The Red Hand Gang: The Complete Series Review
Your favourite Matthew Laborteaux series? You could answer that if you wish but given that only a handful of you might know who Laborteaux is, it will be a struggle to think of one never mind several and, from those, choosing just one. Skipping over his most recent work in video games or the numerous 'Additional Voices' in animated series, you could have Whiz Kids, as the morphine-addicted Albert in Little House On The Prairie or as Flash Thompson in the mid-nineties Spider-Man. He did have a hefty starring role in Wes Craven's Deadly Friend but that looks to have been a blip in an otherwise middling career in television.
Then again, just as there will women of a certain age holding Scott Baio parties, in which Bugsy Malone custard pies are served as an accompaniment to all-night showings of Charles In Charge, there will be some small (and very retro) corner of the Internet that will be forever Laborteaux's. And yet not even with all the computer power that Laborteaux could call on in Whiz Kids - and his acoustically-coupled link to the outside world - not even he could have foreseen the likes of The Red Hand Gang coming out on DVD.
Laborteaux stars as Frankie, who is as good a leader as any in The Red Hand Gang. Alongside, JR (JR Miller, who also wears a JR shirt), Doc (James Bond III), Joanne (Jolie Newman) and Little Bill (John Brogna), Frankie leads the gang through a mix of messing about, adventuring and crime solving. Like the Alfred Hitchcock-sponsored Three Investigators, The Red Hand Gang features a bunch of kids who, amongst collecting glass bottles for the refunds, skateboarding and riding their bikes, turn their minds to crime busting. The first story is The Kidnappers, a five-part series, in which Little Bill spots a boy at the window of an apartment building. Unlike most boys his age, this one has tape covering his mouth and seems to be tied to a chair. As the newspapers report on the recent kidnapping of a young boy, Little Bill tells the rest of the gang and, together, they set about solving the crime. Unfortunately, telling the police doesn't work as the kidnappers move the boy to their hideout minutes before the squad car arrives but by guile, doggedness, a bus ride and a handful of quarters to phone one another, the Red Hand Gang discover their whereabouts. Without much in the means of weaponry - Frankie has a three-blade penknife...and screwdriver! - the kids sneak in to the old house and spook the criminals by playing ghosts. But with the kidnappers demanding their ransom, time is running out for the Red Hand Gang.
In a Thunderball-inspired story, The Jewel Thief sees the Red Hand Gang hanging around a hotel in the hope of seeing OK Okins, a star football player who's hosting an auction that afternoon. The highlight of that day's bidding is the Black Star jewel, which is expected to sell for more than a million dollars. Unfortunately, as a rich sheik arrives to buy the jewel, it's found to be a fake and panic sets in around the hotel. But the Red Hand Gang suspect something is up when they see a strange man wearing a dressing gown and sitting in a wheelchair with his face is hidden behind bandages. What's really strange is that this man is wearing OK Okin's Superbowl-winner's ring on his left hand. With the real OK unconscious and the fake OK in with the jewel thieves, it's up to the Red Hand gang to find out what's really going on.
Finally, in the three-part The Museum Robbery, the Red Hand Gang stumble upon a gang planning to use a trained monkey rob a museum of its gold and treasures. But as clever as this monkey is, it's no match for the Red Hand Gang. Aiding them in this adventure is Holly, Joanne's cousin, who is deaf but able to both lip-read and communicate sign language. And it so happens that, in a series of photographs that Doc takes, so too can the monkey. CLIMB WINDOW TAKE is what it has to say. Their suspicions aroused, the Red Hand Gang head back to the park where Holly learns just what the criminals have in mind.
This is children's television at its most simple. Not only does JR wear a T-shirt with his name on it but just so that no one in the audience gets confused, they wear the same outfits throughout all twelve episodes, much the Bash Street Kids since first being drawn. Joanne may own something other than the gingham blouse and dungarees that she wears but you'd never know it from The Red Hand Gang. Similarly, Little Bill shambles along behind the others in a red-and-white top that's more nightdress than T-shirt but it suits a character so small. As well as being easily identifiable, The Red Hand Gang avoids any suggestion of danger. The kids hide behind pillars, plants and people without any adult seeing a stray foot or hand. They dress up as hotel porters and bellhops without raising anyone's suspicions and their idea of crime busting includes trick-or-treating.
