Monday, July 27, 2009

A New Miss Marple

I'm playing catch up on this one. But I finally had the opportunity to catch Julia McKenzie as the new Marple on Masterpiece Theatre.
The jury's still out, I'm afraid.
All those reruns of the wonderful Joan Hickson keep popping up in my mind's eye. But, of course, she wasn't the only actress of a certain age to play the doughty spinster detective.
Margaret Rutherford ruled MGM in the 1960s with her chins wagging and her outsized theatrical gestures. these films made on minimal budgets still satisfy. In one of them 1932;'s Murder She Said Hickson even pops up Hickson in a pre-Marple appearance.
The reference books say Gracie Fields had a go at it, too, but nobody seems to remember much about this dramatic turn.
Well, I looked it up it was on 1956 on Goodyear Television Playhouse in A Murder Is Announced.
Angela Lansbury had her chance in the 1980 allstar mystery The Mirror Crack'd which boasted Tony Curtis, Liz Taylor and Rock Hudson in star turns. And am I the only one noticing distinct similarities to Lansbury's later TV incarnation as Jessica Fletcher?
Then came Joan Hickson, a respected Brit character actress who made the part her own. But she finally retired in 1992 after eight years and besides all the original stories seemed to have been filmed.
When ITV decided to remake everything in the cannon the producers turned to Geraldine Mcewan who formally retired from the part in July 2008.
So a mad talent hunt was on. Candidates included VictoriaWood, Julie Walters, Prunella Scales, Anna Massey and Eileen Atkins. Nobody asked me but I would have chosen Julie Andrews if she was available.
Julie Mackenzie is almost unknown to me --she's been a stage regular for decades.
As Marple she wearts the Hickson brand of suits --McEwan was dressed better and smiled and winked more. But Mackenzie does not knit as Hickson did and she smiles a little too much for my liking.
So far I haven't warmed to her but I'm sure I will. However, I'd like to propose the producers consider commissioning some original mysteries starring McKenzie --some of the older stories creak with age.
What do you think?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Suspense Of Suspense

The way I figure it any TV show I've never seen is a new show.
So you can imagine my sheer delight when the boxed set of Suspense arrived at my desk.
The CBS series ran from March 1949 to August 1954 for a total of 260 episodes. But since this was live TV the original kinescopes were considered long lost.
CBS was clearing one of its storage vaults when 90 original half hour kinescopes were found. Kinescopes were 16 mm recordings of the actual live performance. A fixed camera attached to a TV monitor captured every flub and glitch but the quality was necessarily quite low.
The kinescopes were then flown to Los Angeles for transmission the next week (and then went to San Francisco for a third airing). Live transmissions across the country were not possible until the mid-Fifties.
After being used the kinescopes had no further use: Many were dumped in Frisco Bay while others destroyed for their silver content.
To watch these "live" TV performances is to be transported into another time, the dawn of TV.
Suspense was one of many TV series with radio antecedents. The list includes Our Miss Brooks, Father Knows Best, Gunsmoke.
The radio program began in 1942 and included the fabulously famous broadcasting of Sorry, Wrong Number with Agnes Moorehead which ran live as died most radio dramas.
Radio's version lasted until 1962 and when it left the air it was the only regularly scheduled drama series left on U.S. commercial radio.
The TV series was sent out live every week from CBS Studios atop Grand Central station. But the half hour format proved too cramped --such authors as Agatha Christie, Edgar Allan Poe and a youngster named Rod Serling were used.
Scripts are far too talky but this was necessary because outdoor filming could not be utilized. What fascinates are the presence of many unknown actors soon to burst into stardom: Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint, Rod Steiger.
Plus there are many Hollywood stars on their way down the ladder: Boris Karloff, Joan Blondell, John Carradine, Chester Morris.
An example is the Jan. 22 1952 episode The Red Signal by Agatha Christie. That wonderful old Broadway actress Isobel Elsom is a phony medium who drags up emotions at a seance between Tom Helmore and Beatrice Straight who is cheating on her husband Peter Cookson. Straight and Cookson were married in real life which is interesting but there's not enough time to properly tell the story.
In another 1952 episode titled The Corsage Brian Keith (then known as Robert Keith Jr.) is an investigating police officer in a small town who determines that a serial killer has type "H" blood and is able to track the man down --is this TV's first use of CSI techniques?
In one chilling 1951 episode John Forsythe and Mary Sinclair play young marrieds on a honeymoon in New England. It's a foggy night and they hear on the car radio that a deranged woman who has killed is on the loose from the local asylum. Running out of gas they take refuge in a fisherman's shed only to hear a woman banging on the door. Should they let her in out of the storm? Mildred Natwick is the woman and she's plenty scarey.
As the years go on the quality of the shows gets better, smoother. There are fewer awkward moments.
This DVD set of Suspense reminds us of the days when TV was live, relevant and boasted great acting.
In today's sea of endless summer reruns here is a reminder how much we've lost in the onward march from a few to hundreds of channels.
The six disc set is from CBS and Infinity Entertainment and is a must to understand the glory days of TV drama..

