Over at Teleport City, I'm keeping my hat on as resident retro fetishist with an article about the lesser known girl group Reparata and the Delrons. The group never had much chart success in the U.S., but that's not for the lack of classic tunes. Check out the article here.
Fernando Poe Jr. has hair that you could break a board on, each strand like a tiny, pomaded bicep. I could say that this is the reason for his god-like status in his home country -- but I have yet to discuss the sideburns, lush and verdant, forging ever onward toward the hard, masculine mouth. Am I envious, you may ask? Well, let me put it this way; time and circumstance have left me with hair of a downy softness, my head to the touch like that of a duckling. This may qualify me for inclusion in some kind of human petting zoo, but in a follicle against follicle cage match, Fernando's do would literally mop the floor with mine.
In my review of Alupihang Dagat, I touched upon FPJ’s iconic status in the Philippines. And in the years since that review was written, that status has been given further testament with the erection (word?) of a statue in his honor in Manila last year. Like that statue, Ang Panday, based on a comic book by Carlo J. Caparas, is an integral part of Poe’s legacy, a hugely successful film that spawned a trio of official sequels along with various knock-offs, remakes and, of course, spoofs -- because, in the Philippines, you’re no one until Dolphy or Joey Deleon has made a dumb pun out of your name. In the process, Poe -- who produced, directed, and starred in the film -- created a character that etched his role as a dedicated populist and hero of the people into the pop cultural DNA of his homeland.
The title Ang Panday translates into English as “The Blacksmith”, and here Poe indeed plays a blacksmith, named Flavio, who serves a small seaside village. As in Alupihang Dagat, Poe shows a gift for depicting the particulars of day to day village life in affectionate detail, and the result gives these sections of the film -- in which we watch the villagers fish, tend to crops, etc. -- an amiable and inviting rhythm. Of course, the mood in this particular village is far from bucolic, as they are under the jackboots of an army of red shirted bandits who treat them as slave labor, responding to any perceived infraction with murderous zeal. Before you can even ask just how bad these bandits are, Ang Panday rushes to the punch line by giving us an opening scene in which a terrified and hysterical child is strung up and has an “X” scorched into his chest with a red hot brand. This is how the bandits mark the villagers as their property, and it is the job of Flavio, as the town blacksmith, to do the branding, even though he does so under extreme duress. When, later in the film, he refuses to brand the back of a small girl, the bandits’ leader, Tata Temio (Lito Anzures), gives him a merciless beating.
In addition to some impressive muscles and a wardrobe full of sleeveless shirts in which to display them, Flavio also has a makeshift family of sorts. This includes his girlfriend Monica, played by Dolphy discovery Liz Alindogan, a daft old coot named Pilo (Paquito Diaz) and Lando, a kid, played by popular child star Bentot Jr., who we also saw as the sidekick/brother to Vilma Santos’ Darna in Darna vs. the Planet Women. It is Pilo who sets Ang Panday’s origin story ball rolling when, after an earthquake, he stumbles across an ancient tome that has been unearthed. Now, because I watched Ang Panday without subtitles, I can’t tell you what was in that tome, but I’m going to guess… hmmm… prophecy? I say this because when, a couple scenes later, a meteor crashes to earth in Flavio’s backyard, he knows exactly what to do with the molten metal inside.
And what he does with that metal is forge it into a magic dagger, which we later learn can transform into a magic sword when plunged into the earth. Possession of this weapon emboldens Flavio to take on Tata Temio, to whom he deals out harsh justice – though I cannot stress enough that he does this, not with the magical dagger, but with those very same impressive muscles that were well in evidence when Tata Temio somehow was able to beat the living crap out of him. Anyway, with Tata Temio out of the way, it is now time for Flavio and his crew to face their true nemesis, a shape shifting sorcerer named Lizardo (Max Alvarado) who lives on an island just offshore from their village. And if you think that at this point Ang Panday has taken a bit of a left turn, you are not alone.
