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Masters of Venus

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Ernest Morris
Norman Wooland
Amanda Coxell
Robin Stewart
George Pastell
Zienia Merton
Bottom Line: 

The Children’s Film Foundation was first established in 1951. The brainchild of Arthur Rank, it was founded as an alternative to the Rank Organisation’s short-lived Children’s Film Division and was conceived as a collaborative effort between Rank and the British Government that was to be funded through a voluntary tax on box office receipts, known as the Eady Levy. The work of the CFF was aimed at countering the perceived ‘vulgarisation’ (for which you can read Americanisation) of British childhood in the years immediately after the end of the Second World War: for several decades the Foundation sought to counter the perceived diet of imported Westerns, Gangster films and adventure serials coming from across the pond, by presenting its own Saturday morning matinee alternative screenings, featuring a distinctive programme of home-grown films, cartoons and serials, all shown at cinemas chains across the land and made by a wide roster of small independent production companies using funds divvied out by the CFF with the intention of offering youngsters an alternative to what many considered to be the violent American product on which children’s screen entertainment in the UK had supposedly become reliant.

The organisation is mainly remembered fondly today for the extensive and stylistically distinctive catalogue of one hour movies it left behind, produced over the course its 35-year lifespan at a rate of at least five- or six-a-year, right up until the late-1980s. In its fledgling years, under the Foundation’s first Executive Officer, Mary Field, CFF features aimed to promote respectable middle-class values and were very much grounded in strict usage of the ‘proper’ Queen’s English. Intended to have an appreciable educational value, their well-spoken child characters tended to be delivered in the paternalistic, stilted ‘’Reithian style characteristic of the BBC in its infancy and similar to that which Field had overseen while working for the now defunct Children’s Film Division.

Much effort went into ensuring that the films were fast-paced and diverting, yet simply constructed enough to still be entertaining and appealing to younger, easily distracted minds. The CFF films always presented energetic, athletic, intelligent, and, most of all, supremely moral young boys and girls as their heroes and heroines; in contrast, the adult characters would frequently be portrayed as bumbling, incompetent or venal – although class conscious viewers looking back on the earlier 1950s and early-60s features from today’s perspective may be all too aware how the plucky youngsters with their RP accents who bested these useless adults were usually distinctly middle-class in portrayal, while their grown up foes more often than not embodied the pejorative stereotype of a cloth-capped working class invariably assumed in films of the day to be innately workshy, ignorant and lazy. Nevertheless, as it progressed, the Foundation was able to draw on an extremely wide roster of British filmmaking talent, including some well-respected directors of an earlier era such as Michael Powell and Alberto Cavalcanti who were able to use this outlet to bring new shadings of poetic fantasy and surrealism to the standard CFF formula.

However, the Foundation did not just deal in standalone one-hour features alone; it also produced a sizable collection of multi-part serials much like the ones cinema chains imported from America, among which could be found those perennial 1930s favourites “Buck Rogers” and “Flash Gordon”. The difference was that the instalments of these British-made episodic serials dealt with similar material to that which had characterised the rest of the CFF film catalogue, and always featured resourceful child protagonists rather than square-jawed adult heroes. One popular long-running serial, very typical of the CFF’s approach in general, was called “The Magnificent Six and ½” and ran for three multi-part adventures made between 1968 and 1972, each featuring six half-hour episodes. Despite the obvious titular reference to Enid Blyton’s Famous Five andSecret Seven adventures amusingly riffing on John Sturges’s “The Magnificent Seven”, the exploits and misadventures of Harry Booth and Roy Simpson’s gang of boys and their little girl tagalong sidekick were actually based on Laurel and Hardy producer Hal Roach’s junior “Our Gang” comedy series, which was later given a  ‘70s makeover for television under the title“Here Come the Double Deckers”; but such serials had been an essential part of the CFF Saturday matinee programme from the organisation’s very beginnings, with at least nine being produced by the end of the 1950s.

