Top Secret Life of Edgar Briggs DVD

Monday, 16 March 2015 17:06 Written by 

The Top Secret Life of Edgar Briggs - out now on DVDIn the gap between the pilot for Open All Hours in 1973, and it finally going to series in 1976, David Jason was seen as a future star, and Producer Humphrey Barclay and London Weekend Television took it upon themselves to try and find the perfect format for him. To come was Lucky Feller (1975-6), but the first attempt was 1974’s The Top Secret Life of Edgar Briggs. Producer Barclay likes to take credit for discovering Jason, on Bournemouth pier entertaining at a theatre. He gave Jason his initial break with the sketch show Do Not Adjust Your Set (1967-9).

In this venture, Jason starred as espionage agent Edgar Briggs, with a theme tune whose opening bars more than suggest 007. With a character that had a hint of live-action Danger Mouse to it, Briggs transferred to the Secret Intelligence Service due to an administrative error, or ‘cock up’ as most would call it. Much to the bemusement of his staff, no wrong turn doesn’t get taken, every clue misconstrued, and with the most sublime of luck whichever route he takes Briggs always solves the mystery or crime under his scattergun gaze. There must have been a fair degree of faith in the format, as the show was commissioned, straight off the bat, for 13 episodes.

The series was written for Jason by Bernard McKenna and Richard Laing. There were often comparisons to Get Smart, but writer Bernard McKenna was noted by the website ‘Television Heaven’ as saying “We'd never seen Get Smart. However I had written a TV play for Ronnie Barker and David Jason called “The Odd Job” (part of Six Dates with Barker, 1971, integrated into Network’s “The Ronnie Barker Collection” DVD release). I was dying to write for DJ again and was encouraged to come up with an idea. What I came up with was a silly version of “The Three Musketeers” - lots of stuff for DJ to do with swords and hats, etc. Humphrey Barclay said it would be too expensive to make. We then thought of an inept security service man as the D'Artagnan character who always won his case. We gave him a boss (King Louis) and three assistants (Musketeers) including a fat one (Porthos).”

The writers had written half the scripts for the Doctor at Sea series earlier in 1974, before setting to work on Briggs. In fact, David Jason even guest-starred in one of the episodes they wrote, playing Manuel Sanchez in “Go Away Stowaway!”

The error-strewn landscape is set with a great deal of assistance from the opening credit sequence, which always followed a scene-setting pre-credit gambit that gave a teaser of what was to come. Edgar is sitting down for breakfast, reading ‘Top Secret’ files, when somehow his wife, Jennifer (Barbara Angell – who was Miss Howard in The Jensen Code, and has gone on to be a writer on the likes of Neighbours, Home and Away and Shortland Street) accidentally manages to slip two fried eggs and rashers of bacon into his reading material. These make their way all the way to an interrogation scene, where Briggs foils an escape attempt whilst also revealing the necessary evidence.

Also in this establishing set-up is his boss, The Commander (Noel Coleman – General Smythe in the Troughton-era Doctor Who “The War Games” and Colonel Shaw-Camberley in Virgin of the Secret Service), as well as one of Edgar’s charges, Greville (Gary Waldhorn – Lionel in Brush Strokes, David Horton in The Vicar of Dibley) - who only stayed around for the first two episodes, despite appearing in every one thanks to this credits sequence.

Briggs could rely on a regular team of underlings to try and keep him on-track. Elizabeth Counsell played Cathy, an intelligent and attractive agent who unfortunately Briggs initially is very attracted to, but then becomes over-protective of. Counsell has become a very well-known face over the years on TV. The Doctor at Sea connection continues, as she was Nurse Joyce Wynton in that series earlier in 1974. One of her first roles was an uncredited one, a ‘Woman in a Punt’ in “From Russia with Love” in 1963. Early TV roles included episodes of The Plane Makers, Gideon’s Way, Hark at Barker, Jason King, The Reg Varney Revue, Crown Court and The Adventures of Black Beauty.

