One of the very best writers working in UK TV in the 60s and 70s in my view was Brian Clemens (recently awarded an OBE for services to drama, it turns out.) Even as a young kid I grew to recognise his name on the credits of TV shows like The Avengers and its reboot The New Avengers and ‘proper grown up drama’ The Professionals which he created. He’s done a writing stint on just about every ITC crime show from the period that I can remember, and his presence was always the hallmark of rock-solid writing and the best of plot ideas.
Somehow I’d missed the fact that he was behind a drama anthology show called Thriller that ran from 1973 until 1976, which is a bit odd since it’s probably the thing that most people will now remember him for. I can only assume that I was too young for it, and that my parents didn’t watch it either, so it never entered my consciousness like many programmes of that era managed to do. Hence I’d never come across it until a writer I follow on Twitter started tweeting about watching the boxset recently. After a few weeks, I was hooked and had to get the DVDs for myself – 43 hour-plus episodes over 16 discs.
I watched the first episode first (that might sound like an oxymoron, but since I skip ahead to two later stories after this, it’s still a point worth making.) That’s an episode called “Lady Killer” in the UK but revised to the rather obvious “The Death Policy” in the US – the entire show was made with a view for resale to American TV and as a result an American actor or at least character is included in every episode, even if the series as a whole is set firmly in the cosy southern counties of England. Outside of the week’s token American(s), the cast is routinely filled with the type of actor who was a familiar sight from just about every show being made, even if (especially if) they weren’t quite so much star names at the time or since.
As a starter, “Lady Killer” was a bit of a disappointment: like many television productions from the 1970s watched forty years on, it’s very slow by modern standards and this one took rather too long to lay out its wares. Essentially it’s the story of a mousy newly-wed American (Barbara Feldon) who comes to realise that her dream husband (Robert Powell) is planning to kill her for the insurance money and run away with his lover (ex-Avenger Linda Thorson.) The pace does start to ramp up once an old associate of the husband’s (the ever delightful TP McKenna) shows up to throw a spanner in the works, and well-known stage actress Mary Wimbush is a great red herring as a sneaky housekeeper, but overall the big twist comes rather too late in the day (although when it does, it’s a great one: a real game-changer and totally unexpected.)
Jumping ahead, “Night is the Time for Killing” is a spy story set on board a British Rail sleeper train from Euston to Scotland which allows for some wonderfully dated footage of railway stations of the 70s, together with a studio set-bound production that is one minute completely unconvincing and the next throwing up a masterful stroke of set dressing attention to detail that totally invokes your memories of those carriages. The story requires quintessentially English actress Judy Geeson to assume an American accent for no plot reason other than the rights resale mentioned earlier and allows Charles Gray to deliver a fine performance as Charles Gray. There’s a lovely brief role for Alister Williamson as an old style police detective, and fascinating to see a fairly young James Smilie again – he oscillated between English and Australian productions for many years and has the perfect deep tones for voiceovers; you can see him in Prisoner: Cell Block H and Return to Eden, the Aussie answer to Dallas and Dynasty. However, it’s extremely hard to accept that nicest of men, Duncan Preston, as a stone cold assassin. Whatever would Victoria Wood say if she knew?
The final story I’ve seen so far is “Nurse Will Make It Better”, which after the down-to-earth murder and spy antics of the first two stories is a completely different beast and far more of a supernatural horror rather than a suspense thriller. The main character of nurse Bessy Morne is played by Diana Dors, once Britain’s own blonde bombshell to rival Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield but here playing in deeply unflattering (and actually really distractingly badly done) wig and make-up complete with huge facial wart in order to emphasise her acting skills rather than her looks and figure. And she’s truly remarkable, genuinely unsettling and believable in a wildly unbelievable part. Also in the cast are two British-based American actors Ed Bishop (UFO) and Cec Linder (Goldfinger), the reliable Michael Culver in a colourless boyfriend role and Tiffany Kinney almost convincing as a disturbed younger sister; but Linda Liles badly needing lessons to remind her that if her character is totally paralysed then she really shouldn’t thrash around in bed quite so much. Somehow the UK production justifies star billing going to an anonymous American actress by the name of Andrea Marcovicci, while the US version (where it was renamed “The Devil’s Web”) rightly puts Diana Dors at the top of the bill. But it’s criminal that former Doctor Who Patrick Troughton doesn’t even get opening title credit when his performance – while brief – is the best of the lot. As an added touch, the director Shaun O’Riordan went on to produce and direct the first two (and arguably best and most atmospheric) Sapphire & Steel stories four years later.
Perhaps the best game to play with this series is “spot the inspiration” for each plot line – Clemens is inspiringly good at repurposing a storyline from elsewhere and giving it a fresh spin or combining it with something else for an original result. Sometimes he even repurposes his own scripts from the other shows he’s worked on, a fine example of recycling green credentials.
So for example, “Lady Killers” hints strongly at the likes of classic film noirs like Double Indemnity and Hitchcock films like Suspicion; “Nurse Will Make It Better” is a heady witch’s brew of classic occult films of that period such as The Omen, The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby along with a star turn by Dors heavily influenced by Bette Davis’s title role in The Nanny. And “Night is the Time for Killing” heaves rather distractingly close to Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes than is perhaps good for it, with dashes of From Russia With Love and Mission: Impossible present for light shading.
All in all, though, this is excellent stuff that only gets better as I watch more of it and get gradually re-attuned to the 70s style of TV drama. Other than “Lady Killer”, the episodes don’t drag at all: I was really caught out by how quickly “Night is the Time for Killing” passed, and “Nurse Will Make It Better” felt positively cramped and could easily have expanded to feature length, which would have helped with a rushed and to be honest unsatisfying ending. It just shows how it’s possible to enjoy something of this vintage on its own merits, and not because of the nostalgia factor of having remembered watching it in one’s childhood.
Mostly, though, it makes me wonder why on earth no one makes a show like this before: a series of stand-alone plays but linked by murder, mystery, mayhem, chills and thrills. That seems like a winner to me every bit as much in 2012 as it was in 1973, and someone should make it happen. Stat.
But for now: three down, 40 to go.