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Reviews

THE X-FILES (1993)

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Show ImageA darkly brooding, mistrustful, nightmarishly vivid, paranoid fantasy for the cynically inclined millennial generation. From humble beginnings The X-Files blossomed into full-fledged phenomena, and in the process transformed its hitherto unknown young lead actors into fully-fledged worldwide icons almost overnight. Deftly mixing the familiar dramatic conventions of the standard police procedural format with the eclectically disparate elements of horror/science fiction and fantasy motifs, creator Chris Carter succeeded in concocting a technically stylish series with resonant echoes of Darren McGavin's short-lived seventies excursion into the paranormal, Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Working from a basement office, brilliant but unorthodox young FBI agent, Fox Mulder (a wry and caustically witty, David Duchovny), obsessively investigates the plethora of reported but unsolved cases dismissed over the years by an otherwise sceptical agency involving strange phenomena, dubbed X-Files. Assigned by the upper echelons to partner Mulder in his single-minded quest, (initially as a means of debunking the maverick agent's more radical theories) is pathologist-cum-agent, Dana Scully (A consistently finely judged and multi-layered characterisation from Gillian Anderson). From the very outset, Carter and his team of writers established the seeds that would quickly blossom into the cryptically elaborate, potentially fatal web of conspiracy and deceit that was to ensnare the tenacious agents over the course of seasons to come. The very essence and embodiment of this all pervading evil of governmental corruption came in the tall, gaunt, and coldly arrogant form of veteran Canadian character actor William B. Davis' anonymous, "Cigarette Smoking Man". Boasting impressive design work, moody and artfully composed cinematography and a consistently top-drawer musical score from composer Mark Snow, episodes had the look and feel of a high budget film rather than a weekly series. Allied to all of this was an intriguing and well-rounded set of recurring support characters, of which Mitch Peleggi's assistant director Skinner and the comically mismatched trio comprising "The Lone Gunman" were particularly noteworthy. (Review: Stephen R Hulse)

YES, MINISTER / YES, PRIME MINISTER (1980)

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Show ImageNever before in the history of television had the inherent comedic possibilities of politics been mined with quite as much unerring insight as under the razor-sharp, knowingly observed scripts of co-writers Jonathan Lynn and Peter Jay's 1980-1982 series Yes Minister, said to be the favourite series of then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. The series chronicled the adventures of newly appointed Minister for Administrative Affairs, the Rt. Honourable James Hacker, MP (played with affable confusion by Paul Eddington). At the beginning of his term in office the well meaning Hacker found his ideas for genuinely innovative new measures constantly thwarted by the very embodiment of the self-serving, status-quo preserving faceless mandarins of the Civil Service; Sir Humphrey Appleby. (A wonderfully devious character of monstrously Machiavellian proportions, brilliantly portrayed by the late Nigel Hawthorne). But as the series unfolded Hacker's self-confidence and increasing mastery of the tricks of governmental in-fighting saw him slowly but surely turn the tables on Hawthorne's 'Old Boy Network', master of political manipulation to often hilarious effect.

Yes Minister ended its run with both viewer popularity and creative quality intact. But if television audiences thought at the time that they had seen the last of the politically mis-matched Whitehall odd-couple they were to be very pleasantly mistaken. Hacker and Appleby returned to the screens of the nation between 1986-1989 to battle anew, in the same creative team's equally successful and quality drenched sequel: Yes Prime Minister which saw Hacker seated at the very fountainhead of British political power.

Paul Eddington had previously enjoyed huge success in another BBC sitcom classic, 1975 to 1978's The Good Life, while the actor who played Hacker's personal assistant, Derek Fowlds, was already familiar to millions as possibly the best known and most fondly remembered human foil to the glove puppeted, Saturday evening comedy of Basil Brush, and would later progress to yet another ratings winner, the cosy nostalgic drama series Heartbeat. Nigel Hawthorne, already an established and highly respected Shakespearean actor, would go on to win world-wide critical acclaim and a coveted Academy Award nomination in 1994, for his starring role in the movie adaptation of Alan Bennet's brilliantly written West End and Broadway stage play The Madness of King George. But it will be the darkly comical political sparring-waged unceasingly between Jim Hacker and the smooth-talking, back-stabbing Sir Humphrey Appleby, which keen observers of situation comedy will continue to cherish long after the real politicians of the day have faded from most peoples memory. (Review: Stephen R Hulse)

