THE TYRANT KING - The Complete Series / DVD Review

Last month, when I reviewed Regan - the Armchair Cinema pilot for The Sweeney - I mentioned The Tyrant King, in passing, after noting that maker Euston Films was formed from the conviction of its founders that drama could be made completely on film by a unit within Thames Television.

This strategy emerged out of a number of changes affecting the commercial television industry in the late 1960s. The Pilkington committee of 1960 had imposed a high 11% levy on advertising placed with ITV. The committee also had great influence over the creation of the Television Act of 1964 from which the Independent Television Authority gained more regulatory powers over scheduling and programme making, and levies on advertising revenues were increased. Britain's economic downturn of the late 1960s impacted on the advertising industry just as the advent of colour in 1969 also forced the ITV franchises to spend more money, certainly on technical facilities and upgrading. Advertising rates for the new colour services had not yet been negotiated and in a highly competitive market that was in recession this meant that a company like Thames had to start making colour programmes for the same amount of money as the black and white productions it was currently making. With falling revenues and rising production costs, Thames considered a number of options to make and deliver their programmes.
One of these was to implement an idea that had its roots in the mid-1960s - namely to create a subsidiary that would make television all on film rather than videotape. Influenced by the all-film action dramas being made by ITC and ATV, over at ABC directors Jim Goddard and Terry Green and writer Trevor Preston had already suggested the creation of ABC Nucleus, a small experimental group who would produce work on 16mm film, a gauge that had been used to film inserts on location for video taped drama but had never been considered as the format for an entire drama's production.

It was this idea that was revived at Thames when several dramas were commissioned to test the water, including the three directed, produced and written by Mike Hodges and Trevor Preston which would inspire the creation of the Euston Films subsidiary in 1971. Hodges had previously worked with Jim Goddard at ABC on an arts programme Tempo which he claims "was important in a different way. Being an 'art' programme, we could be very experimental in our film making techniques. I learned a lot from the directors (Dick Fontane, Dennis Postle and James Goddard) I was able to employ on the show."
Mike Hodges weaves something altogether more sinister from the proceedings
He also knew writer Trevor Preston, a writer-researcher working on the films about Jean-Luc Godard, Orson Welles, Jacques Tati, Charles Eames, Ornette Coleman and others he made for Tempo, which often used the flexibility of 16mm and the freer documentary style Hodges had developed on World in Action. One of the first experiments with shooting drama entirely on film was the six part children's serial The Tyrant King, adapted by Preston from Aylmer Hall's book. Preston was no stranger to writing for children, having completed a ten part adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1967) for ABC, produced by Pamela Lonsdale with whom Preston would later co-create Ace of Wands (1970-72). He'd also contributed a four part story, 'The Big Freeze' to Southern Television's first season of Freewheelers in 1968.

Aylmer Hall, the pen name of Norah Eleanor Lyle Cummins, was the writer of several adventure stories for children in the 1950s and 1960s and her book The Tyrant King - A London Adventure was published by London Transport in 1967 with illustrations by Peter Roberson. Presumably it was commissioned to encourage the use of the bus and rail services across London as it essentially consists of a detective story where the clues are possibly located in notable landmarks and places in and around the capital city.

The Tyrant King is on the surface a conventional adventure story in which three children overhear a sinister conversation and then follow the clues to a mystery across some of London's tourist spots. However, this is far from conventional children's television and, beyond the traditional trappings of middle class kids meddling in criminal machinations of adults, Mike Hodges weaves something altogether more sinister from the proceedings in his penchant for cinematic editing and composition and by marrying his images to a blistering prog-rock soundtrack. He creates a distinctively surrealistic edge to a standard set-up.

