The Beiderbecke Trilogy Review
Hal Hartley described Amateur as being a gangster movie in which the wheels on the cars are slightly loose, liable even to fall off. I was, whilst watching the first episode of The Beiderbecke Affair, considering opening this review by saying that it is the kind of comedy thriller in which there's no car chase. On the contrary, there were a couple of brisk walks, one of which sees Trevor Chaplin (James Bolam) follow a platinum blonde off a football field and into a council estate, losing her amongst the hundreds of flats in a tower block. There are hints of Raymond Chandler, not least in that platinum blonde but given that she's played by the Jacqui Corkhill, she's not quite a Veronica Lake or a Lana Turner. And there's that football field. Not exactly a seedy bar out of which comes, most suitably, the sound of jazz.
But there is a car chase, one in which Trevor Chaplin is pursued by the police, he in a yellow van, the police in a white Cortina. And yet it's not really a car chase, at least not how we, with knowledge of Bullitt, Ronin and The French Connection, understand it. Trevor decides early not to give the police any actual reason to pull him over and so he drifts along at slightly less than the speed limit, which, given the nature of the area that he's driving through, is 30mph. His only effort to lose the police is driving around a roundabout several times, eventually getting away when he lets Big Al out of his van next to a level crossing and pulling away from the police as the falling barriers separate them. It's hardly To Live And Die In LA being, on the contrary, gentle, whimsical and very British, a perfect way, as it would happen, to describe The Beiderbecke Connection.
Alan Plater's Beiderbecke Connection opens with Trevor Chaplin answering to the door to a platinum blonde who offers him goods from a mail order catalogue, out of which Trevor picks an electric hedge trimmer and a set of jazz records, one of which is a rare recording of Bix Beiderbecke. Unfortunately, the hedge trimmer, which he presents to Mr Carter (Dudley Sutton) doesn't work and the Beiderbecke records aren't. Beiderbecke records, that is. Feeling somewhat cheated by this transaction, Trevor begins looking out for this blonde from the mail order company, seeing her in the distance as he referees a football game between Big Al's scout group and that of Little Norm. Distracted, Trevor follows her, leaving the game in the hands of his girlfriend, Jill Swinburne (Barbara Flynn), an English teacher and prospective councillor for the Conservation Party. As the match descends into chaos and Big Al (Terence Rigby) pushes Little Norm (Danny Schiller) to the ground, the police arrive and Jill and the two team coaches are escorted by Det. Sgt. Hobson (Dominic Jephcott) to the police station on a charge of breaking the peace.
With some knowledge of the law - one doesn't get far on the left of politics in Thatcher's Britain without it - Jill extricates them from the police station but Hobson isn't done with them just yet, less so when he finds Big Al is at the centre of a new economy, one that doesn't bother with a shop front or a retail outlet, not to mention the paying of tax, more the storage of their stock in the basement of a church. Replacing Mr Carter's hedge trimmer with one unlikely to explode and his easy-listening records with jazz, Trevor grows rather fond of Big Al but then his ex-girlfriend shows up, Big Al moves all his stock into his flat and he's invited for lunch at the home of Councillor McAllister (James Grout). When it doesn't look as though things can get any worse, there arrives a supergrass and his dog and a sergeant uncovering corruption in high places. And Jill still has to get elected!
Trevor and Jill are back in The Beiderbecke Tapes, without Big Al and Little Norm this time around. And, sadly, without DS Hobson either. However, things are otherwise looking very good for Trevor and Jill, not least that Mr Carter appears to be very cheerful - he's even seen laughing as they approach the school - and a night out in a bar ends with the barman John (David Batley) offering Trevor a set of Bix Beiderbecke tapes. But when Trevor listens to one of the tapes, he's rather disturbed by its contents. Not that there's anything wrong with the Beiderbecke recordings on the tape, more that it ends rather suddenly to be replaced by two men talking about the illegal disposal of nuclear waste. Soon, though, there's a strange man on their doorstep quoting national security - he breaks bones, apparently - and armed men searching their home. Then there's their being persuaded to go along on the school trip to The Netherlands, which seems like a good idea to get away from all of the Edge Of Darkness shenanigans but it ends in deportation, a hangover, being saved by the Ancient Orer of Elks and Beryl Reid breaking down the walls of national security from the safety of her rest home.
