Captain Scarlet – Big Ben Strikes Again

Directed by Brian Burgess

Teleplay by Tony Barwick

First Broadcast – 13th October 1967

There is one very limiting aspect of the Captain Scarlet format which must have had the writers banging their heads on the typewriter morning, noon, and night. The nature of the Mysteron threats basically gives you two types of plot – the Mysterons want to assassinate someone, or the Mysterons want to destroy somewhere. Most episodes fall into one of those two categories. Fortunately, the very best Captain Scarlet episodes take one of those categories and do something incredibly inventive with it. Big Ben Strikes Again is the atypical example of the ‘we will destroy city X’ threat, but with a twist in there to keep you on your toes.

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The opening shot awkardly has the camera pan down a street at a bit of an odd angle. Barry Gray’s initial flourish immediately informs us that this is London. We’re going to be seeing these buildings a lot during this opening sequence so get familiar with those distinctive signs.

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It’s 11:45pm. This appears to be a stock shot of Big Ben rather than a model.

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In the startlingly empty streets of London, a truck is being driven around with a police escort. Meanwhile, Mersham is advertising very specific holidays to South West Africa. The truck was designed by Mike Trim and features again in a very similar role in the episode Expo 2068. It’s a rather lovely thing.

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This is Macey, the driver, who is later seen as Captain Indigo in Spectrum Strikes Back among many other roles. It’s an interesting driver’s cabin in that there’s only one seat, and it’s mounted on the left hand side of the vehicle because Macey is driving on the right hand side of the road… even though they’re in the UK. It just goes to show that even in the most minor ways, this show was being made firmly for an American audience.

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This is the cargo. It’s a nuclear bomb. People may try and tell you that it’s a nuclear device for civil use, but let’s just call it a nuclear bomb. That means, at some point, it will explode – because this is a Gerry Anderson show and that’s just what happens. Much like the truck, the same device appears again in Expo 2068 in a very similar role.

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The escort passes TWF which we previously saw in New York in The Mysterons, but the sign is mounted in a different building which appears to be some sort of car show room. Meanwhile, the actual TWF building which was seen in The Mysterons is now being used as the Paragon Cleaner building next door. The Pato’s sign which was seen in the first shot of the episode has now been slapped on the side of a building we saw as the Tilps building in that same opening shot. Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Please don’t bang on about the building signs for the rest of the episode – we get it, they move, the same pieces of set are moved around multiple times in order to produce multiple shots with limited resources. Now please don’t go on about it.” If that’s your line of thought then Security Hazard probably isn’t the blog for you.

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The two police officers in front of the truck have a bit of a chat about how dangerous, or apparently not dangerous, this operation is. The first police officer is voiced by Paul Maxwell putting on an interesting interpretation of an… Irish accent? Most sources state that Martin King voiced the second officer. I’m not 100% on that because King’s voices are usually… well… a bit samey. This is quite different. Whoever does the voice, it’s the same voice that we hear for the DT19 co-pilot in Winged Assassin. We don’t hear a voice like it again in the series. There’s a mystery for you. The puppet used to portray the second officer is Lieutenant Dean from The Mysterons who also had a prominent role in Winged Assassin as the Airport Chief. Clearly, certain puppets were favoured more than others. The 1st police officer only makes small cameo appearances in the future. Much of the car interior was previously seen as Scarlet’s stolen car in The Mysterons, the steering wheel appearing both in that vehicle, and in the Spectrum Saloon Car.

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Captain Black pops up just as the police officer utters the ruddy stupid words of “Oh relax, what can go wrong?” The puppet of Black is rather beautifully finished to look terrifying in all lighting setups. In Fire At Rig 15 he utters the bizarre line “turn out the light, then you will see me,” suggesting that he… glows in the dark? Beads of sweat are visible on his forehead, suggesting that he’s under quite a bit of pressure to nail this one.