The magic dagger proves handy in *apparently* dispatching Lizardo, at which point Ang Panday launches into a bunch of random episodes in which it is revealed that what lies beyond the borders of Flavio’s humble village is a supernatural hell world. First we have Flavio and his friends investigating a spooky cave filled with zombies, and then little Lando is chased through the fields in the pitch of night by a horrifying flying vampire lady. Subtitles would have helped me to determine whether these bits were in any way tied to the goings on in the movie’s first hour, but my instinct, having seen other Filipino films from this period that were similarly structured (Darna at Ding), is that they were not. What I do know is that Fernando Poe Jr., being a populist, was well aware that what the people wanted -- along with freedom from tyranny, the right to pursue their dreams, and affordable food and shelter -- is not to be bored by overly preachy movies masquerading as action films. And so, with these sequences, he pulls out all the stops, in the process flooding the aisles of the Philippines’ movie theaters with the urine of terrified school children (seriously, that vampire lady is hella sceery).
Eventually, things get back on track when we learn that Lizardo was not killed in the initial skirmish with Flavio (Max Alvarado would, in fact, return as Lizardo in all three Ang Panday sequels) and is now in command of what appears to be an army of Mongol warriors – no doubt played by the “Thunder Stuntmen” touted in the credits. It is here that Ang Panday earns its cred as a true Filipino “Goon” film, as, during a desert showdown, FPJ sends dozens of anonymous stunt actors flying every which way with each thrust and parry. When it’s all over, Fernando Poe Jr. and his hair are once again free to grow and thrive, whether buzzed or pompadoured, with only their consciences and vanity to guide them.
Seriously, though. While I, a weak man, cannot risk the temptation to mock Fernando Poe Jr., a man strong, righteous and definitively masculine, as some kind of caricature, I have to admit that he was one hell of a good action director. It’s rare that I can make it through an almost two hour long movie in a language I don’t understand while being consistently entertained, but that was the case here – and I think I owe FPJ thanks for that. It’s easy to see why so many Filipinos believe that, when Poe took his populist vision to the polls in 2004, running for president against incumbent Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, he was robbed of the title by voter fraud. Which is to say that, yes, I would have voted for him to hold the highest office in the land simply because he made a movie that was not boring despite my not understanding a single spoken word of it and which included zombies and flying vampires.
The “space patrol” concept -- pretty much a redressing of the old “cops on the beat” format in sci-fi drag – seemed to be the strain of science fiction deemed most palatable during TV’s formative and adolescent years. Even Star Trek, for all its innovations, was just an expanded version of it. For all the mystery the universe might hold, it seemed to be the case that we Earthlings knew, whatever was out there, it needed policing.
My unerring, pinkoid, left coast leanings urge me to point to American imperialism as the cause for this. But the fact is that, just as every country seemed to at one point want their own version of James Bond, so too did they want their own space patrol. Thus Germany had the wonderful RaumpatrouilleOrion and England Roberta Leigh’s puppet adventure Space Patrol – which itself was arguably modeled upon Gerry Anderson’s Fireball XL5, another variation on the “space cop” theme. In a similar vein, South Africa had Interster. And, lest we leave out the East, Japan had Captain Ultra, which adhered to classic space patrol formula by including a kid, a girl, a robot and a token alien among the titular hero’s crew.
Even Australia, a country not known for its interstellar aspirations, made a pretty enthusiastic showing in the juvenile sci-fi sweepstakes during the sixties and early seventies, the Australian Broadcasting Company producing a trio of series, each featuring an intrepid crew of astronauts charged with guarding their chunk of the universe from the unwelcome probings of various planetary riffraff. Now, before you go picturing previously undiscovered planets now littered with Foster’s cans, let me tell you that I can do nothing to allay you of that incredibly racist preconception, because I have yet to see any of these series. I do, however, thanks to sites like this and this, know something about them, which I will share with you… now. (I mean, you have time, right?)
Fortunately for you, I am not one to, out of my own insecurities, try to force something that is obviously an entertainment for children into an adult context. Yes, of course, these shows, with their simple, cops and robbers plots and toy-like effects, are tailored for the shorties first and foremost. I have lived long enough with the realization that I have extraordinarily immature taste to be comfortable with that fact. It can’t be ignored, however, that, at the time, there was very little in the form of an adult alternative to these shows, and that their makers, themselves adults with adult sensibilities, were in a unique position of having to imagine and depict a world 500 years hence. Nothing says more about a culture in its day than the way it imagines the future, and when it comes to the world of 1960s television, kiddie sci-fi was the only place you were going to see that in action.
