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Classic TV Revisited: The Untouchables



Classic 1930s set gangster series The Untouchables starred Robert Stack as Eliot Ness’s and in which he and his men took on the gangsters of Chicago, including Al Capone. It ran from 1959-1963 and in the UK from 1966-1969.

Why was it so good?
Robert Stack summed up the fight against crime as legendary G-man Eliot Ness. It captured beautifully the Prohibition atmosphere. With drink banned, no wonder people were violent.

How did it begin?
US network ABC showed two-parter The Scarface Mob about how Eliot Ness put Al Capone in jail for non-payment of taxes.

Was it machine guns in violin cases all round?
It proved such a hit that ABC made 117 episodes.

Was it accurate?
Only to start with. Ness spent his time seeking out bootleg booze and the bad guys but the series strayed very far from his real life.

What were the inaccuracies?
Stories showed Eliot Ness rounding up crooks such as Ma Baker and Bugs Moran but he had nothing to do with them.

What about Bugsy Malone?
In fiction Ness would probably have nabbed him but I don’t know if he’d have used a splurge gun. In reality, after trapping Al Capone, Ness disbanded his group of agents and moved from Chicago to Cleveland to become director of public safety.

How bloodthirsty was it?
Made by the legendary producer Quinn Martin, its body count was so high, it became known as “the weekly bloodbath”. The reason why so many palookas ended up dying was a ratings war between the US networks.

Fans loved not just the violence but the sharp gangster suits, smart cars and scarred heavies. But like critics of The Sopranos, it was blasted by Italian-Americans for stereotyping.

Who was in it?
Eliot Ness was played by Robert Stack, who moved on to comic roles in the movies Airplane!, 1941 and Caddyshack II.

What happened to Stack and Ness?
Stack, who wasn’t the first choice for the role, Van Heflin and Van Johnson were asked before, returned as Ness in a TV special in 1991.

Ness met a sad end, collapsing over his kitchen sink aged just 54 in 1957 after failing to become Cleveland mayor.

The Untouchables

Was it popular?
Originally, it did a St Valentine’s Day-style massacre on rival shows but faltered badly after the third series and ended on US TV in 1963.

But the atmospheric script aided by the staccato-style voice-over commentary of Walter Winchell, with Robert Stack’s acting, has ensured that it’s repeated round the world. It was replaced on US TV by The FBI and Kevin Costner played Eliot Ness opposite Sean Connery in a 1987 movie.

Distinguishing features?
Scarfaces; broken noses; speakeasies; violin cases but no violins; corpses; no booze as it was Prohibition.

Do say:
“The best TV gangster series bar none.”

Do not say:
“It glorified violence paving the way for excesses we have to endure on TV today.”

Not to be confused with:
Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, The Godfather, gangsta rap; A Touch Of Frost; Goodfellas; Bugsy; Edward G Robinson.



Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess




Xena Warrior Princess

What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.

Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.

Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.

Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.

Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?

Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.

Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Character: Xena

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Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife




McMillan And Wife

Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.

Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.

And wifey?
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.

Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.

Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.

Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.

What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.

Other characters
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.

Famous guest stars?
Kim Basinger

The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.

Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.

Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.

Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.

The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.

A winner?
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.

Distinguishing features?
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.

Do say
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.

Don’t say
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.

Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.

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Classic TV Revisited: The Royal




The Royal

The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.

The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.

Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.

Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.

Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”

A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.

First broadcast: 2003

Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden

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