
A man meets a woman at a wedding and manages to sweet talk her, only to end up inadvertently helping out another male.
But it’s also this week’s Weekly Play. What serendipity, hey?
July 14 1930 was an auspicious day for TV plays, as it marked the first time that a play was ever transmitted on TV. The BBC had been experimenting with John Logie Baird’s TV technology since 1929, running test transmissions from both Baird’s premises and their own radio headquarters at Savoy Hill. In the summer of 1930 it was decided that a drama should be produced as a new test for and demonstration of the medium.
The lucky title was Luigi Pirandello’s The Man with the Flower in his Mouth. Val Gielgud (yes, a relation), the production’s director, chose the play as it was only about half an hour long, had a confined setting and only had three characters: The Man (Earle Grey), The Woman (Gladys Young) and The Customer (Lionel Millard).
The production was broadcast live from a set at the Baird company’s headquarters, 133 Long Acre in London. Generally regarded as a successful experiment, it was watched by prime minister Ramsay MacDonald with his family at 10 Downing Street, where Baird had installed one of his prototype ‘televisors’ two months previously so MacDonald could view the test transmissions he and the BBC regularly broadcast.
Given it was early days for TV, don’t be too surprised to learn that it wasn’t shown in 1080p high-def or 4K Ultra. Instead, the video was a mere 30 lines – 1/36th the resolution of HD and a 1/20th the resolution of PAL. It also also wasn’t recorded, so that first ever TV play is lost to history, I’m afraid.
However, in 1967, a shorter version of the play was remade entirely in 30-lines by Bill Elliott of Granada TV in Manchester. He used student actors to play the parts and recorded the performance a stereo tape recorder: one track held the 30-line video signal; the other track held the audio. Not only did use his own home-built recreation of Baird’s televisor to act as camera and monitor for the recreation, he also brought in the play’s original producer, Lance Sieveking, to authentically reproduce and present it. Sieveking was also able to provide the original artwork used in the play and the same 78-rpm gramophone record that had provided the music in 1930.
This clip is restored from a Betamax copy of the 1967 video, filmed off-screen at 30 lines. And it’s this week’s TMINE play. Enjoy!
It’s Halloween today. It’s also Wednesday. As it’s an occasional TMINE tradition to feature not only a spooky play at Halloween but also a play on Wednesdays, how can I resist featuring one today, in this year of all years?
But what to choose? Well, since I’ve been talking about The Haunting of Hill House quite a bit of late and since I happened to mention Lost Hearts in passing thanks to certain bad make-up decisions, there’s an obvious choice, isn’t there?
For those of you who don’t know, Lost Hearts was one of the much revered scary plays the BBC put out every Christmas during the 1970s, usually as part of the A Ghost Story For Christmas strand. As with most of the plays, Lost Hearts was an adaptation of a classic MR James ghost story. This one sees a young orphan sent to stay with his much older cousin at a remote country mansion. His cousin is a reclusive alchemist obsessed with making himself immortal and Stephen is repeatedly troubled by visions of a young gypsy girl and a travelling Italian boy…
Adapted by Robin Chapman and directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, it’s notable as both the shortest of the Ghost Story For Christmas series as well as the only one to use hurdy-gurdy music to scare the crap out of the viewer.
Incidentally, this wasn’t the first British TV adaptation of Lost Hearts, since it was featured in ITV’s Mystery and Imagination series in 1966. However, just like The Road (recently remade by Radio 4) no copy of that first version exists, unfortunately.