TV Drama


REVIEWED BY MICHAEL SHONK:


JERICHO. CBS, 1966-67. MGM/Arena Productions. Created by William Link and Richard Levinson in association with Merwin A. Bloch. Cast: Don Francks as Franklin Sheppard, John Leyton as Nicholas Gage, and Marino Mase as Jean-Gaston Andre. Executive Producer: Norman Felton. Supervising Producer: David Victor. Produced by Stanley Niss (pilot episode produced by David Victor). Theme by Jerry Goldsmith.

JERICHO TV series

   JERICHO was set in war-torn Europe during World War II. It told the adventures of three men. American Captain Franklin Sheppard was the leader and an expert on explosives. British Royal Navy Lieutenant Nicholas Gage was a former circus performer and expert in getting in and out of tough situations. Free French Lieutenant Jean-Gaston Andre specialized in weapons, ancient and modern. Together they fought the Nazis behind enemy lines as a group, code named Jericho.

   I watched this series at Warner Archives Instant (free two week trial membership) here.

   Considering the talent behind this series I was very disappointed. The series first reminded me of another CBS series premiering that fall, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE for its premise and soundtrack. However, JERICHO took on the style of the two other MGM and Norman Felton’s Arena Productions, MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. and GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E.

   The theme and opening featured a narrator (no on air credit) introducing the characters over the actor names with clips of each in action. The story then began with the narrator giving the date, location and Jericho’s mission.

JERICHO TV series

   Today, a major reason to watch this series is who created it. William Link and Richard Levinson would become two of television’s greatest creators of TV series with such series as COLUMBO, ELLERY QUEEN, and MURDER SHE WROTE. But JERICHO was before they joined Universal Studios. Link has discussed how little control they had over their freelance scripts such as their pilot script for MANNIX (in the commentary on MANNIX season one DVD).

   The pilot script for JERICHO would air as episode three “Upbeat and Underground.” From the credits it can be assumed Dean Hargrove (MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.) rewrote some of the script. Paris 1942, the Nazis plan to force the French National Symphony Orchestra to play Wagner on Bastille Day, so Jericho smuggles the entire orchestra (one hundred people) under Nazis guard in occupied Paris to London. If only Jericho had been available for THE GREAT ESCAPE (John Layton was in the 1963 film but sadly did not play his Jericho hero).

   And who was fellow JERICHO creator Merwin Bloch? Bloch’s greatest success would come later as one of the most influential and successful producers of movie trailers. He would also produced the 70s cult film comedy THE TELEPHONE BOOK. At this time he was just starting out from advertising and had wrote one episode of BLUE LIGHT (which I reviewed here ). According to his IMDb bio, Bloch would supply many of JERICHO’s plots. At least one JERICHO plot was obviously inspired by BLUE LIGHT, in “Panic in the Piazza” Jericho was assigned to blow up a heavily guarded Nazi headquarters buried deep underground.

   JERICHO’s production values for a network show were embarrassing, from inept reusing of a few studio lot exterior sets to the too many times when you wondered if anyone was paying attention or cared.

JERICHO TV series

   In the episode “Long Walk Across a Short Street,” action took place at night and in an area where all power was out, yet the streets where bathed in sunlight and the interiors brightly lit. The only way we knew it was dark was when the characters told us. Surprisingly, the director was the talented Richard C. Sarafian (VANISHING POINT, 1971), and the director of photography was the experienced, Emmy award winner and innovator Lester Shorr. Both of these men would have known better, leaving one to wonder how such amateur mistakes could have happened.

   The scripts, because of its YA take on the plots, had problems maintaining the proper balance of believability, humor, action and suspense. For me the most successful was writer Jackson Gillis (MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.) in “Have Traitor, Will Travel.” A French General and known spy is fed false information. Jericho escorts him to the front hoping to get captured, but encounter problems when the local underground rescues them. The story’s surprising twists had a darkness to them that kept the absurdity from overwhelming the drama.

