The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 21 – The White Dwarf

Mrs Gale reads a children's science book

A top astronomer dies before the opening credits in The White Dwarf, the 21st episode broadcast in series 2 of The Avengers. Turns out that a large astral body might be heading towards Earth and if it does in fact arrive, we’re all toast. And Professor Richter was the only man who knew absolutely for sure whether it was coming this way or not. Who would want such a man dead?

It’s a good sci-fi premise which sees The Avengers edging further into the world they would eventually dominate – the esoteric.

And off we go to some science facility in Cornwall, Mrs Gale undercover as usual, as Dr Gale, checking into the local small hotel where all the boffins live, a vegan, no-drinking, no-smoking establishment that’s more 21st century than 1960s Britain.

Back in London we discover who exactly stood to gain from the scientist’s death, a couple of shifty stock market dealers named Barker and Johnson (George A Cooper, Bill Nagy) who are using information leaked from a government source – the brother of Johnson – to make a market killing.

There are lots of nice touches in Malcolm Hulke’s script. It’s human frailty rather than Ayn Rand-style government-is-bad conspiracy that’s at the heart of the dastardliness. Put another way, an over-fondness for money, aka cupidity, a word that seems to have dropped entirely out of daily use in the modern world, surprise surprise.

Another curlicue is Miss Tregarth, the vegan B&B landlady, all shitty service and high expectations of her guests, a brilliant study of British manners anticipating Fawlty Towers and played to the hilt by Constance Chapman.

The influence of Quatermass – Nigel Kneale’s massive popular, critically respected sci-fi creation which was to the 1950s what Doctor Who was to the 1960s – is evident in the amount of scientific chit-chat bandied between various boffins. But there’s no bogging down when it comes to action. Both Mrs Gale and Mr Steed have breakthroughs, but they come as a result of decisive moments of action – for instance, at one point Steed, posing as a stockbroker, breezes into the office of leaky government scientist Henry Johnson (Peter Copley) and asks him straight out if the world is about to end.

The elements are falling into place: fanciful government departments, unhinged schemers, a fair bit of tech, lots of blithe banter. If it all comes to too hasty a conclusion with – a standard Avengers ta-daa – a gunfight, much fun has been had along the way.

For students of 1960s manners, there’s also a nice scene in which Steed knocks up a meal, Ipcress File-style, the swinging bachelor showing he’s as capable in the kitchen as well as any other room you might care to mention. Check out the wooden salad bowl, very Habitat, another sign that the grip of 1950s austerity is being loosened.


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© Steve Morrissey 2018



Cold November

Florence and a dead deer

 

 

The family that slays together stays together is the surprisingly sweet message of this undoubtedly controversial film about a family’s hunting trip in the Minnesota woods.

A rites-of-passage tale seen through the eyes of Florence (the rather talented Bijou Abas), a 12-year-old on holiday with her mother and grandmother, aunt and uncle, it works hard to avoid the charge that it’s a screed on behalf of some gun lobby. So hard, in fact that it could be accused of protesting a touch too much.

This is a nice family – a sassy, funny matriarch (Mary Kay Fortier-Spalding), her open, warm daughters and a helpful manly husband (played by writer/director Karl Jacob), with Florence the focus of attention because the family have deemed that it’s time for her to learn the mechanics of death – “It’s not easy to watch an animal die; but if they don’t die we can’t eat their meat,” explains Florence’s mother (Anna Klemp), a rationale unlikely to placate any vegans (though director/writer Jacob is a vegetarian, so this is no throwaway line).

Between playing with her toys, sitting in the communal sauna with her elders, learning how to use her great, great grandfather’s gun and the ins and outs of gutting and skinning a dead deer, Florence is also about to blossom into womanhood – she has her first period.

Blood recurs in this film. It’s on the girl’s hands when she realises she’s menstruating, a prefiguring of a later scene when an animal, a hunting knife and a girl on her own in the woods build towards the drama’s satisfying climax.

Meanwhile, haunting the fringes of the story, and the dreams of Florence, is Sweeney, the dead daughter of aunt Mia (Heidi Fellner) and uncle Craig (Jacob).

How did Sweeney die? Was it a hunting-related accident? Are guns in fact very dangerous? We know they are but Jacob leaves these questions hovering, an effective tactic that allows him to paint a warm portrait of a family indulging in an important ritual which at the same time acknowledges that there is a dark side.

