A few months ago I reviewed the DVD release of the ITV series Manhunt. I waxed lyrical concerning ITV’s ability to make what I called populist drama – stuff that was never patronising, never talked down, but still made you sit up and concentrate. It drew you in, made you pay attention. It’s a skill that appears to have been somewhat lost by the commercial networks of late. That saddens me. In their day ITV were more than capable of giving any television company in the world a run for their money. They could have entire nations glued to their television sets. Indeed, they were capable of inciting entire nations to anger, as in the case of The Prisoner in 1967. As the legend goes the reaction to the final episode was so strong that Patrick McGoohan was forced to go into hiding until the heat had died down. I find myself wondering if such days will ever come again.
Over the years I’ve found myself digging deeper and deeper into ITVs rich heritage. It’s one of the joys of living in the current DVD age that more and more material becomes commercially available. The more you watch, the more the past slams into focus. There’s an awful lot of bad stuff out there, sure. But there’s an even larger amount of great, gripping television that deserves to be seen again. I’m so pleased that it’s happening.
I’ve had a wishlist for years of shows that I’d love to see. That list has got smaller and smaller as more and more stuff has been released. Always in there was The Plane Makers. First broadcast on 4th February 1963 and running for three seasons, it’s an early example of the sort of thing that got everybody watching. To use a more current phrase, it was appointment television. Indeed, it was so compulsive that even the industry professionals watched it avidly. Producer Peter Bryant was reported to be such an addict that when he took over on Doctor Who he made strong efforts to get every member of The Plane Makers’ main cast into the series as guest artistes. I’m not altogether sure that’s actually true, but it’s a great example of the sway a truly popular television show can hold. So strong was the grip of the series that when it finally came to an end it span off some of the main characters into a sequel series, itself as popular if not more so than the parent. The Power Game ran for a further three seasons, and has been commercially available for quite some time. The Plane Makers has always been tantalisingly out of reach.
Thanks to Network and their ongoing quest to persuade my shelves that they can take just one more box set, honestly – I’m actually able to sit down and watch The Plane Makers properly for the first time. Well, sort of. It’s a sad but unavoidable fact of being a fan of this vintage of television that you’re going to run into a pretty serious problem. For one reason or another the archival status of many shows from the dawn of television through to the late seventies is not good. Some have suffered more than others but there are many frustrating gaps. In the case of The Plane Makers a total of 58 episodes were produced. 35 survived. 23 have vanished forever, unless some survive by other means. It’s aggravating, especially in this case because the majority of the first series has gone. Only the first episode survives out of a run of fifteen. Thankfully the second season (a surprisingly extended one for such an infant series, running for 29 episodes – surely a mark of how successful it became in a very short time) survives mostly intact. Only episodes 14 (“How Do You Vote?”) and 16 (“Loved He Not Honours More”) are missing. Thus Network’s initial release of The Plane Makers begins with the first thirteen episodes of series two (concluding at a natural break point before the first gap), with that orphaned first episode from series one (“Don’t Worry About Me”) included as a tasty bonus feature.
Here’s the opening moments of series 2, episode 1 – courtesy of Network.
As we drop into the first episode of year two the setup is already firmly established, and easy for the newcomer to grasp. We’re to be privy to the behind-the-scenes goings on of a major industrial concern – Scott Furlong is the name of the company, and as you may have guessed they manufacture aeroplanes. Commercial ones. It’s a big business, with serious money involved. They need a major driving force to push them ahead of their competitors and they’ve got one in the stocky figure of John Wilder (Patrick Wymark).
Over these first thirteen episodes Wilder is at best driven. At worst, he’s repulsive, hateful. An obvious early example of television’s obsession with the- man-you-love-to-hate, you could trace a direct line from Wilder through Paul Merroney in The Brothers, all the way to JR in Dallas. Very rarely is there a spark of humanity to him – even when you think he’s doing something for altruistic reasons it’s invariably with an ulterior motive, designed to extract the best business deal possible. The man is a snake-oil salesman and it’s a tribute to Wymark’s performance that he manages to keep you watching despite the character being so unlikeable. With a voice of pure gravel and an intense, penetrating stare, he sits like a spider in the centre of the web. Everything is a commodity. His workforce, his management staff, his friends – if he has any – and especially, his wife are just things to be used to get him to where he wants to be. The Plane Makers has some interesting things to say about sexual politics in the early sixties, and some of the attitudes displayed can be hard to take. That said, nobody is interested in justifying themselves – it’s just how they are and what they do. Wilder has a mistress. He has cavernous sexual appetites which he indulges by taking his “secretary” on business trips. It’s an open secret – his wife makes it plain from very early on that she knows exactly what’s going on. In the case of Wilder’s wife – an endlessly fascinating if slightly abrasive performance from Barbara Murray – it doesn’t all go Wilder’s way. He may be willing to use her as a pawn in his power maneuverings but she won’t necessarily go along with it.