The first episode 'Scarface' basically sets up the mystery and the series' house style. It is summer in the city so cue London buses, bobbies, pigeons and tourists in Trafalgar Square and a parade of the Household cavalry (there'll be lots and lots of imagery of bearskin-wearing Grenadiers clogging up the episodes later too). However, this is edgily soundtracked with 'As You Said' from Cream's 1968 Wheels of Fire album and the sequence takes us to a hotel room which is being searched by a strange, and rather camp, black gloved figure who steals a wallet and a stack of papers hidden inside a radio still calmly announcing 'what's on' in London. This is Uncle Gerry and he's played by the gloriously eccentric Murray Melvin.

A burst of The Nice's 'The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack' from the eponymous album accompanies the opening titles of each episode (a zoom into a billboard with the series' title and credits pasted up on it), and is repeated quite often throughout and it has to be said becomes a bit wearing after you've heard it for the umpteenth time across six episodes. After further travelogues of London streets, we are finally introduced to Bill Hallen (Eddie McMurray) and his sister Charlotte (Candy Glendenning) and their friend Peter Thorne (Kim Fortune) - played by said troupe of young actors fresh from the Italia Conti Stage School so we are told.

Bill's allegedly the hip one, whose wardrobe often defies description, and he appears to have been modeled on several members of The Monkees at once. Charlotte sports some fabulous mini-skirt and leather boot combinations but as we'll see she tends to be reduced to the victim being chased by a threatening looking Philip Madoc. "It's all discoteques and clothes with you two" as the sensible one, Peter, describes them. He's the one into photography who wears the (tight) trousers. When Peter's trying out his new telephoto lens (which gives director Hodges an excuse to do some nice zooms and pulling of focus and demonstrate the versatility of 16mm) they all decide that the deserted looking house across the way, "full of paintings and weird gear" and allegedly haunted, might be perfect for an afternoon's sleuthing.
"Did you see that schoolmaster with the ginger wig!"
The three enter the house (a beautifully atmospheric location) and overhear Uncle Gerry arranging some kind of rendezvous with an unseen person over the telephone. Much of his overhead dialogue about "London's public places are so stiff with tourists and screaming kids that no one will ever notice us" and "I've studied the old beast of the tyrant king" is later sonically manipulated and layered into the soundtrack, adding even more of a dream-like, psychedelic edge to the visuals. As they overhear this plotting, Hodges frames them in a corridor with the bizarre ornament of a Buddha whose hands and tongue move of their own accord. His close ups of the figure, its tongue darting in and out, are suitably nightmarish. There's also a fantastic tracking shot as he follows the three children crossing Richmond Lock Footbridge after they leave the house and try to puzzle out where Uncle Gerry's rendezvous will take place. Where is the aforementioned 'tyrant king'? Matters are complicated by the recovery of the wallet from the old house and its connection to the villainous Uncle Gerry.

And so begins a tour of London and its suburbs as they try to track down the 'tyrant king', taking in a riverboat ride down the Thames, a visit to the Tower of London (among the Beefeaters and ravens, Bill has time to utter the priceless line, "Did you see that schoolmaster with the ginger wig!") and an encounter, at St. Paul's Cathedral, with the glowering presence of Philip Madoc as Scarface. Hodges attempts to make the original remit of Aylmer Hall's exploration of London more interesting by layering on internal monologues from the characters, snatches of Uncle Gerry's dialogue and dollops of prog-rock. The Whispering Gallery at St. Paul's sequence goes a bit mad with the intercutting of people climbing steps up to the dome, steps up to the entrance, bits of slow mo and lots of The Nice.

