During the 1960s one of the most popular television genres worldwide was the British 'spy-fi' adventure series, which included classics such as The Avengers (1961-9), The Prisoner (1967) and The Saint (1962-69). Yet by the early 1970s the costs involved with making these programmes had spiralled and viewers' tastes had changed in favour of gritty, realistic programming. Spyder's Web was one of the last series in the 60s-style spy-fi genre, made comparatively cheaply by ATV in 1972 and broadcast in competition with ITC's much more flamboyant series, The Persuaders!
The Spyder organisation exists to tackle national and international problems that the British Government want to resolve discreetly1. Many missions are too 'delicate' for the police or are in areas that people in authority are trying to block or bury for their own purposes. The organisation is led by Charlotte 'Lottie' Dean, a loud-mouthed woman whose cover is that of the head of an award-winning, though financially modest, documentary film company known as Arachnid Films. As the web is run on a cell basis she is the only one who knows the identities of the other members of the organisation and keeps her own identity of Spyder a closely-guarded secret. Her second-in-command is Hawksworth, who knows only the identity of Spyder and virtually no-one else in the entire organisation.
Spinning the Web
The idea for Spyder's Web was developed in 1970 by Richard Harris, an experienced writer who had written for The Saint as well as co-creating Man in a Suitcase (1967-68). The series intrigued Dennis Vance, a producer at ATV (Associated Television), a television company that at the time held the ITV Midlands franchise. As Vance had regularly worked with writer Roy Clarke, now best known for creating Last of the Summer Wine as well as comedies Open All Hours and Keeping Up Appearances, he suggested that Clarke become the lead writer on Harris' series, with another ATV writer, Malcolm Hulke2, appointed the script supervisor.
13 × 45-minute episodes were made in colour and, in order to keep costs low, location filming used 16mm rather than higher-quality 35mm film. Videotape was used when filming in Elstree Studios. The series, broadcast on Friday nights in January to April 1972, was less successful than The Persuaders!, though the first episode ranked3 the ninth most-watched programme of the week. The second episode was the joint-tenth most popular, with subsequent episodes ranked 18, 17, 16, 18 and 18, leaving the final six episodes outside the ranked top 20.
Following the lack of interest within the UK, all episodes were copied onto black and white film for potential overseas sales; in 1972 only a minority of countries had adopted colour television. The series was advertised worldwide by ITC4, a company that specialised in making high-quality television series and selling them internationally. It was owned by the same parent company, Associated Communications Corporation, as ATV. While 80 countries had bought The Saint and 90 had purchased The Avengers, there was no overseas interest in Spyder's Web whatsoever.
Today, all the black and white copies of the episodes survive while only two episodes survive in colour. Of these, the colour copy of 'Red Admiral' has deteriorated beyond repair in places - the picture fluctuates between colour and black and white. The best-preserved episode, 'Things that Go Bang in the Night', is also the weakest.
There are four regular characters in the television series but only two of them are aware of the existence of the spy network.
Charlotte 'Lottie' Dean (Patricia Cutts)
Charlotte 'Lottie' Dean at first glance appears to be a loud, bossy documentary maker, but she has a secret identity. She is 'Spyder', the head of a worldwide spy network. She chooses Hawksworth to be her second-in-command because she wants someone ruthless she can rely on to get the job done, even though he is prepared to disobey her at any opportunity. For thankfully unknown reasons, her nickname for Hawksworth is 'Tiger'.
Patricia Cutts (1926-74) had a varied career and at one point looked set for a career in Hollywood when she was cast in a starring role for 1950 British/American film Your Witness. The investors demanded that she take amphetamines to slim down for the role, which had a lasting, detrimental impact on her health. Later US union regulations restricted her career opportunities and she returned to the UK in 1970. Both Vance and ATV had worked with her before. She was given the main role, yet sadly she was the series' weakest asset. By this stage in her career Cutts was an alcoholic and her performance throughout the series consists of either grumpily shouting every line as if she wanted the back row of a vast theatre to be able to hear her or, occasionally, mumbling and appearing briefly confused, no matter what the scene required. Her weak performance was picked up again and again by reviewers and critics, both at the time of original broadcast and when the series was released to home viewing.
