It was all so easy 40 years ago. Suppose you were a senior intelligence operative attempting to unmask a double agent who had infiltrated a cadre of spies in a small English town close to a sensitive US military base. Why, some of them are even masquerading as teachers in the local secondary school. You'd recruit one of the senior pupils, preferably by hanging around the school gates taking secret photos from your sinister old car and then knock him off his bicycle with said car just to gain his attention. You'd then approach him on a lonely country road and if he still didn't want to help you, you'd threaten him with a gun, drug him, kidnap him and hold him captive in your bedroom until he acceded to your demands. Simple. I don't see it being quite done like that nowadays but that's just what happens to Martin Clifford (Spencer Banks) at the hands of Forrester (John Savident) in the first three episodes of Tightrope, first shown in 1972. From the pen of Victor Pemberton who had already written for cult-faves Timeslip and Doctor Who, amongst other shows, this Avengers-lite espionage thriller combines various genres popular in children's TV such as high-school dramas, Cold War intrigue and a smidge of classic fantasy.
Martin is a 6th-form pupil at Redlow High School and lives alone with his recently-widowed father who works on the nearby air base as a handyman. He is a bright, bolshy and frustrated young man who is about to resit his A-levels, having deferred them once due to his mother's death. Whilst watching an Eng Lit lesson delivered over the tellybox by 'schools television' (anyone remember those?) a mysterious man is seen elsewhere in the building connecting a video recorder to the TV’s aerial feed. The transmission is interrupted by a home-made video from the self-styled 'Voice of Truth' urging the kids to treat everything around them, including several of their most popular teachers, with suspicion and to question the purpose of the school. Grainy candid spy photos of their Eng Lit teacher (the magnificently-coiffed David Munro) are accompanied by the Dalek-style voice suggesting he is not as he appears - to the teacher's obvious discomfort. Nothing like that ever happened at my school but it sets the cat amongst the pigeons at this one. It soon becomes obvious over the next few episodes that the school and village are a hotbed of espionage and counter-espionage operations revolving around the movements at the local air base and the Voice of Truth is out to disrupt proceedings.
I don't want to give any more away as part of the fun with this series is watching every twist and turn of the convoluted plot unfold. It's safe to say that hardly anyone is what they appear to be. The DVD covershot of Sue Holderness is also a bit misleading as she doesn't even appear until episode eight but I suppose that fits in with the overall theme of the series. Anyhoo this is very much a coming-of-age piece set against Cold War intrigue in the very ordinary background of a small English comprehensive school. But it's not all tension and danger as there is a certain element of the fantastical in the form of John Savident as Forrester who seems to have strayed into the proceedings from an old episode of The Avengers. This was long before his stint as the butcher Fred Elliott in Corrie set his public image in stone. Before then he was a skilled, in-demand character actor and this serial sees him at his charismatic best as the dapper and stylish, not to say camp, spymaster. He plays extremely well against Timeslip's very own Spencer Banks who really does a fantastic job here. Now more grown-up and lankier, he wouldn't strike you as a natural lead but his performance as the bolshy reluctant teen spy sits perfectly with the general Boys Own tone of the story.
The plot is certainly complex and twisting and I'm astonished that the serial managed to retain an audience in the days prior to home-recording and the modern use of 'previously on..'. Even watching episodes in quick succession I found myself, halfway through, confused and wondering who was working for which side. But then again I do get easily confused. It all begins to clear up a bit by episode eight though as the characters' professional and personal relationships become clearer but it still needs a lot of attention paid to it. But the main problem is that this is a solid six/seven-part thriller stretched out to thirteen episodes. The story has been padded out with extraneous scenes, characters and plotlines. Not only do major characters such as Martin's best mate Spud just disappear halfway through but they are replaced by a whole new set of younger characters for the second half of the story. This may have been deliberate to emphasise Martin's change in circumstances as he begins serious field training but the 25-minute weekly format really can't support the sheer number of characters and complexity of plotting. It also has to be said that the budget didn't stretch to 13 episodes either. Some of the interiors are cheaply rendered in the studio and they had obviously run out of money by the last episode as one crucial interior in particular, unique to that episode, is so badly done it's completely unbelievable.
But having said that the serial is still a cut above most of the trash served up these days. The direction is competent and occasionally even stylish given the budget limitations. Everyone in the cast plays it deadly seriously (which is the best way to do these stories) and they are, for the most part, excellent. Banks and Savident work extremely well together. Their relationship is at the core of the story and is a joy to watch as the two spark off each other. In this respect the story is another iteration of the ancient Sage/Apprentice Hero format (think Merlin/Arthur etc) and the fantastical elements are emphasised by having Forrester have a secret underground base filled with 'objets' - his magician's cave. In this respect amongst others the serial looks back to the spy-thriller genre of the 60s rather than forward to the 70s, something which the black and white transfer invokes very successfully.
There are thirteen episodes lasting approx 25 minutes each split across two discs.
Transfer and Sound
The serial was originally shot in colour, as the opening credits proclaim, in the studio on video and with some location work on film. However it now only exists in a black and white telecine transfer. I have to say I like it in b & w. As already mentioned it gives it more of a 60s feel and the location work was done on rather misty winter days which perfectly complement the darker aspects of the story. The DVD transfer is excellent with most of the telecine drawbacks (eg smearing on lateral movement) almost completely removed. The only time you notice this is during the closing credits which are on a horizontal crawl and almost unreadable. The image is rather softer than I imagine the colour original would have been but there is no obvious damage visible and it is perfectly watchable. The sound is mono and quite acceptable. Savident in particular has a very theatrical style of delivery and you can easily hear every word he says.
On disc 2 there is a brief gallery of production stills and promotional photos lasting 2m 25s. Also tucked away on the disc is a facsimile of the serial's original typed synopsis which is viewable only via a computer.
This is an interesting and not entirely successful attempt to merge various genres hampered by an overlong, over-complex plot and budgetary limitations. Where it does score however is in its principal casting. John Savident, long before his days as Fred 'I say' Elliott shows considerable charm and range far removed from his pantomime turn in Corrie. But the real treat on this set is Spencer Banks who doesn't put a foot wrong at all. He isn't your conventional leading man as far as looks go but he is a very talented actor and I'm mystified as to why he never had a more successful career as an adult.
Tightrope is a web-exclusive release available through Network DVD's website. Click here to find the product on their site.