Adam Adamant Lives! Review

Adam Adamant Lives! almost never happened. The original intention was to adapt the stories of detective Sexton Blake for television. But there was a rights problem with Blake, and so BBC Head of Television Drama Sydney Newman had to find a replacement, and Adam Adamant Lives! was the result.

We begin in 1902, in “a Castle in Windsor”. Adam Llewellyn De Vere Adamant (Gerald Harper) is a thirty-six-year-old Edwardian adventurer. Captured by his arch-enemy The Face (Peter Ducrow), he is frozen in a block of ice, never to be seen again…not, that is, until 1966 when the block is uncovered by London workmen. Adamant is thawed out. Escaping from hospital, he is rescued by Georgina Jones (Juliet Harmer), who had been a fan of his after reading about his exploits as a child. Within a couple of episodes, Adam recreates his old home (now demolished) in a multi-storey car park and acquires a manservant in the shape of Simms (Jack May), a man who is given to reciting impromptu limericks. And so the premise is in place. Adam, with the help (or to him, hindrance) of Miss Jones has returned, to fight crime and to deal with threats to Queen and Country. But he is haunted by memories of The Face and his lost love, Louise…

Produced by Verity Lambert, who had been the original producer of Doctor Who under Newman, Adam Adamant Lives! saw two series in quick succession (with only a two and a half month gap between them), twenty-nine episodes in all. Watching the seventeen surviving episodes in this DVD set (more about the missing ones later), the series stands up quite well. It has been accused of being an Avengers copy on a BBC budget, with its platonic pairing of straitlaced gent and swinging London chick. It’s also true that it does lapse into formula in places: the dream/flashback of The Face and Louise is repeated in almost every episode in the first series, and it’s often very convenient how Georgie manages to find employment at very short notice in the very establishments Adam is trying to infiltrate. But the best episodes are delightful, and played with just the right edge to it.

Nowadays you’d suspect the postmodern irony to be laid on thick. Take a series like Life on Mars, for example, which reverses the premise. In that show, Sam Tyler returns to 1973, but it’s 1973 designed for people who (like me) are old enough to remember that year. Every detail of production design, all the songs on the soundtrack, are calculated to fire nostalgic triggers in the audience. Sam Tyler’s 1973 is a year made from old cop shows like The Sweeney: notice that no-one uses strong language as real 70s cops and criminals would have done – because no-one did swear in scripted 70s TV. By contrast, Adamant’s 1902 Windsor is just as much a construct, though anyone old enough to remember that year in 1966 would have been very elderly, and not the programme’s intended demographic. When Adam wanders in a daze in central London, it’s the real 1966 West End, accidentally there for the cameras. Of course, Adam Adamant Lives! now exists to fire nostalgic triggers for those old enough to have seen it when it was broadcast – which I wasn’t. Even the Bond-pastiche title song will be enough.

The casting is just right. It’s a sensible idea to appeal to both sexes. Gerald Harper has just the right kind of timeless square-jawed handsomeness to be a convincing Edwardian hero. On the other hand, Juliet Harmer as Miss Jones must have inspired Swinging London fantasies in many a male viewer’s heart. As the makers of The Avengers knew, likewise The X Files much later, a platonic relationship between the two lead characters is much more intriguing than having them getting it on from the outset. To Adam, Miss Jones is often infuriating, a constant reminder of changing mores. (In the first episode he mistakes her for a boy as she is wearing trousers, and he misinterprets her having her own flat for being a fallen woman.) To Georgie, Adam is old-fashioned, overbearing and chauvinistic, and it’s often left for her to save the day. But there’s an undeniable chemistry between them. There’s a lovely scene in the final episode, when Adam is genuinely touched by her remembering his (one hundredth) birthday. Completing the central trio is Simms, given an inimitable performance by Jack May, at turns sinister and a little camp.

As with a lot of vintage television, one fascination is seeing future famous names in the credits. Adam Adamant Lives! was among the first directorial credits for Ridley Scott, who had been a designer up to then. Unfortunately of his three episodes, only one survives, “The League of Uncharitable Ladies” (which is where the screengrab below comes from). As for those in front of the camera, anyone who owns The Andromeda Anthology will spot the distinctive shaven head of John Hollis in “Allah Is Not Always With You”. This fan of Australian cinema failed to recognise a much younger Charles “Bud” Tingwell in “The Sweet Smell of Disaster”. And “The Terribly Happy Embalmers” (written by Brian Clemens) is a treat for fans of 70s sitcoms, with its teaming of John Le Mesurier, Arthur Brough and Deryck Guyler in the same episode!

