“Hee Haw” Thrives on Bad Jokes and Country Music

A-Hee Haw“Hee Haw” Thrives on Bad Jokes and Country Music

In 1969, a summer replacement was needed for “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and some brain(s) came up with the idea of a corn-fed version of “Laugh-In.” Featuring the residents of Kornfield Kounty, it was called “Hee Haw” and was hosted by Buck Owens and Roy Clark. It was a smash. And now five of its 55-minute episodes are available in a set of 3 DVDs from Time Life with the title “The Hee Haw Collection.”

The format of each show consisted of an introduction by Owens and Clark, a string of horrible jokes, and nine country and western numbers. The singers heard in this collection are Grandpa Jones, The Hagers, Tammy Wynette, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Gordie Tapp, Donna Fargo, Tommy Cash, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Charlie Rich, Ramona Jones, Dottie West, Susan Rae, and Hank Williams Jr.

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Hosts Owens and Clark

Never a fan of this kind of music, I found the numbers pleasant and after a while hard to distinguish from one another. On the other hand, jokes like

She: Sorry I ran over your hog. I’ll replace it.

            He: You know you can’t. You ain’t fat enough

do make you guffaw because of their sheer awfulness. My favorite is the one about the man who was so fast that he could turn off a bulb and get into bed while it was still light. Okay, not exactly Oscar Wilde but it was not intended to be. There are also some clever cartoon characters in the same scenes as the humans, a device used mostly to emphasize the badness of the joke. Cute.

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Grandpa Jones

I tried to get the names of the comic characters but they were quickly named at the end of each episode with no printed cast list. Wikipedia has a long list of all those who appeared over the years and the reader will have to settle with that.

The five programs included were aired (in the order given) on 12-17-69, 10-16-71, 2-24-73, 12-31-69, and 1-28-70. There are also bonus features of interviews for those interested.  The last disc also has “All-Time Favorites,” “Hee Haw Classics,” and “Special Comedy Selections.”

All in all, recommended for those who like the music and chortle over cornfield humor. But it never pretends to be more than it is and they are all so genial that one can just switch off one’s mind and enjoy.

 

It’s Mapp vs. Lucia Again in Acorn Reissue

It’s Mapp vs. Lucia Again in Acorn Reissue

   downloadBritish humor is something else again. You probably know the character of Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced “Boo-kay”) on “Keeping Up Appearances” and how funny-repulsive her self-centered, social-climbing personality is. Well, picture two of them (minus the slapstick) at war with each other in a small English town back in 1930 and you have a good idea of what makes “Mapp and Lucia, Series 1 and 2” such an entertaining miniseries. It has  been reissued in a 4-DVD set from Acorn Media. However, no subtitles have been added.

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E.F. Benson

Based on books by E.F. Benson, this series tells the story of the social leader Lucia Lucas (Geraldine McEwan) who rents from Elizabeth Mapp (Prunella Scales) a modest home in a village called Tilling-on-Sea. When the latter proves to be obnoxious socially, dishonest commercially, and nearly insanely jealous over Lucia’s abilities (real and professed), a series of one-upmanships begins between the two that splits the village into factions and almost always ends with Mapp’s humiliation. Even when a natural disaster binds the two for a long period of time…. But no. You will have to see for yourself.

The first series, I believe, is the more focused one, establishing the rivalry between the two title characters and winding up with the strangest bonding experience (albeit a brief one), thanks to… Again, see for yourself. The second series sees Lucia practically take over the town as Lady Mayor. But the plotting is a bit more scattered than that of series 1; and while charming, it does not bring about as many laughs

McEwan gives us a bubbly Lucia, whose very phoniness endears her to us, mainly because she is so good at it. Scales (yes, it is indeed Mrs. Fawlty herself) is equally perfect as the dowdy Mapp, forever conceding and withdrawing when she sees that Lucia has a temporary upper hand but instantly regrouping and planning revenge even as she gives a toothy smile of friendship.          .

imagesEqually memorable is the Georgie Pillson of Nigel Hawthorne (King George III, Sir Humphrey in the “Prime Minister” series, and countless other character roles). He plays the effeminate friend of Lucia just this side of camp, an utterly lovable old thing whose feelings for Lucia are strongly positive (but sexually ambiguous); but he can still stand his ground when he feels she is wrong. A truly believable character as Hawthorne plays it.

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Marion Mathie as another domineering character in the Rumpole series

The other characters in the village are memorable to varying degrees. My favorite is “Quaint” Irene (Cecily Hobbs), obviously infatuated with Lucia and the voice of common sense in Tilling. You might recognize the second actress to play Hilda Rumpole, Marion Mathie, as the wealthy Mrs. Wise, while others supporting players have appeared in several British telecasts and films.