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The journey continues. This shot of the street is almost identical to an earlier one, except what was Paragon Cleaner is now Homersham (the same label used for Mersham earlier), although above the door you can still see the Trans World Freight sign from The Mysterons. Hardings is now slapped on the side of the blue building in place of Pato’s. These shots are so brief that you wouldn’t normally notice the duplication, and the fact the buildings all look the same actually goes a long way to making the city feel more real.

Macey suddenly loses control of the truck, ploughing the lead escort vehicle into a shop called Vincent… Vincent won’t be pleased. There’s also another branch of Mersham next door. But how did Macey lose control of the truck? With Captain Black present, the suggestion is that he uses his own powers to take control. That said, the Mysterons haven’t actually needed to destroy and replicate the truck in order to manipulate it on this occasion.

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Poor Macey is left at the wheel of a renegade truck with the potential death of two police officers already on his conscience.

This is our first opportunity on the blog to go through the Mysteron threat sequence which appears in every episode from Winged Assassin onwards. The purpose is simply to set up the plot of the episode and introduce key characters to those who don’t know them. Because of the use of this sequence in every episode, we never see how the Spectrum personnel actually receive the Mysteron threats – whether they are broadcast to the entire world, or just on Spectrum wavelengths. Do the Mysteron rings appear every time or is their influence just implied for the purposes of this sequence? The choice of characters for introduction is curious too. Destiny Angel is made to stand out in front of the other Angels, purely because she holds the title of Angel leader more often than the others. All of the Angels are introduced – some of whom do very little in the series, yet Lieutenant Green, and Captains Ochre, Magenta and Grey remain unseen. The shot of Captain Black in the graveyard is so deliciously evil and brilliant. It’s one of the few opportunities Scarlet has to be a little bit visually surreal, aiming as it does for gritty realism the rest of the time.

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We pick up from where we left off as the title card reveals that Big Ben will strike again… which seems appropriate seeing as they’ve just turned Big Ben off at the time of writing this. MPs actually cried about it… someone better put this episode on a loop for them I guess…

In the first shot you can just about see the wire that pulls the truck towards camera, whereas in the second there’s a gap in the road which is the track the model is pulled through to get a more realistic turn. Mersham has opened yet another branch.

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These poor police officers are stuck behind the truck and basically can’t do anything. Both officers are played by the pilot and co-pilot of Delta Tango 19 from Winged Assassin.

The truck wallops its way around the next turn… which is identical to the one it just took.

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Just past a branch of Homersham, the police car attempts to pass the truck…

It doesn’t go well. It was a pretty rubbish attempt at an overtake to be fair. The truck carries on down a road which has the rather curiously named ‘Go-Gay Shop’ on it.

Macey watches in horror as the truck continues to accelerate and steer itself wildly through the deserted streets of London. Seriously, where did everybody go?

Along the way, we pass another branch of Tilps, the TWF building restored to how it looked in The Mysterons, and the Cope Bros. store is completely demolished.

The truck then passes another branch of TWF again, followed by the Dunstall store that we spotted in the opening shot.

We finally end up at the Jermyn car park (and yes, we’ve seen the Jermyn sign before too). Curiously, there is a branch of Burn’s Discount Store on the street approaching the building, and on the street off to the right of the car park…

The truck comes to a sudden stop, almost sending Macey through the windscreen. The doors ominously close…

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A ‘bom-bom’ transition (yes, that’s what we’re calling them now) brings us to this short scene of more police officers trying to find the truck. They don’t find it.

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Another ‘bom-bom’ transition takes us to Cloudbase. I told you it was a short scene. Cloudbase is presented rather beautifully at night with all of its lights on.

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Colonel White has got the hump. He claims that the search for the transporter truck has been going on for two and a half hours… we’ll see later that this claim is a load of rubbish. The team assures the Colonel that everyone is working as hard as they can, but he’s not buying any of it.

