Scorpion Tales (Complete Series) Review
Produced and part-directed by David Reid, this is an anthology series of six contemporary thrillers first transmitted in 1978, each with a sting in its tail. Not quite a Shyamalan-style oh-my-god-that-changes-everything twist but more of an unexpected resolution to each story. Except for The Ghost in the Pale Blue Dress which does indeed have a proper twist - or even two. The other dramatic element each of the plays has in common is a cat-and-mouse thread in which the principal character is engaged in a psychological (to varying degrees) competition with an antagonist. As you would expect from an 'adult' thriller series made in the 70s, ‘politically incorrect’ language is used which would not be permitted nowadays. But the thing that bothered me the most as a modern viewer was the casual domestic violence against women displayed in several of the plays which would certainly not be allowed now in that context.
The plays are split over two discs as follows.
Easterman 51m 47s
Written by Ian Kennedy Martin.
Starring Trevor Howard and Patrick Allen.
The series gets off to a cracking start with Easterman, in which a soon-to-retire DCI (Trevor Howard) is stalked by a criminal with a fatal grudge against him. Trevor Howard was one of the great British star actors of the 20th Century and one of the last of the true 'hellraisers' as they used to be called. His character, DCI George Mavors, is an old-school drink-sodden detective on the brink of retirement and railing against it. Think of Gene Hunt in his 60s but played by someone who actually lived it. Howard brings to the play real star power and the craggiest of faces achieved through years of hard boozing and wild living. It's like watching an angry old lion roaring at the world one last time. But his performance, although powerful, doesn't overbalance the chamber scale of this television piece. He knows when to rein it in and hint at the power underneath.
Mavors is first seen breathing fire over two young traffic police who had the temerity to breathalyse him on his way to a case. It quickly becomes clear that although he may be old and cranky and a hard drinker, his knowledge of procedure is encyclopaedic and he is a 'good cop'. He has been summoned because a young police clerk has been severely beaten up and a note pinned to him taunting Mavors. The trail continues, as you would expect, with further victims until the final showdown. The play is effectively a police procedural but, refreshingly to a modern viewer, is largely free of the forensics porn that dominates 21st-century policiers. But having said that there is one brief scene in which Mavors tears a hapless forensics guy a new one after he fudges some vital evidence.
What sets this apart, no doubt to give it an edge at the time, is that Mavors' nemesis is an old lag who is avenging the death of his male lover. This does mean the police use terms to describe the gay characters that in 1978 were quite acceptable but wouldn't be considered so now. You have been warned. However, to its credit, the final reveal shows the 'gay' villain to be, not some limp-wristed effete caricature of a gay man, but a hard-nosed ultra-masculine thug played by Don Henderson.
Killing 51m 50s
Written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin.
Starring Jack Shepherd and Angela Down
The early days of computerisation form the backdrop to Killing. Jack Shepherd (later to play Wycliffe) is a youngish systems expert who pulls the nightshift in the computer room of an unspecified bank. He whiles away the nights carrying out virtual speculative gambling on the international money market. The bank's decision to upgrade its systems thus making him redundant encourages him to play his fraudulent games for real. A systems auditor (Angela Down) arrives to examine the books prior to the upgrade. You can imagine what follows.
This play is entirely studio-bound and almost a two-hander. Shepherd is a very accomplished actor and although an unconventional leading man is thoroughly convincing in this role as the disgruntled loner. Down is also very accomplished and was a well-known TV face in the 70s and again does a good job as the rather dowdy systems analyst. However, the two together don't quite gel which is fine in the early scenes but less so as the play goes on.
The Great Albert 50m 39s
Written by John Peacock.
Starring Lynn Farleigh, Max Harris and Martin Freeman.
The Great Albert is a pseudo-supernatural thriller telling of a young boy caught up in the decaying marriage of his antiquarian bookseller father and his heartless bitch of a mother. In their grand detached villa, the boy overhears his father talking about his proposed sale of a medieval grimoire called the Albertus Magnus - the Great Albert of the title. The boy appropriates a photocopy of the book and naively believes he can invoke the Dark Magicke contained therein to prevent his parents' marriage breaking up. A series of coincidental events lead him to believe his rituals have been successful but chance and the murderous inclinations of his mother and her lover dictate otherwise.
The boy (Max Harris) is about as natural and believable as child actors got in the late-70s. The elderly housekeeper who is the only person to show him any true affection is played by Gwen Nelson who was the TV grandmother of choice throughout the 70s. However the real standout turn is Lynn Farleigh as the boy's glamorous and immaculately-coiffed murderous mother. Although she has never been a star name her acting credits show her to be one of those sterling supporting performers who is never out of work on stage or screen. There is genuine suspense in the later scenes and a satisfying, if potentially ambiguous denouement.
