Some past TV shows are remembered with great fondness, others may be only dimly remembered but seem to acquire a sort of aura about them -- the rosy glow of second-hand nostalgia -- which comes to define certain aspects of how we chose to remember the equivalent years of our childhood. Then there are other shows that we don't really remember at all, but fit in with the general pattern so well that it feels like we know them anyway. "Zodiac" (for me at least) is of this latter kind. I'd never heard of the show before, but what could better define our contemporary view of the mid '70s than a series about a down-at-heel police Inspector who teams up with a pretty female astrologer! No more having to rely on plain old evidence and deductive reasoning, oh no: forget about fingerprints, paperwork, or careful interviewing technique, etc. What really counts is determining the birth sign the suspect was born under, the influence a retrograding Mercury might have on their behaviour, what the Tarot has to tell about the matter and how Graphology can inform our understanding of the perpetrator's motives! The pair will have a flirty, will-they-wont-they relationship, and she can help solve his cases utilising those newly discovered intuitive 'sciences' that have been borne up at the dawn of the Age of Aquarius.
The set-up for this Thames TV produced series seems to have wacky '70s era charm painted all over it, coming from a period when anything that flew in the face of common sense seemed to immediately be elevated to the status of an unquestionable fact: ancient astronauts, psychokinesis, UFOs and the Bermuda Triangle -- anything, in fact, that appeared to give relief from the unremitting grimness of a biting, strike-ridden world recession and constant power cuts. That, along with ABBA winning the Eurovision Song Contest, of course. Unfortunately, the reality of seeing this series unearthed on DVD for the first time since it first aired on ITV in 1974 is not quite as exotic as one would have hoped. Of course, we always have to make allowances for the (what now seem unpardonably gauche and naive) conventions of television drama from this period, but "Zodiac" is more than usually clunky and hamstrung by its minuscule budget, only occasionally managing to achieve the offbeat zaniness and quirkiness it seems to strive for.
Even the "Doctor Who" of the period was able to shoot scenes on film from time to time, usually when exteriors were called for. "Zodiac" doesn't ever get out of the studio, let alone grant itself the luxury of non-video, filmed sequences. Which means almost everything has to be set indoors, giving the whole thing the feel of a cluttered stage adaptation; and when it becomes impossible not to try and represent the outdoors (in the scenes set in the astrologer Esther Jones' rooftop garden patio, for instance) these have to be shot, like the rest of the show, on garish, poor quality video, in a harshly-lit studio setting with crudely painted backdrops behind the sets. The show unavoidably looks cheap -- like "Crossroads" or any number of similar '70s soap operas.
But that need not necessarily have sounded the death knell: great characters, a sparky format, good writing and interesting stories can sometimes be enough to make you forget the deficiencies in staging that are forced on a show by a skimpy budget. And, as has been said, "Zodiac" does seem to possess a promising idea at its core. On paper, the show has just the right set of people behind the scenes to make the concept fly: series creator Roger Marshall had had a good grounding in film and television up to then, writing fifteen episodes of "The Avengers" and the second division 1967 Christopher Lee horror flick "Theatre of Death" among a host of other credits. Since "Zodiac", you can find his name attached to most popular '70s and '80s British TV dramas. Among the show's directors are the likes of Don Leaver -- now mainly remembered for helming at least twenty episodes of "The Avengers", but many more genre-related shows as well -- and Piers Haggard who made one of the most fondly remembered British horror films of the '70s, "Blood on Satan's Claw". Dotted throughout the casts of these episodes you will find a veritable Who’s Who of British stage and screen, some long since vanished into the mists of time but fondly remembered; others, unknowns who were just starting out during the period, and who have since become household names. Thus we find a fresh-faced Michael Gambon as a cynical businessman who finds himself embroiled in a kidnapping plot; Bill Maynard as an ex-copper whose granddaughter is the kidnap victim; Peter Vaughan as a gruff Labour politician on the rise, who witnesses his daughter's fiancé murder a call-girl, but is then forced into silence because he was with his mistress at the time; a moustachioed Ian Ogilvy as a sleazy pimp; Michele Dotrice as the scatty mistress of Peter Jones' murdered merchant banker, General Weston; a radiant and supremely young-looking Jenny Hanely and an even younger Susie Blake; and, of course, the Anthony Perkins of British TV during the '70s: Robert Powell as a sociopathic manipulator of women and cold-blooded killer!
