May 31, 2021

What's on TV? Tuesday, June 2, 1953

Even though we talked quite a bit about Queen Elizabeth's Coronation on Saturday, I thought it was interesting to look at the actual listings for the day as they appear in the Chicago edition, just to see exactly how hodgepodge the coverage was throughout the day. In this era before satellites and videotape, you're really at the mercy of when the airplanes can deliver your film, aren't you?  

I do want to call your attention to one additional program; Suspense (8:30 p.m., CBS) airs "The Queen's Ring," the story of the tempestuous affair between Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex. I'm sure the timing is just a coincidence. Now, enjoy a restful Memorial Day.

May 29, 2021

This week in TV Guide: May 29, 1953

For a nation still struggling to overcome the effects of World War II, the coronation of the young, beautiful Queen Elizabeth II this Tuesday, June 2, promises to be an unforgettable event, one you can tell your grandchildren about someday. For now, thanks to the miracle of television, this grand event will be available for the entire nation to see. True, for those who remember back to May 12, 1937, there was a limited broadcast of the coronation of Elizabeth's father, George VI, on the fledgling BBC television; television cameras were excluded from Westminster Abbey, however, which meant they weren't present to carry the most important moment of all: the placing of the crown on George's head by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

But this time, thanks to the influence of Elizabeth's husband, Prince Phillip*, cameras will be allowed in the Abbey, and the entire ceremony will be available live to viewers, not only in England but throughout Europe, and via film to other countries, including the United States and Canada. Not only will it be the first time the coronation of a British monarch has been televised in its entirety, it will be the first television event of international proportions.

*Establishment figures, including Winston Churchill and the Queen Mother, argued for maintaining tradition and excluding television from the ceremony, as had been the case for George VI's funeral. Phillip, however, strongly favored modernization and urged that the entire ceremony be broadcast. Ultimately, the Queen herself decided in television's favor.

The event is watched by 27 million people in the U.K., three quarters of the population. It is the first time many of them have ever watched an event live on TV; some people purchase their very first telly just for the occasion, while others rent one for the day. There's a joyful feeling, one that unites the nation, allowing them to experience this monumental event together—young and old, rich and poor, upstairs and downstairs.   

And now here we are, 68 years later, and such a broadcast has yet to be repeated. Those who considered Elizabeth's coronation to be a once-in-a-lifetime event couldn't have known that for many millions, that would literally be the case.

Think about it: since that day, there have been fourteen U.K. prime ministers, thirteen U.S. presidents, seven popes (including one who reigned for nearly 37 years), the rise and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the first and second Gulf wars, the Falklands War, and countless events large and small (including fourteen Doctor Whos). Russia launched a dog into space, the Americans put a man on the moon, television has gone from a shadowy picture on a small tube through color, cable, satellite, high definition and streaming, and through it all Elizabeth has been the one constant. 

The point here is not to reflect on the length of Elizabeth's reign, impressive though it may be, as much as it is to ask this serious television question: accepting this as the first televised coronation, is there any similar event of such historical importance that has only been televised once? One* comes to mind—the investiture of the Prince of Wales—but that doesn't really count, for obvious reasons. We've even had multiple moon landings televised! Empires rise and fall, leaders are elected and buried, champions are crowned and defeated, but considering how long television has been in existence, the idea that only one British coronation has been televised kind of boggles the mind. Staggering, even.

*OK, two, if you count Turn-On. 

If one were to try and calculate the odds, I wonder what they would be.

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A model of one of the 65-foot arches which will span the processional route    
I was fascinated—still am, in fact—to read about the various plans the networks have for covering the Coronation. They might seem weird to people today, but to someone who was weaned on space shots featuring animated graphics and simulations of the moon's surface, they make perfect sense.

CBS and NBC plan to begin their live coverage at 5:30 a.m. ET with radio broadcasts from London, augmented by background graphics, wire photos, and "other graphic arts displays" from their New York studios. ABC, which begins their coverage at 8:00 a.m., has constructed a series of miniature replicas of the Palace, the Abbey, arches spanning the parade route, which they plan to supplement with rear-screen projection to "give viewers the illusion they are actually witnessing the Coronation as it occurs." Fake news alert! (DuMont, in case you were wondering, plans to take the air late in the afternoon.)

NBC has the most audacious plan of all the networks, one which, if it works, will allow at least some live television coverage of the ceremonies. As I mentioned last month, the network hopes to bounce the BBC's video signal off the ionosphere to an antenna on Long Island, and they claim they've had success in tests. 

Following the morning coverage (live pictures or not), the networks plan to return at 4:00 p.m. for the Queen's official address, and again at 6:00 p.m. for the kinescopes of the actual ceremony, flown from London. (They hope to show later BBC kinescopes at 10:30 p.m.) As for those flights, both CBS and NBC have hired planes in a desperate race to be first on the air. Paul Mantz, champion air racer, is flying the Peacock's plane, while CBS plans to use a British plane with facilities to develop the film on the way. 

How does it all turn out? Well, NBC's signal-bouncing experiment didn't work, so they settled for their backup plan. And while CBS won the race to get the film first, in a bizarre twist, NBC got on the air first. Well, actually, it was NBC and ABC. You see, ABC, with no money to spend on things like charter planes, entered into a deal with the CBC to simulcast their footage from Montreal, which would be ready slightly earlier than either NBC or CBS. But, in yet another twist, NBC's plane was forced to return to England due to bad weather. Knowing they now had no chance to beat CBS, they came up with a bold idea of their own: NBC VP Charles Barry reached out to ABC president, Robert Kintner and offered to pay for the cost of the line from Montreal to New York if ABC would allow NBC to share the CBC's coverage. The deal was struck, and NBC's full-page ad the next day boasted of their victory over CBS. (Perhaps ABC should have asked NBC to kick in the cost of an ad of their own.) 

