Saturday, 30 November 2013

THE COLUMBO FAN BOOK PROJECT!

Hello, Columbo Family!  How much would you like to own a book celebrating the wonderful series we all love?  Well, you can!  All we have to do is write it!

The gentleman who brought us all together, Twitter's very own Lieutenant Columbo and myself have been thrashing out an idea for the last few weeks: a definitive Columbo book, written by the fans.  To include: production history; reviews; interviews.  And if anyone has any other bright ideas for inclusion, we are open to suggestions.

It will be self-published via Lulu.com, which costs nothing.

I have been collecting behind-the-scenes information on the series for many years and looking for the perfect place to include it.  This seems ideal.


Columbo, created by Richard Levinson and William Link, is the property of Universal Studios.  No copyright infringement is intended.  As we are only writing about the subject - since the bulk of the book will be reviews - and not using material owned by Universal, all being well we remain within our rights.  

Of course won't be able to include official photographs, but if we make sure the content is exemplary, I don't see why this can't be a first rate publication.  And speaking of which - artistic contributions would be very welcome, too, given that we cannot use photos.

"The Columbo Phile" by Mark Dawidziak (Mysterious Press, 1989)
“The Columbo Phile” by Mark Dawidziak is obviously an inspiration.  A superb guide to the series, but it only covers the period up to 1978, and is long out-of-print.  This project will allow us, at the very least, to hold in our hands (or own as eBook, PDF etc.) a complete guide to the wonderful Columbo.

We must credit Lewis Christian first and foremost for this idea.  His “Celebrate, Regenerate” – a 50th anniversary Doctor Who review book by fans – gave us the impetus.  Last year he invited DW fans to contribute, and earlier this year the book was published, entirely off Lewis’s own back, to great acclaim.  If you haven't seen it, it's superb and believe me, you really would like to see a similar volume about the good Lieutenant C.

Lewis Christian's Doctor Who 50th Anniversary fan project
This will of course be a non-profit publication.  I wouldn’t expect there to be much, but I propose that what profit there is go to The Alzheimer’s Society, for reasons that I'm sure you understand.  I have contacted them – they are more than agreeable in principle but given the rights issue with Columbo we cannot say for definite at this stage that this will pan out.

HOW TO CONTRIBUTE

The way we'll do this is: contributors choose what episode or episodes they want to write about.  Two viewpoints per ep would give a nice balance, so there should be plenty up for grabs.

Email columbobook@gmail.com to register your interest and get commissioned.

We encourage as many people to as possible to contribute – the more the merrier and of course, everyone will be credited for their work.  As the Tweet-a-longs prove, you've all got plenty of interesting things to say about the show!


RULES FOR SUBMISSION

Choose an episode or episodes to write about from the list below and, as I said, email us at columbobook@gmail.com.  We'll indicate the episodes as they are taken.

The word count is up to you, but a maximum of 600 words.

The format?  Well, again that’s really up to you but basically it should be a structured review explaining why you like (or don’t like) the episode in question.  By all means choose an episode you don't like!  I think the book should be critical if required.  Write about the story, writing, direction, acting, and maybe add a personal touch if you wish.  What Columbo means to you, etc.

So no strict rules.  And any bright ideas for something else you'd rather contribute? We're listening!  But we would like all the episodes to be reviewed so that the book feels complete.


DEADLINE FOR SUBMISSIONS

Please do contribute folks!  The finished product will be fantastic, we promise, and a fitting tribute to the late, great Peter Falk and everyone else who helped to make the wonderful Columbo.

Any further questions?  Anything really obvious we've missed?  Let us know via the email address, or Lieutenant Columbo and myself can be found on Twitter.

Thanks to you all!

Update 31.3.2014 - All 69 episodes represented; 36 episodes completely commissioned; approx. 50 contributors.  Still receiving your wonderful reviews on a regular basis - continued thanks everyone!

I'll continue to politely but persistently chase our remaining contributors, Lt. Columbo-like, and if anyone wishes to add a(nother) secondary review to their list of good deeds, there are still over 30 episodes to choose from.  Let us know!

All being well, the book will be in our hands/on our eReaders/etc. a few months from now.

A tentative title for the book: "Peter Falk as COLUMBO: Celebrating TV's Greatest Detective".  Alternative suggestions very welcome.


THE EPISODES TO CHOOSE FROM...

TV Movie (1968):
Prescription: Murder - 3 reviewers (COMPLETE)

Pilot (1971):
Ransom For A Dead Man - 1 reviewer

Season One (1971-2):
Murder By The Book - 1 reviewer
Death Lends A Hand - 1 reviewer
Dead Weight - 1 reviewer
Suitable For Framing - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)
Lady In Waiting - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)
Short Fuse - 1 reviewer
Blueprint For Murder - 1 reviewer

Season Two (1972-3):
Etude In Black - 1 reviewer
The Greenhouse Jungle - 1 reviewer
The Most Crucial Game - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)
Dagger Of The Mind - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)
Requiem For A Falling Star - 1 reviewer
A Stitch In Crime - 1 reviewer
The Most Dangerous Match - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)
Double Shock - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)

Season Three (1973-4):
Lovely But Lethal - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)
Any Old Port In A Storm - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)
Candidate For Crime - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)
Double Exposure - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)
Publish Or Perish - 1 reviewer
Mind Over Mayhem - 1 reviewer
Swan Song - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)
A Friend In Deed - 1 reviewer


Season Four (1974-75):
An Exercise In Fatality - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)
Negative Reaction - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)
By Dawn's Early Light - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)
Troubled Waters - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)
Playback - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)
A Deadly State Of Mind - 1 reviewer

Season Five (1975-76):

Forgotten Lady - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)
A Case Of Immunity - 1 reviewer
Identity Crisis - 1 reviewer
A Matter Of Honor - 1 reviewer
Now You See Him - 1 reviewer
Last Salute To The Commodore - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)

Season Six (1976-77):
Fade In To Murder - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)
Old Fashioned Murder - 1 reviewer
The Bye Bye Sky-High I.Q. Murder Case - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)

Season Seven (1977-78):
Try And Catch Me - 1 reviewer
Murder Under Glass - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)
Make Me A Perfect Murder - 1 reviewer
How To Dial A Murder - 1 reviewer
The Conspirators - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)

1988-89 Season:
Columbo Goes To The Guillotine - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)
Murder, Smoke, And Shadows - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)
Sex And The Married Detective - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)
Grand Deceptions - 1 reviewer

1989-90 Season:
Murder, A Self Portrait - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)
Columbo Cries Wolf - 1 reviewer
Agenda For Murder - 1 reviewer
Rest In Peace, Mrs Columbo - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)
Uneasy Lies The Crown - 1 reviewer
Murder In Malibu - 1 reviewer

1990-91 Season:
Columbo Goes To College - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)
Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous To Your Health - 1 reviewer
Columbo And The Murder Of A Rock Star - 1 reviewer

1991-92 Season:
Death Hits The Jackpot - 1 reviewer
No Time To Die - 1 reviewer

1992-93 Season:
A Bird In The Hand... - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)

1993-94 Season:
It's All In The Game - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)
Butterfly In Shades Of Gray - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)
Undercover - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)

Strange Bedfellows (1995) - 1 reviewer
A Trace of Murder (1997) - 1 reviewer
Ashes to Ashes (1998) - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)
Murder With Too Many Notes (2001) - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)
Columbo Likes the Nightlife (2003) - 2 reviewers (COMPLETE)

Friday, 19 October 2012

Dangerous Davies and the Cricklewood Film Studio

Leslie Thomas's comic novel "Dangerous Davies - The Last Detective" was first published in the UK October 1976.  It tells the story of accident-prone North London Detective Constable 'Dangerous' Davies, an underachiever until he stumbles on the 25 year-old missing persons case of a young girl, Celia Norris.  "The last detective" refers to him being the last to ever be called upon for anything important.

My paperback copy sat unread for 30 years until I finally picked it up last autumn and it turned out to be one of my favourite reads.  I bought it in 1981, after watching and loving the adaptation starring Bernard Cribbins.  It's a wryly amusing mystery story, with a plethora of wonderful characters starting with the bumbling Davies and his best friend, Welsh philosopher Mod Lewis.

The 1977 Pan paperback cover.  Completely wrong kind of dog, trenchcoat; he doesn't smoke, etc. etc.
Thomas talks of the origins of the book in the 2006 edition of his autobiography "In My Wildest Dreams": "one dark afternoon in winter, sitting by a log fire in my house, I decided to try my hand at writing a detective story.  [Davies] was an amalgam of some of the policemen I knew when I was a young reporter in Willesden, London, the old X Division of the Metropolitan Police.  I have a great affection for him.

"I cannot pretend that the origins lie outside the real murder mystery in my own family, the sordid killing of my fifteen-year-old niece in a field next to a Birmingham fairground".

Three or so years after publication "Dangerous Davies" was adapted as a film for television.  Producer Greg Smith and Leslie Thomas were in a partnership, Maidenhead Film Productions, for the TV and film rights to Thomas's work. In recent years they had produced Stand Up, Virgin Soldiers for the cinema and the 6-part series Tropic for ATV.

Leslie Thomas, OBE
Smith first worked with veteran director Val Guest on Confessions of a Window Cleaner in 1974 to undeniable if questionable success.  In 1979 they reunited at the expense of ATV for TV movie The Shillingbury Blowers, a gentle tale about a village brass band written by Francis Essex.  This was a huge hit when shown on Sunday 6th January 1980: 16.2 million viewers.  Smith and Guest were asked what they wanted to do next - the answer was Dangerous Davies.  ITC (ATV's film production arm) approved the project.

51 year-old stage and screen legend Bernard Cribbins was cast as Davies, an inspired choice although in the novel the character is only 33.  Cribbins said of the project: "It's not really slapstick because when Dangerous gets damaged he just doesn't bounce back like a cartoon character.  It's much more real than Clouseau, and I think the characters are true to life.

"Although he gets clobbered by everyone, he never stays down.  He's resilient and, as you'll see in the film, he sometimes bounces back and wins.

"There might well be a series of films in him.  Certainly, I'd love to get involved in more of them".
[quoted from "Danger, sleuth at work" by James Murray - Daily Mirror 3.1.1981 and "Enter Dangerous Davies - the defective detective" by Larry Ashe - TV Times 3-9.1.1981]

Pre-production lasted 7 weeks, with the 5-week shoot beginning late April 1980.  Budget was £325,000.  The cast includes Joss Ackland, Bernard Lee in his last screen appearance, Maureen Lipman, Colin Baker, Pam St Clement and Bill Maynard as Mod.  The adaptation is largely faithful - one significant change is that the disappearance is now 15 years before.  Davies being that much older also sees the removal of a possible love interest in the missing girl's younger sister.

Bernard Cribbins as DC Davies, having just received a battering - a regular occurrence
Davies was obviously an attempt to replicate the appeal of Shillingbury, and given a very similar slot, the first Sunday of 1981.  Unfortunately, the same success didn't follow.  It failed to make that week's Top 20 (Shillingbury was 8th), probably thanks to a new series of magazine show That's Life! on BBC1.  ATV's loss of the ITV franchise at the end of the year put paid to further adventures of DC Davies on television as played by Cribbins.

