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Invisible Man Review

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by Chris McEneany Apr 1, 2006 at 12:00 AM

    Not to be confused with the David McCallum version, this 1958 ITP black-and-white production for British television is a little-known and rarely-seen entry in the relatively slight science-fiction sub-genre of adventurous invisible people. Starring a host of familiar faces, from Peter Sallis to Honor Blackman, this loose adaptation of H.G. Wells' classic novel, has American scientist Dr. Peter Brady - who is living with his sister Diane in rural England - undergoing a serious laboratory mishap in literally the first two minutes of episode one, Secret Experiment, becoming invisible (including his lab clothes, which puts paid to any running-about-naked shenanigans) and then seemingly embracing his new-found abilities with absolute gusto. Oh, he may occasionally whinge throughout the ensuing season about not wanting to stay in this condition for the rest of his life, even keeping his experiments on-going to try and reverse the affliction, but check out his glee at being able to outfox nefarious colleagues, local criminals and then, of course, his egotistical joy at becoming a secret agent for the British Government. In fact, when approached by some immaculately-groomed military bigwig at the start of episode two to go on a secret mission to rescue a captured special agent from some Arab dictatorship, he positively leaps at the chance. Such is the wild pace that this show, written and produced by Ralph Smart and most often directed by Pennington Richards, seems to possess. Invisible Man (there is no “The” in the title) is a romp, each twenty-five minute episode a thunderous ride through fifties era paranoia, with plots and schemes abounding with heinous assassination attempts, political heavy-handedness, revenge and even child-kidnappings. With hardly a moment to draw breath, each story sets up its characters with a strict economy of writing and exposition, pitching us into England's shady underworld or the conspiracies of corrupt officialdom, with Peter Brady assuming the role of spy, detective or personal avenger of wrongs with immediate and headstrong aplomb. When reading of a career-criminal's latest escape attempt from prison, he even reveals that he has a nose for the odd miscarriage of justice, and sets out to prove the villain's innocence.

    “Brady, oh ... the Invisible man ... I should've recognised you.”

    With this head-butting manner of getting into situations that don't really affect him, it is no small wonder that Brady is an American. But, of course, we can guess the real reason why the show's hero hails from the States. With the typical eye for marketing that was prevalent with many fantasy shows from the fifties, sixties and even the seventies, the producers saw a smart way of anchoring their product with American audiences by having them being, at least, able to hear an accent similar to their own, even if they couldn't see their leading man. To be honest, I'm not even sure just who is supplying the voice for Brady. In the credits, he is only titled purely as Invisible Man - and apparently several actors portrayed the physical presence of the character - with his real identity kept a secret for years. On the back of the DVD box, however, it looks like someone called Tim Turner may have been the voice from behind the bandages. Brady's sister is played by Lisa Daniely, also an American, but her cherubic young daughter, Sally, is a little English rose played with precocious wide-eyes, and Annie-style freckles and curls by Deborah Watling. The few slow moments in any given episode usually revolve around Brady's relationship to his niece. But, to be fair, this element of home-life (with a guy who is either bedecked from head to toe in bandages and sporting some bizarre dark glasses, or only indicated by a floating cup, glass or cigarette) is actually quite endearing. The script may seem unbelievable in that such a small girl would take to her uncle's unorthodox appearance (or lack of it) so readily, but in reality, a child probably would. Then again, if the Invisible Man, himself, hasn't got much of problem with his state, then why should anybody else? The annoying thing is the voice, though. Whoever is supplying it literally barks out their lines with some alarming abruptness. With no obvious lips from which to spring from, Brady's dialogue seems to boom from everywhere at once, and his often brusque and impulsive manner takes a bit of getting of used to.

    “I'm not the scaredy-type ... but I'm not taking on the Invisible Man!”

    Ahh, yes. Fisticuffs. Well, let's just say that you get plenty of punch-ups per episode. In fact, there is a level of violence in the show that is a little eye-opening. Even quite early on in the season, there are a couple of scenes of torture - the afore-mentioned special agent receiving some pretty harsh interrogation before taking a few a bullets in the back, and a scene of burning cigarette intimidation when a heavy threatens to mark a guest star's pretty face - that would put modern-day shows like the re-vamped Doctor Who to shame. Yet the series is still evidently aimed at family audiences, with its respectable-yet-gung-ho hero, emphasis on justice, morals and good triumphing over evil. But there is some great fun to had from the inevitable dust-ups that Brady has with the villains and, more often than not, their disposable henchmen. The scrapping may primarily be of the strict one-two variety - the gut-punch followed by the upper-cut to the mush - but the handling of the action is quite brutal. Without seeing one of the battlers involved we are just confronted with shots of a bloke reacting in pain and shock to each incoming blow, and the sight of a grown man grappling with thin air is always amusing, no matter how spirited and convincing their performance might be. All this unashamed have-a-go attitude makes for a pleasantly vigorous bout of episodic heroism. However, it is never explained just how a man of science can be so ruthlessly efficient when it comes to unarmed combat. Check out Brady's penchant for lobbing heavy furniture at his enemies, too! It might make for a cool effect, but think of the cranial damage his hefting of chairs and shattered-banisters against an opponent is prone to unleash. Had this been a simple detective show, there is no way such skirmishing would have made it onto the screen. Fantasy wins again.