The story of the battle for Coronation coverage supremacy is almost a better story than the Coronation itself, and you can read all about it in this wonderful reminiscence by TV legend Reuven Frank. 

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Like him or loathe him,   
Ralph Edwards had the golden touch   
And now, one of the most controversial programs on television: This Is Your Life

Why, you might ask, is a show like this—lacking sex, violence, or anything as garish as, say, Milton Berle or Howdy Doody—so controversial? Well, depending on who you aski, This Is Your Life is either a "wonderful human interest drama," or one that reveals "the mistakes and foibles in the life of each week's guest" for millions of viewers to see.

The (unbylined) article in this week's issue doesn't really go into a lot of detail about this; as the "Program of the Week," it's a mostly flattering piece. Still, you can pick up bits and pieces of what it might have been all about. The guests weren't always celebrities, back then, and Edwards was often accused of emphasizing the sensational in his choice of subjects. There are, of course, two sides to that story.

Take the show that honored singer Lillian Roth, for example. Roth's once-promising career had fallen victim to alcoholism, a battle which she finally won, and about which she was always frank and forthcoming. Her appearance on This Is Your Life, in a February 1953 special episode, was likewise frank and forthcoming, and done with the complete suport of Alcoholics Anonymous. It was, by definition, a "sensational" topic—an accusation which Edwards often faced. It was also, however, very inspirational (Roth had by then made a successful comeback), and the program generated more than 40,000 letters of support. It's hard to know how many lives might have been changed for the good because of that one episode.

Personally, I've never been a big fan of Ralph Edwards (neither was Art Linkletter, FWIW); I always thought there was something kind of smarmy about him, like a used car salesman. (No offense to any used car salesmen in the audience.) There was no denying, though, that between This Is Your Life and Truth or Consequences, he knew what makes a hit. 

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One of the running "jokes," if you will, of Bishop Sheen's Life Is Worth Living is the "angel" responsible for erasing the Bishop's blackboard during each program. If you're not familiar with the show, Sheen would often illustrate a point on his ever-present blackboard, after which he would take a couple of strides toward the center of the stage. When he returned to the blackboard, it had been wiped clean, the work, he would say, of his angel (which he sometimes called "Skippy"). Becuase the cleansing occurred off-camera, viewers never got to see just who this "angel" was, and there was a good amount of curiosity as to his identity.

This week, we get to meet him, along with the other angels—that is, crew members—that keep Bishop Sheen going each week. For the record, the angel in charge of the blackboard is a crew member named Walter Colgan, complete with an oversized sponge. His father, John, is the show's lighting technician. Other angels are responsible for the audio, video, and even the small watches that hang from each camera to remind Sheen of the time on each live broadcast.

Our intrepid, nameless reporter asks the crew what it's like working with Bishop Sheen. "He's wonderful to work with," one cameraman says. "Even remembers many of our names, although we rotate crews often." On any given day, the writer says, "he's apt to call them around and distribute rosaries or other gifts." He offered each of them $100 at the end of last season, to "Have a few beers on me," but they declined, and suggested instead that he donate the money to his charity. 

And the famous Sheen humor isn't just a pose; "He's at his funniest after the regular program," one member of the audience says, talking about Sheen's habit of going into the crowd to chat after the program. "I could come over to Manhattan to see a play or something, but when I do, it's always with a ticket to see Life Is Worth Living."

I've written before of my admiration for Bishop Sheen, and how we could use a program like his on television today; there's nothing here to change my mind. He'd never make it, though—he's just too positive for today's world.

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How is it that we've gotten this far—nearly to the end—and other than the Coronation, we haven't said anything about what's on this week? Well, what is on? Not much, but we'll do the best we can.

On Monday night, young light-heavyweight boxer Floyd Patterson takes on Gordon Wallace (8:30 p.m. CT, DuMont). Patterson, the former Olympic gold medalist, has only fought six times, but he's considered one of the most promising fighters around. Three years later, having moved up to the heavyweight division, he knocks out Archie Moore to become, at 21, the youngest-ever world heavyweight champion.

Wednesday at 8:30 p.m., all four networks cover President Eisenhower's speech to the nation, live from the Conference Room at the White House, and accompanied by members of the Cabinet. If you want to know why people often talk of Ike's paternal relationship with the American people, here's the start of the speech: "Good evening, everybody. This evening some of the Cabinet members have gathered here with me to discuss points of interest-points of interest to your Government and to you." He goes on to talk about the importance of the family, the prosperity of the farmer, the necessity for a strong education system, and the need to protect the nation from communism, Some of the Cabinet members then go on to answer questions they've received from the public. Hard to imagine a presidential speech like this today.

Thursday's feature is White Sox baseball (1:30 p.m., WGN), as the Sox take on the defending World Series champion New York Yankees. It's preceded by the pre-game show and, before that, Jack Brickhouse's show Baseball with the Girls. Not going to see that nowadays.

Friday afternoon at 3:00 p.m. on WGN, it's the matinee movie Alaska, starring Dean Jagger, John Carradine, Kent Taylor and Margaret Lindsay. There's nothing particularly notable about the movie, based on a story by Jack London, except that it reminds me that in 1953, Alaska wasn't yet a state. That really was a long time ago, wasn't it?