YOU CAN'T WIN (1966)

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Show ImageGranada Television adapted two novels by William Cooper to produce this seven-part drama series: Scenes From Provincial Life and Scenes From Married Life. The first book was covered in the first four episodes - set in a provincial town, between February and September 1939. The remaining episodes, based on the second book, were set in London, ten years later. Two characters appear in both books - Joe Lunn (played by Ian McShane in his first leading television role) and his friend and mentor Robert (John Humphrey). In "Provincial Life" Joe is a physics teacher and novelist and in the opening episodes of You Can't Win he is teaching at a provincial school where he does not really fit in. The clouds of war are hanging over Europe and he's thinking of emigrating to America. But there is always Myrtle (Patricia Garwood - pictured with Ian McShane), the girl who brightens his life. Except when she wants to marry him. In the last three episodes, Joe is ten years older and settled in London where he now works for the Government as a scientist with the job of recruiting other scientists, and he is still writing novels. His happy marriage is the focal point of his life and he derives from it the strength to meet each new obstacle he encounters. The series followed Joe's life and love affairs over the years, although each episode told a complete self-contained story.

THE YOUNG ONES (1982)

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Show Image Written by Ben Elton, Rick Mayall and Lise Mayer, The Young Ones hit our TV screens in 1982 and was probably the first alternative sitcom - long before the phrase was attributed to any comedy that was new or different. The series centred around the unbelievable exploits of four drop-out students who shared a rented house. There was Mike the Cool Person (played by Michael Ryan), Rick (played by Rick Mayall), Neil Pye (played by Nigel Planer), and Vyvyen Basterd (played by Adrian Edmondson). The show also featured the Belowski family (fronted by the boys' landlord Jerzei Belowski), all members of which were played by Alexi Sayle. This was the first big television appearance for these five comedy actors, most of whom went on to form the mainstream of British TV's "alternative comedy" shows. Despite his diminutive size, Mike was (as his title suggests), the "cool person", and was always trying to get girls' clothes off. Never losing his head in a crisis, even when that crisis involved one of Vyvyen's dirty socks escaping from the laundry basket, or discovering Buddy Holly hanging upside-down by his parachute in his bedroom. Neil was the "vegetable rights and peace" hippy of the group. Without a bad bone in his body he was the butt of most of Rick's venom and Vyvyen's violent tendencies. Rick was the self-styled "People's Poet", and constantly had delusions of grandeur about his left wing, anti-police, "for the kids" poems. He was also the classic only child who treated his parents like scum despite them doting on him. Despite his bravado, Rick never "did it" with a girl, a fact that Vyvyen exploited at every opportunity, even to the point of demanding money from Rick and making him wear a cardboard sign round his neck with the word "virgin" crayoned onto it. Vyvyen was a punk, with ridiculous hair and five metal stars embedded into his forehead. He was the most violent and disgusting individual that had so far ever been seen on UK television. Exploding sticks of dynamite tied to his head to cure a hangover and clubbing Neil and Rick around the head with a cricket bat were all in a days work for Vyvyen. Alexi Sayle also played various other characters throughout the series, including a train driver, a South African vampire who claimed to be a driving instructor, Brian Damage (a local armed robber), and Benito Mussolini who was the head of the local police force.