Captain Grey appears to be the expert on the case. The Sean Connery look-alike was sculpted by Terry Curtis and sadly only appears prominently in the first half of the series due to Paul Maxwell’s departure. It’s unfortunate because Grey appears to be the most competent out of all of Spectrum’s subsidiary captains. Blue reveals that the transporter is heavily lined with lead, making the nuclear device undetectable. Meanwhile the trigger mechanism can only be activated by five keys held by five particular people in the whole world. The Colonel is reassured but still barks at the captains for not finding the transporter quick enough. He then spells out the plot for us, linking the Mysteron threat with the missing transporter – just to really nail that down for us…

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Colonel White calls for a red alert. Angel 1 is immediately launched while Harmony and Destiny take up their positions in Angels 2 and 3. This is the first time in the series that Destiny hasn’t been the Angel leader.

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“This is a red alert, not a stroll around the deck! MOVE!” He’s a grumpy git today isn’t he?

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Back in the truck, Macey wakes up – he is one of the few revamp puppets fitted with a ‘blinker’ head.

The radio transmitter is knackered, leaving Macey to take in his surroundings and try to determine a way out. As the car park is only semi-constructed, the sky is actually visible through the supporting beams. Had Macey been a bit more with it he could always have climbed out. On his cracked watch, the time shows that it is almost midnight… so rewind to the shot of Big Ben from the beginning of the episode which shows the time as 11:45. It is now just over 10 minutes later… yet the Colonel claims that the search has been going on for two and a half hours. The chances are that the shot of Big Ben in the opening scene wasn’t supposed to show the time as 11:45. Despite the transmitter not work, the radio itself does work and is tuned to around 95FM… BBC Radio 4.

Set to the soothing lounge music on the radio, Macey wanders over to the doors. It’s only just occurred to me how unusual it is to have doors on a car park rather than a gate or barrier. We hardly see Macey actually move as his slow walk towards the doors is shot from his point of view, once again avoiding any embarrassing or unrealistic walking from the puppet itself. Macey rather firmly slams his fist straight into the door a few times. When banging on a large metal door, one tends to avoid going right ahead and punching it because the door will generally win. But Macey’s tough and takes it like a champ.

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That said, he is scared by a puddle.

The tune comes to an end, and the radio announcer, with a very BBC Radio 4 voice, announces that Joe Twilight will be broadcasting until 6am. Joe Twilight sounds like a hip sort of guy. The announcer concludes by saying goodnight to everyone as if this were some sort of horrible children’s book. The chimes of Big Ben commence over the radio…

Macey counts, with the drips in the puddle timed with each chime.

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The chimes reach 12, and then – wait for it folks – Big Ben Strikes Again! I won’t spoil the ending, but that thirteenth chime doesn’t quite sound like the others. Also, that’s a rather nasty wound on Macey’s face…

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It could just be the angle or the lighting, but Macey appears to briefly adopt a frowning face as he heads back towards the truck as everything starts to go a bit pear-shaped…

The Mysteron influence comes back into effect as the back door opens to reveal the nuclear device, and then the countdown springs into life.

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Just as Macey starts to get a bit shouty, he is knocked out by…something… this probably would have looked a little more effective in close-up because there is clearly nothing and nobody behind him when he falls over for no apparent reason.

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The countdown is set to 43,200 seconds – that’s 12 hours exactly before the bomb blows up. Regardless of the need for five individual keys, the Mysterons have managed to take control of the device regardless – without the need to create their own replica… as far as we know that is.

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After the commercial break, Macey wakes up out on the soggy street. It’s actually amazing how much effort has gone into make that puddle look realistic.

Our hero arrives, driving solo through the streets of London because apparently that’s his job. We’re treated to a little plasticine figure of Macey which doesn’t look too unlike the puppet so we’ll give that a pass.

The standard stock shot of Cloudbase has been darkened ever so slightly in order to tie-in with Colonel White’s remark that it is in fact supposed to be dawn.

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The Colonel looks to be in quite a foul mood. Scarlet reports that Macey was found in a side street near the river and he is being brought to Cloudbase by Captain Blue… seeing as Scarlet was driving alone, why didn’t he bring Macey straight to Cloudbase himself?

Suddenly the Colonel has switched on his bedside manner and is having a bit of a natter with Macey about what went on. Although Macey says he’s feeling better, there’s still a gaping wound on his face which probably needs some attention!