The main thrust of this batch of episodes is the construction and proposed sale of “The Sovereign” – named by Wilder without his board’s consent, and pushed into production considerably faster than anyone else is comfortable with due to Wilder’s wish to steal a march on the French who are developing a similar model. The main through plot focusses on the ramifications of this decision – with a near crash on a test flight, the attempts to sell The Sovereign to foreign associates, confidential press leaks, and the effect on the workforce.
“All Part of the Job” focusses entirely on the need for four modified air-conditioning units to be delivered well ahead of time and develops into an emotional minefield as hot young social climber Stanley Meadows attempts to use the situation for his own ends. He has his eye on his bosses job and in his attempts to ingratiate himself with management almost brings the career of one of the most respectable men in the field to an abrupt conclusion. It’s an early highlight and a masterclass in just what studio-bound drama can do better than any other genre. With lots of close shots and charged dialogue, this one actually had me shouting abuse at the screen when Meadows’ character pushes it just a little bit too far. If the end of the episode doesn’t leave you with something in your eye, you’re a stronger man than me. Or woman.
Probably the closest thing to a friend Wilder has is the always watchable and engaging Jack Watling, playing Don Henderson. I spent the entire run expecting Don Henderson to turn up playing a character called Jack Watling, but it never happened. Shame.
Henderson’s in the sales department of Scott Furlong, and usually gets left in charge of the firm when Wilder’s away – although it’s obvious he knows that he really doesn’t have any authority at all. Everything goes through Wilder and you can see in Henderson that he feels hobbled by this. The most he can hope for is to stand at Wilder’s shoulder, nursing an endless supply of drinks and making pithy comments. Occasionally he’ll make life difficult for someone further down the food chain, but that’s as far as his authority goes. While Wymark is one very, very good reason for watching this series, the supporting cast is another. There isn’t one person in the regular cast who doesn’t give it their absolute best, and Watling is absolutely the finest of them. He’s brilliant, and any episode he isn’t in is poorer for his absence.
Also appearing – but somewhat less frequently – is Robert Urquhart, as Scott Furlong’s chief test pilot Henry Forbes.
Always dapper in a suit and dicky-bow, Forbes is a man of particular habits. Set in his ways and furiously intolerant of any sort of disruption to his routine, Forbes lives with his now-septugenarian Nanny as his only company. His seeming lack of interest in the opposite sex has led to rumours around the factory and the not terribly flattering nickname of “Auntie” – one episode focusses on the scandalous possibilities caused by this – not that he might be gay. It’s apallingly obvious from comments made that homosexuality will not be tolerated at Scott Furlong. The problem seems to be that he appears to have suddenly embarked on an affair with Wilder’s wife. It’s not made terribly clear which is thought to be the worst crime in the eyes of the decision makers, but either attitude leaves me feeling uneasy. The characters condemn themselves by their own behaviour. The only person who comes out with any credit at all is Forbes, and he’s a total innocent. I’m not saying for one moment that The Plane Makers has any sort of agenda – it was just surprising to find an episode of a drama made for prime time viewing in 1963 even alluding to the subject. It’s a less than pleasant episode to watch – the title alone is called “The Trouble With Auntie”, which gives you some idea of what you’re in for.
“The Trouble With Auntie” is far and away the most labyrinthinely plotted of all the episodes in this set. Pay close attention all the way through as Wilder’s attempts to make political hay out of the subject lead him to some particularly cold-blooded decisions. This one also features one of the most beautiful pieces of subtle acting I’ve ever had the pleasure to lay eyes on. As Wilder and Wife arrive at the house of the Chairman of Scott Furlong for a dinner party, they’re greeted by Henderson with the news that the old man has just passed away. Wilder immediately assesses the situation in terms of what’s in it for him, and what he can get out of it. Jack Watling looks at him for a long moment, with sadness and disappointment in his eyes. Then with a gentle shrug and a helpless flap of his hands he registers his disgust not by turning on Wilder, but by turning around and wordlessly getting into his car. He looks out through the window for a moment, everything he feels evident in his expression. Then he just drives away. It’s gorgeous, and it’s worth the cost of this set on its own. Seriously, it’s a brilliant performance.
