Time for a round-up of a typically eclectic range of DVD releases from Network, purveyors of the finest (and often most obscure) archive UK TV with the emphasis this month on some barely-remembered kid's dramas and a prime time ITV curio unseen since 1971.
When Network went a'knocking at the door of ITV Wales (formerly HTV) to liberate the tapes of the much-demanded children's sci-fi fantasy 'Sky' for DVD release last year, I rather suspect they found themselves knee-deep in dusty old film cans of some other kid's shows too, as HTV had a tradition in the 1970's and 1980s of crafting intelligent, thoughtful adventure/fantasy dramas for the little 'uns, some of which are semi-legendary and some of which are forgotten even by those who saw them at the time. So it is that Network have unearthed a six-part supernatural thriller entitled 'The Clifton House Mystery' and I'm pretty damned sure that, like me, you've never heard of it either. Expecting some simplistic studio-bound runaround full of dodgy performances, iffy video special effects and clumsy scripting, I slipped the preview disc into my DVD player. Six episodes later - I watched the show in two bursts - and I had to marvel, yet again, at how far TV has fallen since 1978 and how short-changed today's attention-deficit nippers are when it comes to quality entertainment. Oddly enough, 'The Clifton house Mystery' is entirely studio-based, its sparse special effects are primitive at best and yes, there are are couple of arch performances. But despite all this the show is gripping, suprisingly mature and well-written stuff and, in a couple of places, remarkably chilling for a show screened in 1978 at around 5pm.
Co-written by Daniel Farson (who, if memory serves, was Bram Stoker's grandson) the serial tells of the frightfully upper-class Clare family who move into a crumbling old house in the Clifton area of Bristol when Mrs Betterson, the previous owner, moves out. It soon becomes apparent that the house is a very troubled place and that there are secrets hidden in a walled-up bedroom which are connected to other mysterious occurences; a silent ghostly woman who appears at night and, most hair-raisingly (especially a tea-time drama), blood dripping from the ceiling during a dinner party. Yikes! Ghost hunter Milton Guest (Peter Sallis) turns up in episode four to add a dash of eccentricity to the rather mannered proceedings but the story, as with all the best children's drama, ultimately manages to both entertain and inform (with its discreetly-threaded backdrop of the Bristol riots). 'The Clifton House Mystery' is superior children's TV; the studio setting is suitably claustrophobic, there's a genuine sense of creeping menace about the story (even though no-one's ever in any real danger) and while the last episode, a sort of mopping-up exercise, is largely superfluous to the story, this is definately one Stuff can recommend if you're after some cheery, slightly-unsettling family supernatural fun.
From the box marked 'Freewheelers-lite' we find 'The Doombolt Chase' a six-part HTV serial from 1978 which couldn't be more different from 'The Clfiton House Mystery'. Shot entirely on film and on location this is broad, glossy, expansive adventure yarn which starts off with a central mystery - why naval Commander David Wheeler allows his vessel to ram a smaller boat in his ship's path rather than avoid it - which leads to his son Richard and his two friends Lucy and Peter into an investigation which involves them in an espionage mystery and something nasty and dangerous and destructive deep beneath the sea. Lively and pacey with lots going on, this is a hugely entertaining romp which was clearly intended to lead to more adventures for the feisty - and yes, typically slightly irritating - young trio. 'The Doombolt Chase' (great title) is written by Dr Who/Hammer writer Don Houghton (he wrote the Jon Pertwee story 'Inferno', one of the classic show's best ever serials) and, a bit gutsier and grittier than a lot of HTV's children's offerings, is worth tracking down.
'Look Back on '70s Telly' is a curious new series of Network DVD releases. Just out are issues One and Two - 2 discs apiece - which gather together random episodes of contemporary children's TV shows and package them up to look like the much-missed 'Look-In' ITV comic of the 1970s (I still have the first issue!!). It's a cute idea and whilst Issue One isn't really to my taste or interest - it's full of episodes of pre-school stuff like 'Rainbow', 'Pipkins', 'Cloppa's Castle', 'Potty Time' and I was too old for this stuff even in the 1970s - I can't help thinking that anyone who picks up these discs will do so out of idle curiosity or because of a deep-set nostalgia and probably just watch them once before realising that...well, maybe the memory does cheat sometimes. Issue two is more interesting, made up of random instalments of ITV dramas aimed at an older audience. Included are episodes of shows already released in their entirety (thus maybe encouraging purchasers to seek out their respective boxsets?) and of particular note are the surviving colour episode of ATV's brilliant 'Timeslip', an episode from 'Ace of Wands' (the superb Network boxset of series three, the only surviving episodes, is pretty much essential for anyone with an interest in classic kid's TV) and episode one of 'Tightrope', the post-'Timeslip' espionage drama starring Spencer Banks and which I would love to see again in its entirety. Is it on its way, Network??? Pretty please... Also included are episodes from girly kid's dramas like 'Follyfoot' and 'Black Beauty' as well as episodes from 'Magpie', 'Get It Together' and knockabout comedy 'Robert's Robots' which is as embarrassing now as it was then. With their lively and amusing menus and commemorative booklets, these are a very different sort of DVD release from Network and whilst I can't honestly imagine Issue One being hugely appealing, Issue Two is worth a look and, if nothing else, may encourage a few more thirty-somethings to seek out the full boxsets of shows they really loved and which fired up their imaginations when they were young.
Finally to something for the grown-ups with 'The Guardians', a bleak but compelling 13-part serial drama first (and only) screened in 1971. Set in a dystopian future Britain characterised by urban decay and civil disillusionment with the country under the control of a ruthless paramilitary organisation known as 'The Guardians', this talky serial pits the morality of the loose resistance collective known as the Quarmby against the sinister,self-serving Guardians and their shadowy leader the General. There's not a lot of action but there's lots of chat and very intense-looking people dealing determinedly with difficult moral issues. Worthy but occasionally dull this is a fascinating period piece and yet another reminder of a commercial television entertainment ethos long, long gone. 9 o'clock ITV is now occupied by shows like 'Popstar to Opera Star' and 'Michael Winner's Dining Stars'. What sort of progress is this? Even 'The Guardians' couldn't have predicted something as bleak as that...
All DVDs reviewed have been released from Network DVD during February and are best obtained from Network's excellent website at www.networkdvd.net. Go there immediately.
Reviews coming soon...The Crazies, Legion, The Lovely Bones, Being Human...