Following Briggs, Elizabeth went on to co-star in The Many Wives of Patrick (1976-8), Partners (1981), Fame is the Spur (1982), Executive Stress (1986-8), Brush Strokes (1986-91), and Nelson’s Column (1994-5). She’s been in five episodes of Doctors during the 21st Century, and played Princess Ghislaine in 2014’s “Grace of Monaco”.

Playing Buxton was Michael Stainton. Another established comedy and drama actor, prior to Briggs he had featured in episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour, The Army Game, Citizen James, Hugh and I, The Plane Makers, Emergency Ward 10, Sergeant Cork, Softly Softly, Steptoe and Son, Budgie, New Scotland Yard, The Adventures of Black Beauty, Bowler, Last of the Summer Wine, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, Z Cars, Justice, Moody and Pegg, and Bootsie and Snudge.

Following Briggs, Stainton went on to roles in Rising Damp, Thriller, Beryl’s Lot, Warship, Are You Being Served?, Doctor on the Go, Dad’s Army, All Creatures Great and Small, Mind Your Language, Going Straight, Ripping Yarns, Citizen Smith, Juliet Bravo, Shelley, Kelly Monteith, Hart to Hart, Only Fools and Horses, ‘Allo ‘Allo,  Terry and June, Hot Metal, Ever Decreasing Circles, The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, Minder, Grange Hill, Never The Twain, London’s Burning, 99-1, Pie in the Sky, Dalziel and Pascoe, You Must Be The Husband (as Don), The Glums (as Ted The Landlord), The Bill (seven episodes) and Lucky Feller (again with David Jason).

A big cult credential was achieved for playing Father over 39 episodes of Metal Mickey, and in terms of an amazing record, he appeared as 19 different characters in 19 episodes of Dixon of Dock Green between 1958 and 1976.

Joining from the second episode onwards was Mark Eden as Spencer, the character to most likely make it as a genuine spy, and whose romantic intentions with Cathy always raised Edgar’s ire. In Cult TV circles, Eden is known for playing Number 100 in The Prisoner episode “It’s Your Funeral”. Other cult credits included episodes of The Avengers, Man in a Suitcase, Quatermass and the Pit, Sir Francis Drake, The Saint, Out of the Unknown, Z Cars, Spyder’s Web, Arthur of the Britons, The Adventures of Black Beauty, Special Branch, New Scotland Yard, Warship, Cribb, The Sandbaggers, The Professionals, Wilde Alliance, Crown Court, and Poirot.

Eden was the title character of “Marco Polo” in William Hartnell-era Doctor Who in 1964 (and he also featured as Donald Baverstock in the 2013 TV movie celebration “An Adventure in Space and Time”). Amongst the general population, it was his role as Alan Bradley in Coronation Street which probably gained him the most recognition.

With Briggs, and for David Jason himself, there were stunts aplenty - think Frank Spencer of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em fame taken to an extreme. With the nature of the camerawork it is clear to see Jason elected to do as many of the pratfalls himself – his face clearly being on the receiving end of whatever it happened to be this particular week.

These included one stunt where he had to fall into Regent’s Park Canal five times to get the right take. He had to drop from a ladder time and again on another occasion – which required him to land on a tressle table and get covered in paint (and unfortunately ending up swallowing some of it, too). The Daily Mirror's television reviewer Stan Sayer noted of the performance: "David is a modern Buster Keaton with most of that great silent film actor’s gift of timing, rhythm and skill."

Producer Humphrey Barclay was quoted in Look-In magazine (number 37), as saying “I think Briggs, with his amazing capacity for reaching his goal by running headlong in the wrong direction, will become something of a cult. It’s certainly one of the most original series I’ve ever worked on.”

