The nine half-hour episodes, broadcast in a Sunday tea-time slot between 15 September and 10 November 1974, were made by producer Brian Armstrong and directed by Carol Wilks, both formerly producer and researcher respectively on Granada's hard-hitting documentary strand World in Action.
Soldier and Me was an adaptation by writer David Line of his own best selling book 'Run For Your Life', originally published by Jonathan Cape in 1966. Line was the pseudonym of thriller writer Lionel Davidson.
As Jake Kerridge noted Davidson, born in Hull in 1922 and who died in 2009, was perhaps the last of the great adventure writers of the 1950s and 1960s, casting his unwitting heroes in the tradition of the ripping yarns spun by writers such as John Buchan. He was referred to as "today’s Rider Haggard" by Daphne du Maurier and his early novel 'The Rose of Tibet' was praised by Graham Greene as a "genuine adventure story." (1)
Davidson's career as a writer started with him as an office boy opening the post at The Spectator (it published his first story when he was 15 after he smuggled one of his own pieces into the submissions he forwarded to the literary editor), writing syndicated features for children and an agony column and, after the Second World War, working at Fleet Street's Keystone press agency. As a freelance writer he travelled to Czechoslovakia in 1947, smuggling himself aboard a lorry deporting Slovaks from Hungary back to Czechoslovakia as per Stalin's diktat for Eastern Europe. (2)
By 1955, he was the fiction editor of short story and serial magazine John Bull and his first novel, 'The Night of Wenceslas' in 1960, was a Gold Dagger thriller award winner and was inspired by his experiences in Czechoslovakia. The rights to the book were sold to British producer Betty Box who transformed it into a limp comedy Hot Enough for June (1964). Dirk Bogarde turned down the lead role but was instructed by his agent to take it because he needed the money. He played the innocent British writer Nicholas Whistler who becomes embroiled with agents in Czechoslovakia after inadvertently 'spying' for British Intelligence while employed as a trainee executive for a glass company. Davidson's brush with the film world was financially lucrative but creatively not an entirely successful one.
'... this may reflect his own position as something of an outsider in English society'
As Michael Carlson noted in his 2009 obituary for the writer: "Davidson's novels generally involved multiple protagonists working together for different reasons, with hidden motives and potential betrayal at their core. Some of this may reflect his own position as something of an outsider in English society." (3)
'Run for Your Life', a novel for teenagers published in 1966, seemed to reflect this too and returned to his experiences in Czechoslovakia for its post-Hungarian revolution tale of two boys, one a refugee, who uncover a plot to murder dissidents in London. The murderers give chase and follow the two boys from their escape on a Liverpool Street train across the wintry landscape of the Norfolk fens. When Granada producer Brian Armstrong decided to adapt the book, he suggested updating the background to post-1968 Prague Spring, after the Soviets invaded to halt the democratic liberal reforms proposed by First Secretary Alexander Dubček.
Educated at Heaton Grammar school and Wadham College, Oxford, Brian Armstrong joined Granada in 1958 as an assistant transmission controller. He became a researcher, writer and producer, and between 1963 and 1969 worked on The World Tomorrow, World in Action as well as Nice Time, Cinema and All Our Yesterdays. He eventually went on to produce Coronation Street and became Head of Comedy at Granada.