    “Your country has made remarkable progress in espionage, my friend.”

    When it comes to effects, this show is actually quite elaborate. We get the full gamut of what was achievable at the time and, for the most part, with very agreeable results. Seemingly driver-less vehicles career around country lanes and city streets (even a motorbike in one sequence!), all sorts of paraphernalia bobbles about in thin air from cutlery to phones and guns, and chairs, doors and even people are moved realistically around sets as though held in Brady's invisible hands. But a nice touch is when our hero seeks to prove his invisibility to an intrigued onlooker by unwrapping the top portion of his bandages to reveal an empty space where his head should be. It's all very spirited stuff. And check out the apparent size of Brady when we see him in his bandage/glasses/raincoat ensemble - he's the size of a Mexican wrestler! No wonder he can hurl furniture and people around so easily. The fact that he wears his head-to-toe injury disguise so often means that, inevitably, he is bound to be recognised. I mean, no matter whose version of the tale it is, that costume just won't hold water for long. And, at least, Smart's telling of the tale is smart enough (ahem, sorry) to realise this, when the show actually has Brady's identity and affliction made public in the aftermath of a road-accident. The whole world soon becomes aware of this strange crusader and the press even camp outside his sister's country retreat, hoping to photograph someone that is patently un-photographable. However, such notoriety only really intrudes when some low-lifes abduct little Sally from her school in an attempt to blackmail Brady into committing a bank raid for them. Actually, this episode is a little disturbing in its depiction of the abduction, by a slovenly child-molester type and his grinning, softly-spoken Welsh muscle. But don't worry, the Invisible Man can always find a chair or a table to hurl at them in revenge, and his single-minded determination to exact physical retribution is a joy to behold.

    “You'll be awfully cold in those invisible lab clothes of yours at this time of year.”

    “Wait till I meet the man who took Sally ... I'll soon warm up!”

    There are some great little guest-spots on the show, as well. Some, like a “blacked-up” Peter Sallis trying to emote in an Arabian accent, are purely hysterical. But there's even the likes of Leslie Phillips as a cold-hearted assassin - yes, I know how ridiculous that sounds - Dennis Price as a hideously scarred art aficionado with murder on his mind and even Desmond Llewellyn (Q, himself, from James Bond) as a lesser-ranking policeman. But Brady's dialogue offers much to savour, too. He tends to speak in a vintage superhero style (which, of course, is exactly what he is), the only thing missing from his delivery being the speech bubbles floating above wherever his invisible head is supposed to be. It is all smug one-liners and knowing self-importance - bludgeoning retort, exclamation and brutishly direct ordering being his verbal stock-in-trade. And, unlike in American shows and films of the day, the scientific mumbo-jumbo is actually kept to a minimum, with the emphasis placed squarely on action and intrigue. It does become a little monotonous during early episodes when the same bad-guy set-up is repeatedly utilised - the sly boss masquerading behind his official status, a manipulative second-in-command and a squad of goons for Brady to outwit, sneak around and/or render unconscious - but as the season progresses we are treated to some originality in villainy which keeps the show fairly fizzing along. Tony Hancock look-alike Dermot Walsh shows up in the energetic episode Jail Break, in which virtually everybody is a criminal and on the take somewhere along the line.

    Well, folks, Invisible Man is great little show, very much of its time and very competently made. The directing is assured, the storytelling stripped of needless waffle and the approach is one of strong-arm tactics, similar to the Batman series from a few years earlier. The baddies get a thorough pasting and the hero has a clear conscience, come what may. The first episode ends with an exchange that I thought didn't bode too well for the rest of the season, but with hindsight, I know feel that it is perfectly in-keeping with the broad silliness that this hokum delivers in spades. Sitting at home after coming to terms with his condition (which, as I've said, didn't exactly take long), Brady is asked by his superior at Castle Hill Laboratories if he will be back at work the next day.

    “Of course I will.”

    “We'll see you at work in the morning, then.”

    “No, chief.”

    “But you said ...”

    “I'll be there ... but you won't see me!

    Cue laughter all round. Brilliant. Daft, but brilliant.

    All of Season One's thirteen episodes are presented over two discs, none have chapter stops. The packaging features a nice holographic cover that has the Invisible Man's bandages appear or vanish depending on the angle you view it at. Cool.