Shabby Tiger Review
I was intrigued to see this series when I heard it was appearing on DVD. First broadcast in 1973 I have vague childhood memories of it causing quite a stir at the time because the leading lady Prunella Gee appeared naked in the first couple of episodes. Which was quite something at the time. And sure enough she does but it all looks quite tame and innocent now, even modest – no full-frontals. Adapted from a 1934 novel by Howard Spring, the series revolves around the lives of a small group of people living in Manchester in 1930 against a background of social unrest brought on by the beginning of the Depression. However this is no twee period drama. In fact, if it had been made into a film, it would most likely have been directed by Ken Russell.
The 'heroine' Anna Fitzgerald is a lively, free-spirited sexually liberated young woman. We first encounter her striding away from her employment as a servant in the country house where her father worked and where she grew up. From her conversation with the pursuing young gentleman of the house (a very young Nigel Havers in a brief appearance) it's apparent she was more than just a servant to him. She dismisses him and then chances upon a young shabbily-dressed man painting in a field, Nick Faunt (John Nolan). He is surly and rather intense but she inveigles her way into his company and, the following day, accompanies him to Manchester where they set up home together - platonically. It becomes apparent very quickly that Nick comes from a wealthy aristocratic family but has turned his back on their wealth and all its trappings and revels in his bohemian poverty. Neither Nick nor Anna are aware they have mutual connections but these soon become apparent. Anna, 5 years earlier at the age of 16, had given birth to an illegitimate son who is now cared for in the city by her friend Jacob (Howard Southern) and his sister Rachel (a very young Sharon Maughan).
Jacob, known as 'Mo' (short for Moses, a common nickname for Jewish men in 1930s Manchester, apparently) is a kind-hearted simple man who dotes on the boy. His sister, by complete contrast, is an ambitious heartless bitch whose main occupation is ruthless social climbing. She currently has in tow a pompous and equally ambitious young artist Anton who just happens to be a good friend of Nick's. Thus the two worlds collide. Further unlikely coincidences are to happen.
The plot proper heaves itself into life when Anna decides to take her son back, now she has a home in Manchester. Much to Rachel's delight and Jacob's distress who flees the now-empty family home and is taken in at random by two communist protesters, Joe and Olga Kepple who feel sorry for him. And who have yet-to-be-disclosed significant links with the Faunt family. One further unlikely coincidence is the repeated chance encounters between Anna and Nick's father, Alderman Sir George Faunt, a baronet and ageing roué on whom Nick has turned his back. And who becomes engaged to Rachel at one point.
As you can gather the plot relies heavily on coincidence and random events. Events take place against a background of industrial and social unrest with the collapse of the mining and cotton industries leading to protests and communist rallies. But Nick is no crusading neo-socialist. He is thoroughly spoilt and selfish and cares little for those around him. He only tolerates Anna because he is attracted to her physicality and regards her almost as his muse. She tags along with him initially because she sees an opportunity to set up home in Manchester and retrieve her child. Both use each other but in another light they can be seen as proto-hippies reacting from opposite ends of the social spectrum against the establishment. Which would have been fashionable and relevant at the time the series was commissioned and is reinforced by the costuming. In the opening shots Anna does look like she's on her way to Glastonbury. Elsewhere though the costuming and make-up, as was the case in 70s TV, is scrupulously period-accurate. This is exemplified in Rachel, who looks her best at all times.
Aside from the heavy reliance on coincidence, one of the significant problems with this story as a whole is the almost complete lack of sympathetic characters. Only two people could be said to have any decency to them, Jacob/'Mo' and his landlady and new friend Olga Kepple. Christine Hargreaves, who plays Olga, has a thankless task, portraying a stereotyped Northern working-class matriarch saddled with the most unflattering hairstyle and costuming you can imagine, but still being expected to be the solid moral centre of that particular plotline. But she manages magnificently turning in the most subtle and convincing performance of anyone in the cast.
The story also suffers from abrupt shifts in tone. The scenes between Rachel and Sir George could be straight out of some Noel Coward parlour melodrama whilst the working class household scenes are the forebears of 'It's Grim Up North' social realist dramas. Characters flit between the two as if they're just popping next door for a cup of sugar. But the biggest problem with this adaptation is the casting. The best performances come from seasoned character actors in the secondary roles, Christine Hargreaves being the stand-out but also mention must be given to Patrick Holt as Sir George who effortlessly embodies his character.
