TV on DVD: Armchair Thriller -- Set 1 (1978)

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In this set of 4 immensely satisfying standalone mysteries broken up into roughly 24 minute episodes, paranoia, double-crosses, mistaken identities, red herrings, and bizarre twists of fate surround the main characters presented to us in the cult classic UK smash which debuted in 1978 on ITV.

The first two volumes of the work-- consisting of the titles Dying Day starring Ian McKellen and The Limbo Connection with James Bolam-- were later re-broadcast in 1982-1983 on PBS's Mystery! and while they're all quite unique, the one I found particularly gripping was the surprising third installment Rachel in Danger.

Thematically the set seems to flow very well as the first two episodes center on main characters who may not exactly be the most mentally stable individuals to follow on their unusual journeys. And although this was a device used or speculated about in the earlier works, volumes three (Rachel in Danger) and four (The Victim) focus more strongly on a kidnapping, yet this time around we're presented with the points-of-view of the young female victims as well as others.

Ian McKellen leads us into the initial 100 minute Dying Day as his obsessive, fixated character is left holding a cassette tape forgotten by a stranger he'd met on a train ride home. Failing to get the commuter's attention, McKellen's Antony Skipling plays the curious tape only to find himself in quite the Kafkaesque predicament when its contents reveal the date and location in which he will be killed.

Yet when he foolishly goes to the police without the evidence in hand, Skipling begins realizing someone may be toying with him when the officer returns to his flat and listens to the tape with our protagonist only to discover that the death threat is no longer audible. While Skipling is peculiar to say the least and McKellen never overplays his part-- doing a large amount of acting with his eyes as he reacts to possible dangers throughout-- as an audience, we're left riveted by the existential, paranoid puzzle of wondering just whom to believe.

Cleverly written by John Bowen, this post Blow-Up and post Conversation work of psychological terror should appeal to those who respond to the same themes in the work of Philip K. Dick (yet minus the science fiction angle), Kafka, and in movies such as Blow Out, The Game, Flightplan and others.

In a much longer presentation-- the six episode feature The Limbo Connection starring The Beiderbecke Affair actor James Bolam, Derry Quinn's novel adapted by screenwriter Philip Mackie is utilized for this dark, intriguing tale that demands a lot out of its audience in producing a truly unlikable protagonist.

When we first encounter the once successful screenwriter Mark Omney (Bolam), he seems to be an extra who has wandered in from the set of either Mike Nichols' searing classic Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Nicolas Ray's nontraditional noir starring Humphrey Bogart, dubbed In a Lonely Place.

Loud and obnoxious, Mark has replaced writer's block and the creative muse with an endless supply of alcohol. Drunk as the work begins, we get the sense that his belligerent insults come from feeling emasculated as there's been an obvious power shift in his literary marriage since his columnist wife became not simply the "leading Fleet Street Journalist" with millions of readers but also the official breadwinner in their unhealthy, abuse filled relationship.

Prone to drinking himself into blackouts to the point that he has no memory of what has happened earlier, in addition to always forgetting everything his wife has told him such as that she's heading off to cover a story out of town and will meet him that evening at their cottage, it's also revealed that Mark's liquor fueled rage has resulted in physical attacks on his wife in the past. After yet another brief disagreement with his wife Clare, he runs into his supportive but wise old girlfriend Annabelle Fraser-- an actress who'd starred in some of the films he'd written in the past.

As they spend the afternoon catching up and throwing back drinks, the action is intercut with Clare's journey as she leaves the location she'd been covering, only to be struck ill with horrific food poisoning before crashing her car in a nearby ditch. Although thankfully a few kind passersby have the decency to lock Clare's car, put the keys in her handbag and drive her to the nearest hospital-- a senior residence called Meadbowbank Clinic-- per usual, Mark has had so much to drink that he neglects to check the answering machine nor make it to the cottage.

When he discovers that his wife is missing, learns that the last place she's been seen is at the clinic and the car is still stuck in the same ditch (although now unlocked), he and Annabelle become amateur sleuths convinced she's being held against her will. Yet due to his blind drunk rages in the past and the holes in his story of not getting the message on the machine etc. soon as far as the police are concerned, Mark becomes suspect number one for the charge of murdering his wife.