The idea behind them all was, of course, to try and ensure fickle young minds being focused enough by the exciting cliffhanger at the end of each and every 20 minute episode that they’d be eager to come back the following week. “Masters of Venus” was shown in 1962 and is the CFF attempt to appeal to the same sensibility that made science fantasy adventure serials like “Flash Gordon” so continually popular even though by this period they were approaching their 30th anniversary. The format and set up of the eight-part serial emulated that of a recent successful run of four sci-fi television adventure serials aimed at children, that were written by Malcolm Hulke and Eric Paice and produced by Sidney Newman for the commercial channel ATV in the early sixties. Beginning with “Target Luna”, which was broadcast in April 1960, and continuing with the Pathfinder trilogy (“Pathfinders in Space”, broadcast in September the same year; “Pathfinders to Mars” [1960/1961]; and “Pathfinders to Venus” [1961]) these popular shows were inspired by recent developments in the technological aspects of the Cold War: the launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, and Yuri Gagarin becoming the first man in space after orbiting the Earth in the Vostok rocket in 1961. They were also unabashedly based on Nigel Kneale’s popular but adult-orientated Quatermass serials of the 1950s, except that they place at the heart of their plots the children of the tweedy pipe-smoking lead scientist in charge of a British experimental rocket group rather than the scientist himself -- having them taking the place of adult pilots on a succession of missions into space that culminate in an adventure set on Venus that would have been seen just months before “Masters of Venus” was released onto the matinee circuit.

What it lacked in originality the CFF serial made up for with the additional budgetary resources at its disposal: instead of the clunky, shot-as-live video-taped recordings that characterised the ATV Pathfinder serials filmed at Teddington Studios, “Masters of Venus”, though made on a tiny budget in comparison to even most modestly mounted movies, looks pretty respectable, with a decent looking set for the rocket interior (as for the exterior, only the launch base is ever in shot once the craft lands on Venus) and an atmospheric, mist-shrouded planetary surface with craters leading to underground  caves and catacombs. There’s also a rather nifty underground headquarters that looks like a cut-price Ken Adam set a Bond villain who was working on a budget might use for his secret base, inhabited by the six-fingered Venusians who turn out rule the planet from their below-the-surface city.

Sidney Newman, as most people with an interest would know, also later initiated the creation of “Doctor Who” after moving to the BBC, his aim being to fashion a science fiction series aimed at children and families that could also educate as well as entertain. Famously, his ‘no bug eyed monsters’ dictum very quickly fell at the first hurdle, meeting the all-conquering popularity of freelance writer Terry Nation and BBC staff designer Raymond Cusick’s iconic Daleks, and never really recovering thereafter. However, Newman had also been keen to stress the educational value of his Pathfinders serials as well -- although, once again, the serials tended to start out with good intentions – proffering all sorts of relevant astronomical information about axial rotation periods, the chemistry of planetary atmospheric conditions and the physics and mathematics of rocket launches and the like – before defaulting, after a couple of episodes, to standard cliffhanger-led adventure serial escapades that were little different in nature from scenarios modelled closely on the work of Jules Vern and Edgar Rice Burroughs and which also occupied Flash Gordon and his ilk in their adventures during the 1930s.

The CFF was founded on much the same educational ethos as Sidney Newman tried to bring to his science fiction efforts at ATV, and “Masters of Venus” duly follows a similar outline to its TV counterpart. Two seasoned writers of CFF films and serials from the 1950s and ‘60s, Michael Barnes and Mary Cathcart Boer, were responsible for this adaptation of a story by someone called H.B. Stewart, but they manage to combine the educational requirements Newman tried to emphasise, with the preferences of the average restless Saturday matinee audience of children eager for constant diversion. The serial’s two young brother & sister protagonists, Pat (Amanda Coxell) and Jim (Robin Stewart), are the super-enthusiastic, hyper-intelligent and endlessly resourceful children of top tweedy boffin Doctor Ballantyne, designer of the Rocket Ship Astarte (christened after the Hellenised name of an ancient Middle Eastern goddess associated with the planet Venus),and Coxell and Stewart are splendidly cast in roles essentially modelled on the Enid Blyton template of heroic, well-spoken youngsters with a taste for childhood adventure.

In fact, Coxell, who had previously turned up in 1958’s “The Salvage Gang”, went straight from her role here to appearing in a TV adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s “Swallows and Amazons” before being invited back to the CFF fold to play George in its second Famous Five outing “Five Have a Mystery to Solve” -- so she was evidently judged the quintessential 1960s expression of a traditional young female adventuress by casting agents and directors of the period. Alongside the bequiffed Robin Stewart (later to take a regular role in the ITV Sid James sitcom “Bless This House”) she is part of a duo that embodies the Mary Field educational ideal, whilst fulfilling child role model status: as soon as they appear on screen, tearing down a winding country lane on their bicycles (always remembering to signal with outstretched arms on corners) to be welcomed into their father’s top secret Interplanetary Rocket Base facility by friendly guardsmen who know them by name (despite being situated out in the wilds of the English countryside for discretion’s sake, the rocket base still has a large sign outside the perimeter fence announcing its existence!) we can see how these children pursue rather more esoteric interests outside of school hours than would be the norm, combining their outgoing, uncomplicated outdoorsy disposition with a hunger for science and its technical applications -- about which they appear to be self-taught experts. The first episode even uses the same expositional device as the original Pathfinders serial: having the story start with a TV journalist being given a guided tour of the rocket base for a news feature he is about to present on the Venus mission.

