Irwin Allen was either the worst or the best producer of TV science fiction in the world, depending entirely upon your point of view.
Irwin Allen produced four of the best known science fiction series of all time through the sixties and early seventies – Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants. The first one started life as a movie starring Walter Pidgeon, the second two become kitsch movies in the 1990s and no-one’s had a go at the fourth one yet, but it is probably only a matter of time.
None of the series had any pretensions to great art or deep concepts, but, as Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin might say, “By Crikey, they were entertaining.”
Irwin Allen deserved the nickname “Mr. Entertainment,” if anybody did. He was born in New York in 1916. He was given no particular advantages as a child – he attended public schools and when on to study journalism and advertising at Columbia University. At the tender age of 22, he became editor of “Key” magazine in Hollywood, and within a year was working as the producer of a one-hour show for radio station KLAC. His reputation of a workaholic started to form as he wrote, narrated, produced and directed the show which ran without a break for more than a decade.
As television began to make inroads into the entertainment business, Allen took his imagination to the small screen and came up with America’s first celebrity panel game, Hollywood Merry Go Round, which ran for four years.
In his spare time – what spare time there was, anyway – Allen went on to run his own literary agency, which led in turn to him putting together ‘packages’ for motion pictures.
His first Oscar was for The Sea Around Us which starred Rachel Carson, and for which Allen wrote the screenplay and produced. His stock was high with the Hollywood studios, and he went on to produce and direct the circus flick The Big Circus. He switched studios to Twentieth Century Fox and produced his first Sci Fi-Fantasy movie The Lost World, starring Michael Rennie.
Small screen success
His next science fiction epic, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, starred Walter Pidgeon at the helm of a futuristic nuclear-powered submarine, the Seaview. The Van Allen belts which surround the Earth caught fire, and the Seaview is all that stands between the human race and extinction in a planet-wide slow cooker. But it led to a spin-off TV series, which saw the Seaview take on a variety of undersea adventures in more than 110 episodes from 1964 to 1968. Sadly, the series degenerated over the years until it became a parody of itself. (I vaguely remember a series of monsters which generated fear – one was called the fear monster. Anyway, once they’d run out of fear spiders and fear jelllyfish, they ended up with a fear phobia, which seemed something of a contradiction in terms). The series economically used, re-used and and re-used again stock special effects footage of the Seaview underway, surfacing, and diving, and so on – a tradition which later Irwin Allen productions (and indeed most other science fiction series) repeated.
1964 was a bumper year for Allen – another long-running series that debuted that year was Flipper, which also ran to 1968 and featured the Ricks family who lived and worked in a Florida marine reserve with a friendly pet dolphin, Flipper. The series – filmed entirely in colour – lived on for decades in syndication and is still a staple of cable nostalgia channels.
A year later, Allen came up with another hit series, this time in outer space. Lost in Space featured Dr. John Robinson and his wife, Maureen; their children, Judy, Penny, and Will; their pilot, Don; and their robot, imaginatively named “The Robot.” Dr. Zachary Smith stowed away, throwing their spaceship off course (hence the title) and they spent the next three years (recurring) trying to find their way home. Similar production values to Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea ensured plenty of carrot monsters (which, curiously, often look like the previous series lobster men). I watched it as a child and thought it was a great. My little boy watched re-runs at the same age as I did and dismissed it as silly. That goes to show we were less sophisticated in the olden days. (Trivia fans note that when CBS was looking around for ideas for the series, they called in a producer from another studio to talk about his plans. They turned them down as being too cerebral. That producer’s name? Gene Roddenberry. Paramount/Viacom hasn’t done badly out of his Star Trek franchise, all things considered.)
The Time Tunnel was less successful, only running for thirty episodes. The premise of the series was great – two scientists taking part in a U.S. government project are accidentally flung back in time. Sadly, history repeated itself and the plots did too, and The Time Tunnel came to a dead end.
In Land of the Giants, a routine space flight spirals out of control and lands on what the crew think is Earth, only to find it is populated by huge human beings, and they are the size of dolls. The series was the same as the other three in many ways, but had a darker edge to it, with less sympathetic and stereotypical characters and a genuine air of menace from time to time. At least there were no carrot monsters. The series lasted from 1968 to 1970.
Back to the big screen
Irwin Allen’s astonishing career continued to bloom, cornering the market in disaster movies. The Poseidon Adventure was a world-wide megahit based (very loosely) on a Paul Gallico novel. The Towering Inferno starred the entire population of Hollywood in a burning building. The Swarm is, arguably, one of the worst movies of all time but features a constellation of A-list celebrities being attacked by killer bees. Irwin Allen continued to work on TV, but now mostly in Made-for-T.V. Movies such as Fire!, Flood!, and When Time Ran Out…
Time ran out for the Master of Disaster in 1991, when he suffered a heart attack and died. By then Irwin Allen was one of the best known names in Hollywood, with a string of hugely successful TV series and film productions to his credit.
So was he any good? No one could survive as long and as successfully in Hollywood without being good. Allen’s great talent was to take an idea and make it run, and run, and run. Sometimes, as in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, the idea was stretched so thin it became invisible. Other shows, like Land of the Giants had genuine moments of well acted and well produced drama. Allen had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the way Hollywood worked. After all, very few people have worked in radio, TV, and film, as a writer, producer, and director. He had, in fact, done it all, and been a success at all of it. Whether you love his stuff or hate it, you have to admit he did what he did very well.
Kick-Ass TV Heroines: 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
Classic TV Revisited: 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.
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.
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?
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.
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.
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.
Classic TV Revisited: 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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