A shame, because a follow-up was planned: titled "Dangerous at Sea" and set on a cruise ship, it was to be filmed aboard the P&O liner Canberra - a curiously specific location for only a mooted project.  A series of movies featuring Cribbins as Davies would've been most welcome, and as a format it was six years ahead of Inspector Morse.

The incomparable Bill Maynard as Mod Lewis
Leslie Thomas subsequently wrote three more novels about the character: "Dangerous in Love" (1987); "Dangerous by Moonlight" (1993); "Dangerous Davies and the Lonely Heart" (1998).

He eventually returned to television played by Peter Davison in 17 episodes of Yorkshire Television's "The Last Detective" (2003-07).  All four novels were adapted, the first by Shoestring co-creator Richard Harris - who I think does rather better than Thomas himself and Val Guest first time round.  More nuance, less predictable though I still prefer the Cribbins version as it is better cast and has a nice melancholy atmosphere.

The books are set around Willesden and Kilburn in North London, as was the 1980 production.  A nearby production base was found in Samuelson's "Production Village" which had opened the year before in Cricklewood.  Samuelson's was a World-famous film facilities hire company run by four brothers.  Read about the Production Village in a July 1979 'American Cinematographer' advertisement here.


Go to 15:15 in the above video - the second of a 2-part edition of Granada children's series Clapper Board devoted to Samuelson's Film Services (tx 3.3.1980) - to see the Production Village, built on the site of a former aircraft factory, and hear Tony Samuelson outline the hopes and plans for the complex.  In the event the PV didn't fare that well, although Breaking Glass and Hellraiser were made there.

The studio pub remained open for business far longer than the complex itself, albeit under different owners, and the place was demolished in 2000 having become a somewhat unsavoury area.  A gym resides there now.

An utterly bizarre piece of film history, and entirely fitting that "Dangerous Davies" was based there as I can quite easily see Leslie Thomas use it as a setting in one of the novels.

Dangerous and his dog, Kitty, in vintage car. [Ahem] Morse.
 
"Dangerous Davies - The Last Detective" by Leslie Thomas is of course still in print; the 1980 TVM seems to be deleted, but it is included the R1 Complete Collection boxset of The Last Detective.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

ONLY FOOLS and HORSES.... A broadcast history (part 6): 1996-2003


ENCORE No. 1: 1996

After the 1993 Christmas special "Fatal Extraction", things went quiet.  Call it the enthusiasm of youth but I remember penning a letter to the BBC in autumn '94 asking if there would be a special that year - a polite reply came in the negative.

1995 and still nothing.  John Sullivan talks of these wilderness years in a 2002 interview with BBC online, saying that everyone had become too popular to find room in their schedules:

We started doing just Christmas specials: year after year, just Christmas specials.  We could never find that period in the calendar when we could all get together.  So I had a meeting with [producer] Gareth Gwenlan and I said "Look, what's going to happen here?  We can't just fade away.  We've got to accept that the success is strangling it in a way and we should go out in a blaze of glory".

John Sullivan, whose TV writing career stretched for 33 years
So, in 1996 they decided to make one last special to round the series off.  A landmark programme deserved that, though it had never happened for the likes of Steptoe and Son.  Times change - possibly, a measure of sitcom being accorded a bit more respect?  Would the BBC of the mid-1970s have sanctioned a feature length Christmas Steptoe to end their story?  I suspect they'd have thought it a daft idea.

At some point it was decided to make a miniseries of three, rather than just the one, as the schedule allowed time.

David Jason was busy with Series 5 of A Touch of Frost, but apparently declined making an extra episode in the run so he would be able to make the new Fools; and Nicholas Lyndhurst delayed recording of Goodnight Sweetheart Series 4 to the New Year.

Location filming began in Bristol, standing in for Peckham, on 3rd October 1996; the last of the three episodes was recorded in BBC Television Centre on Friday 6th December.  They went out on Christmas Day, 27th and 29th of December.

And they went through the roof.  The episodes were the three highest rated of 1996; and the finale, "Time on our Hands", was only very recently beaten as the UK's most watched single TV programme ever, by this year's Olympics Closing Ceremony (24.46m to Only Fools' 24.35m).

Reaction was incredible.  Not only the ratings - for the next 12 months the series gathered award after award.  David Jason and the production team won at the BAFTAs; Jason, Nicholas Lyndhurst and the programme at the National Television Awards; and Jason again, plus the People's Choice, at the British Comedy Awards.

I don't think "Heroes and Villains", "Modern Men" and "Time on our Hands" are the best that the series had to offer - like most later episodes, they meander - but there was enough very good content to serve as a fitting farewell to the Trotters.  We had the celebrated 'Batman and Robin' scene in "Heroes and Villains"; Cassandra suffering a miscarriage in "Modern Men" gave rise to some poignant scenes, although this isn't the kind of storyline I welcomed; and Del and Rodney finally becoming millionaires thanks to the priceless 'Harrison Lesser Watch' lying in their garage was glorious.

The Joker: Boycie (John Challis) with Del and Rodney in 'Heroes and Villains'
I still can't watch that montage scene without shedding a tear, especially at Albert going up the Thames on his motor launch.

And could there possibly be a more fitting final exchange between Del and Rodney?

Del: [Mum] said to me on her deathbed, 'Del boy, if you and little Rodney become rich, invest in the futures market'.


Rodney: You liar!  There wasn't a futures market when mum was alive!


Del: Exactly, it just shows you what a visionary she was!  This is our big chance Rodders.  He who dares, wins.  This time next year we'll be billionaires!


"[S]lowly, the flats and the estate begin to fade and the road...is transformed into the yellow brick road.  Del, Rodney and Albert become cartoon silhouettes and still walk away from us arguing" - from John Sullivan's script for 'Time on our Hands'

ENCORE No. 2: 2001-02 (and 2003)

We now come, somewhat controversially, to the final chapter in the Only Fools and Horses.... story, excepting spin-offs.  I would have swore blind the show was over.  I wasn't complaining.

