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Scorpion Tales

Review by: 
Blackgloves
Release Date: 
1978
Studio: 
Network
Genre: 
Suspense
Format: 
DVD
Region: 
2 PAL
Aspect Ratio: 
1.33:1
Directed by: 
Various
Cast: 
Trevor Howard
Geoffrey Palmer
Patrick Allen
Jack Warner
Movie: 
4
Extras: 
1
Bottom Line: 
4
Video: 
Click to Play

This short-lived anthology series of mystery stories and taut thrillers anticipated Anglia’s better known “Tales of the Unexpected”, which started up the following year – even down to the animated flames in the titles which accompany Cyril Ornadel’s tense, driving theme music.  With writers such as Jeremy Burnham and Bob Baker and Dave Martin providing such a diverse set of stories, producer and director David Reid (“The Power Game”) oversaw what turns out to have been an intriguing set of teledramas with high quality performances and unpredictable ‘sting in the tail’ conclusions. Shot in-studio and on videotape, with exteriors shot on 16mm film -- as was the norm in the seventies (apart from “Easterman”, where the exteriors look to have been shot on video as well) -- these six dramas are well worth revisiting for a more nuanced approach to the kind of macabre themes that the more famous Roald Dahl series would often visit in the following years.

The two-disc set is a web exclusive, available only from www.Networkdvd.co.uk.

EASTERMAN

The series kicks into high gear immediately, beginning with this gritty character-led crime drama about a boozy cop on the eve of his retirement, forced to confront his jaded past when a murderer makes him the subject of his vendetta of violence. With a script by Ian Kennedy Martin, whose best known work in TV detective dramas such as “The Sweeney” and “Juliet Bravo” this tough, downbeat teleplay -- set in a series of murky locations such as backstreet gay pick-up joints and derelict airfields -- is in perfect synch with; and with direction by series producer David Reid, who would go on to oversee many episodes of Hammer’s anthology series “Hammer House of Horror”, this opening drama is immediately notable for the quality of its performances and its inventive, top-drawer casting, led by veteran actor Trevor Howard in the lead role of Detective Chief Inspector George Mavor.

Howard’s is a searing, powerhouse performance: the clearly alcoholic Inspector Mavor is a weary, cynical, shambolic mess; watery-eyed and red faced, he’s marking the days until his coming retirement in nine months, but is soon galvanised back into action after a police clerk in his former division -- now headed by Superintendent Cummings ( an unusually restrained Patrick Allen) -- is badly beaten and abandoned at a well-known haunt for gay men, with a note attached to him from someone called Easterman, addressed to Mavor.

A few days later, a lag is murdered in prison and another note implicates Mavor in the motive.  Forced to pour back over the past case histories and records of his fast-receding life as a policeman, and to re-open old wounds with his ex-wife (in case she’s later used by the mystery villain as a bargaining chip to get to him), Mavor, as portrayed by Howard, emerges as a man for whom the police force was the only thing he’d ever believed in, but for whom that belief has long since dissipated in a haze of booze and prescription drugs. The intensity with which he upbraids an incompetent police pathologist in one scene makes it clear that caring too much has driven him to the edge of self-destruction and has engendered an uneasy relationship with his police colleagues, too; but he comes to share an intense relationship with his nemesis, played by “Bullman” actor Don Henderson (still in possession of ‘that’ haircut!), who blames him for the death of his homosexual lover.

The drama is laden with a typically seventies ambivalence towards homosexuality, which is associated here with obsession and madness, as well as religious mania; and the intensity of the connection between Mavor and Easterman is played up with some heavy-handed symbolism that even the jaded cop himself isn’t entirely oblivious to, after Easterman arranges a rendezvous in order simply to threaten the hard-bitten cop by forcing the barrel of his rifle into his mouth, creating a deliberately suggestive image. The denouement seems something of a let-down at first, in view of the series title, but is probably all the stronger for not forcing itself to conform to the obvious ‘sting in the tale’ motif.     

