Jul 20, 2010

DVD Review: The Corridor People: The Complete Series (1966)

Huh-wuh? The Corridor People is truly the strangest British show I’ve seen from the Sixties–spy or otherwise. And Sixties Britain produced some strange shows. I didn’t glean too much from Network’s publicity for their DVD release of the series, which resorted to describing the characters rather than the show’s premise. I thought that was odd, but now I can see why they did that. The premise, if there really is one, would be very difficult to describe; the eccentric characters much easier. I also thought it odd that I couldn’t tell from their copy who was the hero or heroes of the show, and I’m not much clearer on that after watching every episode. (All four of them!) There is one character who more or less emerges as the closest thing the series has to a hero, but that definitely isn’t clear in the first two episodes. So what else did Network offer? A comparison to The Avengers (that certainly intrigued me) and an unattributed quote calling The Corridor People “akin to a lost Harold Pinter play with an added dash of Monthy Python.” The Avengers comparison didn’t prove very apt, and the quote smacked of hyperbole to me, but in retrospect, I have to concede that it’s actually the best description of the show I can think of, too–although the pendulum swings much closer to Pinter than Python.

Imagine if “Fallout” had been the first episode of The Prisoner instead of the last. How confused would audiences have been then? That’s essentially the case with The Corridor Peopole. I would put its premiere episode, “Victim as Birdwatcher” on par with The Prisoner’s finale in terms of sheer strangeness, if not artistic quality. Let me attempt to set the scene. There’s a secret branch of British Intelligence called Department K, or, later, K Department. It’s sort of like the nebulous Ministry that John Steed sometimes reports to crossed with The Section for which David Callan works. It handles cases with the oddness that The Avengers encounter, and deals with them with the ruthlessness required of Callan. A wily, overweight old spymaster named Kronk (John Sharp) is in charge of Department K and he spends most of his time behind a desk. At first, it appears that he is the closest thing the show has to a hero, but his morals prove far too compromised for that to be the case. At Kronk’s disposal are a pair of trenchcoated, comic relief policemen named Inspector Blood and Sergeant Hound, who regularly enter and exit in unison as if they’re part of some vaudeville routine, and Miss Dunner, an older, unassuming, Susan Boyle-like personage who at first appears to be an administrative assistant, but proves instead to be Department K’s Toby Meres: a ruthless and at least partially psychotic assassin who takes far too much pleasure in her work. So there I’ve gone and fallen into the same trap that Network did; I’m just describing characters. What do they do?

In the first episode, an innocent young man with a passion for birdwatching is abducted by the Persian millionairess-cum-villainess Syrie Van Epp (she collected the surname from a late Dutch husband). Syrie, played in greasy skin-darkening make-up by British actress Elizabeth Shepherd, whose strongest claim to spy fame is for a role she didn't play (she was originally cast as Emma Peel before being replaced by Diana Rigg), may be the closest thing The Corridor People has to a main character, but she is certainly not a heroine. In “Victim as Birdwatcher,” she is a pure villain, although in other episodes she occasionally proves perhaps a tad more morally responsible than Kronk–or at least on equal footing. Syrie favors white Lawrence of Arabia garb when she goes out (complete with goggles), but is also known to wear haute couture getups like a sheer black dress with a sequined bra on the outside, or–in more intimate settings–a large gold sheet with a hole in the middle for her head. Her interest in the hapless birdwatcher stems from his claim to a single crucial share in a cosmetics company that has accidentally hit upon a formula for a potentially deadly fragrance. Naturally, Kronk prefers that the British government gain control of that formula, though it’s by no means clear that it would actually be in better hands. As for Syrie’s methods, well, a British agent puts it best when she says she’s "a horder" and he wryly replies,“There’s a syllable too many."

Also mixed up in all this is a Bogart-worshiping private eye (and sometime British agent–or double agent) named Scrotty, played by Gary Cockrell. I’m not certain whether he’s supposed to actually be American or merely supposed to be putting on the accent out of his love for Bogie, but in either case Cockrell’s accent is particularly impressive for British television, which traditionally thrives on terrible American accents. Cockrell (who actually bears a slight resemblance to Sean Connery) is a very appealing actor, too, and his charisma helps the character overcome the same loose morals as everyone else on this show to really emerge in the end as the closest thing it has to a conscience.