So, how has Briggs aged over the years?  David Jason is widely reported as having disowned this series (as well as A Sharp Intake of Breath – which was deprived of a VHS release almost two decades ago, but is getting a DVD release from Network soon). So, in some respects, we can be grateful that he must have had a change of heart. I will admit to being ten years’ old when Briggs originally went out. With its early evening timeslot, it was perfect for me, the sheer daftness of the lead character being hilarious to my funny bone at that age.

And now? Some of you of a more sensitive comedy disposition may well be viewing many of the scenes in the episodes through latticed fingers. However, overall you simply can’t help but be carried along by the Sherman-Tank-style approach of Briggs to solving his latest case. The pace is relentless, so if one comedy set-piece fails, it’s not long before another has arrived to save the scene and get things back on track. It’s an easy defence to note the show is now over 40 years old, but the Bond-esque parody forming the backbone of the stories never really dates.

All this time later, I can understand why I never missed an episode. I’d love to know what the ten year-olds of today make of it – I have a feeling the pratfalls and constant confusion may well be something that will endure with that age group.

The Top Secret Life of Edgar Briggs – The Complete Series is out now from Network.  The twin DVD set has a ‘12’ certificate, a running time of 330 minutes, and a RRP of £19.99, or get it for less at www.culttvstore.com

 

The Top Secret Life of Edgar Briggs - Episode Guide

Episodes began on Sundays, before moving to Fridays from Episode 5.

 

Starring David Jason as Edgar Briggs

Michael Stainton as Buxton

Barbara Angell as Mrs Jennifer Briggs

Elizabeth Counsell as Cathy

Noel Coleman as (The) Commander

Mark Eden as Spencer (except Episode 1)

 

Writers: Bernard McKenna and Richard Laing

Designer: Tom Carter (1, 2, 4, 5, 9, 11, 13), Andrew Gardner (3, 6, 7, 8, 10, 12)

Producer: Humphrey Barclay

Director: Brian Izzard (except 12 & 13: Bruce Gowers)

 

1. “The Assassin”

The episode begins at Dawn. Saturday, December 16th, 1973. Only two things are certain about acts of espionage. They bring confusion in their wake, and a counter-espionage man on the trail. But seldom in spying history has there been a counter-espionage agent who added to the confusion of every case until he brought it to a successful conclusion. But such a man is Edgar Biggs - the man whose methods strike fear into friend and enemy alike. You will see why when he faces a plot to assassinate the head of the Secret Service.

Guest starring: Gary Waldhorn (Greville), Ricardo Montez (Zammit), John Gatrell (The Head Waiter), Tony Hughes (The Assassin), Peter Jolley, Maeve Leslie & Ronald Mayer (The Diners), Max Harris, Don Lawson & Kenny Baldock (The Orchestra).

Original ITV Transmission: 15 September 1974

 

2. “The Defector”

A colleague, Greville, goes to ground suspected of making contact with “the other side”. The solution? Briggs will have to stop him leaving the country. But first he has to find him…

Guest starring: Gary Waldhorn (Greville), Laurence Harrington (Komarek), Leon Lissek (Novikov), Ian Judge (Heliport Receptionist), Desmond Jones (Guide on Boat).

Original ITV Transmission: 22 September 1974

 

3. “The Leak”

Secret information is being passed through the Iron Curtain. A CIA agent flies in with the intention of working on the case with Edgar Briggs...

Guest starring: Gerald Case (John Templeton), Harry Towb (Bernie Schweid), Bob Sessions (Floydd Anderson), James Bree (Crighton), Jay Neill (Announcer at Reception), Terence Conoley (Russian), John C Wright (Mr Burnham). Uncredited: Emperor Rosko (Voice on Radio).

Original ITV Transmission: 29 September 1974

 

4. “The Escape Route”

By allowing a foreign spy to escape from jail and then following him, the S.I.S. hope to uncover a much-used escape route to East Germany. Briggs is in charge - and seems to understand the plan...

Guest starring: Arnold Diamond (Ramsden), Ian Elliott (Prison Warder), John Hollis (Müller), Dennis Blanch (Van Driver), David Neville (Hotel Receptionist).

