The Frighteners, the first title in our new ‘Forgotten TV Dramas’ DVD range (in association with Network Distributing) went on sale today. Little seen (even at the time!), not much was ever written about the series, but while researching the Viewing Notes I did come across this perceptive review of Mike Hodges’ episode The Manipulators published in Television Today, which does a good job in conveying how distinctive and important this neglected short film is. It does reveal something of the ending, so is better read after seeing the episode:
The Manipulators by John Phillips
At first sight the situation in this the third story in LWT’s new series was not desperately unfamiliar to us dedicated observers of the television scene. It has now become almost an honourable cliché to set up a handful of mysterious characters, surround them with the kind of sophisticated hardware without which no self-respecting secret agent or, come to that, humble copper-on-the-beat can be seen without — and keep us guessing as to what they are up to. Are they goodies or baddies? Single or double agents and if so whose side are they on and so on.
Well familiar it might be but one has to hand it to director Mike Hodges that one has never seen it done better than this. No doubt about it, this was a quality production. Every single shot was well thought out, skillfully executed and meaningful to the whole. We never did find out whether the sinister pair staked out on a watching brief above a butcher’s shop were on our side or not but that was immaterial except as a debating exercise afterwards, because the magnificent shock climax at the end (incidentally surely one of the most realistic shootings ever) totally unexpected and superbly shattering made any further and possibly tedious explanations completely unnecessary.
I found the director’s totally explicit use of very big close-ups quite fascinating. A tape recorder deck on which we could see the brown stain of the magnetic film on the head — a smear of animal blood on the pseudo meat porter’s hand — a typewriter carriage crashing into startling focus. All these and many more were memorable frames from a very classily directed thirty minutes.
It is interesting to speculate as to why the use of the close-ups was on this occasion so distinctly apt and telling. I have a theory about this which I herewith propose to expound. Mike Hodges who directed also wrote the piece. Now I think that a writer who turns in a script, a good script, for A. N. Other to direct, puts in certain amount of visual stage directions, a few broad pointers to the camerawork and to a greater or lesser degree leaves it at that. He has a dilemma he cannot, perhaps he dare not, go into too great detail in his visualisiation no matter how completely and utterly he may see it in his own mind simply because eventually someone else is going to be the one who turns the cameras loose on it. At best this director will work in close collaboration with the writer and the result will be a very close approximation of what the writer had in mind. At worst he won’t and if there is too much stage direction in the writer’s original script it will tend to be ignored anyway. So authors usually under write their visuals in case they are thought to be doing the director’s job. And yet the whole point about good fictional writing is that it is essentially a process of visualisation every bit as much as that of direction for films or television. When one reads a book by a really good author one is constantly invited to mental close-ups of this and that, to say nothing of the other mental imagery as the writer sets his scenes and the nuances of the plot unfold.
Since Mr. Hodges wrote his screenplay and then directed it there was no middleman to consider and his visualisation was both unhindered and, let’s face it, unchallenged. In a word it was complete. The net result was an astonishingly good half hour of dramatic television.
Interesting to note that the whole production was shot on film. Videotape and editing can work wonders these days but this showed that the old steam flint still has a lot to offer.
I was glad to spot amongst the credits the name of Tony Mander, a young film cameraman for whom I have always had the highest regard. His technical and artistic skill undoubtedly contributed a tremendous amount to the sleek excitement of the direction. His pull-focus shots were some of the best I have seen anywhere.
(Television Today, 3 August 1972, p. 13)
(Thanks to Simon Coward)