Of the three Aussie shows I’m going to outline, only one made it to full series, the other two being serials limited to several episodes. The first of these was The Interpretaris, which debuted on Australian television in late 1966. This show has the intriguing concept of a ship’s crew being charged with repatriating a variety of aliens to their home planets after their rescue from the show’s nemesis, a mad scientist called Parta Beno (Ben Gabriel). Of course, Parta Beno is never too far away to interfere with the mission of the titular spacecraft and, at the series end, must be brought to justice by the brave members of its crew. As in all three shows, that international crew are agents of a world united in peace and ruled over by one government -- an idea that, in the idealistic 60s, could be presented completely free of sinister connotations. Fox News enthusiasts might do well to note that, if we to their left are indeed foot soldiers of the New World Order, it is less likely the coastal intelligentsia that is giving us our marching orders than it is the kiddie sci fi we grew up upon.
In time honored fashion -- given that time is either the 1950s or 60s -- the Interpretaris was manned by a square jawed captain (Stanley Walsh as Commander Alan De Breck), a strapping young pilot (Kit Taylor as David Charmichael) and a pretty lady whom I imagine was relegated to mostly science-y stuff (Lorraine Bayly as Vera Balovna), who have at their disposal a robot -- though, in this case, called a “computeroid” -- named Henry, who looks something like a hot rodded refrigerator. There is also a “female” robot named Alys who is apparently a spy for the villain, and can only be reprogrammed for virtue after a lesson in love from Henry. As for Parta Beno, he has the robed and beardy look of an evil Greek philosopher. From the available photographs, the art direction of the series was fast and cheap, with sets that could have been built in a basement rec room, though the model of the Interpretaris itself -- sporting nacelles strikingly similar to those seen on the hero vehicle of the yet to be aired Star Trek -- shows commendable imagination.
The Interpretaris was well received enough to warrant its producers, Artransa Park, coming up with a sequel series, 1968’s Vega 4, which was again named after the show’s primary spacecraft. Again the crew is made up of a sturdy skipper (John Faasen as Captain Phillip Wallace), his dashing young lieutenant (Evan Dunstan as Lt. James Adam) and a subordinate pretty female (Juliana Allan as Ensign Eve Poitier). Again the threat is provided by a recurring villain in the form of the mad scientist Zodian, as played by the wild haired Eddie Hepple. Even returning is Henry the computeroid, though this time touted as a “cousin” of the original, because god forbid someone should think the prop department couldn’t come up with another robot costume identical in every way to the first one.
Vega 4 was another threadbare production, leant a little added gloss by being shot, unlike The Interpretaris, in color. Still, in the available photographs, all the welcome cheesy accoutrements of slapdash space opera are in evidence. Seven episodes were made in all and, when it was over, Artransa Park was again moved to mount a sequel, though this time a full series that would run 26 episodes.
Unlike the previous two series, there are a couple pieces of video evidence of Phoenix Five kicking around YouTube, including the opening credits. From those I learned that Phoenix Five, produced in 1968 and 1969 and aired in 1970, boasted some seriously funky music, wah wah guitar and all. The look of the series is pretty straitlaced, however, so no getting your hopes up for something on a UFO level of grooviness. Again, the “two guys, a gal, and a robot” formula applies, this time with Mike Dorsey as Captain Mike Roke, Damien Parker as Ensign Adam Hargreaves, and Patsy Trench as the pixie cut sporting Cadet Tina Kulbrick. Again the villain is the mad scientist Zodian, though this time played by Redmond Philips. With Zodian’s ticket punched at the series midpoint, a second villain would take the spotlight; another mad known as Platonus, played by Owen Weingott.
All visual evidence points to Phoenix Five being fun and dumb as hell, with pink alien ladies in huge bouffants, ridiculous paper mache aliens, anonymous rock quarries doubling as alien landscapes, and hokey model effects. It also, like the other two series discussed here, appears to have never been released on home video. If you know this not to be the case, let me know, because I am dying to see this shit. The vision of a world whose nations are united in their love of cheesy TV space operas -- all realized according to their own national sensibilities and in their own languages -- is a type of global harmony that makes me feel especially toasty inside.