In the final series, The Beiderbecke Connection, Big Al and Little Norm are playing bowls when along comes Trevor Chaplin, looking as though he's out for a walk with his newborn son. But looking in to wish the baby well, Big Al and Little Norm are surprised to see the pram full of Trevor's empties. There is a baby, mind, mainly Edward but sometimes Karl, and later that night Big Al and Little Norm call round with a present for the firstborn of Mr Chaplin and Mrs Swinburne, a baby monitor. But they also have a favour to ask, one that will make good use of the Chaplin and Swinburne spare room and one that will prick at Jill's conscience, being the need to hide a left-leaning refugee named Ivan for just the one night. However, all their efforts to rid themselves of Ivan fail - neither a dropping off at the border of Lincolnshire nor one at Lancashire prove to be successful - until an afternoon trip to the seaside is more fruitful. Meanwhile, Jill's ex-husband calls, the shortage of equipment and materials at the school are resolved by a generous past-pupil, which is odd given how Big Al has consistently denied any involvement with the school, and Det. Insp. Hobson loses his hockey stick. And yet all that he has to aid him in his fight against this theft are two rather incompetent policemen (George Costigan and Sean Scanlan), who are equally concerned with missing copies of Tess Of The d'Urbervilles from a bookshop in town.
It would be easy to say much, much more about The Beiderbecke Trilogy but part of its charm is seeing how the various strands in the plots are slowly revealed. Coming to The Beiderbecke Affair, Tapes and Connection with very little knowledge of the plotting is quite the best way to do so, such that the revealing of the comedy, the homages paid to Bix Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker and the intricate plotting amongst the council buildings, the school and Big Al's allotment are all given space. Indeed, this viewer was, at first, might well have given up on The Beiderbecke Affair had it not been for the sake of this review such was the deathly pace at which it begins but later, sometime during the second episode, one begins to keep step with it and enjoy its oh so gentle mystery.
Holding it all together are Barbara Flynn and James Bolam, expertly drawn by Alan Plater and though perhaps erring on being much wittier than the average woodwork and English teacher, thus revealing the origins of the story in Plater's own novel, which he adapted for the screen, they're still a very watchable couple. They are clearly in love, though they're not the kind of couple who would say it to each other, and have a winning way, particularly Bolam, at glancing at a conspiracy with an air of indifference. When, in The Beiderbecke Tapes, a prospective trip to Athens in the company of the Elks turns into one to Edinburgh instead, he turns to Jill and tells her that, well, at least the porridge is better. He is exactly the kind of man you'd want alongside you in a crisis. Not so much for his ability to fight his way out of it - it would also be good to have a Bruce Lee by your side - but for being able to make you smile shortly before the blows started landing.
However, that's not to say that there's a consistency across the three series. The Beiderbecke Affair, perhaps because it feels fresh or because it's given much more time to play out, is the best of the three, spinning an elaborate tale of corruption, an economy that's on the slightly grey side of white and Bix Beiderbecke into a series that holds one's attention over six episodes. It's a quite marvellous piece of British entertainment, with it not being at all surprising that it's remained in the television conscious of the nation. Unfortunately, though ...Tapes and ...Connection are still entertaining, the first sequel feels rushed towards its end, feeling the need to wrap up a conspiracy involving nuclear waste in a few short minutes. This does keep The Beiderbecke Tapes in the style of what one might come to expect from the show - the first of the two episodes does end with a superb scene in a snowy graveyard with John the barman having apparently come back to life - but having followed Jill and Trevor from the north of England to The Netherlands and to Edinburgh, all the while in the company of grey-suited secret service men, having Beryl Reid solve a conspiracy on the edge of darkness is asking slightly too much. The Beiderbecke Connection, on the other hand, feels like a homage to The Beiderbecke Affair, bringing back Hobson, Big Al and Little Norm like the return of some old friends. However, this time around, the disparate elements of the plot feel inconsequential. Where before, the goings-on in Big Al's allotment were at the heart of the conspiracy, here he does little more than play a few games of bowls, arrange for some equipment to be delivered to the school and bring Ivan to the home shared by Jill, Trevor and their newborn. And yet when Ivan is revealed to be someone other than an Eastern European refugee, The Beiderbecke Connection loses some of its appeal, not least when Ivan disappears soon after a trip to the seaside. With him goes much of the interest one has in the story, finding George Costigan and Sean Scanlan's policemen to be a rather charmless substitute.
