Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The 30th Anniversary of Twin Peaks

It was thirty years ago today that Twin Peaks debuted on ABC. Created by television writer Mark Frost and motion picture director David Lynch, Twin Peaks only a ran a little over a year, but it launched a media franchise that lasts to this day. It also revolutionised American broadcast television.

Twin Peaks centred on the small town of the same name located in the state of Washington. Initially it followed the investigation of Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) into the murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). The show was unusual in that it was one of the few network television dramas of the time outside of soap operas to have a serialized storyline. It was also set apart from other shows in that it combined several different genres, including detective fiction, supernatural horror, soap opera, and even camp.

As mentioned earlier, Twin Peaks was created by Mark Frost and David Lynch. Mark Frost was a well-established television writer who had served as story editor on the show Hill Street Blues. Of course, David Lynch was the director of such motion pictures as The Elephant Man (1980) and Blue Velvet (1986). The two men met when they were working together on a screenplay about the life of Marilyn Monroe based on the book The Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe. The project never moved forward and Messrs. Frost and Lynch afterwards worked on a comedy screenplay titled One Saliva Bubble, which also never got off the ground. It was David Lynch's agent, Tony Krantz, who suggested that he do a television show. Mr. Lynch was not enthusiastic about doing a television show, but Mr. Krantz encouraged him to do a television show "...about real life in America—your vision of America the same way you demonstrated it in Blue Velvet."

Initially Mark Frost and David Lynch decided the show would be set in the plains of North Dakota and would even be titled North Dakota. It was after they screened the movie Peyton Place (1957) that they changed the show's location to the Pacific Northwest and the title of the show to Northwest Passage. The murder of Laura Palmer that provided the impetus for much of Twin Peaks was inspired by an actual unsolved death. Mark Frost had been told by his grandmother, Betty Calhoun, about Hazel Irene Drew, who had been murdered in Sand Lake, New York in 1908. Miss Drew was a 19 year old blonde who worked as a governess for a local professor and who, from the expensive clothing she wore and her reported relationships with various men, appeared to lead a double life. Her death received national attention and remains unsolved to this day.

Mark Frost and David Lynch pitched what would become Twin Peaks to ABC and they received the go-ahead to make the series pilot. While Bob Iger, who had become head of ABC Entertainment after the network had picked up the project, liked the pilot, there were those ABC executives who were nervous about it and a few who thought the show would either never make it to the air or would simply air as a seven hour miniseries. As it was, ABC need not have worried. Twin Peaks debuted on April 8 1990 to good ratings. The pilot movie was watched by 33% of the television audience at the time. While Twin Peaks would not maintain such incredible Nielsen ratings, it proved to be very popular. In fact, in its first season Twin Peaks was something of a phenomenon, comparable to the "Davy Crockett" mini-series on Disneyland in the Fifties or the TV series Batman in the Sixties.

Indeed, in 1990 it would have been very difficult to avoid coverage of Twin Peaks. The show was featured on the covers of such magazines as Playboy, Rolling Stone, Time, and TV Guide. As might be expected, Twin Peaks inspired its share of merchandise. The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer was published in September 1990. It was followed by The Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper: My Life, My Tapes and Welcome to Twin Peaks: An Access Guide to the Town in 1991. The soundtrack to the TV series was also released in September 1990. Just as Batman in 1966 before it, there was a good deal of unauthorised Twin Peaks merchandise on the market, particularly T-shirts.

Unfortunately, the success of Twin Peaks would not last. Ratings for the show declined with the second season. Worse yet, ABC pressured Mark Frost and David Lynch to resolve the murder of Laura Palmer. With the resolution of Laura Palmer's murder, ratings for Twin Peaks would fall even further. Eventually ratings for Twin Peaks were so bad that ABC placed the show on indefinite hiatus. It was after a letter writing campaign that ABC decided to air the show's final six episodes, which were burned off during the summer. After being one of the most successful shows of the 1989-1990 season, Twin Peaks was cancelled in the 1990-1991 season.