The 1967 film version of Casino Royale is unloved by many, yet, if you go by number of viewings alone, it stands as one of my all time favorites (seriously, it's well into the double digits). One of the reasons the movie puts me in such a happy place is Burt Bacharach's original score, which I think everyone -- haters included -- can agree is amazing. In a new post on Teleport City, I turn my attentions to that score and, in particular, Quartet Records' definitive, double CD release of it from last year. Rest assured that it is the most toe tapping, French horn inflected piece of writing that I've done all year. Check it out here.
Have you been wanting to tell the Infernal Brains how much you like them, but have yet to find a way that's impersonal or noncommittal enough? Well, now your whims have been answered, because the blog that made overnight stars out of two unassuming lads from San Francisco, California now has its own Facebook page! Not only can you go there right now and tell us exactly how much we suck, but we've also posted the slideshow versions of all sixteen episodes so you can either catch up on what you've missed or rewatch old favorites until your head literally caves in. DO IT NOW!
The Shaw Brothers’ spy movies are almost a genre unto themselves, so distinctive is that studio’s house style. Though, paradoxically, part of that style involves how reliably these films serve up the internationally agreed upon ingredients of the 1960s spy thriller. Take Operation Lipstick. Does it feature a kidnapped scientist? A henchman with a metal hook for a hand? A coveted microfilm containing plans for some kind of doomsday weapon? Yes, yes, and yes. But Operation Lipstick also has a secret weapon of its own in the form of Cheng Pei Pei, who -- despite the presence of the Shaws’ answer to Sean Connery, Paul Chang Chung -- is our hero for the evening.
Japanese director Umetsugu Inouye brings his usual cotton candy light touch to Operation Lipstick, exploiting Cheng Pei Pei’s background as a dancer more than he does the steely swordswoman persona she honed over the course of myriad wuxia films. Utilizing a backstage setting similar to that of his duo of Hong Kong musicals, Hong Kong Nocturne and Hong Kong Rhapsody -- the former of which also starred Cheng -- he gives the star a singing and dancing introduction, emerging from a giant cake to regale a nightclub audience with the sung details of her previous life of crime. In fact, you could say that, in terms of tone and style, Operation Lipstick inhabits a middle ground between Inouye’s musicals and campy espionage adventures like The Brain Stealers, perhaps sitting snugly aside romantic capers like his later The Venus Tear Diamond.
In the film, Cheng portrays Lee Bing, a former thief who now makes her living as a nightclub entertainer. When Chen Er (Lee Kwan), one of her former cohorts, narrowly escapes the police after stealing a wallet, the now straight arrow Bing insists that he return the wallet to its owner. This proves difficult, as, upon arriving at the man’s apartment, they not only find him murdered but the place overrun by armed goons. In the course of fleeing, Bing stumbles into Zhang Yee (Paul Chang Chung), a cavalier professional thief who, like the goons, is after the very wallet that Bing has in her possession.
Soon Lee Bing finds herself before the chief of the International Counter-Intelligence Organization (the subtitles say “anti-intelligence”, but I think that’s what they meant), who asks her help in apprehending an espionage ring called the Chu Loong Syndicate and, in the process, unmasking their shadowy leader Hung Ying. It turns out the wallet belonged to the assistant to a murdered scientist, who has hidden a microfilm containing the very valuable plans to that scientist’s new atomic weapon. In the wallet is a key that, it is hoped, can unlock whatever kind of container the microfilm is hidden in. The chief hopes that, by advertising her possession of the key, Lee Bing can draw the Chu Loong gang out into the open.
Fortunately, Lee Bing comes from a whole family of thieves -- overseen by her cheerily dishonest father Lee Peng (played by Pigsy himself, Pang Pang) -- who are happy to assist in her mission. Also happy to participate, but more importantly share in the spoils, is Zhang Yee. For the Chu Loong’s part, they immediately bring out the big guns in the form of dueling femme fatales, dispatching Tina Chin Fei’s Juan-Juan and Lau Leung-Wa’s Yu Mei Dei to flush out the key. Chin Fei, she of the revered Temptress of a Thousand Faces, poses as the widow of the wallet’s owner and, so she thinks, seduces Lee Peng into an alliance.