As far as the weekend, it looks as if the Honeymooners are around at least part of the time on Saturday night's Jackie Gleason Show (7:00 p.m,. CBS), with Art Carney and Audrey Meadows, and guest star Merv Griffin. Finally, on Sunday, it's Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town (7:00 p.m., CBS), and Ed's guests are singer Tony Martin; Spanish dander Jose Greco; comedians Myron Cohen and Joey Forman; Phil Rizzuto and Tommy Henrich of the Yankees, and Ralph Branca and Roy Campanella of the Dodgers. Sounds like a home run to me. TV  

May 28, 2021

Around the dial

A busy week awaits us, as we were preempted last week, so let's get right to it.

At bare•bones e-zine, the Hitchcock Project continues, as Jack looks at William Fay's season six boxing story "Ten O'Clock Tiger," adapted from his own short story. And for some additional background on Wiliam Fay, you might want to check out Jack's story here.

Fresh off last weekend's Christopher Lee blogathon, Realweegiemidget is back with the 1971 TV-movie Dr. Cook's Garden, the last movie apperance for star Bing Crosby. It's a sinister story adapted from Ira Levin's sinister play, co-starring Blythe Danner and Frank Converse.

At Classic Film & TV Cafe, Rick reviews a couple of '60s westerns: Death Rides a Horse, with Lee Van Cleef and John Philip Law; and Alvarez Kelly, with William Holden. I've seen Death Rides a Horse, and I'd watch it again just for the terrific title; there's a real art form to coming up with one like that.

It's not only kids who have TV heroes as role models; I've always said that John Charles Daly, the host of What's My Line?, is who I want to be when I grow up. At Comfort TV, David asks what TV figures you wanted to emulate, whether you were a kid or not. Do you see any of them in David's list?

I've been doing some Twilight Zone research for an article I'm working on (you should be reading it in a month or two), so I'm in a TZ frame of mind, and Jordan at The Twilight Zone Vortex fills the order with a review of the May/June 1983 issue of The Twilight Zone Magazine.  

Speaking of Twilight Zone, Shadow & Substance notes that the show will be going off of Netflix at the end of June, probably destined for Paramount +. That's probably not good news, and as Paul points out, every time a classic show becomes more difficult to see (and the episodes on MeTV and Syfy are really butchered with cuts), it risks falling down the cultural memory hole. My Blu ray set is on the way.

Garroway at Large is no longer at large; Jodie's back with the final episode of Wide Wide World ?from June 6, 1958, in which the Master Communicator takes a look at "The Western." You can see the complete episode over there, too.

The Broadcasting Archives at the University of Maryland links to a wonderful article at The Guardian titled, "Your most annoying things about TV." A few of my favorites are there, as well as more in a story from a few years back. As much as I enjoy TV, if you were to ask me to compile a list like this, it would be, I don't know, a couple of books worth?

At Television's New Frontier: the 1960s, we're in the year 1962, and Death Valley Days, for it's 11th season, is experimenting with color. The series may not be the most historically accurate, but television's longest-running syndicated series remains one of the most popular among classic TV fans, and it always boasts an impressive lineup of stars. 

A couple of interesting news items at Television Obscurities: first, on June 3, the UCLA Film & Television Archive will be streaming Rod Serling’s “It’s Mental Work,” an episode of Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, with Lee J. Cobb, Harry Guardino, Gene Rowlands, and Archie Moore. Also, there's a Kickstarter campaign out there, courtesy of the 3-D Film Archive and ClassicFlix, to support the release of the first season of The Abbott and Costello Show on Blu-ray. Anything to upgrade the quality of television history.

Terence at A Shroud of Thoughts has an appropriate appreciation of the career of Charles Grodin, who died last week at 86. I always felt that if What's My Line? was ever revived, he would have made an excellent panelist in the Bennett Cerf chair.

Finally, over at Cult TV Blog, John (who has some very kind words for me, BTW) takes on "The Wrong End of Time," the first serial from the 1970 children's sci-fi series Timeslip. I so identify with something John says here about his fondness for this show, as well as several children's shows from the early 1970s, "because they embody a probably imagined time before I was born." Isn't that so much of what the appeal of classic television is about? TV  

May 26, 2021

The Descent into Hell: Murder in the Cathedral (1936)

ow far back do you think television goes? Certainly back to the 1950s, and you're probably aware of programs that were broadcast in the late 1940s, but farther back than that? As far back as World War II? Even farther back than that, do you think? 

How about 1936?

The BBC had been experimenting with television as early as 1930, and it began regular television service on November 2, 1936. However, a month earlier, the network made a test broadcast which has come to be recognized as BBC television’s "first identifiable drama," and it is this drama that provides us with the jumping-off point for today's discussion: T.S.Eliot's 1934 verse play about the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket, Murder in the Cathedral.

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When it comes to the life of St. Thomas Becket, it's probably best to follow the advise proffered at the conclusion of the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and print the legend, not the fact. The truth of the matter is compelling enough: Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, formerly Lord Chancellor to King Henry II, died in 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral, assassinated by agents of Henry, following a long dispute during which Beckett sought to limit the authority of the State over the Church. The story of Becket's murder never fails to move; his fearlessness in the face of death, and willingness to sacrifice his life, can be seen in this eyewitness account by one of his biographers, Edward Grim, who was himself injured in the attack on Becket:

Detail of the murder of Becket,
taken from a 1225 Psalter
"...the impious knight... suddenly set upon him and [shaved] off the summit of his crown which the sacred chrism consecrated to God... Then, with another blow received on the head, he remained firm. But with the third the stricken martyr bent his knees and elbows, offering himself as a living sacrifice, saying in a low voice, 'For the name of Jesus and the protection of the church I am ready to embrace death.' But the third knight inflicted a grave wound on the fallen one; with this blow... his crown, which was large, separated from his head so that the blood turned white from the brain yet no less did the brain turn red from the blood; it purpled the appearance of the church... The fifth – not a knight but a cleric who had entered with the knights... placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr and (it is horrible to say) scattered the brains with the blood across the floor, exclaiming to the rest, 'We can leave this place, knights, he will not get up again.'"