KILLING

Written by the “Doctor Who” writing team of Bob Baker and Dave Martin, and starring a young Jack Warner (“Wycliffe”), who looks here uncannily like David Tennant, “Killing” starts out by giving the impression that it’s going to be one of those embarrassing retro-seventies stories about intelligent computers taking over the world: a theme that’s a bit hard to take seriously for today’s audience when the height of computer technology circa 1978 consists here of a room-full of giant mainframes, running programmes on massive spinning reels of tape that probably constituted less computing power in their entirety than the average modern desktop. The episode ends with an up-front thank you to Sperry UNIVAC for its computer advice. Add to this the fact that the computer room over which Warner’s character, Mark Hawkins – a computer programmer working for a large banking corporation – presides, seems to make almost as much noise as a jumbo jet taking off, and any attempt to attribute advanced powers of artificial intelligence to such an outmoded antiquity (by today’s standards) of a machine cannot help but look utterly ridiculous.  The blinking DOS display screens and the whirring, clicking and general humming activity of this cumbersome computing dinosaur were all meant to look mightily impressive back then, and probably would have done to a 1978 audience; but to us, it all looks -- and is -- hopelessly quaint, of course.

Luckily, the focus of Baker and Martin’s quirky story turns out to be slightly different from what one is at first led to expect, although it is still somewhat quaint seeing as how the idea behind the mystery tries to suggest novelty at the prospect of Hawkins illicitly using his bank’s computer facilities in order to gamble huge sums of the bank’s money on the world’s stock exchange markets. Well, who would ever think of doing something like that?

When his company unexpectedly decides to ditch its current system and upgrade to a cheaper but more powerful one, it calls in expert Martha Fredricks (Angela Down) to work alongside Hawkins in shutting the old system down in preparation for its replacement. But Fredricks’ tenacity soon uncovers hints of Mark’s scheme, and a game of wits ensues between the two as Martha becomes determined to figure out how he’s been getting away with it. Meanwhile, Martha’s marriage is under strain: her earning power is considerably more than that of her police officer husband, Ross (Michael O’Hagan), who’s training to be a corporate lawyer on the Open University; and the late nights spent at the office with Mark, attempting to solve the clues left in the computer in relation to what her secretive colleague has been up to, leads to suspicion taking root in the mind of the already jealous spouse.

 In fact, this story does feature something of a puzzle that gradually becomes a flirtation between minds rather than bodies: the commands used in Mark’s moneymaking computer programme have a certain double entendre to them and the dance of wits between he and Martha is an intellectualised courtship of sorts, played out in printer readouts and command prompts, which soon takes on its full significance during the latter course of the story. This is a fairly breezy episode, efficiently directed by Don Leaver and with Warner and Downs (who take most of the screen time) playing nicely off each other as two very different types of white collar worker who reach a common understanding by the end of a story of intellectual deception and intrigue.

THE GREAT ALBERT

Directed by series producer David Reid, this ironical tale of a young boy’s dabblings with the supernatural takes the series into regions that appear at first to mark out a similar imaginative territory as writer John Peacock’s better known screen work: he adapted Dennis Wheatley’s “To The Devil, A Daughter” and wrote the disturbing thriller “Straight On Till Morning” for Hammer, a few years prior to this, later going on to an involvement with “Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense” as story editor and writer on one episode. This particular story turns out to be a sly and macabre take on domestic horrors viewed through the eyes of a neglected child, who sees all the very real terrors around him filtered by a protective sieve of superstition and magical thinking. Centring as it does on an innocent and naive protagonist, who comes into contact with real malevolence; the story has certain thematic similarities to “Straight on Till Morning”, and is similarly cruel in its picturing of psychological torment being visited upon, in this case, a young child.

When book dealer Peter Ward (Kenneth Gilbert) comes into possession of a rare volume of diabolical spells -- an ancient grimoire by Albertus Magnus, a famed alchemist of the Middle Ages -- his lonely son Matthew (Max Harris) steals one of the Photostat copies from his father’s study and sets about learning the devilish magic it contains, in a last ditch attempt to set right his parents’ loveless marriage and restore the crumbling family life he sees around him.

When the first simple rain spell he casts appears to work, Matthew (who, until now, has obtained precious few results by praying to a William Holman Hunt print of Jesus that hangs on his bedroom wall) decides that a spell which purports to bring the Devil to his aid should be far more successful in convincing his father to abandon a mooted trip to America than his previous prayers. However, Matthew’s vindictive stepmother (Lynn Farleigh) has her own plans. After Peter refuses to give her the divorce she craves, she and her lover, Oliver (Paul Freeman), plot to murder him on the eve of his trip, unaware that Matthew is in the garden casting the ancient spell from the book that’s meant to summon the Devil. When he sees his father’s bloody corpse through the living room window with Oliver standing over it holding a dagger, he becomes convinced that his mum’s new friend is the diabolical one -- Satan himself!

