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City Beneath the Sea/Secret Beneath the Sea

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Network Releasing
Cult TV
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Kim Mills
Gerald Flood
Stewart Guidotti
Peter Williams
Aubrey Morris
Denis Goacher
Bottom Line: 
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 In a recent review, I took a look at “The Pathfinders Trilogy” -- an early fascinating example of 1960s children’s science fiction, produced by Sidney Newman during his tenure as Head of Drama for the British independent television company ABC. These three multi-part serials, scripted by Malcolm Hulke and Eric Paice, together helped lay much of the groundwork for a certain still-running family orientated science fiction show, which was conceived at the BBC in 1963 at a time when the corporation was seriously starting to think for the first time about competing with its commercial rival for audience share. Newman was poached by the BBC in 1962 in order to help it achieve this aim, and he quickly set to work on expanding the modest success of Pathfinders (which had combined afternoon action-adventure in space with an educational and instructional remit) by brainstorming, along with a team that was to include Head of serials Donald Wilson and a young producer called Verity Lambert among others, the format that eventually brought about the now legendary series “Doctor Who”.

During the period when Newman was in the process of moving across to the BBC though, the Sunday afternoon Family Hour slot at ITV (which had given birth to his trilogy of space-faring adventures to the Moon, Mars and Venus in the first place), continued to pump out rip-roaring serial stories in 25 minute slices aimed at a young audience, produced (as was the standard method in the early sixties) as-live, from ABC’s London-based Teddington Studios. Two of these serials saw several members of cast and crew from Pathfinders re-united -- this time in a much more earth-based, but no less fantastical adventure.

The director on all three previous Pathfinders series, Guy Verney, now became producer on both of these two follow-ups, “City Beneath the Sea” and “Secret Beneath the Sea” respectively; and actors Gerald Flood and Stewart Guidotti returned in the lead roles, playing different characters from the ones they portrayed before, but displaying more or less exactly the same traits in any-case. Peter Williams (who was written out as the lead character after the first Pathfinders seven parter) also comes back and gets more to do here -- at least in the second of the two serials. 

All of which makes very apparent  the fact that both these adventures are probably a new producer’s attempt to repeat the same formula, without it being necessary this time to create elaborate studio-based sets to represent the surface of other planets. The model-making skills of Derek Freeborn were, nonetheless, also called-upon once again for both “City …” and its follow-up, this time to create a miniature futuristic underwater city and a model representation of a nuclear submarine, among other similar charming effects.

Both these serials were written by another name that will also be very familiar to fans of “Doctor Who”, namely John Lucarotti -- a prolific TV writer who would create two of the show’s most memorable historical dramas during its early years, “Marco Polo” and “The Aztecs”. Lucarotti proved adept at combining in his stories engaging adventure-based plotting with educational elements, and “City Beneath the Sea” very much continues to run with the baton first taken up by Sidney Newman in that regard, although it occasionally attempts to shoehorn in (usually in the form of awkward exposition put into the mouth of one of the main characters) its science-derived educational content, even though the story dynamics often demand a fair degree of licence be taken with the details.

 Lucarotti’s career features many varied writing credits, and he’s still well-remembered in fandom for having scripted five episodes of “The Avengers” during its early years. While “The Pathfinders Trilogy” started by taking “Quatermass” as its model for what studio-produced children’s science fiction should look like, and developing it from there towards an adventure based format, these two dramas might be seen as laying some of the groundwork for the direction “The Avengers” would take once Honor Blackman’s Cathy Gale came to be introduced, and the style of the show began to change. Lucarotti wrote one episode of “The Avengers” during its first series, when the show was more a gritty London noir, with Patrick Macnee as a sinister shadowy agent John Steed, and Ian Hendry played his trench-coated partner Dr David Keel – a man seeking revenge for the murder of his fiancé at the hands of drug dealing gangsters – but most of his work on the series was written during the videotaped Cathy Gale era (with one episode from Emma Peel’s first black and white filmed series) and it is this era which “City Beneath the Sea” -- in sharing the Teddington Studio shooting location and the same multi-camera, as-live methods of production – anticipates: the seven-part serial is very much an espionage adventure with a Cold War feel, but with Boy’s Own super villains regurgitated from accounts of daring-do in the Second World War.