That said, there is something of value in having these three series in a single boxset, with one enjoying seeing Jill Swinburne and Trevor Chaplin go from being a couple living apart to one, in Trevor's words, that's almost like a family, including man, wife, house and child. That growth in the cast makes these Beiderbecke series very different from the typical detective drama. But then, given what was written in the opening paragraphs of this review, that much was obvious.
Unfortunately, these haven't made the short journey to DVD unblemished, literally so with there being many stray lines, spots and scratches on the prints used in the preparation of this release. In many respects, that's quite typical of Network who have a take-it-as-it-comes attitude to their DVD releases, presenting their material on DVD with little or no remastering. Hence, in addition to the faults with the pictures comes a wobble that's particularly noticeable in the titles and end credits, plenty of grain and even the little black-and-white key in the top right-hand-corner in the seconds before the advertising breaks. And in saying that, the breaks have been included in this release.
However, stick it on of an evening, preferably not on too big a television, and over the very long running time - the entire boxset is 660 minutes plus bonus material - one kind of gets used to it in spite of all of its faults. However, that still doesn't mean it's actually any good. Similarly, the audio track, DD2.0 Mono, is no better than one might expect. The dialogue is clear and the background effects make do but it's when the jazz comes on the soundtrack that it briefly flickers to life, showing that in spite of the background noise, there is some warmth about it. There are not, however, any such problems with the audio tracks as there are with the picture. Finally, this being a Network release, there are no subtitles.
Booklet: Any time one reads of a box set or DVD release containing a booklet, there's always a feeling of disappointment at seeing a flimsy pamphlet fall out of the packaging, almost half of which is filled with glossy stills from the film or television series in mind. Network, on the other hand, have done a magnificent job with this booklet, asking television historian Andrew Pixley to compile a booklet on the making of these shows that is exhaustive in the amount of detail Pixley has included. One really couldn't ask for any more without turning Pixley's work into a book and though there isn't quite enough in the Beiderbecke story for that, this is the next best thing. Over forty-seven densely written pages, Pixley takes in Plater's life, his early work in television and the background to the making of Get Lost!, the precursor to The Beiderbecke Affair, which is also included in this set. Thereafter, Pixley goes on to describe the writing of each book, their adaptation onto television and Plater and the cast's experiences on the set. There is also a review of how each show was received by the public and, on the booklet's final pages, an episode guide and list of credits. But with the detail in these pages, there are some wonderful asides, such as Plater wanting the blurb on the hardback edition of The Beiderbecke Tapes to read, "Soon To Be A Low-Budget TV Movie" before realising that Yorkshire Television might not like that and, anyway, they might not adapt it for television. With a good eye for detail and a vast knowledge of the making of these shows, Andrew Pixley offers much more than anyone other than the utterly devoted fan could possibly know, so much so that it's actually a little daunting to begin reading
Get Lost!: Four years before The Beiderbecke Affair, Alan Plater wrote this comedy drama series about a couple of schoolteachers, one of whom has a deep love of jazz, who get involved in a mystery. Sounds familiar? Indeed it should do as Plater expanded on this and drew out a different set of characters for the later Beiderbecke Affair but the general feel of the series is much the same. Over four fifty-minute episodes - Worried About Jim, The Vicar Did It, Kiss Me Quick and Not A Proper Ending - teachers Neville Keaton (Alun Armstrong) and Judy Threadgold (Bridget Turner) go in search of Judy's husband, Jim (Brian Southwood), when he disappears, leaving her a videotape on which is a message telling her that he's safe, healthy and not to worry. Oh, and she can have the house. With jazz on the soundtrack - Neville's first concern is not Judy's missing husband but a broken amplifier - a yellow Volkswagen Beetle and a vicarage without a vicar.
