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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Armchair Thriller: Set 1
Armchair Thriller: Set 1
Acorn Media // Unrated // July 28, 2009
List Price: $59.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by John Sinnott | posted July 21, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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P R I N T
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The Series:
 
Acorn has released a lot of excellent British programming here in the US and they continue that tradition with the ITV show Armchair Thriller.  This first set of shows presents four stories from this serialized anthology program.  Each story if 4 or 6 episodes long, each running a little less than half an hour.  Presenting intriguing mysteries and captivating tales of suspense, the set is quite a fun to watch.  The main complaint is that Acorn does not present the shows in order, but rather the set skips around taking stories from both seasons of the show.
 
The tales presented are:
 
Dying Day (four episodes; season 2, story 3 ):  Easily the best story in this set, this opening tale is mysterious, chilling, and surprising.  Not only that, but it features a wonderful performance by a very young Ian McKellen (The Lord of the Rings, X-Men).  Sir Ian stars as Anthony Skipling a very mild mannered, unassuming middle class man who discovers someone is trying to kill him.  On the train home from work on evening a boisterous and odd man starts playing audio cassettes for Skipling.  The man's a naturalist and he's been creating a library of recordings of natural sounds from the region; a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, badgers eating etc.  When the naturalist nearly misses his stop, he gathers his recorder and tapes and scurries off, leaving Skipling with a single cassette - "Pub- Bar".
 
After dinner in his house where he lives alone, Skipling plays the tape out of curiosity.  It contains the general noises of a pub, people chatting and ordering drinks, but also a conversation.  Two people, one with a distinctive voice, are heard plotting to kill a man named Anthony Skipling.  They say he witnessed something, and though he probably doesn't realize the significance, they can't take the chance and must kill him on February 21th. 
 
He naturally goes to the police, but when they return to his house to hear the tape, it's missing.  Not the tape itself, it is still in the player and still has the same label but the conversation where he's being threatened is totally gone.  Is he going crazy?  Why would someone break into his house and replace the tape with a fake?  He's scared and paranoid, but it gets much worse when his evening train stops for a moment to let another one pass and Skipling sees the naturalist who gave him the tape outside, clawing at the train with his eyes gouged out.
 
This is one of those rare mysteries that really keep you guessing all the way through.  There are so many questions to be answered and Skipling is such an ordinary everyman that the show is instantly engaging.  There are enough twists and turns in the story to keep viewers on the edge of their seats and the final solution works very well too, with all of the pieces falling into place in a rather unexpected manner.  This is an excellent story that would make a great DVD release all by itself.   
 
The Limbo Connection (six episodes; season one, story five):  This next tale is also mysterious though not quite as gripping. 
 
Claire Omney (Suzanne Bertish) is a fairly successful newspaper columnist.  Her husband, Mark (James Bolam), was a prominent screenplay author himself, but that was years ago and now he's a violent drunk prone to blackouts.
 
Claire is to interview some prominent society people for a column and then meet Mark at their cottage in the country one Friday afternoon.  She's served some bad fish however and gets violently ill driving to the house and crashes her car.  A couple driving by takes her to a local private hospital that specializes in geriatric patients where she has her stomach pumped.  The doctor leaves a message on her London answering machine and insists that she stay the night to get her strength back.
 
Mark has an unexpected occurrence too, but instead of getting in an accident, he meets and only flame in a pub and the two spend the night getting drunk.  The next morning Mark awakens at the cottage with no knowledge of how he got there.  He goes to the private hospital, but he's informed that he wife had already left, early that morning.  He finds her wrecked car and her suitcase is gone, but the make-up bag she is never without was left behind.
 
Fearing the worst Mark goes to the police.  They think that his wife has either tired of his abuse and run off or that he's killed her.  After all, he admits that he doesn't know what he did the evening she disappeared and he does have a history of being violent.  When Claire's paper receives a resignation notice a few days later along with her last column, it seems that the first scenario is right.  But Mark keeps discovering troubling facts that don't seem to fit.  Just where is his wife?
 
A nice mystery and one that didn't quite play out the way I expected.  There were a couple of small holes in the final explanation; it was a generally satisfying mystery that unfolded nicely.  The only complaint I have is that it was about one episode too long.  If they had tightened the story up a bit, it would have worked a bit batter.
 
Rachel in Danger (four episodes; season one, story one):  This inaugural show wasn't as suspenseful as the later episodes though it does contain a certain amount of tension, if you can overlook the rather ludicrous premise.
 
A University Professor moves to London after spending years in South America in order to be close to his 10-year-old daughter, Rachel (played by Della Lowe who apparently stopped acting after this appearance.)  Having just moved in and not knowing anyone in the big city, the professor is delighted to run into an old acquaintance, Juan, in the street.  The two talk and go back to the newly-rented apartment where Juan ruthlessly murders the teacher.  He's part of an unnamed terrorist group (which consists of members from the UK, Japan, and an equally nameless South American country) who has a plan to assassinate the queen.  Juan takes over the dead man's identity and has his name added secretly added on to the guest list for a garden lunch the queen is hosting.
 