   The soundtrack was a cross between MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE. The “Film Score Monthly” review of the record featuring the soundtrack to JERICHO (and THE GHOSTBREAKER), noted that the theme used by JERICHO was scored by Jerry Goldsmith (MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.) from the second episode, and the pilot music score (and unused theme) was done by Lilo Schifrin.

   Schifrin would find a place for some of the rejected music in his next series, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. JERICHO, especially episodes scored by Richard Shores (MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.), often had scenes with background music familiar to viewers of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE. While one of the more noticeable MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. influences was the sound used with the graphic break for jump cuts.

   This YouTube clip is from a promo sent to local stations. It is terrible visually and features a different narrator, but illustrates my point about the soundtrack (around 2:05 on the clip):

   Perhaps the oddest element of JERICHO was Norman Felton producing CBS’s JERICHO while under exclusive contract to NBC. “Broadcasting” reported the story in issues December 27, 1965 and January 10, 1965. Norman Felton was one of MGM’s most successful producers until NBC signed Felton to an exclusive contract. Felton’s obligations to MGM would end June 30, 1966, but there were exceptions. Felton would continue to produce the show if either of Arena Production’s pilots for CBS went series. JERICHO did. Thus a NBC producer and company (Arena) produced a prime time series for CBS.

   Don Francks’ (HEMLOCK GROVES) performance was the best of the three regulars but lacked a dramatic depth to counter the silliness of the stories leaving him at times bordering on camp such as in “Wall To Wall Kaput” where he posed as a worker wallpapering the office where the top-secret papers were kept. John Leyton had been a British pop star and appeared in films (VON RYAN’S EXPRESS -1965), but by JERICHO his career was in decline. Marino Mase went from starring in films such as Jean-Luc Godard’s LES CARABINERS (1963) to minor roles in films such as GODFATHER 3 (1990).

JERICHO TV series

   Fans of actors will enjoy spotting such people as Barbara Anderson, John Drew Barrymore, Billy Barty, Tom Bosley, John Dehner, James Doohan, Marianna Hill, Walter Koenig, Mark Lenard, Jay North, Michael Rennie, Mark Richman, Gia Scala, Malachi Throne, and Ian Wolfe.

   The series featured one minor recurring character, Jericho’s contact Mallory played in the pilot by Ben Wright and in two episodes by John Orchard.

   The ratings were never good. The hour-long JERICHO aired in color on Thursday night at 7:30-8:30PM opposite of the popular BATMAN and F-TROOP on ABC and DANIEL BOONE on NBC (which usually finished second in the time slot).

   The November 28, 1966 issue of “Broadcasting” reported CBS had cancelled JERICHO, saying the series would remain on until mid-January.

   There was a tie-in original paperback by Bruce Cassiday titled Code Name: Jericho – Operation Gold Kill (Award, 1967).

REVIEWED BY MICHAEL SHONK:


PARIS 7000. ABC, 1970; Universal Television. Created by Richard J. Michaels and Gene L. Coon. Executive Producer: Richard Caffey. Cast: George Hamilton as Jack Brennan and Jacques Aubuchon as Lt. Jules Maurois. Theme by Michel Colombier.

paris 7000 George hamilton

   The story of PARIS 7000 began with Lana Turner and Harold Robbins. In September 1969 ABC premiered a PEYTON PLACE wannabe called THE SURVIVORS on Monday at 9pm. Based on an idea by Harold Robbins and starring Lana Turner, Kevin McCartney and George Hamilton, the series had a budget of $250,000 episode. ABC had given Universal TV a commitment for 26 episodes.

   The series was a failure on every level. After its premiere the ratings were bad. The reviews were negative. There were production problems including personality clashes with star Lana Turner that reportedly got three producers fired.

   The November 10, 1969 issue of “Broadcasting” reported ABC’s midseason plans. THE SURVIVORS would move to Thursday at 10pm.