Clearly, the changes he suggested to Lionel Davidson when it came to adapting his own book for television had been born out of Armstrong's own near-death experiences in Prague making a film, without the Russians' knowledge, for the World in Action team in 1968. Talking to the TV Times, he recalled filming in Prague and turning to see a Russian soldier taking aim at his bead: "Looking back, I remember not being frightened, just embarrassed, like a naughty school-boy who'd been caught breaking school rules. As I moved, he followed my head with his rifle. Then, for no apparent reason, he lowered it and turned away. I'll never know why." (4)
The difficulties of reporting from Czechoslovakia were not without their humorous side: "I had thought I might have to appear on Intervision with a live, to-camera report - so I borrowed a little number from Granada's wardrobe department before I left Manchester. I had been in the middle of mayhem for three days when the phone rang in my hotel room. It was a call from Granada. It was May, Head of Wardrobe: "Can I have Albert Tatlock's best jacket back immediately?"(5)
To play the two juvenile leads, Jim Woolcott and Pavel Szolda (nicknamed 'Soldier' and hence the title of the series), Granada cast two newcomers to television. Gerry Sundquist, who was born in Manchester and grew up in Chorlton, caught the acting bug at primary school and developed his interest at the Stretford Children's Theatre while attending Grammar School in Wythenshawe. He left school at 16 to work the night shift at the Kellogg's factory in Old Trafford but soon headed for London to pursue his acting career. (6)
After a supporting role in Crown Court, Soldier and Me was Sundquist's professional television breakthrough and his success as Jim Woolcott lead to another children's drama, The Siege of Golden Hill and an episode of Space: 1999. Film roles in The Black Panther (1977) and Meetings with Remarkable Men (1979) and a number of theatre productions swiftly followed, including a memorable appearance in 'Equus' at the National Theatre in 1976. He met and fell in love with Nastassja Kinski when they were filming Passion Flower Hotel in 1978.
He continued to make television appearances, best remembered for his roles in The Mallens and Barry Letts' 1981 BBC adaptation of Great Expectations. However, his career and personal life collapsed in the late 1980s and it took a number of years, with support from his family, for him to recover from heroin addiction and resume his career. He returned to television in an episode of The Bill in 1992 but his career never recovered and it was his last appearance as an actor. Tragically in 1993, at the age of 37, he committed suicide by jumping in front of a train. (7)
His co-star Richard Willis, like Gerry and many other young male actors of the period, became a familiar face in children's television drama. His role as Pavel 'Soldier' Szolda came at a time when Willis' career was taking off. He was fifteen when he played Pavel and had just completed two West End appearances, as East in the musical 'Tom Brown's Schooldays' and as Tom (chosen from 2000 hopefuls) in 'The Water Babies', co-starring with musical legend Jessie Matthews.
From there, he secured a role in the ill feted Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan film Ghost in the Noonday Sun (1973). Even though Willis got on very well with him, Sellers lost confidence in the film and, after the director refused his request to shut the film down, he set out to deliberately scupper the production. It was never released theatrically. (8)
Willis notched up many television appearances after Soldier and Me, including a co-starring role as Tozo in Thames' wonderful Aztec drama The Feathered Serpent and roles in the naval science fiction thriller The Doombolt Chase and ITV's A Bunch of Fives. He is also remembered for his appearance in Doctor Who as Varsh, Adric's brother, in 'Full Circle'. He subsequently moved to America and now lives in Canada and successfully tours in theatre there to this day.
'I latched on to Gerry at the audition. I knew instinctively he was going to get the part.'In an interview with Look-In about Soldier and Me both actors described how they were chosen for the roles. Willis said, "I auditioned through my agent. The auditioning went on for a couple of months, from early February to the end of March, when I went for a screen test and got the part of Soldier."
Sundquist explained his casting: "The actual part came through an amateur theatre company that I'm with in Manchester, 'cos they'd been looking round for the right character and hadn't managed to find him, so they came along to our company, and I in turn went along for an audition, and then back for the screen test, where I first met Richard. About a fortnight later, I heard I'd got the part of Jim." (9)
Many years later, on his personal blog Willis reflected on the series: "The story revolved around a 12 year old Czech boy in glasses and short trousers Szolda and his reluctant Manchester friend, played by a newcomer, Gerry Sundquist. I hated my character's short trousers, his short haircut and his ugly glasses. But I was immediately at home in his inner life - the awkward outcast, Szolda. I latched on to Gerry at the audition. I knew instinctively he was going to get the part. We became good friends." (10)
The arduous shoot took a twenty-five strong crew four months to film in the Spring of 1974. Granada had scored some success with filmed children's drama made by producer Peter Plummer in the much admired and deeply strange The Owl Service, adapted by Alan Garner from his own book and shot in April 1969, and The Intruder, adapted by Plummer and Mervyn Haisman from John Rowe Townsend's novel in 1972.