The fact that the series is aimed at a younger audience allows Lucarotti to get away with much broader plotting and larger-than-life characters -- in this instance an evil mastermind plotting to take over the world from a James Bond-style futuristic underwater hideout. This gives it a much lighter feel; a trait that would come to be associated with “The Avengers” where it would be used much more ironically, in a post-modern sort of way for the benefit of an older audience, particularly once Brian Clemens took control of the series and it moved to film in the mid-sixties. Adding greatly to this impression is the fact that the series is peppered with actors who would go on to guest star (as admittedly most character actors active during the ‘60s would) in “The Avengers” at a later date, such as Caroline Blakiston and Aubrey Morris; furthermore, both of these Lucarotti serials were directed by Kim Mills, who would work on “The Avengers” throughout its Teddington based days, directing ten episodes in all.

“Doctor Who” fans can rest easy that there is still reason to take a look at this set as well as the Sidney Newman produced Pathfinders release though, for among those guest stars is a certain Mr Barry Letts, who crops up in a couple of episodes as a lower ranking naval officer, but appears to get written out and replaced by someone else for the final few instalments! Morris Perry (“Colony in Space”) and Hayden Jones (“The Mind of Evil”) also get prominent roles.

First appearing on screens in 1962, the series starts off by evoking post-war concern about Britain’s then disputed place in the world, but envisioning our top experts still coming up with technical wizardry that the country’s enemies inevitably covert for their own malign reasons. Instead of invoking the Soviet threat, though, the enemy here, as it is in much espionage themed adventure material of the period, becomes a lone, eccentric evil genius; in this case one who rules over a sophisticated, apparently utopian city, situated 500 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, somewhere off the coast of Japan. Furthermore, this adventure reaches back to WW2 (which was then still barely twenty-years in the past) for the origins of this fiendish mastermind, making him a deceptively jovial Nazi scientist -- a genius of oceanography -- whose secret base was formerly a submarine pen for long-range U-boats which the madman has quietly been developing ever since the end of the war into a totally self-sufficient colony under the sea, staffed by top research scientists, ecologists and even architects who’ve been kidnapped from all around the world to bring his vision to fruition.

The intrepid heroes who find themselves charged with thwarting this devilish genius’s diabolical plan to become master of the world, are donnish science magazine editor Mark Bannerman (Gerald Flood) and his plucky apprentice photographer Peter Blake (Stewart Guidotti) who get catapulted into the story when they cover a staid communications engineers’ convention at which top English boffin Professor Westfield (Hayden Jones) has recently unveiled his new underwater transmission unit and receiver. Westfield disappears soon after attending an after-conference drinks party on the top floor of a plush tower block, where he was last seen in the company of a representative of the Institute of Stockholm, called Svenson. Back at his office, Bannerman can’t help thinking he recognises the man in the photograph which appears in the next day's paper -- the Swedish engineer caught on film leaving the party with the missing expert. A quick browse of his ‘Illustrated History of World War Two’ reveals that Svenson is, in fact, one Kurt Swendler (Denis Goacher) – an ace U-boat Commander, previously believed killed during the war (and therefore probably not a good choice to be engaged in clandestine espionage activity!).

The duo take this information to the British Admiralty, where Captain Payne (Peter Williams) informs them that Westfield’s disappearance is just the latest incident in a string of similar mysterious occurrences which have been taking place all across the world for the last five years, usually coinciding with odd coastal sightings of ‘ghost’ submarines, that witnesses usually say look just like old-style German U-boats. Despite Westfield’s recent disappearance, Payne is due to preside over a testing of the Professor’s amazing device on board a newly commissioned British atomic submarine. Bannerman and Peter are invited along to cover the test for their science magazine, but before the expedition can get underway the sub is held-up and boarded by Swendler and a group of armed Nazis, who then force Captain Payne and the crew to disembark while they make-off with the high tech British sub and Westfield’s invention!

