Back in 1972, I came across this rather quaint espionage series called ‘Spyder’s Web’ on television. As this was a while before we have a colour television set, seeing this series again in black and white, mostly because all but two of the colour versions are lost didn’t really bother me. Back then, I didn’t see all the episodes but I was taken enough to like what I saw.
Seeing it again now, some forty-two years later with a more observant eye, it’s pretty obvious that the budget was even less than the Monty Berman shows, although what they had was put into having an interesting guest cast. From a production side, it had Malcolm Hulke as script editor and many of the scripts by Roy Clarke, who later went on to future and a lengthy success as the writer of ‘Last Of The Summer Wine’, so seeing him write a drama series with comedy undertones sees him developing his skills made for an interesting experience.
The essential element is that Spyder is an operations unit outside of MI5 and MI6, so it has deniability (which makes you wonder about such things today) to do their dirty work. Even those who work for it, some of whom have its tattoo marker, don’t know who they are working for. Saying that, even Spyder herself never meets her boss who sends encrypted messages. Did I say who Spyder is?
Spyder is actually Charlotte ‘Lottie’ Dean (actress Patricia Cutts), who runs a small film documentary company as a cover and has actually won awards for her work which allows her access to places and people that others probably couldn’t have. Her staff, secretary Wallis Ackroyd (actress Veronica Carlson) and occasional cameraman, Albert Mason (actor Roger Lloyd-Pack) don’t see that part of her business although occasionally think odd things are going on, don’t pursue it because they like their jobs. Lottie brings in the maverick Clive Hawksworth (actor Anthony Ainley, formerly from MI5 and to them, retired into the film business, to assist her. Whereas she’s brassy, mouthy and smokes long cigars, he’s practically woman shy, likes his car and smokes a pipe. James Bond he is not and hence the wry satire that was lost at the time. I mean, women bosses were rare at the time, old chap. When it comes to it, though, both are also skilled assassins and black ops operators who get the job done.
The lack of budget shows up when they go to Africa in the fourth episode, ‘The Hafiz Affair’ under studio lights. With the sixth episode. ‘Emergency Exit’, and actor Kenneth Griffith playing a Russian, things begin to sparkle as you feel the writers are getting into how to play the series. Indeed, the twelfth episode, ‘The Prevalence Of Skeletons’, which has a SF aging device and the final thirteenth episode, ‘Rev Counter’, where a terrorist group want to liberate the Isle Of Wight (and was quite possibly an influence on the later comedy ‘Citizen Smith’) is sheer parody. Had they reached a second season, I’m sure they would have made more of these. More so as their rescue must surely have revealed what was going on to Wallis and Albert.
Veronica Carlson had a dubious northern accent and known from appearing in Hammer horror films. Anthony Ainley’s fame came to the fore much later as the second Master in ‘Doctor Who’ and for those of you who have never seen anything but, it’s worth checking out. Playing a ‘typical’ Englander with all reserves intact who feels himself a fish out of water in some activities, mostly romancing ladies than bumping people off. Patricia Cutts wasn’t someone I was familiar with when I saw it back in the 70s, but I liked her pushy style and in those days, having a woman in charge was unusual to say the least. I think one of the biggest surprises watching now was just how many different blonde wigs she wore. In fact, the one on the box cover is a wig as well.
The guest cast all have acting chops and substantial careers. I should also point out that Richard Harris, the writer not the actor, who came up with the idea had also worked on ‘The Avengers’ although I do wonder why he didn’t contribute
When you consider that back in the early 70s, the only other successful UK espionage series was ‘Callan’, ‘Spyder’s Web’ had big shoes to fill. It’s the kind of series which you will watch once, give a few weeks and realise you want to want it again to spot the details you missed the first time around. Having it on DVD makes that easier than in 1972 when all you can have is a fleeting memory and a hope it would one day get repeated. Get to it, tiger.
(region 2: pub: Network 7853388. 4 DVDs 13 * 50 minute episodes, mostly in black and white, 650 minutes with photos extras. Price: about £20.00 (UK) if you know where to look)
cast: Patricia Cutts, Anthony Ainley, Veronica Carlson and Roger Lloyd-Pack
check out website: www.networkonair.com