John Sullivan says it became obvious very soon after recording the 1996 specials that they were back on.  They'd wrapped things up on account of being too busy to continue, but enjoyed it so much it felt premature.  Very quickly a millenial special was mooted, but for a long time forward movement was slow.

The trilogy got its first repeat in January 1998, Friday nights around 8pm - an average 10.81m tuned in.  And the show proved influential: the concept of a Christmas mini-run for sitcoms unlikely to see another full series was appropriated by Men Behaving Badly (3-parter, 1998) and The Vicar of Dibley (4-parter, 1999).

Things picked up when, in February 1999, David Jason was asked about the status of the show at a press conference for a new series of A Touch of Frost: "There was talk about it some time ago, but the BBC and the powers-that-be have not chased it up in any way.  So, we assume that it's gone - sad, innit?"

Frantic phone calls were made and a swift statement issued from the BBC that the show could return some day.

Unfortunately, any return would be without Uncle Albert as dear old Buster Merryfield passed away in June 1999, aged 78.  His TV nephews attended the funeral.  In an interview conducted just after the farewell trilogy, he said "We said goodbye at the end of the filming...[b]ut I can't think why.  Everyone wants to do it again.  Anything that draws 24 million people is not on the wane yet.  The story is open-ended and I think there's more mileage in it.  It would be very comforting to me to have a Christmas special, like Morecambe and Wise". ["I feel like I'm Santa Claus all year round" by Maureen Paton, Daily Express 23rd January 1997]

The late Buster Merryfield as Albert.  I'd be a lot better disposed towards those last episodes if he'd still been around.
A further blow occurred when an unhappy John Sullivan withdrew from adapting BBC One's £4m "David Copperfield" serial for Christmas '99 - set to star David Jason as Micawber with Nicholas Lyndhurst as Uriah Heep.  Sources vary, but it appears his script was too funny for the BBC Drama Department.  Sullivan and Jason decamped to Yorkshire Television, who commissioned their own serial about the Dickens character: Micawber, shown Christmas 2001.

David Jason filming Micawber in Edinburgh, 2000
Only Lyndhurst remained with the BBC version, in which Bob Hoskins played Wilkins Micawber - and which featured a 10 year-old Daniel Radcliffe as the young David.  The 2 x 90m serial went out on Christmas Day and Boxing Day.  It was beaten in the ratings by a repeat of the 1981 Only Fools special.

Nick Lyndhurst as Uriah Heep in the Beeb's David Copperfield, 1999 - adaptation by Adrian Hodges
The new year brought some development - in August, BBC Head of Comedy, the late Geoffrey Perkins announced that another Christmas trilogy was in the planning stages, for 2001: "These are delicate negotiations.  Shows like [this] are too important to say "Oh, we'll just bring them back"". ["Trotters set to trade again as BBC plans comeback for Del and Rodney" - Daily Express, 12th August 2000]

However, a couple of months later and it appears the BBC were dragging their heels at the idea of bringing the show back after such a gap - wisely, in retrospect.  At the annual Only Fools convention on Sunday 29th October, guest Kenneth MacDonald played an audio message from David Jason on the Micawber set, in which he suggested fans let the BBC know they wanted to see it again.  I can't find the recording online but remember him tying it in with One Foot in the Grave, which had recently enjoyed a belated final series.

At long last, March 2001 saw the BBC announce that the show would probably be returning later in the year.  Another hiccup: the original intention was to make all three commissioned episodes for broadcast at Christmas, as per 1996.  In the event, due to David Jason's schedule, they weren't able to start until later than anticipated: he was directing the semi-autobiographical comedy drama The Quest and filming was held up by the Foot and Mouth crisis.

So, one episode of Fools would be made for Christmas, with two more to follow.

Official confirmation came in August, a month which also saw the sudden death of Kenneth MacDonald, who had played Nag's Head landlord Mike since "Who's a Pretty Boy" in 1983.  He was just 50.

Kenneth MacDonald as Mike
Setback after setback, and we've not even reached September 11th.  John Sullivan had only been writing for a few days when the terrorist attack on America took place.  A difficult situation for a comedy writer, but he finally found strength to carry on on the not unreasonable grounds that the nation could use some festive cheer.

Reportedly, the budget for each of the three episodes was £1m.  Production began on Tuesday 20th November, in Monte Carlo.  Episodes 2 and 3 were made the following February/March.  Benjamin Smith was cast as Damien Trotter, who kind of inherited Buster Merryfield's role.

In Monte Carlo filming "If They Could See Us Now", November 2001 - Benjamin Smith joins the cast as the now 11-year old Damien
My verdict?  I don't think these episodes should have been made. It had been too long.  Not only was it five years since the last episode; it was 8 years since regular production had ceased.  Momentum was not picked up again.  The idea, characters, situation - all had had their day.  I don't blame anyone for deciding to carry on, and arguably the public had demanded it but sometimes you can be too successful.

If I was being charitable, I'd let the first episode "If They Could See Us Now", squeeze through - that's the one where they lose the money and Del goes on the game show "Gold Rush" (a late replacement for Who Wants to be a Millionaire).  It's quite funny in parts and has a decent structure.

The second, "Strangers on the Shore", the 'Gary' episode, is okay-ish.  Certain of the set-ups strain credulity to say the least, but there is still fun to be had.  There are some nice exchanges between Denzil and Trig.  The ending however is terrible.  I'd rather it had dribbled away without a punchline than the one we got.

Paul Barber as Denzil, doing a nice line in bewilderment at Trig.  Maybe they could've spun off too.
It does contain my favourite gag in this run: after spending ages helping Rodney manouvre the Reliant Robin into an available space at the market, Trigger announces "you can't park there Dave!"

