Network, the finest purveyors of archive TV (sometimes the most obscure of archive TV) in the UK, have embarked on another busy year of releases with the usual selection of wildly eclectic titles from cult TV and half-remembered comedies via variety compilations and classic, landmark dramas. Stuff hopes to cover the best of Network's output throughout the year so to get 2010 off to a rousing start here's the pick of January's Network titles...
It's been so long since 'Armchair Theatre' faded from ITV screens that it's easy to forget what an important and revolutionary piece of TV the series was. The show, which ran intermittently between 1956 and 1973 was very much ITV's flagship anthology drama series,attracting the cream of British acting and writing talent in taut, intelligent hour-long dramas which were not only compelling as contemproary storytelling, they were very often important social commentaries. The plays documented and encapsulated their eras as well as any newsreel footage and, watched in the super-slick, super-cynical 21st century, they've lost little of their dramatic power and, if anything, they make the viewer yearn for a time when drama actually said something about society and the way people live their lives. The tantalisingly titled 'volume 1' of network's 'Armchair Theatre' releases collects eight classic plays - each of them mounted and performed like stage-plays (hence the umbrella title for the series) with generally small casts and one or two large sets. Network have selected eight plays which ably demonstrate the range of the series with scripts by Colin Welland (who also stars in the stifling BAFTA-winning 'Say Goodnight To Your Grandma'), Roy ('Last of the Summer Wine') Clarke, Fay Weldon, Ian Kennedy Martin and Dominic Behan. Weldon's 'Office Party' expertly lays bare the often-repressed tensions and frustrations of out-of-hours office life and Clarke's 'Will Amelia Quint Continue Writing 'A Gnome Called Shorthouse'?' explores the quirky life of an eccentric children's writer cajoled out of retirement to write yet another book. Elsewhere there are edgy thrillers - 'Red Riding Hood' and 'Detective Waiting' and 'The Folk Singer' is a coruscating condemnation of the conflict in Northern Ireland which dominated the headlines throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
'Armchair Theatre' called upon the services of star names like Beryl Reid, Rita Tushingham, Tom Bell, Richard Beckinsale, Peter Barkworth, George A Cooper and dozens of other familiar character actors who give uniformly rich, powerful performances. The plays are of their time, of course, they look resolutely stagey but that's the point; Sydney Newman, who created the series, wanted to bring the theatre into people's homes and that demanded good actors and good scripts and that, by and large, is what 'Armchair Theatre' delivered. Not every play here is a classic; one or two wander a bit and there's a sense of 'so what?' about the odd play but at their best - that'd be Welland's contribution in this set - they're electrifying. Hugely recommended.
Although already released some years ago, the first series of the classic black-and-white ITV thriller series 'Danger Man' gets another outing in a lavish new six-disc boxset which includes all 39 half-hour episodes of the Ralph Smart-created series first screened in 1960. Sadly 'Danger Man', chronicling the exploits of British Intelligence agent John Drake, hasn't really stood the test of time all that well; the stories are routine espionage yarns which, although ostensibly set all over Europe, appear to be largely filmed in and around the Borehamwood Studios and involve plenty of standing about in front of back projection footage. Of course the series' USP is the hugely-charismatic Patrick McGoohan who went on to star in and create the legendary fantasy series 'The Prisoner' a few years later. McGoohan is a dark, brooding presence across the episodes - he'll never smile when a scowl will do - and he swings a mean punch too. Worth a look for completists but not a boxset you'll want to rattle through. Extras include an exhaustive booklet by inexhaustible historian Andrew Pixley and an extensive picture gallery which includes dozens of never-before-seen photographs from the series.
Call me shallow but I'm not ashamed to admit that my favourite Network release of the month is the charming 2-disc collection of the entire 1974/5 comedy series 'No - Honestly' starring real-life couple John Alderton and Pauline Collins. I have vague memories of this little Saturday night comedy from its original screenings and age, surprisingly, hasn't dimmed its comedy value. It's achingly old-fashioned, of course - you'll wince at some of Alderton's suits even as you're reaching for your sunglases - and the relentless upper-classness of it all (so many RP accents!) is startling when so much modern TV is barely literate and often unintelligible. But 'No - Honestly' is actually funny; it's actually very,very funny. Terrence Brady and Charlotte Bingham's scripts are packed with great gags, both visual and verbal, and Collins and Alderton are consummate comic performers, wringing all the big laughs from the comedy entrance and the humourous expression. Alderton and Collins plays CD (Charles Danby) and Clara who top and tail each episode telling the audience about how they met and how their relationship developed ten years previously. Each episode is then told in flashback as the stumbling couple embark upon their sweet relationship which, of course, ends in matrimony and the ups and downs of being newlyweds. Many comedy shows from the 1960s and 1970s - especially the clumsier ITV shows - look horribly dated and just aren't funny any more. 'No - Honestly', despite its occasional naivity, is still a hoot. How refreshing to watch a comedy where the audience roar with laughter at the word "cami-knickers" and gasp as Alderton tries to delicately explain what "cobblers" means to the cossetted Clara.
In its time this was sophisticated stuff and it's still clever and witty even now; if you can turn a blind eye to the 1970s fashions and mannerisms and avoid the urge to throttle the infuriatingly-dim Clara you'll find there's a lot of fun to be had in the 13 episodes spread across these two discs. They just don't make 'em like this any more. Oh, and the Lynsey de Paul theme is just pure class...
'Armchair Theatre Volume 1' is released on 18th January, 'Danger Man Series One' is released on 25th Janaury and 'No - Honestly' is released on 25th January