In general, there should be enough talent among that lot to make this an essential '70s nostalgia blow out for all lovers of classic genre TV. But none of it is of any use without a successful pairing of leads in the main roles. The writers' aim seems to have been to create a show based on a kind of John Stead and Emma Peel relationship. Anton Rogers, who plays Detective Inspector David Gradley, certainly seems to have a Steed-like, slightly casual upper-class charm down pat, although in this case the character is meant to be an ex-Harrow boy forced to slum it in the police force in order to ensure he gets an inheritance from his rich, Force-obsessed father. His partner, meanwhile, is an astrologer called Esther Jones, who writes an astrology column for a newspaper (under the name Sybil) as well as drawing up personal birth charts for paying clients (this being the main method the writers use for getting her involved in various cases). The character is played by Anouska Hempel, who then looked like a glamorous, swanlike forerunner to Joanna Lumley, and has since gained herself a title and become a successful hotel architect and interior designer to boot! She certainly has the filmography of a female cult starlet, having debuted in the Hammer film "Kiss of the Vampire", played an 'Angel of Death' in the Bond film "On Her Majesty's Secret Service", and having subsequently bought up the rights to a couple of risqué film appearances from her dubious past (one of them, the Russ Meyer film "Black Snake") in order to better prohibit their ever being released in the UK!
The pilot episode of "Zodiac" brings the two together in what looks like a typical quirky Avengers scenario: a man is found drowned in the luxury bathroom of a penthouse suite belonging to a reclusive, technology-obsessed businessman. He turns out to be the ex-husband of astrologer Esther Jones (making her one of the initial suspects) and during the course of investigating what turns out to have been a murder, Inspector Gradley is initially sceptical but then increasingly amazed by Jones' uncanny knack for predicting certain aspects of the case. Over the course of subsequent episodes, a sometimes flirtatious, sometimes spiky relationship develops whereby Gradley either tries to get Esther to solve his cases for him (invading her flat begging to have a peek at her next column because he's had a tip off that 'something big' is about to go down) or tries to dissuade her from getting involved in situations which are none of her concern. The various writers seem to alternate between these two approaches, which makes Gradley's position towards Esther's skills somewhat ambiguous: sometimes he seems completely one hundred per cent sold on them, sometimes he's delighted when her predictions appear to fall way off (of course, she always turns out to have been right all along in the end).
There are a number of problems with the two characters -- and the whole concept of the show -- which probably could have been solved eventually by the writers had it continued for longer than the six episodes of this first series before disappearing, never returning to the screen again. After all, "The Avengers" took nearly two seasons of twenty-odd episodes before it found its groove, and it was fairly common for shows to need to gradually find their feet over the course of a much longer run before settling into a successful format. "Zodiac" struggles after its pilot episode: the quirky "Department S-style" mystery of the drowned man notwithstanding, most of the subsequent cases are quite prosaic; some of them mundane real-world crimes, others simply puzzles of only mild concern, never the kind of esoteric plots that would best fit the subject matter: a kidnapping plot turns out to be fairly uncomplicated; a small-time con-man abuses Esther's skills by writing to her under the assumed name of various rich young women requesting their Birth Charts in order to better aid his seduction of them -- pretty quickly the writers seem to be struggling to find much for Esther Jones to contribute in these episodes besides coming up with a lot of new age flummery about Taurus and Capricorn in opposition, as if that is supposed to mean anything (the end titles give a credit to an 'astrological adviser', who is presumably responsible for coming up with all this sort of crap), and so they soon resort to making her 'a little bit psychic' as well: she can tell things about people by handling objects that once belonged to them and, in one episode, she has a feeling that something bad has happened to someone she'd previously given a Tarot reading to, at the exact moment they're murdered!