Thus, the first episode introduces the outgoing children and their scientist father, and allows them the chance to impart for the benefit of the reporter a few facts about the workings of rocket ships and the processes involved in fuelling them. The mission is all about science of course; Ballantyne highlights all the instruments for recording the climate of Venus and its atmospheric pressure changes that are to be included aboard the Astarte. When this film came out in the early 1960s Venus was still known as ‘the planet of mystery’ because its atmosphere was so dense that cloud cover shrouded its surface  permanently from telescopes in an impenetrable blanketing mist, despite it being one of our nearest neighbours. This, of course, allowed science fiction writers to resort to outlandish imagination and speculation to fill the gaps even when they otherwise sought to stick to scientific fact. In “Pathfinders to Venus”, the mystery planet is imagined to host a surface of dense jungle full of weird prehistoric creatures, primitive men and lost cities. The first real information on Venus only arrived in 1962, the year “Masters of Venus” was released, when the American probe Mariner-2 bypassed the planet to reveal a dense hot atmosphere made up of carbon dioxide and clouds of sulphuric acid. Only in 1970, when Russia was able to set automatic landers on the surface, was a detailed image of the planet provided in a series of photographs revealing an inhospitable rocky terrain bathed in scorching heat and acid rain. It was the CFF’s “Masters of Venus” which came closest to anticipating the truth of the matter -- portraying the craggy, crater-strewn volcanic surface bathed in atmospheric mist as being a place that made it impossible for human-type life to exist; the serial's humanoid Venusians all have to dwell in a giant underground city inside one of the craters.

It doesn’t take long before the educational set-up takes a backseat to the cliffhanger requirements of episodic serial adventure films. Each weekly instalment of “Masters of Venus” runs a mere 15 minutes in length. It’s a running time just long enough to ensure a young audience won’t get too bored -- yet each episode still has to end on an ‘exciting’ cliffhanger, to make sure children will be encouraged to come back the following week to find out how things turned out. Every episode has, then, to be full of incident and excitement, and to further the plot in at least some small way. Accordingly, the serial doesn’t allow itself ever to slow down and is constantly finding new forms of threat and danger to bedevil the two young central characters at every ten minute interval, to make sure the rowdy rows of children remain hooked, or at least in their seats. Mysterious saboteurs -- men in black toting sonic weapons – provide that incident and suspense for the opening episode; their attempts to destroy the rocket eventually forcing Pat and Jim to launch it prematurely whilst the adult pilot and engineer remain unconscious in their seats. Several episodes deal with ground control, led by Dr Ballantyne, desperately trying to help the two kids avert disaster as they struggle to fly the rocket and keep it on course to Venus through malfunction and meteor storms (fizzing sparklers being tossed outside the rocket set’s windows provide that special effect); meanwhile the mystery of the saboteurs is examined by a crack team of air-defence military, led by a bluff colonel called Armstrong (Andrew Laurence). Later episodes involve familiar adventure scenarios when Pat and Jim and the now revived adult astronaut two-man crew of the Astarte make it to Venus and discover a hostile race of underground-dwelling, six-fingered humanoid Venusians live there, served by an army of advanced robots called Servos all of whom are played by a coterie of portly middle-aged thesps who're perhaps at this stage still unaware that the need to get togged up in such unflattering shiny once-piece costumes to play alien space beings was soon to become a regular feature of any successful jobbing actors life once “Doctor Who” took off the following year.