The series broke away from BBC2's usual half hour sitcom slots and each episode lasted 35 minutes. Each week the foursome found themselves in more and more surreal situations. Neil's bedroom was turned into a roller-disco, oil was discovered in the basement of the house, Vyvyen would chase Rick around the house with a Howitzer cannon, and inanimate objects such brushes, chips, vegetables and light bulbs would regularly talk to the camera. Even Vyvyen's pet hamster SPG played a key role in some scenes before his untimely death in the last episode when Vyvyen crashed his car head on into a lamppost only to realise that SPG had been asleep on the radiator. Each episode featured countless guest stars, from first time appearances from such comedians as Paul Merton, Hale & Pace, French & Saunders, Robbie Coltrane, Tony Robinson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Rowland Rivron, Ben Elton and Chris Barrie; to established stars including David Rapperport, Mel Smith, Griff Rhys Jones, Nicholas Ball, Emma Thompson and Terry Jones. Each episode also featured a musical number, usually performed live in the boys' living room. Such acts included Amazulu, The Damned, Dexy's Midnight Runners, Madness and Motorhead. Bands were not invited onto the show to pad out each episode, far from it. Their appearance classed the episodes as Light Entertainment, and by BBC's own rules and regulations entitled the series to a larger budget than a comedy show would normally receive. The series spawned a few spin-offs, most notably a number one single with Cliff Richard. Cliff and the Young Ones re-make of 'Living Doll' reached number one in 1986 and provided a huge boost of cash and awareness for that year's Comic Relief fundraising. Nigel Planer (as Neil) also had a 1984 top ten hit with a cover version of Traffic's 1967 song 'Hole In My Shoe'. A superb blend of anarchy and violence, the twelve episodes of The Young Ones represented the epitome of 80's culture. (Review: Paul Webb)

Z CARS (1962)

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Show ImageSince 1955 a policeman's lot had been depicted as a happy one by the BBC's 'community copper' series Dixon of Dock Green. But when Z Cars came along in 1962, television finally got the chance to show the British public a different outlook altogether. When in 1962 the writer Troy Kennedy Martin was confined to bed with mumps, he decided to pass his time listening in to the police wavelength on his radio. What he heard was a far cry from what was being depicted on television. As a result he created Z Cars, a series set on Merseyside at a time when Liverpool was on the verge of significant social changes. To combat the growing crime wave policemen were taken off the beat and placed in fast response vehicles, the 'Z Cars' of the series title (so called because the cars were Ford Zephyrs), and put on patrol around the old district of Seaport and the modern 'high rise' development of Kirkby Newtown. Developed with the help of documentarists Elwyn Jones and Robert Barr the programme didn't simply concern itself with the cops versus robbers format, but showed the day to day lives of the policemen themselves, depicting them as fallible human beings capable of gambling, drinking, and most controversially of all, wife beating. Like The Sweeney over a decade later, Z-Cars mirrored the social changes of its era and bravely dared to push the envelope of the dramatic depiction of the police and their role in a rapidly changing society, to starkly realistic new heights. It was a brave move on the part of both Kennedy Martin and the BBC, but one which paid off handsomely. The Police Federation complained bitterly about the content, but within two months of the show going on air it was attracting an average audience of 14 million viewers.

The stars of the show became household names, Brian Blessed as PC 'Fancy Smith' drove Z-Victor 1, whilst later additions to the regular cast included Colin Welland and Leonard Rossiter. Stratford Johns as the no-nonsense Charlie Barlow, a superior officer not adverse to pounding his suspects into submission, and Frank Windsor as his gentler sidekick John Watt, were given their own series in 1966, Softly, Softly, which saw them head off to form the Regional Crime Squad. Guest stars also went on to successful careers and included John Thaw, Judi Dench, Alison Steadman, Kenneth Cope, George Sewell, Joss Ackland, Ralph Bates and Patrick Troughton. The series continued until 1978 but by this time it was beginning to face competition from US imports such as Kojak, Hawaii Five-0, and Starsky and Hutch. The new generation of all action, car chasing, door kicking format was in vogue, and in Britain the new kids on the block were the men of the Flying Squad; The Sweeney. Somewhat ironically, given that Z Cars had undoubtedly paved the way for the brutally realistic success of his cousin's (Ian Kennedy Martin) later creation, Troy Kennedy Martin branded The Sweeney in his book Crimewriters, as: "...a world of vanity and self-mockery." Accusations similar to those that he himself had experienced during the early days of his own creation's success. Just like Z Cars had made 'Dixon' look old and dated so The Sweeney had the same effect on a show that had, by the late 1970's, very much outlived what public taste was now demanding, and in 1978 it became a case of 'Z-Victor 1, out!'