Original ITV Transmission: 6 October 1974

 

5. “The Abduction”

The Commander is kidnapped, which means temporary promotion for his assistant, Edgar Briggs. But wearing two hats is never easy.

Guest starring: Dave Prowse (Johansson), Percy Herbert (Dawson).

Original ITV Transmission: 25 October 1974

 

6. “The Exchange”

Briggs is asked to helm a swap of prisoners at a border, but he’s not sure who’s who, who’s coming to whose side, and which side is which.

Guest starring: Morris Perry (Schulenberg), David Webb (Leuschner), Michael Sheard (Ernst), William Bond (Gemp), Fred McNaughton (Moreton).

Original ITV Transmission: 1 November 1974

 

7. “The Courier”

After seeing a concert at the Royal Festival Hall, Spencer and Cathy are approached by French intelligence, who thinks one of the orchestra is smuggling secrets to the Iron Curtain countries. Time to consult Edgar Briggs – maybe he can work out the identity of the spy.

Guest starring: Gerard Paquis (Berranger), Fred Beauman (Jean Pierre Clemont), Kenneth Waller (Mr Warren), Judith Chalmers (Radio Announcer).

Original ITV Transmission: 8 November 1974

 

8. “The Traitor”

Someone in the Secret Intelligence Service is leaking information to the other side of the Iron Curtain. In a flash Briggs narrows the suspects down to three.

Guest starring: Francis de Wolff (Chulmek), David Davenport (Vlacek), Edward Burnham (Edwards), Michael Burrell (Taylor), Martin Collins (Robinson).

Original ITV Transmission: 15 November 1974

 

9. “The K.G.B.”

Briggs decides to cut down on time wasting and inefficiency, and sets about re-organising his activities both at home and in the office. It’s not the ideal moment to ask him to rescue a defecting Russian scientist from the KGB. Or is it?

Guest starring: Arnold Diamond (Ramsden), Anna Korwin (Dr Stabovsky), Brandon Brady (KGB Man).

Original ITV Transmission: 22 November 1974

 

10. “The Drawing”

Coded messages from Moscow indicate a leak of classified drawings from a naval section in Whitehall. In a flash Briggs is on to a suspect.

Guest starring: William Ellis (Motor Cyclist), David Crosse (Michael), Frederick Treves (Commander Bentley), Frederick Hall (Harris), Ray Marioni (Croupier).

Original ITV Transmission: 29 November 1974

 

11. “The President”

Providing security for the visit to Britain of a Middle East oil sheik is a job right up Brigg's street. But Briggs's street often looks like a cul-de-sac - with disaster at the end of it.

Guest starring: Alan Tilvern (President Fezzan), Ronald Chenery (Servant), Cabor Vernon (Mazirah), Robert McBain (Bread Van Driver).

Original ITV Transmission: 6 December 1974

 

12. “The Appointment”

From Havana comes a new recruit - and Briggs takes him on as a pupil!

Guest starring: Charles Morgan (British Ambassador), David Baron (Maxwell), Robert Mill (Aide), Joy Stewart (Mrs Collins), Basil Henson (Sir Anthony Donaldson).

Note: Although not the Director for this episode, Brian Izzard did direct the film inserts for this story.

Original ITV Transmission: 13 December 1974

 

13. “The Contact”

When a friend of the Commander thinks he's been approached by a foreign agent, and is ordered to meet him again in a quiet meeting place, Briggs meets his Waterloo. Or is it a case of Waterloo meeting its Briggs. Against the background of a train, the conclusion of the episode has the caption: “The End – Next Programme About to Arrive”.

Guest starring: Ralph Michael (Apsley), Al Lampert (Curate), Christopher Asante (Ticket Collector).

Original ITV Transmission: 20 December 1974.

 

 

Last modified on Monday, 16 March 2015 17:29

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