THE CORRIDOR PEOPLE - The Complete Series / Review


Oft described as a stablemate to The Avengers, The Corridor People is anything but a carbon copy of that illustrious series. True, the opening two episodes of the intentionally short four episode run do repeat many of the idioms and tropes of both The Avengers and James Bond and generally reflect the popularity of the spy-fi genre of the mid to late 1960s. But beyond the superficial similarities, Eddie Boyd's series takes off in all manner of different and subversive tangents and embraces satire, film-noir, and a bravura self-consciousness that often has the characters breaking the 'fourth wall' between them and the audience watching.


 
Its link to The Avengers is fairly obvious too when you consider that lead actor Elizabeth Shepherd was the original choice for Emma Peel back in 1965 and left the series after certain disagreements with the producers about the character. She only filmed one and half episodes before she was replaced by Diana Rigg. Beyond that, whilst the series may have emulated the outlandish plots and humour of The Avengers, The Corridor People went its own way and the studio bound production, obviously produced on a very small budget, couldn't and, perhaps, didn't want to match its inspiration. Consequently, you get a series of four episodes that are very much driven by the eccentric characters, the surreal wit and the visual inventiveness of director David Boisseau who seemed to excel in his use of the minimal sets, expressionistic lighting and the basic electronic editing tools available to him at the time.

Commenting in TV Times the week of transmission for the first episode of The Corridor People, Victim As Birdwatcher, Shepherd said, "If a role doesn't extend my skills, then it's no use to me." The Eddie Boyd scripts also obviously impressed her, "I don't think I have ever read such an excellent script. So many scripts fall down on dialogue but I loved this one." Producer Richard Everitt recalled making the series in Granada Television: The First Generation. "Eddie Boyd and I worked on The Corridor People together. He was a brilliant writer but very reluctant to actually put words to paper. I had to resort to locking him in my attic at home with promises to feed him every ten pages. Although the series reached 16 in the ratings it received the following notice from Nancy Banks-Smith in The Guardian: 'The Corridor People is as contemporary as a space shot. A send-up, a take-off. A spoof on sex, crime, death. Beautifully produced, way out and with it...and I hate it.'"

In The Corridor People, Shepherd plays millionaire Persian villainess Syrie Van Epp and she's joined in the series, best described as a mix of police drama, spy-fi fantasy and Expressionist film-noir satire, by John Sharp, who plays Kronk, the head of Department K at the Ministry of Defence; American actor, dancer and choreographer Gary Cockerell as private eye Phil Scrotty and Kronk's side-kicks Inspector Hound and Sergeant Blood, played respectively by Alan Curtis and William Maxwell. Eddie Boyd, the writer, had already created The Odd Man series for Granada in 1962 which was then spun off into two other series, It's Dark Outside and Mr. Rose in 1964 and 1967. Linking all three series was the character of Mr. Rose played by William Mervyn. He also contributed a number of episodes to the early runs of Z Cars and later went on to write The View From Daniel Pike for the BBC in 1970, contributed episodes to Crown Court, The XYY Man, Strangers and wrote a children's series for BBC called Huntingtower.

Opening with Victim As Bird Watcher,  the series at first emulates the bizarre plotting of The Avengers - the kidnapping of a bird fancier, Vaughan, who controls shares in a cosmetics firm. Syrie seduces Vaughan (a typically twitchy turn from TV stalwart Tim Barrett) and he foolishly refuses to give in and give her the share. Why does Syrie want the share? Maybe it has something to do with the knock-out gas side effects of the perfume that the company has inadvertently developed. So, on the surface it's a story of a 'diabolical mastermind' versus Department K. Shepherd puts in a rather feline performance, channeling Eartha Kitt in the delivery of her lines. She's full on, aided by an array of very eccentric costume changes that portray her as a white clad and virginal to black suited femme fatale to Persian peacock, and perhaps it's now evident here that she wasn't quite gentle enough to be Emma Peel. Overall, the performances are a mix of fast line delivery with the overtly theatrical. Only John Sharp manages to keep a reasonable reign on the kitsch but often even he chews up the scenery. Some of the lines are priceless and inject a good deal of sharp humour into the series - "I'm sorry to have kept you waiting," she says to the imprisoned Vaughan, "but I had some small matters to attend to in Beirut." Later, after being subjected to enforced diabetic comas, he says to her, "You're a very beautiful woman," to which she replies, "I know."