   A week later “Broadcasting” added, “ABC, committed to full season of THE SURVIVORS from Universal TV despite weak ratings and disastrous reviews, is expected to announce drastic change in format for series starting at midseason. Reportedly key ingredient to be held over would be series co-star George Hamilton. Lana Turner and Kevin McCarthy will be dropped.”

   On December 8, 1969, “Broadcasting” reported that the producers and Hamilton would move from THE SURVIVORS to a completely new program.

   That new program was PARIS 7000. George Hamilton played Jack Brennan, a diplomat working at the American embassy in Paris. Any American in trouble would call the embassy’s phone number Paris 7000 and Brennan would come to their aid. The series was called an action drama but the episode I have seen (“Call Me Ellen”) was a mystery sadly burdened by its soap opera melodrama beginnings.

   PARIS 7000 first aired January 22, 1970 on ABC opposite CBS THURSDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES and NBC’s DEAN MARTIN SHOW. Ratings were better than its parent THE SURVIVORS, but the show was cancelled at the end of the season.

   “Call Me Ellen” was the tenth episode and was a return to an earlier episode, “Call Me Lee” (episode three that aired February 5, 1970).

   TV Guide‘s Cleveland Amory review of PARIS 7000 mentioned the episode “Call Me Lee”:

      http://www.chezgrae.com/ShowInfo/Paris7000.html

paris 7000 George hamilton

   The original episode had Jack fall in love with Leona (Lee), a blonde stewardess played by Barbara Anderson. Leona would die and her role in a smuggling ring would be revealed. Brennan would identify her body.

   Seven episodes later and the series final episode, “Call Me Ellen” would feature a surprising twist to Leona’s story. Considering the series soap opera past I wonder if Jack’s mourning over the death of Leona had been a running subplot. Even if not this was a creative twist on the BONANZA curse, the death of a female love interest of the week so the regular character could continue to fall in love in future episodes.

“Call Me Ellen.” March 26,1970. Written by Richard Bluel; directed by Jeannot Szwarc. Produced by Harry Tatelman. Guest Cast: Barbara Anderson, Paul Henreid and Brenda Benet. *** While making his monthly visit to San Remo and the grave of the woman he still loves, Jack sees her double getting into a taxi.

   Despite Jack seeing the brunette version of blonde Leona leaving a graveyard, Barbara Anderson looked too good to be a zombie, so who was she?

   The acting makes one think of zombies, and to push the edge of bad acting even further there were endless flashbacks and characters silently staring off to nowhere as they were supposedly lost in memories and/or deep in thought.

   But the most unforgivable flaw of PARIS 7000 was the over the top melodrama left over from its THE SURVIVORS roots. Jack stared at Leona’s headstone silently lost in his memories and/or deep in thought, a huge Christian cross loomed behind him, as we listened to Barbara Anderson voice over, “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my Jack to keep. If I should die before I wake. Remember me. Remember me.”

   Jack confronted the brunette who says she knows nothing about Leona. Her name was Ellen. She ran a local hotel and was a single mother of a young handicapped boy who after many expensive operations would soon be able to walk. Jack, who still hadn’t accepted Leona’s death, now had his hopes or confusion rise (it was hard to tell which). He checked into the hotel and began to seduce the beautiful widow and mom.

   Meanwhile, a bad guy, who had been following Jack all the way from Paris, called his Boss and told him that Jack had found her. The Boss tells his henchman to kill the woman.

   Who this woman was and what her secrets were would have made an interesting TV mystery, but the flawed script made it difficult to tell the difference between a clue (the son) and a plot hole (why was she at the graveyard). In addition, the melodrama of the romance overwhelmed the story in typical bad TV fashion. Jack and Ellen fell in love. She became upset because he was in love with Leona not her, Ellen. But of course she couldn’t resist the romantic powers of George Hamilton and sacrificed it all for him in the end.

