Back in The Golden Age of Television Drama (as some would have it) 26-hour drama series were relatively common on British television. The basic template was American – the big US networks, until quite recently, used to churn out these series year after year expressly for eventual syndication. The best-remembered British examples nowadays are the Lew Grade ITC confections produced in the 1960s such as Jason King, The Champions, Man in a Suitcase etc. but the BBC also used the format for high-brow adaptations of epic Victorian novels such as The Pallisers plus historical dramas.
Manhunt is quite different to these. The brainchild of producer Rex Firkin, it's an epic original serial set in Occupied France. Produced by ITV, it aired weekly without break from January to June 1970 and hasn’t been seen since then (I think). The serial is fondly-remembered by many and rightly so because it's quality stuff, very influential and the viewing commitment required over 26 episodes is well rewarded. The story opens in September 1942 with Jimmy, an RAF officer played by Alfred Lynch, bailing out over Nazi-occupied rural France. The principal plot concerns his Odyssean attempts to return to the UK accompanied by two Resistance leaders, 'Vincent', an Anglo-French aristocrat superbly portrayed by Peter Barkworth, and 'Nina' a part-Jewish student played by Cyd Hayman. Nina was the record-keeper of the main Resistance cell in Paris and, following a Nazi raid, has to be smuggled to the UK as her knowledge of the Resistance is encyclopaedic and useful to both the Allies and the Nazis. It is decided in the first episode that Vincent will escort Jimmy and Nina to the UK via Free France, negotiating their way through enemy-held territory via a series of safe houses and contacts only he has knowledge of. As the three make their perilous way they are doggedly pursued by Obersturmbannfuhrer Lutzig of the SS, played with silky malevolence by Philip Madoc, the chief antagonist of the series. However he does take second billing to the other ‘villain’, Captain Lutz of the Abwehr (Military Intelligence), played (or rather under-played) by Robert Hardy. Those of us used to seeing him blustering and swaggering his way through All Creatures Great and Small will be surprised to see just how much he throttles back for this particular character, a 'little man' of great intelligence and cunning.
Indeed the rivalry between the SS and the Abwehr (and the Gestapo) is one of the core themes in the series. Given 20+ hours of drama to fill allows the writers and producers to delve into many aspects of the Second World War that were rarely dealt with by the more gung-ho cinematic treatments British audiences would have been used to with their plucky Allied heroes, brave Resistance fighters and two-dimensional Nazi villains. And don't forget the series is set only 27 years into the past so most of the audience would have personal memories of the time.
Manhunt goes to great lengths to stress that most of the participants, from all social backgrounds, are thrown together by circumstance and 'united' by a common goal. However the interpretation of that common goal is the subject of much internal strife on all sides. The Nazi military apparatus is repeatedly depicted in such terms. In an early episode, Lutzig, an ambitious officer in the elite SS displays open contempt toward his superior officer in the regular army, a Prussian aristocrat and World War One veteran, many of whom actively despised Hitler and his cronies. He even blackmails him into acceding to his demands (the senior officer just happens to like having private dinners with one of his prettier junior officers...). Over and over again, the scripts have the squabbling SS officers remind each other what their civilian occupations were before the war, just to reinforce how ordinary these men were and how the opportunities that SS rank afforded often brought out the worst in them.
Unlike the examples mentioned of 26-episode series with their villain-of-the-week plots, Manhunt is a single story with a beginning, middle and an end. However, the basic idea of a peripatetic group moving from safe house to safe house does maintain some narrative momentum and allows different guest actors to be brought in from week to week. But such storytelling, even within the studio-bound production style of the day, is expensive to produce and sure enough things begin to settle down halfway through as everyone finds themselves in a studio interpretation of Bordeaux where they stay for the rest of the serial.
For the first twelve episodes, the plot revolves entirely around our three protagonists and their journey together, even overtaking elapsed transmission time. Episode one starts in September 1942 and by episode eight it's already Christmas. Keeping everyone on the run through winter would stretch the audience's credulity and it's made very explicit in the drama that supporting these refugees places intolerable strains on the resources of the Resistance itself with food being severely rationed. I would also imagine by that time the three principal actors would be exhausted given the relentless weekly transmission schedule and by extension, punishing production schedule. So by episode twelve, to sustain audience interest and give the poor actors some time off, the narrative begins to separate our three heroes and introduces a new dramatic objective, of which more later. As mentioned they end up in Bordeaux, Nina living with Gratz as his mistress, Jimmy, co-opted by the local Maquis, working undercover at a munitions factory which is secretly developing materials for a new rocket fighter, and Vincent is Lutzig's prisoner. From this point our heroes follow three different plotlines that occasionally intersect which means that one or more of the principals can drop out for several episodes at a time as the narrative focus shifts between each. They only reunite in the penultimate episode.
However one masterstroke pulled off by the producers mid-series is to introduce a new principal character. She is Adelaide, a seen-it-all nightclub chanteuse and Lutzig's on-off mistress. Initially she is introduced as a Nazi collaborator and informant but it quickly becomes apparent she is a mercenary force who follows her own whims and is, effectively, an independent double agent who assists our heroes as required and ultimately sides with them against Lutzig. But the biggest asset with this new character is the casting. Maggie Fitzgibbon, an Australian star of musical theatre, had just come off a highly successful four-year run in the soap The Newcomers. She was an extremely popular actress at that time and just lifts every scene she's in by sheer talent and presence. She also uses her native accent as the character is, bizarrely, Australian but it just fits so well you don't notice. And she's a bloody good singer too.