Whilst Syrie charms Vaughan out of his shares and threatens to kill a precious bird specimen 'the Greater Crested Train Robber (her black shooting outfit of deerstalker and adjustable sunglasses is one of many iconic images the series creates), we're also introduced to Phil Scrotty, a private enquiry agent who clearly has a fixation on the pulp anti-heroes of film-noir. Hence, the huge picture of Humphrey Bogart ("the founder of the firm") that dominates the back wall of the office set he sits in. There's also a running gag here where his early warning system consists of strategically placed dustbins outside the office to flag up the arrival of visitors. "You don't put up much of a front, do you?" observes a client of his rather spartan arrangements. "I can't, the place is listed as an ancient monument," he drawls in reply.  Scrotty is also something of an anti-hero too, appearing like a version of Sam Spade mixed with Frank Sinatra and, as the episode progresses, he's willing to play both sides against each other for the highest stakes.

"Codeword Bogart" is mooted and Scrotty warns Kronk that Vaughan's father is searching for his missing son. One of the loveliest characters is Miss Dunner, Kronk's secretary-cum-hit woman, who clearly dislikes the comic duo of Hound and Blood (all raincoat and trilby and not much else) and happily hurls insults in their direction ("the lumpen proletariat" and "Cossacks!"). Listen out for Sergeant Blood's Yiddish exclamation at the mention of rare birds. Apparently, it translates as "Don't hit me with a teapot!". The Department K set, like much of the production design in the series, is sparse, economic and modernist. The cell where Syrie keeps Vaughan is a direct pastiche of Ken Adam's angular designs and use of Expressionist shadows that were so striking in the Bond films.

Director Boisseau uses the medium and his minimal budget to his advantage. There's a fade to black after the scene in Department K and then a letterbox image of diabetic Vaughan's sweating face appears (Syrie has cut off his supply of insulin) as he drifts in and out of diabetic coma. Cropped images of cell bars, Syrie in profile and then a swirling vision of Syrie and her henchman Weedy (ironic in that he's clearly the opposite when we see him floor Scrotty in the scene following this) fill the screen. 'Weedy! Weedy! Weedy!" is all you can hear on the soundtrack apart from Vaughan's laboured breathing as she orders him to inject Vaughan. Odd and surreal.

The screen is cropped so that we see only the lower half of the image as the injection is administered and then Boisseau uses a wipe to shut off the rest of the image and the sound. This is a visual experimentation that The Avengers only rarely attempted and is a graphic style that probably owes more to the way Saul Bass and Maurice Binder approached the construction of titles and sequences for Hitchcock and the Bond movies. Vaughan threatens Syrie that if he dies, everything he owns goes to the state including the shares and therefore she needs him alive to gain control of the cosmetics company. "You're not such a fool as you look," she purrs. "The greatest weapon of the English upper classes," he retorts.

Windsor Davies pops up as a shares broker, Sullivan, who assists Kronk in his investigations. There's a witty scene where he turns up with a model at Department K and as they chat about the Vaughan situation Candy throws a number of poses and shapes in the background. Boisseau, visual stylist that he is, shoots through Candy's poses at the two men. It's here the sub-plot about the perfume is revealed too when Sullivan reports that when Candy used the perfume "it turned her into an imbecile". After Candy pops to the loo, Kronk asks, "How would one tell, old boy, if Candy had been turned into an imbecile?" as writer Boyd hurls a pot shot at models working in the fashion industry of the time. Oh, and look out for a similar barb at French film actresses with "shaggy armpits". It's this acerbic humour that goes just that little bit over the line that typically The Avengers wouldn't attempt. It's often a delicious bitchiness rather than subtle, sophisticated wit.