What may also attract an audience to this DVD set is that Adam Adamant Lives! is fairly family-safe. There is a fair amount of violence, but it’s PG-level fisticuffs in the main. In fact most of the episodes are rated PG, with only “Allah Is Not Always With You” (with a slightly higher level of threat) and “The Village of Evil” (with its theme of English countryside Satanism) earning the set its 12 certificate. That’s if you can persuade today’s youngsters to watch something in black and white…

All but one of the sixteen episodes of Series One and one of the thirteen from Series Two were recorded using new-fangled 625-line cameras, output onto and edited on 35mm film with separate magnetic soundtracks, from which it was transmitted. The remaining episodes were recorded on 405-line videotape. This was also the format for the untransmitted pilot, which no longer exists, though nine minutes of it forms the 1902 prologue for the first episode. 16mm telerecordings (with optical soundtracks) of all twenty-nine episodes were made for sales overseas. However, the bane of vintage television struck again: although many episodes were kept, others were junked. One episode is missing from Series One (the fourteenth, “Ticket to Terror”, which was the one 405-line first-series episode). Only two episodes remain from Series Two, which rather aborts a developing theme of Adamant’s past, and in particular The Face, returning to haunt him. The surviving episodes are presented in broadcast order, as follows:

Disc One
“A Vintage Year For Scoundrels” (48:15)
“Death Has a Thousand Faces” (49:42)
“More Deadly Than the Sword” (49:51)
”The Sweet Smell of Disaster” (50:19)

Disc Two
“Allah Is Not Always With You” (49:43)
“The Terribly Happy Embalmers” (50:15)
“To Set A Deadly Fashion” (49:55)
“The Last Sacrifice” (49:25)

Disc Three
“Sing A Song of Murder” (49:58)
“The Doomsday Plan” (49:14)
“Death by Appointment Only” (48:33)

Disc Four
“Beauty Is an Ugly Word” (49:31)
“The League of Uncharitable Ladies” (49:09)
“The Village of Evil” (49:04)
“D for Destruction” (46:27)

Disc Five
“Black Echo” (49:40)
“A Sinister Sort of Service” (50:26)

Adam Adamant Lives! comes as a box-set of five dual-layered DVDs, encoded for Regions 2 and 4 only. There are unfortunately edits to the first two episodes due to music rights issues, removing the Rolling Stones’s “Route 66” from the soundtrack.

Each episode is in its original 4:3 aspect ratio, as you would expect from 60s television. There’s a inevitable difference in quality between the episodes transferred from 35mm transmission copies and those from 16mm telerecordings. There are four of the latter: “Death Has a Thousand Faces”, the once-lost but recently recovered “D for Destruction” and the two from Series Two. But the 35mm episodes look very good indeed, the extra resolution both of the originating electronic cameras and the recording medium being very evident.

The soundtrack is the original mono, and it’s clear and well-balanced most of the times. The 16mm-sourced episodes have more muffled soundtracks: you may benefit from turning the volume up a little.

Commentaries are provided for the first and last episodes. In both cases the participants are Gerald Harper, Juliet Harmer and Verity Lambert. As you would expect, memories are a little hazy in places after forty years, but there are a good few interesting tidbits to be had, and the rapport between the three of them is obvious.

Also on Disc One is an outtakes reel from that first episode, “A Vintage Year for Scoundrels” (3:46). These are trims from the film inserts, mainly silent but with commentary at appropriate points from Juliet Harmer and stuntman Derek Ware.

On Disc Three is a longer outtakes reel and film trims from Episode Nine, “Sing a Song of Murder” (20: 33), with optional information subtitles. We get to see some footage not in the final episode, not to mention barefooted Production Assistant Val Sheppard saying “Shut up!”

The bulk of the extras are on Disc Five. “This Man is the One” is a newly-produced featurette presented by Mark Gatiss. This features contributions from cast and crew members (including Verity Lambert. director Moira Armstrong and writers Brian Clemens and Tony Williamson, the latter appearing in footage shot at a convention) and cult-TV experts like Kim Newman. Also included is a meet-up after forty years between Gerald Harper and Juliet Harmer where they are driven around London and are reunited with Adam’s old Mini Cooper. Tending more towards the nostalgic than the overly analytical, this is a very pleasant watch, running 52:06 and in 4:3 format.

Also on the disc is a self-navigating stills gallery (13:14) and, in PDF format, cuttings from Radio Times, reproductions of the 1967 Adam Adamant Annual and comic strips, and scripts of the twelve missing episodes. Also included in the box set is a booklet which was not provided for review.

This box set is an admirably comprehensive - at least until missing episodes show up – look at a series that only lasted two series and less than a year but stands up well today. Sixties nostalgics will not hesitate.

8 out of 10
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