As to what led to the cancellation of Twin Peaks in its first run, there were multiple reasons. Chief among these was the fact that ABC moved the show around the network's schedule. Sadly, changing time slots often hurt a show's ratings. As mentioned above, the resolution of Laura Palmer's murder also led to a drop in the show's ratings. With the murder solved, many viewers likely lost interest in the show. Both Mark Frost and David Lynch believe that the resolution of Laura Palmer's murder is what killed the show. Complicating matters further, following the resolution of Laura Palmer's death, Twin Peaks was often pre-empted by coverage of the Gulf War. 
While there can be no doubt that inconsistent time slots, the resolution of Laura Palmer's murder, and consistently being pre-empted by Gulf War coverage took their toll on Twin Peaks, there may be another reason the show declined in the ratings. Twin Peaks was very much a fad, not unlike Batman in the Sixties. Like Batman, Twin Peaks received phenomenal ratings when it initially aired. And like Batman, ratings declined dramatically in its second season. In this respect, both Batman and Twin Peaks took the same course as most fads, from the hula hoop to pet rocks.  In the book Fads, Follies, and Delusions of the American People by Paul Sann, it is noted that often the more intensely a fad is adopted, the shorter its duration will be. Viewers embraced Twin Peaks almost immediately and there was already a good deal of press coverage and merchandise in its first few months. Having been embraced by viewers so quickly and so intensely, it was perhaps inevitable that viewers would eventually grow tired of the show and stop watching it. Quite simply, the Twin Peaks fad ended.

While ABC had cancelled the show, Twin Peaks was hardly gone. A prequel movie,  Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, directed by David Lynch, was released in August 1992. In 1993 cable channel Bravo began airing reruns of Twin Peaks. While no new Twin Peaks material would emerge following Fire Walk with Me, the show's fandom remained active and effectively kept the show alive.

It would be the continued popularity of Twin Peaks that would lead to a third season on the premium cable channel Showtime. The new season debuted on Showtime on May 21 2017 and included eighteen new episodes. The new season brought with it new Twin Peaks merchandise, including the books The Secret History of Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier.

For a show that lasted only a little over a year, Twin Peaks would have a  lasting influence. Prior to Twin Peaks, outside of primetime soap operas, there were only a few shows with extended storylines, among them Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, Crime Story, and Wiseguy. Twin Peaks went even further with its serialised storyline than many of the shows before it, to the point that many have counted it as a primetime soap opera. As one of the earliest American television shows with serialised storylines, Twin Peaks would have a lasting impact on television series from The X-Files to Lost to Mad Men.

Along with Miami Vice and Crime Story, Twin Peaks was also among the first television shows to put an emphasis on cinematography. Twin Peaks looked very much like a feature film. In this respect, Twin Peaks can be considered a forerunner of modern television shows, which tend to look much more cinematic than many television shows made in the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties. In fact, many more recent shows have borrowed liberally from Twin Peaks in everything from its use of space to tracking shots. Twin Peaks may have been shot in the traditional television aspect ratio of 4:3 and using analogue technology, but it was by far the most cinematic television show up to that time.

In the years since Twin Peaks aired its influence has continued to be felt on television shows. The mystery comedy Pscyh did a tribute to the show with its episode "Dual Spires," which not only contained several references to Twin Peaks, but included many of its cast as guest stars. While Riverdale is loosely based on Archie Comics characters, it also owes a good deal to the show. In fact, Mädchen Amick (who played Shelly on Twin Peaks) is even a member of the cast of Riverdale. Twin Peaks has been referenced on shows from The Simpsons  to Gravity Falls.