Vaughan's father persuades him that the best thing he could do is to use his shares, work with Syrie and keep the cosmetics firm's export drive buoyant and, more importantly, British! There's an eyebrow raising view of Empire reclaimed through British perfume exports to Africa with Vaughan's father observing, "The blacks are demanding the gracious life! I find it exciting to think that though they may have left the Empire, they will still smell British!" Boyd immediately mocks British white reactionary attitudes at a time when Britain had a diminishing role in the Commonwealth and Wilson had been battling with Ian Smith over similar attitudes in Rhodesia. The final act of Victim As Bird Watcher clearly suggests that Syrie has bedded the repressed younger Vaughan and he's now happy to give her the shares. However, she's already plotting to off Vaughan.

Miss Dunner also gets a "spell of special duty" - something she's clearly delighted about and off she pops in her twin set and pearls to carry it out. However, her special duty has already been anticipated. Both Weedy and Scrotty turn out to be more than they seem too in a nicely judged, fairly complex plot as the various factions battle it out to get control of the share and seize the deadly perfume. The briefing towards the end of the episode, given by Kronk to what appear to be his superiors in Department K as Vaughan is hauled over the coals, is also fairly arresting. They all seem to represent a roll call of the 'best of British' - lords, admirals, majors and what look like Bulldog Drummond, Sherlock Holmes and Lord Peter Wimsey. As the meeting ends and Vaughan asks Miss Dunner why he's been left with her, "Well, you see I'm the specialist". She levels a gun, the camera tilts 90 degrees and Boisseau uses a wipe to cut to Syrie.

The opening episode hits the ground running and establishes the signature style of the series. It's also bitingly funny, arch and ironic and makes the most of its limited budget and studio based production.

The second episode, Victim As Whitebait, picks up from the opener. Scrotty has survived the 'specialist' duties of Dunner and is on the run. He's sleeping with the widow of an (allegedly) deceased husband, Whitebait. Except he isn't. Dead, that is. Mad scientist Robag, a supremely twisted performance from that master of scenery chewing Aubrey Morris, has perfected a technique to raise the dead. Syrie, believing Scrotty is dead, wants him brought back from the grave because he has precious intelligence about an accountant who could call time on a £3 million deal. Alcoholic Robag spends a fair bit of his time chasing a dwarf, Nonesuch (William Trigger), who teases him with a bottle of spirits, around one of the series more elaborate sets depicting a disused theatre littered with strange carnival heads. Boisseau again chucks in a couple of weird, tilting angles just to ensure that the word 'bonkers' is on the tip of your tongue.

The episode opens with Shepherd decorously slumped across a tombstone, fending off the advances of Nonesuch whilst a henchman, Bo, stalks towards camera whilst assessing the scene/audience with a viewfinder. Two fellas dig up a grave in a cloud of dry ice in front of her. Utterly contrived, utterly theatrical, Boisseau is clearly having fun and indicates such by winking at the audience. He doesn't have enough budget to show the opening of Scrotty's coffin either and merely adds sound effects to the picture. "Empty," concludes Bo, the man with the viewfinder.

This is pretty much a story focusing on Scrotty too. Cockerell's physicality is much in evidence and again the parallels with Bond are made with a topless Cockerell bearing more than a passing resemblance to the equally chiseled and hirsute Sean Connery. Scrotty is revealed to be a tougher anti-hero than we presumed from Victim As Bird Watcher. Here, he swaggers about and takes great delight in conning both Syrie and Department K. When Whitebait is found to be alive, due to Robag's process, he ensures the man is killed so he can continue his affair with the widow, Abigail.

Dunner is perplexed when, after bugging Syrie's conversation with a client Jolyon Defarge, it is revealed that Scrotty is alive. Blood and Hound are sent out on the trail and Dunner proffers her resignation only for Kronk to tear it up and enquire, "Miss Dunner, have you ever shot a midget?" That he's sent her out on a suicide mission is later underlined when a large crate containing her body is delivered to him. He pops the flower from his buttonhole into the crate and raises his hat, "Poor Miss Dunner."

