Look-Back on '70s Telly - Issue 4 Review
This is the fourth in a series of sampler releases from Network. Each two-disc set contains sixteen half-hour episodes from a variety of children's series from the 70s (and occasionally the 60s). Most are taken from existing releases but there are some tantalising glimpses of some gems that are still in the archive. The majority are season-opener episodes (clever, that) to bait your interest. Here are some thumbnail sketches of what to look forward to.
The Doombolt Chase (1978) – Court of Shame
I have the complete set for this. Clearly inspired by Freewheelers, it's a Bond-esque romp involving the Royal Navy, a mad scientist, a super weapon and some plucky teenagers in the West Country. Complete with casual sexism and that stalwart of ITV children's dramas, Richard Willis. One of the bigger budget drama series and filmed entirely on location.
Quest of Eagles (1979) – Sailor
A tale of East/West political intrigue. A young Geordie lad's Polish father dies and diverse shady characters (including Her Majesty's government) exhibit an interest in some 'treasure' he may have appropriated prior to leaving Poland. Notable for being Gina McKee's first screen turn as one of our young hero's friends. Another big budget filmed series shot on location with a superb supporting cast whose efforts are completely undermined by the breathtakingly bad acting of its teenage lead (Michael Yeaman).
Come Back Lucy (1978) – Episode One
A rather creepy young girl (played by Oona Kirsch) who has been brought up alone by an elderly aunt is, upon her death, sent to live with her closest relatives, a chaotic bohemian family living in a big old Victorian house. She discovers a ghost in the attic, a young Victorian girl of her own age that only she can see. Looks promising, mostly studio-bound and the child actors aren't too objectionable.
The Boy Merlin (1979) – Red Dragon, White Dragon
What a contrast to the current BBC Saturday night effort. A studio-based drama about 12-year-old Merlin and his development as a sorcerer. Unlike the faux-Medieval setting of the modern series, this takes it firmly back to Dark Ages Wales so it's thatched huts and everyone clad in sheepskins. However the story does have a strong supernatural element which is well-realised despite the budget limitations. The one striking thing about this opening episode is the sheer quantity of plot it packs into 25 minutes, enough for an entire arc-story of modern Merlin. But that does lead unfortunately to some clunky exposition.
The Flaxton Boys (1970) – The Meeting
The first episode of the second series, set in 1890, sees the juvenile leads of the first series now mature adults with their own children. This does mean the episode is peppered with a huge amount of expository dialogue summarising the first series which is quite superfluous for the new viewer. Shot entirely on video in the studio and on location and featuring Kes's very own Dai Bradley as one of the two boys in the title. Unfortunately his limitations as an actor are very apparent in this.
Pardon My Genie (1972) – The Apprentice's Sorcerer
One of my childhood favourites and one of the standouts of this collection. A farcical supernatural comedy in which ironmonger's shop assistant Hal Addin (get it?) while cleaning an old watering can, finds it contains a genie in the fantabuloso form of Hugh Paddick (best-known as one half of Julian and Sandy on Kenneth Horne's radio shows). The stories are silly but the casting is spot-on. The three principals, Ellis Dale, Hugh P and Roy Barraclough as Mr Cobbledick (ooer matron) slip easily into their characters as if they have been playing them for years. They work very well together and Paddick's comic timing is exquisite. I may be mistaken, but I'm sure his character gets quite a bit camper as the episodes go by... Series One is already available on DVD.
The Clifton House Mystery (1978) – Episode One
Genuinely creepy supernatural thriller in which a family buy an old house in Bristol's Clifton area and find it has a sad secret in the attic. Completely studio-bound but with a strong child cast and some scary stuff going on. There is a very good summary of the show on this website - www.televisionheaven.co.uk/cliftonhouse.htm
King of The Castle (1977) – Episode One
This has been reviewed in full elsewhere on this site. Full Review
Arthur of the Britons (1973) – Go Warily
One of the first real attempts to take the Arthurian settings away from the medieval era and into a more historically-accurate post-Roman Dark Ages period. Filmed entirely on location and starring 70s heartthrob Oliver Tobias, this series was a big hit at the time. One point of note for this episode is the presence of a just-before-Doctor Who Tom Baker as guest villain.
Fly Into Danger (1972) – Take-Off
A young mechanic takes a job as an apprentice at a small private aerodrome and discovers an illegal smuggling operation being carried out by the aerodrome's managers. A young Sue Holderness provides the dolly-bird element as the secretary and Girl Friday to the aerodrome manager.
Children of the Stones (1977) – Into The Circle
I'm quite astonished there is no full-length review of this release on this site considering it's one of the most fondly-remembered and popular of all the 70s kids' fantasy dramas. Filmed in Avebury it tells of a boy and his physicist dad who move to a small village built inside an ancient stone circle and who discover some very strange goings-on. Well worth buying the whole set.
A Bunch of Fives (1977) – Do It Yourself
This has been reviewed in full elsewhere on this site. Full Review
Tom Grattan's War (1968) – The Watcher 24m 27s
One of the bigger-budget series of the time, this tells of a teenage city boy (played by Michael Howe) who spends the First World War working on his relatives' farm in Yorkshire. Shot entirely on location on film this is well-made with an involving story and a strong cast.
The Ghosts of Motley Hall (1976) – The Christmas Spirit
This is the opening episode of season two by which time the cast of distinguished character actors were well into their stride. Although very much studio-bound, the visual effects in this episode are imaginative and well-realised. Good fun.
The Kids From 47a (1973) – Gathercole Bunch
Oh dear. A studio-based comedy drama in which a bunch of actors with no chemistry play a family of kids who are accidentally left to fend for themselves when their mother goes into hospital and the live-in minder never turns up. The child actors mostly just shout their lines at each other while the adults barely conceal their horror at being part of it all.
Warrior Queen (1978) – Episode One
For me, the highlight of the set. A historical drama detailing Queen Boudicca's campaign against the Romans starring Sian Phillips and Nigel Hawthorne. If memory serves, this show was a vehicle for her to exploit the phenomenal popularity she enjoyed after her work in I, Claudius two years earlier. Shot entirely on location in a recreation of an ancient British settlement this is quality stuff. The script, for a children's series, is strikingly literate, mature and intelligent and the cast, particularly the two leads, play it as if it were Play of The Month. Fab.
As already mentioned, there are eight episodes on each of the two discs. The top menu graphics invoke Look In magazine, the ITV children's tie-in publication of the 70s.
Transfer and Sound
As you would imagine, the quality varies noticeably. All episodes are in colour except Fly Into Danger which is in black and white. The production formats also vary depending on the budget ranging from all-film location shoots (Tom Grattan's War etc.) to multi-camera studio setups (Clifton House Mystery etc.) so you really have to take each one as you find it. However each episode appears to be in reasonably good shape and, as far as archive releases go, are perfectly watchable. The sound is up to Network's usual high standards.
None at all
This is a very good appetiser. Most of the series chosen are strong and I would like to see more of most of them. However there is at least one I would have happily wiped had I been a controller of the day. Of the series not yet released I would put Warrior Queen top of my list with Quest of Eagles and The Boy Merlin in there too.