Roger Lloyd Pack as Trigger could usually be relied upon for a belly laugh or five per episode
With the benefit of hindsight, the third and last ever episode, "Sleepless in Peckham" seems more like a backdoor pilot for Rock & Chips, the prequel which didn't go into production for another seven years.  It's more soap than sitcom, and we finally learn the truth about Rodney's dad - something I would have preferred left for viewers to decide.

In terms of audience, the response was fantastic.  Happy to report, the public were still in love with the Trotters. "If They Could See Us Now" went out on Christmas Night 2001 at 9.08pm.  I was sceptical of ratings being comparable to 1996, but they were: 21.34m, 1st for the week and year.  A Stars in their Eyes special played opposite, back in the Matthew Kelly days.

Like I said, episodes 2 and 3 were recorded in the new year.  It seemed likely they would both be shown that Christmas.  However, only ep 2 was.  It went out on the 25th at the quite late hour of 9.42pm, to 17.4m - of the 64 episodes, only "Christmas Crackers" in 1981 went out later.  Opposite, ironically, was a celebrity WWTBAM which picked up 5.33m.  Fools was, again, 1st for the week and year despite the almost 4m drop.

"Sleepless in Peckham" didn't go out until Christmas Day 2003, despite being recorded 21 months before.  TV programmes are like loaves of bread - leave them on the shelf and they go stale.  But the BBC had new episodes of Only Fools which had cost a fortune and by jiminy, they were going to stretch them out - I reckon that was their thinking, anyway.  The episode won 16.37m and was 1st for the week again, but eclipsed throughout the year by episodes each of Coronation Street (Richard Hillman confesses to murder) and EastEnders (Den Watts back from the dead, briefly).  Perhaps signs of a slight decline, but little matter.  On ITV at the same time was World Idol, 4.55m.

The final scene - visiting their mum's grave, Rodney asks Del about his real father.  Side-splitting!
And that was it.  I traditionally spend Christmas Day at my aunt and uncle's, and remember watching those final moments from "Sleepless in Peckham" thinking that that was probably it for my old friends Del and Rodders - but hadn't particularly enjoyed the episode.  The proper finale was seven years before.  I'm still chuffed I watched it with my late father - he passed away the next year.

I've been critical in this post, but it doesn't take away from the comedy genius of John Sullivan.  At its best, which was for an impressively long time, Only Fools and Horses.... was utter brilliance.  Warm characters, strong stories, and very very funny.

I feel so fortunate to have been there!


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Thanks again to the following excellent publications, without which I couldn't have written these posts: 'The Only Fools and Horses Story' by Steve Clark (BBC Books, 1998); 'Only Fools and Horses - The Official Inside Story' by Steve Clark (Splendid Books, 2011); 'The Complete A to Z of Only Fools and Horses' by Richard Webber (Orion, 2002); 'The Bible of Peckham - Volume 1' (BBC Books, 1999); 'The Bible of Peckham - Volume 2' (BBC Books, 2000); 'The Bible of Peckham - Volume 3' (BBC Books, 2001); 'Only Fools and Horses - The Story of Britain's Favourite Comedy' by Graham McCann (Canongate Books, 2011); 'The Dream Team' by Stafford Hildred and Tim Ewbank (Blake Publishing, 2000); and the incomparable 'Radio Times' Guide to TV Comedy' by Mark Lewisohn (BBC Books, 2nd edition 2003).

And I look forward very much to reading the great John Challis's memoirs, 'Being Boycie' (Wigmore Books, 2011) and 'Boycie and Beyond' (Wigmore Books, 2012).

Also, The Stage and Television Today online archive and ukpressonline - and not forgetting The OFAH Appreciation Society.

Oh - and last but not least, Sarah Heron, for her encouragement and general prodding me to finish... xx

To all the cast and crew of Only Fools and Horses...., especially John Sullivan, thanks for the comedy masterclass.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

BRIAN DE PALMA's COLUMBO!


I kid you not.  "Shooting Script", an unproduced Columbo spec script has turned up, dated 26th July 1973, written by Joseph P. Gillis and Brian De Palma.  De Palma we all know for the genius film director he is, responsible for a string of the most inventive and entertaining thrillers since Hitchcock.  Gillis is untraceable and may well be a pseudonym for the series' staffers, since they are bound to have had input into a spec script (an unsolicited screenplay).

Or, it could be De Palma's collaborator(s) wishing to remain anonymous.

Jackson Gillis was the former executive story consultant for Columbo, though he continued to contribute - suggesting a staffer; Joe Gillis is the screenwriter character played by William Holden in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard - suggesting a 'movie brat' having some fun.

Hey, maybe it's Paul Schrader!

He and De Palma met that year, after he reviewed Sisters.  They and all the other so-called movie brats - Scorsese, Spielberg (who had of course directed a Columbo), John Milius etc. hung out together in LA the summer of '73.  It was a formative time for them, resulting in Taxi Driver for one.  The following year the pair collaborated on Vertigo-inspired script "Déjà Vu", filmed by De Palma as Obsession.

Maybe it is Paul Schrader!


"The perfect crime is the motiveless crime, but then again there is no such thing as a motiveless crime.  Even a maniacal urge to kill indiscriminately is a motive ...But subtlety of motive -- that always confounds the police, who have no subtlety at all.  The police also have no taste, whereas my taste is exquisite...  Thus I decide that taste will be my motive -- and the most distasteful thing in this distasteful world to me is this cult of pseudo-celebrities.  I shall kill a television star.  Without style, or grace.  Creatures of the media.  This chic apartment building, where I live, is full of these public zircons.  I shall kill one of them."
Quentin Lee in "Shooting Script"


For Columbo, the date indicates Season Three.  A four month writers' strike had held up production, with just two episodes in the can, and in July 1973 they were gearing up to make the remaining six shows.  Stephen J Cannell, soon to find enormous fame with The Rockford Files, also handed in a spec script at this time - it was something to do during the strike, he said.  His episode was produced - more on that later.