Despite their best efforts to make trouble for Swendler and his men during the trip (who are at first unaware that they are still aboard), Bannerman and Peter are transported to the amazing underwater city of Aegiria, where they find Westfield alive and well and, like everyone else inhabiting this futuristic base, completely under the charismatic thrall of an impish little German-accented man with dishevelled hair, wire-rimmed glasses and a polka-dot bow tie, whom Bannerman soon recognises to be the former great  Nazi ocean expert, Professor Ludwig Ziebrecken (Aubrey Morris). 

Character actor Aubrey Morris seems to have appeared in just about every television show going during the sixties and seventies, and, bizarrely, given the fact that he’s basically playing an unreconstructed Nazi here, who’s been bitterly plotting his own personal bid for world domination from the confines of this pristine future-world under the sea for the best part of a decade, the persona he injects into the role, by chance hits upon similar qualities Patrick Troughton would later bring to his portrayal of the second Doctor: visually, the characters dress in the same slightly dishevelled crumpled Edwardian manner -- but in this case Morris’s mannerisms, particularly the impish grin and the deceptively bumbling professorial impression he gives, disguise a completely ruthless sociopath who will dispose of anyone who gets in Ziebrecken’s way. One particularly effective sequence conveys all this by having him apparently placidly seated behind his desk, doodling on a notepad while two of his kidnapped research scientists (who’ve previously been working for him willingly, after having been hoodwinked by Ziebrecken’s utopian talk about his grand vision of helping to unite the world), dispute his decision to have Mark Bannerman and Peter Blake killed for an earlier attempt to alert the outside world; the camera pulls back to reveal that he’s been absently sketching two coffins the whole time they’ve been remonstrating, an effective way of indicating their fate for having the audacity to go against him! Ziebrecken continues to potter about with a beatific grin throughout the series, a grin which remains plastered across his mouth even when he’s issuing death threats to anyone who dare disagree with him or when he’s preparing to launch a nuclear attack on the major capitals of the world.

Most of the remaining episodes in this seven-part serial see Mark and Peter trying to find a way to send word out to the world at large about the existence and whereabouts of the underwater city by attempting to cause a minor explosion that might be picked up on the instruments of the search team led by Commander Payne (who is now trying to find out what happened to the kidnapped sub), or sabotaging the pump which controls the air purification system, in the hope that Ziebrecken will be forced to send everyone to the surface, where they will surely quickly be detected. They also form a friendship with one of the other scientists at the base, a marine biologist called Dr Ann Boyd (Caroline Blakiston), in the process trying to persuade her that Ziebrecken is evil or mad and that the purpose of Aegiria far more sinister than she is willing to believe.

Production designer James Goddard creates a stark, modernist and functional looking interior for the sea base, essaying a style of design we would become increasingly familiar with over the years as it became the standard look for the numerous instances of centre of operations required to house a host of evil geniuses in “The Avengers” and “Doctor Who” alike. Model designer Derek Freeborn (who later created the model city for the marionette series “Space Patrol”) is largely responsible for imbuing the entirely studio-bound recording with believable atmosphere thanks to his scale mode work, which includes a detailed model of the exterior of the illuminated underwater city (shot inside a water tank with ribbons of seaweed swirling around it) and a model for the ‘Bathyscape’ submersible  which transports Ziebrecken and his henchmen to the very lowest ‘blockhouse’ cellar of Aegiria, where he eventually  reveals his ultimate plan to Bannerman, which is to threaten to unleash nuclear warheads on every major capital, East and West, if the world does not agree to accept Ziebrecken as its sole dictator!

