BIRD OF PREY

Region 2 (UK) Edition  (also Region 4)

Director Michael Rolfe and Don Leaver

Starring: Richard Griffiths, Carole Nimmons, Jim Broadbent, Jeremy Child

THE SERIES

Bird of Prey is about a clever civil servant, Henry Jay (Richard Griffiths), who works as the Principle Scientific Officer for the Department of Commercial Development. He's a small cog in a big machine, but his latest phone-book sized report, Fraud and Related Security Problems In The Age of Electronic Accounting ("a real page-turner" - Accountants' Journal, April 1982), has just thrown a spanner in the works.

The ripples start when "tubby pen-pusher" Henry discovers that his report is no longer filed where he expects it to be: it's been re-classified. Now he has to get clearance from his smarmy boss, Hendersly (Jeremy Child), to even see it. When he does lay hands on it again, he discovers to his horror that it's been edited. Suddenly Henry finds himself deep in trouble. Within hours he's picked up by the Vice Squad, and accused of gross indecency ("Stay away from young boys, or we'll cut your disgusting, perverted goolies off!") A warning. Then another: a charge of making obscene phone calls and sending pornography to a typist in the office pool. Somebody wants Henry scared off, and they're not being too subtle about doing it. "You've obviously upset some important people", suggests one of his contacts.

Henry quickly realises the danger he's in, especially when people he's been talking to begin to make unexpected appointments with morgue attendants. Soon he's involved with a far-reaching international conspiracy, with only his wits, and his knowledge of computers, to keep him alive...

Bird of Prey is one of finest thrillers the BBC ever made. Not quite in the same league as Edge of Darkness, perhaps, but exceptional nevertheless. Unfortunately the march of progress meant that it dated very quickly. It was one of the first series to realise that computers would impact upon our daily lives, and, because of that, its depiction of the computer technology of the time looks very quaint now. In the second episode Henry buys a computer (an early Apple model), and it's without any irony whatsoever that the sales woman jokes "every home should have one". Although its depiction of primitive pre-GUI computers isn't very important to the plot, it's given the series a reputation for being old fashioned. It's perhaps the only reason imaginable as to why the series was never released on VHS. It's true to a certain extent, but the series' thriller elements are very strong, and it has lost none of its power to entertain.

There are two series of Bird of Prey , each of four fifty-minute episodes long. Each series tells a different story, with only a couple of characters carried forward from one series to the other. Griffiths, now probably best known as Uncle Vernon in the Harry Potter movies, is the focus of both series, as the conscientious, mild-mannered, grey-suited, stamp-collecting Henry Jay: a most unconventional, and likeable, hero. Griffiths wasn't often the leading man. He was - and remains - more used to playing character roles, like his memorable turn as Uncle Monty in Withnail & I. It would be a few years - and Griffiths would gain more than a few pounds - before he got the lead role in another BBC series: in the very popular policeman-turned-chef series Pie In The Sky, which ran from 1994 to 1997.

The series excels in almost every department. Michael Wearing's credentials as producer are practically unrivalled, and his resume speaks for itself: The History Man, Boys From The Blackstuff, Edge of Darkness, the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Our Friends in the North and Holding On, amongst others.  Ron Hutchinson's scripts are twisty, and clever, and punctuated with interesting characters. The direction, by Michael Rolfe (who'd work with Hutchinson again, on Connie), and ITV veteran Don Leaver, is assured and well-paced. The series has first-class production values, and the icing on the cake is Dave Greenslade's infernally catchy synth music.

The two series feature an array of quality cast members, including Bob Peck, Nigel Davenport, Trevor Martin, Roger Sloman, Terence Rigby, Lee Montague and Billy Hamon. Doctor Who fans will also recognise Stephen Thorne, Sally Faulkner and Wolfe Morris, amongst others. Speaking of Sally Faulkner, Doctor Who fans will also get a buzz out of seeing some scenes in Bird of Prey that were shot on the steps near St Paul's Cathedral, that the Cybermen walked down, in the story that Faulkner starred in, 1968's The Invasion.

THE DVD

Each of the two DVD-9 disc carries four fifty-minute episodes, which doesn't allow much leeway, when you're encoding standard BBC material from this era (which is a mixture of studio-based VT material and 16mm film inserts, transferred onto 2" quad tapes).

There's actually quite a lot of film in the series and, naturally, since it's not be re-transferred or re-graded, it's rather soft, often a little on the green side, and usually a bit murky, and lacking contrast.

Generally the VT material looks fine, with only a few dropouts and other glitches here and there. Not all the episodes have the same 'bite' to them, though, and I suspect that not all of them were transferred directly from the quad master tapes (or their D3 equivalents). This is a no-frills transfer. It's generally not affected by the traditional PAL artefacts, which at least suggests that 2 Entertain are employing the now well-established preferred method of transferring PAL material through a Transform decoder, or something similar.

It should go without saying that the series is presented in its original 4:3 format. It should, but it doesn't - no problems here, though.

The audio quality is perfectly serviceable, but there are definite lipsync errors at points, which may or may not be exacerbated by the player you use. (If your player has a tendency to add to the problem of a badly-encoded disc, it will make the problem worse, and eventually it will become obvious, even to people who aren't sensitive to the problem - if you work for More 4, for example: they apparently wouldn't be able to spot a five-frame lipsync error if their lives depended on it).

The disc has English HoH subtitles.

I'm not familiar enough with the series to spot whether there has been any tampering. There are a couple of scenes with music (the opening of season two, for example, which uses Manfred Mann's Semi-Detached Suburban Mr James), so it looks as though it hasn't simply arbitrarily removed.

Durations of the eight episodes are:

Series One - 1) 49'52"   2) 50'16"   3) 49'00"  4) 47'44"

Series Two - 1) 49'08"   2) 49'22"   3) 50'18"  4)  46'28"

Those durations tally almost precisely to the records held by the BBC, so it seems all the episodes are uncut.

The menus (seen here) are static, and basic. You can pick the episode you want to watch, or Play All, but there's no way to access an individual chapter, even though there are chapter marks on the disc.

BONUS MATERIAL

Nothing at all. Naturally a commentary track or two would have been nice. A pithy documentary putting the series into perspective would have been even better. Whatever little gems related to the programme - a Points of View, or a Breakfast Time interview promoting the series, perhaps - will remain locked away for the foreseeable future. 2 Entertain have little regard for this aspect of programme appreciation, though, and many significant releases pass through their hands without any supplements at all (Between The Lines being another recent notable victim).

SUMMARY

No frills, nothing special, but two cracking four-part BBC thrillers that should have been released on VHS years ago. Recommended unreservedly to fans of BBC drama and conspiracy thrillers.

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