So there’s the basic set-up of a traditional hour of British spy television there. The killer fragrance plot is the sort of thing you might come across on The Avengers, or any number of ITC shows. But there all similarities end. The Corridor People is not particularly concerned with plot. What there is of one in any given episode (and in attempting to make it relatively succinct, I’ve actually made it seem far more coherent than it really is) is merely a peg on which writer Edward Boyd and director David Boisseau drape existential musings (often delivered as monologues directly at the camera, interrupting whatever there is of a plot and breaking the 4th Wall), biting social satire and copious theatrical surrealism. Between the monologues, the themes, and the intentionally sparse sets (Boisseau makes the most of his evidently minuscule budget with minimalist sets that suit the series' style: when Syrie exits Kronk’s office through a freestanding door, for example, she then turns and walks out through the back of the same set, clearly visible behind him–and just adding to the weirdness), The Corridor People plays much closer to theater than television. Specifically Theater of the Absurd, owing debts to Ionesco, Beckett and even Satre as well as Pinter. Perhaps it isn’t surprising, then, when viewed in that light (although it is when you’re watching it!) that in its third act “Victim as Birdwatcher” suddenly abandons all pretext of spy television and becomes a play.

At its close (which must have baffled viewers used to seeing Simon Templar round up all the bad guys at the end each week's adventure with some feat of derring-do), one character is put before a tribunal of old, white (natch) members of the British establishment. The accused is placed on a pedestal (literally) and stares straight ahead; his accusers also stare–in different directions–and don't make eye contact with him or each other. All of this unfolds against an entirely black background with very stage-like lighting, so that only the actors pop out. They then deliver their verdict in the form of a poem, each one reciting a verse from Sir Walter Scott’s “Breathes there a man...” concluding–appropriately but also perplexingly–by condemning the accused “To the vile dust from whence he sprung/unwept, unhonored, and unsung.” Which amounts to his execution at the hands of Miss Dunner, the Susan Boyle-like “specialist.”

Many characters die in the brief span of these four episodes, some shockingly and permanently, others only to be revived. Yes, again dipping its toes into Avengers sort of waters before darting off in a completely different direction, the second episode, “Victim as Whitebait,” deals with the reanimation of the dead. This is not, by the way, treated as anything particularly unusual, but taken in stride.

The show is surprisingly serial for its era, when most others (in this genre, anyway) were purely episodic. It’s Syrie Van Epp who’s dabbling in the reanimation business, in league with a mad scientist and a squeaky-voiced midget named Nonesuch. In an early scene typical of The Corridor People as a whole, Nonesuch runs around chanting things, then puts on a Kabuki mask as the drunk mad scientist pleads with him to bring the dead back to life. Eventually the midget pours alcohol all over the grateful scientist’s face. And that’s just the way things are. In addition to direct address and weird interstitials, the dialogue is laced with non-sequiturs like:

“Can’t you remember anything about him?”

“Something to do with fish.”

Syrie’s motley crew is under constant observation from an ever-present Swedish film director who’s “attached himself to the Van Epp outfit for the purposes of studying the darker manifestations of the human soul.” (Miss Dunner’s orders regarding him are, “Leave him alone.”) As the gang ponders the problem that “one of the bodies escaped,” Kronk’s rain-coated coppers worry about being replaced by a computer. (“Not until they make a computer that can plant bricks in pockets!” they happily conclude.) No scene ever ends quite how you expect it to. Hysterical that someone she killed now appears to be back to life, Miss Dunner tries to resign, and Kronk lures her back by enticing her, “Have you ever shot a midget?”

The midget in question (“He’s very, very dangerous. Watch out for him.”) is prone to tantrums. He also, at one point, puts on a false nose for no apparent reason while carefully enunciatinging the word “perambulator.” And, yes, the midget ends up inside said perambulator. (Of course he does! Check out the clip at the bottom to see for yourself.) That leads to the curious visual of a nursemaid (really Syrie) pushing a stroller with smoke coming out of it, as the murderous Nonesuch (in a bonnet, naturally) puffs away at a cigar like a proto-Baby Herman, waiting to shoot someone from the safety of his baby carriage canopy.