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Break Out For Space!

It's being called the "TV breakout of the summer" by TV Guide.
And it's not on CBC or CTV or Global but Space. Are you surprised?
Because summer is the dead season for the old line networks as they largely fade to reruns.
But Torchwood, the innovative and well acted science fiction series from BBC, is in the middle of a five-night run of its season three.
That's what I said: only five new episodes are being produced and they're being run off every night this week on Space (and BBC America and BBC1).
That's quite a feat for Torchwood which had its first season on BBC3 and then hopped and skipped to BBC2 for its second year.
BBC1 took it for the third year with the understanding it would have a short window on the major network to prove itself.
Titled Torchwood: Children Of Earth, it's a well crafted yarn (from Russell Davies of Queer as Folk fame) that contains so many climaxes you won't be able to turn away. It starts with every child on earth standing still in unison and goes on from there.
You're correct if you immediately think of Children Of The Damned but that classic film is only one of the antecedents.
Front and center is the fine character actor Peter Capaldi as an ambiguous government official of the middle level --Capaldi was superior in a 1993 episode of Prime Suspect 3.
We're never sure who the aliens are or what they want. Civilization is threatened but saving it comes at a high price.
Chock full of ambiguity Torchwood is for everyone who can't stand TV science fiction with its cliched stories set inside space ships.
And front and center there's John Barrowman as Captain Jack --I remember watching him rehearse scenes on a New York set for the terrible 1995 series Central Park West (he played a young attorney patterned on John Kennedy Jr.) That prime time CBS soap crashed and burned and producer Darren Star learned valuable lessons and regained his footing with Sex And The City.
Finally, in Torchwood an older Barrowman has gotten the part showing how incisive he can be as an actor (in stage musicals he's been shining all along). He dominates a scene just by entering the room or getting temporarily blown to bits as happened in Episode 2.

Monday, July 13, 2009

All The TV News That Fits

Interested in what's happening around the TV dial?
Well, Neil Patrick Harris has been confirmed as the host of the next Primetime Emmy awards. And why not? He's starring in one of the few watchable sitcoms still on TV. For the past three years he's garnered raves for hosting duties on the Tony Awards. And he has back-to-back Emmy nominations for his show How I Met Your Mother. Sounds like great credentials to me.
And what about Maura Tierney and her fight against breast cancer. The 44-year-old star of ER must have surgery which will delay production of her new series Parenthood, says NBC. The series will be rescheduled as a midseason replacement series although it originally was due to premiere in September.
And what about CBC's lamentable decision to cancel the still popular series Royal Canadian Air Farce (averaging over 600,000 for the season) for the lamentable Triple Sensation which is averaging around 150,000 viewers every week --and that's for the entire country. Shouldn't CBC have postponed the second season until host Garth Drabinsky's legal problems had been settled?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Canadian Science Fiction