For Brian De Palma, then 32 years old, he had seen the successful release of his psychological horror Sisters earlier in the year, and was prepping cult favourite Phantom of the Paradise.

Where did Columbo fit in?  De Palma famously hates television, considering it the ultimate manifestation of art selling out to commerce, and to my knowledge has never worked in the medium other than here.  I'm presuming he was attracted to the show's idea-led structure.  Sisters had been a new direction after his improvisatory comedies Greetings and Hi Mom! - a challenge to try working within the confines of the thriller.  Columbo may have been another.

Also, it was a good gig, with a number of Emmys already under its belt.  And I can't believe De Palma didn't like Columbo.  Hopefully Steven Spielberg put in a good word too.

Peter Falk as Lieutenant Columbo in Season 3 of the NBC Sunday Mystery Movie, which was Number 14 for that year.
And it's a good fit.  I loved the script: it's classic Columbo and very De Palma.

The episode opens over shots of San Quentin prison cells - we're not sure what we're watching - which turns out to be a documentary playing through a video machine.

Our guest murderer is "Quentin Lee" - a famous writer on the subject of crime, documentary filmmaker and sometime television personality. He is based on Truman Capote I would guess, and a most delicious Columbo villain he would have made.

De Palma takes the programme right back to its Dostoyevskian origins.  Like Raskolnikov in 'Crime and Punishment' - quoted here - Lee commits murder as an experiment.  He wants to document a perfect crime, and sets about doing so with a video camera.

Brian De Palma on the set of Phantom of the Paradise in 1973, dreaming up a McMillan and Wife
Already it is displaying De Palma themes.  Both Hi Mom! and the later, partly autobiographical Home Movies feature characters documenting their lives through film cameras.  We don't actually see Lee until he has perpetrated the crime, when he sets the camera down to move the body - just as we don't see Robert De Niro for the first few minutes of Hi Mom! as he is operating the camera.

Lee's victim is the vacuous host of a tawdry talk show - De Palma's contempt for television probably manifesting itself.

I'll not go into too much detail about the plot.  Lt. Columbo is being shadowed throughout by a trio of college students - one of whom is named Spielberg - who are documenting his activities for their graduate class (shades of the much later "Columbo Goes to College").  More recording going on.

Whether Spielberg's name appears because of his connection with Columbo, or his friendship with De Palma, we'll never know.  At the time he was working on The Sugarland Express, his first theatrical feature.  Even though the script was dropped the producers still found a way to work his name into the show - that season's "Mind Over Mayhem" episode, written by story editor Steven Bochco and producer Dean Hargrove, features a child genius named 'Steve Spelberg'.

Columbo ordering a bowl of chili from diner owner Bert (played by Kubrick regular Timothy Carey) in Season One's "Dead Weight".
Further details: Bert, Columbo's diner owner pal from "Ransom for a Dead Man" and "Dead Weight", appears; there is a very clever twist on the 'blackmailer turns up leading to second murder' formula; and the final "pop" - as Peter Falk labelled the clever and clinching proof that comes at the end of each episode - is dependent on a motion-sensitive video camera, a device re-used by Brian De Palma some years later in Dressed to Kill.

If I were to hazard a guess as to why it wasn't produced, I'd say there are a couple of details which might have proved difficult to show effectively on screen.  De Palma himself could've solved them if he was directing, but they seem rather ambitious for television.  Also, the murderer being panicked into revealing the location of the incriminating evidence, as happens here, is similar to Stephen J Cannell's "Double Exposure" - and better done there to be honest.

The page count suggests a 90-minute Columbo rather than a 2-hour, but I would've given this one the longer time.  Quentin Lee's motivation is unique in Columbo history, similar to that depicted in Hitchcock's Rope in fact, and should be given more room to breathe.

As for who could have played Lee, my first thought was John Lithgow, who has been enlisted by De Palma for villainous duties a number of times - but at 6' 4" is too imposing a physical presence for this part.  I see this more like Clifton Webb in Laura, so how about Paul Williams, diminutive singer-songwriter and actor who played the Faustian record producer in Phantom of the Paradise, De Palma's very next project!  He'd be perfect.  I can only hear him reading the extract above, now.

Paul Williams as Swan in Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
I was delighted to get the chance to read this script, and stunned to discover its existence after almost 40 years.  It's a fascinating insight into the early development of De Palma as an artist, and just as importantly, it's a new episode of 70s Columbo!  Any more hidden gems out there?

NEXT TIME: Who knew Woody Allen penned an Adam-12?

ADDENDUM (14th July 2012): Geoff over at De Palma a la Mod has done some investigating and discovered that "Joseph P. Gillis" is in fact critic and screenwriter Jay Cocks.  Cocks was film critic for TIME magazine in the early 1970s and a close friend of De Palma and Martin Scorsese.  Head over to De Palma a la Mod for more information, plus a few words from Mr De Palma himself!


ADDENDUM 2 (6th August 2012): I found this extract in a profile of Brian De Palma from The Milwaukee Journal, written by Helen Dudar, and dated 20th April 1980 a few months before Dressed to Kill was released.  This is the Columbo script!  De Palma and Jay Cocks must have rewritten it as a film when it wasn't used.  This didn't make it either sadly.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

DOCTOR WHO vs. Buck Rogers - 1980 A.D.

The logo is bigger, I grant you.
From 1963 to 1980, Doctor Who enjoyed great success in its Saturday teatime slot on BBC1.  There were ups and downs over the 17 years, but its popularity held remarkably well over such a long period of time, always winning its time slot.