A little over two years later, he was canonized as a saint and martyr by Pope Alexander III. In addition to being revered by the faithful, he has, thanks to plays, operas and novels, become one of the best-known of all the saints, his name synonymous with the struggle for religious freedom against government oppression. 

Now, I'm sure there are medieval experts out there, perhaps even some who read this blog (though I can't for the life of me imagine why) who would point out that the details of Becket's life, and his interaction with both Henry and with his fellow churchmen are much more complex than the dramas written about him might suggest. But human beings are, after all, human. (God writes straight with crooked lines.) And anyway we're not writing the biography of St. Thomas; there are enough good ones out there. What we're interested in here is the lesson of St. Thomas Becket's life—the moral of the story, so to speak. That lesson is a heroic one, every bit as heroic as the true details of his death, with as much to tell us today as it did nearly 900 years ago, and it is best-told in Eliot's famous play.

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Murder in the Cathedral was an interesting choice by the BBC, and perhaps an obvious one. It was currently playing at the Duchess Theatre, after having premiered only the year before in the Chapter House at Canterbury Cathedral—on location in the truest sense, only 50 yards away from the very spot on when Becket was murdered. Starring as Becket was Robert Speaight, whose performance in the role would win critical acclaim and launch him on a long and prominent career as an actor and writer. 

The broadcast, which originated at the BBC's small studio at Alexandra Palace in London, consisted of several scenes transplanted from the Duchess, with Speaight as Becket and the play's producer, E. Martin Browne, in the dual role of the Fourth Tempter and Fourth Knight. In his book Adventures in Vision, John Swift references the significance of the broadcast, and how producer George More O'Ferrall realized television's potential to become a new and distinct medium. Murder in the Cathedral, Swift writes, "marked the beginning of the use of symbolic effects. In the stage version Becket sees the temptations in flesh and blood; in television these were presented as ghosts whispering in his ear, by skillful positioning and 'double takes.'" O'Ferrall himself explains how the scene allowed the production "to get away from both theatre and film." 

We saw Thomas Becket in close-up, soliloquising about his temptations, and, as he weakened, the temptation appeared, whispering into his ear. As Thomas strengthened in purpose, the vision vanished. For, by placing the tempter before a separate camera, it was possible to superimpose the tempter on to the picture of Becket and fade it in and out at will. 

O'Ferrall had other innovations in mind as well, including the use of a device called a Penumbrascope, which cast shadows onto backcloth, creating the illusion of architectural features such as archways—perfect for the period being depicted in the play. It was simple, quick, and created a much greater effect than the traditional use of black and white drop curtains.

Murder in the Cathedral
made its television debut in a test broadcast on October 19, about three weeks before the official start of service. Having successful passed the test, the play was broadcast at 3:30 p.m. on December 7 on a program called Theatre Parade, and was repeated again on December 21. 

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During the course of the play, Becket is visited by four Tempters. The First Tempter urges Becket to choose safety and compromise with his old friend Henry, who made him first Lord Chancellor and then Archbishop of Canterbury. The Second Tempter tells him to return to serve the King, with the attendant wealth and power. The Third Tempter encourages Becket to unite with the barons in a coalition to overthrow Henry.

And then there's the Fourth Tempter. 

E. Martin Browne, the producer of the play's original production at Canterbury, himself played the Fourth Tempter, and it was probably the Fourth Tempter that George More O'Ferrall was thinking of in particuar when he described the special effects used in the broadcast. And for good reason: it is the Fourth Tempter who proves to be the most dangerous of them all. To Becket, he offers the ultimate Christian prize: martyrdom. At first it seems to be no temptation at all; after all, Becket can be almost certain that his course of action will inevitably lead to his death. But glory, with its attendant fame, is incompatible with martyrdom; it is an act not of self-sacrifice, but of pride

Vanity of vanities, the Good Book warns us, all is vanity.

The ghostly Tempter whispers suavely in Becket's ear, teases him with the glory and honor that will posthumously accrue to his name. It is the pivotal moment of the play, and Becket's ultimate rejection of this siren song—his decision to accept his fate rather than seek it out—illustrates the centrality of his conscience in the choices he makes; he can do no other.

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I mentioned earlier that there was an obvious reason for the Beeb to choose Murder in the Cathedral as its first televised drama. As critic Wheeler Winston Dixon wrote, "the main theme of Eliot’s play is the power of resistance to authority that one believes to be either corrupt or fraudulent. Since Eliot wrote the work in the shadow of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, there can be little doubt that he had the usurping forces of fascism in mind as he composed Murder in the Cathedral." 

Power is a strange thing: the more one has, the more one wants. And those who possess it, whether individuals or governments or other institutions of authority, are reluctant to ever give it up, even a fraction. What's more, they're likely to view as a threat anyone or anything that attempts to deny that power as a threat. To resist, in other words. 

Becket challenges Henry, 14th century
The state has seen the church as a threat for as far back as either of them goes: it was how the Egyptians saw Moses, how Rome regarded Jerusalem, how Herod perceived the Messiah, how the Sanhedrin judged Christ, how Henry II viewed Becket. Few institutions guard their power as jealously as the state does, and anything that even remotely vies for the hearts of the people, a description that certainly fits religion. The state has always found something threatening in Christ's admonition to "render unto Caesar," given that the state generally views everything as being within its possession.

Separation of church and state is enshrined as one of the fundamental principles of the American nation, yet the phrase doesn't appear anywhere in the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson made the phrase famous when he used it to describe the practical implication of the establishment clause in the Bill of Rights, which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." 

