The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 11 – Traitor in Zebra

Richard Leech and Honor Blackman

 

In its heyday – Emma Peel era, shot on film, in colour, with the Laurie Johnson theme music – The Avengers became famous, notorious even, for its plots taking place in a nearly depopulated world. All very necessary, the better to maintain the suspension of disbelief – the outrageous storylines and arch characters simply wouldn’t stand up to exposure to the cold light of reality, so the theory goes.

There’s nothing like that going on in the 11th broadcast episode of series two, Traitor in Zebra, which is thick with characters and stiff with “real life” situations.

Patrick Macnee goes undercover as Commander Steed, a naval shrink investigating whether one of her majesty’s men (Michael Danvers-Walker, son of Bob Danvers-Walker, voice of the British Pathe newsreels for decades) has been passing secrets about British cryptography to the enemy, and if so, how. Meanwhile, down at the local boozer, Honor Blackman’s Cathy Gale is inserting herself into local village life, drinking with the lads and playing darts when she isn’t passing herself off as a scientist working up at the lab where the secrets have been stolen. It’s all very chummy.

The plot is a basic whodunit, with Steed and Gale meeting regularly at the pub to swap theories about who the mole could be. Possibles include Danvers-Walker himself, a young William Gaunt as a go-getting rising naval star, Richard Leech as Franks, an amorous local reporter, pipe smoker and tweed wearer. There’s also John Sharp, a familiar TV face particularly good at playing devious characters. Could this shifty villager or local shop girl Linda (Katy Wild) be involved somehow too?

For all the superior supporting players, and a decent cliff-edge finish, this episode is actually a rather humdrum affair, with flat direction by Richmond Harding and too much exposition in John Gilbert’s screenplay. On the upside the Steed/Gale dynamic of flirting, bickering and bantering is by now well established and saves the too-often pub-based action from becoming terminally static.

The Avengers is at its best when the exotic beasts hold sway. There’s not even the slightest sign of that happening here. But, in a studio not far away, and shot around the same time, Sean Connery’s James Bond was borrowing about 50 per cent of John Steed – debonair, eye for the ladies, Jermyn Street apparel, superior attitude, natty hat – and was about to upend British film-making.

The traffic was not to be all one way.

 

 

 

 

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The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 10 – Death on the Rocks

Cathy Gale and John Steed

 

The tone is light and bantery, a set of the features that would become permanent eventually, but in other respects this tenth episode of series two is one of the weaker entrants so far in the Avengers canon.

Nothing wrong with any individual bit of it – a plot about Steed and Mrs Gales setting up home together (I say!), the better to pose as husband and wife, so they can infiltrate some diamond gang that’s trying to muscle in and control the trade by swamping the market with gems. And before you can say “takeover”, Steed has become a partner in a near-moribund diamond trading company, from where he will outwit the interlopers and restore order, pausing only to size up the daughter (Toni Gilpin) of the business’s owner (Meier Tzelniker) for potential conquest.

The British empire was dead but The Avengers clearly missed that memo, and naked colonial ambition of all sorts is what Steed and Gale are involved in here. So much so that it’s hard to be entirely on their side, no matter how thuggish their opponents, or whipcrack Steel and Gale’s flirty exchanges.

Along with colonial assumptions, this episode is thick with class snobbery as again and again the higher status Steed and Gale tell those lower down the social ladder what is and isn’t in – the Beatles had yet to upend that particular table. An early scene in which Gale bamboozles a working class decorator with some needless chat about an art piece he’s simply too dumb to understand pretty much says it all.

And bringing up the rear, so to speak, is the blatant sexism of Steed, not just in his “ding dong” Leslie Phillips appraisals of anything in a skirt, but in his attempts to charm the couture pants off Mrs Gale. The Avengers scores a point here – she will have nothing to do with him (and full marks to Honor Blackman for really playing these scenes with an iron fist inside the velvet coquetry).

As if in sympathy, the sound and video capture are ropier than usual this time round, too. And though director Jonathan Alwyn does a polished job with the lumbering cameras and basic lighting rigs available to him – close-ups nicely used, actors moved cleverly from one set-up to the next – things get away from him in some of the action scenes. Mrs Gale does a bit of judo on heavy Doug Robinson and there’s a guns-blazing finale back at the Steeds’ home towards the end, both breaking through the suspension of disbelief with their awkwardness.

Nice enough, fascinating enough, if you’re interested in TV of the period, or The Avengers more widely, but things wrap up at the end before they feel like they have even got going. As if someone in the production team had issued the brief “Diamonds” to writer Eric Paice and then left it at that.

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon