The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 9 – The Sell-Out

Patrick Macnee and Frank Gatliff

 

Just as the keel of the series had started to lift, floating at last in its own water, episode nine of series two plonks it back on the sea floor. The Sell-Out is a throwback to series one, which itself harks even further back – to the film noir genre which originally originally inspired the series. The trenchcoats, the respect for authority, the sense of white knights in a dark world.

As The Avengers moved away from this founding idea, noticeably less and less actual avenging got done.

In a plot set at the United Nations, Jon Rollason is back as Macnee’s sidekick, displacing Honor Blackman as the producers use up another of the episodes originally written for Macnee and original star Ian Hendry. After a quick one two – a killing done hitman-style followed by a briefing in a museum, where John Steed meets handler One Twelve (an excellent Arthur Hewlett) and is dressed down for his flippancy – the plot revolves around Steed guarding a UN big noise (Carleton Hobbs) while at the same time being watched like a hawk by his own side. Is he on the take? Is he “losing his grip”, as the dubious and shadowy senior spy Harvey (Frank Gatliff) insinuates?

The Sell-Out is still good spy stuff, though there are two main problems with the episode. I’ve already alluded to the first, which is that the show itself has moved on into fanciful territory and Dr Martin King is far too meat and potatoes – no slight against actor Jon Rollason, by the way. The other is more technical, and concerns the use of outside broadcast footage, which is of a shockingly bad quality, is clearly shot by a second unit director and lacks the intimacy which director Don Leaver brings to the scenes shot in the studio.

These grumbles aside, it’s again notable how good Macnee is, physically aware that he can compensate for trundling studio cameras by moving on to his marks with speed and adding little flourishes to deliver at least a simulacrum of action – that brolly comes in handy. His voice, in the days of terrible sound, also seems pitched right into the the sweet spot of generally cruddy studio microphones; Macnee is almost crooning his lines.

 

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The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 8 – Death of a Great Dane

Cathy Gale in low cut dress

 

We’re now eight episodes into the second series of The Avengers and change is afoot. Even before Death of a Great Dane gets underway, something clearly sets this episode apart from the ones that came before.

John Dankworth’s theme music has been perked up a bit – that 1950s-influenced jazz-inflected drone was sitting increasingly at odds with the jaunty direction that the series has started take, largely thanks to Patrick Macnee’s playing of the dashing John Steed. And Honor Blackman gets a co-starring credit in the titles, where her face is featured prominently. Ever since Ian Hendry left at the end of series one, Patrick Macnee’s face alone had appeared.

Blackman is also noticeably sleeker, more tanned, more your Bond babe (which she eventually became, as Pussy Galore) and the interaction between Steed and Gale is more noticeably sexual – he’s hitting on her, jokily, in what would probably be called an inappropriate fashion today, though Mrs Gale clearly knows how to take care of herself and fights back with “I could eat you for breakfast, sonny” looks. And the camera, too, is fond of shots that demonstrate not just a more flexible rig, but a keener interest in Blackman’s cleavage.

Plot? More McGuffin-y than we’re used to, about diamonds being found in a dead man’s stomach, the possibility of there being a turf war between rival cartels somehow being a potential spoke in the wheel as the UK starts talks to join the Common Market – “could be the difference between going in and crawling in”, we’re told, in an interchange between Steed and Gale. Which is why they’ve been dragged in, presumably.

The plot moves into vaguely contemporary territory when it’s hinted that the mastermind behind the whole diamond caper might not actually exist; we’re faintly not just in the world of avatars, but of fake news.

The character actors – always a real plus in The Avengers – are really high tone this time around, with John Laurie, as a buffer somehow involved in the diamond cartel shenanigans, delivering much more than is written in the script. But Leslie French as a butler trumps him with a performance of such sibilant superciliousness that he threatens to upstage even the mighty Macnee.

Again class looms large, and this being the 1960s the more rarefied your social standing, the more likely you are to be a shit, this tendency counter-balanced by Steed and Gale, pillars of the British noblesse oblige tradition.

As for Avengers iconography, this is the episode in which Cathy Gale dons leather, and Steed’s bowler hat maker is mentioned by name (Bates or possibly Bateson, the stiff upper lip perhaps having swallowed the last syllable).

We’re just on the borders of kinky boots territory. After a few false starts, The Avengers has found its formula.

 

 

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The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 7 – The Mauritius Penny

John Steed in the dentist's chair

 

An episode about a missing postage stamp? Thou shittest. Indeed not. That is exactly what The Avengers are up to in the seventh episode of series two, a bizarre story that starts off in the genteel world of philately and ends up at a meeting of neo-Nazis, by way of a gun-running operation.

But if that is really what it was all about all along – Nazis and guns – why didn’t Steed tell Mrs Gale that right at the outset, instead of making out it’s all about a missing and very rare stamp? It’s all very baffling but also pretty charming, an episode steeped in class distinction right from the off, as a stamp dealer is killed by a grunty oik while on the phone to stamp fiend Lord Matterley.

Enter John Steed, making value judgments about wine and women (the sexism of these early episodes is quite breathtaking at times), coolly asserting his superiority as the murder trail leads him from the auction house to a villain who went to the same school as Steed, and was even in the same house.

There are fights along the way and they are terribly staged – at one point Steed is rendered unconscious after a policeman touches him on the back of the head with a featherlight truncheon, and later Cathy gets to demonstrate some karate, not entirely convincingly.

The intriguing thing about this episode, written by solid TV hands Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks, is its lack of good guys – Steed and Gale apart, there’s barely a clean nose in it – and the way the class system out in the world of stamp auctions, from brown-coated warehousemen up to fastidious collecting gents, is reflected in the criminal world too.

Talking of which, good to see Alfred Burke as an oily-rag villain, other baddies’ names being withheld for reasons of not wishing to spoil the plot.

Other nice touches include Cathy Gale’s clothes, which seem to be getting more expensive as the series goes on, and Steed getting into a spot of bother in a scene that seems to foreshadow The Marathon Man’s gruesome dentistry.

All in all, a fast episode, too fast really, that packs in a lot of plot into very little space.

As for the nostalgia factor, Burke aside, and not forgetting the distinguished Richard Vernon as Lord Matterley, how about neo-Nazis as a laughable sideshow rather than a clear and present danger?

 

 

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