Les Anderson reviews this surreal crime/fantasy adventure series in the mould of the The Avengers…
‘From the North’ trumpet the opening credits of this production by Granada Television. The North of England that is. To a national TV audience in the late 60s it was the home of flat caps, working men’s clubs and Coronation Street. Certainly not immediately associated with anything as trendy as this fluffy confection. To a modern audience who are used to tight cause/effect plotting and over-expository narrative this curious piece from 1966 must look very strange. However to those of us who grew up in the late 60s watching such things as Adam Adamant Lives, Do Not Adjust Your Set and The Avengers this is an unjustly-neglected little gem of that ilk. Only four episodes were made and I confess I had never heard of it prior to Network’s release announcement which piqued my curiosity no end.
The series’ basic premise revolves around the relationships between a group of recurring characters whose internal dynamic shifts and changes from episode to episode. At the heart of the group is a triangular relationship between Kronk of ‘Department K, Ministry of Defence’ (John Sharp), Sam Spade-wannabe private investigator Phil Scrotty (Gary Cockrell) and, at its apex, the couture-draped jetsetting glamazon and all-round femme fatale Syrie Van Epp (Elizabeth Shepherd) a Woman Who Arranges Things, often for large sums of money. The plot in each episode, at first glance complex but ultimately irrelevant, revolves around her nefarious schemes and the hapless men she manipulates to achieve this. I will refrain from discussing these in any way as one of the great pleasures I drew from this set was watching it with absolutely no prior knowledge and letting everything unfold before my boggling eyes.
And that’s about it. As mentioned, only four episodes were ever made which is a great pity as the basic character dynamic, although formulaic, could have stood quite a few more. The show, despite its pretensions to international glamour was resolutely studio-bound by its obvious budget limitations with the very occasional foray on location. But necessity is the mother of invention and these circumstances were turned to advantage by having every scene staged in as theatrical a manner as possible. The set design, lighting and blocking are straight off the theatre stage of the time and the actors perform in a heightened theatrical style, sometimes incorporating choreographed movement a la Meyerhold. Direct address to the audience is occasionally employed (another theatrical device) which could have been jarring in a more traditionally realistic production but fits in very neatly here. There are also occasional and unusual in-camera tricks employed such as tilting and masking – during live recording, to boot! Although strange to a modern eye a 1960s audience would have been familiar with such techniques.
What this stylised production method does, despite the reams of mannered Pinteresque dialogue is to draw attention away from the characters, who are little more than cyphers anyway, and foreground the production itself. What this series is really about is style and not substance. The characters and the situations are a living comic strip and they are there simply to service the actors’ performances. Which is one area where this piece scores because the casting is very strong indeed (for the most part). John Sharp has top-billing as Kronk, the civil servant and occasional employer of Scrotty. Sharp was a prominent character actor at the time and had a wide range, most often playing either posh government types (as in Corridor People) or bluff Northern patriarchs. Of the three principals he appears the least relaxed with what’s going on around him but despite this he turns in a good solid performance. Gary Cockrell as the wise-cracking ladies’ man Phil Scrotty is an unknown quantity as he did very little else of note. I find him the least talented actor of the three principals but he looks the part and carries out everything that’s asked of him, no matter how absurd, with commitment and enthusiasm.
But the real find of this set is Elizabeth Shepherd as Syrie Van Epp. As written she is the Persian ex-wife of a wealthy Dutch-American, hence the exotic name but she has a very Nordic look about her with her platinum blond hair augmented by lashings of fake tan and Cleopatra-style eyeliner that goes on for days. Shepherd is English though but had already emigrated to Canada by the time she appeared in this (I believe), returning just to film this series. She is still active in Canadian theatre and film and looks just as beautiful today as she did 44 years ago. She had originally been cast as Emma Peel in The Avengers but was replaced by Diana Rigg shortly after filming had started. She does have a striking resemblance to Honor Blackman, it has to be noted. For Corridor People she employs a generic exotic purr and wafts around in studio-budget haute couture at all times weaving her schemes and spinning her web in which to ensnare all around her. I found her magnetic and mesmerising if mannered (and that’s enough alliteration) and wished I could have seen much much more of her.
The secondary cast also contains actors of considerable talent. Kronk’s secretary (and hit-woman!) Miss Dunner is played by June Watson, an extremely respected and award-winning Scottish stage actress who is also still active, appearing only this year in Kenneth Branagh’s Wallander. In the fourth episode, Syrie’s scheming maid is played by a very young Pauline Collins with a gleam in her eye and a massive bouffant wig. Other noted actors of the day such as Tim Barrett, Clive Morton, Aubrey Morris and Calvin Lockhart also put in well-crafted appearances. Calvin Lockhart’s presence in episode four is due to a story of international intrigue concerning a minor European king’s infatuation with a young African girl played by Nina Baden-Semper some years before her turn in Love Thy Neighbour. But be warned this episode has a very 1960s attitude towards matters of race and the attitudes displayed and terminology used are consistent with the times which some modern viewers might find unacceptable.
Here is a clip from the show
There are four episodes each approx 47 minutes long on a single disc split into chapters which are not menu-accessible.
Transfer and Sound
Shot entirely on video in black & white, the image has that fuzzy quality you would expect from a recording of that time. Someone used to today’s exacting HD picture quality would find the image lacking in definition but anyone used to watching archive releases from the mid-60s would have no trouble with it. Once the eye adjusts it’s all perfectly watchable, even on a modern 40’’ LCD telly. There is however a bit of occasional tape damage on the image including spotting, wear lines and distortion across tape edits which fortunately is restricted mostly to the early part of episode one and is very occasional thereafter. The mono sound is clear enough as these releases go and the clarity of the dialogue is helped by the mannered theatrical delivery of everyone involved.
As usual for Network, there are no subtitles. There is a brief image gallery of production stills in black & white and colour lasting about 46 seconds.
This certainly does not have universal appeal but people of a certain age who have watched and enjoyed such things as Do Not Adjust Your Set or The Avengers (as already mentioned) or even Ace of Wands will find much to enjoy in this. For those people I would recommend it highly. I loved it and would watch it repeatedly and am glad that this forgotten gem has been disinterred from the vaults.
If you want to read more about the production of the series there is an excellent web article on the television heaven website – here’s the link
However I couldn’t disagree more with the final sentence!
The Corridor People is a web-exclusive and only available to buy direct from Network DVD.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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