And it really is warm – Kubilay Uner’s soundtrack is female vocals, pianos and strings, Benjamin Kasulke’s handheld cinematography is measured and relaxed, the performances have a loose semi-improvised feel and are suffused with a collaborative bonhomie, while Jacob’s directing and Pete Oh’s editing help develop a real feel for the passing of time.

If this all sounds a bit too nice, you might be brought up short by the sight of a pubescent girl opening a box of tampons, finding them too gross to use, then opting for a sanitary towel instead. It’s not something you see often in movies. Or the practice of hanging used sanitary towels in the trees as a lure for the deer. Or of Florence cutting what I think was a penis from a deer’s body.

A walkout of the sort that Lars Von Trier provokes at festivals would probably do this film a lot of good in terms of profile. But it isn’t that sort of film. It’s controversial rather than provocative, a gentle drama about a brutal subject, told with economy, on the downlow and with a sense of an eternal verity – we live, we die.

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2018

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 20 – School for Traitors

Venus Smith and John Steed

 

 

Mrs Gale takes a rest and Venus Smith gets another outing in an episode set at an elite Oxbridge-style university and kicking off with a death (again) before the credits (again).

Steed is sent in to find out what happened to the man he was meant to have been keeping an eye on, after a briefing from a different control, One-Seven (Frederick Farley), a ridiculous throwback complete with cigarette holder and winged collar.

A much chattier, gamine Venus Smith is introduced early on. Smith just happens to be gigging at the university’s rag week, which is handy for Steed, who has soon also inveigled his way into the grove of academe and is chatting away to a young academic (John Standing) and gently pumping him for intel over a game of bar billiards at the local pub.

The story soon resolves itself into something familiar and something that’s actually rather hot-button. In the familiar corner we have a distant cousin of The Browning Version – scholastic shenanigans, hooky cash and honour besmirched – revolving around Green (Terence Woodfield), a working class student caught up in a money-lending racket. And in the hot-button corner – and this is why the episode is called School for Traitors – a story about the recruiting of spies at a prestigious university, spies who would go on to progress to the very uppermost echelons of the British Establishment. Given that Kim Philby, one of the Cambridge Five group of spies, had just fled to Russia, a fact that wouldn’t be confirmed until some months after this episode was transmitted in February 1963, writer James Mitchell either took a punt on a rumour, or was just very lucky. But then he was something of a spy expert and went on to write a good chunk of the excellent TV series Callan.

The two strands – money and spying – are tied together by blackmail, the luckless student caught out by the money-lending scam being brought into the spying fold by the promise of his debts being wiped out. This is all organised by local pub landlord Higby, played here by Reginald Marsh, a brilliant actor who often did comedy but here reminds us what a great sinister presence he could be when he wanted to be.

Talking of which, John Standing, only three years into a screen career, looks entirely at home on screen, playing a variation of the posh charmer on which he’d build a career, here suggesting his character is a lot brighter than he’s letting on.

And it seems the producers have worked out what to do with Julie Stevens, making Venus Smith a lot more garrulous, perhaps a version of the stereotyped silly young woman, but a self-possessed modern, 1960s one rather than the vampish 1950s-ish coquette she started out being. If Smith’s character is a bit implausible – a nightclub singer and part-time spy – Stevens is nevertheless rather good at both variations, though the modern version is a better foil for Steed, and useful in terms of explication.

Class is a concern – as it would be in Callan, a spy series in which Edward Woodward played a chippy working class spy in a toff’s world – and without giving away too much, let’s just say that the working class characters tend towards the good, and the higher up in status we go, the more rotten it gets.

Interesting aspects abound in this incident packed story, but it’s still fairly flabby, perhaps more fascinating as history than as drama.

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2018

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 19 – The Golden Eggs

Steed, Gale and Dr Ashe

 

Because The Avengers were not broadcast in production order*, you do get the odd anomaly. The getting-to-know-you dialogue between Steed and Mrs Gale in Warlock, the 18th (broadcast order) episode of series 2, makes more sense when you know this episode was designed as the Series 2 opener, introducing Steed’s new sidekick.

There’s another incongruity in the follow-up, which sees actor Peter Arne again playing a baddie, as he had done the previous week (if you were watching in 1963). Then he was the eponymous warlock. This time he’s playing Redfern, the toff at the peak of a criminal pyramid which has pulled off the feat of stealing a pair of golden eggs, which contain – unbeknown to most – a deadly virus.

