It’s not much of a gamble as gambles go, but purchasing anything on the strength of a good review and a feeling that ‘this looks right up my street’ sometimes pays off. I would occasionally apply this logic way back when there was such a thing as a music press and ‘Single of the Week’ would praise an unknown song by an unknown band; once or twice, I struck lucky, whereas there were far more occasions when I realised the enthusiastic reviewer had probably received a handsome backhander from the band’s manager to shower plaudits on the atrocious single in question. Anyway, when it comes to buying DVDs on Amazon, every once in a while I gamble and I did so last week. ‘The Tyrant King’ is about as obscure a TV series from the 60s as you can get – a children’s drama serial, the first-ever production by Thames Television before it had even superseded ABC and Rediffusion in the London region, filmed in colour but broadcast in black & white, shown once in the autumn of 1968 and never seen on TV again – i.e. it looked right up my street.
Indeed, having now watched this six-part series, I’m still not quite sure if I dreamt it up or not; it certainly has the feel of some imaginary kid’s show from the 60s I’d be watching in a dream and then wake up from, wondering if my mind had concocted it or if it had genuinely existed. To be fair, it does have an exceedingly dreamlike ambience, bearing more of a resemblance in style to a European Art-house movie of the era than something intended to air at teatime. Then there’s the inspired – and, considering the context, quite avant-garde – soundtrack; the likes of Pink Floyd, Cream, The Nice and The Moody Blues are so expertly woven into the surreal fabric of the series it’s as though the bands had scored the show. If my imagination had invented ‘The Tyrant King’, it’s precisely the kind of hazy interlude between Psychedelia and Prog Rock I would have selected; the chosen songs still possess the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ vibe of 1967, but also point to the darker decade just round the corner. With the three lead characters all on the cusp of adulthood, albeit not quite there yet, one might say the soundtrack mirrors their one-foot-in-both-camps status.
As was the case with all ‘child actors’ in TV dramas produced for an audience of under-16s up until ‘Grange Hill’, the trio whose strange adventure the series follows are frightfully middle-class, continuing the ‘Famous Five’ tradition that proved surprisingly durable until well into the 70s. As with Enid Blyton’s gang, this one is inadvertently caught up in a mystery involving sinister grownups, a mystery only they can solve; but this is Enid Blyton if she’d dropped acid en route to Toytown. Yes, the three are archetypes – the brainy, sensible boy; the ‘cool’ kid; and the pretty girl; but the latter two – brother and sister – exhibit a dazzling array of Carnaby Street threads. Bill could almost pass for Monkee Peter Tork whilst Charlotte’s hemlines would undoubtedly be deemed a tad too high for a 14/15-year-old girl these days. All three leads reside in comfortable Suburbia, though the striking house Bill and Charlotte call home looks like it had won some 60s ‘design a luxury pad’ competition, the kind of dwelling I could imagine George Best having as his address.
The two main villains of the piece remain elusive and mysterious figures until the big reveal in the final episode. The charismatic and dependable Welsh actor Philip Madoc – who always possessed a natural flair for simmering villainy – first crosses the gang’s path in a threatening way during a visit to St Paul’s Cathedral; they nickname him ‘Scarface’ because…well, because he’s got a scar on his forehead. Then there’s the gloriously camp Murray Melvin, still best-remembered for his groundbreaking performance as Geoffrey alongside Rita Tushingham in ‘A Taste of Honey’, who goes by the slightly unsettling name of ‘Uncle Gerry’ and dresses like a gay Doctor Who – hat, cloak, cane and all. The gang first stumble upon him whilst exploring an old house they assumed was empty, a house crammed with the sort of eccentric and creepy Victoriana ephemera that was going for a song in antiques shops on the King’s Road at the time. They overhear him on the telephone and the intriguing mention of ‘the Tyrant King’ sets them off on their quest across the capital to discover the secret of something they suspect is dangerous but nonetheless must pursue. Let’s face it, it’d make a pretty dull six episodes if they’d bottled it and decided not to bother.
As the series was shot entirely on 16mm film rather than being slowed down by long videotaped scenes on studio sets, the pace is far quicker than one traditionally associates with dramas from the period; it also enables the full, exhilarating whirl of the toing and froing around Swinging London to be enjoyed in the breathless spirit of the time. The sequence at Kew Gardens in particular is reminiscent of the Maryon Park scenes from ‘Blow Up’ in the way the picturesque location seems simultaneously serene and spooky, but director Mike Hodges shot it with a cinematic eye that pointed the way to his future career (three years later he directed ‘Get Carter’); one wonders if Hodges also had a hand in the ‘out there’ soundtrack that older TV execs probably wouldn’t have opted for in 1968. Even though the series was effectively sponsored by London Transport to encourage folk to travel around town by bus or train, each location visited (including the obvious ones) is shown in a fresh and often disturbing light that works well with the additional snatches of detached dialogue accompanying the disjointed travelogue, ones that seem to be beamed in from a radio picking up the discharge of Numbers Stations.
Inevitably with a series shot wholly on location (and such a visually fascinating location, to boot) there’s the nostalgia factor of a London looking as we grew up believing London looked from snow-globes, biscuit tins or postcards; but it’s equally marvellous to see how the cutting edge of contemporary pop culture (including drugs!) even infiltrated the cosy enclaves of children’s television in 1968, something for which there was precious little evidence until ‘The Tyrant King’ was excavated from obscurity by the ever-reliable DVD company specialising in vintage TV, Network. The series was written by Trevor Preston, one of the great television writers of the era and one who went onto create another weird and wonderful kid’s show, ‘Ace of Wands’, as well as eventually penning the memorable crime miniseries starring Tom Bell in 1978, ‘Out’. Coupled with an adventurous, up-and-coming director such as Mike Hodges, the presence of a writer of the calibre of Trevor Preston shows how much talent was invested in children’s television back then. Yes, it could still dredge up the music hall pantomime of something like ‘Crackerjack’, but when it came to drama, every effort was made to ensure it wasn’t just a watered-down, cheapo version of the adult variety.
With its inaugural project an exclusively film-only one, Thames learnt the lesson of ‘The Tyrant King’ and gradually put together its offshoot company Euston Films, responsible for ‘Special Branch’, ‘The Sweeney’, ‘Van der Valk’, ‘Minder’ and ‘Widows’ amongst many others. ‘The Tyrant King’ is certainly an enchantingly uncharacteristic genesis for a company that became renowned for gritty dramas labelled ‘kick, bollock and scramble’; but in 2020 it serves as yet one more diversionary sidestep into a world almost faintly recognisable, yet one so removed from where we are now that it may as well be taking place in Wonderland after all. And why not? Any series that can have a song called ‘The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack’ as its theme tune is worth a look.
© The Editor