Classic TV

Your handy guide to true religions on TV – Celtic, Western and Northern Germanic religions + Wicca

This entry is one of a series of articles covering religions depicted on TV as being true. For full details and a list of the other religions covered, go to the introduction.

Celtic, Western and Northern Germanic religions + Wicca
The belief in the deities worshipped in Scandinavia, Germany and Britain until Christianity took over has seen some uptake on TV. The most famous of these gods were the Norse gods Odin, Thor, et al, but Anglo-Saxon gods include Wayland the Smithy and folk gods such as Herne the Hunter have all managed to show up. While often these have been part of fantasy shows, so not taken entirely seriously by the authors, some shows have raised them in works contemplating national identity, regarding pagan beliefs as important parts of ‘Welshness’ or ‘Englishness’, for example. 

However, writers have usually played fast and loose, and with most of the pagan religions in these areas being reconstructionist, the question of authenticity to the original religions is difficult, relying instead of pagan-like activity created by the authors. Frequently, where the shows have invoked paganism and shown it to be true, it’s been shown to be based on some kind of science (cf Children of the Stones, Sky, Quatermass and Doctor Who). 

However, there are some exceptions.

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The Weekly Play

The Wednesday Play: The Incredible Robert Baldick – Never Come Night (1972)

As we learnt last year in ‘The Wednesday Play’, the various play and anthology series that the BBC and other broadcasters used to make sometimes led to TV series being commissioned, based on individual plays. Usually, this wasn’t the intention behind making the play in the first place but something that emerged from the play’s popularity. But sometimes broadcasters have gone out of their way to create plays with the potential to become series.

Drama Playhouse was a BBC series launched in 1969 explicitly designed to showcase plays that had the potential to become series: indeed, each play uniquely had both a series title and an episode title when broadcast, despite ostensibly being one-offs. Between 1969 and 1972, over its three seasons each of three episodes, the series did quite well in achieving its aims: season one resulted in the 13-episode spy show Codename, starring The Champions‘ Alexandra Bastedo and Callan‘s Anthony Valentine; season two did even better giving us not only The Regiment and The Befrienders but also the mighty The Onedin Line; and had it not been for a little problem with the Munich Olympics, the final third season might have gone three for three as well. Unfortunately, although the first two plays, Sutherland’s Law and The Venturers, got picked up to series, the final installment, The Incredible Robert Baldick, never made it to a full run.

Given its pedigree, this was a little surprising. The play was written by Terry Nation, the creator of Doctor Who‘s Daleks and frequent contributor to ITC shows including The Avengers and The Persuaders!. When The Persuaders!, for which he was also script editor, didn’t get a second series, Nation returned after a six-year gap to the BBC and pitched his idea for a series: The Incredible Robert Baldick.

Despite being Nation’s work, The Incredible Robert BaldickNever Come Night is for all intents and purposes a Nigel Kneale play, with its period setting that will turn out to contain future shocks (cf Kneale’s The Road), a brilliant scientist investigating a mysterious buried object that’s causing a haunting (Quatermass and the Pit) and the idea of a house retaining ‘memories’ of incidents and emotions that can be replayed (The Stone Tape, which amazingly wasn’t set to air for another few months). There are also elements of Doctor Who, with Robert Hardy’s polymath know-it-all zooming around the country in his specially built train, The Tsar, solving mysteries with the help of his entourage, including gamekeeper John Rhys Davies. He’s even called ‘Doctor’ by his friends. And the ending? Fascinating, but straight out of Doctor Who.

Indeed, as well as the Munich incident, it’s this ending that may have stopped a series being commissioned. Despite being an obvious attempt to lay down a series arc, its science fiction qualities were so out of keeping with the rest of the play’s more down-to-earth and supernatural tones that many of the audience felt cheated.

All the same, it’s an interesting and sometimes scary piece, and Robert Hardy is mesmerising as the eponymous Baldick – you can imagine what Doctor Who would have been like with him as the Doctor using just this as a template. Enjoy!

It’s Hammer Time!: Quatermass II (1957)

Well, Hammer have taken me a little bit by surprise this week by uploading some more movies, so in a change of plans, here’s the wonderful Quatermass II for you to enjoy. The sequel to The Quatermass Experiment, it needs no introduction, but in case I’m wrong on that, not only can you read that previous entry where I do introduce it, Hammer historian Marcus Hearn will tell you more about it first when you click on ‘Play’.

Personally, I think it’s the better of the three Hammer Quatermass movies: Quatermass comes across as less of a dick, it’s got Sid James and William Franklyn in the cast, and it’s faster paced.

You don’t need to have seen the first to know whats’ going on so enjoy!

It's Hammer Time!

