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February 2010

Zodiac

cast: Anton Rodgers, Anouska Hempel, Ian Ogilvy, Robert Powell, and Peter Vaughan

creators: Roger Marshall, Jacqueline Davis

300 minutes (12) 1974
Network DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
review by Paul Higson

Zodiac

The video age did not see a lot of old television given a second life as even a short-run series like 1974's Zodiac, all of six episodes, would not, in its accumulative running time, fit comfortably on a single cassette. DVD has given us it all, the wonderful and the reeking. Zodiac is far from being the worst. It was merely an idea that was not enough dismissed. How else can we explain away a casebook of crimes solved through astrology? Devised by Roger Marshall, Zodiac has an awkward feel and appearance, the result of desperate writers and programmers trying to fill a prime-time slot over a six week period. The series' uncomfortable concept and odd collection of recycled thriller plots brings to mind the later The Wilde Alliance but achieves a tad more charm, helped some considerable way by presence of the delectable Anouska Hempel as Esther Jones.

Esther has a monied client-base that seeks her out primarily to commission birth-charts and help them decide if it is safe for them sign a contract or flush the toilet. Because criminality is generally the starting point for the writers they must wedge in the astrology, Esther's clients are often unlikely characters for such a whimsical service... businessmen who might in the real world roundly dismiss such nonsense.

The introductory tale, Death Of A Crab, is the first of three written Marshall (his other two scripts are The Cool Aquarian, and Sting, Sting, Scorpio!). A man is invited to an empty apartment and is dead shortly after. Police detective David Gradley (Anton Rodgers) is called to the scene and, though the victim is originally thought to be wealthy businessman Aikman (John Rhys-Davies), the dead man is identified as Shelby (Michael Lees), who it just so happens is also the estranged husband of Aikman's neighbour Esther.

For the benefit of the series Esther has a touch of a sixth sense though the scriptwriters are lazy in their use of it. She has an inkling that something wrong is afoot in Aikman's flat but the revelation that the corpse is her husband is a mild surprise, though it has to be admitted only a mild one. The odd Esther seems appears cold and aloof in circumstances which some might think shocking but prone to get exceedingly cross over minor details, particularly those details that contradict astrological beliefs. The sensory powers are hinted at now and again throughout the series. It is possible that there may have been an intention to give those abilities more play had Zodiac nipped into a second series but they are little explored in the six episodes.

Hardly perturbed by the death of her husband the story stumbles onwards and is duly solved. Gradley is quick to the quip and acts cool but he dresses appallingly. Over the following five episodes a relationship builds between Gradley and Esther that could be described as borderline sexual. It is as if it dawned on the producer to late in the day his stars are as utter a mismatch as can be imaginable. Like The Wilde Alliance, the dialogue slips into smart-aleck pretension with the name dropping of classical characters and the insertion of foreign words and phrases.

The Cool Aquarius is as unbelievable a story wasting Michael Gambon in the role of Ruben Kaiser, a businessman of cut-throat reputation, but one that Esther is familiar enough with to know him to have a soft centre. The conceit is far from convincingly played. The mystery involves a missing girl, Cathy (Deborah Fairfax), seen only in a photograph and a single filmed shot. The story as a mangled tone as it moves between Esther's apartment, the Kaiser office and the small flat belonging to the missing girl's family (played by Bill Maynard and Betty Alberge). The story is such a hodgepodge that interest is lost and the revelation is as mystifyingly dumb as anything Zodiac had delivered to this point. We are left unsure if Cathy was a participant, as in that single shot she beams a healthy, unaffected smile from her swivel chair and there is no indication of an ordeal. Don Leaver disappoints in the directorial seat. Throughout the series, even though only serious crimes are committed and investigated, Gradley largely operates alone. The odd copper turns up but in other stories, such as these first two tales, there is absurdly no sign of support, uniformed or otherwise.

The Strength Of Gemini comes from Philip Broadley's typewriter, who would later be responsible for four of the weakest episodes from The Wilde Alliance. It is the first episode to thoroughly and originally play on the astrology theme directly exploiting Esther's skills as a charmer and swindler. Derring (Norman Eshley), repeatedly enters into postal correspondence for her services. Derring then uses that information to manipulate the wealthy young women he means to take money from. Esther becomes wise to the scheme and brings in Gradley, and the two pursue the conman. Although it moves more smoothly than the other tales the fact that there is no element of mystery means that, inevitability, the episode is un-involving.

Saturn's Rewards, scripted by Pat Hoddinatt, and the second episode directed by Leaver, sees the series finding its feet. Peter Vaughan features as a respectable MP, Richard Meade, due to be announced as the next spokesman for the environment when through a window opposite he witnesses a murder. He is about to report it when he remembers himself and the woman, who is not his wife, sharing his hotel bed.

The Meade family are friends of Esther and when the parliamentarian catches up with them he is shocked to find that his daughter's new beau Mark (Ian Ogilvy) is the witnessed strangler. Gradley happens to be investigating the murder, and why not, the tale already has more than its fair share of coincidence and it won't end there. Let's not forget the device, must get that in, and preposterously, our cad denies knowing what is zodiac time is, forced to having already given a false birth date.

Sting, Sting, Scorpio! continues a more entertaining streak, relocating the action to Brighton when two girls visit a fortune-teller and give away too much about their involvement in a string of hotel robberies. Directed by Piers Haggard, this is one of the deadlier and darker episodes. The girls form part of a criminal 'quartet' and their immediate cohort on the ground is Brian Godfrey (Robert Powell), the most detailed villain in the series. He berates Peggy (Susie Blake) who is unfortunately in love with him, and warns her that their silent partner, John, is a seriously dangerous individual who would not think twice about murdering the three of them if they put a foot wrong. When the fortune-teller is killed, Brian reports that it is 'John' who visited the old woman and got carried away. Peggy is distraught with guilt on her part in the death and the Godfrey calms her with a proposal of marriage.

The Brighton setting and Godfrey's controlling nature suggest a direct steal from Patrick Hamilton's Gorse stories. Esther, knowing the victim, takes over the shop and investigates, and a haunted Peggy threatens to disclose the true villain as she returns to the shop. Blake's vulnerability makes her murder all the more shocking and the final confrontation contains the first real hint of tension in the series. Haggard seems unstoppable and, in the final scene, also takes the pair of Esther and the detective nearest to true pangs of affection. Even the closing line stuns in its jarringly punk attitude as Gradley avoids a kiss from Esther as she has the flu (an apparently real infection as her voice is genuinely raspy throughout the recording), and she responds angrily by threatening to "spit on him" instead.

The Horns Of The Moon (penned by Peter Yeldham and directed by Joe McGrath) forges a return to pure farce as the dominant head (Peter Jones) of a merchant bank tries to sell off the business in a merger that will open the firm to tax liabilities and other financial burdens. The board members (including Graham Crowden), the son Tony (Peter Egan) and the old man's young girlfriend (Michele Dotrice) are the chief suspects.

It is a feisty episode with some amusing but again too often horribly affected dialogue. The series is shot entirely on sound stages and on video with no exterior filmed footage, hinting of a need to control the shoot and budget. Bemusing as Zodiac may now be, the fact that it failed to stretch to a second series is no great disappointment. The transfers have a minor video burr but are otherwise clean and there are no DVD extras.



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