Twin Peaks lasted all too briefly. Even with the revival on Showtime there are only 48 episodes. Still, it had an impact much larger than many shows that ran much longer. Even now, Twin Peaks continues to have an impact. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The Late Great James Drury

In the annals of Westerns on American television, James Drury occupied a unique place. He is one of only two actors (the other being the late Stuart Whitman) to play the lead in a 90 minute Western. That Western, The Virginian, would prove to be one of the most successful Westerns on American broadcast television, running for nine years and, along with Bonanza, sparking a second wave of Westerns on the American broadcast networks in the Sixties. James Drury never again had the success he did with The Virginian, and for the most part he was typecast in the role. Despite this, he was always grateful for having played such an iconic character. Sadly, Mr. Drury died yesterday at the age of 85.

James Drury was born on April 18 1934 in New York City. His father a professor of marketing at New York University. His mother's family owned a ranch in Salem, Oregon. James Drury spent much of his childhood on the ranch. It was where he would both learn to ride a horse and shoot a gun, skills that would prove useful in his acting career. He began acting while very young, appearing on stage beginning when he was 8 years old. When he was 12 he went on tour with a production of Life With Father.

James Drury attended New York University for a time, dropping out after he signed a contract with MGM. He made his film debut in an uncredited role as a hospital attendant in Blackboard Jungle (1955). He made his television debut the same year in an episode of Cameo Theatre. In the late Fifties he appeared in the films Love Me or Leave Me (1955), The Tender Trap (1955), Diane (1956), Forbidden Planet (1956), The Last Wagon (1956), Love Me Tender (1956), Bernardine (1957), Good Day for a Hanging (1959), Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks with a Circus (1960), Pollyanna (1960), and Ten Who Dared (1960). He guest starred on The 20th Century Fox Hour, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Broken Arrow, Man Without a Gun, The Walter Winchell File, Decision, Playhouse 90, The Silent Service, The Texan, Flight, Bronco, Zane Grey Theatre, Disneyland, Have Gun--Will Travel, Track Down, Richard Diamond Private Detective, Lawman, Black Saddle, Steve Canyon, Cheyenne, Death Valley Days, Men Into Space, Lock Up, Bourbon Street Beat, Rawhide, Gunsmoke, and The Loretta Young Show.

It was in 1962 that James Drury began playing The Virginian on the show of the same name. It was actually the second time Mr. Drury played the role. He had earlier played the role in an unsold pilot that aired as an episode of the anthology series The Virginian in 1958. The Virginian was historic as the first ninety minute American television show with continuing characters. The success of The Virginian would lead to a new wave of Westerns in the Sixties, as well as other ninety minute shows with continuing characters (The Name of the Game and The NBC Mystery Movie, among them). Ultimately it ran for nine seasons, making it the third longest Western to run on American broadcast television after Gunsmoke and Bonanza. In the Sixties Mr. Drury also guest starred on the shows Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Michael Shayne, The Rifleman, Stagecoach West, Rawhide, Perry Mason, The Detectives, It Takes a Thief, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In.  He appeared in the movies Ride the High County (1962), Third of a Man, and The Young Warriors (1967).

James Drury began the Seventies still playing The Virginian. In the Seventies Mr. Drury was the lead on the short-lived television series Firehouse. He guest starred on Ironside and Alias Smith and Jones. He appeared in the TV movies The Devil and Miss Sarah and Bull of the West. In the Eighties he guest starred on the TV show The Fall Guy. In the Nineties James Drury guest starred on Walker, Texas Ranger; The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.; and  Kung Fu: The Legend Continues. He appeared in the TV movie The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw and had a cameo in the TV movie The Virginian. He had a cameo in the movie Maverick (1994).

In the Naughts he appeared in the movie Hell to Pay (2005). He guest starred on the TV show Tales of the Cap Gun Kid.

