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'Enemy At The Door' (1978-1980)- An Elegy of Appreciation

So, this Sunday (28 March) Talking Pictures TV will show the very last episode of the outstanding Enemy At The Door that has been our companion on the last 26 Sunday nights. Its final episode appropriately titled Escape was the last episode of Series 2- which was also the last ever made. That is a great pity as the show which explored the occupation of the Channel Islands by Germany in WWII took in the years from June 1940 to April 1943 and was of a consistently high standard, and later series would have surely looked at further deprivation that the likes of Guernsey suffered as well of course at the joyous liberation to come.

However, Enemy At The Door is easily  the best portrayal of the only part of British territory that had been occupied by a foreign invander since 1066. Although filmed in Jersey the series focussed on Guernsey and what life was like under the Nazis and its strength has been to give perspectives from both sides of the occupation.

It originally ran from 1978 to 1980 and was made at a time when wartime dramas about people living under the German occupation were very much in vogue. One of the first was ITV’s Manhunt (1970), followed by BBC’s Colditz (1972-1974) which set a very high bar in terms of the quality of its production, and then came Secret Army (1977-79). If Enemy At The Door is similar to any other series then it is Secret Army which looked at how Belgian people and especially its resistance dealt with life under Nazi rule and was hugely successful.

The creator of Enemy At The Door is a familiar name to Talking Pictures TV’s viewers -Michael Chapman- who had previously produced Public Eye, Van der Valk and later on served as Executive Producer for over 1,100 episodes of The Bill as well as writing a number of episodes of Rooms, and you can see his careful and observant touches in the two series themselves.

At the core of Enemy At The Door is the relationship between the commander of the German occupying force Major-Doktor Richter (Public Eye’s Alfred Burke) and Dr Martel who in effect is a kind of notional head of the Guernsey community (the ever reliable Bernard Horsfall). The series shows how Richter is the ‘good German’ who is not a Nazi Party faithful but a soldier who is trying to oversee the occupation with as much ‘harmony’ as possible. For his part, Dr Martel is trying to get the best possible conditions for his community to live under but at the same try avoid collaborating with the invaders.

The real villain though is Hauptmann Reinecke (Simon Cadell) who most definitely is a Nazi Party faithful and whilst Richter seeks to give Channel Islanders the benefit of the doubt on incidences, Reinecke wants strict discipline, enforcement  and SS interrogation to be the order of the day, leading to multiple clashes during the series. Here, Simon Cadell shows that he was a very fine actor – and was so much more than simply Jeffrey Fairbrother in Hi-de-Hi!

Most of the Enemy At The Door’s stories focus around two Channel Island families that of Dr Martel’s and of Helen Porteous -especially her son Peter (Richard Heffer). There is tension around the two families as the latter and Clare Martel (Emily Richard) are strong Resisters and are critical of Dr Martel’s closeness with their invaders. This reaches a climax during  the end of Series 1 episode Judgement of Solomon, that leads to both Dr Martel and Peter Porteous being arrested for spying and being sent to prison in France-leading to a nervous breakdown for Clare.

In fact, we see little more of Clare as she is supposedly being rehabilitated by a group of nuns. Emily Richard who played her with so much verve and passion later went on to have a major role in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987) as well as being part of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and was last heard of as running London historical tours.

Through its 26 episodes covering 3 years of the occupation, we see a variety of subjects covered on what people on the islands had to submit to. They included the shooting of islanders trying to escape, a librarian sent to jail for refusing to ban books the Germans disagreed with, the rape of a local girl by a soldier, black market activities and racism. In the stand out episodes The Jerrybag & The Right Blood, we see the impact of a local girl falling in love with a German soldier and the dilemma of trying to bring up their baby in those circumstances-and the tragic consequences that follow.

A major reason for Enemy At The Door’s success has been its use of a range of outstanding British character actors which reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of acting talent- John Malcolm (Together), Pam St Clement & Michael Cashman (EastEnders), Ray Smith (Public Eye & Rooms), Antony Head (Buffy The Vampire Slayer), Alun Armstrong, John Nettles, Joss Ackland, David Hayman, Martin Jarvis-the list goes on.

We shall miss Enemy At The Door but it has been an accurate and poignant memorial of those difficult days which hopefully will have educated as well as entertaining many.