I get the feeling that The Plane Makers may not have been the smoothest of productions. An extended second season and the absence of their leading man for extended periods can leave things feeling a little disjointed. Wymark’s appearances are always credited with “Appears courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company” on the end titles, which may explain why he doesn’t appear for many episodes and merely cameos in others – presumably he fitted recording of The Plane Makers in around his theatrical commitments. He isn’t alone – several guest performers have similar credits, my favourite being Gerald James’s “currently appearing in the cast of “Pickwick”” one). At times the end titles can appear nothing more than an extended theatrical promotion.
I’m assuming that these circumstances may have forced the production staff into structuring the series so the plotlines are split between the management staff and the shop-floor, giving them the opportunity to cover for the absence of any regulars by focussing on the others. Thankfully the series is produced by the always reliable and wonderful Rex Firkin, with sterling support from Wilfred Greatorex as Script Editor. Amongst their many credits Firkin produced Manhunt and Greatorex created 1990, so that’s two in their favour already so far as I’m concerned.
It more or less alternates week by week between Wilder and his activities in the upper level, and the working men out in the factory. The person we get to know most well in these plot strands is General Manager Arthur Sugden, played with bluff Yorkshire no-nonsense by Reginald Marsh.
I’m rather afraid I know him as an endless procession of “Sir” characters in the likes of The Good Life or Terry and June, but that does him a massive disservice. He’s magnificent here as a man-of-the-people plagued on all sides. He has a fervently political activist for a brother (a standout turn by Jerome Willis) who accuses him of selling out. He can’t get the time off work to go and visit his dying sister. Management tolerate him, but only so long as he doesn’t step out of line. There are episodes here where you will want to hug him and tell him everything will be all right. It probably won’t, because this is the sort of series that sees the good crushed out of people in favour of ruthless cynicism. Having seen a few episodes of The Power Game recently I note that Henderson becomes more like Wilder by the start of that series than I’m altogether comfortable with. I just hope that as The Plane Makers progresses that Sugden doesn’t go the same way.
Having done a little research into the first series I note that some of the supporting characters in this batch of thirteen episodes are returnees. John Junkin was in the first series as a union man, and he pops up here in “The Cats Away”, attempting to head off a strike on the shop-floor. Likewise Gerald James’s likeable Irish grafter Costigan was in a first series episode, and reappears here in the remarkably silly “Costigan’s Rocket”, having acquired a future Son-in-Law and a greyhound on the same day. Being an anything-for-a-fast-buck type he attempts to deal with the expenses incurred in the first by setting up the second in the racing business, with what the TV Times no doubt referred to as hilarious results. As one of two less-than-serious episodes in this run, it’s considerably more effective than the dreadful “Any More For The Skylark?” I have no idea what anyone thought they were thinking in this episode, but I wish they’d taken a couple more passes at the script. It’s terrible. Victor Maddern “stars” – and I use that word advisedly – as a wideboy who’s heard that there’s the possibility of a free junket to the mediterranean when Scott Furlong next runs a test flight. They need bums on seats to make up the weight, and there’s going to be a knock-out competition to decide who gets to go. Thankfully Rodney Bewes almost saves this one as the new boy in town who dares to stand up to Wilder – just watch Patrick Wymark’s face when Bewes tells him he’s made a wrong decision. Equally, watch Jack Watling in the background doing a classic chokes-on-drink take. It’s a brief moment of joy in an otherwise terribly low point for the series.
Thankfully elsewhere the standard is gratifyingly high. To be honest “Anymore For The Skylark?” is the only dud in the entire run. Even “Costigan’s Rocket” has a certain charm despite playing with the Irish Shirker stereotype. It helps that it falls immediately after the terribly sad “A Matter of Self-Respect” in which a much beloved former worker has to come back to the company after a drunk-driving accident which killed his wife and put him inside for manslaughter. You’ll spend fifty minutes rooting for this man to regain access to his daughter who he hasn’t seen since that night, and the ending will leave you feeling… no, I’m not giving it away. It’s another high point and I’m not going to ruin it for you.
