In 1968, audiences were baffled (and enraged) by the final episodes of The Prisoner. Lord knows what they made of The Corridor People, a surreal spy/detective/fantasy series which Granada broadcast two years earlier. I’m fairly attuned to ‘weird’, and even I find this show, which lasted for just four episodes, unsettlingly strange. It’s hard to judge whether the series achieves precisely what it sets out to do, or just misses the mark as either spoof or serious thriller.
In any case, it’s worth digging up just to be reminded how far out UK television was prepared to go in the 1960s. It boasts (or wallows in) a level of adult sophistication no show produced in America or intended to sell to American markets could afford – and its casually explicit (though not profane) talk of sex and bizarre politics still carries some charge. Needless to say, something like this would not be commissioned and broadcast today – let alone on ITV1.
The Corridor People, like much ‘forgotten’ UK television drama, was studio-based drama, shot on crude-seeming videotape, with awkward cuts between scenes and the odd snatch of OB for variety. The sets are so elegantly (and inexpensively) bare that they make even the stylish minimalism of The Avengers seem cluttered, and Elizabeth Shepherd – who had nearly been cast as Emma Peel – sports a series of outrageously odd costumes (a diaphanous wicked queen dress studded with eyes!) like a parody pin-up. It inhabits the fantasised Cold War world found in The Avengers or the Bond films, but also evokes ironic efforts like Billion Dollar Brain, Alphaville and even Kiss Me Deadly in its genre-savvy posing.
Like The Prisoner, it’s set in a world where there are factions but no good-and-bad sides – but, unlike Patrick McGoohan’s show, The Corridor People doesn’t even have the comfort of offering an individualist hero to stand against the system. American-accented (but short) private eye Phil Scrotty (Gary Cockrell), whose office has a wall-covering still of Humphrey Bogart and offscreen dustbins which clatter whenever anyone approaches, might notionally be the kind of two-fisted maverick good guy Richard Bradford played in Man in a Suitcase, but he’s an amoral chancer.
The stupidly-named Scrotty collaborates with both self-styled villainess Syrie Van Epp (Shepherd), a blonde Persian-American mastermind out to carve an empire, and British bureaucrat Kronk (John Sharp), a desk-sitter in a civil service department that has Scotland Yard sleuths Inspector Blood (Alan Curtis) and Sergeant Hound (William Maxwell) at its beck and call and a ‘duty assassin’ on the roster. In the final episode, Phil Scrotty (‘feels grotty’?) takes a beating from minor thugs and winds up impotent in bed with a fractured skull, moaning deliriously while the plot winds down without him.
The episode titles (‘Victim as Birdwatcher’, ‘Victim as Whitebait’, ‘Victim as Red’, ‘Victim as Black’) emphasise that anyone who gets mixed up with either Syrie or Kronk is pretty much doomed. All four are scripted by series creator Edward Boyd (screenwriter of Peter Yates’s Robbery) and directed by David Boisseau (producer of Andy Pandy) and are charades on typical espionage adventure themes. ‘Birdwatcher’ is about a kidnapped boob (Tim Barret) who holds the vote-deciding share in a drugs company which has come up with a pill which drives folks out of their minds for a day. Though he’s set up as a sexless (‘you’re not a homosexual, but you have no interest in women), Syrie beds him and gains control of the company.
‘Whitebait’ features drunken mad scientist Robag (Aubrey Morris) who can genuinely bring the dead back to life, though his test subject Whitebait (Kevin Brennan) turns out to be inconvenient for his wife (Ingrid Hafner). ‘Red’ deals with Colonel Lemming (John Woodnutt), a bogus amnesiac working for the Russians in league with a communist East End gangland wife (Betty McDowell). And ‘Black’ riffs on Cinderella as the Prince of Morphania (Roger Hammond) hires Scrotty to track down Pearl (Nina Baden-Semper), a comely black girl he saw in a disco and whose shoe he has kept.
This tangle leads to Theobald Aboo (Calvin Lockhart), a black supremacist (in an all-white suit) who hopes to take over Morphania as a European stronghold for his worldwide movement. Innocents who get involved in this world tend to get squashed, but there are matey, nervous relationships among the various shadow folks. Syrie and Kronk, in theory opposites, only meet in the last episode, and seem as often to be on the same side as they are at loggerheads in murderously playful spy games.
A streak of pretentiousness suggests profound thought has gone into this – in ‘Birdwatcher’, Kronk reports to his superiors, a dark roomful of varied establishment types (bishop, general, cricketer, etc) who stand on pedestals and rant clichés at each other. It could as easily have come from an avant garde theatre piece as a Monty Python sketch, and it’s possible that this loose committee of the country’s clueless owners are the eponymous corridor people (the title is never referred to in dialogue).
There are also bizarre non sequiturs, like the armourer (Patrick Kavanagh) who issues Kronk’s middle-aged secretary-cum-assassin with blank ammunition and, after her death in the field, breaks down and explains that it’s all because his mother was a suffragette and he’s fighting a losing war against the rise of feminism, and couldn’t bear to let the late Miss Dunner (June Watson) claim ‘the last phallic symbol’ (the gun) for her own.
Plots are insanely intricate, but also elaborately pointless – all of ‘Whitebait’ turns out to have been orchestrated by a little old man (Oliver Johnston) on a park bench who is manipulating people to cover up his own accounting scam, while the political ramifications of ‘Black’ are expounded by a mess-of-plastic-tubes-and-lights computer with the voice and personality of a bitter old queen out of Round the Horne.
The most distinctive feature of the show is its dialogue, rich in word-play, music hall jokes, Pinteresque enigmatics, Ortonish camp, cynical aphorisms and left-field rants which competes with the overblown narration of Russ Meyer’s films for hilarious looniness. The problem is that it’s almost impossible to deliver in any conventional acting terms – and an eclectic cast of solid television faces don’t seem to have been let in on the joke (if joke there is).
The show takes a lot of getting used to – but, just when it all seems about to make sense, the series is over. It’d be interesting to learn if Boyd hoped for a recommission and had any more stories in mind. By the final episode, all pretence that this is ‘normal’ television has disappeared – there’s a classic Brechtian ‘alienation effect’ as Aboo finds a significant clue in Scrotty’s desk (a photograph) and thrusts it so directly at the camera that you have to be reminded that you’re in a studio with a television crew handy, and the busy plot devolves into a series of monologues as various characters talk at the camera, reminisce about odd little incidents but come to no conclusion, and virtual walk-ons (Pauline Collins as Syrie’s maid) suddenly take over scenes.