Sunday, February 20, 2011

The British Invasion




No, not the one in the mid-1960s with the Beatles and the Dave Clark Five.

The one that arrived nearly a decade earlier, when British TV shows began to appear on American Television.


Shows like The Adventures of William Tell and The Buccaneers, both produced for the ITV network and syndicated in the United States (in 1958 and 1956 respectively).


But the forerunner for this invasion came from Sapphire Film’s successful 4-year run of The Adventures of Robin Hood, which aired on CBS from 1955 to 1960, and thereafter in syndication.


This was the first of succession of successful series commissioned by media mogul Lew Grade for international distributorship. Others that would follow included Roger Moore’s The Saint,  Patrick McGoohan’s Danger Man (aka Secret Agent) and The Prisoner, and The Muppets. 

Starring Richard Greene, the 143 episodes were well budgeted and shot like a movie, on 35mm film. 


Although first signed at the age of 20 in 1938 by 20th Century Fox as their answer to MGM’s matinee idol Robert Taylor, Greene’s rising star faltered when WWII broke out and he left Hollywood to serve in the 27th Lancers where he was commissioned and promoted to Captain in 1944.


Greene received good notices after the war (including in Forever Amber in 1947), but his career never caught fire. By the early 1950s and after a series of disappointing swashbuckling roles, his finances were in shambles.


He was therefore convinced to take on the role of Robin Hood, and in short order the series was big hit.

While he would appear occasionally in other shows during the 1960s and 1970s, he would never again approach the kind of success he had during those four years of wearing green tights.


Greene died in 1985 of cardiac arrest.


While Greene was undeniably the star of the show, he was joined by an ensemble cast which included:

  • Alan Wheatley as the Sheriff of Nottingham.
  • Archie Duncan as Little John. Duncan was already well known to TV audiences for playing Inspector Lestrade in 1954 series Sherlock Holmes (see Sherlock Holmes On The Small Screen)
  • Bernadette O'Farrell (years 1&2) and  Patricia Driscoll (years 3&4)  both played Maid Marian.
  • Alexander Gauge played Friar Tuck.
  •  Richard Coleman played Alan-a-Dale who went on to star in a pair of British Sitcoms in the 1970s (And Mother Makes Three, And Mother Makes Five).
  • Donald Pleasence, Hubert Gregg, and Brian Haines all played Prince John at one time or another.

And guest stars who either were, or would become, familiar to US audiences included Robert Shaw, Edward Mulhare, Leo McKern  and Michael Caine.


Scripts were often penned by blacklisted writers from the United States, caught up in McCarthyism, who used pseudonyms to stay under the radar.

While based on a fictional character, the show’s producers took pains to try to make each episode true to the times in which it took place. They utilized historians as consultants, and interwove bits of real history into the plots.


And perhaps most innovative of all, the show’s Art director Peter Proud put more than 140 set pieces (stairways, fireplaces, stone walls, entrance halls . . . even fake trees) on wheels, and would mix and match them to quickly create new sets.


Although considered a `kids’ show back in the 1950s, it is well served by intelligent scripts, great art direction, and good production values. The shows hold up pretty well, more than 50 years after they were first shot.


The Internet Archive has roughly 60 half hour episodes freely available for download. 

You can access them HERE:

For those of us who grew with television in the 1950s, returning to Sherwood Forrest is like going home again.  


If you’ve got any `kid’ left in you at all, it’s well worth the journey.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

R.I.P. Betty Garrett




A small confession.


As a small lad of perhaps 6 or 7, one of my first celebrity `crushes’ was on actress Betty Garrett, no doubt stemming from having seen On The Town  and Take Me Out To The Ballgame a number of times. 


What can I say, musicals were very big in my house growing up.

Years later I had a 78 of Betty Garrett wistfully singing `There’s a Small Hotel’, which I played often on my wind-up Victrola.


You can watch her do this number on YouTubeThis from the 1948 movie, Words & Music.




So it is with some sadness that I report that Ms. Garrett has passed away this weekend at the age of 91.


Younger readers probably remember her best as “Irene Lorenzo” on All in the Family and “Edna Babbish” on Laverne & Shirley.  But for me, she’ll always be cabby Brunhilde Esterhazy, doing her best to corral Frank Sinatra in On The Town.


Ms. Garrett’s career stumbled badly in the early 1950s when her husband, Larry Parks, was forced to testify before the  House UnAmerican Activities Committee over his early involvement in the communist party.


Parks, who had been OSCAR nominated for his breakout roles as Al Jolson in two popular bio pics, was subsequently blacklisted in Hollywood.


Ms. Garrett made a bit of a comeback in 1955 in My Sister Eileen, and did scattered television work in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but her career languished.


It wouldn’t be until the 1970s, when she appeared on All In The Family, and after that on Laverne & Shirley, that her career would take off again.   She appeared in a number guest roles on TV shows and movies during the 1990s and as recently as 2009.




The Television Academy Foundation’s Archive of American Television has conducted hundreds of long-form interviews with the pioneers of early TV, and we are fortunate to have a 2 1/2 hour interview with Ms. Garrett on May 21, 2003.