ZERO ONE (1962)

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Show Image This series about the 'Interpol of the air' was devised by former detective constable and real-life airline security expert, Donald Fish and was inspired by his book Airline Detective. Fish had been a DC in an area containing the now defunct Croydon Airport when he was offered a chance invitation to take a flight. This sparked an interest in aviation in the young officer and when the Second World War broke out he served with M.I.5 investigating aircraft sabotage. Fish visualised the need for airline security when peacetime conditions would necessitate a scheme for foiling international crooks using the airways for their crimes. After the war he formed International Airline Security Service and approached the then major airline B.O.A.C. with a detailed paper on the subject. He was offered the job of organising the first airline security scheme covering all of B.O.A.C.'s post-war routes. One of his most successful coups was the tracking down of a group of gold smugglers, a case that he used as the basis for his book. The name of the series derived from the call sign of Airline Security, 'Zero One', and Nigel Patrick assumed the role of Donald Fish, although the writers changed his name to Alan Garnett. The series concentrated on the human-interest angle, avoiding air crashes to focus on the security of passengers and cargo, suspense, action and characterisation with a gentle overtone of humour thrown in. International Security had a local man at every international airport in the world, all nationals of the country in which they operated. The international flavour was heightened by Garnett having an American assistant, Jimmy Delaney (US actor Bill Smith) and an Indian secretary, Maya (Polish born actress Katya Douglas who had lived in India for fifteen years). The series was fortuitous in having a number of top-line guest stars when it started in early 1962 as an Equity strike stopped a lot of performers from appearing on independent television for many months, and so the likes of Cecil Parker, Charles Tingwall and Margaret Rutherford, who would otherwise be tied to rehearsals or other series, were available for the first dozen episodes, enabling Zero One to establish itself as a TV series with a reputation for quality guest artists.

ZODIAC (1974)

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Show Image Although it only ran briefly for six episodes, Roger Marshall's Zodiac clearly paved the way for dramas of the same ilk such as the BBC's Moon And Son, Virtual Murder and NBC's Medium. It's a nice little idea to team up an astrologer with a detective and the casting of Anton Rodgers and Anouska Hempel really works in the series favour. It was never going to win any BAFTAs but as it is, it's an entertaining show made at a time when the occult, detective and private eye genres dominated British television. It's also probably one of the last of a dying breed as a year after its transmission The Sweeney debuted and along with Special Branch and Public Eye took a much less glamorous, escapist view of crime fighting that suited the times. It is also comes as no coincidence that Roger Marshall created the series whilst mentioning those Euston Films dramas. Marshall, who wrote three of the six episodes, has an impressive television writing CV stretching back to the late 1950s. He's contributed to many of the best loved British shows including Emergency Ward 10, No Hiding Place, The Avengers, Special Branch, The Sweeney, Public Eye, The Gentle Touch, The Professionals, also creating and writing the fondly remembered Travelling Man. It's also interesting to locate Zodiac within the revival of the occult through popular culture in the 1970s. Here 'occult' generally encompassed the growing counter-cultural interest in alternative faiths and religions as orthodox beliefs struggled to survive the secularism that dominated the 1960s. Everything Atlantean and Crowleyan was popular and was reflected in books, films, music, comics and television of the time. As Hammer, in its dying days, moved into exploitation as a reflection of the tastes of a so called permissive society, and other British films such as The Wicker Man and Blood On Satan's Claw paved the way, children's television gave us The Owl Service, Ace Of Wands, Sky, Children Of The Stones and adult dramas such as The Omega Factor, Out Of The Unknown, The Stone Tape and a whole raft of occult detectives from The Champions to The Night Stalker.

The 1970s obsession with witches, demons, vampires and werewolves and all manner of unnatural forces filtered into all forms of culture. Zodiac not only references this aspect of the cultural zeitgeist but it also embraces the need for glamour that was such a key aspiration in the 1970s. As Britain crumbled under industrial disputes and power cuts and the economy spun out of control, the public seriously craved escapism and found it in the television and films of the early 1970s and in the music and fashion of the period. A key figure like Bowie, for example, borrowed all the science fiction and occult trappings that dominated the opening of the decade and filtered them into his music and appearance. Glam became a way of denying the dire political and social disruptions of the period.