Clive Hawksworth (Anthony Ainley)
Calling Hawksworth a blunt instrument would be an insult to crowbars and hammers everywhere. In short, he is a hero with no redeeming features whatsoever. A thoroughly ruthless character, he is chauvinistic, uninterested in the thoughts and opinions of everyone else (and generally dismissive of the idea that other people can think and form opinions), disrespectful of his superiors, intolerant of those with liberal perspectives, and prepared to use and sacrifice anyone if it suits his interest. He is only ever at home in a war zone. Before working for Spyder he was kicked out of MI9; though he is potentially intelligent, he deliberately chooses not to be, preferring an all-guns-blazing solution to any problem. He won't hesitate to kill anyone when provoked to do so, believing this to be always the best approach, and enjoys manipulating people into positions where he will be forced to kill them without receiving any reprimand for his actions. He is never happier than when someone is trying to kill him – provided, of course, that it is 'a British sort of death' – as this means he is allowed to slay them in return.
His only hobbies are his classic Lagonda car and hunting, as shooting animals is the closest substitute to killing other people. He usually ignores women and nothing makes him more uncomfortable than a mission in which he has to show affection for a woman or get close to one in order to achieve the goal. Despite this, he has somehow developed a begrudging respect for Lottie, although he enjoys making her uncomfortable and even gleefully smirks in the penultimate episode when he believes she has been killed.
Anthony Ainley (1932-2004) really relished playing the perfect villain and refuses to let minor details like being cast as the hero get in the way. He is best known for playing The Master in Doctor Who throughout the 1980s.
Wallis 'Wal' Ackroyd (Veronica Carlson)
The character of Wal would have added a touch of glamour to the show had she been given a role greater than passing on messages at the start and end of each episode. Originally from Scunthorpe, she provides the backbone of Arachnid Films' office. Highly competent and organised, she keeps the company ticking over while Lottie and Hawksworth gallivant around the world on their various missions. This is not appreciated as the others only ever ask her to make coffee, but while they are out of the office she reads Tolstoy and is studying Eastern European languages, which play no role in the series. She is not unaware that more is going on with Lottie and Hawksworth than meets her eye, but as she has a well-paid job she doesn't consider it any of her business: as she tells her colleague Albert, 'I say nothing and I see the world'. Quite when she sees the world is unknown and it certainly doesn't happen during the television series, where she is only seen outside the office set thrice: once to visit a milk bar with Albert, once to visit a barn to make a film about a weapons inventor, and once to visit a stately home - during which Lottie asks her to pretend to be a sexually-assaulted nun. As far as she is concerned, the only downsides of the job are being unappreciated by everyone, and Albert's constant attempts to flirt with her.
Yorkshire-born actress Veronica Carlson (1944+) is probably best known for appearing in Hammer horror films, playing the female lead in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) and The Horror of Frankenstein (1970). She commuted 170 miles from Coventry each day to film Spyder's Web.
Albert Mason (Roger Lloyd-Pack)
As the actor who went on to have the most successful career, Roger Lloyd-Pack (1944-2014) now features prominently on the cover of Spyder's Web's DVD release. In truth he plays minor character Albert Mason who works for Arachnid Films as a filmmaker and plays little or no role in the seven episodes he is in other than trying to flirt with Wal for a couple of minutes at the start. His father Charles plays a butler in the second episode. Lloyd-Pack, then 27, is best known as playing Trigger in Only Fools and Horses (1981-2003), Owen in The Vicar of Dibley (1994-2007) and appearing in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) as Barty Crouch, Sr.
