BIRD OF PREY
Region 2 (UK) Edition (also Region 4)
Michael Rolfe and Don Leaver
Griffiths, Carole Nimmons, Jim Broadbent, Jeremy Child
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.
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
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
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.
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).
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