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When the high-rise block's janitor, Vine (Talfryn Thomas), asks him to take some tools up to the engineers (Patrick Durkin and David Trevena) who are working on the block's faulty lift (elevator), Roland becomes involved in a serious confrontation with Ripper (Jamie Foreman) and his gang of merciless thugs. Confusion ensues when the police, Sergeant Tarr (Edward Dentith) and P.C. Briggs (Paul Nicholson), arrive on the scene, resulting in Roland panicking and entering the faulty lift. The lift plummets downwards and when its doors open Roland finds that he is trapped in the spooky dungeon of a gothic castle. The sinister and mysterious Vein (Talfryn Thomas, again) appears and advises Roland that, in order to escape, he must travel upwards, earning the keys that will open the doors that will eventually lead him home. But every new level of the Castle that Roland fights his way to presents its own seemingly insurmountable supernatural or bafflingly surreal challenge.
Written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, who had both worked on Doctor Who during the 1970s, King of the Castle is remembered as being a quite extraordinary television series that left a lasting impression on all who saw its original broadcast. Essentially billed and transmitted as a children's show, King of the Castle is a quite complex and multi-layered text that possesses the power to intrigue and engage adult viewers too. Baker described the show as essentially being "Kafka for kids" and it's easy to appreciate why: Roland is an alienated and persecuted individual and he both attacks and defies the crazed bureaucracy and the debilitating social caste system of the mysterious Castle in order to seek an audience with its highest authority.
Produced at a time when the UK was caught in the grip of economic hardship and social unrest, King of the Castle features a fairly strong political subtext that seemingly concedes that there is little hope of a truly egalitarian society ever being realized. The show's real world sections pointedly highlight the sense of social inequality and the class-based antagonisms that the British class system fosters but can offer no direct solutions to the system's problems. Likewise, in the allegorical fantasy world of the Castle, Roland witnesses similar social wrongs and abuses of power. (Major spoiler follows...) When Roland becomes the King of the Castle, he subsequently sets out to introduce well-intentioned reforms that are intended to bring an end to the suffering and inequality that he has witnessed during his quest. Alas, he discovers to his cost that the Castle's social system is able to successfully resist his attempts to change it (... spoiler ends).
Each episode of this highly creative series is presented here in two acts (the show broke for just one block of television commercials at the halfway point of each episode) and some decent cliffhanger endings can be found at the denouement of most of these acts. The series features a well-paced narrative arc that builds steadily to an intriguing climax so, rather than give a spoiler-laden account of each individual episode in sequential order, this review will seek to just offer a taste of what the series as a whole was about. Peter Hammond, who directed the British social realist drama Spring and Port Wine (1970), helmed the first two episodes and these are the most cinematic seeming episodes of the series. Episode one is shot mostly on film and Hammond expertly captures and telegraphs the social class conflicts that exist between Roland and his teachers and Roland and his neighbourhood peers. Roland's grammar school is similar to the more exclusive and elitist public schools seen in the likes of If.... and Hammond shoots the school's fantastic gothic architecture from some interesting angles. Fulton MacKay (Britannia Hospital) is superb as the cruel and merciless teacher: Spurgeon is very similar to the teacher featured in Pink Floyd's/Alan Parker's The Wall.
From episode two onwards, the show's narrative regularly but briefly cuts back to the concerned parties who are trying to get the damaged lift back up to a floor where its doors can be accessed and opened. These segments are shot on film but the majority of the studio-based fantasy world footage is shot on video. Episode two introduces one of the show's best-realized conceits: everybody that Roland meets in the Castle is a variation of somebody that he knows in the real world. Hence Vine the janitor becomes the disturbing and Dickensian Vein: the Steward of the Keep, the Holder of the Keys. In this episode, Hammond uses some unobtrusive but highly effective light filters and double exposure/blue screen effects to add depth to his almost expressionistic sets. The plot of this episode involves Roland meeting Hawkspur (Fulton MacKay, again), a Doctor Frankenstein-type who is in the process of creating a new construct, Ergon (Milton Johns, again), who will act as his slave. Ergon's shock of spiky day-glo red hair is intended to link him to the ginger-haired Roland but it also chimes nicely with the fashion sensibilities of the then emergent Punk rock movement.
When Hawkspur dismisses Ergon as a worthless failure that he intends to destroy because it has no voice, he is mirroring Spurgeon's elitist disdain for the working class Roland: if Roland were to lose his singing voice, Spurgeon would deem him to be equally worthless and would carry out his threat to return the boy to the social "scrapheap". Despite being bright, Roland only has access to the top class education offered by the grammar school because he possesses musical talents that the school can exploit in its choir. Roland eventually spots the parallels that exist between the Castle and the real world and he realizes that the methods that he employs to solve his problems in the Castle might be of use in the real world too. Unfortunately, the other characters that Roland encounters prove to be just as dangerous as Hawkspur. The Lady of the Castle (Angela Richards, again) is an attractive but devious Ice Queen-cum-Queen of Hearts-like figure who promises those who enter her palatial quarters eternal youth. The downside to this is her penchant for miniaturizing her guests and keeping them as prisoners in a doll's house. There are references to Doctor Pretorius from The Bride of Frankenstein present here. The Castle's Lord (Sean Lynch, again) is a distant hippy-ish music-lover who wears a futuristic crown that comes equipped with its own set of built-in headphones.