While trying to work out if Scarface is in league with Uncle Gerry ("nobody with a voice like Minnie Mouse would have a face like Desperate Dan"), they engage in a game of cat and mouse with him across London in second episode 'Don't Walk - Run!' What would be a standard escape from a villain's clutches is scored to Pink Floyd's 'Astronomy Domine' and more cut up and processed dialogue. There's a brief respite at Bill and Charlotte's rather luxurious house (something out of a 1970s colour supplement which tells you a great deal about the class of the characters), where the highly imaginative Bill decides it's no use going to the police because he reckons they deal with people claiming they've had "tea with Martians" or seen "murders in laundrettes" everyday. Their bus ride round 1960s London streets and landmarks is tinged with nostalgia (spot the 2001: A Space Odyssey poster on the corner of Piccadilly Circus) and scored in a rather tongue-in-cheek manner to The Moody Blues' 'Dr. Livingstone, I Presume.' Hodges also drops in a section of the Floyd's 'Corporal Clegg' over hand held images of parading Grenadiers, providing a weird counterpoint entirely in keeping with the 1960s vogue for period and military clothing underlined by Bill's cry of "wot fantastic gear!"

Our three detectives (Bill in a fetching pink and yellow ensemble, Charlotte in hot pants and Peter in denim and even tighter trousers) turn up at Buckingham Palace for a rather prolonged scene mingling with the tourists, afterwards pop over to Westminster Abbey and then, prefaced by a sequence of eerie slow motion shots intercut with archive footage of World War 1, they briefly bump into Scarface at the Imperial War Museum. Peter's dad (Edward Evans) then takes them up to the South Bank (with the merits of the Hayward Gallery and the NFT described as "a cross between a monster egg box and a concrete gun turret" as the Floyd's 'Jugband Blues' bounces and crashes on the soundtrack) and then the top of the Shell Building.

At a skating rink Peter discovers a map hidden inside the wallet and the illustrations on it yield further summery escapades at Hampton Court and Kew Gardens. Hodges shows off his flair again with some choice editing and hand held camera work on the chase at the end of 'Don't Walk - Run' wherein Scarface corners Charlotte (now in a cerise mini) in the glasshouses at Kew. The Kew sequences offer a summer idyll, leant some appropriate atmosphere by The Moody Blues 'Legends of a Mind', turned into nightmare as Hodges slowly builds the tension through a montage of shots of Scarface, the two boys and Charlotte and more tracks from Pink Floyd and Cream where 'Let There Be Light' and 'Sunshine Of Your Love' and 'Pow R. Toc H.' create a feverish intensity to the final chase. It's a great scene.
"After your performance with Monsieur le Coq, I'm not sure I should let you out."
In episode three, aptly called 'Nightmare', unbeknownst to them, Scarface follows the three children back to Bill and Charlotte's house (a bus ride rendered threatening in tone by 'Dawn' from The Nice) and Hodges taps further into this mood when he plonks a dream sequence into the episode full of overdubbed whisperings, crash zooms onto Charlotte's toys and Madoc doing a rather evil laugh into camera and intoning, "Aren't you a friend of Gerald Gould?" as Charlotte relives her experiences of the day at Kew and St. Paul's. Cue more Pink Floyd too and that creepy tongue pulling Buddha. I'm not sure that Charlotte isn't still having nightmares when we witness breakfast in the Hallen home. Peter's dolled up in a psychedelic kaftan affair, his father (Vernon Joyner) is sporting an unfeasibly Paisley shirt and tie combo and his mother (Carole Boyer) is resplendent in a searing orange and yellow smock. And Scarface is phoning them up and asking for Gerald Gould. "This is getting a touch nasty," declares Peter.

All three tear off to the British Museum, listen to a commentary about the Elgin marbles and meanwhile Scarface turns up on Mrs. Hallen's doorstep claiming to be doing a survey for the SAGRIS (Society for Autonomous Group Research and Independent Surveys). Ironically, this taps into the boom for market research as the 1960s ushered in new ways of thinking and new ideas about the consumer society so Mrs. Hallen was probably used to strange men ringing her bell and asking her personal questions. Scarface eventually finds out where the children have gone and sets off in pursuit. More lashings of Cream ('Passing the Time', 'White Room' and 'As You Said') accompany the various bus journeys around the capital and the kids turning the tables and trailing after Scarface to the Commonwealth Institute to gradually put together the clues from the map in the wallet.