There are more than a few faces included here that would be making that journey to BBC Limegrove in coming years; in fact some of them would be making that trip quite soon: during their time on the planet, Pat and Jim run into their Venusian equivalents, a friendly pair of youngsters called Borlas (played by Jackie Martin) and Marla. The latter was played by the Burmese born Zienia Merton, whose striking appearance gives her an otherworldly appeal in the series similar to that which Carole Ann Ford originally possessed in the role of Susan during the early “Doctor Who” stories. Merton played Ping-Cho inMarco Polo, the earliest remaining lost Who adventure of the 1960s, and went on to star as Sandra Benes in ”Space 1999”.A strong cast helps bring these familiar chase, capture, escape and rescue adventure dynamics into focus as the serial develops into a Cold War themed morality tale about intolerance and mistrust between nations that hinges on the revelation that the civilisation on Venus is a technologically advanced one that originally came from Atlantis on Earth, but fled to its new home after war started during our prehistory, a war fought between the six-fingered races and their five-fingered cousins . The Venusians have been monitoring earth’s TV and radio transmissions in the modern age, and have noted how our wars have become more destructive and that nuclear tests seem to be escalating. A hawkish faction on Venus has concluded that if their cousins from Earth cannot be dissuaded from visiting Venus, then this pale blue dot, their former home, will have to be attacked and destroyed first, in a pre-emptive strike aimed at protecting Venus from its former five-fingered enemies!

One of the plans that the anti-Earth Venusian leadership come up with involves planting a deadly virus on the Astarte to wipe out Earth’s population using biological germ warfare, a dark turn in the tale that reminds one of the prevalence of the idea that the future of the planet  was imminently under threat in this period of the sixties. Only Borlas and Mara, and their refusnik father Imos (Arnold Diamond), side with Pat and Jim and their two adult companions against the paranoid, dictatorial leadership of Lord Votan (Ferdy Mayne) and his belligerent number two, Kallas, played by George Pastell – the Cypriot actor who was regularly cast as the villain in both Hammer and ITC film series of the 1960s and ‘70s,  and who would also appear in the classic Tomb of the Cybermen - a 1967 “Doctor Who” adventure from the Patrick Troughton era. Pastell was such a familiar face that I for one always feel an enormous sense of comfort whenever he turns up in archive shows from this era, even when he’s invariably cast as the exotic villain of the piece. In “Masters of Venus” he is firmly planted in that familiar role of arch villain, getting to make some grand speeches along the way about the awfulness of humanity (“You never change, you Earth people … You attack anyone who is different from yourselves: it may be the colour of his skin or the shape of his nose, or the god he believes in; if he’s different, you turn on him like beasts!”) and delivering the immortal line “Death to everyone on Earth!” at the grand climax of the face-off between the two planets.

The general excellence of the cast means that occasionally some ‘actorly’ grace notes get injected into otherwise routine plotting. Among that excellent cast, Pat and Jim’s father, Dr Ballantyne, is played by Norman Wooland: a Shakespearean actor who also managed to forge a significant career in movies, finding supporting roles in “Quo Vadis” and “Ivanhoe”before being cast in a minor part alongside John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier in the latter’s 1955 film version of “Richard III”. He manages to bring some gravitas to a roll that otherwise often fails to acknowledge the horrific position in which his character finds himself during several moments in the story: being obliged by a decree from Downing Street, for instance, to send the rocket ship Astarte onward to Venus, even after it is discovered that his own children are still aboard it and have only narrowly escaped death once already, after the disaster of an unintentional take-off; then being faced with the task of having to be the one to give the order to shoot that rocket down with his children still aboard, when it returns to Earth possibly carrying a deadly virus that could wipe out humanity. The production design on the serial is generally respectable, with some decent underground cave locations and an atmospheric Venus surface expertly lit by cinematographer Reginald H. Wyer, who’d done plenty of solid work on early Terrence Fisher movies like “Four Sided Triangle” and “Spaceways”, several early Carry On films and Basil Dearden’s “Violent Playground”, and had just come off the Sidney Hayers black magic classic “Night of the Eagle”.

The score, by Carry On composer Eric Rogers, although reliant on a repeated cue, is stirring orchestral stuff in the grand tradition of the TV Quatermass serials, and it brings a sense of pomp and importance to the youthful adventuring and matinee melodrama of the enterprise, which is directed with competence by Ernest Morris. This BFI release features the eight black and white 15 minute episodes only (they can be played separately or together) presented in their original theatrical 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and no disc extras. The audio is a little noisy (although not debilitatingly so) and there are one or two noticeable vertical lines running throughout many of the episodes. There’s no booklet with this one either, but BFI curator Vic Pratt provides a short assessment of this quirky Saturday morning sci-fi serial on the inside of the DVD cover.“Masters of Venus” is in no way an essential discovery, but it is a good representative of children’s entertainment from this early-sixties, pre-“Doctor Who” era, and in that way will be of immense interest to anyone who has been enjoying the BFI’s CFF film releases over the last few years.        


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