Together with Soldier and Me, they indicated the shift towards a contemporary milieu in children's drama and, beyond the fantastical and supernatural, a search for realism in counterpoint to the period adaptations of classic texts that had become the stock in trade during the 1960s. Armstrong confirmed the series would be "Gritty... [and] we're opting for rugged realism." (12)
The opening titles certainly denote this difference immediately - Derek Hilton's pulsing funk soundtrack plays over stylised silhouettes of the two main characters running toward the camera. This is abruptly intercut with action scenes from the series featuring guns being fired and cocked, Pavel leaping off a wall, close ups of the sleazy looking villains, car chases, kidnapping and then the two main characters rolling down a hillside straight into the camera. Everything signifies 'action'.
However, Soldier and Me's opening episode 'Conspiracy' is dominated by its school setting and spends most of its running time establishing the social background of Jim Woolcott and Pavel Szolda, beginning with the two main characters becoming friends after Jim recuses Pavel from his bullying class mates.
Jim is a senior boy and Pavel, grateful for his help, clearly sees him as a protective older brother. Wilks uses the camera subjectively too and we often see events from Pavel's point of view, especially during the opening sequence with the bullies.
Much to Richard Willis' annoyance at the time Pavel is the only boy in the school who does wear short trousers. It singles out his immaturity (in contrast to Sundquist's Jim who smokes and moans about Pavel's attentions) and that he comes from a low wage family who can't buy him long trousers. His status is as 'other', an outsider who must be bullied because he's "a little dark skinny kid with glasses." Outsiderdom, cultural difference and bullying would have been familiar scenarios through 1970s children's fiction such as Rumer Godden's 'The Didakoi' and Susan Hill's 'I'm The King of the Castle'.
The other striking thing is that the social and cultural aspects of this setting are narrated in voice over, mainly by Gerry Sundquist. He relates not only the background details of working class life in the back streets of Stockport, in familiar narrow back alleys that have long since gone, but also his and Pavel's status at school and home.
This inner monologue tells us about Pavel's Czech refugee and one-parent family status before the boys' partnership is established and Jim nicknames him 'Soldier'. Willis' Czech accent was given some authenticity by fellow cast member Milos Kireck, an actor-director in Prague until 1968, and here playing the gang boss who orders his henchmen to execute a dissident. "He 'Czechs' my dialogue, so to speak," joked Willis, at the time. (13)
"Stockport's answer to Einstein"(14)
Only when Pavel visits the library ("Stockport's answer to Einstein" as Jim sneers in voice over) does the thriller element start to develop. Director Carol Wilks makes this the centre piece of the episode, her camera roving through the bookshelves while two Czech executioners (Greasy and Smiler played by Richard Ireson and Constantin de Goguel) plot their forthcoming murder over the newspapers as their victim, a crippled old man (Armitage Ware), arrives to the noisy tapping of his stick.
Here, both Pavel and Jim relate to the viewer their thoughts and observations about the encounter in the library through a running commentary that Wilks then extends into a scene after school where Pavel is relating all this to a disbelieving Jim. The police aren't exactly impressed either and dismiss the story.
His holiday plans scuppered, there's an amusing scene where Jim ends up working in a dress shop full of customers "grabbing stuff like they were going out of fashion." The uneasy friendship threatens to dissolve when Pavel insists they break into a school where the villains are due to carry out their execution. However, as Jim again acknowledges in voice over, Pavel "had this knack of getting you to do things you didn't want to know about really."