Bill's rather wonderful turn of phrase, "So as the Yogi said to the Yeti 'don't play marbles with yer Dad's glass eye, we need it to look for Scarface'", opens the fourth episode 'The Turnover' after Peter's failed attempt to snap Scarface with his telephoto lens at the Commonwealth Institute. As Peter's Dad drags them all off to Greenwich, Scarface gets a chance to do a bit of breaking and entering. Look out for Mrs Thorpe, a warm and witty little performance from Shirley Cooklin (better known in Doctor Who fandom as Kaftan from 'Tomb of the Cybermen'). Hodges captures some lovely footage of Greenwich and the Cutty Sark and Bill offers us another of his bon mots as Mr. Thorpe suggests that he "could do a lot worse" than a career in the Navy to which he replies, "I would Mr. T but you know what sailors are!" Crash zoom onto Mr. Thorpe's reaction.

After the Thorpes discover the break-in, Bill suggests that Peter and Charlotte distract Scarface in London while he searches the old house again for further clues. Peter and Charlotte lead Scarface to the V&A and a lovely selection from The Stones' 'She's A Rainbow' as they divert him around the museum but Bill is prevented from exploring the house by the arrival of Monsieur le Coq (Vernon Dobtcheff) for extra French lessons. Yes, the mind boggles. As Bill struggles to conjugate his French verbs, Peter and Charlotte attempt to keep Scarface on the run around Hyde Park to the crashing vibes of The Nice's 'Tantalising Maggie' and some great visual symmetry from Hodges.

Mrs Hallen, lounging on the lawn reading Queen magazine, cries to Bill, "After your performance with Monsieur le Coq, I'm not sure I should let you out," when he attempts to sneak out of the house. Blimey, he was only conjugating French verbs, wasn't he? His penance is to take the dog for a walk as he explores the old house and for his troubles he has a nasty encounter with Uncle Gerry, with Murray Melvin once again in scenery chewing mode. The fifth episode 'Some Doll!' sees Gerry incarcerate Bill in the cellar of the deserted house. There's a rather pointed moment when Gerry removes a handkerchief from Bill's pocket and looks it rather disdainfully, in only the way that Murray Melvin could, and declares, "revolting!" Meanwhile, Peter (coming out as a member of the BBC West of England Light Orchestra Fan Club) and Charlotte look for the missing Bill. Fortunately, Bill's dog leads them to the scene of the crime and they all return home to inflate some plastic cushions (I told you this was odd, didn't I?) while contemplating their next move after decoding more of the strange map they have been following.

It gets odder. After a bus journey to the Horniman Museum and Gallery to fathom the doll's head illustration on the map, accompanied by some rather lovely shots of Westminster and a selection from The Nice's "Diamond Hard Blue Apples of the Moon' the three children pop down the Chislehurst Caves (a location with another Doctor Who reference attached, it's where they filmed 'The Mutants' in 1972). They join a tour of the caves overseen by a young guide (Rick Moulton) believing that they may find the final clue there.

For a moment I was convinced I'd put the wrong disc in the machine and we were watching Mark Gatiss's guilt-ridden cave tour guide, Mick McNamara of Stump Hole Caverns fame, from The League of Gentlemen. Mind you, the effect on Peter is a bit catastrophic as claustrophobia sends our young hero a bit doolally and Hodges indulges in some trippy visuals and sounds, including the Floyd's 'Interstellar Overdrive'. Recovering in the cafe, Peter and his friends are then confronted by Scarface who demands, "It's time we had a chat." He accuses them of stealing his wallet and there is a showdown with a school master (Angus Mackay) and the cafe owner (Eunice Black). Managing to give him the slip again, the three children contemplate the meaning of the baffling final clue on the map. Any excuse for some more bus hopping across London would be your correct assumption at this point.

