15/11/2011

War Stories part 3


TOM GRATTAN’S WAR

 EPISODE NOTES- SEASON TWO



W = writer(s) / D= director / TX = original transmission date

S2 E1: The Walking Bomb
Stan and Tom give a lift to a mysterious blind stranger with a distinctive case, but when Tom discovers his latest letter from the front is  missing, he and Julie run into danger.
W: Frank Charles /  D:Stephen Frears / TX: 10/04/70
The first of several episodes directed by Stephen Frears (now renowned for films like The Queen and Hi Fidelity) definitely has a bit of a different feel to it, though how much of this is due to the production team wanting to introduce slightly more mature plots this time round is not clear. Certainly we have moved on in time- this season begins virtually a year after Tom first came to Yorkshire- it’s now March 1916, the day of Tom’s 16th birthday.

As a scene setter, this episode works effectively, sending Tom and Julie on a paper chase when he discovers his father’s letter missing and quickly revealing to us that the case contains explosives. Contrasting this caper with the Townsends of season 1, the intent is darker now. There is no joking about with either the blind man or his large accomplice Deacon while shading in some of the former’s past history in the war gives a more three dimensional feel to his villainy. At the climax, Blind Mickey as the Narrator informs us he’s called, captures Tom, along with a sleeping tramp he’s disturbed, at the disused railways station where he is preparing his plan while Julie escapes into the moors but is soon lost.

Frears frames his shots cinematically, as you’d expect, and is helped by a sullen sky over the moors and the dirty environs of the disused station. He seems to have also had the music turned down as there is noticeably less of it. The whole thing has a grim feel that perfectly suits Frank Charles’ script.

The title sequence has been slightly altered for this second season with a different news paper and war footage reflecting the passing of time and a slightly changed theme tune.  Blind Mickey is played by Rio Fanning, who’s appeared in dozens of well known TV series over the years as diverse as Father Ted, All Creatures Great and Small, District Nurse, The Onedin Line and has also written TV scripts including several for Ballykissangel.

S2 E2: Blind Man’s Buff
The terrorists hide out in a railway station with Tom trying to find out what they are up to, without getting caught.
W: Frank Charles /D: Stephen Frears / TX: 17/04/70
It’s interesting to speculate what the Narrator will be doing at the start of each episode but you can guarantee that whatever it is, he will be sporting his tweed jacket.; here for example he is shovelling coal whilst  wearing it!

As Tom, newly escaped, listens the episode reveals the extent of Blind Mickey’s plan and without explicitly saying so- this was 1970 remember- he is clearly a supporter of a united Ireland. He has no liking of Germans, he says, but hates the English.  This makes him at once a more dangerous antagonist than any the series has had so far and a surprising twist when you would imagine his motivation would be simple revenge for his accident. His plan is to blow up a railway tunnel when a train full of troops is passing through it. With Julie falling into the clutches of the third plotter- named Soldier Boy- it’s left to Stan to pick up clues as he follows them.

The mood is lifted by the tramp being brought back to the Kirkbys to tell them what he knows; if he can have food and beer, “especially beer!” The cliff hanger reveals Mickey’s revised plan is to blow up a huge viaduct.


S2 E3: Bridge of Death
Tom has to stop the terrorists blowing up a bridge over which a train full of soldiers is due to travel.
W: Frank Charles / D:Stephen Frears / TX: 24/04/70
In another one of the set pieces the series does so well, the episode is mostly given over to a standoff at the viaduct. There’s an impressive number of soldiers at hand (most series have to make do with a handful) and some picturesque shots across the valley and up towards the viaduct itself.  The climax where Tom has to pull a wire out of a detonator literally under Mickey’s nose is particularly exciting.

As you’d expect from Stephen Frears, a fair amount is shot without music, leaving the trickling of the water as the sound track and the action looks natural rather than choreographed. With the characters having established themselves earlier, little dialogue intrudes.