Oh, please do give this set a try. But you must accept the elements of British sophisticated humor and do not look for mugging, silly walks, and men in drag. This is a good wine, not canned beer.

Lovejoy Series Comes to an End

“Lovejoy” Series Comes to an End!

A-Lovejoy 6And thus ends a most delightful British comedy/mystery series! The 10 episodes that comprise “Lovejoy, Series 6” in a set of three Acorn Media DVDs are just as enjoyable as all that went before them. And the final one, “Last Tango in Lavenham,” gives the series as a whole an ending filled with plot twists, each of which defies expectation—right up to the last frame.

Lovejoy (Ian McShane), as you must know by now, is an antiques dealer with the rare talent of being a “divvy,” one who can tell a fake from a genuine antique at a glance. He is also an example of the trickster of myth—right there in the company of Loki, Scaramouche, and Bugs Bunny—who is never averse to skirting what is legal in the trade to bring the Bad Guys to book.

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McShane in an earlier role as Disraeli

After the departure of two major characters in a past series, the charming Lady Jane (Phyllis Logan) and the bumbling Eric (Chris Jury), Lovejoy took on the pert and intelligent young Beth (Diane Parish) and became involved professionally and emotionally with the auctioneer Charlotte (Caroline Langrishe). Happily, his never quite sober assistant Tinker Dill (Dudley Sutton) remained with him to supply more humor to the proceedings.

Hints of how this last season was to end come early when Tinker announces he wants to run a pub and Beth announces she is looking for better things. As the 6th series goes on, Lovejoy is considering at least the possibility of marrying Charlotte, who also has plans that include her moving to the United States. One crisis after the other…until that final episode.

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John Bardon

I do miss the character Charlie Gimbert, Lovejoy’s comic-villainous rival antique dealer and all around pain in the neck; but the appearance in one episode of his equally crooked father, delightfully played by John Bardon, nearly makes up for the son’s absence. The reappearance of Lady Jane in “Last Tango in Lavenham” and the cameo reappearance of Eric add to the charm and even sadness of the end of a most unusual and popular series.

I cannot help repeating from past reviews how alike most police and mystery series are and how much depends on the personality of the leading actor. The best example is John Nettles in the original “Midsomer Murders” series, who was simply a likable person. Then came all those half shaven misfits with all sorts of personal baggage to slow down the plots.

Well, Lovejoy was not only likable but the world of antiques dealing added to the viewers’ interest. He will be missed.

The Best “Miss Marple” Series Now is Complete in HD

The Best “Miss Marple” Series Now isA-Miss Marple 2 Complete in HD 

At last, BBC has completed on DVDs the restoration of the original “Miss Marple” series. Yes, these are the ones in which Joan Hickson gives the definitive characterization of the seemingly dipsy but razor-sharp village busybody, Jane Marple. With the arrival of Vol. 3, viewers can now enjoy these mysteries that have been not only remastered in high definition but supplied with subtitles. The latter are, however, often incomplete or paraphrases of what is actually spoken. Why?

Hickson is by far the best of the Marples. Margaret Rutherford’s portrayal had Agatha Christie fuming. Helen Hayes in two television versions was characterless, while Geraldine McEwan’s Marple was pure Jessica Fletcher and best forgotten—especially since the original plots were considerably altered. Julia McKenzie was at least sincere but lacked that goofy façade that Hickson so beautifully managed.

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The dust over of the first British edition in 1930

Volume 1 of this enhanced BBC series contains “The Murder at the Vicarage,” “The Moving Finger,” “The Body in the Library,” and “A Murder is Announced.” In Volume 2 are “They Do It with Mirrors,” “A Pocketful of Rye,” “4:50 from Paddington,” and “The Mirror Cracked from Side to Side.” And now the last volume rounds it all off with “A Caribbean Mystery,” “At Bertram’s Hotel,” “Nemesis,” and “Sleeping Murder.”

Among the many familiar stars spotted along the way are Jean Simmons, Claire Bloom, Timothy West, Tom Wilkinson, Joss Ackland, Paul Eddington, and a very young Samantha Bond.

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Agatha Christie, the mind behind the mind of Marple

One can see where Christie had tongue firmly in cheek. You can spot the twinkle in her eye when she names a story after a nursery rhyme, so in “A Pocket Full of Rye,” having two serious murders, is amusing to follow the hints in the song’s lyrics. The author confessed that she also had a lot of fun with “The Body in the Library,” the very title of which, like “The Murder at the Vicarage,” sounds deliberately old fashioned.

