Villains: The Complete Series Review

This is an outstanding set. Created and produced by Andrew Brown (a producer of Manhunt) Villains was first shown in 1972. Telling the story of a bank raid and the consequential ripples it creates this is presented, not in the usual serial format, but as an anthology of thirteen standalone plays, each of which concentrates on a particular character in turn. However this is no Rashomon-style presentation of differing viewpoints of the same event. Instead these plays could be seen as pieces in a patchwork, each having its own particular identity but all joining together to give an overall picture. The featured billing of Bob Hoskins and Martin Shaw on the cover is a little misleading as they were jobbing actors in 1972 (both would have to wait until 1977 for their big breaks - Bob in Pennies from Heaven and Martin Shaw in The Professionals) and here they are just members of a large ensemble cast. The closest thing to a featured lead actor here is David Daker as George, the head of the gang, who appears more frequently than any other character.

As was common at the time most of the plays take place as conversations between two or three characters in a room which lends a certain intensity to every piece. At the time of the first play the Bog Robbers have already served one year of their sentences (each had taken a share of approx £30,000 from the robbery, way below their projected haul and mostly unrecovered by the authorities) and are on their way, en masse, to an appeal hearing. During their transfer they are sprung from the prison transport van in London by an armed gang and each play focuses on a particular character in turn as they go their separate ways on the run. Each play opens with a contextual voiceover of the judge's ruling for the featured character in that play. From that point each play takes off on its own particular dramatic path. The scope of this series is extensive and the writing is densely-textured and often elliptical and it takes concentration to keep up with it all. In fact, the first play George starts off so far into the big story I kept thinking I had loaded the wrong disc and come in at the middle of the series. Because of the sheer variety of subject matter I'll try to keep this as general as possible and avoid major plot spoilers.

Disc One

George - 53m 37s Scr Ray Jenkins, Dir Tony Wharmby
Featuring David Daker and Hilary Dwyer
This sets the scene for the series as a whole by skipping the previous year of the story and starting with the breakout. Pay attention at the back!

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His Dad Named Him After The General - 51m 52s Scr Andrew Brown, Dir Tony Wharmby
Featuring Martin Shaw and Cheryl Hall
A claustrophobic (almost) two-hander as Monty Parkin (Martin Shaw) and his girlfriend Shirley (Cheryl Hall) hide out prior to fleeing the country for a new life abroad. If you ever wanted to see a young Martin Shaw in scarily small 1970s underwear now's your chance.

Commander – 52m 27s Scr Robert Holles, Dir Derek Bennett
Featuring Michael Culver and Barbara Leigh-Hunt
Glazebrook (Michael Culver), the Bog Robbers' poshboy driver, seeks refuge with his ex-girlfriend (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) in her Yorkshire farmhouse. Their doomed love story is told in flashback. Leigh-Hunt is exceptional and it's a great pity she didn't have a bigger career onscreen. For the classic petrolheads amongst you Glazebrook drives a very rare Bentley S2 Continental Park Ward Drophead Coupe.

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Disc Two

Chas - 51m 2s - Scr P J Hammond, Dir Jim Goddard
Featuring Caroline Blakiston
Although the play is titled Chas the central character is Rene, his wife (Caroline Blakiston) who is on a quest to find out her husband's whereabouts. At the start of the play he has been missing for several weeks and she enlists the aid of several of his shady associates, much against her better judgement. Her search isn't helped by the continuing presence of CID and the ending is pretty shocking. You have been warned.

Alice Sheree - 50m 41s Scr Keith Dewhurst, Dir Jim Goddard
Featuring Sharon Duce and Patrick Durkin
The play opens with Alice (Sharon Duce) being released from prison following her sentence for being an accessory to the robbery - she had been found in possession of her boyfriend Mike's (Patrick Durkin) share of the proceeds. Not particularly bright, she returns to her parents in Manchester who have been caring for her toddler daughter. It soon becomes clear she values her impending reunion with Mike far more highly than her family obligations. But to be fair, her parents have practically disowned her and are raising her little girl as their own. Sharon Duce is still a well-regarded TV actress - she was recently seen in Corrie. But the real revelation here is Patrick Durkin, a 'weel-kent face' of 70s and 80s television. With his big frame and round face he was often typecast as the heavy in crime dramas which is the case here but he also gets the opportunity in this to show that he was a capable actor.

