Soldier and Me on DVD

Monday, 17 August 2015 23:00 Written by 

Soldier and Me - out now on DVDThis is a BAFTA award-winning kids' adventure serial from the 1970s. Two teenage boys witness some suspect Czech men plotting the murder of an elderly fellow countryman. They decide to spy on the men but events spiral out of control and the lads are forced to flee for their lives across the country, doggedly pursued by the criminals. Can they evade capture long enough to expose the plot?

The nine-part series stars Gerry Sundquist (from the BBC's 1981 version of Great Expectations) as the gruff but well-meaning Jim Woolcott, and Richard Willis (Doctor Who, The Feathered Serpent) as Istvan 'Soldier' Szolda, a squeaky, accident-prone Czech boy who Woolcott takes under his wing after rescuing him from school bullies. The story is based on writer David Line's own novel “Run for Your Life”, and directed by Carol Wilks (Grange Hill, The Bill).

I am a child of the 1970s but I had not heard of this serial before; now that I have avidly watched it from start to finish I can honestly say that it deserves far more recognition. It is thrilling, frightening and funny in equal measure, and plays out like a children's version of "The 39 Steps".

At the tale's heart is the wonderful interplay between Jim and Soldier, the former ostensibly being bigger, braver and more sensible than the other, but for his part, Soldier proves to be surprisingly resilient and resourceful despite his skinny frame, NHS glasses and tiny school shorts. Together they form an inseparable bond that gets them through some very tough times, for example when they are wet, hungry and exhausted after having trekked for many miles across the Lake District.

Their pursuers are a sinister bunch ho make life very difficult for the boys. They seem to be incredibly intuitive when it comes to predicting the lads' movements, and manage to turn the locals against them, making it nigh on impossible to find somewhere to shelter, never mind find a good meal.

The hunter who seems to be tasked with tracking the boys most often is so-called Henchman Smiler (Constantine Gregory - "Shanghai Knights", "Titus"). Smiler - as his nickname suggests - spends the entire story grinning in a very unsettling fashion, aided by a prominent scar over his top lip. He gets around on an undersized motorbike that looks like it was made for children. His persona creates a fascinating contrast between his unswerving, ill-intentioned search for the boys whilst simultaneously appearing to be insincerely friendly. Perhaps his character is a distant relative of Richard Kiel's Jaws?!

The other, simply-named gangsters include Henchman Greasy (Richard Ireson - Sharpe's Rifles), Driver (Derrick O'Connor - "Lethal Weapon 2", Ben Affleck's "Daredevil") and lastly The Boss (Milos Kirek - "Never Say Never Again"). Together they form a well-oiled team of pros whose motivations remain shrouded in mystery because they mostly speak in Czech without any subtitles. This helps to keep us on the back foot, in tandem with the two boys.

Other notable cast members include Richard Wilson (One Foot in the Grave, Merlin) as one of the lads' few allies, Sally Sanders (Psychoville) as Jim's Mum, and Alan Meadows (Coronation Street) as a peeved police desk sergeant.

Soldier and Me comes from an era when child actors were allowed to do their own stunts, and I found myself wincing on many occasions such as when the boys tear along sheer cliff tops, down craggy escarpments and generally throw themselves around without any obvious fear. This makes the action all the more exciting and real, establishing a palpable sense of danger both from the Czech gunmen and the unforgiving, ruggedly beautiful environment.

As you can probably tell, I found the show hugely enjoyable, with a deliciously dark and threatening atmosphere. The only, small caveat is that the ending is wrapped up a little too smartly and swiftly, with lots of plot exposition dumped on us all at once.

The only on-disc bonus content in addition to a booklet is a small image gallery, which never-the-less is worth checking out for a reminder of the wonderful gurning by Gregory! The video quality is patchy with frequent noise and faded colours, but if anything it adds to the charm and 1970s' atmosphere.

My final footnote concerns Sundquist, who according to IMDb took his own life in 1993 at the age of 37, which is a real shame when he evidently had great acting potential.

Soldier and Me (1974) is out now on DVD, courtesy of Network. The two-disc set has a running time of 216 minutes approx., carries a 'PG' certificate and retails for £19.99, or less from www.culttvstore.com

 

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