Sure, Flash Gordon (1980) and Morons from Outer Space (1985) may only ever been seen as cult favourites but when you mention Mike Hodges, there’s usually one film you think of, and it stars Michael Caine……..
Get Carter‘s uncompromising style and informal camera work betrays Hodges’ background in TV documentary. But when it comes to 70s TV drama you suspect anything that required a TV studio wouldn’t exactly be playing to Hodges’ strengths. Shoot it all on film though and watch the (very violent) magic happen. Which brings us on to the fourth episode of a largely forgotten LWT drama.
The Frighteners (1972-73) suffered both from not being easy to classify as a series and also being carelessly scheduled by LWT. As 13-part anthology it doesn’t have same obvious running theme of something like Shadows of Fear (1970-73) or Scorpion Tales (1978) but would seem more genre based than Play for Today (1970-84) or Armchair Theatre (1956-74), yet it falls awkwardly between horror and crime classification. ‘Psychological Drama’ perhaps? It’s still seems to sell it short.
It’s shot entirely on 16mm and episodes run to only 25 minutes, giving each episode the feel of a short film rather than a TV programme. In this context the title sequence is misjudged, coming across a too quirky and self-aware. This series deserved something starker. It was produced by Paul Knight and scripted edited by John Burke. (see Foreign Countries #1 Tales of Unease (1970))
The Frighteners never had a settled broadcast slot, something that can kill off established programmes let alone something new and unknown, but generally went out late on a Sunday in London region and was largely ignored by the other ITV franchises. The Frighteners was effectively strangled at birth. Which is a shame because it’s a series that’s crammed with talent. Apart from Hodges there’s scripts from Wilfred Gretorex (Secret Army), and Andrea Newman (Bouquet of Barbed Wire).
As time is short this is a programme that prioritises situations over character, each story showing everyday people having to react to extreme situations. This being the early 1970s there are no shortage of negative themes to reflect, and here we see techonology, surveillance and, well, manipulation . Like nearly all anthology series The Frighteners is a mixed bag but Mike Hodges’ episode, The Manipulators is as gripping a piece of TV drama as you’re ever likely to see.
Two men, Irving Sokolosky (Stanley Lebor) and Adrian Wills (Bryan Marshall) are on surveillance duty on a flat on the Portobello Road, meanwhile we see a man, David (David Sands) at a lecture on psychology (looking at classical conditioning a la Pavlov’s dog) and a woman, Pat (Kara Wilson) at typing school.
Conversations between Sokolosky and Wills tell us that the two students are a couple and the subjects of the surveillance, through photographs, letters and taped recordings we learn of their troublesome marriage but nothing of why they are under surveillance. Nor do we learn who our two spies are spying for.
Everything about these establishing shots is designed to be unsettling, the typing school is shot to appear like psychological torture. There are extreme close-ups, machinery, industrial noise. It’s cold, grim, dehumanising. Even if there is one of the most gorgeous pull-focus shots I’ve ever seen.
Not a line of dialogue is wasted, from the lecturer demonstrating how easy it is to condition someone to behave contrary to their instincts, to the unseen mechanical typing instructions which the students silently obey. The message is relentless, the students are being manipulated by the observers. A letter posted to arrive at a certain point, a phone call that contains a certain word.
40 years later Derren Brown will be doing this sort of thing for fun but here, in this grainy 16mm word infused with cigarette smoke and grim urban setting, Hodges seems to be showing Britain as no different to the worst propaganda of the Soviet Union. Are they creating sleeper agents?
When the ending comes it’s quick and shocking yet before you’ve started to digest it it’s followed up by something that leaves you reeling, and before you workout how to feel about all of this, the credits roll.
For once I’m not going to talk about what happens at the climax. It’s only just been released on DVD by Network thanks to Royal Holloway’s History of Forgotten Television Drama project and it deserves to be seen without spoilers.
The Manipulators shows Mike Hodges’ talent for atmosphere and unease in very real environments and should be a lot better known than it is.
On a separate note I am the Executive Producer of Perplexed Music, an original short screenplay by Mark McGann about the cycle of devoted love, loss and rebirth starring Paul McGann and Emma Campbell-Jones.
We are currently fundraising on Kickstarter for the Post Production costs, the editing, sound-mixing, adding original score and colour grading. All to get it up to cinematic standard ahead of its UK Premier on 10 December 2017 at BFI Southbank.
If you would like to be involved and contribute, please click here.