   PARIS 7000 never had much of a chance of surviving. Most likely it was considered the simplest alternative to fill the twenty-six episodes order of THE SURVIVORS (which lasted fifteen episodes). The lack of time to develop a series remains a common cause of bad TV. This May next fall’s TV series will be announced, that gives the producers around four months (plus the time spent on the pilot) to find out what works and what doesn’t. There was less than two months from when ABC’s decided not to change THE SURVIVORS but to instead create a new series with new characters and when the first episode PARIS 7000 aired. It is a wonder this wasn’t worse.

   If the series had toned down the soap opera melodrama a notch to romantic suspense this series might have been watchable. But considering its past, the results are understandable.

A TV Series Review by Michael Shonk


BLUE LIGHT. ABC, 1966. Rogo Production in association with 20th Century Fox Television. Cast: Robert Goulet as David March. Christine Carère as Suzanne Duchard. Created by Walter Grauman and Larry Cohen. Executive Producer: Walter Grauman. Executive Script Consultant: Larry Cohen. Producer: Buck Houghton. Theme: Lalo Schifrin. Music Supervision: Lionel Newman.

BLUE LIGHT Robert Goulet

   Blue Light is a forgotten TV spy series that, while not the equal, is worthy of mention with other TV spy series such as I Spy and Mission: Impossible.

   Before the Nazis began their advance across Europe, America put eighteen sleeper agents inside Germany. One was American journalist David March. Only the few American government officials behind the Blue Light organization knew the truth, while the rest of the world believed March had betrayed his country and all he loved to join the Nazi war effort. In one episode March learned the woman he loved had committed suicide because of his support of the Nazi cause.

   Occasionally the Nazis used March as a spy, but his usual role was writing and broadcasting propaganda. His underground contact was Suzanne, who fell in love with March as she posed as French Gestapo agent who hated him.

BLUE LIGHT Robert Goulet

   Considering the creative talent behind Blue Light, it is not a surprise the series was a gritty WWII spy drama with nourish touches. Larry Cohen is best known for his genre films such as Black Caesar, It’s Alive, and Maniac Cop. He also created the TV series Branded, Coronet Blue and The Invaders.

   Walter Grauman is one of television’s iconic directors (Untouchables to Murder, She Wrote). He also won the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service as a fighter pilot in WWII Europe. There is an excellent interview of Walter Grauman by Stephen Bowie at the Archive of American Television. (Follow the link.)

   The series did not pull any punches. Episodes featured dramatic examinations of moral issues as well as surprising twists and great action. March did not just knock out the guard as most TV good guys would. Instead, March did not hesitate to kill the guard with a knife in the back.

BLUE LIGHT Robert Goulet

   There were few easy solutions to the many choices March was forced to make. In one episode he was forced to choose between some citizens who had escaped a Nazi labor camp or getting a top secret Nazi weapon to the Allies in England.

   Known more as a singer, Robert Goulet was surprisingly believable as David March, double agent. On the other hand co-star Christine Carère proved to be a liability to the series and weaken the possible romantic subplot. The guest stars included some of the best TV characters actors of the 60s, especially European actors on their way to America. (See the episode index below.)

   The production was shot overseas at Bavarian Studios in Munich, Germany. According to an interview of Robert Goulart in Stars & Stripes (2/16/66), Blue Light was the first American TV series filmed in color in Europe.

   The music soundtrack by Lalo Schifrin and others (including Pete Rugalo, Mullendore and David Gruson) was a special delight. Listen to episodes such as “Sacrifice!” and “Agent of the East” and you can hear occasional hints of Schifrin’s future work in Mannix and Mission: Impossible.

BLUE LIGHT Robert Goulet

   Blue Light had the potential to be something special, but it was limited by its half hour format. While the short time kept the action moving, it eliminated the opportunity to further develop the characters. The villains were often underdeveloped and weakened by the speed March outsmarted them.

   It is best to watch the episodes in order. The first four episodes told the story of David March’s mission to destroy a top secret Nazi weapon base in Grossmuchen, Germany. “Return of Elm” and “The Secret War” are based on events in earlier episodes.

   The first four episodes were linked together and released as I Deal in Danger (1966). I have not seen the movie version, but it is available on DVD. The series itself is available only in the collector-to-collector market.