Preston and Hodges wrap up the story in the final episode 'Meet the King' and which opens with an atmospheric two minute montage of London locations (with further extracts from 'Dawn' by The Nice adding a sinister and mystical vibe) before throwing a bit of a curve to introduce someone we haven't seen yet, a blonde haired woman who appears to have borrowed Deirdre Barlow's glasses. And if you thought Murray Melvin couldn't get any camper as the villain then check out his threads in the opening scenes as he hails a cab and sets off for the much mooted rendezvous he arranged on the telephone right at the start of the series. The rendezvous is with the blonde girl who has now taken to cycling through the London streets (oh, look there's the Albert Hall) to meet Uncle Gerry at the Natural History Museum for what turns out to be a drugs exchange, a rather bold piecing of plotting for a children's serial of the time it has to be said. There's a lovely mood created as the tracking shots of the woman on the bicycle are cross cut with the three children on the bus, Scarface on foot and the cab journey that Uncle Gerry takes, enhanced by The Moody Blues' 'House of Four Doors' on the soundtrack as Hodges' camera weaves around the streets of London. Who the woman is, who Scarface is and what the 'tyrant king' is I shall leave to you to discover but you'll have fun watching the connections fall into place to the accompaniment of more prog-rock.

There's no doubting that Hodges impressed Thames with his work on The Tyrant King as they were quick to commission two plays, Suspect (17/11/69) and Rumour (02/03/70), both shot on film and which he wrote, produced and directed for 'ITV Playhouse'. These confirmed that a subsidiary of the Thames operation, that could make drama all on film, as a viable strategy. It eventually came into existence in 1971 and was called Euston Films.

As a piece of children's drama The Tyrant King is something of a curate's egg. Beholden to its origins as a promotional vehicle for London Transport, the story is simplistic and the characters often stereotypical but Hodges fashions the material in very innovative ways, with cinematic visuals, use of sound and editing techniques. It can therefore be seen as an interesting curio that sits at the crossover of two periods in children's television drama. The 1960s saw a proliferation of adventure serials made for television, often nothing more than variations of the Blyton-esque formula but which eventually developed into action-adventure series that were the equivalent of those being made for adults. Freewheelers and Orlando were the first of these and certainly The Tyrant King, while more formulaic, anticipates the new-age fantasy orientated series that came later in the 1970s, as in Ace of Wands and Catweazle (all shot on film for London Weekend Television) for example. There are even glimmers in Trevor Preston's scripts of what Alistair McGown and Mark Docherty see, in The Hill and Beyond, as some of the strengths of children's drama in the 1970s where makers "carefully explore violence, race, parents, love and criminality."

Network has decided to mark the release of the series and its prominent use of prog-rock by presenting it in jewel case rather than a standard DVD case and with the DVD artwork resembling a vinyl LP. The only special feature is an image gallery which apart from the standard publicity shots also contains several images of Grenadiers in bearskin hats. The episodes have been newly transfered from the original 16mm source so the colour is fairly vibrant, adding to the rosy glow of 1960s nostalgia that the series will now cultivate for viewers who will only ever have seen this in black and white if they were around at the time.

The Tyrant King
Thames Television 1968
Network DVD - Web exclusive / Released 14 November 2011 / 7953519 / Cert: U / 1.33:1 / Colour / Sound: Mono / English / Subtitles: None / Region: 2 / PAL / 150 mins approx

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2 Responses to “THE TYRANT KING - The Complete Series / DVD Review”
  1. Lee says:

    The children may all be terrible actors and the plot rather thin, but I love 'The Tyrant King'.

    It's so fascinating to see late 60s London in such vibrant detail - and a near empty Piccadilly Circus!

  2. Unknown says:

    I very recently bought this DVD and binge watched it. Despite its shortcomings, I think it's an absolute gem, even simply as a visual record of London towards the end of the swinging 60s. It's weird, a bit unsettling, and yet infinitely cosy at the same time. Well worth checking out.

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