The Ghost in the Pale Blue Dress 52m 12s
Written by Jeremy Burnham.
Starring Tony Britton, Brian Stirner and Sandra Payne.
This has shades of Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca about it. A spoilt young heir to a banking business (Brian Stirner) takes time off from his long-running boardroom feud with his domineering father (Tony Britton in magnificent form) to introduce him to his new fiancée (Sandra Payne) who just happens to be the image of his long-dead mother. Cue much father-son wrangling for the young lady's favours who becomes inextricably bound up in their feud.
This is the only play in the series to have a genuine twist in the tail - and not just one. Again, entirely studio-bound, this is very much an actors' piece as the multiple characters bounce off each other. The younger cast members, although good, are definitely out-classed by the older actors, particularly Tony Britton who is completely commanding. He has a natural authority and conveys a great deal with very little - just the flicker of an eyelid is enough to suggest great emotion. Basil Dignam as his lawyer (and friend) is one of those faces who was in everything in the 60s and 70s playing government ministers and other authority figures so he too brings a wealth of experience and authority to the play.
Crimes of Persuasion 52m 34s
Written by Nicholas Palmer.
Starring Anthony Bate and Susan Engel.
Play number Five might well prove the most taxing to watch for a modern viewer with its casual racism, ethnically-incorrect casting and frankly ridiculous storyline. . It concerns a Cecil Parkinson-type hang 'em flog 'em MP whose public image as a devoted family man is about to implode. His mistress of ten years' standing (a civil servant) is about to end their affair - publicly. The bulk of the play is a two-hander between him (Anthony Bate) and the mistress (Susan Engel) as they appear to break up during their regular Friday night dinner in the flat he has bought for her. Only this time she has taken rather extreme steps to ruin his reputation. On its own this would make a moderately interesting piece. But it also incorporates some far-fetched developments involving the MP's shady commercial dealings with corrupt Middle Eastern politicians (very topical in late-70s London) set against a background of terrorist bombs exploding in the city (also very topical). There are two interesting plays about political and moral corruption competing with each other in this piece and they just don't belong together.
Perhaps in an attempt to breathe some life into this lurid melodrama the director (Shaun O'Riordan) employs some unusual camera work (for the time) including the occasional use of hand-held shakicam decades before it became fashionable. Despite all the flummery surrounding him Anthony Bate gives a measured and completely believable performance while Susan Engel does what she can with her thankless character. But the ludicrous denouement undermines what they've been trying to achieve during the previous 30 minutes.
Truth or Consequences 52m 18s
Written by Brian Phelan.
Starring David Robb.
And finally we have David Robb as a young naval officer who has volunteered for a week-long course in how to survive intense interrogation. Little does he suspect what lies in wait for him. As you would expect the cast is male-heavy but Robb, in his days as a handsome young lead, holds his own very well against the multitude of grizzled character actors surrounding him. This is easily the most intensely psychological of all the plays in the series and sets up the basic premise very well with an edgy atmosphere but ultimately fails to deliver a completely satisfying denouement. The potential twist signalled halfway through is merely a red herring.
Unusually, the six plays are split unevenly across the two discs – see above for details. Each play was originally broadcast with just one ad break (can we please tell the Downton Abbey producers to return to that practice?) and is split into ten chapters on these discs.
Transfer and Sound
With one exception, the plays are studio dramas shot entirely on video including the location scenes. The exception is Truth or Consequences which has extensive location work shot on grainy 16mm film. The master tapes for the whole series seem to have suffered more than others of the same vintage as the picture quality is noticeably poorer than other Network releases from the early-70s. Damage is confined to the opening credits but the picture quality as a whole is softer and fuzzier than you might wish. Although in static shots the quality is as good as you would expect from a TV series of this vintage, once the camera starts to move there is sometimes noticeable smearing of objects and light sources as they move across the image. Having watched this on both my old CRT telly and a huge flatscreen I can safely say they look better on the old set. The original mono sound is clear and not over-burdened by music although by the time you’ve watched the last play you’ll be heartsick of Cyril Ornadel’s theme tune ratcheting up the tension.
There is a short gallery of production stills from all six plays lasting 4m 46s.
An interesting and unjustly neglected anthology series with the usual pros and cons associated with that format and also very much of its time. What does set it apart is the quality of the casting, particularly amongst the older male actors – Tony Britton, Anthony Bate, Trevor Howard etc at the top of their game. Worth watching for that alone.
Scorpion Tales is a web-exclusive and available to buy direct through Network. Click here to find the product on their website.