Of our heroes, Alfred Lynch (Jimmy) was a successful jobbing theatre and film actor but this serial was probably the biggest thing he ever did on TV. Cyd Hayman (Nina) a beautiful and talented newcomer did a terrific job with the frankly thankless character she's handed who ricochets from hysterical neurotic to tough cookie to ruthless bitch depending on the whims of the scriptwriters. She went on to lead other series throughout the 70s but has now disappeared from view. Peter Barkworth’s performance towers over the others in his portrayal of the sensitive intellectual Vincent, torn between loyalty to his fascist aristo family and his abhorrence of the Nazis while tortured by his almost-unrequited love for Nina (despite his hinted-at possible homosexuality). Barkworth had a very successful career in television, often playing flawed authority figures and underplays the character superbly, unafraid to mine some of the more difficult emotional territory he's required to play.
After the first five episodes with their extensive location shooting, the format settles down into standard studio drama of the day. Many episodes revolve around tense psychological two-hander scenes as various characters attempt to outwit and outmanoeuvre each other. This is not light drama - many episodes could be straight out of Armchair Theatre, the prestige drama of the time. Having said that, near the end of the serial, this intense personal format is blown completely out of the water by a jaw-droppingly radical change in format for one episode only. In complete contrast to the intimate talky studio drama that had been the prevailing format, this one episode is an action-adventure spectacular. With no dialogue! Shot entirely on location, the episode revolves around a combined Maquis invasion/Allied bombing raid on the factory where Jimmy has been 'working'. His mission is to retrieve a sample of the metal casing of a rocket engine being tested and take it to England (with Nina, of course). The scale and ambition of this one episode are feature-standard with a huge number of performers, explosions and stunts. I was intrigued by the absence of dialogue for a whole 50 minutes but I think this was because the whole episode was shot on video on location. I may be wrong in this but I believe that, at that time, footage shot on video, unlike film, could not have dialogue post-dubbed. With video recording, image and sound are recorded onto the same physical tape but with film they are recorded onto separate media which means sound and image can be manipulated separately, unlike video. This would explain why so much studio footage of the time doesn't have any dialogue fluffs re-dubbed afterwards. It wasn't technically possible. I imagine production pressures on location meant retakes were not an option and it was simpler to perform without dialogue. And it could also have been a money-saving measure on a very expensive shoot. Actors who don't talk get paid less than those who do. It would also explain the inclusion of an audible unscripted ‘fuck’ in another episode when Alfred Lynch swears after he trips over a piece of scenery on the set.
The 26 episodes each last approx 51 minutes and are spread over seven double-layer discs. Each episode has ten chapters not accessible from any menu.
For most of the series, the standard practice of the day is followed in which interiors are shot in the studio on video and location footage on grainier 16mm film. However, in certain key episodes, a different format prevails. For the first four episodes (and the one at the end of the series already mentioned) all location footage (and it is extensive) is shot on video. Which is surprising as shooting on video in those days was considerably more difficult and expensive than shooting on film. Notwithstanding the difficulties of shooting on location on video, episode two is shot entirely in this format in a forest location and is surprisingly effective. The staging is static and talky as video cameras were much less mobile than film but the wooded location is very effectively used by the director and it suits the episode's theme of internal hostilities between different factions of the Resistance. In contrast, episode five also takes place entirely on location in the countryside but was shot on film, which marks the change in practice for the rest of the serial.
The quality of the footage is not bad considering it hasn't been seen for forty years. Colours are natural and balanced and there is very little in the way of tape damage. However there is a small amount of colour instability in some shots and occasional colour bleed and smear as objects move across the frame. In the odd scene with loud gunfire the sound also generates some minor picture interference but this is fleeting. The film footage is as grainy as you would expect for the period but, as always with Network releases, the digital transfer is exemplary. It's also worth pointing out that when the series started in January 1970, ITV had only started broadcasting in colour two months earlier. Almost everyone in the audience of the time would have watched the series on black and white TVs as colour sets did not become common in the UK until 1972 onwards (thanks to the Munich Olympic coverage). I watched a couple of episodes with the colour turned off and the show does look better in black and white.
There is one episode though which has a noticeably poorer picture to every other. And it happens to be the pivotal mid-season episode, the events in which power the narrative for the remainder of the series. Episode 10, With A Sort of Love, appears to have been taken from a VHS off-air recording rather than a studio master. The picture and sound are of significantly poorer quality to the rest of the serial. I found this curious but it may have something to do with the subject matter. In the episode Nina is captured by the Abwehr and interrogated by Gratz who is meeting her for the first time and falls obsessively in love with her. During the course of the interrogation he instructs her to strip naked which is staged on-camera. Although Cyd Hayman is only seen from behind she is mostly filmed full-figure. Gratz subjects her to various psychological and physical humiliations culminating in a quasi-rape. Nevertheless by the end of the episode the two have become lovers and the plotting for the remainder of the serial revolves around his obsessive love for her. I imagine the subject matter and its depiction were just too strong for overseas sale or domestic repeats and very possibly the episode was wiped for that reason.
The soundtrack is mono, clear and in good condition. Dialogue is sufficently audible, even on location.
On the final disc there is a brief animated gallery lasting 3m 9s of production and publicity shots of the cast in costume. It’s a pity Network couldn’t put together a few interviews as most of the cast, except for Alfred Lynch and Peter Barkworth, are still alive and kicking.
There are no subtitles.
A rewarding, intense and mature series, Manhunt is an important document in the development of British TV drama and the depiction of the Second World War to British audiences. It was clearly a strong influence on the very popular series Secret Army which first aired in 1977 and utilised many of the elements and themes of its predecessor. A spin-off series Kessler aired in 1981 but to most people nowadays Secret Army is known, unfortunately, as the inspiration for the sitcom Allo, Allo. I bet Rex Firkin never saw that coming.