Max Harris makes for a suitably cherub faced schoolboy hero, and the screenplay is excellent at evoking the upset youngster’s superstitious mind-set, as it becomes a release and an escape from the turmoil of his parents’ embittered relationship. The murder of the husband, and the attempt by the shrewish Farleigh and the menacing Freeman to cover it up, is pure melodrama, but suspensefully conveyed with some Hitchcockian business involving a trunk, left in full view centre screen in the library, inside which, it is heavily hinted, the body of the husband has – “Rope”-like --  been deposited. Matthew’s harsh confrontation with the non-supernatural reality of the situation at the end is, if anything, even more disturbing than any notion that his fantasy world of magic and Devil-conjuring spells might have ever been a reality.

THE GHOST IN THE PALE BLUE DRESS

Jeremy Burnham is quite an important figure in the TV of the sixties and seventies. Starting as an actor, he can be glimpsed in many well-known sixties shows such as “The Persuaders” and “The Saint”, and he was a recurring and recognisable face in many episodes of “The Avengers”; after turning to screenwriting, he went on to pen several episodes of the latter series, and is today perhaps best remembered for having scripted the cult children’s supernatural series “Children of the Stones” and “Raven”. He also worked on the anthology shows for Hammer: “Hammer House of Horror” and “Hammer House of mystery and Suspense”, so it is perhaps not surprising that he should be involved with this series too, with show producer David Reid once again directing this episode, which is the first to take a more traditional twist-in-the-tail tack, of the sort that came to define Roald Dahl's “Tales of the Unexpected” the following year.

“The Ghost in the Pale Blue Dress” is a stagy episode and its plot relies on a series of twists and unexpected plot revelations that appear to give each of the characters who are attempting to get one up on the other the upper hand over the course of the story, before one final revelation in the final minutes reveals the ultimate end game. It’s a style that’s become overfamiliar during the intervening years, and so this is the one tale that doesn’t capture the imagination quite as well as some of the others in the series; but the story is at least given ample time to breathe and develop in the fifty minute format, rather than the twenty-five minutes afforded to “Tales of the Unexpected”.

The episode starts off with a family rivalry between the chairman of a prestigious merchant bank – Sir Wilfred (“Robin’s Nest” star Tony Britton) and his arrogant and ambitious son Toby Grafton (Brian Stirner), who wants to remove his father from his position and take up the post himself. Grafton’s fiancée Karen (Sandra Payne) decides to try and settle the family feud, but when she pays Sir Wilfred a visit he reacts strangely towards her, insisting that she persuade Toby to attend a dinner party at the family home, and specifying that she should also come, but dressed in a pale blue dress. It emerges that Karen is the spitting image of Sir Wilfred’s long dead wife – and also Toby’s mother! – Gwen.

After making a clumsy pass at her in his study, Sir Wilfred makes a speech at the dinner party, in front of all the other guests, in which he claims that his son’s coming marriage is a sham – merely part of a scheme by his son to destabilise him – and that Toby is in reality a homosexual. He begs Karen not to fall into his son’s trap! The rivalry escalates to court action, and the marriage looks increasingly in jeopardy, despite Toby’s claims that he really does love Karen. But a series of revelations and counter-revelations soon shows that all is very much not what it seems.

This oedipal drama with a dash of romantic Gothic, reminiscent of the work of Daphne du Maurier, has a lot of intriguing elements and is engaging enough while never really catching flame. There is a timely political subtext to the various machinations of some of the protagonists, involving an apparent clash of attitudes to how the running of this venerable institution of a bank should be approached -- with the father favouring a traditional solid, trustworthy approach, and the go-getting, proto-Thatcherite son demanding that the bank should be aiming to maximise its profits by getting more involved in stock market speculations. Sir Wilfred’s anti-tax rant at the end of the episode is a further sign of the new mood in the Britain of 1978, a mood which was about to transform the country for over a decade. Here, it’s merely the pretext for an ultimately trivial game of wits, with the Grafton family fortune the ultimate, rather clichéd, stakes.    

