TIGHTROPE - The Complete Series / DVD Review

Made by many of the team behind the success of Timeslip (1970-71), Tightrope (1972) was a 13 part spy series set in and around the quiet village of Redlow, its local comprehensive school and a nearby American air base.

The serial was written by Victor Pemberton, a dramatist who gained his reputation on radio, particularly with the Nigel Kneale style science fiction drama The Slide in 1966 in which a parasitic mud engulfs the new town of Redlow (Pemberton clearly has an affinity for places called Redlow) and takes over the minds of its inhabitants. From there Pemberton worked as script editor and writer on Doctor Who, penning Fury from the Deep, regarded as a classic Patrick Troughton tale, in 1968.

Pemberton joined the writing team of ATV's Timeslip in 1971 to complete the run of 26 episodes, writing the final episode of Bruce Stewart's The Year of the Burn Up to dovetail into his own concluding story The Day of the Clone. At the invitation of producer Ruth Boswell, he created Tightrope for ATV and then wrote for Ace of Wands (1970-72), The Adventures of Black Beauty (1972-74) and Within These Walls (1974-78) amongst others.
... stylised mixture of Grange Hill meets James Bond
Joining Pemberton and Boswell on Tightrope were other members of the Timeslip cast and crew including directors Ron Francis and David Foster and actor Spencer Banks. Banks worked quite extensively during the 1970s and went on to appear in a number of television series, plays and films, including Crown Court, Softly Softly: Task Force, The Georgian House, Crossroads and is probably best regarded for his performance in David Rudkin's extraordinary Penda's Fen for Play for Today in 1974. Tightrope also includes a memorable cast co-starring with Banks and he's accompanied by a contingent of British telly stalwarts including John Savident, Sue Holderness, Mike Grady, George Roubicek, Frederick Treves and Patsy Smart.

According to Pemberton's interview in TV Times, he was inspired to create Tightrope after asking school children what kind of programme they would like to see. A spy show with an identifiable central character was the suggestion and he duly went away and created this stylised mixture of Grange Hill meets James Bond. Clearly Tightrope does reflect the genre, with its tongue in cheek flavour reminiscent of The Avengers (1960-69) and the more contemporary escapades of Spyder's Web (1972).

However, the Cold War politicking at the heart of its story and the down-at-heel, rural setting perhaps follows in the footsteps of Callan (1967-72) where the 'swinging' style of the 1960s was replaced with the greyer, bleaker brutality and amorality of the 1970s. In a strange way the fact that all 13 episodes of Tightrope now exist only as black and white telerecordings (it was originally made in colour) actually helps to intensify the mood created.

The story opens with sixth-former Martin Clifford (Banks) encountering the mysterious, rather foppish Mr. Forrester (Savident) after a collision between bicycle and car as Martin cycles to school. Unhurt, he arrives back at school to witness an interruption to the television schools broadcast in the sixth-form common room. A mysterious message from The Prisoner-esque 'The Voice of Truth' urges the sixth-formers to question what kind of education their school's teachers are providing and what the real function of the school is.
... gripping cliffhangers every thirty minutes
With a USAF base on the doorstep, the message begins to stir up suspicions and counter-suspicions among pupils and teaching staff. When Martin leaves the school later that day, he meets Forrester who informs him that someone at the school is a traitor and is conducting espionage connected with the base. Forrester recruits Martin to help him reveal who the traitor is and crack the spy ring using the school as a cover.

Tightrope thus launches into a complex series of bluffs and double bluffs as British Intelligence attempts to unmask a Soviet spy passing vital information about the arrival of new fighter jets via off-shore trawlers and submarines.

Caught in the middle is Martin, his friend Spud (Grady), his belligerent, drunken father who works at the base and falls under suspicion of sabotage, and the art teacher Elliot (Michael Mellinger), a defector from behind the Iron Curtain being manipulated by both sides. Elliot is also a man who has clearly been briefed to wear the loudest shirts possible to blend in with the corrupting, bourgeois 1970s scene.

Mix in pigeon lofts, a dead headmaster, a local pub that deafens its clientele with prog rock (library music courtesy of The Pretty Things), post offices hiding radar stations, a sixth form teacher, Harvey, with a swanky pad inside a windmill, Patsy Smart as a pushy Aunty and you've got a story that, even at 1970s standards, shifts along and provides you with gripping cliffhangers every thirty minutes. Pemberton was also inspired by the headlines too it seems, judging by the elements in this story.