It is by following Juan-Juan that Lee Ping and her crew are lead to the microfilm’s assumed hiding place, a locker in a Turkish bath that instead turns out to contain a small lion statue. The bathhouse makes for the setting of an antic chase and fight between Chen Pei Pei, Chin Fei, and Lau Leung-Wa once Lee Ping snatches the statue, a chase and fight for which she, for some reason, feels compelled to strip down to just a bath towel... not that I’m complaining, mind you. Later, when markings on the statue indicate the existence of a second statue, Lee Ping’s dad, a forger of antiques, makes a replica of it, which Lee Ping takes to the Choo Loongs with an offer to sell.
And it is when Lee Ping arrives at the Syndicate’s front operation, an establishment called The Silver Dice Nightclub, that the slower among us get a clear idea of just how seriously Umetsugu Inouye and all those involved in Operation Lipstick really take the whole endeavor. For, you see, a trap has been set for Lee Ping. And as soon as she and her friends take their seats, a banjo playing trio takes the Silver Dice stage, boisterously introduced as being comprised of members of a “famous assassination organization”. We’ve already seen these guys backstage, placing guns inside their specially equipped banjos, and, once they hit the stage, they launch into a song that’s all about assassinations and killing people (sample lyric: “We are best at murder”), all the while pointing their banjos threateningly at Lee Bing’s table. What’s going on is pretty obvious, yet, when it finally dawns on Lee Ping, she looks like this:
Is Operation Lipstick an enjoyable film? Yes. Umetsugu Inouye seems to have been as incapable of making a movie that wasn’t fun and entertaining as Uwe Boll is of not sucking. Are his films lightweight? I prefer to say that they have an ease to them, a calm confidence born of a director riding the wave of his own cozily familiar passions, which in Inouye’ case is a passion for all the artifice, color, and froth that only the movies can give us. With a familiar collaborator in the person of Cheng Pei Pei, Inouye seems to be especially at ease with Operation Lipstick, and the results are breezy, beguiling, and boss.
Dry your tears, internet! The Infernal Brains Podcast has returned! Why Tars Tarkas and myself, after our long hiatus, chose to stray from the familiar and tackle the subject of movies with all animal casts I cannot say. But I can say that a single viewing of The Secret of Magic Island will change your life forever. Download the episode here, or watch it below with a terminally adorable slideshow. Or, even better, check out our brand spanking new YouTube channel and subscribe to the madness!
Fighting Femmes, Fiends and Fanatics, winner of the completely made up Bannister Award for competence in webcasting, is back! In this episode, series producer Steve Mayhem takes a fascinating look at the violent Mexican exploitation genre known as "Narco" cinema, and in particular the films in the long running Iron Prosecutor series. There will be blood.
This episode also sees the official debut of the new Fighting Femmes, Fiends, and Fanatics theme tune, which was composed and performed by yours truly with my longtime collaborator Dan Wool. If you'd like to hear the full version, or even download the sucker, look no further than immediately below this paragraph.
Bless Kenneth Brorsson's mohawked head for inviting me back to co-host the latest episode of his Taiwan Noir podcast. In this installment, we salute Taiwanese screen queen Elsa Yeung with a discussion of Thrilling Sword -- which those of you who are creepily attentive will know is a favorite of mine -- and Country of Beauties, which asks the question "How many beautiful amazons does it take to cut a dude's wiener off?" (The answer may surprise you!) Get the deets and stream the episode here.
Most Cult TV fans probably only know Roberta Leigh as a footnote to the career of Gerry Anderson. It was Leigh, an author of children’s books, who came to Anderson’s fledgling production company with her character Twizzle, a meeting that resulted in Anderson producing his first puppet series, The Adventures of Twizzle, in 1957. Thus launches the narrative of Anderson as the creator of Supermarionation and powerhouse of 1960’s British sci-fi television. But if one doesn’t take that detour, and instead follows Leigh along her own path, there is a lot to be found that is surprising, noteworthy and pretty delightful.
