“Tightrope” was a thirteen-part children’s drama serial, produced for ATV in 1972 and created and written by Victor Pemberton. Like a great deal of TV made at the time, the original colour videotape masters have long since been wiped for later re-use, but all thirteen twenty-five minute episodes still exist in the archive in the form of 16mm black & white film copies. Network have dusted these off for another of their essential releases to be made available exclusively through their website; and while it’s a shame these episodes couldn’t have been re-colourised as part of a restoration job of the sort many 1970s Jon Pertwee “Doctor Who” stories -- which were dealt a similar fate by the BBC at around the same time – have recently had lavishly bestowed upon them (an unrealistic prospect, given the anonymity of this little-remembered series), it’s a great pleasure to have the entire series made available again in any form, since it offers the connoisseur of vintage TV a great deal to enjoy.
Going back to the “Doctor Who” connection, the series’ creator Victor Pemberton enjoys a distinctive pedigree in that regard, gained through an association with the show during the Patrick Troughton era, having been an guest actor on the story “The Moonbase”, an assistant script editor during the production of “The Tomb of the Cybermen” and the writer of “The Fury from the Deep”, which he also novelised for Target Books. Other cult associations include writing credits on the classic 1970s children’s fantasy series “Ace of Wands” and the science fiction series “Timeslip” -- the latter sharing with “Tightrope” its producer Ruth Boswell, and young lead actor Spencer Banks.
Quite improbably on the surface perhaps, the series is a children’s Cold War espionage drama, set around the unlikely location of a comprehensive school in the sleepy fictional village of Redlow; each episode being part of an on-going story which features intrigue, mystery, suspense and a cliff-hanger at the end of every episode which invariably involves the main protagonist Martin Clifford (played by “Timeslip” and “The Georgian House” star Spencer Banks) being threatened with death or discovery, while engaged on secret operations at the school and in surrounding locations at the behest of a mysterious eccentric figure known variously as Forrester or ‘Uncle John’ (John Savident).
Perhaps the closest parallel for what turns out to be a deeply enjoyable series is “The Avengers”, which often constructed its outrageous stories around the premise that espionage could occur anywhere and in any setting, often using some seemingly innocuous English institution or activity as a front for treason, or any manner of other outrageous plots and intrigues. “Tightrope” succeeds by establishing a perfectly normal, everyday milieu populated by a collection of seemingly ordinary character types, and then gradually adds on more and more fantastical narrative elements until we find ourselves in pretty much the same sort of fantasy world which “The Avengers” was so successful at putting on the screen: a world where absolutely nothing is exactly what it at first seems to be. The clever thing about it is that it’s all done so progressively that one hardly notices the inherent absurdity of the scenario we end up with.
Martin Clifford and his friends are sixth formers who are preparing for their upcoming A Level examinations. Martin, one of the brightest students at Redlow Comprehensive, hopes doing well in them will enable him to escape the stifling atmosphere of his sleepy village for good, and leave behind his fraught relationship with his father (George Waring) who works as a poorly paid security guard at a nearby local American Air Force Base. Events start taking a turn for the unusual when Martin is almost run off the road one morning while riding to school on his bike, and his English Literature lesson later in the day is interrupted when the schools’ television broadcast mysteriously cuts out (this was a period when there was no TV at all in the UK during the weekday mornings, apart from schools’ course programmes and pre-school TV – almost impossible to imagine now!), as though the signal had been interrupted from a local source, only to be replaced by a mysterious electronically disguised voice calling itself ‘The Voice of Truth’ (this anticipates the 1977 ‘Vrillon’ episode, when the evening news in the Southern region of England, and later in Germany, was interrupted by a mysterious untraceable transmission by someone claiming to be from another planet. It’s all on YouTube -- but it’s unaccountably dull for such a momentous episode in human history!), and which claims that many of Redlow’s teachers cannot be trusted, and that the pupils should prepare to rebel against their subterfuge. Grainy, clandestinely obtained photographs appear on the screen at the same time, seemingly showing the class’s own form teacher Mr Harvey (David Munro) engaged in some sort of suspicious activity.
This being the nineteen seventies, the Redlow students display an interesting selection of fashions, and are played, as was common in TV of this period, by actors who are slightly too old to realistically portray the sixteen-year-olds they’re meant to be. Spencer Banks, who plays Martin Clifford, for instance, comes across like an amusing cross between a slouchy adolescent Mick Jagger and a parka-clad Donny Osmond.
It’s not long, though, before many of Martin’s friends begin to wonder if there is something very odd going on beneath the placid surface of the school, and, riled up by both the broadcast’s claims and certain other events, that standard form of pupil protest from the late-sixties and seventies -- the student sit-in, is even attempted by them at one point; although, amusingly, they all slink off home after a few hours.
As is the case in the execution of all good mysteries, most of the school’s teachers do indeed have secrets of one sort or another -- meaning everybody is a potential suspect when it comes to identifying The Voice of Truth, even the apparently maligned Mr Harvey who was the victim of the first of the propaganda film’s assertions. Soon Martin finds himself being followed about by an eccentric middle-aged man wearing a bow tie and a homburg hat, and also invariably to be found ostentatiously twirling an umbrella. The man identifies himself as Forrester and claims to be involved in British Intelligence. Apparently, poor Martin is unknowingly implicated in the whole Voice of Truth mystery, even though he doesn’t realise it.
Forrester is recruiting young Martin (very much against his will, it has to be said) to help him find out who the Voice of Truth really is. All that is known is that the plan to destabilise the school is part of a Soviet plot involving the nearby airbase, the school itself being a secret player in the Intelligence war, with the headmaster Mr Brooks (Rollo Gamble) and several of the teachers involved in passing on messages which are being intercepted by the enemy. After Mr Brooks himself is murdered, Martin realises that something very serious is indeed occurring, and pretty soon his own father is arrested on suspicion of treason as well. The trouble is, the more he tries to investigate the more confused he becomes, as everybody seems to be giving him a very different story, casting suspicion on each other in the process. Even Forrester is not above this suspicion.