Esther Jones is at least a fairly well-realised character: her top-storey, St. James Street flat and rooftop patio are decked out like the cross between a cluttered Victorian parlour and groovy '70s singleton's pad you'd expect to belong to a young, attractive ' hippy chick' of the era (although she's shown declining an offer of 'a joint' by a handsome beach hippy acquaintance in one episode, when she travels to Brighton to solve the murder of her former mentor, Madame Lavengro), and the character seems to have plenty of friends and acquaintances which help place her as being fairly middle-class but able to mix easily with people from all walks of life. Inspector Gradley, on the other hand, is difficult to get any sort of handle on: apart from the small slithers of information we're given in episode one, we never learn that much about him. We never see any of his colleagues or friends and we don't see him interact with his superiors; he exists in a complete vacuum and consequently never becomes remotely believable. There's no comeback from his increasing investigative association with Esther, and no context in which to situate their relationship. This of course, is another nod to "The Avengers", in which we never really learn anything at all about John Steed's background. But "The Avengers" is more of a fantastical comic strip (particularly during the Emma Peel era, which this show seems most in debt to) and even the early shows were, despite their videotaped beginnings, in the main, a great deal less stagy and static than "Zodiac" proves itself to be. The two characters never really gel; the repartee just is not that bright and sparkling, and even the various writers seem unclear about just what the relationship is supposed to be: sometimes they seem almost like boyfriend and girlfriend (the middle-aged Gradely turning up for dinner at Ester's flat in embarrassing casual denim shirt & jeans), sometimes merely working colleagues indulging themselves in amusing banter.
Anton Rogers works wonders in the circumstance with what proves to be an inconstant and somewhat sketchy character; he's amusingly prone to adding his own ostentatious little bits of business, such as examining his fingernails during other characters' dialogue scenes, or impatiently clicking his thumb and forefinger together as he waits for Esther to make an important phone-call. The character is obviously meant to be a light, wisecracking gent, constantly dropping one-liners like an airy sit-com character. One episode even plays much like a farcical comedy, suggesting this is the direction in which the show might have eventually gone if it had continued much longer beyond these initial six episodes. When placed against the other rather more serious episodes, though, it makes the show look rather schizophrenic, and in the main there is far too little jeopardy to really quicken the pulse, the show mainly being content to wallow in the mire of what would now be considered rather comforting comedy-drama mediocrity.
Despite the shows evident problems, it does furnish the fan of '70s kitsch with more than enough material to be going on with: the tacky consumer durables that are meant to look like the era's height of classy sophistication -- the heavy, knob-cluttered turntables with combined tape-recorders, the solid state video screens, etc. Then there are the 'interesting' fashions of the era, which never looked more awkward and ungainly than they do here. The two characters make an unlikely pairing from this perspective: in his hideous beige suites and stripy shirts, Gradley often looks like a jobbing news anchor for "Nationwide", while Esther Jones could pass for a member of '70s dance troupe Pan's People with little difficulty. Gradley's blazer and roll-neck sweater combinations, not to mention the puffed hairstyle and sideboards, summon up the ghost of Floral Dance-era Terry Wogan, and maybe a hint of Alan Partridge as well if truth be told! A few of the guest stars sometimes join in on the fun as well, particularly, in one memorable appearance, Charles Lloyd Pack (Hammer Films' veteran and habitual guest star in shows such as "The Prisoner" and "The Avengers") who turns up with a fine set of whiskers and a lime green safari suit and matching cravat. Perhaps the show's saving grace for modern viewers is the fact that Anouska Hempel, at the time this series was made, has to have been one of the most beautiful-looking women on TV, and furthermore, spends a great deal of the time here, dressed in various skimpy bikinis, tantalisingly flimsy silk dressing gowns, or bounding, fresh out of the shower, clad only in a strategically placed fluffy towel! This proves a welcome distraction from the other inadequacies of the show, if a sad reflection on general attitudes to women on television during the '70s!
The DVD from Network Releasing is available exclusively from their website www.networkdvd.co.uk. It features all six episodes of the series spread across two discs (four episodes on disc 1, two episodes on disc 2). The video transfer is mostly on a par with the original broadcast quality apart from the occasional brief bit of video damage. Although it doesn't have the clarity of a modern re-mastered transfer, it is perfectly adequate for the material in hand. The discs contain no extras though.