The ITV strike of 1979, lasting 10th August to 24th October, even allowed the long-established series to enjoy some audiences of over 19m: the largest figures Who has ever achieved.

But with Season Eighteen in 1980, ratings crashed.  This run, the first under producer John Nathan-Turner, beginning on Saturday 30th August at 6.15pm, suffered a humiliating defeat by Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

Buck Rogers was a new import being screened by the ITV network approximately one year after its debut in the US.  Based on a fifty year-old comic book character, it starred Gil Gerard as a NASA pilot from the 20th century who is frozen for 500 years and wakes up to new adventures in a post-nuclear civilisation.

It had the benefit of having its pilot movie released theatrically, in the UK in late July 1979 - hence this was not shown during its initial run on ITV.

Produced by Glen A Larson, Rogers was an attempt to do Star Wars for television (his second, after Battlestar Galactica), and to be honest doesn't have a lot going for it outside of its state-of-the-art, albeit heavily recycled, special effects.  However, at the time that was probably enough to sway viewers away from the BBC's brand of videotaped science fiction - especially after the enormous cinema success of Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Empire Strikes Back, The Black Hole and even Moonraker.  Sadly, the writing was on the wall for the original series of Doctor Who.

Gil Gerard and ERIN GRAY in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.  Okay, there may have been other reasons why people watched this instead of Doctor Who.
For sixteen weeks in the autumn of 1980, the two shows were on simultaneously.  Who's ratings were terrible, all the more so for there being only three channels at the time: an average of just over 5 million.  Part Two of the third story screened, "Full Circle", was in 170th place in the charts with 3.7m.  Were there even 170 programmes on British television in one week in 1980?!

It's a shame that John Nathan-Turner's new look for the show was so roundly ignored.  His attempt to bring it into the 1980s with new titles, music and less frivolity freshened the brand considerably.

Records for Buck Rogers are dependent on the programme making the Top Twenty: the episode shown on 15th November was 19th= with 13.45m; the ep on 6th December was 17th with 13.5m.  Safe to assume this wasn't far off the norm.

Still no contest though, in my opinion.
So it was approx. 12m watching ITV against 5m for BBC1.  At the time, ITV's average share was 49% to BBC1's 39% (with BBC2 on 12%) - a much healthier division would've been 9.5m for Buck Rogers and 7.5m for Who.

Weeks 2-8 Buck Rogers was preceded by Metal Mickey Series 1, then by Worzel Gummidge Series 3 for weeks 9-16.  After week 6, Who was brought forward half an hour to run against the first rather than second half of Buck Rogers, and supported by The Basil Brush Show.  The dapper little red fox had his own variety show on BBC1 from 1968, and this was the final run.

Saturday 4th October 1980 - probably also quite a few watching Jailhouse Rock on BBC2
Juliet Bravo, a new Ian Kennedy Martin police series starring Stephanie Turner, ran its first series those same four months, on BBC1 usually around 7.25pm.  Audiences grew to a peak of almost 17 million.  Preceding it, and directly after Who for weeks 1-6, separated by news and sports results thereafter, was Larry Grayson's Generation Game.  His third series as host proved as phenomenally popular as ever, averaging about 16½m.  It was only Doctor Who letting the side down.

The figures probably had some bearing on Tom Baker's departure after seven seasons, announced to the press on Friday 24th October.  He may have been going anyway, but no one was likely to dissuade him now.  Maybe a change was due.

Peter Davison's casting as the fifth actor to play the Doctor, announced on Tuesday 4th November, was astute.  Davison was an extremely high profile young actor, having begun to appear in starring roles on television after his supporting turn as Tristan in three series of period drama All Creatures Great and Small.

1982 and arguably the last successful new era for Doctor Who until 2005.
At the time of his negotiations over Doctor Who, he was being seen in new LWT sitcom Holding the Fort and recording another, Sink or Swim, for the BBC.  Securing him for Who was quite a coup on Nathan-Turner's part.  Otherwise, who knows?  Those figures are crying out for the axe, long before Michael Grade came along.  In fact, Grade was working for LWT at the time and commissioned Holding the Fort.

Happy to note is that come the New Year, Buck Rogers took a break and average ratings for Tom Baker's remaining 12 episodes were 6.8m (a 34% increase).

And happier, the first series with a new Doctor in eight years averaged 9.24m when shown January-March 1982, in a weekday early evening slot - a major change prompted by the poor showing for the previous run.  Davison's debut as the Doctor ran twice-weekly, Mondays and Tuesdays at around 7pm and reversed the decline in viewership, for now.

As for Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, it was cancelled by NBC midway through its second season.  I think ITV completed the series, but it never enjoyed another full network showing after that initial 16 week run.

P.S. I watched Who.  Apart from 18th October when I was packed off to my cousins', who watched Buck Rogers.  I switched over at the first ad break to see Who's closing credits.  "Meglos" Part Four, I never knew you.

Friday, 22 June 2012

MISFITS by Eric Chappell (Yorkshire TV, 1981)

The cast of YTV sitcom Misfits: (l-r) ENN REITEL as Skinner; ANNE STALLYBRASS as Mrs Ridgeway; and KEVIN LLOYD as Oscar
Right up front, I have to say I cannot really comment about the content of Misfits at all.  So far as I'm aware, it has never been shown in the UK since its original transmission in June/July 1981.  I watched every episode, so I must've liked it - but I was 10 at the time and all I can remember is that one of the two male characters, probably Enn Reitel* as Skinner, wore a blue jeans and sweatshirt combo that I liked so much I've more or less copied it ever since.

* Pronounced N Rye Tell, as I remember the 'TV Times' telling us once.