And Tom doesn’t get to do quite everything- Soldier Boy is despatched from the top of the viaduct by the soldiers themselves while it is Stan who manages to stop the train headed for the bombs, his method of corralling a flock of sheep onto the line being more effective than Tom’s attempts to shout it to a halt. And doesn’t Stan look chuffed about it!
S2 E4: The Coward
Tom encounters the grandson of a regimental sergeant who appears to be a coward.
W: Frank Charles / D:Stephen Frears / TX: 01/05/70
The first of a two part story in which Julie’s great Uncle Wally and his grandson Chris come to stay. The latter will turn 19 and enrol before the month (April 1916) is out and Tom assumes the other by is as eager to join the action as he is. However, in a narrative that rather cleverly wrong foots the viewer, he starts to think Chris is a coward.
The clues are small and Roy Holder plays the part by barely communicating with Tom, keeping his troubles bottled. He also sleepwalks which provides a surreal sequence. In case this all seems a bit light, George Malpas has fun as Stan imitates the boy’s marching with a pitchfork.

Uncle Wally is played by Bill Fraser, already well know for series like Bootsy and Snudge,
Roy Holder plays Chris- he was a regular character in the well known children’s series Ace of Wands.
S2 E5: Badge of Fear
Tom finds out the truth about Christopher’s cowardice.
W: Tony Essex / D:Stephen Frears / TX: 08/05/70
There’s a subtlety to this script that might be missed on one viewing. Bill Fraser plays to type the gruff, shouty retired soldier who drills his grandson (and Tom) as if they are in the barracks. This is the sort of role the actor played often but there are moments here where we can see the character really does care about Chris even if he is aghast at his apparent cowardice. And Tom’s enthusiasm for the front is given pause for thought too when Stan reads a poem that brings across the harrowing experiences in the trenches.

Eventually Chris ends up sleepwalking into the quarry, a situation from which Tom has tom rescue him and also discovers the truth behind his behaviour. You could say that by revealing there is a genuine reason why Chris acts as he does that has nothing to do with cowardice is dodging the issues raised but Tony Essex’s script does include him concluding that he is a coward in some respects for not telling anyone. It’s a refreshing story with no antagonist as such; just a group of people reacting as best they can to difficult circumstances.

Windsor Davies makes his second appearance in the series as the recruiting sergeant. The film clips shown at the recruitment meeting are the first moving pictures Tom has ever seen.
S2 E6: Eye for an Eye
One of the Kirkby’s neighbours, the Corders suffer the loss of their son in the war which has implications for them and for Tom.W: Tony Essex /  D:Michael Blakstad / TX: 15/05/70As the opening narration reminds us, no area was untouched by news of death from home. It’s summer 1916 now and the war is at its height. We see Tom scanning the death lists in the newspaper, a reminder of the shadow hanging over his life but for the nearby Corder family, the worst comes true.

Tony Essex writes with balance, careful to include differing points of view and giving Michael Howe on of his more challenging episodes. Tom has to remain identifiable yet conflicted after he sees Amos Corder shoot one of the German prisoners working in the quarry. His view of Germans is mostly based on what he’s read in the papers, which often seem to portray them as vicious. Tom’s dilemma conflicts the viewer too- we can understand why he doesn’t reveal Amos’ identity because he doesn’t believe the farmer has committed a crime yet we know what the farmer did was wrong.  Perhaps this story should have been done earlier in the series- it does rather overlook what Tom has learned in previous encounters with Germans and the way it’s made him re-consider things.

Nonetheless it is a gripping episode, laced with some excellent scenes featuring both Mrs Kirkby and Stan. As surrogate parents to Tom, both characters are a delight to watch- warm hearted yet practical, brash yet caring, they are essential bedrock for the stories. Here Connie Merigold is great as she delivers lines like “I don’t mean anything, only what I say.”

Jean Lockhart as Mrs Corner provides the human side of the situation, unsure what her missing husband will do – her scene with Tom is affecting and underscores the issues he has to face. As befits the tone, the cliff hanger is not a physical danger for Tom but a moral one.

