Wednesday, February 22, 2006

 

Ooh, Look, it’s Peter Jeffrey

Peter Jeffrey was a fantastic actor, and he’ll be on BBC4 shortly in two of his best roles. Look out for Our Friends in the North at 10 tonight, and The Avengers: The Joker at 7 tomorrow (repeated Friday). He’s superb both as a bemused police commissioner and a disturbing psychopath, and I also remember him with particular fondness as a wicked Count in Doctor Who: The Androids of Tara. With two of those memorable roles coming up in very memorable pieces of telly and having just recommended The Guardian’s latest ‘In praise of…’ I felt the urge to write one myself.

Peter Jeffrey was one of those actors who was in almost everything, so even if you don’t recognise the name you’ll probably know his face and voice. Frequently cast in the sort of roles on in the next couple of nights – police officers and psychopaths – he could be very funny, too, as with his Yes Minister leadership contender brought down by ‘horizontal jogging’ (good job that couldn’t happen today).

Our Friends in the North

Tonight’s episode is set in 1967, with Jeffrey’s bewildered Met Commissioner quite unable to understand new attitudes to sex. If you’ve never seen the series, I’d recommend it, as long as you can take a deep breath and get over the underlying assumption that socialism is wonderful and the Labour Party would be too if only it didn’t wander off the path. Having never shared either of those assumptions, sometimes it looks strangely self-defeating, and the final episode’s 1995 hopeful new Labour dawn has rapidly become the most dated of them all. It’s still a remarkable social and political drama of Britain over three decades and following four main characters – each of which are remarkable acting performances, with two of the four later ending up cast as the two most iconic continuing roles on the British screen. It’s more ‘compelling’ than ‘engaging’, though; the sour taste of Labour’s failure permeates much of it, and I have to admit I admire the acting of the four leads rather than like them. The only one who comes across as likeable is Geordie, and he becomes a gangster…

The Avengers – The Joker

This one’s not just set in 1967 but made back then; The Avengers excelled in featuring top British actors in perfect guest roles, with some coming back again and again to give particularly scene-stealing star turns: ‘Villainous Peter Bowles’, ‘Loveable Roy Kinnear’, ‘Villainous Julian Glover’, ‘Demented John Laurie’ and of course the equally reliable ‘Villainous Peter Jeffrey’. Having first appeared in the series as a staid, mildly comic official, his villainous credentials were assured by a strange trilogy of episodes (The Joker, Game and House of Cards)in each of which he plays a different old foe bent on revenge against an Avenger: each uses a playing card motif; each has a dubious continental connection; oh, yes – and each one is dead! It’s to his credit that each role is quite different and memorable in its own right, and tomorrow night’s The Joker is for my money the best of the lot.

Peter Jeffrey gives a performance of barely controlled hysteria as he cuts up pictures of Mrs Peel (Diana Rigg) and is first revealed in similarly disorientating ‘slices’ of close-up, completely stealing the show. Horror clichés are thrown around with wicked abandon as Mrs Peel finds herself not quite alone in a deserted house, her companions a pretended madman, a genuinely barking woman and Jeffrey’s thoroughly disturbing psychotic. They don’t stand a chance, do they? Steed’s breathtaking ‘view of four counties’ provides a welcome moment of light relief, but this one’s very much Rigg and Jeffrey’s show.

It’s a remake of Don’t Look Behind You, a black and white Honor Blackman Avengers, and though usually I prefer the originals this time the tougher, more menacing story combines perfectly with sharper production to give something stunning. While most Avengers fans seem to prefer the year Diana Rigg made in colour, I tend to go for the better mixes of the silly and the suspenseful made just before and afterwards (Mrs Peel in monochrome, or Tara King), but this is easily the most sinister episode of the colour Emma season, complete with an outstandingly beautiful score. I’m still never quite sure if it’s a real haunting German love song that plays in the background or if it was composed specially for the show…

Doctor Who – The Androids of Tara

Having praised a sprawling socialist epic, now I’m going to go overboard on a monarchist one. No, I didn’t wake up this morning feeling funny. You’d expect Doctor Who to be frightening and The Avengers to be light-hearted, but these two are the other way round, with Peter Jeffrey starring as double-dealing Count Grendel in an enormously engaging swashbuckler that, naturally, has to end with the ‘rightful king’ secure on his throne. It’s Mr Jeffrey’s second role in Doctor Who, and though it's tempting to hit 1967 again with his first appearance – in a terrific little tale long-since tossed on the BBC bonfire – it’s this 1978 Tom Baker caper that gives him a star part as exactly the sort of roguish villain that you love to hate, in one of the most purely entertaining stories ever made.