The good news of course is that in its place is the equally wonderful The Champions (1968-1969)- another winner Talking Pictures!

'The Angel Who Pawned Her Harp' (1954)

Recently shown on Talking Pictures TV (but always likely to be shown again) is the charming and very sweet ‘The Angel Who Pawned Her Harp’ (1954)- ostensibly, it is about an angel (Diane Cilento) who is sent down to the very appropriate Angel Islington in London, who in pawning her harp to get some money to live, is required to show everyone that she meets the right path in which their true happiness lies. Written off and looked down upon by most of its contemporary critics, it is a slight film (it runs not much more than an hour) but one that is delightful in a number of ways.

The credit for its charm is largely down to one person-Diane Cilento who is front and centre of the fantasy. She needs to be impressive for us to believe in her and she is. Although the future Mrs Sean Connery would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in ‘Tom Jones’ (1963), to me, this was her best film performance. She is sweetness and charm personified in what can be seen as almost a London version of ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ (1947).

The Angel (she has no other name) comes to earth and is introduced to a number of characters whose fate she has in her hand. There is Len (Phillip Guard) who works for pawnbroker Mr Webman (Felix Aylmer) but fancies Jenny (Shelia Sweet) daughter of the music loving local Sgt (Edward Evans). Mr Webman is a scrooge like cynic about life though, but his real passion is his love of his music boxes. Meanwhile, Len is trying to get up the courage to ask Jenny (or any girl) out, whilst her father neglects his wife- all things that Angel needs to nudge along, so that they realise what they have to do to be happy.

It is all set in a non-gentrified and monochrome part of North London and is a post war happy little community where kids are charmed by music boxes and even local criminals like Alfie Bass are a bit soft. The humour is very light hearted and understated by writer Charles Terrot (whose book this is based on and was previously turned into a 1951 TV show). There is for example a sweet moment when Len who desperately wants to take a girl dancing asks Angel out which she happily accepts- astonished by this, Len says “Are you in love with me?”. She says “Yes, of course.” “Crumbs” is Len’s cry to which Angel assures him “Don’t look so worried, I love everybody”.

‘The Angel Who Pawned Her Harp’ is not a very demanding picture but what it does do is engage your heart and emotions so that you do care what happens to the characters of this little community and makes you feel a little bit lighter and brighter afterwards.

If you can’t wait for Talking Pictures TV’s next showing, Renown Films have a special DVD of it available for £10- see the details below:

The Angel Who Pawned Her Harp – Renown Films

Eyewitness (1970)

The latest underrated gem from Talking Pictures TV is the hardly ever talked about Eyewitness (1970) with a starry British cast of Mark Lester (Oliver!), the ever lovely Susan George (Straw Dogs et al), Jeremy Kemp (Z-Cars etc) and the very reliable Lionel Jefferies (wrote and directed The Railway Children).

Its history and origins are interesting as Eyewitness is principally based on the novel of the same name written under an alias by John Harris, who was better known as the author of The Sea Shall Not Have Them (1953) which was turned into the film starring Michael Redgrave and Dirk Bogarde the year after. However, the theme is an old one that goes back to Aesop’s Fable best known as The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

So, Mark Lester plays Ziggy a young boy who whilst living with his sister Pippa (Susan George) and grandfather (Lionel Jefferies) on a sun drenched unidentified island (filmed in Malta) witnesses the assassination of an African leader. In horror, Ziggy disappears whilst the assassin and accomplice run away and plan how to hunt down the only witness to the killing. Pippa by this time is comforted by a hunky new boyfriend called would you believe it -‘Tom Jones’ and played by Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (1967) veteran Tony Bonner who seems to be channelling our own Paul Nicholas, so similar are they in appearance.

Whilst the police chief (Jeremy Kemp) declares martial law in order to hunt down the assassin(s), Ziggy returns home to Pippa, her new boyfriend, and their grandfather to work out what to do next. Pippa in particular knows that Ziggy spends most of his time telling ‘whoppers’ and she doesn’t trust his story of witnessing the killing. So, the scene is set for the police to try and capture the assassin and accomplices, who in turn want to silence Ziggy, whilst Pippa only really has eyes for Mr Jones.

