Sunday, December 16, 2007

Looking Back

Down to the National Film Institute yesterday afternoon for the annual Missing Believed Wiped event, courtesy of Dick Fiddy, our very good friend at the BFI. Along with Steve Bryant, he has been charged with the unenviable task of co-ordinating the retrieval of the material deleted from the national television archives throughout the 1950s, 60s and even 70s.

Since its inception they have been carefully piecing programmes and series back together. Some elements are returned through private collectors or foreign channels that luckily held on to copies in their own archives, long after the original transmission dates. A portion of the material shown in Missing Believed Wiped’s first programme belonged to either actors or members of the production crew who had worked on the particular shows. A number were welcomed at the event to personally introduce their work to the audience.

Dance interludes from Spike Milligan’s 1969 series The World of Beachcomber were prefaced by a brief explanation by the then-Royal Ballet star Josephine Gordon who played the ballerina “Tumbleover” and had been presented with the material by the crew once filming was complete. Devoid of sound, they were screened with live piano accompaniment from Neil Brand. Mary Turner, a once puppeteer on the likes of Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons before becoming a director, happily surrendered complete colour episodes of The Adventures of Rupert Bear which had been stored in her greenhouse over the years until she heard about the campaign.

Also included in the typically eclectic mix were surviving sketches from At Last the 1948 Show, a series that is still being painstakingly pieced back together, featuring a pre-The Goodies Tim Brooke Taylor, and pre-Monty Python John Cleese and Graham Chapman, followed by pre-Monty Python Michael Palin and Terry Jones in an intact Richard the Lionheart sketch from Complete and Utter History of Britain.

Along with an early-1960s routine from Morecambe and Wise, they provided more laughs than current television comedies can conjure up. Although nothing could match the frankly perplexing performance from Lonnie Donegan in an episode of It’s Lulu, singing an unusually enthusiastic of version of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides, Now while dancing around like he had a ferret dusted with itching powder stuffed down the back of his trousers.

Part one ended with a riotous performance from The Who on Top of the Pops. Transmitted in 1973, it naturally finished off with Pete Townsend trashing his guitar against the amp and then booting his way through Keith Moon’s drum kit. Strangely the drums were still playing on the soundtrack even after all the devastation.

After a short break, the second programme kicked off with Robert Beatty as Bulldog Drummond, giving some undesirables the damn sound drubbing they so richly deserved while his assistant merrily tossed smoke bombs about the place, in The Ludlow Affair, an episode from the late 1950s series Douglas Fairbanks Jnr. Presents. After that came something quite remarkable.

When it was first transmitted on 7 September, 1964, The Other Man was billed as a major television and – utterly unheard of today with all the intrusive media snooping – its subject matter remained a closely guarded secret until it was broadcast.

England losing the Second World War to Germany would be examined a year later in Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s It Happened Here. The Other Man concentrated on telling the story from the point of view of an army battalion rather than the populace, and the reactions of fighting men trained to follow a foreign powers orders after Churchill is killed in a bombing raid and the country capitulates to the enemy.

At first they seem faintly bemused, even faintly embarrassed when, after toasting the king, the officers find themselves having to toast Adolf Hitler. Soon the Jewish soldiers throughout the ranks are reassigned – later discovered as slave labour digging the Channel Tunnel. Other officers who resist the regime change are later court-martialled and summarily executed.

Originally running two-and-a-half hours, stripped into the whole evening schedule, with a brief interlude for the news, only the first two parts survived for a long time. Recently the fifth and final part was recently recovered. Although it meant that there was a jump in the narrative, we got to see the stunning dénouement.

Broadcast the same year as Zulu’s cinema release, The Other Man stars Michael Caine as George Grant, the British officer who accepts the new authority and follows orders. Acting alongside him was John Thaw, only a few years into his film and television career, Siân Phillips, Nigel Green and Kenneth Colley – who pretty much looks exactly now as he did then. Also in the cast was a pre-Monty Python Carol Cleveland and even early roles for children’s television favourites Brian Cant and John Noakes.

It’s a sad thing to say, but The Other Man, now over forty years old, was probably the most exciting and inventive piece of British television drama I’ve seen this year.


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