First off, one would find that Roberta Leigh was just one of several pseudonyms adopted by a woman born Janey Scott, who later, by marriage, became Janey Scott Lewin. This multiplicity of identities is just one telltale indication of Leigh’s restless, albeit resolutely commercial, creative spirit, the other being her work. Because Leigh was not only a children’s book author, but also a prolific author of romance novels, all written under a variety of names (Rachel Lindsay, Rozella Lake, even Janey Scott) and published by such industry mainstays as Harlequin. Alongside this and her work in television, she also found time to become an accomplished painter.
Leigh and Gerry Anderson collaborated on one more series, Torchy, the Battery Boy, before parting ways. Also parting ways around the same time were Anderson and his production partner, cinematographer Arthur Provis. Provis teamed up with Leigh and, under the banner Wonderama Productions, the two began making puppet series of their own. The first of these, Sarah & Hoppity, was moppet-friendly material in the same vein as Twizzle and Torchy and, like those shows, was based on a series of books written by Leigh. At the same time, with shows like Supercar and Fireball XL5, Gerry Anderson had made the leap to juvenile sci-fi with his puppet productions. Leigh soon followed suit with Space Patrol, a series that lasted 39 episodes, from 1963 to 1964, and was broadcast in multiple countries.
Given their proximity, it’s difficult to argue that Space Patrol was not influenced by Fireball XL5, though the dependence of both on so many classic 1960s space opera tropes makes tracing specific instances of that influence almost impossible. Still, it’s no stretch to say that Leigh’s series was by far the more innovative of the two. For starters, there is the titular Space Patrol’s flagship craft; bored with the unvaryingly vertical and (my word) phallic rocket ships of traditional sci-fi (Fireball XL5’s titular craft being a perfect example), Leigh created the Galasphere, a gyroscope-like vehicle that flits through space with hummingbird like movements. The skipper of the Galasphere represents a further departure; in contrast to Fireball’s square jawed Steve Zodiac, Captain Larry Dart sports a van dyke and shoulder length hair that makes him appear at once bohemian and like a puppet throwback to Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood.
Then there is Space Patrol’s electronic soundtrack, which was composed by Leigh herself using an assortment of machines purchased at the local electronics shop. While every bit as pioneering as the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s also electronically produced theme to Doctor Who, Leigh’s work eschews melody entirely in favor of something more purely industrial, and is at times even reminiscent of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. The effect is indescribably eerie, and all the more so when paired with the naïve aspects of the series, which, after all, is essentially a children’s puppet show about spacemen.
It should also be noted that Space Patrol is refreshingly light on the wanton ray gun blasting and looming cold war xenophobia of other juvenile space operas of the period, and instead whiffs of Kennedy era optimism toward cooperation across borders. In the intro, it is stressed that the Space Patrol are “guardians of peace” and it is not unusual to see its interplanetary members (the Patrol is made up of Martians, Venusians and Earthlings) reach out to the aliens they encounter in a spirit of curiosity and friendship. In one episode, when the patrol thwarts the latest invasion plot by their recurring nemesis, the Neptunians, they follow it up with an invitation for an exchange of knowledge and entry into the planetary alliance, which the Neptunians happily accept. The pilot episode features the Galasphere crew -- Dart, androgynous Venusian Slim, and Martian/dispenser of all food jokes Husky – protecting the wildlife of Jupiter from poachers.
Unfortunately, another one of the things that sets Space Patrol apart is the pitiful amount of capital that ITV allotted for its funding. The result is a production considerably less slick than those of Gerry Anderson, a sort of not-so-Supermarionation. The puppets are cruder looking, many of them sporting painted on eyes rather than the rolling and blinking models seen on Steve Zodiac and crew. This contributes both to the puppets naïve charm and also to that creepy haunted doll quality that, when combined with Leigh’s alien score and the murky black and white in which most of the surviving episodes are found, makes watching Space Patrol a dreamily surreal experience. Likewise, Space Patrol’s miniature sets are a cacophony of visible seams, brush strokes and the occasional oversized finger print, yet the art department still managed to build a diminutively massive futuristic city model that recalls a tabletop version of Metropolis.