      EPISODE INDEX

“The Last Man” (1/12/66). Written by Larry Cohen. Directed by Walter Grauman. Guest Cast: Werner Peters, John Ragin, John Alderson.  ●  The Nazis know about Blue Light, an American undercover spy ring of eighteen agents. Seventeen have been killed. Now, Captain Elm is out to get rid of the man he believes to be the last man of Blue Light, American journalist now Nazi propagandist David March.

“Target David March” (1/19/66). Written by Larry Cohen. Directed by Walter Grauman. Guest Cast: Edward Binns, Hans Reiser, Geoffrey Frederick.  ●  With Elm gone, March still needs to convince some Nazis he is loyal to the cause before he can be assigned to the top-secret weapon base in Grossmuchen. Meanwhile a British officer has sent in three commandos to kill the American traitor David March.

“The Fortress Below” (1/26/66). Written by Larry Cohen. Directed by Walter Grauman. Guest Cast: Eva Pflug, John van Dreelan, Peter Capell, Manfred Andrae.  ●  March gets the assignment he wanted, the top-secret weapon base. The base is buried 200 feet underground and while nearly impossible to sneak in, it is even harder to get out. Unable to sneak any weapons in, March must figure out how to destroy the base.

“The Weapons Within” (2/2/66). Written by Larry Cohen. Directed by Walter Grauman. Guest Cast: Eva Pflug, Horst Frank, Alexander Allerson, Dieter Eppler.  ●  The naïve female German scientist who had agreed to help March’s blow up the base has second thoughts when she is faced with causing the death of her friends at the base.

“Traitor’s Blood” (2/9/66). Written by Larry Cohen. Directed by Walter Grauman. Guest Cast: Jerry Ayres, Henry Beckman, David Macklin.  ●  March visits his younger brother being held in a Nazi POW camp. His brother had lied about his age to join the Army and prove he was not a traitor like his brother.

“Agent of the East” (2/16/66). Teleplay by Donald S. Sanford, story by Larry Cohen. Directed by James Goldstone. Guest Cast: Jan Malmsjo, Dick Davalos, James Mitchell.  ●  To keep the plans for a heavy water plant from Nazi scientists, March must get to a captured Russian spy being held in Gestapo headquarters.

“Sacrifice” (2/23/66). Teleplay by Dick Carr, story by Larry Cohen. Directed by William Graham. Guest Cast: Larry Pennell, Barry Ford, James Brolin.  ●  The Nazis want March to convince a kidnapped All American hero to talk. An Allied bomb hits the Gestapo jail trapping March, the hero and two Nazis underground with no hope of rescue.

“The Secret War” (3/2/66). Written by Larry Cohen. Directed by Walter Grauman. Guest Cast: Roger C. Carmel, Kevin Hagen, Gail Kobe, Fred Holliday, Gilbert Green.  ●  Two Russian agents, who knew the Russian agent from “Agent of the East,” threaten to expose March and Suzanne if he does not work for them instead of the Americans.

“Invasion by the Stars” (3/9/66). Teleplay by Jack Turley, story by Curtis Sanders. Directed by Gerd Oswald. Guest Cast: Francis Lederer, Curt Lowens, Jason Wingreen.  ●  Allies need Operation Sea Lion, Hitler’s planned invasion of England, delayed. March attempts to convince Hitler’s astrologist to advise Hitler to postpone the invasion.

“The Return of Elm” (3/23/66). Written by Larry Cohen. Directed by Robert Butler. Guest Cast: Werner Peters, Malachi Throne.  ●  Elm, the villain of “The Last Man” episode, is back. The one Nazi who knows March is an American agent, Elm escapes a British POW camp. Knowing the Nazis believe he is the traitor, Elm returns to Berlin to kill March and clear his name.

“Jet Trail” (4/6/66). Written by Dan Ullman. Directed by James Goldstone. Guest Cast: Philippe Nicaud. Tony LoBianco, Lamont Johnson.  ●  March poses as an American OSS officer to help the French resistance recover a top secret German jet engine from a crash.