Zodiac, transmitted in 1974, therefore has its New Age credentials worn on its sleeve in the character of astrologer Esther Jones, as played by the then rising starlet Anouska Hempel (and now a highly respected, world renowned designer) and she's accompanied by the sceptical and pragmatic policeman David Gradley played with silky charm by celebrated British character actor Anton Rodgers. In a very 'will they-won't they' unresolved sexual tension akin the The Avengers, the pair work together to solve crimes. The chemistry between Rodgers and Hempel slowly develops through the first two episodes and much of the astrological leaps of logic and contrivancies take place in Esther's tastefully decorated (for the 1970s anyway) pied a terre apartment. Her gorgeous little pad in London and the various restaurants and flats are visual symbols of the then desire to live in world of fantasy away from the harsh realities of a Britain struggling with the downside of the 1960s. Ironically, in the first two episodes The Death Of A Crab and The Cool Aquarian, Esther and Gradley (whom she starts to call Grad from the second episode onwards), are solving crimes committed in the world of high stakes business and finance. The first story is concerned with the blackmailing of a top businessman who has an office-cum-apartment full of gadgetry (spot the various bits of decor from numerous other television productions' depictions of cutting edge design of the 1970s, including many of the Century 21 and Doctor Who productions of the early 1970s) and the second is about a partner's attempt to get one up on a deal over his boss by kidnapping a young girl and demanding a ransom from him. Aquarian also features a very young Michael Gambon and the ever reliable George Baker. However, the acting honours are completely stolen by a very moving performance from Betty Alberge (Florrie Lindley from Coronation Street for those of you whose minds can recall that far back) as the kidnapped girl's mother. Look out too for Trevor Baxter as Esther's temporary butler Neville and the rather amusing scene with him and Grad polishing off the silver and a fine bottle of brandy. Marshall's script for the third episode, The Strength Of Gemini is a rather deliciously sordid affair as Esther and Grad track down a womanising con-man, Paul Deering. Deering is brilliantly played by dependable sit-com and drama star Norman Eshley, all frilly shirts and champagne as he cons unsuspecting ladies using Esther's newspaper astrology column. It's camp, rather unintentionally hilarious but vastly entertaining. As the series progresses the episodes get better and the chemistry between Rodgers and Hempel is rather good. In Saturn's Rewards national treasure Peter Vaughan is wonderful as the uptight MP who witnesses a murder but refuses to be counted as a witness as the woman he was with at the time wasn't his wife. A suave Ian Ogilvy is equally splendid as the murderous pimp. The final pair of episodes are a mixed affair. Sting, Sting Scorpio benefits from giving Esther the lion's share of the episode despite Hempel's cold clearly taking its toll on her voice, its Brighton setting (including an outrageous performance from Frank Gatliff as the token Brighton homosexual) and a suitably intense performance from Robert Powell as Brian, the Brighton Hotel Robber. The Horns Of The Moon alas is the weakest episode and it's attempt at board room farce is rather grating and lacks much of the charm of the previous five installments. Direction is competently provided by stalwarts such as Don Leaver, Ray Menmuir and Piers Haggard, production values are pretty good (the restaurant set in The Strength Of Gemini is an art deco Glam era gem) but you'll have to try and get past a standard production bugbear of television from this period with the horribly overlit interiors and studio based exteriors. If you're into library music from licensees such as KPM then you'll have fun listening to some of the incidental music. It may be undemanding, frothy entertainment but there is much to enjoy in the witty scripts (but try not to laugh too hard at the innocent use of the word Uranus) and good characters played by a rogue's gallery of British character actors. (Review: Frank Collins)

THE ZOO GANG (1974)