Adding to the rickety nature of things is the fact that Leigh, unlike Anderson, was not afraid to show her puppets walking. I feel she should be commended for this, although the spastic capering that resulted goes some way toward proving Anderson’s point. It’s such that, a few episodes in, you can’t help but root for these odd, shaky limbed little people as they negotiate the baroque perils of walking up stairs, getting up from a chair, or entering a doorway from one room into the other.
In all seriousness, though, as a Supermarionation fan who long viewed Space Patrol as an off-brand, and inferior, version of Fireball XL5, I must confess to developing a real fondness for it. While one would expect from a knockoff a certain generic quality, Space Patrol has all over it the fingerprints of a quirky creative sensibility; one which I can only imagine belongs to Roberta Leigh. It also, like the best B movies, has all the enthusiasm and energy that comes when a group of people, upon surveying their woefully inadequate resources, decides to just go for it and give it their scrappy best.
Leigh’s planned follow up to Space Patrol, 1964’s Paul Starr, lacks much of the former’s high mindedness. Space agent Paul Starr’s sidekick, Lightning, is an egregious Asian stereotype and, at the end of the pilot episode, the duo gleefully nukes the bad guy’s compound, not sparing us a shot of the doomed villain puppet at its control panel, toppling pathetically under a hail of smoke and debris. That unsold pilot episode is as far as the series went, but it’s a doozy. Filmed in flush full color -- presumably to compete with its contemporary, Stingray, which was Gerry Anderson’s first color production -- the series gives us much of the spirited cheap-jackery of its predecessor, but this time in dazzling primary hues. Gone are many of Leigh’s innovative touches (Starr’s amphibious space ship allows her to further cop some of Stingray’s mojo), but compensating is an almost manic energy level. Of special note are the voice of Paul Starr, which is provided by a pre-UFO Ed Bishop, and the jaunty theme song, which was again composed by Leigh herself.
Following the failure of Paul Starr, Leigh and Provis’s puppet series returned to toddler territory with 1966’s odd Wonder Boy and Tiger, a thirteen part series of fifteen minute episodes co-produced by the Esso oil company, and the same year’s Send For Dithers. Following the adventures of a boy and his clairvoyant cat who travel around on a flying carpet helping people, Wonder Boy and Tiger employed the same core team -- cinematographer Provis, director Frank Goulding, and Leigh as producer -- who worked on all of Leigh’s puppet productions, and to whom she referred as her filmmaking “family”. The characters of Wonder Boy and Tiger also appeared in a comic strip in Wonder comics, which was edited by Leigh and distributed exclusively in Esso stations. Send For Dithers, which concerned a bumbling handyman whose best friend is a penguin, was similarly bathed in whimsy.
In 1967, Roberta Leigh -- who, by all available accounts, had an amicable split with Gerry Anderson -- finally got the jump on him by being the first to move into production on a live action science fiction series. Unfortunately, few people know this, because the result, a half hour pilot for The Solarnauts, remains unsold to this day. Of all of Leigh’s unsold pilots that are today available for our enjoyment, The Solarnauts is the gem. It’s pure 1960s pulp space opera, a time capsule that takes us back to those rarified days before audience expectations were raised by Kubrick, in terms of thinkyness, and Lucas, in terms of spectacle. Ray guns blast away, bald headed alien fiends cackle menacingly, and Martine Beswick shows up as a sexy space lady in a form fitting silver bodysuit. It’s like an issue of Planet comics come to life, with a hint of Margheriti’s Gamma One quadrilogy thrown in for an added dash of Euro-style. Added enjoyment can be found in spotting the household elements hidden within the thrifty set design; overturned ice cube trays make for viable control panel components, as does acoustical foam serve as the upholstery of the future. Dammit, why wasn’t this series made?!
With the recent anniversary of Doctor Who, attention has deservedly been focused on original Who producer Verity Lambert, and on her pioneering role as, not just a female producer in a male dominated medium, but a female producer of science fiction, a suspect genre, in a male dominated medium. I don’t think it’s disrespectful to Lambert to point out that Roberta Leigh, albeit on a smaller scale, was inhabiting the same role at virtually the same time. Leigh’s story, of course, played out to a much smaller array of eyes, and thus today is less likely to be celebrated. That, however, doesn’t mean that those of us who do know of her can’t have a small scale, YouTube abetted celebration of our own.