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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.