In another episode, Roland is captured by the Governor (Edward Dentith, again) and forced to work in a huge and horrendously busy Victorian-era kitchen. Here over-worked child labourers are shackled to their posts and forced to speedily produce a never ending succession of meals that all look the same despite having different names. This technical oversight isn't a problem because it is revealed that said meals will never be eaten by anybody. Despite the abundance of food in the kitchen, the children are not given anything to eat during their short meal breaks. Comments on the consumer society, food wastage, false consciousness, child labour and the work ethic are featured throughout this episode: the toiling lumpen children are encouraged to chant "work is freedom" in the belief that their hard work will be rewarded with a lighter set of shackles.
An ever-present danger for Roland is the Warrior (Jamie Foreman, again), a fearsome Samurai warrior who materializes whenever unauthorized personnel attempt to use the Castle's staircases to reach its higher levels. A symbolic figure who effectively represents the blocks on upward social mobility found in the real world, the Warrior's presence prompts Roland to stick to spooky labyrinthine passageways and eerie tunnels as he navigates his way around the Castle. In the Castle's Bureau, Roland's quest to successfully secure and complete a form that will grant him permission to leave satirizes the bureaucratic nature of the British Civil Service. In a scene that brings to mind the Ministry of Information found in Brazil, Roland is sent from desk to desk, encountering a certain Mr. Voysey (Derek Smith) in a number of variant incarnations. There's also a The Prisoner-like element present here: one Mr. Voysey reveals that all of Roland's actions inside the Castle have been monitored, recorded and put on file.
Needless to say, Roland does manage to escape from the Castle: he experiences a fabulously Malpertuis-like moment when he looks at the crowd of real world faces who welcome him home and realizes that each of them is linked to a corresponding look-alike/act-alike in the Castle. Roland's journey does indeed teach him lessons in overcoming adversity and he emerges from the Castle as a much more confident individual who is ready to make some telling changes to his outlook on life and his relationships with others. You'll have to decide for yourself just how plausible, necessary and/or effective some of those changes might really be in the long run.
Never re-broadcast and never released on home video until now, Network have done Cult TV fans a big favour by finally granting King of the Castle a DVD release. As noted, the show was shot on a mixture of film and video but the picture quality here is just short of excellent for the most part. Some of the film shot sequences sport minor scratches and flecks but these do not pose a problem. The disc's sound quality is generally just short of excellent. The seven episodes of the series (each twenty-five minutes long) can be accessed and played individually but the disc's menu also features a "play all" option.
Note: Episode three of the series was missing from the studio archives and is consequently represented here by an off air recording of the episode. Whoever did the recording must have done so in a professional capacity of some sort because the episode is in generally good shape. The picture quality of the episode does dip a little: there's an ever so slightly soft and fuzzy aspect to it and there's a touch of colour banding at the very top of the frame in some shots. And the episode's sound quality is somewhat duller too. However, there have been times during the past thirty-two years when it seemed likely that this show might never publicly surface again. Under the circumstances it seems churlish to even mention the slight dip in quality temporarily experienced during this one episode.
Written by Bob Block, Roberts Robots actually plays like an early variant of his later series about a company of ghosts for hire, Rentaghost. In Rentaghost, confusion, misunderstandings and highly surreal and farcical situations regularly arose courtesy of three key plot devices: 1) Most of the people who encountered the ghosts took them to be odd or eccentric humans. 2) The ghosts themselves (mostly from ages past and therefore unused to hearing modern slang words or colloquialisms) took everything that was said to them literally and responded accordingly. 3) Strange events and conversations involving the ghosts were always taken out of context by casual witnesses. A similar approach is found in Roberts Robots: 1) The people who encounter the robots take them to be odd or eccentric humans. 2) The robots (having had no knowledge of slang words or colloquialisms written into their programming) often take what is said to them literally and respond accordingly. 3) Strange events and conversations involving the robots are always taken out of context by casual witnesses. As such, two of the show's main strengths are its clever take on comedic word play and its often absurd dialogue exchanges, both of which invariably result in the show's key characters acting at cross-purposes.
Robert Sommerby is a pretty typical eccentric scientist type. His robotic creations are far from perfect and more often than not are responsible for landing him in chaotic and stressful situations but he remains understanding, affectionate and forgiving towards them. Actor John Clive used to pop up a lot in early 1970s television shows and films: most film fans will know him as the flamboyant stage actor who physically assaults Alex during the presentation that showcases the effects of the Ludovico technique in A Clockwork Orange. Doris Rogers is perfectly cast as Robert's sympathetic old dear of an aunt. It's never revealed which foreign country the dastardly industrial spy Marken is meant to represent but his employment of his company's ineffective spy gadgets and his poor command of the English language are both regularly foregrounded in a play for laughs. His reluctant private detective pal is invariably on hand to wryly put him right whenever he gets his words and/or their meanings mixed up. Early 1970s British lads' favourite Jenny Hanley (Scars of Dracula, The Flesh and Blood Show) gives a spirited performance as Robert's classy but continually exasperated girlfriend Angie.
