A MOVIE REVIEW BY DAVID L. VINEYARD:
DICK BARTON STRIKES BACK. Hammer Films, 1949. Don Stannard, Sebastian Cabot, Jean Lodge, Bruce Walker. Based on the BBC Radio serial Dick Barton Special Agent, created by Geoffrey Webb and Edward J. Mason. Director: Godfrey Grayson.
In 1947 listeners to the early evening BBC tuned in to hear the voice of the ‘Beeb’ intone, “The time is a quarter past seven. This is the BBC Light Programme …” followed by Charles Williams’s “The Devil’s Gallop” thundering over the airwaves.
With a gasp of anticipation ten year old boys of all ages in post-Second World War England gathered to hear the daily fifteen minute edition of the adventures of ex-commando Captain Dick Barton M.C., and his pals Snowey and Jock as they made their on air debut.
Somewhere between Jack Armstrong, All American Boy and Carleton E. Morse’s I Love an Mystery, the Dick Barton series captured the imaginations of young boys (and girls) in the dreary days of post-WWII England with tales of derring-do, adventure, and dastardly villains. Dick was played by Noel Johnson early on and later Gordon Davies and Duncan Carse.
Dick and his pals found themselves at odd ends in Post War England, so when their ex-commander approached them to act as semi-official agents investigating matters that were too delicate for Special Branch or MI5, it seemed the perfect solution to their post war blues. So Dick Barton Special Agent was born
Which is why the then fledgling Hammer Studios (yes, that Hammer, of Dracula fame) grabbed up the rights to the series and churned out three quick programmers starring handsome Don Stannard in the lead role. These were Dick Barton Special Agent (1948), Dick Barton Strikes Back (1949), and Dick Barton Bay (1950).
Dick Barton Strikes Back was filmed third but released as the second in the series. Hammer intended to continue the series, but Don Stannard was killed in a car wreck in 1949. Sebastian Cabot was in the car with him but emerged without fatal injuries. Since the films had improved with each new entry, we may well have missed the definitive screen Dick Barton.
The opening of Strikes Back could easily come from one of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass serials or an episode of The Avengers (Patrick McNee ironically plays a British agent in the opening scenes of the film Dick Barton at Bay ). A remote English village lies silent, everyone and every thing in it lies dead. And no bird sang.
Dick Barton and his pal Snowey are called in. Their investigation leads to a group of gypsies and the evil Alfonso Delmonte Fourcada (Sebastian Cabot), second in command of the mad scientist whose deadly sonic ray has wiped out two English villages and now is ready for the attack on London.
Dick and Snowey battle Fourcada and his goons, escape, evade, hunt, and in general chase around in solid thriller tradition. In one particularly good sequence they are left in a snake house, and all the glass shatters with Dick and Snowey suddenly knee deep in deadly serpents.
Will the boys escape?
Tune in tomorrow …
Same time same place …
The climax is an exciting chase up the famous BBC radio tower in Blackpool where the madman plans to broadcast his sonic weapon and destroy London. Someone must have found the irony of Dick’s final film adventure ending on the very tower that broadcast his adventures all too delicious.
While no masterpieces, the Barton films are well done programmers, with some nice noirish photography and good if hammy performances. Stannard may proclaim his lines in all capital letters, but he certainly looks like what we expect of ex-commando Dick Barton.
In 1979 Dick returned to the small screen in Dick Barton Special Agent, a series with Tony Vogel as Dick that ran four seasons. Done tongue in cheek, the series was a good deal of fun and spawned a series of paperback adventures. In recent years a series of Dick Barton plays have been a great success mixing nostalgia, camp, and theatrical thrills.
The creators of Dick Barton, Geoffrey Webb and Edward J. Mason (creators of the long running soap The Archers) issued a collection of short illustrated never broadcast Dick Barton adventures, Dick Barton Special Agent (Contact Publicaions) for Dick’s fans. In addition the television series was featured in annual albums of comic books stories and photos from the series as well as the paperback adaptations.
Several sites of Old Time Radio collections have the first Barton radio serial (ten episodes) available to listen to for free on your computer or download to your MP3 player. They hold up pretty well all things considered. A good example of the charms of the form.
The Barton phenomena was popular enough that Eric Ambler sent it up in his screenplay for Roy Ward Baker’s Highly Dangerous (1951) where his heroine, Margaret Lockwood, believes she is Frances Conway Special Agent, after her nephews favorite radio serial, Francis Conway, when a blow to the head while she is on a dangerous mission behind the Iron Curtain leaves her confused.
But if you still thrill to the William Tell Overture and the sounds of a great white horse’s hoofbeats on the vast plains of the airwaves, to the mysterious Valle Triste and a voice intoning I Love a Mystery, or ever the catchy tune of Little Orphan Annie, then you will fully understand the appeal of the “Devil’s Gallop” on ten year old boys everywhere.
And now back to today’s episode of Dick Barton Special Agent. As you know Dick and Snowey had just entered the elevator at Professor X’s secret lair when suddenly …