It’s Hammer Time!: X The Unknown (1956)

Time to be frightened. As we saw a couple of weeks ago, Hammer Films had great success in 1955 with its adaptation of the BBC’s The Quatermass Experiment. Desperate for more X-rated Quatermass gold – and to tap into the success of US monster movies – Hammer turned to Quatermass’s creator Nigel Kneale and asked him nicely if they could use the character of Quatermass in another movie, albeit one he wouldn’t be writing. Whether he said it politely or not, Kneale gave a definite ‘No’ to that idea.

So Hammer instead went ahead with a movie that can only be described as “Quatermass with the serial numbers filed off”: X The Unknown. Incorporating elements of The Quatermass Experiment with (ironically) the still-just-a-glimmer-in-Nigel-Kneale’s-eye Quatermass and the Pit, this sees nuclear scientist Bernard Quatermass Dr Adam Royston (American actor Dean Jagger) and Inspector ‘Mac’ McGill (Leo McKern) investigating a mysterious source of radiation in the Lochmouth area of Scotland that killed a soldier. What is it that killed him and is currently killing others? Well, that’s ‘The Unknown’.

Featuring a cast of future stars, including Anthony Newley, Kenneth Cope, Edward Chapman, William Lucas and Frazer Hines, and television directors/producers (Peter Hammond and Ian MacNaughton), the movie was never never as popular as The Quatermass Xperiment but has proved influential enough that horror writer Shaun Hutson this year published a novel that updates it to the present day. Notably, the film was supposed to be directed by Joseph Losey, one of many Americans who had came to the UK to work after having been placed on the Hollywood blacklist of supposed Communist sympathisers. However, when Jagger arrived on set, he refused to work with Losey and Leslie Norman replaced the director.

Enjoy the film, which is preceded by an introduction from Hammer historian Marcus Hearn

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Classic TV

It’s Hammer Time!: Dick Barton Special Agent (1948)

Dick Barton Special Agent

Time for this weekend’s Hammer movie – Dick Barton Special Agent.

Dick Barton may not be a name familiar to you, but between 1946 and 1951, he was as well known in British popular culture as, well, Doctor Who is now. Every weekday evening on BBC Radio’s Light Programme, for 15 minutes at a time, Captain Richard Barton, a former marine commando, together with his bestest pals Jock Anderson and Snowey White solved all sorts of crimes, escaped from dangerous situations and saved the nation from disaster. And the nation loved him: at its peak, 15 million people listened to Dick’s adventures every day.

Even if you haven’t heard of Dick Barton, you’ll have heard his theme tune, possibly on That Mitchell and Webb Look: ‘The Devil’s Gallop’. That’s how ingrained he became in popular culture.

To say the plots were slightly implausible, hackneyed and even cliched would be understate the case. There was literally no cliffhanger, no situation so dangerous, that Dick Barton couldn’t get out of it in a trice, prompting the national catchphrase “With one bound, Dick was free!”

Dick did die a death eventually – at the hands of BBC politics. When The Archers came along in 1951, the establishment breathed a sigh of relief since they could finally get rid of the very un-BBC sensationalism of Barton and his friends. Dick lost his time slot and that was that.

Nevertheless, he was much loved and for the BBC’s golden jubilee in 1972, it broadcast a new, abridged 10-episode version of the very first Barton serial, which featured many members of the original cast: Noel Johnson as Dick Barton, John Mann as Snowey, William Fox as Colonel Gardiner, Alex McCrindle as Jock and Margaret Robertson as Jean Hunter.

ITV eventually picked up Barton’s baton, and in 1979 made a series called Dick Barton – Special Agent, which aired in an early evening slot at the weekends. Available again in 15-minute chunks, the four stories broken down into 32 episodes starred Tony Vogel as Dick Barton, Anthony Heaton as Snowey, James Cosmo as Jock and John Gantrel as Sir Richard Marley. It’s now available on DVD, in case you’re interested, and here’s the title sequence.

Dick and his chums have also been revived yearly in a series of musicals that have toured Britain and lasted an impressive 11 years – last year was the first year that there wasn’t a new Barton musical.

But back when Dick was at the peak of his popularity, Hammer Films obtained the rights to make a movie featuring Dick called Dick Barton Special Agent. So successful was this movie that Hammer went on to make two more movies, Dick Barton: Strikes Back (1949) and Dick Barton at Bay (1950), and had it not been for untimely death of the star Don Stannard, there would have been a fourth, Dick Barton in Africa. Nevertheless, it was the popularity of the movies that encouraged Hammer to look at other BBC properties, including The Quatermass Experiment.

It’s only an hour or so long, it’s deeply, spiffingly thrilling, so enjoy Dick Barton: Special Agent in glorious HD below or all three movies on DVD! It’s preceded by an introduction from Robert JE Simpson.

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