My favorite episode? “A Murder is Announced” for its complexity and “A Murder at the Vicarage” for the performances of Paul Eddington and Cheryl Campbell. My favorite character? Top honors to David Horovitch as Chief Inspector Slack, whose dislike of Miss Marple is matched only by his admiration for her astuteness.

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Lucy Worsely

Add to this a delightful set of bonus features at the end of each of the three BBC sets, “A Very British Murder.” Here narrator Lucy Worsely, with a charming weak “r,” discusses with dozens of old prints and photographs, mysteries—real and fictional—and personalities behind them that captured the British imagination from the mid-1880s and through the next 100 years.

Grab all 3 sets right quick. And happy viewing.

“Jeeves and Wooster” Returns in a New DVD Edition

A-Jeeves and Wooster“Jeeves and Wooster” Returns in a New DVD Edition

British author P.G. Wodehouse resettled on Long Island, NY back in 1909; and then again after some years in Europe, he began to write about a Cloudcoocooland England in which brainless upper-class twits do what they can to get this girl or avoid that one, to win at golf or to please frighteningly Amazonian aunts, to obtain rare antiques by hook or by crook, and whatever else would make for a complicated farcical plot.  The best known of this kind of twit is Bertram “Bertie” Wooster, who is totally under the influence of his valet Jeeves, no matter how hard he tries to be independent.

Countless viewers have enjoyed the television series that appeared in the early 1990s, in which Hugh Laurie plays Bertie and Stephen Fry played Jeeves. Although the latter is a little too young-looking for the role, the chemistry between them is such that the series works like a charm.

download(Yes, it is the same Hugh Laurie who plays the nasty but terrific House MD in the present very popular series, many viewers of which think he is American.)

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P.G. Wodehouse, the creator of Jeeves and Bertie

When it appeared on DVDs in four boxed sets, it took up 5-1/4 inches of shelf space. Some time ago, “Jeeves & Wooster, The Complete Series” was repackaged in a single box with four slim jewel cases holding two discs each and spanning only 1/4 the original width. It is now out again on the Acorn Media label in the same format and with the addition of subtitles. Each of the 23 episodes runs 50 minutes, with about 2 or 3 good laughs per minute.

Yes, they are all there: the dreaded Aunt Agatha, the slightly more tolerant Aunt Dahlia, the chef par excellence Anatole, the newt-fancier Gussie Fink-Nottle, Tuppy Glossop, Honoria Glossop, Lady Bassington-Bassington, Sir Watkyn Bassett, and the fascist-with-an-Achilles heel Roderick Spode. (And look for Martin Clunes as one of the Drones at Bertie’s club.)

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Elizabeth Spriggs, the most formidable of Aunt Agatha’s in this series

The tales do get considerably sillier in the fourth season and the situations a bit repetitive, as happens in long-running series where the better material is used for the earlier episodes. However, having reviewed each of the original releases in the past, I can only heartily recommend this set in its new format.

Note: Almost as funny are the Mulliner tales, which are dramatized in the Acorn Media series “Wodehouse Playhouse.” Note again: Wodehouse is pronounced “Woodhouse.”

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Ian Carmichael as Wimsey, not Wooster

Another note: I sincerely hope that some company will restore on DVD the two surviving of the 20 episodes of the 1965-67 series “The World of Wooster,” in which Bertie was played by Ian Carmichael and Jeeves by Dennis Price!

Old “Maigret” Returns to DVD in New Edition

IMG_20150530_0004_NEWOld “Maigret” Returns to DVD in New Edition 

  As I keep saying in my articles, I can watch over and over the older episodes of Hercule Poirot with David Suchet (before they took all the fun out of his character) and of Miss Marple with Joan Hickson. But I never mentioned a third favorite, which has not suffered any remakes since its original showings in 1992-93. “Maigret” has now been reissued in a boxed set of 4 DVDs holding the 12 episodes that comprise Series 1 and 2 of this wonderful police drama.

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The man behind the detective

Jules Maigret is the creation of French writer Georges Simenon and played here by an all-British cast led by Michael Gambon in the title role. The directors wisely chose to have all the characters speak without French accents. The outdoor scenes are mostly shot in “Paris” (actually Budapest, which didn’t modernize as quickly as did Paris). The pictures behind the opening titles perfectly establish the time and place. Gambon is ably assisted by an equally good cast, which includes Ciaran Madden (Series 1) and Barbara Flynn (Series 2) as his loving wife; Geoffrey Hutchings as his assistant, Sgt. Lucas; and John Moffatt, as his obstructive superior, M. Comeliau.