Then again, part of the fun of the show is this simple outlook on the life of crime. No one has a gun, the bad guys are all really stupid and kidnappers can be foiled by having cream squirted in their faces or by the Red Hand Gang pouring ginger ale into their boots. A getaway car can be stopped with a tower of empty cardboard boxes while a gang can be delayed by Frankie and JR pretending to brawl in front of their truck. This child's-eye point of view is stressed by there being no mention of the Red Hand Gang's parents. Indeed, the gang get to stay out all night skulking about in a house annoying a gang of kidnappers without their parents being concerned enough to call in the police as to the whereabouts. And those aren't the only wouldn't-get-away-with-it-now moments in the series. Not only does Joanne get to sit on a bed with a strange man who's dressed only in his underpants but, mere seconds later, Little Bill comes running in, drops to his knees and hugs the man's bare legs.
Unfortunately, The Red Hand Gang probably won't appeal to the children of today. Given that children now have a choice of channels offering quality shows, including CBBC, Cbeebies, CITV and the Disney Channel, the really-quite-awful acting of The Red Hand Gang won't endear it to many. The quality of the DVD presentation won't help matters but the problem that children of today will have with the show is that it falls well short of the likes of The Sarah Jane Adventures, Dinosapien, Roman Mysteries and That's So Raven, never mind family shows like Doctor Who, Primeval or Robin Hood. And as much as Doc, JR and Frankie try for laughs, there are a lot more laughs in Chucklevision than there was in this. Granted, children of 1977 may well have felt the same given that The Red Hand Gang was cancelled in the middle of its first series. So, nostalgia it is but even as that theme song embedded itself in my brain once more, there's not a great deal to enjoy in these fairly slow little thrillers.
Things don't look good for the Red Hand Gang. And not only in the cliffhangers that draw each episode to a close. Watched on a 14" television from across a room, it's a bit pale-looking and slightly fuzzy but on a bigger television, it's only a little bit better than it would be had it been released on VHS. For the seventies, and remember, this was the decade of boys choosing to wear bright yellow T-shirt and shorts, as Doc does, this is a very muted affair. Colours are drained from the picture while brightness varies as frequently as the children's outfits do not. However, in saying that, there are still moments when the episode is interrupted by a truly bizarre bit of colour, such as the bright pink sky that lands, straight from the music videos of the time, in The Museum Robbery.
Much of this, one suspects, has to do with the show in question. Cancelled in 1977 and thought of slightly more highly in this country than it was in its native one, it's probably fair to say that The Red Hand Gang hasn't been well looked-after over the past thirty years. Given that it will only sell to the handful of people who remember it from the late-seventies, there's very little financial justification for Fabulous Films to spend very much on restoring it either. So with that in mind The Red Hand Gang looks very much as one would expect. As well as the problems with the colour, the picture is flat, dull and very shabby-looking, being so soft as to leave its audience guessing as to what that dark blob in the background might be. A building? A tree? Add to that a very cheap production - the also-very-cheap Stephen J Cannell and Glen A Larson productions of the 80s are as Ben-Hur when compared to this - and The Red Hand Gang doesn't so much stride onto DVD with confidence as have Fabulous Films heave it onto DVD and, from there, into the shops.
The soundtrack, though, is even worse. There's a very noticeable background hiss throughout the show, which, in the third episode of The Jewel Thief, actually obscures the dialogue. Otherwise, it sounds as flat as the picture looks. Sound effects are non-existent with everything sounding as though it was captured on location. When that proved difficult, such as amidst the bustle of that same episode, dialogue is lost or, at the very least, hard to understand. It doesn't help that the cast don't deliver it very well nor that, as with the picture, it's probably lain in a very dark corner of a warehouse for the past thirty years but it still doesn't sound particularly good. Finally, there are no subtitles.
There are no extras on this DVD but the press release recently published on this site said that the set would include episode synopses, a series synopsis and an original American commercial break card whatever that might be. However, with these being check discs, I have no means to say whether or not these will be included in the retail release.