Who Pays the Ferryman?
Back in the 1970s, writer and producer Michael Bird, in collusion with the BBC Drama department, created several drama serials set in the Greek Islands. The first was The Lotus Eaters in 1971 which examined life amongst various ex-pats and holidaymakers on Crete with a dash of Cold War espionage thrown in for good measure. Who Pays The Ferryman? first aired in 1977 and revisits Crete as a location. The first episode is chock-full of plot and exposition but the basic storyline is as follows. Fifty-something English businessman Alan Haldane (Jack Hedley) finds himself at a loose end when his brother sells their boat-building business from under his feet. Recently widowed and relatively flush with cash from the sale he decides to go to Crete where he had served during the war with the special forces assisting the local partisans in their fight against the Nazis (check out Powell and Pressburger's Ill Met by Moonlight for another take on that). At that time he also had a passionate fling with a local girl, Melina, of whom he has heard nothing since leaving Crete - his letters to her were never answered. He goes to Crete with a view to reigniting this old flame and possibly settling there. On his arrival he hooks up with an old acquaintance, Babis (Neil McCarthy) and travels to the olive farm where Melina lived. There he encounters its current owner, the glamorous, seductive Annika (Betty Arvaniti). The two share a mutual attraction and he resolves to see her again, not knowing that she is Melina's younger sister. He soon finds out from Babis that Melina is now dead but was pregnant with Alan's child when he left the island, 34 years earlier. The child, his daughter, is now the owner of a beachside cafe and has no idea Alan is her true father. She had always thought Melina's long-gone Cretan husband (forced into an arranged marriage) was her father. Having been childless, Alan seeks out the girl (against Babis' advice) and forms an instant connection with her, much to the curiosity of her husband and son but Alan does not reveal his identity. He then decides to sell up his English assets, relocate to Crete and invest in his new family's future, while also restoring a derelict caique (a small fishing boat). Little does he realise the can of worms he is opening and the old enmities he is stirring up, particularly that of Melina and Annika's vindictive old harridan of a mother (Patience Collier). There is a reason why his letters were never answered.
This and much much more happens in just the first episode. For the remaining seven episodes Alan's story arc becomes the background to a story-of-the-week format in which various British character actors appear for one episode only, stir things up a bit and then neatly bugger off by the end of the episode. Alan's own back-story slowly unfolds and we find out things were not quite as simple as at first they appeared and everything gallops to a (melo)dramatic crescendo in the final episode. It's a strange mixture of play-of-the-week and Greek revenge tragedy but the writing and direction balance the two main plot elements reasonably successfully with seemingly minor elements in early episodes foreshadowing some of the major developments in the final episode.
The casting in this serial is a weird mish-mash of Brits and Greeks and Anglo-Greeks including, briefly, a young Marina Sirtis ten years before Star Trek beckoned. The Greek characters are played by a mixture of Greek actors and grizzled old British character actors like Neil McCarthy, all speaking English in thick Greek accents. And here lies one of the problems with this serial. When the Greek characters are alone onscreen they speak to each other in heavily-accented English, not Greek, and the scenes often come across as stilted and dull because the actors are not using their native language. Also being a 70s British drama, scenes are crammed with florid dialogue which adds to the Greek actors' discomfort. Although the plotting is intriguing one's disbelief can only be suspended so far. However the biggest saving grace is Jack Hedley. He was a popular leading man in 70s British telly and tended to play laid-back authority figures who exuded a calm air of menace. He fits Alan Haldane's character like a glove. I was very surprised to learn from imdb that he was really too young for the part. Hedley would have been twelve at the time Haldane was in Crete but he is nevertheless completely convincing and holds everything together very well. Betty Arvaniti was similarly too young for her character but the two work so well together it's never an issue.
The story is split into eight 50-minute episodes spread over three single-sided discs.
Much of the serial is shot on location on 16mm film in Crete and very lovely and unspoilt it looks too. Apparently all of Bird's serials provoked an upswing in tourism to the relevant islands. Most of the interiors are shot on video in the UK studios and the juxtapositions are often jarring with the changes in lighting involved, not to mention the crudely painted backdrops. The transfer materials are undamaged however and in excellent shape.
There are excellent English subtitles which are (unusually) an exact transcript of what is being said which is very useful for the thicker Greek accents.
There are no extras included.
A recurrent theme in Michael Bird's serials is the notion of identity - who exactly are we? Are we really who we say we are or are we who other people perceive us to be? Using Brits abroad in foreign settings gives a perfect excuse for exploring these themes. For example, in The Lotus Eaters, the expat bar owner (Ian Hendry) is a retired secret agent. However - ***SPOILER ALERT*** We find out after several episodes that his wife is actually a deep-cover sleeper agent assigned to keep an eye on him. SPOILER OVER
Similarly, in Who Pays The Ferryman?, Alan is presented to us as an average middle-aged English businessman but the people of Crete know him as Leandros, a wartime resistance hero returned to their midst and they often refer to him as such to his initial discomfort. But many men of a similar age in the audience would have served overseas during the war and would have empathised. Very few of them however would have had the opportunity, like Alan Haldane, to revisit the scene of past indiscretions. In its way this must have been a vicarious 'what-if?' for those viewers.
Notwithstanding the stilted nature of many of the scenes with the Greek actors, I found this serial compelling and it certainly held my attention. The setting is suitably exotic and striking but it's a pity that so many of the interiors were recorded in the studio. By the time the BBC made My Family and Other Animals ten years later in Corfu it was able to film it completely on location which was a huge plus dramatically and aesthetically. Fortunately the travel brochure moments in the location filming are few and far between and are there to serve the story. This is definitely one of the better 'exotic' dramas of the 70s.