The guest stars who do exemplary jobs include Cheryl Campbell, Edward Petherbridge, Brenda Blethyn (the current lead in “Vera”), Minnie Driver (in a very strong role) and even Jane Wymark (the wife of Tom Barnaby in “Midsomer Murders, Series 1-20). And kudos to Campbell and Driver for playing two very tough women who are a match for Maigret himself.

Gambon plays Maigret not as a “character,” as are Poirot or Marple, but as a serious policeman who looks into the characters of his suspects before coming to conclusions. His sense of wry humor does much to make this series quite enjoyable.

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One of the many French editions of a Maigret mystery

Out of the 12 episodes, my favorite is “Maigret Sets a Trap” (Series 1, episode 6). Here a sex killer is terrorizing Paris and the story starts in media res with Maigret bringing someone into the station but refusing to say anything about him to reporters. There is a touch of “Psycho” in a certain mother-son relationship and more than a little painful suspense as a policewoman is put in harm’s way to lure the killer.

Yes, “Maigret” provides 645 minutes of intelligent and enjoyable police drama. And subtitles and a booklet are included to further enhance one’s enjoyment of this set.

“New Tricks” Series Still Has Imaginative Plots

A-New Tricks 11“New Tricks” Series Still Has Imaginative Plots

Can you teach “New Tricks” new tricks? Can it survive when only 1/4 of the cast is still around from the old days as part of the Unsolved Crime and Open Case Squad? In Season 8, actor James Bolan left and he was replaced by Denis Lawson as Steve McAndrew. In the first story of Season 10, Brian Lane (Alun Armstrong) was asked to leave the team and was replaced by the walking encyclopedia Danny Griffin (Nicholas Lyndhurst).

And then, DS Sandra Pullman (Amanda Redman) fell for a French detective and SHE decided to leave the squad! This is the equivalent of John Nettles leaving “Midsomer Murders” and comes as more of a shock because Nettles’ leaving his series was set up ahead of time. Well, Redman was replaced by Tamzin Outhwaite in the role of DCI Sasha Miller, and her presence in the last two episodes of Season 10 caused much friction between her and the others.

Thus does “New Tricks, Season 11” begin in a 3-DVD set from Acorn Media. The sole survivor from the original cast is Dennis Waterman as Gerry Standing; and he is the only one of the men that seems to put a lot of energy into his role. Both Lawson and Lyndhurst seem to walk through their roles, showing some complexity mostly when having personal problems. Outhwaite is perky enough, but memories of Amanda Redman can never be erased. Not fair, perhaps, but that is what happens when cast changes are made in long running series.

Quite a bit of the 60 minutes given to each story is taken up with those personal problems: Sasha’s ex-husband, Steve’s ex-wife and wayward son, Danny’s…well, no need to go on. Personal problems have long been an element of police shows and nothing I say is going to change that.

On the positive side, most of the 10 plots are quite good, some quite imaginative. In two or three, a current crime is linked with a “cold” one. In one episode, the death of a young student sends the cast on a search for a certain boy’s name, which turns out to be something quite different, making this the grimmest mystery episode since the last one in “Foyle’s War.”

As I said, it is really not fair giving negative criticism to a cast because it is not as good as the original. “New Tricks” is still a very enjoyable police series with a difference. Still worth the watching.

Don Rickles Plays a Nice Guy in 1976 Sitcom, CPO Sharkey

 

A-CPO SharkyDon Rickles Plays a Nice Guy in 1976 Sitcom, CPO Sharkey

If you like Don Rickles, you will like “CPO  Sharkey, Season 1,” now available on a set of 3 Time Life DVDs. This 1976 sitcom copied the “Sgt. Bilko” formula by casting Rickles as a Chief Petty Officer at a San Diego naval base. Unlike Bilko, he really cares for his men but thinks that sarcasm is the best way to whip them into shape.

Since it i 1976, his men include one Polish, one Jewish, one Puerto Rican, one soul-filled Black, one Italian, and so on. Rickles does get very close to being offensive to this and that ethnicity, but that is the basic problem with his character. As Don Rickles, he must be caustic; as CPO Sharkey, he must be likable. Very often, these two aspects don’t seem to fit. Yet this is farce, so one takes it as it is.