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The next scene begins with everyone sitting in the conference room listening to a recording of Macey’s story. For some reason the camera lingers on an empty seat. There may well be no connection at all, but it’s worth noting that in Tony Barwick’s original draft of the script there are scenes featuring two Spectrum officers designated ‘Yellow’ and ‘Purple’ which also featured the Room of Sleep as referenced in Treble Cross and Place of Angels. We don’t know whether these scenes were ever filmed, but if they were it’s reasonable to assume that the Yellow and Purple captains became Ochre and Magenta, as the production team wouldn’t have gone to the expense of creating new uniforms and then never use them again.

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Curiously, Lieutenant Green’s tape machine has no fast forward button, only re wind… as opposed to rewind.

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Scarlet smugly remarks that there are 2,000 car parks in London. That’s pretty laughable for a start. The Colonel completely flips his biscuit and doesn’t care if there are two million car parks in London! He orders his team to sit and listen to the tape all over again to find some sort of clue… I mean even if there were 2,000 car parks in London, surely if you had every Spectrum agent, police officer, car park attendant, or indeed anyone with a working pair of eyes check every car park they would probably find the right one in a matter of minutes. But no, instead Colonel White is holding his best men back to listen to the ramblings of a concussed truck driver.

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They are genuinely just sitting there listening to a tape. Note that Blue and Scarlet refuse to share a tape machine. I mean we could have an epic montage of a mass-search featuring all Spectrum vehicles and personnel, but no two blokes listening to tape in silence while their superior officer just sits there and watches them is exciting too…

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A lab report has even been run on Macey’s clothing – as if the specific type of tarmac left on his jacket will tell them exactly which car park he fell over in… seriously, just search all the ruddy car parks…

In case this scene wasn’t tedious enough, Blue has a eureka moment and we have to watch him rewind his tape, then he tells the Lieutenant to do the same, so then we get to watch him rewind the tape as well. Note that the control panel on the puppet set looks nothing like the tape machine we see in the live action cutaway.

It’s that whole Big Ben striking 13 thing that inspires Blue. Scarlet’s having none of it but everyone else gets it though, even the Colonel who’s usually denser than cold custard. With some lightning quick mathematics, Blue is able to calculate that the car park is within a 1500 yard radius of Big Ben… not actually sure he could do those calculations that quickly but I guess he’s some kind of genius. Oh and don’t worry, we will be diving into the science of all this, we’re just saving it for the grand finale.

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Why is Bank 8 next to Bank 5? Anyway, according to the Spectrum car park computer there are two car parks in that circle which means the Colonel can now be bothered to start the search.

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An SPV comes charging down the street, passing the good old TWF building we saw earlier. The streets of Central London are still completely deserted which is just silly.

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Captain Ochre confirms that the other car park is empty so the job falls to Blue and Scarlet. I don’t think it’s ever explained why the SPV has dual controls but it looks cool.

Scarlet blows the door… snigger…

With the truck located, Colonel White’s plan for saving London is revealed. Scarlet will take the device to its original destination and allow it to blow up in an underground construction site. Blue is envious that Scarlet gets to potentially blow himself to bits… because that’s the kind of heroic fellow Captain Blue is.

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The SPV, quickly followed by the truck, come screaming out of the parking lot. The crack in the road is visible through which the models are being operated.

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Scarlet is at the wheel and to be honest he looks a little unsure of himself.

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Time for a bunch of shots of the vehicles driving through the abandoned streets of London. Take a good look at all the shop signs because you know we’re going to be talking about them again.

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As Scarlet takes the turn waaay too fast, notice that the signs for Vincent and Rawlinson have popped up just around the corner from where we last saw them. What fun!

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That Jermyn signs pops up yet again on the TWF building, the main sign for which is on the building next door.

Aside from the police we saw earlier in the episode, these are the only two other cars in all of London. The lady at the wheel has a bit of trouble getting her car going again when the light turns green. The set of the car interior is almost identical to that of the police cars. Now, does this scene suggest that she can’t get the car started because she’s a woman? I don’t think we can rule out that interpretation because this is still a product of the Sixties. This piece of light humour in the middle of a tense action sequence is rather unusual and not an approach seen often in any Gerry Anderson shows, perhaps because the humour ends up not packing much of a punch, and neither does the action as a result.