Until the 1970s, the Soviet Union had pursued an aggressive and large-scale espionage campaign against Western countries, including the United Kingdom. Heath's government was warned that there were over a hundred Soviet intelligence officers operating in the UK and causing serious problems.

Among their targets were the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence and, reflecting the Tightrope themes, Concorde and the Bristol 'Olympus 593' aero-engine. This all came to a head in September 1971 when the UK Government ordered 90 Soviets, working for the KGB, out of the country, seriously scuppering the KGB's spying efforts until the early 1980s.  Here, we get a Soviet operative using chemical formulas to pass on messages about secret aircraft and exercise flights.

Martin's alliance with Forrester is an uneasy one and as an audience identification figure, particularly for older children, he perfectly captures our own confusion and anxiety over which of the school teaching staff are enemy agents or British operatives and provides much of the fun in watching this series. Forrester himself, a part that Savident seizes and makes his own in that inimitable way of his, is for the first half of the story an ambivalent figure and we're never really sure whose side he's working for.

"have a brandy ball"
His fruity banter with Banks, as Martin, is often very amusing and clearly both actors saw the potential in these exchanges as it shines through in every scene they are both in. Savident's camp performance is wonderfully judged and his effete nonchalance ("have a brandy ball, they're good for the digestion") offers a good contrast in a show that has its fair share of violence and melodrama wherein Martin is thumped at least twice, threatened by exploding telephones, locked in saunas and tied up goodness knows how many times.

A particularly fun moment is a fight sequence in a barn in episode eight where Savident manages to deal with two assailants in a skirmish akin to similar scenes in The Avengers. Likewise the late inclusion of a team of karate wielding Girl Guides & Boy Scouts led by Joanna, played by Sue Holderness, who arrive to assist Forrester and Martin.

While it may not be up there with the treasures of children's drama of the period, it's a highly entertaining serial, one where, just as you think the story will grind to a halt, Pemberton throws in one madcap element after another to keep it going. Like all good espionage stories it also keeps you guessing right until the very end. Obviously compared to the production values available today, Tightrope does suffer from its low budget with some often very wobbly sets and is lumbered with some equally wobbly acting from one or two of the supporting cast.

As with much archive television of this nature, I would suggest you simply enjoy the scripts and characters and ignore those other faults. Banks and Savident are a good team and their partnership as Martin and Forrester would surely have provided mileage for at least another series but it never materialised despite the success of the initial 13 episodes. According to Pemberton, ATV just weren't interested.

Picture quality is average and not bad for telecined prints and there is some damage evident here and there but I have seen far, far worse than this on other commercial releases from Network. The mono sound is quite hissy at times and distorts occassionally but is entirely serviceable.

The only extras are a gallery of black and white images from the series and a PDF of ITC's publicity material for the show, including synopses of all the episodes, a cast list and actor biographies.

Tightrope - The Complete Series
ATV 1972
Released 14 March 2011 / Network DVD 7953395 / 325 mins approx / Region 2 PAL / Subtitles: None / Sound: Mono-English / 1.33:1 / Black and White / Cert: PG

Note: This is a web-exclusive available only via Network DVD

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4 Responses to “TIGHTROPE - The Complete Series / DVD Review”
  1. Interesting review, Frnak. I'm working my way througn this set at the moment too - on episode 5- and rather enjoying it, mainly because I remember being extremely frustrated that it wasn't a second series of 'Timeslip'. so ui can enjoy it unencumbered by thae bitterness of my disappointment! I'm particularly struck by the maturity of the scripts, especially when compared with the likes of 'The Tomorrow People' which came just a year or so later.

  2. Hi, Paul

    It's a great series. Snappy, witty scripts with good characters. It doesn't patronise either which was always something that the likes of 'Timeslip' or 'Children of the Stones' managed to avoid and where 'The Tomorrow People' stumbled I feel.

    Love John Savident in this. Really annoying that ATV didn't bring him and Spencer Banks back for more Forrester and Clifford adventures.

  3. Hi Frank!!

    Apologies for calling you "Frnak" in my message - and for all the other typoes!! My brain is very often several steps ahead of my fingers when I'm typing!!

  4. Paul,

    I've been called worse!

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