Tightrope: Spy TV show DVD

Monday, 14 March 2011 15:34

Now here’s a treat for those who purchased Look Back On 70s Telly - Issue 2, the sampler double DVD that Network put out last year. One of the most intriguing episodes on that set was the debut of Tightrope, a bizarre espionage series, apparently aimed at children.  Some of the cast may have been sixth formers, but the themes were very adult, and what we had here was a cross between “Spy Kids” and the dawn of an Orwellian nightmare!

This is one of those shows, for those of us around at the time, which is just on the cusp of memory.  It was with us for 13 weeks, and was a stretch to understand what was going on.  For me, it was great to see Spencer Banks back in a leading role on the telly, but I was a little miffed that this wasn’t for more episodes of Timeslip, his previous series which was definitely SF in manner. However, seeing it again now is a delight, and I recommend it highly!

Tightrope - Made in colour, lucky to see it in B&WSpencer plays Martin Clifford, just about to sit his A-Levels at Redlow Comprehensive School – an unassuming institution which you wouldn’t necessarily assume to be a beach-head in the battle with the Soviet Bloc. For Martin and his pals, aside from the usual teenage hi-jinks, there was nothing out of the ordinary to be worried about.  That is, until a lesson is interrupted when a mysterious transmission from ‘The Voice of Truth’, all robotic and synthesised, cuts in across their scheduled television programme.

Aside from the technical considerations of how the pirate transmission was broadcast across the school’s TV system, it is the content of the broadcast that gets the pupils more excited.  Encouraging the class to wonder about the background of their teachers, the words and images are there to encourage distrust in those providing their education. Can those with power around them be trusted? Moreover, can they actually place any currency with this ‘Voice of Truth’?

At the level the story wants to pitch it, the plot centres around this being a scheme to undermine the education of British pupils – a test for a wider roll-out of the procedure across the nation. The idea is that these students will drop out of society, cause unruly behaviour, and decimate the stability of the UK. In other words, such rebellion can never be seen as a good thing, and obviously has dark forces at work behind it.

This is a shame, as in fact a better spin on proceedings would be that the ‘Voice of Truth’, by accident more than design, actually was spot-on in its interpretation of the teachers within the school. All of them haves something to hide, none of them are what they seem, and a questioning of the establishment is certainly not a bad thing. Wisdom is a far better quality to have in your armoury than intelligence alone, and if those in power had been questioned by the youth and not trusted so much since the era of Tightrope onwards, then the world wouldn’t be in the deceitful mess it is today!

The really decent thing about all this is that it opened the young audience’s eyes to the potential of conspiracies, and that they are as much likely to be real as just theories. Don’t believe everything you’re told without questioning it... a skill that so many of my era have taken with them as a life lesson.


 

Tightrope was created and written by Victor Pemberton, whose previous writing credits included Doctor Who (Troughton’s “Fury from the Deep”, and Story Editor for “Tomb of the Cybermen”), Timeslip (“Day of the Clone” and the final episode of “Year of the Burn Up”) and Ace of Wands (“The Power of Atep” and “Sisters Deadly”). The script editor was Ruth Boswell (Timeslip, Escape Into Night, Shadows, The Tomorrow People, The Molly Wopsies, The Feathered Serpent, Horse In The House, Jukes of Piccadilly, Maybury, Black Silk, and The Chief).

Producer of the show was John Cooper, who carried out similar duties on Timeslip, as well as Thriller and Hunter’s Walk.  The Designer was Gerry Roberts, again another crew member who had worked on Timeslip.

There were two Directors who carved up the chores on this series.  The first was Ron Francis (episodes 1, 2, 5, 6, 9, 10, and 13), who had previously worked on Lonnie with Lonnie Donegan, and went on to further British shows such as Hunter’s Walk and Crossroads, before trying his hand Stateside as a Camera Operator on the likes of The Quest, Fantasy Island, TJ Hooker, Hunter, Babylon 5, and Sabrina The Teenage Witch.  In between times, he did pop back to the UK to work as a Producer and Director on ATV’s Vice Versa (1981) and as a Director on Central’s On The Line (1982).

The other Director was David Foster (episodes 3, 4, 7, 8, 11, and 12), who had previously worked on Timeslip, and went on to direct the Sapphire and Steel story “The Railway Station”.

Spencer Banks, as Martin, really had cornered the market in teenage geeks in the early 1970s. However, it is John Savident’s depiction of Forrester, pitched as part ‘Mother’ from The Avengers, and part ‘Mr Waverley’ from The Man from UNCLE, which really steals the show. He has all the best lines, and positively revels in the action and hokum on offer. A shame that it’s the role of Fred Elliott in Coronation Street most will remember him for, rather than this superior performance.

Excessively fashionable and trendy sixth form tutor Mr Harvey, resplendent in bulging flares, is played by David Munro, who was best known as Steve Morgan in 51 episodes of Orlando, opposite the star Sam Kydd. He’s another talent who died young, bowing out in 1999 at just 55 years of age. He had gone on to become a documentary producer and director, working with the legendary John Pilger.

Also look out for Susan ‘Sue’ Holderness, later to find fame as Boycie's wife, Marlene, in Only Fools and Horses and The Green Green Grass, as a leader of a batch of trainee secret agents. She was 22 years old at the time Tightrope was made, and aside from a small role as a receptionist in an episode of Lollipop Loves Mr Mole (a vehicle for Peggy Mount and Hugh Lloyd), this was her big break.  Mike Grady, Barry in Last of the Summer Wine and Ken in Citizen Smith, can also count Tightrope as one of his early TV appearances, playing gormless sixth-former Spud.

Made in colour, we unfortunately can only ever see Tightrope again in nostalgic black and white.  Legend has it that during one of the numerous sales of the ATV/ITC film and video libraries in the 1980s, ATV’s stock of shows turned up at the ITC vaults under new ownership, and the hapless stewards had no idea what to do with the cans.  Their answer was to sling them all in a succession of skips, rather than spend the time in integrating them into their filing system.  This monochrome edition of the series was something accidentally kept for potential foreign sales. So it’s a question of not minding the quality, just feeling the width of the production.

The only DVD extra on the set is a collection of production stills, but considering how much of a fluke it is that this series exists at all, and especially in its entirety, we couldn’t even hope for anything more.

Tightrope – The Complete Series is out now from Network as a web exclusive double DVD release.  It has a ‘PG’ certificate, a running time of 325 minutes approx, and an RRP of £20.41 or less, exclusively from the Network Online Shop.

 

Tightrope – Cast List

Spencer Banks as Martin Clifford

John Savident as Forrester

David Munro as Mr Harvey

Frederick Treves as Mr Fletcher

Marian Diamond as Miss Jane Walker

Michael Mellinger as Mr Elliot

George Waring as Mr Clifford

Rollo Gamble as Mr Brooks

Michael Beint as Ron Desmond

Mike Grady as Spud Murphy

Melita Manger as Sally

George Roubicek as Sgt Sikowski

John J Carney as Detective Inspector Mitchell

Hazel Bainbridge as Jessie Riggles

Martin Neil as Jeff

Patsy Smart as Aunt Madge

Susan Holderness as Joanna

Simon Jayson as Ben

Ian Yardley as Small Man

Bunny Reed as Tall Man

Tom Chatto as Customs Official

Last modified on Thursday, 10 May 2012 16:37

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