In 2016 I discovered that the marvellous thing about being young is that there was already a lot of television before I was born. Although I felt I knew about enough of it, enough to be content with, enough that I would ever want to watch, it turned out I could not have been more wrong. It seems absurd that the Internet is enabling me to learn about so many of these pre-Internet programmes. Here are a few programmes I discovered and loved in 2016.
Callan is a reluctant employee of the Section, a government department whose remit covers: “Eliminating people, framing, extortion, death… all the jobs that are too dirty for Her Majesty’s other security services to touch.”
Callan blew me away from the first episode I saw, Let’s Kill Everybody. It impressed me so much I immediately ordered a box set. Armchair Theatre‘s Magnum for Schneider and The Good Ones Are All Dead were both fantastic and I watched them multiple times before moving on. Knowing several episodes of Callan were missing, realising just how smaller this made my box set, has made me savour every single one of these episodes. Whether I’ve watched three in a week or one in a fortnight, they have all felt incredibly precious and deserving of my full attention.
I love Callan himself. I love how little we know about his past, I love that he cares about the people he has to hurt, I love how every person he kills seems to hurt him personally and above all, I love the contempt he has for his employers.
I love the Cold War espionage that so many of the plots centre around. Callan’s world is much closer to that of Alec Leamas and George Smiley than that of James Bond. The series takes place almost entirely in London but in fact, it could be anywhere as there are no defining landmarks or locations regularly name-checked. Spies do not all languish on famous street corners or tube stations. They stake out grotty flats from other grotty flats, they drink endless cups of tea whilst waiting in cafes, they stand around in telephone boxes. Some of the people they spy on are pleasant and others are some of the vilest humans you could ever hope not to meet.
I have found Callan thrilling, despite a limited amount of any ‘action’. Instead, I spend many episodes with fingers clenched, breath held, as the tension rises. My favourite episode so far has been Heir Apparent, which saw Callan and colleague Toby Meres attempting to get a fellow agent across the East-West German border. I want to say that, being partly set abroad with more action and a larger role for Meres, it made for a different sort of episode of Callan. Yet there are numerous episodes I could say this of for one reason or another. Diversity is certainly one of the show’s strengths.
I have recently reached the end of Callan‘s black and white episodes and have always had a slight feeling of apprehension about the colour ones. Will this wonderfully grim, spies-in-the-shadows programme work so well in colour? I hope so.
Frank Marker eschews the description of ‘private detective’, preferring ‘inquiry agent’. He takes on anything from missing persons to divorce cases. He has been based in London, Birmingham and Brighton, as well as having a spell inside.
Callan and Public Eye will be forever linked in my mind because I first saw them both around the same time and after only one episode I ordered box sets of both. For Public Eye, the episode in question was My Life’s My Own. I had found it gripping in a different way to Callan. Whilst Callan was all about the suspense, Public Eye was more intriguing. The plot of My Life’s My Own concerns a mysterious young girl who tries to commit suicide and we uncover details at the same rate Frank does.
When I first sat down with the box set I was to discover that the earlier episodes of Public Eye were very different, with Frank trekking his way around the glummest-looking parts of London and Birmingham in search of information. I loved these early episodes too though, as we know so little about Frank and I enjoyed trying to spot any sort of insight into his character. At present, I am in Windsor with Frank. He has recently moved from Brighton where he became ‘Frank’ far more than ‘Marker’. The series in Brighton focussed far more on Frank himself and after the previous veil of mystery, it was superb to get to know him at last.
Frank Marker began as quite a distant man, though I would never say he appeared cold. Initially, he seemed to flourish as a lone wolf but as the series has moved on he seems to have achieved a couple of friendships too. It has become apparent that Frank is a lovely man, sometimes too nice for his own good. He cares about helping people, even if it means advising them not to use his services.
Like Callan, I had worried about Public Eye‘s move to colour but as the tone of Public Eye changed in the Brighton episodes, it blended forward perfectly well. It has also meant the programme can deliver the full glory of early 1970s’ fashions, contrasted with Frank’s almost unchanging appearance of a dark shirt, light tie, grey suit and raincoat.
Public Eye may not have the high stakes of Callan but for the father who has lost a daughter or the woman who suspects her husband is having an affair, these things are world-defining. Frank Marker understands this. I am looking forward to spending even more time with him.
No Hiding Place
I watched an episode called A Bird to Watch the Marbles, not knowing at all what to expect and by the end I adored it. Initially, I was unsure because there was so much time spent focussed on the guest actors that we barely saw the regulars. However, the idea of this grew on me and I found it a brilliant way of being able to build characters, even though they were only going to appear in a single episode. Far less plodding detective work gave greater room for plot and action.
This seemed like a brilliant series and as soon as the episode had finished I was keen to investigate it. But of the 236 episodes made, only 21 are known to exist (as per LostShows.com). As far as I can tell, A Bird to Watch the Marbles is the only episode to have had any sort of commercial release. Gutting.
There is little else I can say, having only been able to see one episode so far. It has made me realise how lucky I have been so far. Both Callan and Public Eye have numerous missing episodes but they do at least have a decent number intact.
Much more to come…
The series I haven’t seen much of yet.
I have managed to see a few episodes of Fireball XL5 over the past year and have been pleasantly surprised by just how much I’ve enjoyed this children’s puppet show. Steve Zodiac is a traditional type of hero and part of the World Space Patrol. He’s backed up by an old Professor, Matthew Mattic, Robert the Robot and the lovely Doctor Venus. Together they battle bad guys all over the string galaxy. It’s a fun 25 minutes. There is suspense, excitement and, sometimes, a magnificent explosion or two. As Thunderbirds was the only other Gerry Anderson show I was familiar with, my enjoyment of Fireball XL5 has certainly opened me up to the idea of seeking out the other shows
The Adventures of Robin Hood
Sword fights! So many awesome sword fights! Although I was familiar with the story of Robin Hood, I don’t think I had seen a version of it before. I have only seen the first episode of this 1955 series with Richard Greene but it was such a blast, such a fine run-around, that I can barely wait to be able to see the rest. Sir Robin is a fine gent and we have been set up with a superb nasty villain in the Sheriff. The band of merry men have come together and the stage is set for more leaping about sets, rescuing the downtrodden and swinging multiple swords around near fire torches
Man has been depositing nuclear waste on the moon for some years and the problems resulting from this are eventually fully realised. The crew find themselves entirely alone.
Unsure what to expect from this sci-fi, I had prepared myself to experience something a bit low budget and naff. Instead, when I watched the first episode I was presented with a fantastic, gripping drama with a wonderful ending. The characters all seem to have plenty of room for development and I was impressed by the scope of the sets, based on a fairly simplistic design. Space: 1999 is another series added to my ‘box sets to buy’ list as it left me so curious about what might come.
Suspense, excitement, intrigue, fun. Here’s to more of it in 2017.