Pemberton’s script is great at establishing an air of paranoia and mystery in the early to middle episodes: every single teacher is behaving in a doubtful manner, including the bohemian art teacher Mr Elliot (Michael Mellinger), who seems to be hiding something important from his past back in Hungary; his lover, the imperious Chemistry teacher Miss Walker (Marian Diamond) who appears to be leaving coded messages on the blackboard hidden in chemical formulae, and is also frequently to be seen hanging around the perimeter of the air force base; then there’s Mr Fletcher (Frederick Treves) the replacement headmaster who seems just a bit too interested in Martin’s business.
One of the clever things about the script is how it turns life at the school into a sort of microcosm of society at large, with Martin forced to turn the orderly structure of his life upside down in the process of helping Mr Forrester, while never knowing for sure if he is actually on the right side. The whole plot echoes the confusions and traumas of adolescence and the struggle to establish an identity for oneself on the cusp of adulthood, while ‘The Voice of Truth’ and its attempts to promote social revolution among the Redlow students, is clearly meant to suggest the idea that much of the social protest of the early-seventies was being manipulated by outside forces for its own ends. Martin Clifford’s biggest sacrifice comes when Forrester convinces him that he must deliberately fail his exams as an important part of the plan to expose the double agent operating within the school’s staff!
Within this familiar setting established, the story goes on to include all the standard elements of the spy genre: there is sabotage, murder, blackmail, break-ins, double agents, kidnappings, bombings, daring escapes, secret clues hidden in photographs and double crossings, as each character gradually reveals their true identity and their real agenda, with the plot undergoing convulsions in nearly every episode. The whole ‘Voice of Truth’ mystery is just the tip of a very large espionage iceberg indeed which pretty much the whole village turns out to be secretly involved with or a part of in one way or another: Mrs Ruggles the newsagent is running a secret communications intercept and code-breaking post from a tiny backroom ‘cupboard’ behind the shop; Mr Desmond (Michael Beint) the pub landlord has taken over whatever hush-hush business the deceased headmaster Mr Brooks was conducting with the airbase commander Sgt Sikowski (George Roubicek); the young, boisterous camping and hiking expedition outside Lockwood’s farm is really a highly trained secret school of young spies and judo experts (led by a very young Sue Holderness), that’s being employed by Mr Forrester to train Martin in the art of self-defence.
As well as the shadowy, anonymous person behind the propaganda of the Voice of Truth, there is also the identity of the white-gloved killer who murdered Mr Brooks in the school pigeon loft and who then goes on to make several attempts on Martin’s life -- both at his home and at the school -- to consider. And who is the chief agent actually in charge of the Soviet counterespionage operation, communicating NATO secrets to a Soviet submarine off the coast of Britain?
Poor Martin gets attacked, nearly blown up, suffocated, gassed or captured in nearly every episode as his whole life is increasingly turned upside down by his association with the eccentric Forrester, and it is this latter character who really makes the series come alive, thanks in no small part to character actor John Savident’s hugely enjoyable performance. Furnished here with a truly delicious role that features enough quirkiness to allow him copious opportunities of really letting rip in just about every scene he appears in, Savident naturally dominates proceedings, and the character of Forrester is good enough to have carried a longer running series of adventures if anyone had thought to try. The series certainly ends in such a way as to suggest a sequel might have been on the cards at one time.
Pemberton’s script goes to great efforts to provide Forrester with a plenitude of memorable quirks culled from a cavalcade, it seems, of some of British fiction’s most beloved fantasy characters, but it’s down to Savident’s marvellously OTT portrayal that the character lives as an entity in his own right. For one thing, Pemberton definitely initially had John Steed in mind as a template with the character’s bland, bank manager-like appearance, complete with the umbrella-that-doubles-as-a-weapon motif. The way schoolboy Martin Clifford is approached by this ambiguous, possibly dangerous figure, and persuaded to engage in all manner of dangerous activities, is a clear nod to the origins of “The Avengers”, when Patrick Macnee had a similar relationship with Ian Hendry’s Dr David Keel in the first series. There is a strong whiff of Sherlock Holmes about Forrester as well, with the character being described at one point as ‘one of the Intelligence Service’s best brains, with carte blanche to do whatever he wants’. Behind the bow tie and anonymous civil servant exterior, there lurks a much more unconventional character that lives in a secret base disguised as a windowless manor house hidden underground with a four-poster bed, a suit of armour that conceals a clock, and a pipe-organ that doubles as a radio transceiver. He also goes in for a bit of Holmes-like meditation while dressed in a kimono, and has expert fencing skills. There’s a strong bohemian element to Forrester’s personality: the homburg hat, the colourful scarf and a tendency to proffer brandy butterballs from a paper bag and enjoy the odd tipple of ginger beer brings to mind a prototype of Tom Baker’s incarnation of the Doctor, with Savident’s characterisation being every bit as large, eccentric and memorable as Baker’s.
“Tightrope” suffers from all the usual constraints of multi-camera television studio production: there is many a fluffed line, a few wobbly sets and there appear to be only about half-a-dozen students in Redlow Comprehensive, although we hear plenty of playground activity on the soundtrack. Nevertheless, the story is consistently gripping, the red herrings and cliff hangers come thick and fast and Savident’s is the most notable of several wonderful performances, including that of the main villain of the piece -- whose identity will just have to remain a secret in view of spoilers!
Network will be releasing all thirteen episodes plus a photo gallery of production stills across a 2-Disc DVD set, available exclusively from www.Networkdvd.net.