Jack Wooglar, the lighthouse keeper in last season’s final two episodes, plays Amos

S2 E7: Five Minute Fuse 
Tom and Stan are trapped above a quarry where Amos plans to explode dynamite and kill the German prisoners.
W: Tony Essex / D: Michael Blakstad / TX: 22/05/70
Tom and Stan track Amos down in a cave underneath the quarry but he holds them hostage till morning when he plans to set off his cache of stolen dynamite  Jack Wooglar was a frequent guest in many a 60s TV show but this is one of his best appearances. Without histrionics he portrays Amos as a man destroyed by grief resorting to extreme reactions. It’s surprising how powerful the cave scenes are, director Michael Blaksted putting Amos’ haunted face close to the camera. You have a sense this will not end well and in the end there is a symmetry to the way Amos sacrifices himself yet Tom is able to shout a warning so that body else is killed.

 Though no characters remark on it, the most striking thing about the climax is how one of the German prisoners shields Julie from the debris, shaking hands with her afterwards. Humanity triumphs over enmity in the end but as they walk away there are no triumphant shouts or smiles as in previous episodes and you can’t help thinking of what poor Mrs Corder has to bear now. Of all the more thoughtful stories, this is the one that best captures the conflicting morality of wartime behaviour and how there are no easy answers.  It reminds you too of just what a talented cast the show had both in the regulars and the guest artistes.
S2 E8: Soldier from Margham
Tom encounters a mysterious soldier who thinks he is still at war.
W: Tony Essex / D:Ian McFarlane / TX: 29/05/70
Opening with some real WW1 footage, this episode tackles the issue of shell shock though the eyes of Tom when he meets a soldier hiding in an old house but in his head still in the battlefield. Director Ian McFarlane conjures up a suitably melodramatic atmosphere for the locale- all shadows and lightning flashes but in the ostensibly less showy side of the encounter it is Michael Howe who gives an assured performance. The actor’s ease by now with the role- and the character’s experience with wartime adventure lend him a more mature air here. There’s a very well shot sequence where Howe- and once again it is cleanly him- climbs across a wobbly rotting beam to the soldier’s aide.

The plot is a tad convoluted, perhaps to add some more action into an otherwise talky episode, but that doesn’t matter. Tom’s determination to help the soldier sits at the heart of matters and proves a superbly  moral tale for the intended younger viewer.


Behind the scenes photo from Clive Hicks Jenkins' blog

S2 E9: Peddlar’s Ransom
Tom befriends an aristocratic boy whose carriage has been in an accident but they both end up in danger from a pair of peddlars.
W: Audley Southcott /  D:Michael Blakstad / TX: 05/06/70
Just occasionally the series betrays its age – ruminating on how Tom has no friends of his own age, the narration adds “There is Julie- but she’s a girl and couldn’t possibly give him the companionship he needed”. The narrator might be surprised! Then we meet Lord Marcus Beck on his way to Harrow until his carriage crashes and soon he and Tom are competing at shooting and climbing trees. Then a couple of dodgy peddlars nick Lord Beck’s togs and the adventure begins.

While credulity is stretched a little by how quickly the two boys become mates, there are subtle touches such as the way Tom defers to Marcus several times. The peddlars are a piratey couple who seem genuinely dangerous adding to the tension of a cliff hanger where Julie- theoretically out to help Tom and Stan rescue Marcus- is captured in a grave yard.

Clive Hicks Jenkins who plays Lord Beck went to the Italia Conti school with Michael Howe so they were friends before appearing together in this episode and still keep in touch. These days, Clive is an artist and you can find out more on his blog at
http://clivehicksjenkins.wordpress.com/

S2 E10: Ghost of Hookey Vale
The peddlers plot unfolds in the grimly named Hookey Vale..
W: Audley Southcott /  D:Michael Blakstad / TX: 12/06/70
Our narrator seems to be relishing this episode, explaining the mechanics of kidnapping while brandishing a gun! Julie is now sent by the peddlers to get money from Beck’s parents at the vast Beck House; instead she meets a doddery butler who explains there is nobody there and gives her his wages to use.

