The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 1 – Brief for Murder

John Steed

Whoop de doo, it’s season three of The Avengers and to celebrate its continuing success, the opening credits have been given a bit of a makeover – they’re much more Saul Bass now – there’s more money being spent on the production, the camerawork is more filmic and the editing is noticeably snappier.

Brian Clemens has also arrived as a writer. In fact Clemens had contributed two scripts (his first, Brought to Book, co-written with Patrick Brawn) for the first series but those episodes have now disappeared, so this is his extant debut, if there is such a thing.

And Brief for Murder has the Clemens fingerprints all over it – a tricksy plot, misdirection and smart dialogue. Take the establishing scenes here – a man who is obviously guilty of treason is acquitted in court in what is an obvious case of corruption or miscarriage of justice. Cut to a local pub where the wrong’un is celebrating, and if that isn’t his star witness John Steed buying him drinks and wishing him god speed. Mrs Gale enters, lips pursed, brows beetled and makes a scene, accusing Steed of consorting with traitors and perverting the course of justice. They fall out. We suspect this is a ploy, because this is The Avengers, but Clemens has us hooked all the same.

Another Clemens standby, archness, rears its head in the following scene, as we cut to two old lawyer brothers cackling malevolently over their legal chicanery in getting this miscreant off and drinking brandy out of the most gigantic glasses. And then we’re off to a yoga class, Clemens realising that scenes set in old world pubs and lawyers’ chambers work much better when juxtaposed with something altogether more modern. I forgot to mention that the brandy-quaffing brothers also use quill pens and dress in a ridiculously old-fashioned manner. It’s all a bit of a pantomime, another Clemens trait.

Quite why the two lawyer brothers have different accents is never explained, but John Laurie and Harold Scott’s mugging and Michael Gambon-style thespian knavery gives the episode a real boost and gives Macnee a bit of a rest – usually it’s just him doing the colour work.

But back to the plot. Having publicly declared that Mrs Gale should die, Steed then kills her and ends up tried for murder, the bowler hat he left at the scene of the crime being all the evidence the prosecution needs.

I will say no more, except that there’s an interesting OJ Simpson style twist to come.

The end credits, too, have been jazzed up a bit. The cadences are still falling, which might suit a 1950s noirish policier, but are beginning to sound very out of step with the more ironic, camper Avengers on offer. To compensate, composer/arranger John Dankworth has laid on more horns and exotic percussion, all of which bang away merrily, a trope new composer Laurie Johnson (not Laurie Holloway, as I originally wrote – thank you, Jamie) would run with when his new theme arrived, with a new co-star, in series four.

This episode, then, is a harbinger of things to come, but a satisfying little mystery in its own right too.

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© Steve Morrissey 2018

The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 26 – Killer Whale

Honor Blackman, Patrick Macnee and Patrick Magee

 

Killer Whale is a queer fish, the 26th and last episode of series two being a mix of the quite bizarre and the incredibly mundane.

Things get off to an eyebrow-raising start right from the off, with Steed in the process of losing 50 quid at a boxing bout as we join the action. Mrs Gale is luckier, though, managing to pick up a stray boxer during the evening and become his trainer. As you do.

Joey the boxer becomes Mrs Gale’s inside man at the gym, and a bit of investigation by the two of them, they establish that there’s a link between the liniment and bandages and the more rarefied atmosphere of a local couture boutique. This is where Steed comes in – lots of opportunity for courtly excess, of which Patrick Macnee is the master.

What’s connecting the two locales is – deep breath – the smuggling of ambergris, sourced from whales and used in the production of perfume. Why a boxing gym is involved in all this is bewildering, but writer John Lucarotti just about gets away with it.

He’s not quite so successful at explaining why supersleuths/spies Steed and Gale are involved. This is, after all, a simple case of the evasion of import duty. That’s the mundane element, and it’s never really convincingly established why a couple of undercover coppers wouldn’t have done the job better. More convincingly, in fact, than two characters who stick out like the anomalies they are – Mrs Gale in particular.

Adding some much needed authenticity is Kenneth Farrington as boxer Joey (he went on to spend a few years on soap Coronation Street as rough diamond Billy, son of Rovers Return pub landlords Jack and Annie Walker), and there’s the reassuringly familiar and pugnacious Patrick Magee (Samuel Beckett’s favourite actor), who plays gym owner Pancho. Magee has clearly been hired because his face is a theatrical shorthand for guilt.

Dull, however, is the verdict, the arcana and fine actors notwithstanding, though as we wind up series two it’s noticeable how budgets have grown, cameras have become more fluid and more time seems to have been lavished on productions – clearly, money is being made.

As for Mrs Gale and John Steed – she gets to don her leather gear about halfway through this episode, paving the way for a finale in which she kicks the shit out of trained boxers. Larks, and Gale’s most all-action outing so far. Steed has steadily, through the entire series, been heading in the other direction, becoming more louche, spending more time on hedonistic pursuits. Dapper, debonair John Steed never says no to a drink.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2018

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 25 – Six Hands across a Table

Gale and Steed

 

As I write, the UK is drunkenly stumbling towards its exit from the European Union. Rewind 55 years and Six Hands across the Table, the penultimate episode of the second series of The Avengers, is having a discussion similar to the one the country is having right now, a “whither us” debate about Britain – is it better going it alone or heading towards a more European version of the future?

The drama opens at a meeting of a shipbuilding cartel, part of an industry in trouble. (For those too young, that “industry in trouble” idea is why the country signed up to the European project in the first place.) Digression aside, this is a Gale heavy/Steed light episode hinging on where this consortium of shipbuilders should source their engines – a French nuclear model on the one hand or some other variant not smelling of garlic on the other – a decision which leads to the murder of the most vocal supporter of the European option.

Enter Gale and Steed, most notably Gale, who just happens to be already jodhpur deep at a country house weekend, one of those upper crust horsey events dedicated to drinking early in the day, where various members of the consortium are also congregating. Handy if you’re trying to work out who killed the proponent of the French option. Even handier if one of the consortium (Guy Doleman) seems to have a bit of a thing for Mrs G.

The Americans are the offstage bogeyman in this episode, in the shape of a shadowy US shipbuilder keen to take out this UK consortium, leading to one of the more stoutly patriotic of the consortium’s number (John Wentworth) to assert in a moment of protesting too much, “We’re still a great industrial power and our technical knowledge is second to none.”

The episode is confidently directed by Richmond Harding, who announces himself with a stylish overhead opening shot (unthinkable at the beginning of this series) of our shipbuilding gang working out what to do with their obstreperous Europhile chairman. All we see is their hands, hence the title.

Expat American Reed De Rouen clearly finds British industrial malaise fascinating and his screenplay fingers the chummy old school tie – this cabal of bosses are meant to be in competition with each other, not cooperating. Rouen has also, perhaps for balance, added in a subplot about the unions and a possible strike in the offing. This makes things a touch overwrought and a bit too talky at times and adds little to the first verdict – cabals of industry bosses are a bad thing.

In terms of personnel, Honor Blackman bosses this episode, with Patrick Macnee barely getting a look-in, though there is a funny moment when this lethal, toned superspy is leaving Gale’s room via the window and gives out a middle-aged “ooh” as he lifts his leg over the sill. Edward de Souza, John Wentworth and Guy Doleman all give good value, but it’s Philip Madoc who stands out as a dead-eyed psychopath, the Welsh character actor who built a career on his ability to look sinister.

The message? Be careful of people waving the flag. De Rouen is not against patriotism per se but self-aggrandisement dressed up as disinterested altruism. Again, quite a timely message as we head towards Brexit.

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2018