There can be no doubt that James Drury will always be remembered as The Virginian. In fact, despite the number of times the novel has been adapted as feature films, chances are good that he will always be the actor most identified with the role. If James Drury will always be identified with The Virginian, it is not without good reason. He played the role perfectly. The Virginian was taciturn and tough, but at the same time fair minded and warm hearted. While James Drury will always be best remembered as The Virginian, he was fully capable of playing other roles. One of his best performances was a the former outlaw Johnny Red in the Gunsmoke episode of that name. In the episode of The Rebel titled "Vindication" he played a blind man whose wife had been killed by Apaches. James Drury could even play villains quite well. In the Rilfeman episode "Death Trap" he played Spicer, the sadistic and psychopathic leader of a gang of outlaws.

In real life James Drury was much closer to The Virginian than any villains he might have played in his career. He was well known for attending many classic television and Western conventions through the years, and did so nearly until his death. Mr. Drury was intelligent, well-spoken, and warm, and he truly appreciated his many fans. I had the honour of being Facebook friends with James Drury, and while I did not get to interact with him a whole lot (usually I interacted with his assistant Karen, who is a sweetheart), my interactions with him were always wonderful. James Drury was one of the nicest gentleman one could ever interact with. If James Drury played The Virginian so well, it is perhaps because James Drury was very much like him in real life.

Monday, April 6, 2020

The Late Great Honor Blackman

Honor Blackman, best known for her roles as Cathy Gale on The Avengers and Pussy Galore in the James Bond film Goldfinger (1964), died yesterday at the age of 94. She numbers among those actors who have never known life without. Indeed, she played the goddess Hera in the very first movie I can remember watching all the way through, Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Later I encountered her in Goldfinger when it debuted on The ABC Sunday Night Movie. Still later I would see her in such films as A Night to Remember (1958) and The Secret of My Success (1965). While I was aware that she played John Steed's partner on The Avengers before Diana Rigg joined the show as Emma Peel, with the first three series of The Avengers unavailable in the United States, I would be an adult before I finally got to see Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale. Once I did, Cathy Gale became one of my favourite television characters and the role that will forever come to my mind when I think of Honor Blackman. Miss Blackman was an incredible actress, elegant, intelligent, and powerful. She was perfect for such empowered characters as Cathy Gale, Hera, and Pussy Galore.

Honor Blackman was born on August 22 1925 in Plaistow, Essex. She attended North Ealing Primary School and Ealing County Grammar School for Girls. For her fifteenth birthday her parents gave her elocution lessons. She began her training as an actor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1940. She made her film debut in an uncredited role in Fame is the Spur in 1947. In the late Forties she appeared in the films Daughter of Darkness (1948), Quartet (1948), A Boy, a Girl and a Bike (1949), Conspirator (1949), Diamond City (1949), and So Long at the Fair (1950).

Miss Blackman made her television debut in 1951 in the BBC production Joseph Proctor's Money in 1951. In the Fifties she had recurring roles on the TV shows Probation Officer and The Four Just Men. She guest starred on the shows Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Presents, I tre moschettieri, Boyd Q.C., The New Adventures of Charlie Chan, Hour of Mystery, The Invisible Man, African Patrol, The Vise, Suspense, The Third Man, and Danger Man. She appeared in the movies Green Grow the Rushes (1951), Manchas de sangre en la luna (1952), The Rainbow Jacket (1954), Diplomatic Passport (1954), The Devaline Affair (1955), The Glass Cage (1955), Breakaway (1956), You Pay Your Money (1957), Suspended Alibi (1957), Account Rendered (1957), A Night to Remember (1958), and The Square Peg (1958).

It was in 1962 that Honor Blackman began playing one of her best known roles, that of  Catherine Gale on The Avengers. Cathy Gales was one of two replacements introduced in the second season for John Steed's original partner, Dr. David Keel. In the second season Cathy Gale rotated episodes with Steed's other partner, nightclub singer Venus Smith, but it was Mrs. Gale who proved to be the most popular of the two. While Venus was a more traditional female character, Cathy Gales was a woman as television had never seen before. Cathy Gale was an anthropologist with a doctorate in anthropology. Not only was she self-assured and assertive, but she was a skilled combatant as well. Clad in leather, Mrs. Gale regularly dispatched opponents using judo. Popular in its first season, the presence of Cathy Gale on The Avengers turned the show into a sensation in the United Kingdom. For the show's third series, Cathy Gale was Steed's only partner. It was following the third season of The Avengers that Honor Blackman left the show to take the role of Pussy Galore in The Avengers.