Of course, the problem then becomes, how much do we believe our protagonist who conveniently can claim amnesia on the whole event due to alcohol and just what is really going on at Meadowbank Clinic anyway? With a great turn by Bolam, this highly complicated standalone work makes the most out of the 24 minute installment format.

Thankfully, our narrator reiterates everything that has come before it at the beginning of each episode, which not only made sense for its TV debut when it may have been a weekly series and hard to keep all the facts straight but it's also a great resource in reminding us just what all the particulars are if we take a break or miss some telling remark.

Likewise, one recurring issue throughout all 4 volumes in the narration was that it often aided in the brief episodic format by supplying us with additional information that may have been easier to convey in literature as sometimes we're presented with details that had never been disclosed or tidbits that lead us into another direction altogether.

In Armchair Thriller, the fourth episode's The Victim rivals The Limbo Connection in terms of both the intricate plot development and characterization as well as sheer length clocking in at 142 minutes with a bold decision (made before the era of Ron Howard's Ransom starring Mel Gibson) to have a wealthy industrialist decide not to pay the ransom for his abducted teenage daughter to instead call all the shots.

And while it's emotionally gripping and well-played as an ensemble piece showing us both sides of the situation unlike Limbo Connection in which we're given one of those unreliable protagonists to follow and are completely uncertain about what's going on with the possible "victim," in my mind, the most riveting title is incidentally the shortest work in the set-- Rachel in Danger.

It's the type of thriller that would've had me not on the edge of my armchair but rather on the floor in the fetal position as a child since it hits everyone at our most primal level of wanting to protect the young when Rachel, our adorable and wise beyond her years ten year old protagonist arrives in London having bravely ridden the train in from Scotland on her own.

A habitual reader and perhaps-- as a daughter who seems to have been very tight with her divorced mother-- Rachel is the type of girl who may in fact get along best with those twice her age. She arrives to spend time with the father she hasn't seen since she was two years old.

Unfortunately, although as a viewer, we've already been presented with the desperately tragic series of events that coincided with her arrival which found her father murdered by an old college classmate he'd happened to run into on the street. It seems as though the man had merely used Rachel's father out of convenience so that his quiet life, crime-free identity, and apartment can all be taken over for the purposes of a terrorist plot.

Patiently waiting on the platform reading her book by her suitcase, pinned with a tag that alerts the police viewing the security camera footage that she's not a runaway but there to meet someone she doesn't know, they get in touch with the man whom they assume is Rachel's father. And sure enough, assuming a child will solidify his cover, the impostor obediently goes down to the train station to collect his faux daughter. Since there's nothing obvious about the impostor to indicate what he's saying is a lie, it's up to Rachel's intuition and good sense to think ahead and request the name of the kind police woman who assisted her for possible future use.

But later when they return to the flat to find some of the other members of the organization ready and waiting, it isn't too long before the young bespectacled girl realizes nothing is as it seems. And obviously since it deals primarily with the plight of an adolescent in peril, we are completely riveted from the start. However, this presentation that is also penned by Dying Day scribe John Bowen believably hooks us in the brief 93 minute work by making us imagine ourselves in Rachel's shoes as she begins trying to maneuver her way out of the situation in ways that make sense for a smart young girl.

And luckily as a new boxed set, the only shortcoming of Armchair Thriller is the absence of subtitles as-- especially in the Acorn collections-- it sometimes benefits us to utilize the closed captioning feature if there's a particularly thick accent or if the dialogue is overly reliant on UK slang from decades gone by. Still overall the Dolby Digital sound and original 4:3 aspect ratio presentation hold up considerably well 31 years later.

Intellectually satisfying yet admirably unafraid of centering stories around amoral or mentally questionable characters-- these mini-novels transferred to the screen will definitely intrigue devotees of UK mysteries, thrillers, or those looking for the TV on DVD equivalent of a brainy page turning beach read in technicolor and minus the papercuts.

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