Monday, 8 June 2020

Novelisation Review 3: When You Comin' Back, Range Rider? by Charles Heath

The third in an occasional thread celebrating old-school paperback novelisations from the 70s and 80s, which are now mostly forgotten.  We're not talking great art but these books have their place - they were a fantastic resource from a time when you couldn't watch your favourite film or TV show whenever you felt like it - and I think they deserve to be remembered.

This time, I'm looking at When You Comin' Back, Range Rider, by Charles Blake, third novelisation from one of my all-time favourite TV shows, The A-Team.
front and back cover of the Target paperback, 1984 (cover scans of my copy)
When Daniel Running Bear discovers a local rancher, Bus Carter, is protecting grazing areas for his cattle by shipping wild mustangs to a pet food factory in Mexico, he enlists the help of The A-Team.  At the same time, Colonel Lynch has been sidelined to a desk job for his failure to capture the fugitives and General Bullen has sent the overzealous Colonel Decker to track them down.  After some LA-based adventures (including BA’s truck going into the San Pedro harbour), Hannibal and the team arrive in Arizona to confront Carter’s henchmen.  After kidnapping Carter’s niece, the team are on the offensive and utilise everything they can, including a train called Abigail and Howling Mad Murdock, whose alter-ego The Range Rider, will come to save the day with his trusty horse Thunder.
The A-Team mount up...
Another excellent novelisation (from a 2-part episode) of the (second) series, for me this is exactly what the A-Team was all about - there’s plenty of action, a lot of humour (between the team themselves and also other characters, such as a couple on Hollywood Boulevard who think Decker is George Peppard) and a decent resolution to the story.  The main characters (all clearly defined on the show by then) are well drawn but so too are the supporting cast, especially Jake the train driver and Carter.  The Arizona locations are well described, the train based action is gripping (and the shoot-outs are much more subdued, making me think this was written from the shooting script) while the pace is spot on, the story racing from one set-piece to the next.  In addition, there’s a nice gritty element to it, with the fate of the mustangs not being glossed over, as well as plenty of more adult references at the film premiere Face sets up (cocaine use and low cut dresses especially).  Well written, thoroughly involving, I really enjoyed this re-read to the extent I wanted to watch the double-episode as soon as I’d finished it.  For a returning A-Team fan, I’d very much recommend it.

* * *
The A-Team was created by Stephen J. Cannell and Frank Lupo, from a pitch made to them by NBC president Brandon Tartikoff who called it a combination of “The Dirty Dozen, Mission Impossible, The Magnificent Seven, Mad Max and Hill Street Blues, with Mr. T driving the car.”  Cannell had high hopes for the show but, as he told Debra Pickett of The Chicago Sun-Times, it was George Peppard who said it would be a hit “before we ever turned on a camera.”  First broadcast on 23rd January 1983 (29th July 1983 in the UK), the programme ran for five series and a total of 98 episodes.

When You Comin' Back, Range Rider? was first broadcast in the UK on 18th November 1983, following the US broadcast on 25th October.
Hannibal Smith was written with James Coburn in mind but George Peppard auditioned - urged on by his young son - and took the role, making it his own.  Faceman was written for Dirk Benedict but the network wanted a younger actor, so Tim Dunigan plays the role in the pilot, replaced by the erstwhile Lt Starbuck from the second episode.  Dwight Schultz was told his role as Howling Mad Murdock would quickly disappear until the network saw the public reaction to his character.  Mr T, part of the original pitch, played a key part in the series - in presence, catchphrases and merchandising - though his standing with the producers and the public caused tension between him and George Peppard.

I wrote an extensive nostalgia post about The A-Team, which you can find here.

* * *
A series of novelisations were published during the mid-80s, by Dell in the US and W H Allen (through their Star and Target imprints) in the UK.  The first paperback, The A-Team, wasn’t numbered (perhaps the publishers wanted to wait and see if it was successful before launching a series) but adapted the pilot episode, Mexican Slayride, while most volumes were built around two episodes (often linking them somehow).  The UK got all ten books in the series, while the US published six.  The first six were written by Charles Heath.

The A-Team (adapted from the pilot by Frank Lupo and Stephen J. Cannell)
Small But Deadly Wars (adapted from A Small and Deadly War written by Frank Lupo and Black Day at Bad Rock written by Patrick Hasburgh)
When You Comin' Back, Range Rider? (adapted from the eponymous episode written by Frank Lupo)
Old Scores to Settle (adapted from The Only Church in Town written by Babs Greyhosky and Recipe for Heavy Bread written by Stephen J. Cannell)
Ten Percent of Trouble (adapted from Steel written by Frank Lupo and The Maltese Cow written by Thomas Szollosi and Richard Christian Matheson)
Operation Desert Sun: The Untold Story (apparently original, the title page credits the novelisation to Louis Chunovic)
Bullets, Bikinis and Bells by Ron Renauld (adapted from Bullets and Bikinis written by Mark Jones and The Bells of St. Mary's written by Stephen J. Cannell)
Backwoods Menace by Ron Renauld (adapted from Timber! written by Jeff Ray and Children of Jamestown written by Stephen J. Cannell)
The Bend in the River by David George Deutsch (adapted from the eponymous double-episode written by Stephen J. Cannell and Frank Lupo)
Death Vows by Max Hart (adapted from Till Death Us Do Part written by Babs Greyhosky)

For a few years now, after finding out charity shops sometimes pulp old books because the market for them is so small, I've been collecting 70s and 80s paperbacks through secondhand bookshops, car boot sales and ebay.  I set up a thread for the horror titles (which you can see here) but novelisations were a rich vein in those decades, before the advent of home video, when viewers wanted to revisit the adventures of their favourite TV show or film.  I realise we might not be talking great art here but, on the whole, I think these books deserve to be remembered.

To that end, on an irregular basis, I'm going to review these "old-school" tie-ins with, hopefully, some background material on each one.

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