Whenever this short-lived and little seen black and white rarity, made by Granada TV in 1966, is remembered or discussed at all today, it is invariably in relation to the much-loved and deservedly oft repeated 1960s spy and fantasy based drama series “The Avengers” -- and then only as a minor footnote to that classic. This is mainly because of the fact that by far the most prominent presence among the quirky ensemble cast of “The Corridor People” is the striking and attractively statuesque actress Elisabeth Shepherd: the performer originally cast by Avengers producer Julian Wintle to play Steed’s new partner Mrs Emma Peel, after Honor Blackman left the series in 1964. Shepherd filmed one full version of an Avenger episode (“The Town That Never Was”) and half of a second (“The Murder Market”) for the 165-66 black & white season, before she was unceremoniously ‘let go’ and Diana Rigg re-cast in her role instead. Whatever the truth behind the reasons for the decision (associate producer Brian Clemens and Shepherd herself give slightly differing accounts on the new Avengers series 4 box set, but it mainly revolves around Shepherd’s insistence on rewriting her scripts!), the fact remains that these long-lost episodes have become, in the intervening years, something of a tantalising enigma for Avengers fans, offering us the prospect of an alternative portrayal of Emma Peel in one of the most ground-breaking fantasy series ever made.
A small selection of production stills for Shepherd’s one completed episode are all that remain of her never seen and probably very different conception of Mrs Peel; but “The Corridor People” -- which was made a year later -- has almost garnered as much cult cache with fans over the same period of time since then; Shepherd even claims that its scripts were much better and much more to her liking than the material she was being offered on “The Avengers”.
The unexpected release of this strange series on DVD by Network Releasing is bound to be seen as a welcome opportunity, then, to assess a little-known addition to the fantasy drama of the sixties in light of its prestigious connections with a well-regarded classic of its genre. Though all the episodes have always existed in the vaults, “The Corridor People” has rarely been seen since it was first broadcast in 1966; indeed there were only four episodes ever made. Mainly, though, its reputation rests on the fact that it apparently does occupy (on the surface at least) very similar TV fantasy, crime & espionage territory as “The Avengers” itself, with Shepherd’s outré jet-setting villainess, elegantly cavorting her way through a quartet of outlandish, self-consciously quirky plots, all the while dressed in a selection of camp, over-the-top fashions that loudly proclaim ’60s retro-futurist space-age chic, even despite the show’s absurdly low-budget origins. Indeed, although the series proves to be a showcase for a host of bewilderingly offbeat characters and settings, this is Shepard’s show all the way, and is our only means of determining the kind of thing we might have expected from her interpretation of Mrs Peel. Perhaps that’s a slightly unfair connection to make, since she is playing a very specific and very different role here, but nevertheless, from the scant evidence offered by these four episodes, one can’t help thinking that she was originally cast in “The Avengers” because of the rather striking physical similarity between herself and Honor Blackman.
But this is all by the by. “The Corridor People” turns out to be something altogether much stranger and much more fascinating than just a straight on the nose, second rate Avengers clone; a curious and rich discovery, written by Edward Boyd (whose other works, such as “The Odd Man” or “The XYY Man”, have either been subsequently wiped or remain unseen in the vaults), the series’ four forty-five minute episodes certainly appear from a brief synopsis of their twisty plot-lines to be swimming in the same waters as a lot of other self-consciously modish, swinging sixties fantasy fare of the day: shows such as “The Avengers”, “The Prisoner” or “Adam Adamant Lives!” come to mind. Except this series was shot as live on a very threadbare budget which has the effect of lending it a very unusual and ‘difficult’ ambience: like some kind of fantastical, avant-garde soap opera, but with the ropy production values to match. Camera and boom mike shadows are embarrassingly abundant, for instance, and bits of studio equipment sometimes lumber into shot. It could never really hope to compete with most of those above-mentioned contemporary tele-fantasy series, but then, watching it, it quickly becomes apparent that it is on an entirely separate plane of its own. An apposite modern day reference point would perhaps be “Twin Peaks”: it certainly shares Mark Frost and David Lynch’s cult series’ penchant for ridiculously quirky, unrealistic but fascinating characters and sudden lurches into off-the wall-surrealism; the show’s deliberate warping of genre boundaries and playful post modern deconstruction of its own genre rules is another trait shared with the ’90s cult classic.
But in the largely studio-bound and video tape world of “The Corridor People”, this tends to result in the episodes coming across more like a televised mounting of an avant-garde theatre piece, that just happens to parody the style and content of ’60s fantasy TV, rather than a straight example of such like. I was often reminded of early Peter Greenaway movies such as “The Draughtsman’s Contract” or “A Zed and Two Noughts”, where the characters are all cardboard cut-out, epigram-spitting ciphers, that never give us any reason to suppose that we’re in any way meant to relate to them as if they were real people; in fact the show revels in flagging up its own artifice at every available opportunity. This is not necessarily a fault, but it does mean that one can never quite emotionally engage with its offbeat characters in the same way one does with Steed and Mrs Peel, for instance, who, despite being as unrealistic and fantastical as anything seen in “The Corridor People”, do nonetheless, eventually draw one into their light-hearted, self-contained surrealist fantasy world.