“How to Kill a Toy Soldier” (4/13/66). Written by Merwin Bloch and Roger E. Swaybill. Directed by Leo Penn. Guest Cast: Michael Shea, Donald Losby, Greg Mullavey.  ●  An 11-year-old Nazi witnesses March kill a courier for the plans to every rocket site in Norway. March faces the choice of killing the child or exposing himself as a spy.

“The Deserters” (4/20/66). Writer: Curtis Sanders. Director: Gerd Oswald. Guest Cast: Ken Lynch, Stuart Margolin, George Backman, James Davidson.  ●  The Germans send March into battle posing as an American soldier. He is to learn what direction the Allied forces will take on the Italian front. A Gestapo agent travels with March to watch him.

“The Other Führer” (4/27/66). Written by Walter Brough. Directed by James Goldstone. Guest Cast: David Sheiner, Paul Carr, Jack Colvin.  ●  A German aristocrat seeks the Allies aid to overthrow Hitler. The Germans catch and execute the Allies’ agent sent to meet the aristocrat and send March in the Allies agent’s place.

“The Key to the Code” (5/4/66). Written by Brad Radnitz. Directed by Walter Grauman. Guest Cast: Hans Gudegast (Eric Braeden), Alex D’Arcy, Erik Holland.  ●  While in France to do a radio program, March and Suzanne learn the Germans have set a trap for an upcoming Allies Commando attack. The Germans have broken the underground code putting March and Suzanne at risk and unable to warn the Allies about the trap.

“Field of Dishonor” (5/11/66). Written by Jamie Farr and H. Bud Otto. Directed by James Goldstone. Guest Cast: Steve Ihnat, James Frawley.  ●  High-ranking Nazi General, who has long been suspicious of March’s loyalties, attempts to defect to the Allies.

“The Friendly Enemy” (5/18/66). Written by Harold Livingston. Directed by James Goldstone. Guest Cast: Mark Richman, Robert Doyle, Richard Carlyle, James Doohan, Mort Mills.  ●  March is ordered to kill a German scientist who is close to creating an Atomic bomb for the Nazis.

REVIEWED BY MICHAEL SHONK:


THE HOUR: Episode One. BBC 2 Production. Six part series, 19 July through 23 August 2011. Created and Written by Abi Morgan. Directed by Coky Giedraye. Produced by Ruth Kenley-Letts. Cast: Ben Whishaw as Freddie Lyon, Romola Garai as Bel Rowley, Dominic West as Hector Madden, Vanessa Kirby as Ruth Elias, Anna Chancellor as Lix Storm.

THE HOUR - BBC 2

   Available on BBCA starting August 17, 2011, as part of the hour-long block called “Dramaville,” hosted by Idris Elba (Luther). The Hour is also available for download at the usual places. Episode one is available now, for free.

   It is June 1956. The government has a tight stranglehold on the press, but it is the time of the Cold War and events are about to explode.

   A frustrated Freddie Lyons works in the BBC newsreel division where his desire to do “real” news is constantly suppressed. He has a habit of making everyone uncomfortable with his obnoxious behavior, as well as his ability to find news that makes those in power very nervous.

   There are plans to develop a new BBC TV news magazine called “The Hour.” Freddie feels betrayed when the position he wanted of Producer goes to his best friend Bel. He is shocked, after all she is just a woman.

THE HOUR - BBC 2

   Despite the constant sniping and meanness between Freddie and Bel, she fights to get the jerk a job with the new news magazine. Of course, as with any such relationship, everyone but Freddie and Bel realize the two are meant for each other.

   As the development of “The Hour” continues and we meet each of the characters, a childhood friend of Freddie’s contacts him. Ruth tells Freddie there is more to the death of a college Professor, who was her secret lover. She warns him about “Them,” that England is no longer a “democracy,” and how she would be killed if “they” knew she had talked to a powerless employee of the BBC.