Episode two, 'The House of Secrets' concentrates entirely on the thriller element. Shot at night, Wilks uses the location and school interiors to generate a great deal of claustrophobic tension and introduces some stylish touches. Low angle shots, expressionistic lighting and Jim's inner monologue describing his fears provide a suitable ambience as Jim and Pavel struggle to find a place to hide as the executioners arrive and they witness the murder of the disabled old man. The meeting becomes a bleak interrogation scene as the heavily breathing old man struggles up the stairs and meets his fate. It has an uncompromising, gritty edge to it that would not be out of place in more adult dramas of the time.
The interrogation descends into chaos when the old man is shot after he denies betraying the list of Czechs read out to him. Some rapidly cut sequences punctuate the murder, Jim and Pavel's dash from their hiding place and the chase through the house as they attempt to escape. There's a montage that's particularly accomplished: as Jim and Pavel are pursued Wilks drops in a series of effective, silent shots: a close up of a broken plaster bust, the old man's hand, a head and shoulders shot of one of the Czech executioners and a final close up of the old man's head slumped on a desk.
These are aesthetics that mix the dispassionate realism of the documentary (the way the interrogation is set up looks like something from World in Action) with the stylistic qualities of film noir - strange angles, chiaroscuro lighting, uncanny sound and distorted narrative through editing and voice over. The climax develops as an unresolved conspiracy and paranoia narrative when the police arrive after Jim and Pavel alert them to the shooting and find the old man is apparently alive and well in his own home.
This twist in the narrative reflects contemporaneous political thrillers (ironically Jim is seen reading Frederick Forsyth's 'The Day of the Jackal' at the breakfast table) and the tone shifts when the boys are confronted by the old man who Pavel now realises is one of the Czech gang in disguise (Derrick O'Connor in an early role, playing a character credited as 'Driver', and who would pop up in a vast amount of British television crime dramas including The Sweeney, The XYY Man, Out and Fox during the rest of the decade) as a set up to fool the police.
The comic potential of the 'odd couple' relationship between Pavel and Jim is exploited in episode three 'Alibi' with some simple physical comedy: Jim smuggles toast out to Pavel who has been squeezed into a dustbin to hide him from Jim's suspicious mum and, later, they both hide in the discarded remains of farm produce on the back of a lorry and make fools of themselves with several train commuters.
'Could we have a shot of you looking as if you are in pain, please?'
This opens the drama up from the confined and claustrophobic opening episodes and affords Wilks an opportunity to tighten the pace and throw in some more physical comedy as market stalls and shoppers go flying in all directions and there's some great visual incongruity as a cascade of displaced oranges tumble down a street as Pavel and Jim make their escape.
Armstrong underlined this approach in TV Times: "We've tried to inject realism into the proceedings by filming many of the chases in live locations - like Stockport market in full swing - and by adding a wry, mature humour. This comes in the narration by Jim, constantly bemoaning the fact that he is saddled with little 'Soldier'." (15)
The chase is a central trope of the espionage adventure thriller and of children's literature and Line uses this to shape the psychological progression of his two characters. Thrown together, they must make sense of the chaos let loose in their normal urban surroundings, a stressful situation that forces them to grow up, and they must team up and seek a solution. Jim's inner monologue therefore is useful in making the connection between what the reader feels emotionally in the book to what is translated into action on screen.
There is a tense game of cat and mouse on the train journey they take to Carlisle, offset by some further comedy featuring Coronation Street's Fred Feast as a friendly drunk, which reaches a climax when the only way to escape from Smiler's clutches is to risk jumping off the moving train.
As Willis noted this was frowned upon by parents watching at the time: "We caused some controversy because the opening titles involved us jumping from a moving train - a stunt that we did ourselves. A warning had to be given before the programme telling the kids watching about the danger of jumping from trains." (16)
Stunts and physical hardships were clearly a badge of honour for both actors, as they told Look-In in 1974 where Sundquist described the perils of location shooting: "Jumping from a wall on one occasion I snapped the ligaments in an ankle. That was the day a Press photographer came and asked me, while I was lying in agony in the back of a Land-Rover: 'Could we have a shot of you looking as if you are in pain, please?' That didn't please me too much."