Sand Dancer - 53m 38s Scr Andrew Brown, Dir Robert Tronson
Featuring Alun Armstrong and Rosalind Elliot
This is the standout play of the set and looks the biggest-budgeted. Shot (almost) entirely on film on location it follows Tel Boldon (Alun Armstrong) on his picaresque journey back to Tyneside following the breakout as he tries to reunite with his girlfriend (Rosalind Elliot) before the inevitable happens. On its own merits this is an exceptional piece of TV drama and may have been one of the first to allow Tyneside actors to use their own natural accents. It is slightly hampered by some barking child actors and dubious stuff involving Gorden Kaye as a predatory gay motorist. But, even so, the final scenes are both poignant and moving.

Disc Three

Belinda - 49m 50s Scr John Bowen, Dir Tony Wharmby
Featuring Gwyneth Powell, Colin Farrell, William Marlowe
Frustrated bank clerk Belinda (Gwyneth Powell, best known now as Mrs McCluskey from Grange Hill) reveals to her husband that she is pregnant. She then also reveals that a year earlier she had been both charmed and bribed by Bill Whittaker (William Marlowe) into revealing the bank's security arrangements. Given their impending financial obligations, she then tells her social worker husband James (Colin Farrell - no, not that one) that Whittaker had left some of his cut from the robbery with her for safekeeping. One of the weaker instalments, it's difficult to warm to this pair and you may wish to look away at some points because watching Mrs McCluskey doing bedroom scenes is just SO wrong. However it's still better than many other TV dramas. The episode also features one of the most revolting old men ever to appear on British telly, Delphine (Aubrey Richards going disgustingly method), one of James' clients .

Move In, Move On - 51m 37s Scr Robin Chapman
Featuring William Marlowe
Bill Whittaker (Marlowe), the brains behind the bank job, sits alone in his rented villa in a rain-soaked Algarve (in the studio, of course) and reminisces about the raid. This is the first time we see the raid itself and although shot in the studio it's technically impressive - a real thermic lance rips into a real safe. Back in the present he has to fend off the attentions of his posh expat neighbour (Marion Mathie) and risks being unmasked by the Essex wideboy he encounters at one of her boozy soirees. Marlowe does an excellent job as the nervy Whittaker and we finally get to see the ensemble cast together properly.

Knocker – 51m 28s Scr Robin Chapman, Dir Tony Wharmby
Featuring Bob Hoskins and Pam Scotcher.
'Knocker' Grindley (Bob Hoskins) is the 'peterman' or safecracker of the gang. He would now be called a sex addict but in those days he was just a bit of a lad. Following his escape, he attempts to look up some old flames in his little black book but eventually finds a new soulmate in Sandra (Pam Scotcher), a blind date. This is a weird combination of gangster melodrama and Benny Hill-style knockabout farce. It even ends with a chase scene across a park which is only lacking Yakety Sax on the soundtrack. Bob is Bob is Bob and this was his first featured role (three whole years before On the Move) and it's easy to see why he became the star he is now.

Disc Four

Bernie - 49m 40s Scr Tony Hoare Dir Robert Tronson
Featuring Tom Adams, Marjorie Yates and Gabrielle Drake
Bernie Owens (Tom Adams) is the man behind the thermic lance in the raid. Following the escape, he is living in a rundown caravan park in an out-of-season seaside town. While he waits for travel documents to leave the country he reminisces about the balancing act he had to carry out between his loyal, long-suffering wife (Marjorie Yates) and his tarty mistress (Gabrielle Drake). Throughout the 70s and 80s Tom Adams was Mr Smooth on British TV and specialised in playing handsome rogues. His Terry Wogan hairstyle is a bit of a distraction but he does a very good job here. It's also quite a surprise to see Gabrielle Drake playing tarty as she usually specialised in posh characters. But the standout performance here is Marjorie Yates. This was only her second screen appearance (according to imdb) and since then she has worked constantly in film, tv and on the stage and is one of this country's most under-rated actresses. She was only 30 when she made this and has a very strange almost ethereal beauty here coupled with a strong presence and rock-solid technique. I think this is the best female performance in the series as a whole.