Elsewhere “The Old Boy Network” contrasts how the company treats two serious mistakes made in the course of duty – one by a shop worker, and one by a young high-flyer type.The high-flyer seems to get away with it, the shop worker is fired immediately. As ever with Scott Furlong, it seems that nothing’s that simple.
“Strings in Whitehall” sees Wilder at his most venal and manipulative as he stalks the political corridors in an attempt to secure some seriously heavyweight backing for his schemes (and tries to weasel his way towards a knighthood in the process). An incidental pleasure of this episode is the appearance of George Woodbridge, doyenne of dozens of British movies, Swithin Forsyte and the original Mr Pipkin). Here, he’s gigantic – taking up most of an office on his own and exuding that unique brand of bluff bonhomie and gentle authority that he made his own. A nice little cameo.
The first batch ends with “The Best of Friends” – a simple but effective story of infidelity and the effect it can have on you when you have a dangerous job to do. Robert Urquhart shines in this one as the father-confessor figure who is – quite simply – sick to death of being confessed to. It’s a highwire performance and Urquhart dances along that wire with ease. He’s merely one in an episode that is crammed with great actors giving their best. Which is as good a description of the series as a whole that I can think of.
Watching that orphaned season one opener now and especially knowing which characters took hold with the public and carried over into The Power Game, it’s difficult to see where The Plane Makers was going to go and how it was going to sustain itself. Indeed, the whole fifty minutes plays out like an episode of Armchair Theatre rather than the setup for an ongoing television series. All of the regulars who will appear in series two are absent. The stately theme tune (Citizens of the World by “Trevor Duncan”) is missing, instead opting for some Dankworth-jazz which carries on over the first scene in a most distracting manner.
The main leads are the always reliable Colin Blakely and the always shifty looking Ronald Lacey, in a cautionary tale of just how careful you should be when using heavy machinery. There are some remarkable scenes between Blakely as the truculent, self-centred Jack Clement and the health and safety officer (a bravura turn for Neil Wilson, made for this sort of performance – he’s got that sort of face). Sparks fly, not only from the machinery but between most of the actors.
It’s not a hundred percent representative of where the series would wander. Fascinating to watch though, and thank you to Network for including it.
There’s not much by way of other extras but then it’s entirely possible that there just isn’t anything else that they could include. There are two lovely photo galleries – one covering the decimated series one and running for approximately nine minutes, which is one reason why I knew some of the characters in this initial batch of 13 were returnees. Gerald James is unmistakable in his ridiculous balaclava-with-hat-on-top ensemble for a start.
The second gallery runs for about three minutes and covers the episodes contained within this set. Lots of lovely photographs of Patrick Wymark glaring at people or Reginald Marsh looking worried while hanging onto his pipe for dear life. Still very nice, and it’s a mark of how popular the series must have become if there are this many promotional photographs kicking about.
Also included as a PDF is an ATV sales brochure which gives a nice rundown of season 2 which will come in handy when we reach the hopefully forthcoming second set. By my reckoning both missing episodes for this season would fall in the next batch, and these synopses are nicely detailed. It’s aggravating that “How Do You Vote” in particular is the first part of a trilogy, but what can Network reasonably do? It’s not their fault and this will bridge the gap nicely. The brochure also carries the dire warning that episodes 1-3 and 14-16 of this series form a continuing story and shouldn’t be shown out of sequence, while the rest show considerable character development and really should be shown in the right order. Excellent advice.
Picture-and-sound wise, I’ve no complaints. There’s lots of evidence of film-damage, but it’s mostly confined to the opening credits. With the exception of what appears to be an inbuilt camera fault on “Don’t Worry About Me” where several scenes are afflicted with a slightly rolling picture, there’s nothing too distracting, and the sound is clear as a bell throughout. In a series as reliant on dialogue as this one, that’s vital. I’m fairly sure I saw a fly marching across the telecine in one episode, but I forgot to take a note at the time. If so, it’s merely the latest in a proud line of insect invaders, given there’s one in the BBC’s recording of The Quatermass Experiment and another blotting out some of Steed’s season 2 shenanigans in The Avengers.
Conclusions? Another winner from Network. It gets a bit monotonous to keep saying it, but their output really does stand out. The Plane Makers is a quietly wonderful – if occasionally flawed – series. It needs a bit of effort to get into, but make the effort, stick with it and it will more than repay your devotion. Unreservedly recommended. Purchase with confidence. I can’t wait for the next set.
The Plane Makers is available from 21st June as a Network website exclusive