In the Sixties, prior to her role in The Avengers, Honor Blackman guest starred on the shows Knight Errant Limited, Bootsie and Snudge Kraft Mystery Theatre, Top Secret, The Pursuers, Ghost Squad, and The Saint. Following The Avengers she guest starred on ITV Play of the Week, ABC Stage 67, Armchair Theatre, ITV Playhouse, The Name of the Game and ITV Saturday Night Theatre. Arguably the Sixties marked the height of Honor Blackman's film career. In addition to playing Hera in Jason and the Argonauts and Pussy Galore in Golfinger, she also played Lily, Baroness von Lukenberg in The Secret of My Success (1965), Norah Hauxley in Life at the Top (1965), and Lady Daggett in Shakalo (1968). She also appeared in the movies A Matter of WHO (1961), Serena (1962), Moment to Moment (1966), A Twist of Sand (1968), Kampf um Rom I (1968), Twinky (1970), The Last Grenade (1970), and The Virgin and the Gypsy (1970).

In the Seventies Miss Blackman appeared in the movies Fright (1971), Something Big (1971), To the Devil a Daughter (1976), Age of Innocence (1978), and The Cat and the Canary (1978). She guest starred on the shows Boney, Columbo, Jubilee, Robin's Nest, and Crown Court. She played Margaret Stevenson in the mini-series The Lives of Benjamin Franklin.

In the Eighties Honor Blackman had the regular role of Veronica Barton on the TV show Never the Twain, Later in the decade she began playing Laura West in the long-running sitcom The Upper Hand. She guest starred on the shows Holding the Fort, In Performance, Minder, Doctor Who, and Crossbow.

In the Nineties she continued to star on The Upper Hand. She guest starred on The ABC Weekend Specials and Doctors. She appeared in the movies Tales of the Mummy (1998) and To Walk with Lions (1999). In the Naughts she appeared in the movies Bridget Jones' Diary (2001), Jack Brown and the Curse of the Crown (2004), Colour Me Kubrick: A True...ish Story (2005), and Reuniting the Rubins (2010). She guest starred on the television shows The American Embassy, Midsomer Murders, The Royal, Revolver, Coronation Street, New Tricks, and Hotel Babylon.

In the Teens she guest starred on Casualty, and You, Me & Them. She appeared in the mini-series By Any Means.She appeared in the movies I, Anna (2012) and Cockneys vs. Zombies (2012).

Honor Blackman also had a considerable stage career, appearing in such productions as Mr. & Mrs.; Move Over, Mrs Markham; Night and Day, The Sound of Music; My Fair Lady; and Cabaret. More recently she toured in her own showy Honor Blackman as Herself, a look back at her life and career.

Chances are good that Honor Blackman will always be remembered as Cathy Gale and Pussy Galore, but she played a variety of roles throughout her long career. In Britain Miss Blackman will also be remembered as Laura West on The Upper Hand, lead character Caroline Wheatley's glamorous mother who dates a succession of men. In the Danger Man episode "Colonel Rodriguez," she played the wife of an American journalist arrested on a small island nation. She made one of her best known guest appearances on television in the Columbo episode "Dagger of the Mind." She played Shakespearean actress Lillian Stanhope, who proves to be a worthy opponent to Lt. Columbo.

The fact is that Honor Blackman was an enormous talent. What she brought to her many roles was more than beauty and elegance, but also intelligence, determination, professionalism, and, when the role called for it, even physical prowess. Much like Cathy Gale and Pussy Galore, Honor Blackman was a remarkable woman in real life, well known for her political activism. Honor Blackman wasn't simply a talented actress, but she was also a lady through and through.