Shot as-live, the serial makes frequent use of copious library music cues, stock footage of Navy manoeuvres and jets taking off from the deck of aircraft carriers etc., and there are inevitably the usual complement of fluffed lines and botched cues, camera wobbles and sound booms hovering into view. There are also several attempts at creating underwater diving scenes which can only be described as overly ambitious given the circumstances of the production. These involve the actors, dressed in wetsuits and divers’ helmets, trying to mimic the appearance of moving through the sea by waving their outstretched arms ahead of them as they cavort across the darkened studio floor while a wavy effects pattern is superimposed across the screen. 

Yet, overall, “City Beneath the Sea” still works, especially for those of us who still have a nostalgic fondness for ‘60s era “Doctor Who”. The serial mainly stands on the strength of its simple, good-natured approach to adventure storytelling and its larger than life villain, performed with delightful exuberance by Aubrey Morris. There’s also still the quaint notion at its heart that an educational element should be included in drama for children whenever possible; thus we’re given earnestly delivered explanations of how underwater volcanoes are formed and how coral develops, all included alongside the weekly dose of fiendish plotting from Ziebrecken and Swendler, and the square-jawed patrician heroism of Gerald Flood’s Mark Bannerman  -- who has the endearing habit of gazing into the middle-distance at the end of every scene while a dramatic music cue strikes up to punctuate his last thought. The one unfortunate element of the production is its conclusion, which is something of an anti-climax and depends on the happy intervention of an earthquake that occurs at the precise moment Ziebrecken is about to take his revenge on the world and launch the armed missiles -- which effectively means that Bannerman and Peter might just as well not bothered helping after all, since Ziebrecken and his project were always doomed anyway.

The last episode ends with a title credit promising ‘Mark and Peter will be back in February’. Luckily, we don’t have to wait that long, since scooting over to the second disc in Network’s 2-disc set allows us to continue  with the six-part follow-up adventure “Secret Beneath the Sea”. Here we discover that Kurt Swendler slipped his naval escort at the end of the last series and has since been working as a fairground barker, exploiting one of the discoveries made by Ziebrecken back at Aegiria: a non-conducting metal which can withstand great quantities of heat without even slightly warming up. This metal has been christened Phenicium by Ziebrecken, and it’s hard to imagine Swendler’s demonstration drawing quite so many punters at the fairground as it apparently does, even if he is improbably dressed as an Indian mystic at the time. It does interest the chairman of International Metals, Sir George Smith (Reginald Smith) though – who sends bespectacled minerals and metals expert Dr Deraad (Richard Coleman) and a gang of heavies led by bequiffed teddy boy Saunders (Murray Hayne) to go and steal it, along with any notes Swendler might have brought back from Aegiria.

While escaping with his Phenicium sample and notes, Swendler ends up back at the docks, which happens to be where Mark Bannerman and Peter Blake are holding a launch party for Bannerman’s book on their previous Ageirian adventure – now taking place on-board the very submarine Swendler originally commandeered with them still on board. Ageiria is now under United Nations control and has been turned into a research laboratory engaged in drilling to the Earth’s molten core. The project is under the directorship of Captain Payne, who is charged with completing the drilling on time and on budget, and the sub is due to set out for Ageiria the following day. Payne is taking along Peter Blake to cover the latest developments, along with the winner of a UNESCO essay writing competition, Janet Slayton (the curiously blank Ingrid Sylvester), who is going along as part of her prize. It turns out that Dr Deraad is also on-board, for he is one of the many experts assigned to examine the drill project’s discoveries under Captain Payne’s directorship. He is also, of course, still working for Sir George, who wants to sabotage the drill project so that it will fail to come in on budget, whereupon he will offer to take private control of the whole enterprise, thus gaining full control of the world’s supply of Phenicium (which at present only Swendeler and Sir George actually know about). Swendler throws a spanner in the works, though, when he leaves the sample and Ziebrecken’s notes (which describe the drilling depth and location of the Phenicium) with a seaman (a very young Christopher Sandford, with a terrible brummie accent!) stationed on guard outside the sub, with the instruction to get them to Mark Bannerman. Unfortunately, Swendler then gets knocked down by a lorry as he tries to escape Saunders, leaving him too critically injured to explain what the notes actually mean. Sir George then arranges a robbery at Bannerman’s office, during which Saunders attacks Mark and escapes with the metal sample, leaving the indecipherable notes behind duirng the melee.

