The Cult of .... 'Robert's Robots'
Many software revisions ago, long before my transistors had begun to dim, locked away in a barely accessible memory bank, a distant video file flickers intermittently, a record of a long forgotten TV series, a half-remembered memory of a time before all my processors were set to task on solving the one question that has dogged both man and automaton alike since the very beginning of time - Do androids dream of electric sheep?
Ok enough of that. Suffice to say that Robert's Robots was a programme I vaguely remember watching in my childhood. In the pre-internet days, I had on a few occasions asked friends if they remembered a children's TV series about a man who invented robots that frequently went wrong. I couldn't recall the name of the series and none of them remembered such a series. Fast forward to recent times, the era of everything known to man being documented on the interweb, which allowed me to find out what the show was called, but still scant information about Robert's Robots, and, alarmingly I despaired of ever seeing the series again. But I needn't have worried, Network DVD has released Robert's Robots complete series 1 on DVD.
Robert's Robots tells the story of genius inventor Robert Sommerby, who runs (along with his aged Aunt Millie) his own top secret research agency whose main work is the design and build of life-like robots. The robots are cutting edge technology and are tasked to carry out a wide range of, sometimes skilled and intricate but usually mundane, tasks, with the eventual intention of getting them to perform all manner of service tasks for humans, everything from hoovering to flying aircraft. The robots cope easily with their physical tasks, however, as the robots need to be fully integrated into society, they have been specially designed with some intelligent emotion circuitry. This leaves them susceptible to all the frailties of human beings, and, all to often, letting their intelligent emotion circuits rule over their logic circuits. This leads to the all manner of chaos including Katie, a clumsy but gentle giant of a robot (with definite shades of Lenny from John Steinbeck's classic novel Of Mice And Men) becoming infatuated with the new gas cooker, and Eric, a robot who is so advanced that he looks down on humans as inferiors, eventually encourages all the other robots into an all out strike in a bid to further a collective bargaining position based on his own take on Marxist philosophy.
Add into the mix an industrial spy employed by a foreign government and his less than competent private investigator, who constantly attempts to infiltrate the laboratory in order to discover information about Robert's robot project. If that wasn't enough, Robert's fiancee Angela knows nothing of Robert's top secret robot design project, so whenever she visits his house all the robots have to be on best behaviour so that she doesn't discover the fact that they are not human after all.
To sum up, and if you want a sound bite (byte) - basically, it's junior Blade Runner played out in the guise of pantomime - in a way, sort of.
Robert's Robots was written by Rentaghost creator Bob Block. Those who have not seen Robert's Robots will immediately recognise the trademark Block sub-farce stylee along with the basic premise of the show, as it is very similar to the concept and style of two other of his children's series:- Rentaghost, a later series for the BBC about an agency, run by and utilising ghost labor, who have to keep their ghostly nature a secret, which conspires to create a vast array of amusing misunderstandings. And; Robert's Robots' predecessor Pardon My Genie, in which an apprentice (in a hardware shop) accidentally summons an ancient magic genie, who the apprentice must keep secret, which togther conspire to create a vast array of amusing misunderstandings. Pardon My Genie is long overdue a DVD release - hopefully Network will be able to pick this one up at some stage soon.
In my view Robert's Robots works better than Block's better known series Rentaghost. The ever changing array of robots with their own particular emotional defects / peculiarities helps to both keep the format fresh, and is less reliant on the increasingly tenuos and ridiculous contrivances that Rentaghost latterly suffered from.
Another strength of Robert's Robots is the cast, who all attack their parts with considerable gusto and spirit. The lead role is taken by John Clive (A Clockwork Orange, Carry On Abroad and the voice of John Lennon in Yellow Submarine), who is perfectly cast as the eccentric design genius Robert. The private eye is played by Richard Davies, who plays a character not a million miles away from the simmering highly-strung Mr Price that he'd played previously to such effect in the ratings topper Please Sir!. 'Bond girl' and future Magpie presenter Jennie Hanley has little of note to do as Robert's long suffering fiancee Angela, but certainly adds some much needed light touches and a fragrant air to proceedings. Doris Rogers similarly adds further texture playing Aunt Millie (Rogers had previously starred as Mrs Sibley in Block's previous aforementioned series Pardon My Genie).
But the real stars are the 'robots' themselves, with a great performance by Nigel Pegram as the uptight, antsy, and increasingly militant Eric, alongside a suitably warm and lumbering performance by Brian Coburn as the constantly smitten gentle giant Katie. There are also some amusing guest performances from the future Doctor Who Sylvester McCoy (in his TV debut), and an early TV appearance by Christopher Biggins, who'd later go on to be a regular in Rentaghost and also to become a children's favourite in the bizzare game show On Safari (no doubt great training for his stint in the jungle on I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here).
So were my fond half-rememberings of the series just a case of viewing the series through rose-tinted spectacles? Well no, after watching (and re-watching) all the episodes from the first series I was pleasantly surprised that my memory had served me so well, and above all, to discover just how enjoyable Robert's Robots is.
Robert's Robots complete series 1 is out now on DVD and available exclusively from the Network DVD website. Here is hoping we get the complete series 2 too.
Synopsis for series 1 episodes.
1. Follow That Robot - Original ITV transmission: 12 November 1973
Somewhere in England a brilliant inventor is making almost-human robots...
2. Love at First Light - Original ITV transmission: 19 November 1973
Katie falls for a gas stove, and Eric puts the ‘fluence' on Robert's proposal to Angela.
3. A Spanner in the Works - Original ITV transmission: 26 November 1973
The two new maintenance and sanitory robots prove more of a hindrance than a help.
4. Dial C For Chaos - Original ITV transmission: 3 December 1973
Gimble and Marken try to muscle in on Robert's 'Mass Entertainment' robots.
5. A Long, Cold Sommerby - Original ITV transmission: 10 December 1973
The robots are on a VIP parade, with Katie programmed to keep out unwelcome visitors.
6. Kill Or Cure - Original ITV transmission: 17 December 1973
Robert decides to re-programme Eric, making him a kinder, sweeter robot.
7. Double Trouble - Original ITV transmission: 24 December 1973
Robert stages a fashion show, and Gimble and Marken are given a surprising insight.
Check out press release for Roberts Robots - Complete Series 1 DVD release
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