But what does this mean? To Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, the wall of separation was intended to safeguard the church from the corruptions of the state, not the other way around. Certainly Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the most famous deist in American history, would agree; it was his belief that religion was "a preeminent resource for benevolence and charity," a necessary inspiration for the average American to do good. The Founders, then, saw the state as being informed by, rather than protected from, religion.

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There is the vanity of the martyr seeking glory, and then there is the vanity of the leader seeking power. 

It's been said people show their true colors during a crisis. It's where the rubber meets the road, where we see what people are truly made of when there's no place to hide. A noted political theorist once admonished his disciples that a crisis presents an opportunity that should never be wasted, and this is surely what happened with the virus lockdown of the past year.

Among the many "emergency" powers that leaders gathered and held to their breasts, one of the most notable was the suppression of church services. In some places, they were banned altogether; other, more enlightened, communities limited them to a laughably small number of attendees. Some places, here and abroad, took the opportunity to eliminate any recourse to sacramental life, driving both ministers and parishioners underground. As the absurdity of this position became increasingly apparent, the justifications used by political leaders to keep such restrictions in place became increasingly contorted. That many religious leaders cooperated in these acts shows only that vanity is not the sole province of the state.

Coincidentally or not, this odd period in history overlapped with the shadow being cast by the new administration as it assumed the seat of power. 

Richard Burton faces the executioner's sword in 
It was, in fact, impossible to ignore an undercurrent of hostility to religion, especially as a usurper of the power claimed by the state. We were presented with a man touted as "devout" by his supporters, seemingly set on wiping out any protection afforded the country's religious institutions. And this gets to the crux of the dispute between Becket and Henry: royal supremacy over the English Church. The specifics of Becket's argument concerned jurisdiction over clergy who committed secular crimes, but as we witness the efforts of the contemporary state to impose secular law on churches and institutions regardless of how the law conflicts with religious belief, it's impossible not to see the parallels between 1170 and 2021. 

King Henry is alleged to have famously asked, rhetorically, if no one would rid him of "this meddlesome priest," and his four knights acted. Today, the knights are big business and big politics, acting in service of the state, and so doctors and nurses are told to perform medical procedures that violate their beliefs; administrators are told to adopt policies that violate their beliefs; the faithful are told that their beliefs constitute hate speech, that those who stand up for those beliefs are to be ostrasized, put at risk of losing their jobs, threatened with bodily harm. Their social media is regulated or censored unless they conform to the "correct" set of beliefs, one approved by the secular authorities. Considering it all, Becket might have wondered just how this leader could be considered "devout." One would think that he could scarcely do more damage to the church if he set out to destroy it himself, to build back better with a more secular form of worship.

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Between Acts 1 and 2 of Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot crafted an interlude from Becket's actual Christmas Day sermon of 1170, four days before the Archbishop's death. In that sermon, Becket reflects on "the strange contradiction that Christmas is a day both of mourning and rejoicing, which Christians also do for martyrs," and tells his flock that "it is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr." Coming as it does after Becket's rejection of the Fourth Tempter, it demonstrates his acceptance of his death with the certainty that good will eventually come from it. 

About twenty years later, Eliot’s poem "The Cultivation of Christmas Trees" hearkens to that Christmas Day sermon. Eliot tells the story of a child who will, with age and wisdom, come to understand that "the joy of Christmas is disturbed not only by the premonition of the Passion, but also by the uncertainty of the Second Coming."

          The accumulated memories of annual emotion
          May be concentrated into a great joy
          Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
          When fear came upon every soul:
          Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
          And the first coming of the second coming.

It occurs to me that the 1936 broadcast of Murder in the Cathedral, primitive as it might have been, serves as a perfect metaphor for our times. For just as George More O'Ferrall's superimposed images prefigured today's special effects, St. Thomas Becket's confrontation with King Henry II prefigured today's confrontation between church and state.

And if Eliot is right that the Second Coming overshadows the joy of Christmas, so also does it overshadow everything we do today. After all, it was Thomas Jefferson—you know, the guy who talked about the separation of church and state—who also said, "Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever." TV  

May 24, 2021

What's on TV? Sunday, May 26, 1974

I don't know about you, but I find the sports lineup in today's Twin Cities issue quite interesting—not for the events themselves, but for what they say about the time. Here's what I mean: tennis was a very popular pasttime in 1974, and we've got four tennis-related events. Let's throw out Celebrity Tennis, even though that may be the most telling; the other three are all taped, and two of the three are from tournaments that were packaged for television. You don't see prerecorded sports like that anymore. And then there's the golf—the Danny Thomas Memphis Classic. It's still around, albeit with FedEx as the title sponsor, but nowadays the final round is shown in its entirety, rather than having coverage start on the 15th hole, as was the case here. Oh, and in 1974, the winner took home $35,000; last year, Justin Thomas won $1.8 million. And finally, there's the major event of the day, the Indianapolis 500, shown on a tape delay from the afternoon. The 500 was perhaps the last major sports event to be broadcast live, in 1986. Moving ABC's coverage of the race from the following Saturday's Wide World of Sports to same-day coverage was done to capitalize on the race's popularity. Today, NBC would probably do anything it could to keep it out of primetime coverage, such has been the decline in its fortunes. Yes, times have changed.

May 22, 2021

This week in TV Guide: May 25, 1974

The Indianapolis 500, "auto racing's premiere event," takes center stage in the sporting world this Memorial Day weekend, so that's where we'll start.

The race is at a crossroads, following one of its most controversial runnings ever, in 1973. That year two drivers were killed in crashes (one during practice), and a mechanic in the pits died after being hit by a fire truck racing to the scene of one of the fatal accidents. The race itself took three days to run, rain interrupting both the first and second tries, and eventually ended after less than 350 miles when yet more rain finally brought it to a merciful end. The crowd, which had numbered more than 350,000 on day one, was less than 50,000 by the conclusion.