Again, it's a twisted story that takes a bit of following and Boisseau injects plenty of visual playfulness. When Syrie and Scrotty finally meet to talk about the accountant Samson Whitby who will be able to shop Defarge, they don the huge carnival heads in the theatre and deliberately turn and gaze into the camera. When Syrie goes to bump off Whitby she does so dressed as a maid and trundling a pram. In the pram, which is belching with smoke, is Nonesuch smoking a cigar. And Bo keeps popping up with his viewfinder as a sublimation of the director Boisseau's vision perhaps? However, Scrotty has set Whitebait up as Samson Whitby and Syrie kills a man who's already been dead once. The real Samson?...well, that would be telling.

Victim As Red and Victim As Black aren't as accomplished visually but the scripts are sharp and witty. Red starts with a Mr. Lemming paying Scrotty a visit to ask him to keep searching for his brother even though it would seem to no avail. Scrotty turns to camera and addresses the audience, "He's a nut. A real nut." The brother, Col. Hugo Lemming, is alive and well. The character provides us with another accomplished performance, this time from the excellent John Woodnutt, of a man who is suffering from amnesia...or is he? After his minder dies, he knocks out his landlady and escapes, hiding in the back of Syrie's Rolls. Lemming is a former missile man who allegedly defected to the Russians and Kronk sends out Blood and Hound to find him. Syrie is intrigued by the man in the back of her car. "You drive very well, " he observes. "I do everything very well," she smolders in response. The landlady recovers "He done me proper. With one of them karate chops like on the telly," she tells the wife of Kempsford, the man holding Hugo Lemming.

"Col. Hugo Lemming!" announces Scrotty to a bemused Kronk. "By hell Scrotty, I sometimes wonder if you haven't got a pipeline into this bloody office." Scrotty tells Kronk about Lemming's brother and hands him the script that the brother left on his desk. They all seem to have the same reaction to it - "Well, well, well" directly into the camera. The "well, well, well" is the key to a £2 million robbery, naturally, and the manuscript is the clue to Lemming's activity behind the Iron Curtain, the robbery and a connection to Kempsford. We also get to see Syrie's apartment - again one of the more stylish sets for the series - and she announces that she'll subsidise a treatment for Lemming's amnesia but at a price. "The potency of cheap music," is the key to unlocking Lemming's mind she thinks. There's a classic line whilst the two of them have a dance and converse about the origin of the plays of Shakespeare. "I once knew a man who believed the plays had been written by a coloured hermaphrodite from Wigan," reveals Lemming. One of Syrie's records triggers Lemming's memory when he hears Mrs. Kempsford, a former singer who turns out to be Hugo's wife of three years.

Eventually, Kronk and Syrie agree to deal over Lemming's activities as a traitor. "Bad faith breeds bad faith," claims Syrie when Lemming asks why she gave him up. She's already worked out that Lemming didn't lose his memory at all and has used everyone...or has he? Red is a fairly wordy script and the story is driven more by the characters than by Boisseau's visual flourishes. Plenty of word play, literary and cultural allusions and a complex plot laced with wit, the episode veers away from its lighthearted origins and becomes a much darker tale of double agents, Communism and the Cold War.

Victim As Black completes the series with more surrealism, 1960s cultural allusions and a tentative exploration of racism. Helena, the Queen Mother of Morphenia is visiting Syrie. She regularly comes to Britain to do a spot of shoplifting and we discover that her son, Ferdinand has fallen in love with the Cinderella-like Pearl, a black girl he met at a party (an early role for Nina Baden-Semper) and only left a shoe behind after running off. Helena hires Scrotty to find her but the Morphenian government reject the idea of Ferdinand wishing to marry a black woman.

