By Mike Hickman
“Vinegar,” Dennis Pringle replied, when I asked him what he hoped had become of the film print. If there had ever been a film print. “Hopefully,” he added, foul teeth chewing on another cigar as he leaned back in the antimacassared armchair. Behind him, what I could only imagine was tobacco juice wept like pus from the once floral patterned wallpaper. No doubt an effect of his chain smoking, it was just one of a number of choice details that wasn’t going to make it into this month’s fanzine.
Dennis Pringle – an interview with the former producer! Includes frank descriptions of what decades of smoking will do to your furniture!
Not exactly the low-down the fans wanted on their favourite series nor the gen on what I’d hoped Dennis might talk about: the legendary episode 52. Transmitted live in 1955. More than likely never recorded. There was barely anything left of it but a script and a few props, and they were safely in the collection of super-fan Toby Troughtman. And there was nothing on the internet except a low-res photo or two. With no-one, almost no-one, prepared to talk about it.
But, then, no-one had ever caught up with the producer. No-one had dared. I was daring.
“It’s hard to believe you wouldn’t want to see the episode, Dennis.”
Dennis exchanged his cigar for the yellowing nebuliser at his side. It burbled and bubbled along with his chest. He picked up his lighter. Pink. Bic. 99p for two from the pound shop. He gave it an experimental flick and was momentarily surprised by the size of flame. “No, and I don’t know why you’d want to see it, either, Ricky.”
The nebuliser bubbled, was exchanged for the cigar. I could have told him what it would mean to me to see the missing episode of Out of the Dark. To have seen the complete set. But Dennis, of course, had a missing episode of his own, and I didn’t want my obsession distracting him from whatever he might have to say about that.
“Look, like I’ve told you, son,” Dennis said, “you’ve seen the episodes that exist. What’s another one in the archive?”
There seemed to be no way around it. It was clear I’d have to go for Toby’s nuclear option. For such a Cold War relic as Dennis Pringle, it was somehow appropriate. Appropriate for the television series he had produced, too.
“So, if I was to say that there is a copy out there – that I might have found a collector with a copy – would you still want it decayed to vinegar, Dennis?”
“Who told you?” Toby Troughtman asked. I’m guessing at his words, of course, but he would have wanted to know who was responsible for breaking the secret. He’d have wanted a name and an address so he could send the boys round later with the ball-peen hammers and the pliers.
“Not much of a secret, was it?” Dennis wouldn’t have been impressed by Toby’s suit or his professional act – all pinstripes and spats and tie pins. Maybe he knew that the guy was a librarian and that mummy and daddy had always been so very supportive. To the tune of a decent house in Hove and a sizeable super-fan collection.
“So, you prepared to run it for me?” Dennis asked.
Toby let him in – of course he did – taking him down to the screening room in the basement, making sure to pass the display cabinets of costumes, props and scripts en route. No doubt he’d have wanted Dennis to be impressed. No doubt Dennis would have scratched himself and farted. He didn’t want anyone to think he cared.
I paused the recording. I’d have to chop out the last five minutes. If I wanted the commentary to go on the blog. If I didn’t want my balls fed to the lawyers.
Nicholas Marmison – tanned, coiffured, and with teeth he’d most definitely not had back in 1955 – flashed a smile, this one for free and without a camera pointing at him. I’d found him via IMDB. The one living cast member. Or the one living cast member with an agent still in London who knew where he might be found, which was sort of the same difference. As with the possibility that episode 52 might exist, Dennis didn’t know about him, either.
“You did ask,” he said.
“He was the producer, yes,” I said, “but there must have been someone around to stop him.”
“From putting his hand in the cookie jar? Dennis? You’ve met him, right?”
I’d not thought anyone would ever give an answer, but when I’d said that there might be a copy out there, a gleam had appeared in the Marmison eyes.
“Caught on camera, mate,” he said, admiring his manicure. “Live television. Vision mixer cuts at just the wrong point and, boom, there he is – on screen – with her. Just a split second, but…”
“Did no-one ever call in?”
“Live television, mate.”
“And never repeated.”
“Out of the whole audience, no-one said a thing?”
“And apparently not recorded, either. Blink and you miss it, probably, though. You’d need someone to point it out for you. But you say there’s a film print, huh? Must have been for the international market. They’d do that. Film off a telly screen. No video tape then.”
I did know. 16mm, optical sound, 900 foot black and white positive film print. Toby had said as much on his blog. A new acquisition. And then he’d shown a shot of the leader. And he’d been trolling, hadn’t he? He’d known the effect it would have on people who were desperate to see it after all these years.
Or desperate for others not to see it.
He’d known the effect it would have on Dennis Pringle most of all.
“What the hell?” Toby Troughtman watched the film spool off the reel and onto his shag pile. Dennis was standing there, by the projector, toying with his lighter.
Toby put down the sherry and biscuits and was across the room to respool before Dennis had time to unwrap the cigar.
“What was the idea?” Dennis asked.