The problems are many, according to Hal Higdon's article, but center around the fact that technological advances have made the cars too fast, with neither the speedway nor the cars themselves prepared to handle the risks from increased speeds (over 30 mph in less than three years). The speedway has taken steps, firing the chief steward, widening the pit lane, and raising walls and pushing seating back (several spectators had been injured in driver Swede Savage's fiery fatal crash in 1973). The cars have also undergone changes, with fuel tanks cut almost in half, and aerodynamic adjustments designed to lower speeds by as much as 15 mph. Despite the changes, Higdon writes, the race still faces challenges: the speedway and the governing body "allowed speeds to soar dangerously past 200 mph with little more than talk," and he warns that "if unnecessary deaths continue, the so-called greatest spectacle in auto racing may not survive."

For several reasons, this article represents a moment frozen in time. Today, as speeds top 230 mph, we might wonder what all the fuss was about. Auto racing was infinitely more dangerous in the early 70s than it is today, even has it had become safer than it was in, say, the 1950s. Safety features have been introduced to both speedways and automotive structure, helping to absorb impacts and providing greater protection for the driver.

Incredibly, Salt Walther survived this crash during the first
attempt to start the 1973 Indianapolis 500 
Earlier this month the 27th anniversary of the death of the great Formula 1 champion Ayrton Senna was observed. Senna and driver Roland Ratzenberger were killed in separate accidents on one of the grimmest weekends in motor racing history* Similar concerns were raised over racing's future. And yet, to date only one other driver, Jules Bianchi, has died in a Formula 1 race. Dale Earnhardt and Dan Wheldon have died in accidents in recent years, but their deaths, too, are the last of their respective series. The fact remains that while motor sports are still dangerous, they are nowhere near as deadly as they were.

*A third accident nearly killed young driver Rubens Barrichello, and several spectators and track officials were also injured over the course of the San Marino Grand Prix weekend.

And yet the Indianapolis 500 is no longer the "greatest spectacle in racing," all of IndyCar having been surpassed by NASCAR in terms of popularity and talent. A divisive split in the Indy racing community created competing series, with neither having either the talent or the financial support to thrive. Indianapolis, caught in the middle, is still trying to recover, with empty seats and low television ratings out there for all to see.

The irony is that the bleak future forecast in the article has, in many ways, come to pass - but for entirely different reasons.

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With live television of the 500 still a decade away, the race is being shown on Sunday night on a tape-delay basis. It's the first time in the history of the race that it is being held on Sunday; previously, the race had been held on Memorial Day itself*, but after the fiasco of 1973 it's thought that a Sunday race will allow people to attend on Monday should rain intervene again.

*Prior to 1970, Memorial Day was on May 30, as was the race. When Memorial Day fell on a Sunday, the race was moved to Monday. In 1970 Memorial Day itself became a Monday holiday; the first two 500s were held on Saturday, with the 1973 race being the first to run on the new Memorial Day. All races since then have been scheduled for Sunday.

As I mentioned earlier, the 500 isn't what it used to be. However, if you're looking for its great competitor, the Coca-Cola 600, you're going to have to travel to Charlotte to see it; the race, then known as the World 600, is not on live TV. Instead, we've got a nice assortment of minor sports to fill out Sunday, including the Family Circle Cup women's tennis final on NBC, the final round of the Danny Thomas Memphis Classic on an independent feed (I'm guessing Hughes Sports Network), diving and horse jumping on CBS Sports Spectacular. No baseball, which means the Twins must be at home.

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Throughout the 60s and early 70s, TV Guide's weekly reviews were written by the witty and acerbic Cleveland Amory. Whenever we get the chance, we'll look at Cleve's latest take on the shows of the era. 

As we come to the end of yet another television season, it's time once again for our favorite critic to look back at the past year and offer second thoughts on what he got wrong, and where the networks might have erred. In particular, four series—Dirty Sally, The Six Million Dollar Man, Happy Days, and The Magician—appear to have generated enough viewer response for Cleve to give them a rewatch, and a re-review.

Many readers thought Amory was too hard on The Magician, which he says is not the case; he likes both Bill Bixby and the willingness of the show not to rely on violence, so he apologizes if he gave the impression he didn't like it. As for Happy Days, he says, happiness "is in the eyes of the beholder. And what we've re-beheld here convinced us that either we've gone around the bend or our letter writers have. Certainly the show has." And this long before it jumped the shark! His opinion of The Six Million Dollar Man hasn't improved either; "Lee Majors' fans are legion. Maye, in his next show, we can join them." And Dirty Sally, the short-lived Jeanette Nolan spinoff from Gunsmoke, one letter writer asked him if he "prefers sex, rape, murder, violence, dope, crime and whathaveyou," to which he replies, "Just the whathaveyou." So, if you're keeping score at home, he was wrong about both Happy Days and The Six Million Dollar Man (big hits), right about Dirty Sally (single season), and wrong about The Magician (also single season).

Among Amory's other observations: the networks still don't "get" The Waltons ("you don't have to have bang-banbs or laff-laffs or even a million dollars to have a show of value"), praises both Kojak and Police Story, and sees War and Peace and Upstairs, Downstairs, both from Masterpiece Theatre as two of the finest examples of television today. But Cleve saves his highest honors for the NBC movie The Execution of Private Slovik; "Martin Sheen was superb and so was everything else about it." It was, he says, television at its best. And you can never have too much of that.