Kronk and Department K know of Helena well and he orders a circular to go out to all department stores to warn them that ("Lulu's Back In Town!" wittily interjects Blood) she's in the country. Meanwhile as Scrotty is being "persuaded" to accompany the Brothers Grimm, a pair of blonde thugs, they are interupted by a rather camp black man, Theobald Abu (played rather marvellously by Calvin Lockhart). He's an example of the series playing rather fast and loose with stereotypes but his entrance is quite witty, "Your dustbins attacked me!" and to which Scotty replies, "James Baldwin said the same thing." "James Baldwin was here!", Abu responds breathlessly, crossing himself. Helena later confuses Abu for Scrotty when the private eye has been carted off by the Grimms and asks Abu to find Ferdinand and Pearl. Helena's racism is rather blunt, especially when she leaves the office and exclaims, "Syrie never mentioned that your were a dark gentleman. How clever of her. I mean, that should make finding the girl easier for you." Ouch.

Pearl is a cinema usher and Boyd makes use of internal monologue here to reveal her feelings about being black and looking for the right man. "Maybe I should do the pools again, " she ponders. We also see that Ferdinand has employed the Grimms to bring Scrotty to him and to find Pearl for him. He hands him Pearl's lost shoe. "You want me to bring it back, filled with girl?" asks Scrotty. Ferdinand also notes that the girl is 'coloured' but reveals, "I don't like the word coloured...I have...er...liberal tendencies." Boyd's script reminds us that a bitter struggle was still being waged in America for recognition of civil rights for the black population and that Black Power, as a major movement in resistance to white hegemony using a "by-any-means necessary" approach to stopping inequality, was also emerging. Scrotty is amused that Ferdinand seeks marriage to the girl. Later, Pearl puts on her make up and directly addresses the camera and Boyd again flags up these issues, "Though I'm black, am I not comely," she says. "But why 'though' ?" she queries. She then talks to us about semantics and words having prejudices and how words can be reclaimed or given new, powerful meanings. The form is not something you'll find on ITV at 9.00pm these days and the material was fairly ambitious for its day too.

Abu is also willing to pay Scrotty not to find Pearl and to convince those looking for her that Pearl is dead. Abu is also being monitored by Department K but Kronk is having a lot of trouble getting his various sub-departments to unearth anything. He decides to use a Prophecy Approximation device (a machine that makes some wonderfully amusing noises when it does appear and then very camply attempts to disentangle the "delicious problem" involving Abu, Scrotty and Morphenia - "the mere mention of the place makes one cower like a wild thing") to get to the bottom of it all. Scrotty is beaten up by two black thugs and ends up in hospital for the rest of the story, a "victim of racial prejudice" he claims and Syrie meets with Abu who pays her for the photograph of Pearl but she also pays her maid (an early role for Pauline Collins) to follow him. The maid asks for a further payment - "one for Mary Quant" - making her intentions clear, I think. It is also revealed that the maid knows who and where Pearl is and Scrotty sends her to Ferdinand.

After Department K does a 'deal' with Syrie about Pearl and Ferdinand as the consequences of their relationship become clear with the Prophecy Approximation machine exclaiming "keep Morphenia white!", the episode curiously ends with all the major characters turning to camera and performing a small monologue - Scrotty rambles through his delirium; Syrie natters on about patterns, hatred and prejudice; Abu has a rant about mixed marriages; Ferdinand accepts government handouts and a nuclear deterent for Morphenia whilst munching on a choc-ice (bit of heavy handed symbolism there) and the Queen of Morphenia is joyful that she'll be able to do her shoplifting in her own country. As Pearl reads out her own horoscope and the titles run a gun is leveled at her head. Fascinating and puzzling in equal measure.

Definitely of its time, The Corridor People is mad, eccentric, inventive and pretty unique. These four episodes are to treasure as an example of quintessential late 1960s British television drama where experimentation with the form was cool. This ends up as a melding of spy-fi fantasy, with the exoticism of Modesty Blaise meeting the comedy of menace in Harold Pinter perhaps, tons of literary in-jokes (there's a bit of piss-taking of fellow writer Alun Owen in one of the episodes) and the darker elements of hard boiled film noir with passing visual references to the likes of Godard's À Bout De Souffle (Scrotty's Bogart obsession). An acquired taste but highly recommended.

The Corridor People - The Complete Series (Network DVD 7953330 - Region 2 - Released 19th July 2010 - Cert 12) Only currently available as a 'web exclusive' from the Network site.

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