CRIMES OF PERSUATION

Directed by Shaun O’Riordan (who’d previously helmed many an episode of Brian Clemens’ anthology series, “Thriller”, and went on to direct the cult sci-fi classic “Sapphire and Steel”), and beautifully written by Nicholas Palmer, this episode takes the most advantage of the extended hour-long format in order to slowly uncoil and eventually reveal where it’s truly heading. For an unusually long time, it’s quite hard to see at first what this episode is really about -- unlike most of these single episode thrillers, which are set up pretty quickly in the first act and then spend the rest of the run- time playing things out in an orderly fashion until a last act twist.  

Here though, we are presented with several seemingly completely unrelated strands that only gradually converge to produce a conclusion of, not so much a twist, as a cruel, jet-black irony. Although it’s slowly paced and deliberate if not decidedly stately at times, and is probably rather stagey by today’s TV standards, this is one of my favourites out of all six episodes. The initial elements revolve around a hideously smug right wing MP, Sir Robert Haines (Anthony Bate) who makes crowd-pleasing calls on TV for the return of capital punishment for terrorist crimes, but is all the time privately wining and dining a rich Arab exile (a blacked-up Christopher Benjamin) who the Government hope to one day help back into power, even though his regime was previously noted for its use of torture and for taking political prisoners. Meanwhile, a middle-aged woman shows a young student around a London flat she is letting. The rooms are rather dark and dingy, and furnished with lots of nick-knacks and old-fashioned ornaments, and the contrast between the earnest trendiness of the student and the frumpy dowdiness of the prospective landlady couldn’t be more evident.  Nevertheless, Haines the MP later turns up at the same flat, and it emerges that the woman, Jean Newman (Susan Engel) is his mistress of ten years. What happens next is best not revealed, but out of two rather disparate strands -- with Haines deciding to break-off his affair with Newman while a terrorist plot against Haines’ Arab associate is being planned -- a sudden and shocking denouement is brought about when the two elements meet in a sudden riot of violence.

TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCE

Once seen, this is possibly the most memorable episode out of the six, directed by stalwart of some of the early videotaped episodes of “The Avengers”, Bill Bain, and written by Brian Phelan, it’s a chilling tale of paranoia and brainwashing about an ex-Navy man, Lieutenant James White (David Robb) who blithely sets out one morning for a military training course he’s agreed to go on at the behest of his former captain, commodore Jacobs (Stephen Murray), with sealed instructions that he is not to open until he arrives at the compound. After a difficult journey in which he discovers someone has sabotaged his car by putting sugar in the petrol tank and he is offered a lift by a friendly traveller who seems to already know an awful lot about him, White is to be plunged into a nightmare -- the envelope turns out to contain military intelligence secrets and he is accused of being a spy!

But Is this all really just part of the aforementioned training exercise -- or could it be real after all?

This is an ingenious little tale that really grasps the nature of paranoia and manages to make you feel almost as confused and disorientated as its unfortunate protagonist. Like him, you have no idea what is going on for most of the time, and no way of knowing who is to be trusted; whether the whole thing is one big game, or if more sinister forces are at work.  The crunch moment comes when a sleep-deprived and disorientated White is allowed home to visit his wife but the sense of paranoia comes with him, leading up to another bleak and ironic conclusion. Like the previous episode, the paranoia of the right wing politics of the late seventies plays a role in the background to this story. The episode was broadcast in a period where a lot of shadowy right wing groups like GB75, The Middle Class Association and the Thatcher-associated NAF where convinced that the country was about to be overrun by Marxists and anarchists; some of these groups even thought a military coup might not be out of the question, if the worst came to the worst! The story captures a surreal nightmarish quality similar to that of “The Prisoner”, but with an edgier, more disturbing tone that remains even at the very end: for even when the details of what has apparently really been going on are revealed, you’re still left with the protagonist’s nagging doubt and residual suspicions.

The series only ran for one season and, as was the norm for its time, plays host to some very low production values. The writing is generally of a high quality, the acting frequently excellent and the stories consistently unusual and suspenseful. The image quality is pretty good considering the series hasn’t undergone much restoration. The six plays are presented across two discs, with the second also containing a short gallery of production stills. At the moment, the set is only available from www.Networkdvd.co.uk as one of their web exclusives.

 

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