It’s Always Later Than You think

Logged: 22 April 2020

Whoever it was that first said “It seemed like a good idea at the time” may have had some input into the concept meetings for a 1960s TV series called “The Time Tunnel”. Watching it again far removed from my childhood has revealed how often a script could detach a piece of an actor’s soul and make it shrivel like a cellophane wrapper on a hot plate. This was never more true than in an episode that drew on events described in the Bible. Not surprisingly when the two lead characters of The Time Tunnel landed in Joshua’s camp it wasn’t just the walls of Jericho that came tumbling down.

The episode was the usual 1960s take on ancient history; everyone was dressed in blankets that looked like they’d just been bought in a shop near the film studio (which to be fair they probably had); there’s a sneering evil character wearing an acorn-shaped helmet. He’s obsessed with the idea of “loosening tongues”; there’s a local governor who behaves badly just for the sake of it because a stone god who looks a lot like the comedian Marty Feldman is allegedly on his side; there’s an obligatory dungeon guard who smirks and turns his back on his prisoner so that he can be rescued (fortunately prisoners were always chained against a wall in a way that compelled the guards to keep their backs to the cell door, allowing rescuers to creep up unobserved); and of course there’s a pantomime scheming servant who betrays everyone for gold. Into this mix came a moment of genuine crackpot grandeur. A writer deliberately and with forethought had the actor portraying Joshua (a fabulously named deck chair of an actor called “Rhodes Reason”) bellow without self-consciousness or irony:

“Let the Rams’ horns be blown!”

The Time Tunnel is what happens when ambition and business meet a punishing work schedule. In the 1960s it was common for a prime time American TV series to demand 30 episodes per season. Actors and crews could be working from 07:00 to 19:00 (or later) six days a week for eight or nine months of the year. Under those conditions television is just a meat grinder. That anything of genuine value or entertainment was made during that period is a tribute to the stamina and professionalism of the people involved – many of whom it’s worth mentioning also worked on Hollywood feature films and brought those high production values to children’s TV.

Time Tunnel was an idea whose ambition could never be realised under the conditions that existed at the time. It’s a shame because it’s an interesting idea, and many of the actors involved really gave of their best under the most degrading circumstances. It’s also worth just touching upon how the two lead characters were almost polar opposites. Robert Colbert was an actor of quiet commanding subtly and presence. What he lacked in Time Tunnel was the material to do him justice. James Darren (who had top billing) was the eye candy. His was the sort of pop idol face that looked down from posters on the bedroom walls of pre-teenaged girls. He did his best with what he had, but ultimately his fate was just to be a man who’d made tortured anxiety his soul mate . Perhaps he understood even as The Time Tunnel was in production how the scripts would never get any better. Everything he said seemed to have its roots in despair.

Time Tunnel staggered on for a single season. Although the premise was that “Two American scientists are lost in the swirling maze of past and future ages” the reality is they were lost in the racks of 20th Century Fox’s stock film vaults where clips from films involving great historical events could be re-used for little or no additional cost. It often resulted in brief outings for agitated men dressed in medieval costumes who thundered about on horseback to the accompaniment of a 72 piece orchestra. When that film ran out the action switched back to a few self-conscious actors clustered on a sound stage contrived to fit into the 4:3 aspect ratio TV screen of the day. 

The Time Tunnel was the first example I’m aware of where television trivialised history in colour on a weekly basis. It’s one of the best examples of history biting back without delay or mercy as the series itself became history after a single season. History is never on anyone’s side – it’s like the sea; treacherous and unforgiving.

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