 The episode is strong on little details- the peddlers for example demand “five gold sovereigns” but these are not being produced because of the war- when Julie hands them notes they don’t believe they are of value. There’s the story of the ghost, related during the night when both Beck and Julie are prisoners. Director  Michael Blakstad also gives it a lot of atmosphere.

The eventual rescue is played for laughs with Stan- a mischievous George Malpas - covered in flour giving it his best ghoulish moaning while Tom chucks stones at the windows. Fake ghost stories and kidnappings were a stock storyline for many children’s TV dramas of the 60s and 70s so it does feel familiar but the cast match the melodramatic tone well enough to make it interesting.


S2 E11: The Inventor
In an old castle, Tom and Julie encounter an inventor working on a new weapon- something the Germans are eager to get their hands on.
W: Frank Charles / D: Don Higgins / TX: 19/06/70
The war comes back into sharp focus when Tom receives word that his father has been wounded and he and Julie then encounter an engineer testing a new synchronised aircraft gun in an old castle. It’s one of those issues you never would have thought of but firing machine guns from 1915 era plans would risk splintering the propeller. Bert Norris has devised a method that links the gun mechanism to the engine.

Played with suitable zeal by Tony Selby, Norris is clearly a trusting type despite his top secret work. No sooner have the kids turned up than he has Tom helping him- Julie, though, is sent to make some tea, of course. Where the episode is slightly less successful is in its almost cartoonish portrayal of a couple of German agents whose demeanour is worlds away from the realistic portrayals we’ve seen of the Germans we’ve met in other episodes. In particular, Keller stalks about in uniform (in the middle of England!) shouting at or shooting at people in a rare mis-step for a series so careful to be three dimensional.

S2 E12: Castle of Terror
Trapped in the castle, can Tom foil the spies?
W: Audley Southcott / D: Don Higgins / TX: 26/06/70
Don Higgins adds much to these three episodes, shooting several action sequences in a hand held camera style more familiar to modern TV. He often shoots from above as Tom- who has returned to the castle after leaving his knife behind- is chased and shot at. Julie, meanwhile, goes for help only to run into the gypsies. The episode also offers a short scene where Tom’s oft stated ambition to join his father in the front line seems to have been brought into doubt after hearing of the latter’s injury. Amidst the rambunctious running about, this provides Michael Howe with a chance to show a different side to his acting and adds a context to the running around.

Stan, meanwhile, helps an English pilot fix his plane and in a scene that George Malpas fills with glee, Stan eventually persuades himself to accept the offer to fly in it. Needless to say the biplane adds a further depth- it looks real but may have been a reconstruction. Either way it literally anteaters the episode widening it s scope and making it feel more epic even though we only see a handful of characters. The cliff-hanger is another thrilling escape as Tom tries to get to a telephone only to find it doesn’t work. We have already seen the Germans cutting the wires so know that his mission is fruitless adding to the quality of what is one of the best episodes.


A scene from the final episode

S2 E13: Sky Patrol
An airborne chase ensues as Tom tries to follow the Germans in a bid to stop them escaping with their prisoners.
W: Audley Southcott / D: Don Higgins / TX: 03/07/70
The story climaxes as we want it to with Tom finally taking flight and whether he got very far off the ground it is clearly Michael Howe in the cockpit loving it! The thrills and spills of wartime drama are pulled out for this final episode with the plane pursing the German car- carrying both Julie and Norris- towards the coast.

It lands in time for a face off as Tom heroically confronts the villains in a two stage climax. Keller manages to steal the plane but makes the mistake of using the gun and cuts through the propellers and crashes in a dramatic and very convincing sequence. Then in an act of heroism that is quite unexpected in the moment but ultimately makes sense, Tom pulls Keller from the wreckage. Presumably writer Audley Southcott thought it would be unacceptable for any character to die so bluntly even if it was as a result of his own actions. The viewer is prepared for Keller to be dead (he has after all been something of a cut out German from the start), but Tom’s actions are in character and show how much he has learned in previous encounters. It provides the show with an inspirational finish underscored when the party get back to the farm and we find his father has returned.` Sky Patrol is like a bonsai war film with much packed into its 23 minutes and a fitting finale to this most enjoyable series.

 

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