The Corridor People isn’t always weird, though. It can be fairly realistic for a while, as when the murderous midget and his henchman track down a target and threaten him, and then suddenly turn very un-realistic on a dime, as when the policemen show up there, flank the guy, do a choreographed about face and the three of them march out together as if they were part of a vaudeville act. To describe it might make the tone sound wildly uneven, but it all somehow works. Vaudeville, arguably the broadest possible form of comedy, is mixed with the most cynical black humor. The gleeful anarchy of it all actually reminds me a bit of The Young Ones. One character, a former corpse now reanimated to a life and a wife that don’t want him, sits down on a park bench next to a stranger and begins a lengthy lament with, “Where did I go wrong? Was there a point where I made the wrong choice? Is there such a thing as choice?”

As soon as he finishes his soliloquy on an upbeat note with a resolution to change his ways, he falls victim to the gleeful, murderous midget, who shoots him and then cackles maniacally and runs off.

It’s still sounding sort of Avengersy, I guess, but that’s not right. The Avengers always had a plot, and even The Avengers, frankly, wasn’t this weird. The Corridor People is much more Twin Peaks weird–or Wild Palms weird–than Avengers weird. Nothing on this show stays remotely normal for long. A fairly normal conversation between Scrotty and Syrie, for instance (well, other than the fact that she starts riding a rocking horse while smoking in the middle of the conversation), takes a turn for the strange when they both put on giant oversized Punch and Judy masks for no discernable reason (well, no narratively-driven one, anyway) and then stare together into the camera with these blank-faced, expressionless masks.

The third episode, "Victim as Red," proves to be the most straightforward plotwise (in that it actually has one) and, as such, also proves the least interesting. It is a pretty classic spy plot, though; but that doesn’t quite cut it after where we’ve already been with this series. It concerns one Colonel Lemming, who went missing seven years ago. He was widely believed to have defected with missile secrets, and even reported seen in Moscow. His brother hires Scrotty to find him at the same time that Kronk sniffs the case at the same time that the Colonel randomly ends up crossing paths with Syrie. Keeping things on the somewhat strange side, there’s still room for an even longer vaudeville routine involving both policemen and Scrotty, who manages to keep it up throughout his ensuing briefing with Kronk. (That makes for an odd briefing.) Syrie also proves herself to be a kindred spirit with another more famous criminal antihero still a few years away from his screen debut when she and Scrotty indulge in a little Diabolik-style hanky panky on a big rotating bed covered in cash.

The final episode, “Victim as Black,” is the most interesting–and best–of the bunch, with the social commentary reaching particularly acerbic new levels in a story that explores themes of race and fairy tales. Just as a well-dressed African named Theobald Aboo (a smooth-talking Calvin Lockheart, whose long and varied career actually encompassed Twin Peaks near its end) turns up to consult him, Scrotty is approached and carried off by two Teutonic body builder types who identify themselves as “The Brothers Grimm” and speak in Germanic accents. Fortunately, Aboo is patient. “We Africans have learned to be patient,” he explains, helping to remind modern viewers that Colonialism wasn't such a distant memory back in the Sixties. Coincidentally (you'll notice a lot of coincidence in The Corridor People, and this episode actually explores that), the Brothers Grimm take Scrotty to someone else who hires Scrotty to find the very same beautiful black girl that Aboo was going to ask him to locate, Pearl. The someone in question is King Ferdinand of Morphania (“Population about 5000. It’s climate is reckoned the worst in Europe. Its agriculture’s primitive, its industry nil. Its inhabitants exist mainly on food parcels. It has no culture, no politics, none of the most rudimentary religious beliefs.”) The king gives Scrotty a shoe belonging to the girl, whom he saw briefly in a club and wants to make his queen.

There’s more direct address in this episode than any other, with pretty much every character–new or recurring–getting an opportunity to share his or her thoughts with the audience. Pearl herself remains removed from the other characters, and only delivers her lines directly to us, the audience. It’s a very theatrical part, and actress Nina Baden-Semper (who later turned up on Callan) does an excellent job building a plausible character we can actually care about through these monologues.

