Thursday, January 15, 2009

For whom the bell tolls

A couple of giants of the small screen have fallen: yesterday the deaths of Ricardo Montalbán and Patrick McGooghan came over the wires, prompting anyone who grew up in the 70s to dissolve into a series of soft-focus reminiscences. The seaplane arriving at the island; the gas being puffed through the lock; the diminutive Herve Villechaize shouting "De plane! De plane!"; the strange sentient white balloon; Montalbán's gleaming white three-piece; the vague feeling of unease common to both, as well as the use of golf carts and mini mokes; "I am not a number, I am a free man!"; "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Fantasy Island. I am your host, Mr. Roarke."

The Prisoner, of course, became a British cult classic. McGooghan, its star, was also its co-creator, and given his small-screen pulling power in the 60s, was empowered to produce one of the most genuinely experimental TV shows ever made. Filmed in 1967, it only ran to 17 episodes but like Fawlty Towers and Some Mothers do 'Ave 'Em, it screened many, many times in Britain during the 1970s. Along with reruns of John Wayne films, the musical Oliver, and the 1950s version of Flash Gordon, it always seemed to be on in the school holidays.

By contrast, that camp classic Fantasy Island seemingly ran to a million episodes. Designed, like The Love Boat, by crap TV genius Aaron Spelling as a revolving door for low- and mid-grade guest spots, new jobbing actors were brought in each week. (What's Charo doing now, I wonder?) Playing out their fantasies on the island, nothing ever quite went as expected, and in the process the confused character learnt a little something about life from the enigmatic Mr Roarke. While The Prisoner was genuinely baffling (particularly if one was aged under 10 at the time), Fantasy Island was just a bit odd, but eagerly looked forward to for after-school viewing. The one was art; the other was formula, but they both made a mighty mark on the cultural landscape of my childhood.

For your viewing pleasure, here's Ricardo Montalbán's famous Chrysler ad for US TV: possibly the best car advertisement ever made. "I know my own needs ... I request nothing beyond the thickly-cushioned luxury of seats available in soft Corinthian leather."

Here's the seaplane arriving and the bell tolling for one last time:

And Rover, the killer weather balloon.

Unsuitable for children? You bet. Great stuff.

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