The series had a promising, ambitious idea that the series sadly failed to live up to. The main failing was Patricia Cutts' lacklustre performance as Lottie, although Anthony Ainley sometimes brings a touch of pantomime villain to his hero role. Spyder is supposed to be a worldwide spy network but it is obviously one that consists of Lottie and Hawksworth; the only other recurring character in the organisation is Dr Long, played by Jamaican actor Mark Heath, who turns up in three episodes to issue death certificates to those who have died in mysterious circumstances. There are occasional minor characters, most of whom end up dead shortly after being introduced, who all have a spider tattooed on their wrists. This seems a bit of a giveaway for people trying to have a secret identity.
Many of the plots follow the two predominant spy-fi clichés of the day. Firstly, combatting Eastern agents attempting to infiltrate the West or murder prominent people. Secondly, secretly aiding former British colonies who have now not only gained independence but also corruption and consequently need a patronising paternal hand behind the scenes to keep them pointing in the right direction. In other words, characters who are not British are, well, foreign, with all the stereotypes and phoney accents that entails. Even thugs in the underworld are complaining that if Britain joins the European Economic Community then there may be an influx of foreign criminals unfairly taking work away from native British criminals.
It is often unclear as to whether the audience should want the Spyder team to succeed or not. Mothers and children get killed off callously and Hawksworth threatens to stab young girls with a bayonet. In the episode 'Life at a Price' it is implied that every working-class single, pregnant woman would willingly sell her baby to a wealthier woman wanting a child. This episode's plot revolves around whether or not the wife of a former colony's President is pregnant and/or the subject of an assassination attempt. In 'Red Admiral', the second episode to be filmed, the team investigate a member of Naval Intelligence who they suspect may be considering betraying intelligence to an Eastern Power. While Lottie is charmed by him, Hawksworth longs to kill him the moment he learns that the admiral had published poetry with peace as a recurring theme, hating liberalism and spouting 'better dead than red' like a McCarthyist. The second episode broadcast, 'The Executioners', has them investigate a conspiracy by many establishment figures to remove several leaders of the counter-culture. As soon as Hawksworth learns that the targets, left-wing political activists, proponents of free sexuality and so forth, are not being killed but merely kidnapped, imprisoned and brainwashed, his reaction is to tell those behind the conspiracy to keep up the good work.
Perhaps the best episode is the final one, 'Rev Counter'. In this Lottie and Hawksworth investigate a vicar who rather sensibly believes that if God had intended the Isle of Wight to be ruled by England then He would not, in His wisdom, have separated it from the mainland. He seeks to raise funds to do God's work and liberate the Isle of Wight from the British government in general, and specifically Selective Income Tax, by selling copies of the parish magazine, which is also used to fundraise for the church roof. He has gathered a flock of mostly harmless and predominantly rather elderly fellow conspirators, none of whom have anything remotely approaching an Isle of Wight accent (or share an accent in common) or use any Isle of Wight dialect. The 'freedom fighters' have so far purchased a plastic toy Tommy gun and talk in a pie-in-the-sky way of one day sinking the Isle of Wight ferry6, which is an understandable desire for anyone who regularly uses it. Lottie and Hawksworth infiltrate this group, give the members bombs and guns and then, complaining that the vicar's group is now armed and dangerous, kill them. The series ends with Hawksworth kissing his hand and then putting that hand against Lottie's cheek in an exceptional show of affection.
Overall, Spyder's Web was a television show that had a lot of promise, but little focus. There are several strong moments and some truly witty wordplay, but Patricia Cutts delivers all dialogue by shouting grumpily or mumbling drunkenly. That said the lead actors have a rather bizarre on-screen rapport that, between Ainley's pantomime-villain hero and Cutts' monotonously bad-mood boss, really should not work, but somehow enticingly does. The biggest weakness is that the series cannot decide whether it involves two characters7 or four, and instead comes up with an unsatisfying compromise approach: there are four characters but two of them do virtually nothing.