Hello out there! Anybody remember that uniquely Canadian TV series The Starlost?
As the young TV critic for The Hamilton Spectator I was despatched to the wilds of Agincourt's CFTO studios to report on the filming of this science fiction series.
It was 1973 and the stars were American import Keir Dullea plus Gay Rowan and Robin Ward.
Dullea is still around in character parts, Ward flourished as a CFTO weatherman and Rowan immediately left for L.A. and has rarely been seen since.
On that particular wintry day I wasn't sure what I'd find but there they were --not in space duds but in rather primitive attire--Dullea had a bushy mustache and a farmer's hat. The guest star the day I showed up was busty Angel Tompkins wearing not much more than a towel of some sort. Plus a smile on her face.
Starlost seemed to presage Canadian TV's big burst into the big time: meaning syndication in the U.S.
The creator was Harlan Ellison but he soon departed in deep frustration. True, the sets were rather cramped but after all this was a space ship.
No, that didn't bother me as much as the sight of the evil one, played by Walter Koenig sporting go-go boots. Oh, dear!
To save money the 16 hour episodes were shot on tape which has pleasantly deteriorated over decades and now seems muted in its color scheme.
But try to catch the pilot, expertly directed by Emmy winning director Harvey Hart, it sported promise and tension as a group of puzzled passengers headed by Dullea try to save the spaceship named The Ark from careening through space.
With Earth about to be destroyed they're leaving on a huge space ship patterned after Noah's Ark.
Sterling Hayden was the guest star in the first episode followed by such "B" list American stars as Ed Ames, Frank Converse, Simon Oakland.
But you'll also sport such Canadian talent as Barry Morse, John Colicos, Lloyd Bochner and Donnelly Rhodes.
I'm trying to watch all 16 episodes before commenting on the quality. Why not try the same by renting the DVD collection at your neighbor hood video store.
By the way Dullea must have liked working in Canadian TV: he later made another series called Loving Friends And Perfect Couples (1983) which also lasted a single season.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

TV And Funerals

Let's see, the first TV funeral I caught was that of assassinated American president John F. Kennedy.
It was live, it was sombre and the sight of world leaders walking down Pennsylvania Avenue was awesome.
But the moment that broke the world's collective heart was the sight of little John John saluting his father's coffin as it passed.
Next up was the 1965 funeral of Sir Winston Churchill with moments of sheer grandeur.
It was odd to think that the frail, aged leader of World War II had actually outlived the brash, younger Kennedy.
I'm not sure when the coarsening of what should be a sombre time actually began.
Was it the moment Elton John burst into song at Princess Diana's funeral? Perhaps.
And then came the show biz rites for Michael Jackson, hailed as the greatest entertainer of all time but a man in exile and in hiding for most of the time since his 1907 trial for child molestation (he was acquitted).
So from a celebrity trial to a celebrity funeral, Jackson had it all and in just a few short years.
But I couldn't help wondering where all these "friends" had been when he needed them most --and that was at the trial.
How many stepped forth to vouchsafe his integrity back then? Precious few.
And then I thought of a wiseacre's remark when Elvis Presley passed: "Good career move."
Jackson at 50 hadn't had a hit in more than a decade. Late night comedians who once mocked him as "Wacko Jacko" now saluted him as one of a kind.
But the kind of adulation his mysterious death sparked marked the grief shown by millions at the untimely death of Princess Diana.
In both cases few knew what kind of person Diana or Michael really were.
Crowds were whipped into a frenzy by tabloid TV which cynically exploited every teary moment. The moment of Paris crying out for her daddy was replayed a hundred times on the TV news over the next day. It should have been a personal moment but the sheer exploitation of a vulnerable child is shocking.
But will the crowds still be there for Michael and his family six months from now after the sordid revelations of his drug addictions are inevitably "leaked" to the press?
Few people bother to visit Diana's grave these days. In the world of tabloid TV it's on to the next neatly manufactured scandal. In TV news terms a week or so is an eternity --by next week the TV reporters will be onto the next big story.
See that's how tabloid TV works --Michael Jackson is already yesterday's story.
I'm one who thinks Michael Jackson deserved better --when he was alive and needed help that was not forthcoming.
Perhaps now he'll receive the peace that always eluded him in life.
And this just in: Ronald Reagan's state funeral outdrew Michael Jackson's according to the ratings. Does this make Ronald Reagan a bigger star than Michael Jackson? Just asking.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Karl Malden's Nose: The Greatest!