   The production values, the costumes, music, lighting, sets and locations, are of the high quality one has come to expect from British television. The direction was serviceable, but nothing could have saved this episode from the script, a script that was predictable and drowning in cliches.

THE HOUR - BBC 2

   The cast tried their best to overcome their one dimensional characters:

   Freddie, the he is so brilliant we can not survive without him hero. Bel, the woman determined to succeed in a man’s world and fears any personal commitment so she sleeps with married men. Hector, the handsome married anchorman who is attracted to Bel. Liz Storm, the veteran reporter who drinks too much and is there to share old stories and wise advice. The interchangeable white men in power.

   The script dooms any possible attempt to make the story interesting. The pace is slow to build suspense, but there is little suspense because we have no reason to care about any of these characters. The script is full of twists and clues that creak with age and overuse, such as the camera intercutting between Ruth dancing with her fiance and the killing of her lover, the references to crossword puzzles, and the ending of this episode that will surprise no one.

   Add annoying bits such as Freddie calling Bel, “Miss Moneypenny” and the heavy handed handling of the era’s sexism and racism, and any hope for future episodes is nearly crushed.

      THE HOUR - BBC 2

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


NOSTROMO Joseph Conrad BBC TV

NOSTROMO. BBC-TV mini-series, 1996. Claudio Amendola, Paul Brooke, Lothaire Bluteau, Claudia Cardinale, Joaquim de Almeida, Brian Dennehy, Albert Finney, Serena Scott Thomas, Colin Firth, Roberto Escobar. Based on the novel by Joseph Conrad. Director: Alastair Reid.

   Somewhere over the last couple months I found time to watch Undersea Kingdom (Republic, 1936) in which Ray Corrigan battles the tyrant of Atlantis while dressed as a Mardi Gras Queen. It’s done with the usual care Republic lavished on their serials: splendidly tacky sets, ambitious special effects and action action action, but it lacks the energetic stuntwork that usually graced their films of this period, and I only mention it because shortly after seeing this I watched another lengthy tale of internecine warfare in an exotic locale, a 5-hour BBC miniseries from 1996 of Joseph Conrad’s 1904 Nostromo.

   While I was watching it, I re-read the book, which proved to be a rewarding experience as the film adds some clarity to the characters and narrative while the book … well Nostromo is Conrad at his best, which is very good indeed: fights, shooting, hair-breadth escapes and house-to-house street battles, all laid on with surprising thoughtfulness and skill as Conrad makes it happen to people we believe in.

NOSTROMO Joseph Conrad BBC TV

   The mini-series carries this complex plot without dropping it, though they expand on the narrative where Conrad didn’t and rearrange it for clarity, which was probably necessary in the miniseries format. Characters who come on late in the book are introduced earlier in the film to provide for continuity, and sometimes they say baldly what Conrad only hinted at.

   Colin Firth and Serena Scott Thomas as the English couple who form the nucleus of the story acquit themselves quite well, Albert Finney throws in a fine character part as a disreputable doctor (one of Conrad’s finest characters) while Joaquim de Almeida and Roberto Escobar make a daunting pair of villains.

NOSTROMO Joseph Conrad BBC TV

   Only Claudio Amendola, in the title role, disappointed me, and that was probably a personal thing. Conrad wrote the character as a stylish swashbuckler, the kind who would have been played by Doug Fairbanks Sr. in the old days, or perhaps Errol Flynn or Gilbert Roland in Hollywood’s golden age: a man who can leap onto a speeding train, gallop across the plain, and cut buttons off a coat with one sweep of a knife.

   Amendola seems formidable enough, but entirely too serious, as if the producers saw the character’s end and wanted to telegraph it to us early on. As I say though, that’s entirely a personal thing and I didn’t let it spoil my enjoyment of a fine effort that should be more widely available.

Editorial Comment:   The mini-series, for which I have not yet unearthed the exact dates of its first (and only?) run, is available commercially on VHS but not on DVD. For the former, think the $40 range.