Nov 17, 2011
New Spy DVDs Out This Week and Last
Last week saw the release from PBS of David Hare's elegant, adult BBC spy thriller Page Eight, which recently aired on PBS' Masterpiece Contemporary. This serious spy drama boasts an all-star cast to equal that of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, including Bill Nighy, Rachel Weisz, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Ewan Bremner and Judy Davis. And it's really, really good. Hopefully I'll have a full review up soon. Nighy plays veteran MI5 officer Johnny Worricker. When his boss and best friend Benedict Baron (Gambon) dies suddenly, he leaves behind an inexplicable file, threatening the stability of the organization and the government itself. Johnny's colleagues and the Prime Minister (Fiennes, playing a PM so evil he could only be described as Voldemort in a tuxedo) all scramble to use the file to their own ends, but how will Johnny use it? Meanwhile, a seemingly chance encounter with his striking next-door neighbour and political activist Nancy Pierpan (Weisz) seems too good to be true, so he has her vetted by a former colleague (Bremner). Johnny is forced to take some extreme measures to find out the truth. Set in London and Cambridge, Page Eight is, PBS puts it in their disc copy, "a contemporary spy film for the BBC, which addresses intelligence issues and moral dilemmas peculiar to the new century." It's also the closest thing on television right now to the serious spy series of the late Seventies and early Eighties like the original Tinker, Tailor and Smiley's People, as well as Game, Set and Match and Mr. Palfrey of Westminster. In other words, if you're looking for 24, look elsewhere. But if you're looking for intelligent, adult, thought-provoking spy drama, definitely give this disc a look. SRP is $24.99 for the DVD and $29.99 for the Blu-ray, though both are available for less from the usual online retailers. Unfortunately, there don't appear to be any features on this Region 1 release; at least the Region 2 DVD featured cast and crew interviews.
"THE SAINT, STEED, CALLAN, DICK BARTON... now the most unlikely super hero of them all comes to your screen!" blared ITV's announcement of their latest spy(ish) series, Bognor, in a February 1981 TV Times. Now Network reworks that hyperbole in their copy for its DVD release: "John Steed, Simon Templar, Dick Barton… and Simon Bognor. Following in the footsteps of some illustrious predecessors, the principal agent of the Special Investigations Department of the Board of Trade ventures forth to take on wrongdoers wherever they may lurk!" Since the odds are most people have never heard of him, obviously Bognor (played by David Horovitch) didn't really make it in such lofty company. But I'm intrigued by anyone who tries, so I'm curious to give this humorous take on the secret agent format a chance--especially since it does actually have a connection to one of those aforementioned TV heroes. Bognor is based on a series of novels by Tim Heald, author of John Steed: An Authorized Biography: Volume One - Jealous in Honour. That was a fictional biography of the famous Avenger, (in the vein of John Pearson's James Bond: The Authorized Biography of 007) which also featured an unauthorized cameo from Bond. (Read more about it here.) Only one edition was ever printed and it's become quite hard to find, but it's worth tracking down for Avengers fans. It's good enough to inspire interest in Bognor. Here's the rest of Network's copy: "In [the serial] 'Unbecoming Habits,' [Bognor] poses as a CID officer to investigate a friary suspected of passing agricultural secrets to the Soviets; 'Deadline' sees him lowering journalistic standards as he goes undercover to probe the murder of a gossip columnist; in 'Let Sleeping Dogs Die' he trails ruthless pedigree dog smugglers; 'Just Desserts' finds him uncovering deadly intrigue in the world of haute cuisine. But will the assignments throw up more clues than Bognor can handle?" Network's 4-disc Region 2 PAL DVD set includes all 21 episodes of the series, which originally ran from 1981-82. The set is a web exclusive, available only from Network's website for £35.00. While you're there, you can also check out a video of the show's entertaining opening credits, which gleefully send up the title sequences of Sixties spy series.
Finally, another Network web exclusive came out last week that isn't principally a spy show, but still has enough Cold War-themed episodes to interest fans of British spy TV. Don Henderson stars in his third TV show playing the same part, classics-quoting detective George Bulman (previously seen in The XYY Man and Strangers, as well as the first series of Bulman), now retired from the police force, but still taking cases on a private basis--and taking unofficial assignments from Secret Service mandarin William Dugdale (Thorley Walters). It's a detective show, but like most UK detective shows of that era, detection and espionage often intersect. Ingrid Pitt, Robert Hardy and Iain Cuthbertson also appear. The 2-disc set (PAL, Region 2) containing all 6 episodes of Series 2 is available exclusively from Network's website for £15.00.
It's worth noting that Network's web exclusives are now available for a limited time only. Both Bognor and Bullman: The Complete Second Series will be discontinued on November 4, 2012.