When I think of star noses there are those stars who had big ones: Jimmy Durante, W.C. Fields.
And some had teeny, tiny ones: Jane Wyman, Nanette Fabray.
But Karl Malden's nose seemed to grow and prosper with the years.
Look at him in such oldies as Boomerang (1947) or Call Northside 777 (1947) and , sure, it looks big not not that big.
Later that proboscis towered over the rest of Malden's face.
And when I once asked him about that he merely grinned and allowed that his nose had acting abilities, too. It would glower all red and threatening in an angry scene and seem to fade a bit in a romantic encounter.
The last time we saw Malden was via a taped message on the recent AFI salute to Michael Douglas --Malden , a frail 97-year-old, hailed his former Streets Of San Francisco star as "my adopted son" and really meant it --and a few days ago Malden died of old age at 97 in his Beverly Hills home.
Born Mladen Sekulovich in 1912 Malden was determined to forge a career in theatre acting but in 1947 accepted a contract from 20-th Century-Fox where he can be seen in the background in such films as Boomerang.
A trip back to Broadway gave him his role of a lifetime: Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire.
"When it was time for Warners to turn it into a movie Jack Warner hired the director, Elia Kazan, and three of the four players from the Broadway play: Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter and me. But Jessica Tandy who was wondrous as Blanche didn't get the call. Jack argued he needed a truly great star and picked Vivien Leigh who had done the West End version directed by her husband Laurence Olivier.
"Yes, there were set clashes because Vivien saw Blanche as the lead whereas Elia wanted to build up Stanley's part. But I guess it all turned out OK."
On the night of the Oscars Malden was toiling in another Warner film n when Jack Warner ordered him to get top the ceremonies. In the audience he sat beside Humphrey Bogart and told Bogey to hold his coat while he accepted his stauette.
Malden,Leigh and Hunter all won awards but Brando did not --he was beaten by Bogart for The African Queen.
"And Bogey didn't hold my coat, he lost it. When I told him off he said 'Kid, get another!'"
After that Malden became one of the kings of the stardust ballroom --he relentlessly hunted down Montgomery Clift in I Confess (1953), got another Oscar nomination for On The Waterfront (1954) and even directed a thriller, 1957's Time Out.
Asked to name his favourite film he giggled and said "Parrish (1961) because I was leading man to Claudette Colbert whom I'd worshipped as a boy watching her at the local bijou. But I also romanced Bette Davis and Rosalind Russell in those days. Pretty good for a character actor!"
I first interviewed Malden in a hotel room at the Century City Hotel as he prepared to embark for The Streets Of San Francisco which ran 1972 to 1977. Later on Malden starred in the NBC drama series Skag which had an all too brief run in 1980 and he went on to distinguish himself in a dozen TV movies as well.
I always enjoyed talking to him in person or on the phone.
Once I told him by phone that I'd had the flu and recuperated by watching VHS copies of my six favorite Malden movies.
"Why only six?" he shouted in mock outrage but later sent me an autographed picture: "My hat to you!"
Well, now my hat's to him, Karl Malden, one of those utterly dependable character actors who was also a star in his own right.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

And Then There's Maude

A teenager up the street had told me of her high school project to view and criticize a classic TV sitcom from the 1960s or 1970s.
And of course she turned to yours truly, a TV critic who had lived through those decades and written about many of the most popular TV comedies.
I suggested Maude and gave her the first season DVD which I'd only just finished watching.
The Norman Lear comedy starred Bea Arthur and ran on CBS from 1972 to 1978 and might have gone on had Arthur not tired of the format and quit.
Here's where I get to say I was on the set before it even debuted --I was in L.A. for the annual TV critics' tour and got to meet and interview Bill Macy in the CBS commissary.
So I was floored when the student finally returned the DVD but allowed that she found some lines funny, admired Arthur's biting delivery but really didn't understand half of what was going on.
Then I realized Maude was a long, long time ago in TV history.
Richard Nixon was the U.S. President, three networks (CBS, NBC, ABC) dominated the TV schedules and took over 85 per cent of the ratings, and sitcoms flourished.'
Today only a handful of sitcoms exist. And I had to wonder if Maude might not make it in today's congested TV panorama.'
Maude, you see, was really about something.
It was a hearty if comical defense of liberalism as practiced by 47-year-old suburban housewife Maude Findlay (Arthur).
Relevance? In a gripping two-parter Maude had to contemplate an unwanted pregnancy at her stage of life.
Worse than that she had her mind set on an abortion. Remember this is a comedy we're talking about and one on CBS which starred such other sitcom heroines as Lucy Ball, Doris Day and Mary Tyler Moore.
Well, Maude, had her abortion after much hilarious anguish although this was never mentioned again.
Another thing --Maude totted a purse filled with sedatives and tranquilizers and even gave them out to husband Walter (Macy) and grown daughter Carol (Adrienne Barbeau).
Next door lived bachelor physician Arthur Harmon (Conrad Bain) who after an all night bender dropped in for a breakfast of vodka and orange juice before heading off to see his patients at the hospital.
The series really took off in the fourth episode with the arrival of black housekeeper Florida (Esther Rolle) who defied every liberal cliche that Maude had about black people.
In one episode Maude holds a fund raiser for a black activist and passes Florida off as a middle class black named Mrs. Dubonnet just to racially balance the event.
There are nasty but true jokes about Nixonism, Arthur's rants about free love and even a sit in at the police station when Maude hears a local boy is going to jail for possession of marijuana.
In short Maude is more with it than any TV series I can think of today where controversial issues are simply not discussed.
No wonder the student couldn't understand it --imagine people openly discussing the issues of the day in a witty, comical style.
In subsequent seasons Maude would have a face lift and confront menopause and Arthur would battle alcoholism all to the sound of hearty audience laughter and applause.
In 1978 Lear decided to have Maude run for Congress and depart for Washington. But Arthur quit and the story was retooled as the sitcom Hangin In and lasted four weeks in the summer of 1979.
And now that I think of it I should have given the student my DVD of the first year of The Doris Day Show. She'd better understand that one, I'm sure of it.