The two principals don't fare so well. John Nolan is just too old and stagey for Nick. I gather he was a respected actor with the RSC around that time but while most TV performances in those days were quite theatrical, his veers too much in that direction. However the biggest problem is Prunella Gee. She just isn't very good. She looks the part and has a terrific figure and attacks the character with gusto but that's all she really brings to it. It's partly the fault of the script - Anna has an unfortunate habit of speaking in pronouncements and is given little opportunity to show what's underneath (if you'll pardon the expression). But Ms Gee was very inexperienced when she was cast – this is her first credit in imdb – and it shows. You are always aware she's acting. But to her credit, she never trips over the furniture and when required to eat she does so with gusto, something we aren't used to these days with stick-thin actresses waving a lettuce leaf on the end of a fork passing for eating lunch.
Having said that, none of the cast are helped by the overall poor quality of production. Notwithstanding its 'quality drama' presentation (transmitted at 9pm every Wednesday as the closing credits trumpet on each episode – the good old days when schedules were schedules and weren't changed on a whim), the production values are generally poor. Studio sets are shabby and lighting is flat and unrealistic with boom shadows plaguing many scenes. Minor mistakes in dialogue and blocking are left in and John Nolan corpses badly in one scene, even looking briefly at camera. Admittedly this was fairly standard practice back then as these scenes would only have been viewed once by the audience – no repeats in those days. But I am left with the impression the budget was tight – no time for re-takes and poor Prunella Gee has exactly one costume for the whole seven episodes (or two if you count her skin). This is in stark contrast with all the scenes filmed on location which are technically accomplished and even stylish in places. A range of vintage vehicles including trams are on show throughout so it must have cost a bob or two. You are left with the impression that the budget was blown on the location shoots and not much was left over for the studio stuff.
|The following text contains spoilers. Click and drag over this box to view.|
|All in all the story as presented is nihilistic and cynical. Two characters suffer accidental and pointless deaths, the more significant being Jacob's at the end of the final episode which goes completely unnoticed by everyone. Admittedly a passive and frustrating character, his intellectual limitations and desire for happiness following the loss of his foster-child make him the most sympathetic to the audience and to despatch him in such a fashion (falling into the canal and drowning while trying to retrieve his cat) leaves a sense of being cheated. Particularly when he has just been abandoned by his sister who, during the course of the seven episodes has dumped Anton, become pregnant with Nick's child then got engaged to his father (!!) who, on finding out about her pregnancy, dumps her at which point she has an abortion, turns to prostitution and when at her lowest is offered a lifeline by a friend, takes his money and runs off with another man. Nick and Anna, meanwhile, have decided to become a proper couple, complete with ready-made child, and leave for London where Nick's paintings are beginning to sell well. In contrast to their initial eschewal of all things material, Nick now avidly pursues the lucre while Anna, his social inferior, tells him that she's looking forward to them becoming Sir Nicholas and Lady Faunt on his father's death. And did I mention the Kepple's alcoholic daughter who happens to be Nick's estranged wife?|
I wouldn't call it uplifting to watch but once you accept this it does bear repeated viewing. I enjoyed it much more the second time I watched it because that gave me the luxury of watching the supporting actors in the background doing better work than the principals. Like most 70s TV drama now available on DVD, I believe it's important to watch it and treasure it in the same way we look back at old films of the period. There's an unbelievable amount of cinematic dross pushed out on DVD and while Shabby Tiger may not be the finest small-screen drama of the period it's certainly better than many of the films of that time offered on DVD.
The series is presented in seven 50-minute episodes (give or take a few seconds) split across two discs, with the first three episodes on disc one and four on disc two. Each episode is split into 10 chapters but these are not menu-accessible.
Acceptable quality. The usual mixture of location work on grainy film and studio work on video is presented here. The picture quality of the archive material varies considerably. The opening credits of every episode appear very worn and grainy and the location film segments are fuzzy but technically accomplished. There appears to have been no restoration of any kind applied to the tapes. There are occasional instances of tape damage throughout the series but these are fleeting. There is also some colour instability in the taped segments brought on by age. As with all Network releases, the digital transfer is exemplary. Considering the less than ideal quality of the source material, there are no noticeable digital artefacts brought on by the lack of sharpness in the filmed location segments.
A single mono soundtrack of acceptable quality. Everyone's diction is excellent but some of the sound recording on location is not as clear as it could be. Dialogue is overwhelmed by ambient sound particularly when trams rumble past.
There are no subtitles or extras on this release.