He had seen the leader. And then he’d unspooled further, and he’d seen the randomly cut-together Tom and Jerry clips that followed. Just enough of them to look as if it was a full spool of film. 900 feet of it, say.
Sherry swilled and cigar lit, no doubt heedless to Toby’s warnings, the old producer trolled the collector. “You wanted to draw interested parties out, was that it? See if anyone was curious about your copy – perhaps someone who thought their own precious, only one-in-the-world copy was in danger of sudden devaluation?”
Toby placed the reel into its can. “I thought it might help,” he said.
“Only you don’t have it at all, do you?”
Toby walked through into the next room, eyes ranging around the display cabinets as he looked for a home for his now worthless print. Dennis pattered after him, this time pausing to look at the collection that bit more closely than he had before.
“When you’ve been looking for the damn thing for a good couple of decades now,” Toby said, “and it has been there in your thoughts every waking hour…you might wind up thinking that this was a worthwhile wheeze…”
“What would you do with it if you had it?” Dennis asked, coughing, and reaching for a stained hankie, as if set off by Toby’s unfortunate choice of word.
“Show it, of course,” the super-fan said. “Share it with the fan community. Perhaps get you to do a commentary for us, Dennis.”
“I see,” Dennis replied. “No better than I thought, then.” He absently stubbed out his cigar on the shag pile as if wanting to see how Toby would react.
“You don’t remember any of this?” I asked Dennis because it would be only fair to ask him, and this despite the growling and the nebulising and the crackling of the cellophane from the third cigar since I’d shown myself in.
“You know,” Dennis said, “there was this edition of Armchair Theatre… Part-way through the show, one of the cast corks it. And so they have three minutes – the ad break – to share out his lines.”
I’ve heard the story. I could give him the name of the actor. I let him have his moment. “And?”
“And no bugger noticed that, either.”
“So nothing happened?”
“Not a sausage.”
Dennis smirked around his nebuliser, so I took it for the euphemism he was intending.
The bubbling of yellowed liquids stopped me from asking, “and your point is?”
“It was a long time ago, Ricky,” Dennis said. “Don’t you ever think things should stay in the past?” And he said this while looking at the fan club badges on my lapel. “Don’t you have things you’d rather stayed there?”
“He doesn’t have it,” Toby Troughtman said. He’d thanked me for the photos of Dennis, and for the interview, too. “I can’t imagine he’s seen it in the years since, either. Do you know he tried to have it all off the spool? I caught him looking at the individual frames. He had a projector right there. What a sad decline, eh?”
“So, he came to prove whether or not it existed? Whether it was real?”
“Absolutely, what else?” Toby gave me his best librarian look. “No, as far as Dennis Pringle is concerned, it’s missing,” he added, “maybe never recorded. And he’s one very relieved gentleman about that, I can tell you.”
Actually, I’d already told Toby, but there was little point in arguing with him.
“Interesting, isn’t it?” Toby added. He’d heard the Marmison commentary, too. The bits that couldn’t go up on the web without the lawyers’ say-so. So why did I get the feeling that Toby already knew what the missing-for-decades actor was going to say about it all?
I glanced into the flicker of the screening room, smelled the air freshener that Toby had liberally sprayed around the place; smelled the ash and the vinegar, too. As with Dennis’s interview, it was less of a story than I’d hoped. Toby didn’t have episode 52. Dennis didn’t remember episode 52. No-one could prove a thing about episode 52. Perhaps no-one ever would.
Toby stopped at the cabinet containing the pilot script and the few remaining props and costumes. I noticed they’d all been freshly signed by Dennis. His trip hadn’t been a total waste, then, I thought.
“Anyway, there’s nothing we can do if there’s no recording, is there?” Toby asked. “No way we could test out whether Mr Marmison is right and twenty million viewers watched him misbehave with one of his actresses. It was meant to be fleeting. But if you knew it was there – somewhere. In the background. In the murk of the 405 line monochrome image. If you could search for it very carefully, that one quick cutaway to someone who shouldn’t even have been on set…if you could find the exact frame, that would be worth a story or few, wouldn’t it?”
He leaned against a display cabinet, folded his arms, shot his cuffs and, mid-way through smiling at me as if he knew I must suspect something of him, his eyes just happened to linger on a perfectly dust-free, perfectly clean circle on the glass shelf next to him.
A 16mm-film-print-in-original-can perfectly clean circle.
“Problem, Toby?” I asked.
I watched the vein twitch. “No. No problem,” he told me. And he clapped me on the back and led me away back up the stairs, as far away from his collection as he could. “I do wonder, though, if that article of yours could benefit from a follow-up to ask just a few more questions. How’d you fancy paying our grumpy producer another visit, Rick?”
Mike Hickman (@MikeHicWriter) is a writer from York, England. He has written for Off the Rock Productions (stage and audio), including a 2018 play about Groucho Marx. He has recently been published in EllipsisZine, the Blake-Jones Review, Bitchin’ Kitsch, the Cabinet of Heed, the Potato Soup Journal, and Red Fez.