Syrie is also involved, of course, since she’s always involved in everything, and Kronk tries to make sense of all the coincidences that are going on with a weird machine on his desk that looks sort of like a dead metal plant with lightbulbs on the ends of all its branches. He barks at it, “Acknowledge!” at the end of each of his agents’ reports, and its lights all flash and it makes a sort of burping sound, digesting the information. The computer’s job is to find a pattern in all the chaotic information being fed into it. (Though you wouldn’t glean that from the control panel, whose buttons read “On, Off, Vol, Tern, Untern.”) After come clucking sounds while it processes all of this data, the machine suddenly starts enunciating like Noel Coward in a refined yet catty English accent. “The mere thought of the place,” it begins, talking about Morphania, “makes one want to cower like a wild thing or indulge in a passionate fit of weeping.” That’s one emotional computer! The erudite machine appears to unravel the whole sinister plot behind these random goings on and explains it in an apocalyptic monologue about race war and fear. All of the random events do indeed fall into place, according to the machine: Aboo is behind a plot to ensnare King Ferdinand with a black seductress for a Queen. His horrifying goal (to the white Europeans listening)? To establish a black foothold in Europe from which to wage war on the white population! “Keep Morphania white!” it pleads, as near to tears as a machine that looks like a dead plant can get. “At any cost Keep Morphania white! Keep Cinderella white!” Who would have guessed such an innocuous looking apparatus would prove so racist?

Of course, it’s not the machine that’s racist, really, but those who programmed it. Syrie follows its ranting with a monologue of her own (in front of a peacock with its tail feathers spread–and dressed as one, herself), providing another, entirely more plausible explanation for events. “There are no patterns,” she states, in opposition to the machine. “Only madmen and gamblers believe in patterns.” The king was just as he appeared: a lovesick fool. Aboo merely wanted to locate the sister of a friend. There was no conspiracy. “A pattern was made: of hatred and prejudice and fear and suspicion. It was fed into a machine. And the machine gave back what it was supposed to give.” Not only did it give it back; its misinterpretation is immediately acted on–with tragic results.

“There are no mad like the sane mad,” Syrie concludes, segueing into a drugged Scrotty’s delirious rants. “Time is the width of a street divided by the speed of a bullet, what we all have the least of. A child’s long summer day, an old man’s breath in winter,” he mumbles. “Honesty is not the best policy. It’s just being retarded. Charity is a name for debutantes. Faith a synonym for failure. And hope, hope... somewhere, someone’s waiting to betray you ”

Cut to Kronk picking up his phone and barking, “Duty assassin I have a job for you.”

Aboo gets his own monologue, too, against a stark black background. And he proves to be just as racist as the English establishment characters, decrying mixed marriages. (From which he wished to "save" his friend's sister.) The king then monologues about everything the English have promised him to keep his country from becoming a black kingdom, including his own bomb and a doomsday device and a whole new vocabulary. And, in the end, the only innocent character of the batch ends up staring into the pistol of the duty assassin.

The Corridor People is a bleak, bleak show, despite its mod style. To merely look at it, you might easily lump it into a category with The Avengers or other mod television of the era, but to hear it, you can’t help but recognize a larger grim agenda. This crazy world of Kabuki masks and little men in perambulators is our own world, and there is no hope for it. The series takes on all the hot topics of its day, from gender to race to Cold War politics. Like the machine, it finds a pattern, and the pattern is chaos. In the beginning, there was no clear hero, just a clear villain. By the end, that villain seems like the sanest person, because she at least remains true to her ideals. “I have only one commitment to anything,” she informs us. “To money. But that commitment is total.”

Ultimately, The Corridor People is sort of like The Avengers meets Callan, if that’s possible: the light surrealism of the former mixed with the dark themes of the latter: innocents destroyed by espionage and governments and politics and hate. Add to that a heavy dosage of Pinter.  It makes for an odd but compelling combination–and equally compelling television. This is a real curiosity that Network has unearthed. I would have loved to see some extras on such a strange program–some interviews or commentaries or something. But I suppose it’s a small wonder that all four episodes of this short-lived series even survive, and that Network has seen fit to make them available for rediscovery on DVD. (Right now, The Corridor People is a PAL Region 2 web exclusive, available through Network's website for £10.99.)

The Corridor People is not for everyone. It’s weird, and it’s not fast-paced weird, either. It starts out like a fever dream, and you’ll be scratching your head wondering what on earth you’re watching. But by the end, it proves itself to be a fascinating art project in the guise of a Sixties spy series. This is something special–and I’m already keen to watch it all again.

Network has provided a clip that fairly accurately conveys the general weirdness:

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