Friday, 16 January 2015

RIP: Brian Clemens - The Prolific Professional

Wikipedia says:

Brian Horace Clemens OBE (30 July 1931 – 10 January 2015) was an English screenwriter and television producer, possibly best known for his work on The Avengers and The Professionals. Clemens was related to Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens), a fact reflected in the naming of his two sons, Samuel Joshua Twain Clemens and George Langhorne Clemens

The BFI says:

“Clemens fashioned the television model of op-art and pop fiction in the world of espionage, while managing to tread a fine line between not taking the genre too seriously and not being too much of a send-up. Clemens' Avengers was consistently enjoyable in an undemanding way.”

Perhaps he was not a ground-breaking TV writer, like Dennis Potter, but what Clemens did provide was prolific entertaining drama. Here are a few of my own memories of the shows he wrote, and I still think they enriched my life, just as much as a Dennis Potter play. Not everything on TV should be realistic, or serious, and sometimes there is nothing better than to sit back, relax, and enjoy an hour of well-constructed drama.

And, for the most part, Clemens did construct his writing well, hooking the viewer, keeping them watching, wanting to know what happened next, and taking them on a journey which would be thrilling, funny, suspenseful and above all enjoyable to watch. Even when his shows were not quite as good as they might have been, with for example, The New Avengers, they still were fun to watch, and still are.

The Avengers (TV Series) (teleplay - 27 episodes, 1961 - 1969) (written by - 5 episodes, 1963 - 1964)

This was surely his “golden age”. I loved the Avengers, especially the Emma Peel era, and even when Linda Thorson took over, there were still some cracking episodes. I loved “The Cybernaughts” with Michael Gough as the mad scientist, and their return, in an episode where Peter Cushing plays Paul Beresford, his brother. Why they should have different surnames was never explained!

Rays that shrunk people, a gun that rotted wood – the title was the punning “The Rotters” – an electrically charged positive-negative man, a superlative seven, a special liquid conveying invisibility, and a device to produce identical doubles of someone’s face in They keep Killing Steed (somehow the body was always the same size) – all these were part of this wonderful tongue in cheek series, which never took itself too seriously, but played it straight.

After “Mother” came in, and Steed became more of a government agent, it was perhaps not quite so much fun, but there was still lots to enjoy. I rather liked Linda Thorson, although stepping into Dianna Rigg’s shoes was always going to be hard.

The Champions (TV Series) (screenplay - 1 episode, 1969) (writer - 1 episode, 1968)
- Autokill (1969) ... (screenplay)

Another wonderful 1960s piece of fantasy hokum, where the three agents of “Nemesis” are given special powers by an ancient race hidden in the snowy mountains of Tibet (where else!). Autokill was one of the most memorable episodes.

Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde (screenplay) – 1971

A twist on the Jekyll and Hyde tale, with Ralph Bates becoming Martine Beswick – astonishingly, with similar hair styles, it did seem plausible. Hammer films obviously going for the sexy angle, but managing to get in Burke and Hare body snatchers as well. Quite what this Dr Jekyll thought he was up to was never really explained – trying to get in touch with his feminine side, perhaps? But a rattling screenplay by Brian Clemens.

The Persuaders! (TV Series) (screenplay - 3 episodes) 1971

This had Roger Moore as an aristocrat, Tony Curtis as a millionaire playboy, teaming up to solve crimes. I liked it very much at the time, but on repeat showings I have to say it is rather formulaic, and the flares and long hair really look dated.

My Wife Next Door (TV Series) (created by - 13 episodes) 1972
John Alderton, Hannah Gordon,

Too busy to work on the scripts himself, Clemens brought in sitcom writer Richard Waring to finalise his storylines. The series won a BAFTA award. I remember this and really enjoyed it. It was a will they make up or not kind of storyline, with all the awkwardness that goes from a coincidence of two divorced people who end up in adjoining houses. How it would look now, I don’t know, but it was very popular, and an example of how Brians could expand his range.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (screenplay) / (story) 1973

With Tom Baker as really the only memorable character – but what a fantastic villain – this is one of the best Ray Harryhousen Sinbad films. It is a wonderful Arabian nights story as Sinbad tries to find a cure for the Prince who has been placed under an evil spell that has altered his appearance so that he has to wear a mask.

It was Tom Baker’s performance that got him the job as Dr Who when seen by Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks. I missed it at the Cinema, and caught up with it later. Still great fun, even with CGI effects today being vastly superior to stop-motion. Unlike some of today’s effect driven movies, Ray Harryhousen understood that effects were needed for these stories, but a good story was the backbone, and Clemens delivered this well.

Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter – 1974

A strange take on the Vampire story, this Vampire sucks youth from young maidens and leaves them as old crones. Enter our hero on horseback who comes along with a girl (rescued from witch hunters) and finds who the vampire is – yes, there is a whodunit element as well. And a how to do it – apparently different methods are needed to kill different vampires. The locations and music make it a very moody piece and although it virtually disregards all Vampire lore, it is great fun, especially with the swordplay and swashbuckling hero.

Quiller (TV Series) (writer - 3 episodes) 1975
Michael Jayston

Never out on DVD, I rather enjoyed this series about a spy. Michael Jayston was excellent in the role. I can’t now remember a lot about it, but hope one day it may be released.

Thriller (TV Series) (writer - 24 episodes, 1973 - 1976) (written by - 9 episodes, 1974 - 1975) (story - 9 episodes, 1973 - 1975) (created by - 1 episode, 1974) (original story - 1 episode, 1973)

Remember that creepy music? That fish eye lens in the opening sequence giving a nightmarish distorted outlook on the world. This twist-in-the-tale anthology was Clemens at his height, providing a suspenseful hour of TV that we all watched. A masterclass in how to grab the viewer’s attention, and keep it.

The New Avengers (TV Series) (written by - 17 episodes) 1976-1977

I still like this, but how it has dated. Not just the flares – Gambit wears a flared black suit, for goodness sake. But the way in which the dialogue is stilted, and is synchronised, with several people – usually Steed, Gambit or Purdey – saying the same thing at the same time. Or when they alternate, it sounds like a game of consequences or that radio show where they follow one another with single lines - it just doesn’t flow. For the radio show, that’s fun. Here, it is dreadful.

The stories are not bad, some old-style ones with a fantasy element, some that are almost a throwback to the Avenger’s beginnings as a plain spy / crime story. The Canadian stories are also not quite as bad as some critics make out – I rather enjoyed The Gladiators who deflect bullets, and the battered old car Emily - but the all time winner has to be the UK based non-fantastic, Dead Men are Dangerous, when Steed faces an old friend returned for revenge. The Frenchmen in the France locations in episodes set in France all sound like Rene in “Allo Allo”.

Not one of Brian Clemen’s high points.

The Professionals (TV Series) (40 episodes, 1977 - 1983) (written by - 17 episodes, 1977 - 1983)

From something of a failure to a success. Still repeated, the clothes are not so dated, and are general casual. Gordon Jackson got a lot of criticism as George Cowley, coming so soon after his time in Upstairs Downstairs, but actually he is very good in this. Martin Shaw and Lewis Collins are good as the chalk and cheese heroes, and there is a surprising amount of talk and expression of feelings (especially by Shaw’s Doyle). The suspense, thrills, element of detection, and the car chases and characterisation are all very good, and it is easy to see why this is still popular today.  And the dialogue is so much more realistic compared to the very stilted New Avengers.

Best episode is probably “Mixed Doubles”, which is much more character than action (of which there is virtually none) and the story follows the two Professionals trying to protect a conference, and the two villains, and how they think and feel. It’s very modern. I also liked the one about a suspect killed in the year that Everest was conquered, and the repercussions in the present. As usual, lots of good solid British character actors in it.

Bergerac (TV Series) (by - 1 episode) 1983

“Ninety Per Cent Proof” was rather a good episode, with the kind of twists and turns that Clemens did so well.

Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense (TV Series) (writer - 1 episode, 1984)

Father Dowling Mysteries (TV Series) (story - 5 episodes, 1990 - 1991) (written by - 1 episode, 1990) (teleplay - 1 episode, 1990)

Perry Mason: The Case of the Glass Coffin 1991 1993 3 tv movie
3 screenplays

Bugs (TV Series) (40 episodes) 1995

Clemens helped devise this as a kind of technological Avengers style programme, but had little input after creating it. It was a good concept and for the first two series very enjoyable, at any rate. After that, the Bugs team became more of a special government agency, and it rather lost its lustre.

CI5: The New Professionals (TV Series) (4 episodes, 1999) (written by - 8 episodes, 1999) (writer - 1 episode, 1999)

Edward Woodward took on the mantle of the groups leader, and there were some nice nods to the past. Never quite as good as the original, it still was a fun series, with the same music, and tight suspenseful scripts. And the car crashing through a glass window at the start! Rather a nice swan song.

Clemens also wrote successful plays, even almost to his death, with “Murder Weapon”, described as a very tidy, balanced tale”.

The writers of the golden age of the Sixties – Terry Nation, Dennis Spooner, and of course Brian Clemens, have mostly passed away now. Clemens was one of the last, and he may be gone, but the substantial body of work on TV that is his legacy, now available on DVD, will surely entertain future generations as much as it did me.

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