The problem is Rachel.  She's arrived at the London train station (traveling alone) and when no one meets her the police question her to find out where she should be.  They eventually reunite Rachel with the imposter father, but since she hasn't seen him in eight years and only has one photo of him which doesn't show his face (lucky, that) she goes off with him unsuspecting.  While Juan's partner, an oriental woman posing as his wife, wants to kill Rachel and be done with it (the wise course) Juan thinks that having a daughter with them will draw less suspicion and increase the chances that their assassination will be a success.  Rachel is a smart girl however, and more wily than they thought.
 
While I really enjoyed the character of Rachel, this story relied on too many coincidences and improbabilities.  There never was a good reason given for not just killing Rachel in the beginning either, something that would have made a lot of sense.  None of the characters act very logically and there are a few holes that made it hard to really get into this story.  Added to that is the fact that I was never really scared for Rachel.  Maybe it's her 'smart young girl' character, but she didn't show much emotion at any time.  If she's not really worried (even after she discovers what's going on) why should viewers?  It wasn't a bad story, just not as thrilling as the others in the set.
 
The Victim (six episodes; season two, story one):  The second season gets off to a great start with this intriguing kidnapping story.  The daughter of a prosperous, though by no means wealthy, mid-level executive of an electronics firm is kidnapped coming home from school one day.  Vincent Craig (John Shrapnel) gets a note demanding £100,000, which he doesn't have, with instructions about where to drop it to be delivered that evening by telephone.
 
Vincent is a sharp guy, and the first thing he does is go to his boss and ask for £100,000, to let the take over boss' office which has an outside line, and the use of any of the companies equipment that he wants. 
 
"So I'm just to clear out, get the money from the bank and leave the rest to you?  And what if I disagree?" His boss asks.
 
"Why I quit.  Right now." Vincent replies.  Being a valuable employee his superior goes along with it.
 
He then sets up some recording equipment, contacts the police, and waits for the call to come.  And waits, and waits.  Eventually the kidnappers contact him and ask if he has the money.  When he says that he does, they start to tell him how and where to drop it off.  Vincent interrupts.  "Now listen very carefully.  There'll be no money, no deal.  Release the girl, don't let her see your faces and cover your tracks as best as you can.  That's your only chance.  Don't call again this line is being cut off."  And he slams the phone down.
 
The police are flabbergasted.  Vincent explains that he doesn't trust the police or the kidnappers not to mess things up.  If he gives in, there's a chance that his daughter will be hurt during the exchange when nerves are high.  He doesn't think that the villains will kill her just to spite him and that non-negotiation is the best policy.
 
Of course the crooks don't just let her leave, but Vincent didn't really expect him to.  He turns to hunting them down using his companies assets but mainly his own intelligence and intuition.
 
This was another great story with some very nice twists and turns along the way.  The character of Vincent Craig is interesting and really drives the narrative forward, and Shrapnel does a magnificent job with the role.  Smart but every emotionally involved, they could have launched a series based on the character.  A top-notch story to round out a wonderful set.
 
The DVD:
 
Each of these four stories comes on its own DVD, and the four discs are housed in separate thinpak cases.  The set comes in a nice slipcase too.
 
Audio:
 
The original mono audio track is provided on these shows, and it does the job.  The accents get a bit heavy at times and can be hard to understand, but usually only for minor characters.  The audio isn't as crisp and lacks the range of a recent show (most evident in the opening and closing music which isn't as full as it should be,) but the dialog is easy enough to hear.   There is a bit of background hiss, but it's never overpowering.
 
Video:
 
These DVDs preserve the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio of the show.  The video is on par with other BBC shows from the late 70's.  It's a bit soft, and the detail isn't the greatest but the image is fairly clear.  The colors are a bit muted but it doesn't distract from the show.  The prints are generally in good shape, though there are some spots and the occasional horizontal line pops up once in a while.
 
There is one odd thing about the transfer.  For a little while in most (all?) episodes there's a small square that appears in the upper right-hand side of the frame.  It looks like a bug has been blurred out, but it's smaller than bugs usually are.  It's an odd defect, but luckily only appears briefly.

Update: Knowledgeable reader Chris K informs me that the video defect is a "cue dot", a device used to let broadcasters know that a commercial break was coming up. That explains a lot.  
Odd square in the upper corner - part 3 ep 2 @ 34 min.
 
Extras:
 
Unfortunately, there are no bonus features offered.
 
Final Thoughts:
 
These were excellent stories.  Gripping, intelligent, and often suspenseful Armchair Thriller Set One is a wonderful set.  I only wish that they had released the shows in order, but that's a small complaint.  Run out and pick this one up.  Highly Recommended.
 

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