The long-lost British spy TV series proves not to be a buried treasure.
Some TV shows from the past prove to be revelations when seen again: anyone watching the likes of Gideon’s Way, The Human Jungle and Public Eye on Talking Pictures TV could attest to that. But not everything holds up, and we’re not just talking in terms of production quality or (cough) ‘outdated attitides’. Some shows are just bad, and one of them is long-forgotten spy series Spyder’s Web, which ran during 1972.
Old school spy Clive Hawksworth (Anthony Ainsley) finds himself seconded to the ultra-secret Spyder agency, which operates outside the usual espionage world and is run by Lottie Dean (Patricia Cutts), who uses a documentary film unit as a cover. Between them, they investigate various unusual crimes that are too sensitive to be handled by the usual authority – and also engage is some surprising assassinations too.
The series is clearly influenced by The Avengers, but the early 1970s were a very different time from the 1960s, and the light-hearted humour and bizarre situations that made that series so great are here clumsily handled and somewhat out of time, clashing with the attempt to be gritty. The result is a clumsy and ineffectual show that doesn’t seem to quite know what it wants to be. With pretty poor production values (even for the time) and dull stories that seem to stumble to a climax, these shows feel a lot longer than they are – ploughing through this whole series has been quite hard work.
Things are not helped by the fact that Hawksworth and Dean come across as Steed and his assorted co-stars after they’ve had a charisma bypass. This is a combination of bad characters and bad acting – Hawkworth is a thoroughly unappealing ex-military snob who positively relishes murder, and who can’t wait to get stuck into lefties, commies, liberals and other threats to society (in episode two, he – and, you suspect, the programme makers – expresses his admiration for a group of establishment figures who have been kidnapping and torturing people who have the audacity to make sex films, criticise the Royal Family and vote Labour), while Dean is an entirely unconvincing character, a fact not helped by Cutts’ acting, which is in the great tradition of British theatricality – projecting to the back of the theatre eve when there is no theatre. Her entire performance is delivered with a one-note shout, no matter what emotion she’s supposed to be feeling.
Of course, having unpleasant leads is not the end of the world if they are supposed to be anti-heroes and the series offers some development of their storylines – but presumably because this wasn’t planned as a single season show, no such development occurs, and you rather suspect that the producers didn’t intend these two to be so ghastly.
The main cast is rounded out by Hammer stalwart Veronica Carlson as intellectual Northern Bird secretary Wallis Ackroyd (because of course all Northerners have names like that), who is quite the best thing here despite her on-again, off-again Scunthorpe accent, and Roger Lloyd Pack who seems to be rehearsing for his role in Confessions of a Sex Maniac in an irregular role as a randy cameraman. Guest slots include familiar faces like Andre Morrell, Rudolph Walker, John Barron, Mike Pratt, Windsor Davies (struggling to sound cockney).
It’s a surprise to see Last of the Summer Wine hack Roy Clarke writing several episodes (Summer Wine alumni Peter Sallis and Joe Gladwin turn up in a couple of episodes), though to be honest, he’s no better at writing thrillers than he is sitcoms, and Roy Ward Baker directs one of the more reactionary episodes.
Although each episode opens with the announcement that it is an ATV Production In Colour, all but two of the episodes in the DVD set are defiantly black and white, with one of the colour shows having monochrome inserts to replace missing footage – a sobering reminder than even as late as the 1970’s, shows were still being dumped by the production companies after broadcast. And while that’s never something to be proud of, it has to be said that there is no reason other than historical curiosity to dig up this series. Some shows are forgotten and lost for good reasons….