Doomwatch 1972 ****

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Director Peter Sasdy deserves his cult reputation; from the Whispering Gallery finale of Hands of the Ripper to the enigmatic hysteria of The Stone Tapes, his best work has an iconic feel. Viewers of the BBC science-fiction drama Doomwatch generally felt that this 1972 feature film was a somewhat cruder affair, but as it resurfaces on streaming, Sadsy’s film is likely to entice the curious. Moving amongst characters created by Dr Who scribes Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, Doomwatch sees Dr Shaw (Ian Bannen) tackling chemical dumping on the fictional Scottish island of Balfe, although being a Tigon production, Cornwall doubles for the beauty-spot. There’s not much picturesque about what Shaw finds; growth hormones used on fish are getting into the food chain, and mutations are resulting. Does the Admiral (George Sanders) know more than he’s saying? Of course, he does, and Doomwatch is way ahead of its time in suggesting government conspiracies, and expressing anxiety about what we eat. Small roles for James Cosmo, Bond star Geoffrey Keen and Shelagh Fraser (who played Luke’s aunt five years later in Star Wars) keep things interesting. The original series is now impossible to locate in it’s enturity, so this capsule version of Doomwatch is well worth seeking out as a period piece with some unpleasant ideas which still resonate. Judy Geeseon co-stars.

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Penda’s Fen 1974 *****

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An untypical entry from Alan Clarke, this BBC Play for Today has developed a cult following and a BFI re-release. Written by David Rudkin, Penda’s Fen is as deliberately obscure as the title; Spencer Banks plays Stephen, a young boy wrestling with homosexual urges, but also struggling to understand the community around him at his Woostershire home. Elements include the appearances of supernatural creatures, conversations with composer Edward Elgar, potentially lethal environmental and pollution issues, and a religious father whose beliefs are not those of a conventional minister. Penda’s Fen is a mystical coming of age drama which looks beyond Christianity and attempts to find something else in the dreams of Albion of an English teenager. It’s hypnotic, doesn’t bother to explain itself and expects the audience to do the heavy lifting; it’s a unique slice of UK television history and as an insight into the kind of high quality  casually dropped into 1970’s tv schedules, a terrific primer in the lost art of drama.

The Stone Tapes 1972 *****

stonetape-mainNigel Kneale’s status as one of the great thinkers of the sci-fi and horror genre is largely based on his Quatermass quadrilogy, but there’s a number of other notable entries in his canon. 1972’s The Stone Tapes is a typically thoughtful supernatural drama, which dodges most of the potential clichés and comes up with some original stuff. Directed by horror specialist Peter Sasdy, The Stone Tapes is the story of a scientist Peter Brock (Michael Bryant) who has an eye on creating a recording format to replace tape. He and his ex Jill (Jane Asher) get involved in the renovation of a country house which dates back to Saxon times. The hidden room was used as a US army storeroom in WWII, and is rumoured to harbour a ghost. With neither jump scares or dream sequences to pad out the action, the focus is on Kneale’s brand of artful pseudo-science, which is always persuasive. The idea of ancient stone as a recording format which captures the energy of past events and plays them on a loop to those sensitive enough to pick the message up is a novel one, and there’s a great sequence where Jill starts to believe that their computer in Chicago has been possessed by malevolent spirits. Lo-fi production, but big ideas have made The Stone Tapes a deserved cult classic.

 

Mahler 1974 ***

MahlerKen Russell’s name remains a byword for excess, and few who see The Devils, Tommy or Crimes of Passion are likely to argue. But his desire to shock audiences was only part of his repertoire, and the skills he developed as a film-maker for the BBC’s Omnibus documentary series are exemplified by this untypically retrained biopic of composer Gustav Mahler. Played in stern fashion by Robert Powell, Mahler’s life is explored in flashback structure, with emphasis on religion and family. There’s also a strong pictorial sense of landscape; Russell often complained about the lack of countryside in British films, with the Lake District making a picturesque background. Sure, there’s an Oliver Reed cameo and an anachronistic dream sequence featuring Nazis, but Russell keeps the bit between his teeth and delivers an austere, dignified picture of musical genius that, shorn of any of the sensationalism Russell was regularly criticised for, almost no-one saw in 1975.

Swallows and Amazons 2016 ***

children-in-boat-shallows-amazons-950In terms of unappetizing prospects, an adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s 1930’s book about children on a jolly boating adventure is hard to beat; it’s so old-fashioned it makes Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven look as hard-boiled as a Jim Thompson novel. Credit Dear Frankie screenwriter Andrea Gibb for adding a few select espionage elements to this BBC prodiction which manage to give it more of the flavor of classic spy-story The Riddle of the Sands. Philla Lowthorpe directs and there’s a strong supporting cast including Kelly Macdonald, Rafe Spall, Harry Enfield, Andrew Scott and Jessica Hynes. The sunny feel of the Swallows and their rivalry with the Amazons is well caught, but the careful integration of real-world issues is deftly handled and revitalizes a fairly hoary old property to good effect.

Wolf Hall 2015 ****

wolf-hall-mark-rylanceThis BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantell’s bestselling book is a history lesson, but it’s never dull. Mark Rylance plays Thomas Cromwell, the man behind the man in the court of King Henry VIII (Damien Lewis). His position as an eminence grise is established through his relationship with Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Price), but it’s the battle between Cromwell and the King that makes Wolf Hall such a gripping watch. Covering much of the same ground as A Man For All Seasons, Wolf Hall has a much more political view of historical events, complete with some wicked humour and freaky dream sequences. And Rylance’s performance is a huge achievement; good as he was in support in Bridge of Spies, this is acting as its very best.

The Flipside of Dominick Hyde 1980 ****

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Another entry in the minuscule hybrid sub-genre of time-travelling romance, The Flipside of Dominick Hyde is a BBC Play For Today production at feature length; back in the days before the BBC was given over to antiques and home renovation documentaries, these plays were transmitted at 9.25pm and watched by millions. The Flipside is one of the best remembered; Peter Firth plays a traveller from 2130 who is sent back to London in 1980 to research the transport system and secretly search for an ancestor. Instead he falls for Jane (Caroline Langrishe), who takes him for ‘dirty weekends in Herne Bay’ in return for advice about smoking, aerosols and football pools. Alan Gibson and Jeremy Paul’s script has a few brilliant jokes, one involving a trio of virtual musicians who always play Beatles tunes, and a nicely judged sentiment about the past as a foreign land that one may return to, but never find a home in.