Thursday, 20 October 2016

Duncan reviews The Power Game, Season One

The Power Game was a British political drama series that ran on ITV between 1965 and 1969, centering on the struggles between the three top men at a large (fictional) civil engineering company for control of the company and the wider political influence that comes with that power.

With a level of complexity to its intrigue that requires viewers to pay attention, and storylines that run across the whole of the first season's 13 episodes, this is the sort of series that US television wants us to believe that it invented about 15 years ago, but which really was already being produced as a matter of course in the UK going back 50 years.

Spoilers of this 50-year-old series follow.

In fact The Power Game is a sequel to another series, The Plane Makers, which I have not seen - yet - but which I do know contained several of the same characters, first of which is the main character of The Power Game, Sir John Wilder (played by Patrick Wymark), joint managing director of "Blighs" civil engineers, a man with a great deal of high level business experience and some political influence as well.

Wilder is the main character, but he is not a "good guy" - he's greedy, ruthless, and only out for himself. He also proves to be a complete hypocrite in his personal life, jealous of his wife while keeping a mistress of his own. He's a thoroughly unlikable character, and it is a tribute to the acting skills of Patrick Wymark when he manages to get the viewers to side with him.

The second main character is Caswell Bligh, played by Clifford Evans - he may have been Number 2 in the worst episode of The Prisoner, but he wasn't the worst Number 2, and here he gets to show off the skills he was denied by being in Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling. Bligh, the founder of "Blighs", is in some ways a more sympathetic character than Wilder - while just as unscrupulous in his business dealings, Bligh is a family man whose ambition is to leave the company he built up to his son and grandson after him (Wilder, by contrast, definitely only wants money and power for himself). There is a darker side there though - it is revealed during the series that Bligh made his fortune during the second world war by skimming profits from contracts that were supposed to be part of the war effort.

The final member of the trio that make up the primary tier of characters is Caswell Bligh's son, Kenneth Bligh. Kenneth (always referred to as Kenneth in the show, not Bligh or Mr Bligh, to avoid confusion with his father) is played by Peter Barkworth, an actor who was in many things but whom I probably most associate with either Leader Clent in Doctor Who's Ice Warriors or else Martin Hewitt in two stories of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. Supposedly Kenneth is in his mid-thirties, and while Barkworth was about that age at the time, I find this hard to swallow because he definitely looks older.

So the basic setup is that Bligh (Senior) wants to pass on control of his company to his son, but feels he is not ready yet, so makes him joint managing director with another man until he is ready. Sir John Wilder wasn't Bligh's first choice but Wilder forces his hand in the first episode, coming out of the semi-retirement he ended The Plane Makers in and with a lot more powers than the Blighs are happy with.

Around these three are a second tier of regular characters. Jack Watling (Professor Travers in Doctor Who) plays Don Henderson, another character returning from The Plane Makers to be Wilder's right hand man. He often serves the role that Bernard Wooley served in Yes Minister, with the other characters explaining their deep plots to him and, by proxy, the viewers at home.

Lady Pamela Wilder (Barbara Murray) is Wilder's wife. Susan Weldon (Rosemary Leach) is Wilder's mistress. One of the most impressive things about the series is how unsexist it is for the time in which it was made - let's not forget that even the progressive Star Trek was incredibly sexist in the 1960s - and would even stand up well against some series being made today. They are two of the cleverest characters in the series, but Lady Wilder does not work and Miss Weldon is merely the assistant secretary to a civil service board - despite having a PhD in Economics - because they are unsexist characters who exist in a sexist time.

These then are the characters who appear in almost every episode. There is a third tier of regular characters who recur across a few. Rachel Herbert as Justine Bligh (Kenneth's wife) is perhaps the most worthy of mention for being the other Number 2 to appear in the show. Sorry if that's a spoiler for Free For All, by the way.

Who is Number 1?

George Sewell (Alec Freeman in UFO, or the Superintendent from The Detectives if you prefer) plays Frank Hagadan, employed by Wilder as an engineer and then sacked by him when he discovers Hagadan is his wife's lover. This makes for one of the best moments of the season, when we see that Pamela Wilder didn't love Hagadan at all, she was just using him to get back at her husband for his own infidelity - a twist conveyed by Barbara Murray with only a single look to camera.

Philip Madoc (who I trust needs no introduction) plays a trade union official and member of the National Export Board - as are Wilder and Bligh. He plays them off against each other when it becomes clear that they should not both be on the board when they work for the same company (Wilder was appointed to it before he took the Blighs job), and the main plot of several episodes hinges on this development with first one, then the other, threatened with losing their place and, with it, a good deal of their political influence. Probably my favourite moment of the season comes when it looks like Bligh has been forced, by one of Wilder's many schemes, to resign from the board, but at the last minute he is saved by an intervention from the Minister that neither of them foresaw while at the same time having been foreshadowed, to us, beautifully.

The last regular I feel is worth mentioning is Ian Holm, here near the beginning of his career that would go on to include such highlights as Ash in Alien, Pod in The Borrowers and, of course, The Lord of the Rings where he played Frodo Baggins. Here he is the closest thing to a real "bad guy" antagonist, the ambitious civil servant Sefton Kemp.

Kemp is the secretary to the National Export Board and, as such, is Miss Weldon's boss. After failing to get rid of her - which he wants to do because she is actually better qualified for his job than he is - he plots with the chairman of the Board to get rid of Wilder as part of a play that will expand the powers of the Board. This forms the finale of The Power Game's first season, a superb climax that sees everyone turned against Sir John Wilder and, by the end of part two (Network leaving the ad breaks in on their DVDs again - I like it when they do that) he's as up against it as he's ever been. Suffice to say that before the end credits roll he turns it around and it is Kemp that ends up getting sacked, and Wilder comes out with more power than ever before.

Well, by going through the characters in this way I have also covered all the features of the series that I felt were worth discussing, so that's it for my review really. In conclusion, while this might seem like a TV series consisting largely of men shouting at each other in rooms... actually, I'm not going to deny it is that. But it manages to make that into totally gripping drama. Even The Sandbaggers, behind its office-bound setting, had the advantage of being about the inherently more exciting subject of espionage, but The Power Game makes more with less.

I would unhesitatingly give the first season of The Power Game a ***** rating.

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