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The breakthrough summer hit of the year is the House of Representatives hearing into the impeachment of President Nixon. It's a spin-off from the earlier joint House-Senate select committee hearings, which made minor stars out of lesser political hacks such as North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin, Tennessee Senator Howard Baker, judge John Sirica*, stoolie John Dean, and featured an appearance by future TV and movie star—and U.S. Senator—Fred Thompson as the minority council.

*Who probably would have gotten The People's Court if it had existed back then.

This week's schedule calls for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday hearings, with either live or taped coverage. I haven't checked to see what might actually have aired, but I remember from the earlier go-around that the networks rotated coverage to assuage those who either weren't interested or couldn't do without their daytime stories.

The drama continues to playout until August, when Nixon resigns in the final episode. A reboot of the series is attempted in 1998-99 and again in 2020-21, but both times fails to attract an audience.

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Let's see, what else might you be interested in this week? There are a lot of reruns kicking in, so we'll try to find something else. Dick Clark's at the beach in ABC's Action '74 on Saturday at noon. Bill Withers and the Staple Singers are the guests. NBC offers an Emmy Awards doubleheader on Tuesday, with the inaugural Daytime Emmys being presented at 11:00 a.m. CT, followed by the traditional Primetime Emmys at 8:00 p.m. Barbara Walters and Peter Marshall do the honors in the Daytime show, telecast from New York, while Johnny Carson hosts the nighttime extravaganza in Hollywood.*

*An interesting but perhaps ill-advised feature of these Emmys is that in addition to the genre awards (Best Comedy Series, Best Drama Series, etc.), there are "Outstanding Performance" awards for "Actor of the Year," "Actress of the Year," etc., featuring the winners in the individual genre categories. Thus, Alan Alda in M*A*S*H faces off against Hal Holbrook in the special Pueblo, William Holden in the limited series The Blue Knight, and Telly Savalas in the drama Kojak.

"Upstairs, Downstairs" is the feature on PBS' Masterpiece Theater, as it was apt to be at any given time. ABC News Closeup does a show on stolen art at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, while NBC News Presents counters at 9:00 p.m. with "The Pursuit of Youth." And then Let's Make a Deal's Monty Hall hosts a Sea World special on ABC Friday night; an hour later the same network has a Jacques Cousteau special on the octopus. Must have been a theme night.

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An interesting bit of contentiousness in the Letters to the Editor section, as Stanley Borucinski of Riverside, NJ writes in to criticize a recent TV Guide editorial lamenting press censorship when it comes to covering crime. The editorial had referred to the recent example of a voluntary 90 day news blackout on vandalism in Webster City, Iowa. Proponents of the blackout felt that news coverage gave unwarranted publicity to the vandals, which would then result in increased vandalism.* The editor (in fact, probably Merrill Panitt) pointed out that during the period of the news blackout, vandalism in Webster City increased 36.5 per cent compared to the same month the previous year.

*Similar to the idea of not showing a drunk fan racing across the field during a football game; if you give him face time on television, you'll just encourage others to do the same.

Mr. Borucinski argues that what the media is really interested in is making money, and they know that crime coverage "sells better than good news," which means "the press exaggerates and sometimes even invents news." Panitt (we'll assume it was him) counters with a lengthy rebuttal of his own, in which he states that the increase in crime "seems to have been caused by a censored press," and concludes that "When facts are hidden or covered up, nothing improves as things usually get worse."

You might recall that in a 1976 TV Guide, the editors argued strongly that media exposure of the CIA's clandestine activities was harmful to American foreign policy, and concluded that while the public had the right to know how their government operated, "must we know everything about everything?" I think that's a fair point, and ultimately what the editors are saying is that the media has to exercise responsible restraint in how much of a story they tell, while still ensuring that the story itself is told. Not an easy task, but one would assume that teaching this kind of responsibility is what you should get in journalism school.

And if you thought that, you'd probably be wrong.

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Judith Crist has one of her vintage rip jobs in her movie review section. Her first target is the family comedy Hello Down There, which she describes as an "Ivan Tors production apparently designed to give fans of his Flipper more—just a little more—of the same. It features

Tony Randall and Janet Leigh as the alleged adults in this travesty of a "family" film involving idiot parents (papa is a crazy inventor of an underwater house and mama gets her way by depriving him of you-know-what), moronic children (one suspects this is essentially a propaganda film for birth control), assorted television sub-personalities and a pair of dolphins. The dolphins get all the lines. A pity then didn't write them. Those who are willing to settle for insults to their intelligence in the guise of situation comedy are welcome to it—but why foist it on the young?

She also tears into The Christmas Tree, with William Holden as the rich father of a dying 10-year-old son, who contracted radiation poisoning from an accident involving a military jet off the coast of Corsica while the two were camping there.
The movie is obviously against nuclear contamination of the air and doom of kiddies. But beyond somehow suspecting that dear old dad is making his millions out of defense contracts, one needn't even comment on the vulgarity of dealing with so serious a subject on this level or the stupidity and tastelessness of the plotting. The film's ultimate message basically is that if you've got to die young, it's good to be rich to enjoy it. Depending on your taste threshold, of course, there may not be a dry eye—or a full stomach—in the house.
No wonder she'd described the week as consisting of movies with "the slickery and banality that too many of us tolerate in our search for nonviolent non-sordid entertainment. It's an argument you saw often back then, and still see today—the idea that if you take sex and violence out of a movie, you're perforce left with little more than pablum. It doesn't have to be that way, and it shouldn't be. There is still a way to make tasteful, serious adult dramas—the question is, are there any adults left out there to enjoy them?

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Finally, we close with the devastating news that, for the first time in its 21-year history, TV Guide is forced to increase the cover price of a single issue. Ever since the first issue on April 3, 1953, the price has remained 15 cents, but starting next week, it will climb to 20 cents. The annual subscription rate will go up as well, to $9.50.