“A bit of a late-Victorian tea-cosy,” is how Steed describes the wing-collared gentleman boffin whose eggs have been purloined – a nice bit of vivid writing by Martin Woodhouse, a multi-talented individual, a doctor who designed and built computers and had retired from TV by the mid-1960s to write scientific thrillers.

Contrast the fussy egghead with Steed and Gale, who seem to be living in a freewheeling, co-habiting 1960s way – she’s got the decorators in is the excuse – and we have the makings of a classic Avengers set-up, complete with rigid class structure: the villains go from oily rag (Gordon Whiting), to his managerial superior (Robert Bernal) to the distinctly la-di-dah Arne, who spends most of the episode fiddling with antique clockwork gewgaws much like a Bond villain.

The episode is heavily Maguffined, being essentially a search for the eggs, and is focused on Mrs Gale, as an undercover journalist trying to tease from the scientist (Donald Eccles) what might have befallen them. Steed is brought in an explicator/debriefer capacity in what’s little more than an incidental role.

If it’s not entirely successful, that’s because with three different social classes of villainy there are too many characters flapping about not doing enough, but the dark, wintry looks conjured up by director Peter Hammond are attractive (if you can see past the foggy 1960s production values) and Mrs Gale is designed to stand out in her Spanish hat and tartan cape combo. Leather fans will also note that Honor Blackman pulls on the jump suit when the going gets tough – no wonder the James Bond people wanted her for Pussy Galore.

 

* The business of production order versus broadcast order is gone into at some length on the incredibly useful The Avengers Forever site.

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2018

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 18 – Warlock

Peter Arne as Cosmo Gallion

Woo hoo, the suggestion of nudity and all sorts of pagan goings-on are all over the screen in the opening sequence of Warlock, as groovy hipsters gyrate themselves into a frenzy around a photo of… a middle aged man.

All is soon explained as we join John Steed, arriving at the home of scientist Peter Neville (Alban Blakelock), where the housekeeper is as bright as a button but the man himself in a bug-eyed catatonic funk.

Hooray – mind control, the big theme of The Avengers (and much 1960s cultural output) in years to come – has finally berthed, the idea being that the scientist’s mind has been somehow stolen by a group of occultists after he himself foolishly dabbled in necromancy.

Seeking answers, Steed heads to the Natural History Museum, where Mrs Gale gives him and us an overview – the influence of the occult is very strong, she avers, if you believe in that sort of thing.

And off we go again, in a fast moving episode written by Doreen Montgomery (whose career stretching back to the 1930s included a co-credit on Fanny by Gaslight) to the lair of the occultists, where scientist Peter Neville is just arriving, trancelike and intoning Aleister Crowley’s maxim “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,” thus tapping into another two of the 1960s great obsessions – freedom and Crowley himself. The devil has nothing to do with it, of course, instead it’s foreign powers seeking to wrest from Neville’s hand the formula for a revolutionary fuel which the scientist has spent his formidable brain power working on.

Peter Arne plays occultist-in-chief Cosmo Gallion (great name), a paranormalist by day who goes to the dark side by night and practises arcane rituals described helpfully by his assistant as “dangerous”.

It wouldn’t be an episode of The Avengers without a bit of undercover work, and in short order Mrs Gale has inserted herself into Gallion’s orbit and waits for him to take the bait. Which he does.

This was supposed to be the episode that first introduced the public to Mrs Gale – hence the “getting to know you” dialogue at the Natural History Museum, and the fact that Honor Blackman’s accent is so sharp it could etch glass. She’d knock it back a couple of notches as she eased into the character and became more familiar with Macnee’s jolly  return-of-volley style of reading lines.

No more needs be said about the plot of this rather saucy, flavoursome episode, which some take issue with because it deals with the supernatural, though in fact it really deals with human credulity and suggestibility.

It probably had real power when it was first broadcast in the dog days of January 1963, as Britain lay locked in the icy grip of the worst winter for 200 years. Outside the sea might have been freezing, but on TV there was the suggestion of lusts unbridled as the members of Gallion’s coven (most of whom move like the trained dancers they are) do an early 1960s version of letting it all hang out.

Austin Powers, eat your heart out.

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2018