Of the second episode 'House of Secrets' he remembered: "Another time I was trying to lock a door which wouldn't, while there were two villains on the other side who were trying to kick it down. They managed that... and as it landed, it banged me in the eye and knocked me out cold." (17)
Willis, struggling to keep his dignity in those short trousers throughout the shoot, added: "For one scene we were told to row across one of the deepest lakes in England, in the Lake District, which was pretty rough at the time. I wouldn't have fancied a dip in that water. Still, we pulled through, and the scene was a success." (18)
Their escapades and injuries falling off a bicycle, with Willis sat on the crossbar, during filming for 'Cross Country' were also reported by the TV Times. Mindful of children possibly copying the stunts this piece came with a warning that "ill-used and ill-kept bikes can be a real danger. Children should be made fully aware of their responsibilities when on the road." Strangely, while publicising the national Cycling Proficiency Scheme the TV Times made no mention of falling foul of Czech villains with guns, jumping off trains or near drowning in lakes. (19)
Ray Goode, one of Granada's top lighting cameramen who would go on to BAFTA success with Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel in the Crown, wonderfully captures the bleak beauty of the area and his stunning views from the hills of Scafell above Wastwater, a three mile long lake, bring a real sense of scale to the chase in 'Cross Country' and 'Alone'.
One of the advantages of regional television's contribution to children's drama was to bring regional identities and culture to the screen and Soldier and Me makes a virtue of its stunning locations. By the same token the series not only took viewers beyond the towns and cities and into the countryside - just as Line had originally taken his characters out of London and into the Norfolk fens in 'Run For Your Life' - but it also expresses something of Pavel's struggle to integrate into urban life in Northern England and places Jim's Mancunian accent at the heart of the drama through his voice overs.
In a sense rurality is used to indicate class and social mobility. Great British character actor Jack Woolgar appears as a gruff, shotgun wielding irate chicken farmer. He's fondly remembered for Doctor Who 'The Web of Fear' and his regular role as diamond-in-the-rough Carney in Crossroads among a string of character roles in most of the major drama series of the 1960s and 1970s. Lancashire actor Harry Markham also appears as a well-meaning farmer who believes the Czech gang's story the two boys have absconded from a reform school.
Markham appeared in key British films of the 1960s and 1970s such as A Kind of Loving (1962), This Sporting Life (1963), Kes (1969) and was a television regular, popping up in A Family at War, Follyfoot, Sam, Village Hall, Survivors, Crown Court, and as Handel Gartside he took Minnie Caldwell away from Coronation Street. Two Alan Bennett plays at the end of the 1970s All Day On The Sands and Sunset Across the Bay sealed his reputation as a warm, sensitive actor.
It's worth comparing Woolgar and Markham's performances - connoted as working class characters through accent, appearance and surroundings - to that of Richard Wilson as Dr. Nixon. Nixon resolves the crisis in the last two episodes and is clearly an educated, middle class man situated in the markedly more affluent looking farmhouse he uses for his holidays. Rurality encompasses social and spatial differences in the story and the countryside is presented as both idyllic and threatening from the various perspective of the farmers, Dr. Nixon, Jim and Soldier.
The climax of the story is gripping, returning to the espionage tropes of the opening episodes and extinguishing the bright daylight scenes in the Lake District with cramped, low angle point of view shots from Jim and Pavel, tied and gagged in a car, directed at their mysterious abductors. The final episodes 'Trapped' and 'No Escape' also reveal a different interpretation of what we know thus far about the gang. There are some interesting moral complexities layered into the conclusion, underlining an aspect of Lionel Davidson's thrillers, where his "speciality is showing what it feels like for peaceable men to make their first forays into violence." (20)
This transforms the resolution to the standard chase narrative in Soldier and Me into a meditation on ideology, morality and violence that makes Jim pause for thought in the final episode. Jim and Pavel's experiences in the wilderness cast a shadow over the celebratory appreciation of the landscape in 'No Escape'. Much of this is reflected in the value of the bond between them, strengthened through adversity and tenacity over the course of the series, one far stronger than the fair-weather friendship that Ron Nixon attempts to court in the final scene.