You can view this 5-part interview HERE. 


I’ll leave you with this 3 minute montage of clips from Betty Garrett’s work which was put together for her 90th Birthday bash.


The Pioneers Of Early TV






I don’t normally include current TV shows in this blog, but today I’m making an exception for a PBS series called The Pioneers of Television.


I’ve now seen both seasons of this series (8 1-hour episodes), and can heartily recommend it to anyone who loves classic TV.

My only complaint:  I wish each episode were two hours long, more narrowly focused, and included more archival footage.


The attempt to cover each genre (Variety, Sci-Fi, Crime Dramas, Childrens TV, etc) in just an hour whets the appetite, but leaves you wanting more.


While Season 2 has just finished, three episodes from season 1 are about to be reprised on PBS, and so if you haven’t caught them, or want to record them (they are `keepers’), you have a fresh opportunity.


This from the PBS Pioneers of Television website.

An encore presentation of three episodes from the first season of PIONEERS OF TELEVISION, which explore the early years of sitcoms, late night and variety shows, will air Tuesdays, February 15-March 1, 2011, 8:00-9:00 p.m. ET on PBS.

Late Night

The late-night escapades of Steve Allen, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson enter primetime in this episode about the formative years of late-night television.
Airs: 2/15/2011


Rediscover television comedy classics, as this episode focuses on five key sitcoms: "I Love Lucy," "The Honeymooners," "Make Room for Daddy," "The Andy Griffith Show" and "The Dick Van Dyke Show."
Airs: 2/22/2011


From Ed Sullivan's "Toast of the Town" and Milton Berle's "Texaco Star Theater" to "The Carol Burnett Show," "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" and "Laugh-in," among others, this episode celebrates the variety show.
Airs: 3/1/2011

As an added bonus, the PBS website also has more than 2 dozen video clips online, many of which are from the `cutting room floor’, and did not appear in the finished episodes.


Interviews with Betty White, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Doc Severinson, James Garner, Jonathon Winters, Rod Serling, and many more.


Just a few of nearly 30 video clips

You’ll also find 16 short biographies of Pioneering TV people, including Andy Griffith, Bill Cosby, Merv Griffin, and Betty White and 3 entertaining trivia quizzes to test your classic TV knowledge.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

How To Have A Wonderful Crime







I am, admittedly, a fan of mystery stories.


I grew up reading Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery magazine, The Saint Detective Magazine, along with Shell Scott, Sherlock Holmes, a plethora of assorted crime novels, and my personal favorite – anything by Travis McGee creator and fiction writer extraordinaire John D. McDonald.


Which likely explains my fondness for many of the old low-budget `B’ mystery movies – programmers really – released by poverty row studios like Monogram and Grand National during the 1930s and 1940s.


The Saint, Bulldog Drummond, The Falcon, Boston Blackie, The Lone Wolf . . .  formulaic to be sure, but for me they are the mac & cheese of early cinema.


Comfort food for the mind.


Likewise, during the late 1930s and into the early 1950s, crime & mystery dramas on radio were almost certainly the most popular dramatic genre.


Some . . . like Sherlock Holmes,Casey Crime Photographer, Boston Blackie, Box 13, Dangerous Assignment,  and Adventure by Morse all featured recognizable recurring characters.


Anthology shows, like Murder at Midnight, Suspense, The Whistler, and Crime Club – with the exception of the host/narrator – used different characters in every episode.


Crime Club – which aired from 1946-47 - while not the best remembered of these radio shows, has an interesting pedigree.


The Crime Club began as a series of crime fiction books in 1928, published by Doubleday.   Over a period of 63 years they published nearly 2,500 titles, including all 50 of  The Saint by Leslie Charteris.


In 1931, an early version of The Crime Club appeared on radio first as a 6 day-a-week 15 minute show, and then twice-a-week, sponsored by Eno’s Effervescent antacid salts.


This was one of the earliest crime dramas on radio, and for a time was very popular. Unlike the later radio version, the stories (taken from Crime Club books) were reworked for two recurring detective characters, Detective Spencer Dean, and his sidekick Danny Cassidy.


During the 1930s, Universal Studios inked a deal with Doubleday to use The Crime Club imprint for a series of mystery films, starting with The Westland Case in 1937.


In 1946, The Crime Club took to the airwaves once more, this time with a little more polish.


Directed by Roger Bower, and with Crime Club stories adapted by the likes of writers like Stedman `The Shadow’ Coles or Wyllis `Quiet Please’ and `Light’s Out’ Cooper these 30 minute mysteries used the contrivance of the host/librarian who speaks to the listener as if they have just requested one of the Club's books.


He would settle his `guests’ into an easy chair, and begin the tale.


The Internet Archive has a nice selection of 30 episodes from the 46-47 run of this series.   You can download each episode individually, or listen online using their embedded player.

The link for these episodes is HERE.

With MP3 CD players common in new cars, these make excellent traveling companions.   I download, and burn about 50 hours of OTR audio to a single CD.


Beats the heck out of listening to what passes for radio today.