Unfortunately, the picture quality is even worse than it is on the three main series with there being print damage, as one might have expected, a huge amount of grain and such ghosting as to be noticeable on even a little window on a PC monitor never mind anything bigger, not even considerably so. However, the series itself is good, albeit less so than any of the actual Beiderbecke shows - Alun Armstrong and Bridget Turner, good though they are, don't have the same warmth as James Bolam and Barbara Flynn - with just the right amount of carelessness with the drama and conspiratorial happenings before them. In spite of their efforts, what one misses are the various connections made via Bix Beiderbecke and the supporting characters, such as the headmaster and what children we get to know at the secondary school. Then again, had The Beiderbecke Trilogy not been made, this would be better loved but, as it is, it's overshadowed by what came later.
Interview w/ Alan Plater (3m50s): Introduced as a Hull City fan and appearing alongside a new book of his in the shops, Alan Plater is interviewed on Yorkshire Television's Calendar in March 2006. This appearance would look to be about the book but given that it concerns, at least in part, writing for television, there's mention of The Beiderbecke Affair and a brief glimpse of it. There is also some small mention of other shows Plater was involved in, including Softly, Softly, Z Cars and Dalziel And Pascoe.
Archive Interviews (2m31s): Also from Calendar, although these date from 1987 at the time of The Beiderbecke Tapes, this features interviews with James Bolam, Barbara Flynn and Alan Plater shot on board a passenger ferry in the port of Hull. These see the cast and writer talking about the show they're working on and, as regards Bolam and Flynn, praising Plater's work.
Image Of Yorkshire (45m22s): Made in 1989 during Yorkshire Television's twenty-first anniversary celebrations and presented by Richard Whitely, this special looks back at the shows written by Alan Plater for the television company over a long career. The Beiderbecke Trilogy are, of course, mentioned but so too are The Loner with Les Dawson, Willow Cabins, Oh No, It's Selwyn Froggitt, Good Companions, On Your Way, Riley and A Day In Summer. After each clip, Plater talks in depth about each show but he does seem sheepish about them, talking quietly about each show, preferring to point out their faults rather than praise them. That may, of course, be the kind of man that he is but he does leave it to Richard Whitely to speak more fondly of his work than does he.
Soundtrack CD: As if it couldn't get any better! Amongst the most warmly welcomed of bonus material, this CD collects fifteen tracks from the three series onto a single disc beginning with the theme tune and on to a set of almost-as-memorable pieces of music, all played by The Frank Ricotti All Stars and featuring Kenny Baker on cornet. Coming off watching these shows, listening to this is a treat, with one's own life now able to be accompanied by the swinging jazz that opens each episode of The Beiderbecke Trilogy.
Also included are two Adobe Acrobat documents on The Beiderbecke Affair, one offering the sight of the flexi-disc released to promote the show and the other a PR sheet complete with a short introduction by Alan Plater. Finally, there is an Image Gallery (2m33s), which includes stills from the show but, showing a much higher quality than on the actual show, were clearly photographed on the set for use in promoting the show. It is, though, quite startling to see the difference between these shots, which suggests what a fully restored Beiderbecke Trilogy might look like, and these shows as included here.
Rightly considered classics, it's only fitting that these three shows should come together in the one release. Taking only the bonus material, Network have done a sterling job, as they sometimes do, in including an other series entirely, a great booklet and a soundtrack CD. Other than perhaps a commentary from either the cast of crew, which I don't think would really have been that interesting, Network probably couldn't have done much more. But they could have sorted out the picture and it's a shame that they haven't. Unfortunately, there have been several releases of these shows on DVD and given that, in all likelihood, the same prints have been used on each one, we're probably never destined to see them looking any better. That's a shame because these could look very good indeed. For now, though, we'll have to put up with what we've been given, albeit with a marvellous set of bonus features.