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Show Image Based on a novel by Paul Gallico and adapted by Reginald Rose, this Herbert Hirschman produced ITC series lasted only six episodes despite an all-star cast of internationally renowned actors. Veteran actor John Mills starred as a member of an elite wartime group who get back together to bring an escaped Nazi to justice. The gang members, each codenamed after an animal (hence their collective title) were Tommy Devon (Elephant) - played by Mills, Stephen Halliday (Fox) - Brian Keith, Lieuntenant Alec Marlowe (Tiger) - Barry Morse and Madame Manouche Roget (Leopard) played by Lilli Palmer, the widow of team member Claude Roget (Wolf), who was killed by the Gestapo. Each member was also an expert in a chosen skill, such as explosives, electronics and mechanics. Having succeeded in their first mission, the 'Zoo Gang' decide to stay together in order to bring justice to the Cote d'Azur and raise money from rewards to build a children's hospital dedicated to the memory of their fallen comrade. Location filming took place in the South of France with interiors shot at Pinewood Studios and the series had a distinctly glossy feel to it (it even had a theme song by Paul and Linda McCartney) and was obviously aimed at the American market (which accounts for its 50-minute format). However only six episodes were ever made which made it unlikely to be picked up for syndication in the US. In many ways, the series was reminiscent of an earlier ITC series, The Four Just Men, which was made between 1959 and 1960 with far greater success. A list of guest stars included Ingrid Pitt, Peter Cushing, Jacqueline Pearce, Roger Delgado and Philip Madoc. Writing credits went to Reginald Rose, William Fairchild, John Kruse, Sean Graham, Peter Yeldham and Howard Dimsdale who also wrote for US series' Cannon and The Fugitive as well as having scripted Abbott and Costello Meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd, whilst in the directors chair Sidney Hayers was also responsible for episodes of The Avengers, The Professionals, Arthur of The Britons, Magnum PI, TJ Hooker and Baywatch.

ZOO TIME (1956)

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Show Image The first wildlife series aimed at children appeared on ITV in 1956 at the instigation of Granada Television boss Sidney Bernstein. After consultation with London Zoo's animal specialist, Dr Desmond Morris, who argued that the animals would be more at home and more likely to be better behaved in familiar surroundings, a special residential television studio, the only one in the world, was built within the grounds of the zoo, and the TV show, hosted by Desmond Morris, was broadcast from there weekly. In all 331 live half-hour editions (with pre-filmed inserts) of Zoo Time were produced and not all of them were without mishap. On one occasion a deadly cobra escaped from its basket and a terrified cameraman ended up taking refuge from atop his camera pedestal where he continued to film the episode. Another famous incident involved Andrew Watson dashing across the studio to retrieve an escaped vampire bat and forgetting that he still had his neck microphone attached. Half way across the studio the cable of his sound equipment suddenly reached its maximum length and the unfortunate presenter was bought to a jarring halt and immediately vanished from camera view. All the viewers could hear was the sound of Watson trying to wrestle the strangulating cord from around his neck, and many were convinced that the bat had attacked him. Within minutes of the broadcast going out newspapers were phoning the zoo demanding to know if it was true that a vampire was loose and if it had already killed one person!

Not content with just alarming the viewing public, the programme sometimes caused any watching mums and dads a certain amount of embarrassment, too, such as the time Desmond Morris tried to present a segment whilst a lion mounted his mate. Aware of the situation going on behind him, Morris moved swiftly along only for another lion to come into view and begin performing the same act. But for most viewers the highlight of the shows was always a chance to see the antics of the young chimpanzees. And it seems each viewer had his or her favourite. One young chimp, called Congo, showed an artistic talent and Morris adorned the walls of his office with Congo's creations. One fan was so impressed that he even purchased one of Congo's works of art. That fan's name was Pablo Picasso! In 1959 Desmond Morris relinquished his role as series presenter to move on to Animal Story (Granada TV 1960-62), which was presented from both the London and the larger open-air Whipsnade Zoo. A host of presenters followed him until Chris Kelly took over for the final year (1967-68). Other famous names associated with the unit were Derek Twist, Phillip Oakes and Milton Schulman. The show was also instrumental in maintaining the zoo's status as one of London's top visitor attractions.