The basic larger-than life fantasy premise of this series is laid out most fully in the first episode, although it starts to veer off the expected course with subsequent stories as a constant need to confound the expectations of the viewer eventually necessitates its recourse to ever more outrageous tactics and narrative gimmicks. We are introduced to a dispirit group of oddball characters whose various plots and self-interested schemes interweave as the four separate but related episodes unfold and begin to involve various unsuspecting guest characters. Most noticeable amid this bizarre and unpredictable world of spies, detectives and string-pulling Government operatives is the ruthless and exotic Syrie Van Epp (Elisabeth Shepherd): the Persian ex-wife of a Dutch American millionaire whose bottomless financial resources keep her as decked out in an endless supply of crazy flared pant-suites, capes and wild Op Art fashions, as it does in top secret military bunkers, swanky London pads and evil henchmen ready to do her every bidding in her relentless pursuit of money.
Pitted against her tricks and schemes is the hush-hush MoD department known as Department-K, led by rotund, office-bound Hitchcockian top brass, Kronk (John Sharp) who oversees the activities of his eccentric foot soldiers, Inspector Blood and Sergeant Hound (twin, trench-coated comedy detectives played by Alan Curtis and William Maxwell -- a crazy duo who move in unison and constantly finish each other’s sentences). Kronk’s team is rounded off by his frumpy middle-aged secretary Miss Dunner (June Watson), who also happens to be the Department’s unlikely ‘specialist’ assassin, catching her targets off guard with her unassuming appearance, only to unexpectedly draw a revolver from her handbag to bump them off without compunction. Meanwhile, private eye Phil Scrotty (Gary Cockrell) who models himself on Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade character, is cynically playing off Kronk and Van Epp against each other for his own gain.
A host of bizarre secondary characters populate all the episodes: a sixties-look glamour model who is perpetually striking exaggerated modelling posses even when being interviewed by Kronk in his office; a shock-haired mad scientist who can bring dead people back to life; a midget gangster who disguises himself as a baby and executes one of his targets while being driven past a park bench in a child’s pram; a shop-lifting East European queen mum and a fcamp, futuristic but racist supercomputer, employed by Kronk to provide the best course of action for dealing with the fall-out from the plans of the leader of a Black Power group bent on world domination: the plots twist and weave themselves into deliberately mind-boggling and labyrinthine contortions until all real meaning and sense is lost. This is a surreal and unfathomable world presented with an uneven mix of factious cynicism on the one hand, and playful inconsequentiality on the other. At it’s best it has something of the easy charm of many contemporary fantasy series of the period, mainly springing from Elisabeth Shepherd’s commanding presence: Syrie Van Epp’s character seems to change from episode to episode, starting out in the first as an evil mastermind who kidnaps the key shareholder of a company which has invented a perfume that doubles as a secret ‘knock out’ weapon, but progressing to become a much softer anti-heroine figure by the final episode. In one episode she is hiding out in a secret bunker (a striking stylised expressionist studio design, with slanting shadows actually painted on the walls of the set), in the next she lives in the gothic rafters of a disused theatre with her gang of henchmen (including that aforementioned midget gangster), while in the final two she’s suddenly acquired a modern designer apartment and has a young Pauline Collins as her squeaky-voiced maid.
The quartet of outrageous plots populated by all these weird characters are augmented by a doggedly avant-garde approach to the staging of the stories themselves, with characters breaching the fourth wall to address the viewer at will, sometimes by delivering internal monologues or soliloquies -- while there is a curious edgy, almost disturbing quality to some of the mad goings on as well; for instance, Kronk seems perfectly happy to sanction the murder of completely innocent people in order to foil Van Epp’s schemes and Phil Scrotty seems equally untroubled by any kind of moral centre. And, unlike in the stylised ’play fighting’ of “The Avengers” for example, when people get beaten up, they really seem to get hurt. The plots references serious contemporary issues like race hate and Cold War concerns, but juxtaposes them with crazy, surreal situations and frivolous fashions; there are no unambiguously good or bad people here, and the plots unwind in such a random, haphazard manner that the best option is simply to sit back and imbibe the contrived strangeness in the detached manner the stagy delivery seems to demand. It’s crazy, typically ’60s experimentation, unafraid to be hopelessly pretentious in places, but it makes for fascinating viewing, even if one can see why it never quite worked well enough to last beyond this handful of episodes.
The DVD from Network Releasing presents the four episodes in presentable condition, but they've not been given the kind of restoration job we've been spoiled with on early Avengers episodes for instance, and are consequently ripe with wobbly edits and print damage which can sometimes be a bit distracting. The only extra on the disc is a short photo gallery presenting a selection of production stills, some of them in colour.