Eyewitness is a surprising delight- it has the great benefit of an excellent pacey and at times, very funny, script by Ronald Harwood (who would go on to receive an Academy Award for the writing of the Roman Polanski film The Pianist (2002) ). It is always good to watch Susan George especially as in this film she is asked to do more than just wear a series of short skirts and pout – and to demonstrate some of her underrated acting chops. She and the director of Eyewitness (John Hough) would go on to work together on 1974’s Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. Listen out also for the music- co-ordinated by future film director Jonathan Demme who went on to win an Academy Award for Silence of the Lambs 21 years later.

However, the real star of Eyewitness is the incomparable Lionel Jefferies as the very military regimented grandfather (he himself was a proud holder of the ‘Burma Star’). His family have their dinners with him dressed in full Mess uniform. When interrupted by the police he remarks “It’s gala night in the Mess tonight- cold soup and burnt pud”! He has also not forgotten his military training as at one point he goes on a commando type raid and turns a handy paraffin lamp and bottle of Brandy into a Molotov cocktail.

So, Eyewitness gives us Susan George, Lionel Jefferies and sun drenched Malta – what’s not to like?

'Black Sunday' (1977)

One of the very best things about Talking Pictures TV are the selection of underrated films from the 1970s era that they show- and they have certainly come up trumps with the revival of one of the most intelligent and thrilling thrillers of that generation in Black Sunday (1977). Directed by John Frankenheimer, the director of such films as Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), The Manchurian Candidate (1966) and the exciting French Connection II (1975), the film is a tricky combination of a political thriller and disaster movie.

Consequently, it struggled at the box office on release- around the same time you had conventional disaster pictures like The Hindenburg (1975), Two Minute Warning  (1976) and don’t forget Rollercoaster (1977) in ‘Sensurround’, and the end of that kind of era of filmmaking was upon us. But what mass audiences missed then was a real genuine delight for the serious film enthusiast who want to be thrilled from the head as much as from the heart-and where the movie has something to say about the nature of terrorism, that is as relevant today as it was over 44 years ago.

 So, the story of Black Sunday is based on the Thomas Harris (Silence of the Lambs) novel about an Israeli anti-terrorism agent/commando David Kabakov (Robert Shaw – fresh from his success in Jaws (1975)) who is out to prevent a plot by the Black September Palestinian group to bring terror to the shores of the USA. To do this the terrorists use Dahlia Lyad a PLO fanatic to further radicalise a returned and seriously mentally harmed Vietnam POW Michael Lander (a brilliant Bruce Dern) to do their dirty work.

Most of the film’s pulsating 143 minutes follows Lander and Lyad as their launch their horrific plans and Kabakov goes full out to avert them. There are several genuinely breath-taking moments that I had forgotten about it from when I saw it when it was released here in the UK in 1978- and you really stay with the picture despite its length.

Robert Shaw is in brilliant form and apart from his tour-de-force in Jaws and The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974), I think this is his finest role. He has to gravitate from searching out and hunting down the Black September terrorists to reflecting the price paid in his lifetime of hunting down terrorists and killing them, who then respond by further atrocities, and so it goes on… In that sense it anticipates Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005) which also deals with Mossad taking on Black September and philosophies about how terrorism can be dealt with – if at all. Robert Shaw sadly died just 12 months after making Black Sunday at the age of just 51 and the film is a testament to his fine acting abilities.

Bruce Dern as Michael Lander is in some ways a sympathetic character- battled and mentally bruised from years in a Vietnam prison, then losing his family and treated simply as another number to be managed out of conflict, he sets out to bomb people into knowing his pain. In a lot of respects, he is a fore runner of Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo character (1982-2019) .

As the Black September terrorist, Marthe Keller has the hardest task to portray as Lyad is a truly cold and fanatical person with few redeeming features, who is pulling Lander’s strings all the time to turn him into the fanatical killing machine she and her cause demands. Keller has been underused in her career- having started in things like Funeral in Berlin (1966) but doing most of her work in Europe especially in a series of French and German pictures. She is probably still best known as the girlfriend of the Dustin Hoffman character in Marathon Man (1976).

There is excellent support from a very impressive cast especially from the familiar face and voice of Walter Gotell who appeared in no less than 7 different James Bond films starting with  From Russia With Love (1963) to The Living Daylights (1987) although he was at his very best in the greatest Bond film ever The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).

Overall Black Sunday holds up extremely well and I regard it as one of the most intelligent and exciting political thrillers made- well worth a second watch!