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Captain Blue is not a patient man, giving her a quick bonk on the behind to nudge her out of the way. Well at least it wasn’t an SPV rocket to the behind. That would have been a lot more paperwork…

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Scarlet continues on his merry way. To be brutally honest, there isn’t a lot to comment on in this sequence besides repetitive signs and such because it is basically just driving set to fast music. Compared to the previous episode we reviewed, The MysteronsBig Ben Strikes Again isn’t quite so stuffed full with action. The story is intriguing enough but perhaps could have done with a little more flesh on the bones.

More streets… you can pick out the signs for yourselves by this point…

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The duo soon arrive at the construction site which is being worked on by Naylor Civil Contractors. I hope Mr Naylor was told Spectrum were coming.

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Smaller models of the SPV and the truck are used for this shot. It’s interesting to note that a lot of buildings in Scarlet are given that seriously realistic concrete look using some very nice dirtying down and some added pencil lines.

Blue quickly hops out of the SPV to operate the lift. Let’s do some fun mathematics here. The truck needs to travel 10,000 feet down. The shot of the nuclear device’s timer just before entering the lift shows 90 seconds left. Just before reaching the bottom of the shaft the timer is almost at 70 seconds. 10,000 feet in 20 seconds… putting the speed of that elevator at an average of a whopping 340 mph…

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Somehow Scarlet’s brain hasn’t come pouring out of his ears as he drives the truck out of the lift.

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The truck is driven to the middle of an exceptionally large excavation. Did anyone ask what Mr Naylor happened to be building 2 miles underground that required a bloomin’ great nuclear bomb?

Scarlet legs it to the lift for another vomit-inducing ride. Will Scarlet make it to the top of the shaft before the bomb blows up? He should do in theory. He gets into the lift around the 40 second mark and we already know that the journey can be done in 20 seconds…

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The bomb goes up in a very tasty fireball. It’s what we’ve all been waiting for.

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Somehow Scarlet didn’t quite make it, probably breaking many bones as well as getting a nasty wound to the head. But he’ll be alright, we’ve figured that out by now…

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Despite being killed in Winged Assassin last week, the Director General of the United Asian Republic is back on his feet and having dinner in London.

Scarlet, Blue, Destiny and Melody are very nicely dressed up indeed. Melody’s hair is a particularly impressive work of… something. So here it comes, the bit where Blue explains the whole thing to thicky Scarlet. Now I’ll be honest, I’m really no scientist or mathematician. Fortunately a clever person did all the math and you can read about it in this fine blog post. It turns out, Captain Blue was bang on the money with his calculations, albeit the sound of that 13th chime would have been very faint indeed to Macey when he was locked in a car park surrounded by four thick walls. From the restaurant, Captain Blue gives another demonstration of the whole thing which is a bit tedious, but at least confirms that Scarlet does know how to count.

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Scarlet’s going to make 13 his lucky number. You’re indestructible… is that really necessary? Anyway, so ends the episode.

Big Ben Strikes Again certainly has a novel twist on it. That is undeniably what it’s most remembered for, even though a Captain Scarlet plot based around mathematics was never going to be all that thrilling to actually watch. Aside from that 13th chime twist, there’s not necessarily anything that outstanding about the episode and I must be honest, I was a little surprised when this episode came out in the top five of our poll. One strong merit of the episode is the dark atmosphere of the opening scenes. Unfortunately, Spectrum and particularly Scarlet don’t have a lot to do in this one until the very end. Prior to that they’re just sitting on Cloudbase listening to a tape. There are certainly more exciting installments to come!

Next week, Colonel White himself is facing the threat of assassination! He goes into hiding aboard a submarine without telling even his most loyal agents. But Captain Scarlet is determined to defend his commanding officer at all costs. Stay tuned for our review of White As Snow.

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