Though it’s a distant planet and most of the doppelgängers are robotic, this bears more than a passing resemblance to The Prisoner of Zenda. The key difference is not in the over-familiar incidents but in the feel of the thing; this adventure is done for fun, but Anthony Hope’s original is done for honour and passion (it’s like claiming the book, the film and the Kate Bush song Wuthering Heights are all exactly the same). It’s virtually a holiday story for the Doctor, while all the grand romantic motives that drove the 19th Century novel have vanished from the goodies, though there’s still a whiff of wicked sex about Grendel. I remember absolutely loving the villain when I was a boy, but at the time thinking he was ugly, having a big nose and a prominent wart which led, inevitably, to his later casting as Oliver Cromwell. These days I recognise the gallant Prince may be handsome but he’s got no charisma – when the charismatic Count tells the royal wet fish “Don’t be so tediously heroic,” you know which one the bosoms would be heaving for. He gives dashing Basil Rathbone a run for his money.

It’s beautifully shot in sun-dappled glades, brimming with humour about the clichés of swashbuckling and of Doctor Who (disposing of the obligatory rubbish monster with absurd ease). The Doctor’s companion is the coolly intelligent but rather naïve Romana, the actress given plenty to do in the form of one flesh-and-blood and two android doubles but the character still outrageously taken for a ride by both the Doctor and Grendel; both Tom Baker and Peter Jeffrey have buckets of charisma and fabulous voices, which helps when each of them make up the most shocking whoppers to get her to go along with them, each of which she of course believes. The sheer, outrageous fun of this is summed up when Grendel twirls his moustaches about his escape-proof castle while Romana radiates Mrs Peel-like disdain, all on horseback and to jolly harpsichord music. Sometimes Grendel doesn’t get his own way and sweeps into his castle in such a foul mood that it’s probably the first time he’s been told he can’t have something since nanny, but for most of the thing Jeffrey is so urbane and amusing that you can’t help cheering him on, whether he’s plotting marriage and murder, calling the android-fixing Doctor “Kingmaker extraordinary” or musing that “I think I shall reject the crown only once…” from the impressively-hatted Archimandrite. He turns rather more nasty toward the end after his mistress is killed (on his own orders, hoping to get the Doctor too), but I suspect that was a deliberate tactic of the writer in case we all wanted him to win. It ends, of course, with a duel with the Doctor – I wonder if ‘Duels and Duality’ was the pun in Anthony Hope’s mind? – which Grendel loses but escapes, hurling his foil with a cry of
“Next time, I shall not be so lenient!”
It’s one of the two Who stories I’m most likely to put on simply to cheer myself up, so naturally it’s often condemned by the more po-faced fans (notably Howe and Walker’s The Tedium Companion) as pointless, lightweight fluff that drives them into rage with its flippancy. You’ll have noticed that I don’t care, as it’s simply so engaging. For me, author David Fisher is vastly underrated, with clever plotting, wit and vivid characters, and also there’s swordfighting with electric swords. How cool is that? And Peter Jeffrey’s wickedly irresistible performance is central to it.

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Comments:
I saw this post title in my sidebar and somehow knew it would be you, Alex :-)

Thought now, as you've mentioned the Archimandrite, I expect a similar post on Cyril Shaps.
 
You're not suggesting I'm camp? ;-)

Point me to the next broadcast of two famous Shaps turns side-by-side and I shall endeavour to comply.

I might do a Julian Glover one of my own volition, though.

I take it you agree with all my opinions, then? Heh.
 
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