Contains spoilers, including of the really big twist in episode 9.
Every so often, perhaps once every few years, I discover for myself another great TV show from the past. I think the last one that qualified for this was Shōjo Kakumei Utena. I'm pleased to say that The Power Game is certainly among them.
In the third season it reinvents itself - after two seasons of Sir John Wilder and Caswell Bligh fighting each other for control of Bligh's company, both men left it behind at the end of season 2. We pick up two years later, with them meeting again and both working for the same firm - only this time the "firm" is the British government. Caswell, now Lord Bligh, is the minister for Trade, and Sir John is his Special Envoy - a kind of ambassador, but not a civil servant, and don't the real civil servants hate him for it!
The conflict is therefore twofold, as Bligh still blames Wilder for causing the rift in his family (he cannot see how much of the fault is his own, an ongoing plot thread for this season too) and wants revenge, but there is also their joint attempts to gain control of their department from the civil servants - like Yes Minister but not played for laughs. Indeed there are many comparisons you could make with that superb series, and I would say The Power Game is not found wanting.
It seemed to me that Sir John Wilder was a softened, more sympathetic character in this season than before, which I would put down to two things. First, while before he was rarely, if ever, able to take the moral high ground against his business opponents, now his antagonists are Bligh, who often acts solely out of spite, and the civil servants who are shown to be an old boy's network of self-seeking and tradition bound time servers, who oppose him and the good he is trying to do for British trade only because Wilder is not one of them, or because his methods are unorthodox.
Secondly, we see much less of Wilder's hypocrisy in this season, a trait which always made me like him less whenever it manifested. In the absence of Susan Weldon, Wilder has no new mistress, and seems to be abstaining from infidelity - at least for the first half of the season - and we see him rejecting one outright offer of same. Not that that stops Pamela Wilder from suspecting him, and that drives the plot of at least one of the better (and more farce-like) episodes.
There is an exception to this, and it comes in the one bad episode of the season - arguably the one outright bad episode from all of the three seasons put together. Cat Is You, Bird Is Me sees Wilder have a sort of mid-life crisis, running off with a Foreign Office interpreter who happens to be a 19-year-old hippy chick. This being made in 1969, it is as cringe-making a portrayal of the hippy culture as you would expect for mainstream television, scarcely better than Star Trek's The Way to Eden. This sort of storyline would be done much better in Rumpole of the Bailey, 10 years later, with the character of Guthrie Featherstone QC MP in Wilder's role.
While on the subject of bad things about The Power Game, I should mention the quality of the DVDs - while Network did a great job on the first two seasons, this one seemed not quite up to their usual high standards, with the picture seemingly less cleaned up (of course I don't know what the quality may have been like before they got their hands on it), and with the ad breaks excised from all but the final episode. In some cases this was clumsily done, with the edit points very jarring and noticeable. A shame.
But back to the good stuff which far, far outweighs the bad.
To go with the new setting there are new regular characters. The one deemed important enough to make it into the new title sequence is Wilder's civil service Private Secretary, Lincoln Dowling, played by Michael Jayston.
There's nothing you can do to prevent the catharsis of spurious morality.
Dowling seems like a potential ally for Wilder to begin with, but before long his ambition turns him into a rival, a junior version of Wilder himself. He feuds with Don Henderson (Jack Watling, somewhat sidelined this season, but not so much that he could slip away to be Professor Travers in The Invasion, which must have been made about this time) and romances Pamela, and while he lacks Wilder's lifetime of business and political experience and connections, he has one card Wilder lacks - we see his recruitment to the Secret Intelligence Service.
With the benefit of hindsight, the episode in which this happens, The Goose Chase, is somewhat odd. Because Michael Jayston would, 10 years later, play Peter Guillam in the BBC's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy series. While in The Power Game, the two SIS agents we see recruiting Dowling are played by Michael Aldridge and Terence Rigby, later Tinker and Soldier respectively. Now I'm not saying Lincoln Dowling = Peter Guillam, but...
Another new regular character is Sir Jason Fowler, played by Richard Hurndall. Hurndall is an actor I'm not hugely familiar with - I mainly know him for his attempt to fill the huge shoes of William Hartnell in The Five Doctors, a matter of months before his death, and Big Gay Longcat won't let me not mention he was in Blakes 7's Assassin. But he's really good here. Fowler is the Permanent Under-Secretary of State to Bligh's minister, the role Sir Humphrey Appleby serves to Jim Hacker in Yes Minister, but Sir Jason's no Sir Humphrey: Bligh, Wilder, even Dowling - a junior civil servant to Fowler in both senses - run rings around him, and as their schemes develop over the course of the season he is shown to be increasingly out of his depth. Fowler is a pitiful character, past his prime and, it turns out, with not long to live from (probably) cancer. Hurndall captures that side of the man beautifully, and makes him one of the most tragic of the series.
For me, the best episode of the season and, probably, the series as a whole, is The Heart Market, containing the most surprising twist of all. Caswell Bligh has a heart attack, and in hospital is told by doctors that he has less than a year to live... unless he has a heart transplant! Knowing something about transplants myself I realised at once that, in the 1960s, that was practically a death sentence either way.
Absent from the new titles and the first seven parts of the season, Kenneth Bligh (Peter Barkworth) returns to the show to guest-star for two episodes and is reconciled with his father before the end, even helping Caswell ensure a potential organ donor's next of kin is willing for the heart to go to Caswell. In his final act of the series, we see that for Bligh Senior everything is about money, when he callously offers the soon-to-be widow £20,000 (so over £300k in today's terms) for her husband's heart. Kenneth is horrified by his father's behaviour, but he still cries for him after his death.
Caswell gets his new heart, but doesn't survive the operation. We cut from him going off to the operating theatre to just after his funeral, a scene that Barkworth completely nails and which cements this episode as the best of them all.
Yes, the show kills off its main antagonist with four episodes still to go. A new character is brought in, Garfield Kane MP (played by Barrie Ingham, great as Sejanus in The Caesars the year before this) to replace Lord Bligh as minister, but the role of Wilder's nemesis goes principally to Dowling after this, for all that they have to work together against Kane from time to time.
It is somewhat ironic that the first two seasons of The Power Game closed with endings that felt as though they could have been the end of the story, had the programme not been recommissioned, while this season ends with the feeling that they were very much setting up the next one. From what I can gather, they would have made more but for Patrick Wymark's early death in 1970.
But there are more stories with John Wilder available - for them I will have to go back to the earlier series The Plane Makers in which he, his wife, and loyal sidekick Don Henderson first appeared.
The Power Game season 3, and the entire series, get ***** ratings from me.