Sundquist and Willis are remarkably good at capturing this and their performances, accompanied by the realism injected into the script by Armstrong, Wilks and Davidson's literary double David Line, help create a sympathetic, realistic double act, depicting a friendship put under immense physical strain but one that ultimately embraces difference and otherness.
Sadly, not much additional content to speak of.
A selection of colour stills from the Rex Features ITV archive
Featuring Richard Willis' personal reminiscences of making the series. This wasn't made available for review.
Soldier and Me
Granada Television Production 1974
9 episodes (216 mins approx)
Transmitted 15 September to 11 November 1974
Network DVD 7954354 / Region 2 / Released 17 August 2015 / Subtitles: None / Sound: Mono - English / 1.33:1 / Colour / Classification: PG
(1) Jake Kerridge, 'Lionel Davidson, the best spy novelist you might never have read' in The Telegraph 07/03/2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/11451620/Lionel-Davidson-the-best-spy-novelist-you-might-never-have-read.html (accessed 12/08/2015)
(2) Dennis Barker, 'Lionel Davidson obituary' in The Guardian 02/11/2009, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/nov/02/lionel-davidson-obituary (accessed 12/08/2015)
(3) Michael Carlson, 'Lionel Davidson: Crime and thriller writer celebrated for his intricate plots and tongue-in-cheek humour' in The Independent 02/11/2009, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/lionel-davidson-crime-and-thriller-writer-celebrated-for-his-intricate-plots-and-tongueincheek-humour-1832168.html (accessed 12/08/2015)
(4) Brian Armstrong interview 'We'll be seeing some tough times on Sundays' in Stewpot Calling, TV Times 14/09/1974.
(5) Brian Armstrong, 'A base occupation' in Granada Television: The First Generation (Manchester University Press, 2003)
(6) Matt Finnegan, 'Magical fable that masks a tragedy' in Manchester Evening News 03/11/1997 http://www.britmovie.co.uk/forums/actors-actresses/89861-gerry-sundquist-15.html (accessed 12/08/2015)
(8) Richard Willis, Strolling Player An English/American actor's search for character, in 'Beauty, Certainty and Quiet Kind' 12/04/2007. http://richactor.blogspot.co.uk/2007/04/beauty-certainty-and-quiet-kind.html (accessed 12/08/2015)
(9) Richard Tippett, 'Soldier and Me' interviews with Richard Willis and Gerry Sundquist, Look-In 26/10/1974.
(10) Richard Willis, Strolling Player An English/American actor's search for character, in 'Beauty, Certainty and Quiet Kind' 12/04/2007. http://richactor.blogspot.co.uk/2007/04/beauty-certainty-and-quiet-kind.html (accessed 12/08/2015)
(11) Brian Armstrong interview 'We'll be seeing some tough times on Sundays' in Stewpot Calling, TV Times 14/09/1974.
(16) Richard Willis, Strolling Player An English/American actor's search for character, in 'Beauty, Certainty and Quiet Kind' 12/04/2007. http://richactor.blogspot.co.uk/2007/04/beauty-certainty-and-quiet-kind.html (accessed 12/08/2015)
(17) Richard Tippett, 'Soldier and Me' interviews with Richard Willis and Gerry Sundquist, Look-In 26/10/1974.
(19) 'Two into one may be fun but no copying please! in TV Times 12/10/1974
(20) Jake Kerridge, 'Lionel Davidson, the best spy novelist you might never have read' in The Telegraph 07/03/2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/11451620/Lionel-Davidson-the-best-spy-novelist-you-might-never-have-read.html (accessed 12/08/2015)