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Smudger - 51m 24s Scr Jonathan Hales Dir Jim Goddard
Featuring Jim Norton and Timothy West
Jim Norton is probably best known these days as the overbearing Bishop Brennan in Father Ted, a character type he has gone on to exploit in numerous other TV series and films. However in his young days he played a much wider range and Smudger gives him an opportunity to shine. Sitting in a dingy cafe after the escape (two teas, a coffee and two doughnuts comes to 27p!!), the weaselly, beaten Smudger looks back on the events in his life (from childhood) that have brought him to this point. This involves some quite complex storytelling including flashbacks within flashbacks and the use of subjective shakicam a whole 30-odd years before it became fashionable. Norton turns in an exceptional performance, probably the most outstanding in the set.

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Grass - 50m 58s Scr Ray Jenkins Dir Tony Wharmby
Featuring Bryan Marshall and David Daker
The police hunt begins to close in on Arnold (Bryan Marshall) who supplied the getaway cars for the escape, and George (David Daker) who is seeking his help. By applying pressure on their wives and girlfriends, the police hope to force the men's whereabouts from them.

Billy Boy - 50m 49s Scr Andrew Brown, Dir Robert Tronson
Featuring William Marlowe and David Daker
Bill Whittaker returns from his sojourn overseas to extort assistance from his family. Several other story threads are also tied up.

Transfer and Sound

As was standard practice at the time, each play features a mixture of studio footage on video and location work on 16mm film. With the exception of a fuzzy LWT ribbon ident on the opening credits the masters for these 40-year-old plays are in astonishingly good condition. There is no damage to speak of and the transfer is as good as you can want from material of this vintage. The only way this could be improved would be the digital removal of the odd scratch and bit of dirt on the film sequences. However the mix of the two formats varies enormously from play to play. Some of the lower-budget pieces such as His Dad Named Him After The General take place almost entirely in one studio set. The other extreme can be seen in Sand Dancer which was shot almost entirely on film in a wide variety of locations throughout England which, as much as anything, gives it a more prestigious feel.

The mono soundtrack is clear and undamaged although the dialogue is very dense and you might have to use the rewind button to replay bits you miss.

Extras

None. As usual with Network there are no subtitles.

Summary

This serial is a cut above the standard fare for the time. Structurally, these plays have some interesting stylistic touches that were not customarily used in mainstream TV drama. By the early 70s commercial film and TV were playing around with narrative forms that had previously been reserved for arthouse pieces and Villains is no exception. For the most part, each play follows a standard TV cause-effect format but every so often associational editing (or Eisensteinian montage if you want to be pretentious) erupts onto the screen. Not only is the narrative quite elliptical but it also jumps around in time with no onscreen motivation. Brief flashbacks are inserted into the main narrative for no other reason than to add context and texture, something which happens quite frequently in Bernie. Occasional flashforwards are also used. For example in Sand Dancer, scenes of hare-coursing flash onto the screen before Tel encounters the hunt and the protesters. This could also be interpreted metaphorically because Tel is being chased the length of England by the police. Smudger uses all sorts of nested flashbacks while Chas is punctuated with rapidfire montages of snapshots of the title character which is the only time he appears onscreen.

This is not a police procedural or a caper story. When they appear at all the police are tangential corrupt characters and the bank raid is just a device to get the plot underway. This is about the people both directly involved in the raid and, more importantly, the people associated with them who are affected by the fallout from it, in particular the wives, girlfriends and mistresses. The tonal shifts from play to play can be quite jarring if watched in quick succession but to be fair they were never meant to be watched that way.

This is a superb set with some cracking performances in it - Jim Norton, Barbara Leigh-Hunt and Marjorie Yates in particular stand out amongst a hugely-talented ensemble cast. Although the plays vary widely in subject matter, tone and style and some are undeniably better than others, there are no duds and one genuinely outstanding piece, Sand Dancer - and no, I didn't write the Amazon review for this.

Villains is a web-exclusive release available through Network DVD's website. Click here to find the product on their site.

You can also purchase it through Amazon's marketplace sellers here.

Film
9 out of 10
Video
9 out of 10
Audio
9 out of 10
Extras
0 out of 10
Overall

9

out of 10

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