He is of course surrounded by serious and goofy personages. His superior officer, Capt. Quinlan (Elizabeth Allen), is an attractive woman, whom he learns to respect. His best friend, CPO Robinson (Harrison Page), is the voice of reason and always willing to act the Black stereotype when Sharkey’s comments go too far. The 6-foot-6 Seaman Pruitt (Peter Isacksen) is Sharkey’s so-so efficient assistant in the barracks, while Lt. Whipple (Jonathan Daly) is the “expert” (with Bugs Bunny teeth), who always knows best and is usually proved wrong.

Each of the 15 episodes runs about 24 minutes and there are no subtitles.

A-CPO Sharkey 2Season 2 brings one major cast change–Elizabeth Allen’s Capt. Quinlan is replaced by Richard X. Slattery’s Capt. Bruckner, the only person who can cower Sharkey; and one minor cast change–an Italian recruit is replaced by one from the Near East. Also Lt. Whipple loses his beard!

To emphasize the similarity between this show and “Sgt. Bilko,” two of the Sharkey plots are nearly identical to those of two in the Bilko series.

 

Still there are plenty of laughs, for those who like low comedy.

 

Restored “Poirot” Series is Completed at Last

IMG_20150607_0001Restored “Poirot” Series is Completed at Last

   At last! The Acorn Media series of Hercule Poirot DVDs starring David Suchet, restored with subtitles in the order of their original UK telecasts, is now complete with the issuing of “Poirot, Series 13.” For reasons that can only be guessed at, the Public Television stations showed four of the five, leaving those who wished to see the final episode to wait for the DVD.

“Elephants Can Remember” and “Dead Man’s Folly” are quite good, sticking mostly to the original novels. The latter can be compared with the film version of 1986 starring Peter Ustinov as the Belgian sleuth. “The Labours of Hercules” drops the framing device of the original and manages to cram three or four of the “labours” (British spelling) into a new framing device that does not quite work. But for those unfamiliar with the original (which was really a set of independent short stories), no harm is done.

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Miss Lemon and C.I. Japp rejoin Poirot in a silly mystery

“The Big Four” is Agatha Christie’s worst Poirot novel and is noted only for the appearance of Hercule’s twin brother Achille! The televersion drops this altogether, but the story is quite silly even without it. But how good it is to see Hastings (Hugh Fraser), Miss Lemon (Pauline Moran), and Chief Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson) again.

“Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case” is very true to the book. As David Suchet explains, they didn’t have the heart to film this last; so it was filmed before “Dead Man’s Folly” to leave the cast and crew in a better frame of mind. There is a 19-minute interview with Suchet as a bonus.

So there we are. All of the Poirot novels and short stories are out and available for repeated viewings by fans and fans-to-be. Thank you, Acorn.

Foyle’s War 8

 

“Foyle’s War 8” Tackles Grim Problems Still With Us

A-Foyle's War 8Whether or not “Foyle’s War, Set 8” is an end to this impressive series (and scriptwriter Anthony Horowitz hopes not), the third story ends in the most unforgettable way. But let me lead up to that.

It is now 1946 and Foyle (Michael Kitchen) is working for MI5. He is assisted by his driver and confidante Samantha Wainwright (Honeysuckle Weeks), now the wife of MP Adam Wainwright (Daniel Weyman) and is “PWP.” Foyle’s bosses are the intense Hilda Pierce (Ellie Haddington) and the stuffy but efficient Sir Alec Meyerson (Rupert Vansittart). These two ran the SOE (Special Operations Executive) that I have written about twice.

Once in my review of the dramatic series “Wish Me Luck” and again in my review of the documentary “Secret War,” I explained that the purpose of the SOE was to send agents, many of them women, into German-occupied countries to disrupt the enemy’s war efforts as much as possible. Unhappily, the operation was quickly blown; and through incompetence or ego or both, those in England refused to believe it and kept sending agents. This is what the third story, “Elise,” of Set 8 is all about. And this is the one with the…well, let the viewers see for themselves.

“High Castle” links the Nuremberg trials with the need for oil by the western and Russian powers. The theme is the corruption in those governing the “sleep with the enemy” consequence that inevitably results where oil is concerned.

“Trespass” brings in the problems of not only anti-Semitism but of the age-old tendency to blame someone, anyone, for whatever ills a society is facing at the present. There is always the “fearless leader” who springs up to lead a campaign for a religiously/racially/politically [choose one] pure population. And of course, there are always the morons who will follow their accepted master.

Yes, this last series, now out on the Acorn Media label, is pretty grim. Each episode runs about 95 minutes, and the subtitles are always helpful. What? Oh, yes. PWP meant back then “Pregnant without Permission.”