Friday, May 30, 2008

Retro Vision

First off, I was already thinking this blog out when I heard the news that Harvey Korman died. That man was part of one of the all time great variety shows and his work with Tim Conway gave me some of the best belly laughs ever. I can still laugh just thinking about the dentist sketch, which I'm sure you can find over on youtube if you don't know what I'm talking about. The world will be a little less funny now.

While I'm paying homage, let me mention how sorry I was to hear that Sidney Pollack also died this week. The man was a genuis. Jeremiah Johnson, Three Days of the Condor and Tootsie are just three movies he directed that I now own on DVD and still enjoy as much as the first time I saw them.

I watch a lot of old movies and old television shows. With few exceptions, they are far more entertaining than the current fare available via 200+ cable channels. Yesterday, while I was lying in bed working on the laptop (backache, headache, knotted muscles, enough said), I decided to start working my way through a newly acquired collection of classic TV on DVD.

To set the stage for my trip down memory lane, you have to remember what television was like in the mid 1960s. There were 3 broadcast channels: CBS, NBC and a very young ABC in some markets. Our antenna picked up the San Antonio stations. Once in a blue moon when the wind was just right and you had your left hand on the TV and your right hand on the window frame, you could pick up KTBC in Austin. It was snowy, but it could be done and I would sometimes suffer the visual distortion for a chance to see a favorite program that had been pre-empted in San Antonio.

I had a very bulky black and white television set in the corner of my bedroom and I felt rich for this luxury. Not many folks had more than one set in the house at that time. (A small digression at this point - I remember when one of the more well-to-do families obtained a color set and invited little brother and me over to watch the telecast of Cinderella starring Lesley Ann Warren. It was a fairly new production at the time and a treat to get to see in color. I can remember vividly sitting in their living room, watching the program while their youngest son ground up sugar cookies in his new PlayDough contraption. Ah, memories.)

I remember being very enamored of a British import called The Avengers. I watched it faithfully, as did one of my close friends. We rehashed plots and discussed the characters at length. The show actually had several incarnations. Except at the very first, the male lead was John Steed, played by Patrick Macnee. The female lead changed several times, but the years it was broadcast in the USA were the years of Mrs. Emma Peel, played by Diana Rigg. She was one of those rare characters liked by everyone, both male and female. We were heartbroken when the announcement came that the character was to be written out because Diana Rigg was going on to bigger and better things. The show was never the same after that.

I had not purchased any DVDs of the series because I did not care for the non-Mrs. Peel episodes. Around the time of my recent birthday I became aware that a special set had been released of all the episodes involving Mrs. Peel. The furry kids got it for my birthday present (they have Amazon accounts and it was on my wish list, bless their little hearts). Yesterday was the first time I had settled down to watch a few episodes. I half-way expected to be disappointed. Memory so often makes things seem better than they were.

On the contrary, I am having a great time. First of all, there is a big deal made about the switch from black and white to color. According to the accompanying notes, the color episodes were the only ones that made it to the USA back when. That means I have about 30-40 episodes in the collection that I probably never saw at all. The ones in color I watched in black and white, so those should be a treat for other reasons. (I have caught a few episodes from time to time in the intervening years, but not many of them.) Yes, the stories are camp and the special effects laughable, but they were camp and laughable when they were new. That was half the fun and the fun is still there. The repartee between Steed and Mrs. Peel is witty and intelligent. In the 1960s the folks behind television shows had higher opinions of their audience's mentality and wrote accordingly.

The last time I so enjoyed revisting my television past was when they issued a complete set of The Persuaders, a spy show starring Roger Moore and Tony Curtis. Up until then, I had the feeling I was the only one in the world who had ever watched the show. While it was broadcast in San Antonio, the station had such a low opinion of it that they showed something else in its time slot and shifted its broadcast to 11PM on Sunday night. It was probably on the ABC channel, as I never got to see it without heavy snow being involved. I think that was the start of the dark circles under my eyes, because I would faithfully stay up until midnight, on a school night, with the volume turned down low enough that my parents wouldn't know what I was up to. I would be hunched over close to the set so I could hear and barely able to see what was going on. That, my friends, is the definition of a devoted fan. It was a real shock to get the DVDs and see everything clearly and in color. I had almost remembered that it was supposed to be snowy.

I will not confess just how much retro television I have collected on DVD, but I will say that I am never at a loss for something decent to watch in lieu of the garbage that passes for entertainment these days. I especially enjoy the shows that started out in England on the BBC: The Avengers, The Persuaders, Are You Being Served?, Fawlty Towers, and Keeping Up Appearances. Quality television is out there - you just have to look back a few decades to find it. It's just too bad how laziness and greed has caused the genre to deteriorate to the sad state of affairs it is now.


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