However, as it was written by Eric Chappell - only his fourth sitcom creation after The Squirrels, Rising Damp and Only When I Laugh - it must've been good.  I imagine it followed his usual pattern of well-drawn characters, idiosyncratic turn of phrase, glorious gags and expertly crafted, fast paced stories.  Given that it was about two young men lodging with an older female character, perhaps it was even reminiscent of Rising Damp in many ways.

Something I've noticed about Chappell sitcoms over many years of watching is that they require a certain acting style.  Just as there is David Mamet-speak, there is Eric Chappell-speak.  Watch a handful and see.

There's a tangential connection to Only Fools and Horses - discussed at length elsewhere in this blog - in that Enn Reitel's commitment to this prevented him taking the role of Del-boy, as the recording dates clashed.  No, really.

The earliest mention I can find of the series is in an interview with Eric Chappell in The Stage and Television Today, dated 7 August 1980: "I am aware that I have been writing about older characters and wanted to create a series about young people - not only to involve young actors, but to explore that kind of comedy.  The two lads in The Misfits have an ambition to go to India, to travel, but never quite manage to make it".

Actually, that reminds me of something else about the series I do remember: that I liked the idea of the two main characters not actually getting to Katmandu.  In fact, not even leaving the confines of a house.  I probably identified with that even then.

Later in the same article: "I think my strength is writing naturalist comedy, as realistic as possible without losing the humour.  I'm disappointed that many critics do not take situation comedy more seriously.  It's not the Cinderella of television by any means, but I still feel that too many critics think of comedy as a passing thing. I really would like to see it with greater status".

Misfits cast Anne Stallybrass, formerly of The Onedin Line, as the "happily divorced" Mrs Ridgeway, and Enn Reitel and Kevin Lloyd as the two 30-ish drifters, Skinner and Oscar, alleged friends of her son who turn up at her door.  This was the first of a number of Eighties sitcom star vehicles for actor and renowned voice artiste Reitel, later seen in The Further Adventures of Lucky Jim on BBC2, the near silent The Optimist on Channel 4, and Mog on ITV - the first and last of these scripted by Clement and La Frenais.

It was also an early starring role for character actor Kevin Lloyd, later to find fame as D.C. "Tosh" Lines in The Bill before an untimely death aged 49, in 1998.

The seven-part series was recorded late March to early May 1981 under experienced sitcom producer/director Ronnie Baxter (Rising Damp, In Loving Memory, The Galton & Simpson Playhouse, The Nesbitts are Coming, many others).  Transmission was shortly thereafter: 5th June to 17th July in the coveted Friday night at 8.30pm slot.

Kevin Lloyd and Anne Stallybrass in the only actual picture from the series I could find - from 'TV Times' dated 30 May - 5 June 1981.  An interview with Ms Stallybrass helped publicise the opening episode.

The seven episode titles, and their listing magazine synopses, are as follows:

"MAY WE COME IN?" (5th June 1981)
When Skinner and Oscar appear out of the fog in search of the YMCA, Mrs Ridgeway is understandably surprised.  She's even more surprised when they claim to be making their way to Katmandu.  After a gold cigarette case goes missing, she becomes convinced her quiet life will never be the same again.

"THE DEBT MAN COMETH" (12th June 1981)
Determined to get to Katmandu, the boys approach Mrs Ridgeway for the money.  They decide to rely on the old Skinner charm (which no woman can resist) and soon find themselves out of pocket.  The situation is further complicated by the arrival of a debt collector.

"MEN ABOUT THE HOUSE" (19th June 1981)
When Mrs Ridgeway needs a few jobs doing around the house, Skinner and Oscar volunteer - with dire consequence...

"A TOUCH OF CLASS" (26th June 1981)
Skinner and Oscar decide to visit the local pub to meet the natives.  Unfortunately the natives don't wish to meet them...

"ONE FOR THE POT" (3rd July 1981)
When the boys have finally eaten their way through Mrs Ridgeway's deep freeze, Skinner offers to shoot something for the table.  Oscar doesn't mind chasing after birds but not the feathered variety and the two friends soon fall out...

"HAPPY EVER AFTER" (10th July 1981)
Liz puts her hand to a bit of marriage guidance but receives some unwanted help from Skinner and Oscar.

"SONS AND LOVERS" (17th July 1981)
When Mrs Ridgeway entertains Vernon, her man of mystery, she warns the boys to keep out of her way.  But Vernon soon becomes more than mystified by Skinner and Oscar...

Unfortunately, none of these ring any bells with me.

The series did okay in the ratings: both the first and last episodes made No. 7 in the week's charts with over 12 million viewers.    Other episodes seem to have been around the 10m mark, for an average I guess of about 11m.  Competition from BBC1 was nothing special.  Other ITV sitcoms on air at the same time were the new Sorry, I'm a Stranger Here Myself with Robin Bailey, a third series of Bless Me, Father with Arthur Lowe and a second for John Mills and Megs Jenkins in Young at Heart.

11m was not as high as usual for Eric Chappell series at this point, but it was the summer.  Certainly if you'd done a sitcom audit for the year, much better than Only Fools and Horses....

However, it didn't continue for some reason.  It doesn't have the same star wattage as other Chappell series, though that oughtn't to have mattered - maybe it did to the IBA.  He moved on to The Bounder starring Peter Bowles, a better remembered series although it only produced two series.

So, Misfits remains in classic sitcom limbo, a shame because anything by Eric Chappell has got to be worth a look.  There's a chance that one of these days, Network DVD will rescue it from obscurity.  In the meantime, if anyone out there does remember it with greater clarity than me, please do share your opinions.

Next time: L for Lester starring Brian Murphy.  No, not really but I will probably look at Cowboys with Roy Kinnear and Colin Welland sometime soon.