A Few Words About Allan King

I always enjoyed interviewing great Canadian director Allan King.
As far as I was concerned he was Canada's finest ever film and TV director so I naturally expected quite a splash in the media when he died om June 15 from a brain tumor.'But The Toronto staer used a wire story and other outlets were just as perfunctory.
Contrast this with the wall-to-wall over coverage of the bizarre death of Michael Jackson and you'll see what I mean.
And there's a reason for all of this. Newspapers are receding badly and most of them are losing buckets of cash.
With TV it's much the same question --Anderson Cooper on CNN has seen once high ratings pummet after the November U.S. election and on some nights viewers are off by pme half or more.
What better to entice viewers during the lazy, hazy days of summer than a tangled web of innuendo and mystery as presented in the death of Michael Jackson.
Remember Jackson almost completely disappeared after his trial for molestation two years ago and that was deliberate. Although acquitted he had been losing popularity steadily for the past decade. It's difficult being a Peter Pan figure when you're close to hitting 50.
So TV and newspapers took all those elements of tabloid journalism to present us with lurid scenarios of multiple face operations, skin bleaching and illegal drug use.
I don't know if it worked ratings wise --I have a horrible feeling that it did the first few nights anyway. But suddenly there was no other story out there.
Canadian news disappeared from CBC's The National for days on end --should it not have been retitled The Irrational? CNN;s Larry King was beside himself as teary stars who'd shunned Jackson for years telephoned in with teary platitudes.
There were few facts to begin with. Had somebody injected him with something dangerous?Who was the real father of those kids? Would there be a public viewing of the body at Neverland?
CNN's Cooper is usually so news oriented. He promised to ban eumors from his show and then went days digging up unaccredited stories until one of Jackson's attorney's admonished him on air.
But what about King? In his last years he'd carefully crafted two superb documentaries that indicated he was at the top of his game: Dying At Grace (2003) and Memory For Max, Claire, Ida And Company (2005).
Of course early on he'd been one of the inventors of reality documentaries with the trend setting Warrendale (1967) and A Married Couple (1969).
He also excelled in fictional features: Who Has Seen the Wind (1977) and Termini Station (1989) come to mind.
I used to bump inyo him when he was making episodes of such Toronto TV series as Philip Marlowe (1986), Friday The 13th (1987) and Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1987-89). He claimed he was doingit for the money but everything he directed was polished and incisive with his own unique stamp on it.
We last talked when Memory premiered on TV, an evocation of growing older and coping with Alzheimer's. King wondered how he'd do when he hit that age which would be at least another 10 years in the future.
But illness got him and what we're left with are some of TV's best ever features and documentaries.
He certainly deserved better from the Toronto press, I figure.
And this just in: TVO is quick off the mark with a must-see retrospective of King's work including Warrendale (Monday at 10), A Married Couple (Tuesd.), Memory For Max... (Wed), EMPZ FOR LIFE (Thurs.) and Dying At Grace (Frid.) Got all that?