The rush to steal the Phenicium sample and the notes is of course an instances of the classic Hitchcockian MacGuffin -- a device used to give focus and an aim to the various actions of all those involved in the adventure. The robbery at his office soon persuades Bannerman to join Peter and Janet on the trip to Ageiria, and once there, Lucarotti’s plot revolves around various sabotage attempts carried out by both Dr Deraad and one of the other research scientists, who we learn is also working for Sir George but whose identity remains unknown until the final episode (thus injecting a degree of mystery and espionage into proceedings, and a surprise once we find out which of the regular characters is actually a spy). The main arc of the story revolves around Peter and Janet getting accused of causing some of the accidents which lead to the drilling being disrupted, while at the same time they are frustratingly unable to persuade Captain Payne of their innocence and of the fact that there is a saboteur at the base. One thing that becomes quickly noticeable about this serial is that the various elements of the plot have been designed so as to not require any additional sets other than those already seen in the first serial. Thus, the submarine set (which was always pretty impressive and includes multiple levels) and the various rooms which make up the Ageirian set both see plenty of reuse.

 It’s unfortunate though that Kurt Swendler gets disposed of early on, since he was one of the first serial’s two compelling main villains. This time, the mastermind behind the whole plot stays on shore back in London, and so is never seen again once the action switches to Ageiria. Which is probably just as well since the actor playing him seems to be struggling during his few brief scenes, both to remember his lines and to actually get them out! Sir George is a rotund figure in a smoking jacket, who looks and sounds rather like the Hitchcock whose MacGuffin the plot adopts; but for most of the episodes, the focus is on the rather more inconsequential and uncharismatic figure of Dr Deraad (who is mocked by Peter and Janet, both of whom call him odd Olaf behind his back – the racists!). Ageiria, meanwhile, is now inhabited by a collection of eccentric British scientists, any one of whom could be the other spy sent by Sir George to disrupt the drilling operation. Thus we get a likable collection of character actors which include Delena Kidd as beautiful blonde marine biologist Dr Ellen Carey, David Spenser as hard-pressed drilling inspector Professor Soobiah, and Robert James as Professor Gordon, the Scots inventor of a high-resolution camera that Peter gets accused of sabotaging at one stage. Between them this trio went on to notch up a fair few “Doctor Who” and Avengers appearances.

Lucarotti manages to pack in plenty of incident during the course of these six episodes, including a plot to ram the sub during the initial trip to the research base; an attempt on Janet and Peter’s life when they are locked in a sealed-off submarine compartment that is rapidly filling with water; numerous sabotage attempts, and a bomb hidden at the base during the final episode. The identity of the secret saboteur is well-hidden until the last episode as well, even though there really are only three choices. Yet this follow-up doesn’t have quite the same novelty value as the first adventure and often feels slightly under-rehearsed due to its particularly high level of garbled lines and missed cues, especially during the early episodes. It’s a shame that Aubrey Morris doesn’t get a chance to return since he was disposed of in a rather inadequate manner at the end of the previous serial. Nevertheless, both these dramas are enjoyable rediscoveries from the early years of TV drama, standing their ground against their better known cousins and establishing the style for much of the more famous adventure and espionage-based television that was to come.

This set is available as an exclusive only from the Network Website. There are no extras on the discs themselves apart from a brief gallery of production stills and behind the scenes shots, but the set does include a booklet by television historian Andrew Pixley, which was unavailable for review, but will almost certainly be up to his usual high standard.

Read more from Black Gloves at his new blog Nothing But The Night!

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