Two of Robert's robots, Katie (Brian Coburn) and Eric (Nigel Pegram), have fully formed personalities and are allowed to dress as they please. An early creation, Katie (model number K.T.) is an affectionate but hulking simpleton who dresses and moves like the Frankenstein monster and talks like the English comic actor Arthur Mullard. Like the Oddbod creatures in Carry On Screaming, Katie has a habit of forgetting to open doors before he walks through them. It might be that designer Darrell Lass had seen Jess Franco's The Curse of Frankenstein because Katie has a silver/grey metallic skin tone similar to that of Fernando Bilbao's monster from the Franco film. The super-intelligent but neurotic, bad tempered and petulant Eric is much more human-like but he has a red streak running through his grey hair and one red eyebrow. Returning to the A Clockwork Orange link, the majority of Robert's other robots (William Lawford, Michael Richmond, et al) actually look like they could belong to a gang of droogs: they all wear white boiler suit-like outfits and matching black leather caps, while the blank expressions on their faces could be likened to those seen on the faces of milk-plus drinkers. At one point, the four entertainment robots all don black bowler hats and freaky comedy masks.
Essentially billed and transmitted under the guise of a children's television show, the enthusiastic performances of Roberts Robots's key players and Bob Block's creative writing means that the show is able to appeal to viewers of all ages. While the robots and their attendant sight gags were clearly a hook for younger viewers, some of the show's laugh out loud dialogue was surely written with adult viewers in mind. What follows is a quick flavour of each of the episodes' content.
Episode 1: A Ministry of Technology bigwig, Fosdyke (Robert Dorning), visits Robert and demands to see evidence of his work in progress. To this end, arrangements are made for Eric to visit a doctor who will duly assess how human-like his anatomical features are. Fosdyke elects to secretly shadow Eric to see how well he copes alone in public but a case of mistaken identity results in Fosdyke tailing Gimble instead. Another case of mistaken identity causes chaos at the doctor's surgery.
Episode 2: Robert feels guilty that he can't tell Angie about his top-secret work or the robots but he's still determined to propose to her. However, Eric's recent brush with an industrial-strength magnet has made him magnetic while Katie's enlarged emotion circuit has resulted in him falling in love with a gas cooker. When the repairman comes to take the cooker away, Katie follows him and causes chaos in a nearby town.
Episode 3: It's the day of Robert and Angie's engagement party and Robert's new sanitation and maintenance robots (Michael J. Jackson and Christopher Saul) are running amok. Gimble goes undercover by posing as the cook for the party and is subsequently horrified by what he sees and hears while snooping around Robert's house.
Episode 4: Robert has created four new entertainment robots (Terence Woodfield, Christopher Collyer, Christopher Biggins and future Doctor Who star Sylvester McCoy) but Eric has been reading the works of Karl Marx and feels that the robots are being exploited. Angie overhears Robert talking to Katie and assumes that he is having an affair.
Episode 5: Sir Mortimer (Moultrie Kelsall) and Fosdyke (Billy Milton) arrange to visit Robert for a top-secret meeting and Katie is put on guard duty with strict orders not to let anybody enter Robert's house. Robert arrives at the meeting late and chaos ensues when Katie takes his guard duty orders too literally.
Episode 6: Robert gives Eric a new compassion circuit resulting in him and Katie wanting to become doctors. When Robert goes down with the flu, the pair devise an extended course of treatment that is intended to make the suffering scientist feel better.
Episode 7: Robert arranges a robot-run fashion show that will allow two professional buyers to see Eric's clothing designs. Gimble and Marken pose as the buyers to gain access to Robert's house but an over-worked Eric causes trouble by calling a robot strike. Marken tests a radio frequency jamming device that inadvertently sends the robots crazy when activated and further confusion ensues when Robert's robotic doppelganger goes haywire.
Never re-broadcast and never released on home video until now, Network have again done Cult TV fans a big favour by finally granting Roberts Robots a DVD release. Those who remember the original broadcasts with affection will not be disappointed but I'd wager that this show is eccentric enough to snag many a new convert too. Hopefully series two will be released soon.
Like many British TV shows of the time, Roberts Robots was shot mostly on video though some exterior sequences were actually shot on film. By and large, the picture quality here is excellent. Once in a while an extremely mild video dropout is experienced but these are barely perceptible and pose absolutely no problem at all. The disc's sound quality is excellent for the most part.
The seven episodes of the series (each twenty-five minutes long) can be accessed and played individually but the disc's menu also features a "play all" option.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Roberts Robots - The Complete First Series rates:
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