Today, a single issue on the newsstands costs you $4.99, although a new subscriber rate runs $20 for 26 issues (every other week), and no local listings. That's what I call paying a whole lot more for a whole lot less. TV  

May 21, 2021

"Never, Never Say Die"—and the indestructable Christopher Lee

"Around the Dial" will not be seen this week so that we can bring you the following special presentation from the Christopher Lee Blogathon, running today through Sunday at many of your favorite blogs. Be sure to check our sponsors, Cinematic Catharsis and Realweegiemidget, throughout the weekend for the latest posts.

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From the moment Christopher Lee first appears on screen, with his back to the viewers, he commands our attention. It's the cold open to "Never, Never Say Die," from The Avengers 1967, and even though we only see him from behind, his presence dominates the screen. 

Imagine our surprise, then, when we see him face-to-face for the first time just moments before he’s struck head-on by an automobile. In the hospital, the doctor searches in vain for a pulse. But before he can be taken to the morgue, he rises up from the gurney, past a screaming nurse and the astonished driver who’d struck him, and strides out of the hospital. As the resident tells Steed and Mrs. Peel, there was no pulse, no respiration, no nothing. Obviously, then, the man was not dead. Except he was.

I suppose, not being a doctor myself (nor a television scriptwriter), there could be some medical explanation for this kind of phenomenon. The driver doesn't care, of course—he's just escaped a probable case of vehicular homicide. But then, as he's driving away from the hospital, a funny thing happens: he strikes another man standing in the middle of the road. What's even funnier is that it's not another man, it's the same man. The man who was dead until he wasn't, and now he's dead again.* He doesn’t even make it to the hospital this time, pushing his way out of a rogue ambulance and stomping into the forest, while the driver is left lamenting, "I've killed him again!" At this point, it's obvious we're beyond medical science—this can only be the surreal world of The Avengers. 

*True, the driver may not be laughing about it, but as a disinterested observer, you have to admit the whole thing is pretty funny.

Well, how would you feel if you ran over
someone twice and he
still wasn't dead?
Perhaps I've seen one too many episodes of MST3K, but Lee's character reminds me of nothing so much as "Butcher" Benton, the character played by Lon Chaney Jr. in Indestructible Man. I mean, nothing stops this guy: his double encounter with the car doesn't even leave a bruise; he's impervious to bullets; and it takes, what—a dozen men?—to bring him under control and drag him back to—but we'll get to that in a minute. And then there are the strange things that happen to him when a certain electronic frequency is activated. . . Let's just say that death has no hold over him, and leave it at that for the time being. 

Thanks to a clue found on a stray piece of paper near the sight of the not-homicide, Mrs. Peel is able to trace things to a suspicious government research center called the Neoteric Research Unit. Steed, posing as a security liaison for an upcoming summit to be held at the center, is introduced to the director, Professor Frank N. Stone. (Yes you read that right.) And guess who the professor is? Right—Christopher Lee! 

Stone demonstrates to Steed the top-secret project the institute is working on: creating a "brain print" of someone and transferring it into an android duplicate of that person, enabling that person's memories to be preserved forever in their robot twin. It is, says Stone, a way of "preserving the finest minds." And to top it off, the prototype android that they're working with is Stone's duplicate! So that's who's been creating all this havoc. It's not really right at this point to give away the conclusion—the episode is just too much fun. Suffice it to say that nothing—and no one—is what it seems to be.

Even for a generally delightful series like The Avengers, "Never, Never Say Die" is an unusually delightful—and satisfying—episode, a combination of the show's trademark wit and a premise that's probably a lot less sci-fi than it was when written over 50 years ago. The blend of humor and horror works wonderfully, never moreso than in the first scene following the opening titles, as we see Mrs. Peel engrossed in a television program that is suddenly interrupted by Steed's image, telling her that they are, once again, needed. That show she's watching? None other than the legendary Avengers episode "The Cybernauts," which—not coincidentally—involves creatures who are half men, half machines. (Surely Mrs. Peel must know how that one ends, since she was in the episode.) If this isn't the most meta moment in the series, it has to be a close second. And then there's the man assaulted with a banana, the robot growing a beard, and a wonderful analysis of the current political situation at the end.

It's always a pleasure to see a star like Christopher Lee appear as a guest star on television, particularly with a juicy role like this. It is possible, I suppose, that "Never, Never Say Die" would have been just as good, just as much fun, with someone else in the pivotal role, but I doubt it. Lee plays things just right: brutal and menacing as the android, suave and urbane as the professor. (But still dangerous.) Most important, he toes the line between fear and farce precisely, giving the proper amount of gravitas to the character without being a stick-in-the-mud. Of course, having starred in all those Hammer horror flicks over the years gave him plenty of practice, but this kind of role demands that you play it straight. Lee plays it right down the middle of the fairway.

I thought about spilling the beans and giving away the twists and turns that take us to the ending, but one of the reasons I don't do a lot of single-episode reviews here—unless I'm trying to prove a point of some kind—is because whenever I've seen something I really enjoy, I want others to be able to experience that same enjoyment. 

This isn't the first time I've seen "Never, Never Say Die," and it won't be the last time, so it would be wrong to view it as a one-and-done. It's always a fun episode, just as The Avengers is always a fun series and Christopher Lee is always a delight to watch. For those of you who've seen "Never, Never" before, you might smile as you read this, and decide to watch it again this weekend. But if you've never, never seen it before, and you've gotten enough of a taste to decide you want the whole meal, then I'm not about to deny you discovering the pleasures of "Never, Never Say Die" for yourself. You'll be glad you did. TV