The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 23 – The Charmers

Fenella Fielding publicity shot for The Charmers
  Charm, rather than grit or narrative or psychological coherence, are really what The Avengers are about, and in the appropriately titled The Charmers we get tons of it, thanks to a fine script by Brian Clemens and light, deft playing by the guest actors.     It’s also, more or less, the first of the properly jokey, larky Avengers, though it kicks off in familiar style – a death before the opening credits, by the sword.     1960s TV loved a “touché” and we learn that this killing of an enemy agent is the latest in a spate of them. While the enemy being murdered in quantity might ordinarily be a good thing, matters have got out of hand and the uneasy balance between spying organisations has been upset, leading to Steed being targeted in a tit-for-tat by a Soviet (we assume) hitman keen to even things up.     After a bit of flashing wit and swordplay – Steed offering to his would-be assassin, “But I haven’t killed anyone for at least a week,” and “But that was a foil; my weapon’s a rapier” – our man heads off to the foreign embassy to see if he can sort things out.     Here things start to become comedic, since Warren Mitchell plays the vaguely East European/Soviet envoy, Keller, a camp and hypochondriac worrier who is soon persuaded by Steed – in a nicely written back and forth in which each tries to out-charm the other (Steed wins, of course) – that what they need to do is find out who’s actually doing the killing. “You mean it wasn’t you?” “No, we thought it was you,” kind of thing.     To this end, and to demonstrate they’re dealing honestly, both men swap partners, Steed lending Keller Mrs Gale (bridling at being treated like a chattel) and Keller, devious as only a man who does not play cricket can be, sends Steed one of his “operatives”, who is actually an out-of-work actress picked at random. Keller tells her Steed is a writer and she needs to shadow him as background for a role.     For all its charm, the weakness of Clemens’s writing is that this bit of the plot is ridiculous – Steed would pick up instantly what was going on, as would the actress.     However, the two actors plug on at comedic cross-purposes, and since it’s Fenella Fielding playing the actress, much fun is had. Fielding spends all her screen time with her head up, eyelids fluttering, chest thrust forward and, when at all possible, legs crossed way too high on the thigh. The breathy vamp, in other words, which was her speciality in a long and unvaried career.     Mrs Gale, meanwhile, is stuck with Keller, who spends most of the episode with a Vick inhaler up his nose (watching Blackman trying not to corpse at Mitchell’s wild overplaying is one of this episode’s small joys).     The action shifts first to a dentist’s visited by the most recently dead spy, where Mrs Gale pretends she needs a check-up, while Steed ends up at an academy of charm for aspiring young gentlemen, where chaps are instructed on how to wear a bowler hat, carry a brolly and hail a cab. It is also, of course, a spy academy and the source of the problem.     As I say, the plot doesn’t matter too much; it’s the individual scenes, bantering, funny, fast, that make this such an enjoyable episode.     Though it’s almost sacrilege to say it, since the Mrs Peel era is often considered to be the finest, it’s tempting to suggest that The Avengers peaks around here, which might be why Clemens decided to reuse most of the plot, and some of the lines, in the season five episode The Correct Way to Kill.           The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon       © Steve Morrissey 2019      

The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 22 – The Outside-In Man

Steed and Gale
Whether The Avengers is or isn’t a spy series depends very much on the episode you watch. In The Outside-In Man we’re very much in spy mode, right from the opening scene, in which Steed is seen walking into a butcher’s shop. Then, Man from Uncle style (which was in development when this episode aired in February 1964), he walks from the front of the shop and into the walk-in fridge with the butcher, who immediately drops his Cockney accent to brief him on his job. Butcher/control Quilpie (Ronald Radd) is an M-like figure and has a secretary (Virginia Stride) called Alice but in demeanour and function her name might as well be Miss Moneypenny. It’s all very James Bond, in other words, and since Honor Blackman would be heading off in that direction in just a handful of weeks to work on Goldfinger, which was already in production when this episode was shot, a couple of weeks before transmission, the traffic is clearly two-way. But, the plot the plot. This actually is rather good, being the work of Philip Chambers, who’d scripted the similarly spytastic episode The Nutshell. Good because it turns on realpolitik – rogue spy Mark Charter (James Maxwell) is trying to kill a former colleague who defected to the other side, because that’s the mission Charter was given some years earlier. The thing is, Sharp (Philip Anthony), the defectee, has since gained a miraculous promotion and is now a general in the enemy power’s army. On top of that, the general is now in the UK with full diplomatic immunity to seal an arms treaty on behalf of “his” country. So Steed’s mission is not to thwart baddies on the other side, but to stop someone from our side doing what he was once asked to do, to someone who in any other circumstances would be a justifiable target. It’s a neat concept and it powers the episode along smoothly, the spy-gone-bad being a fairly bulletproof formula,  case-hardened in this instance by the added detail that poor Mark Charter has spent years in a jail in Abarainia (third Iran, third Azerbaijan, third Bahrain?) being tortured after getting caught trying to pull off his assassination. So we have Steed sitting inside his own organisation, trying to locate and neutralise the once-benign, now-possibly-bonkers agent; Gale meanwhile has been installed within the general’s organisation, trying to work the same trick there, just in case someone from that side of the fence is trying to scupper the talks. There’s a very tidy and entirely apposite subplot, too, set in the gentlemen’s club Charter belongs to, and where, after five years away, he still expects “his chair” to be ready for him when he turns up out of the blue – and is outraged when it’s occupied.   This trope – people being in the wrong chair – is repeated throughout the episode and is a nice analogue for the breaking of the social code. The details of the case of the Cambridge Five weren’t fully known at the time this episode was written, and yet in the story of the spy who’s defected and become some high-ranking somebody for the other side, we see various echoes of what happened to 1960s spies Burgess, Maclean, Philby et al – most of whom weren’t actually, it turned out, heaped with any of the honours they were widely supposed to have received (unless you count booze). As befits a brain-not-brawn episode, the whole thing dénoues – if there is such a word – in what will be for action fans a bit of an anticlimax. But, until then it’s been a fascinating story, ably brought to the screen by director Jonathan Alwyn. But most of the plaudits must go to writer Chambers, whose pacy script also switches location frequently, a tactic that injects energy into what could easily have been a collection of too many talky scenes. The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon © Steve Morrissey 2019

The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 21 – Build a Better Mousetrap

Steed charms his way into the gang

Build a Better Mousetrap is a great episode of The Avengers – it’s Brian Clemens at his best, from its very Clemens-y joshing title, to his use of British eccentrics, and his mix of the venerable with the modern, the tech with the antique and the old with the young, not forgetting Clemens’s usual dabble in the sociology of class.

 

And it gets off to a flying start, making sensible use of Mrs Gale’s penchant for leather by inserting her into a motorcycle gang, somewhat improbably. As the episode gets going, one of this gang’s number is frightening two harmless old ladies (Athene Seyler, Nora Nicholson), who retaliate by threatening to put a spell on them. The gang laugh, they sneer but they do leave.

 

And before anyone can say abracadabra, we’re off to a pub somewhere in the vicinity, where Steed is deploying his supertoff manner to buttonhole a colonel (John Tate) and his comely daughter Caroline (Alison Seebohm). And while we’re asking ourselves why he’s doing this, a little flirtation gets going between Steed and Caroline – “Do you ride, Mr Steed?” she purrs. “I love it,” says Steed, looking like he loves it only too much.

 

We learn that the pub is just down the road from some nuclear research facility and that something odd keeps happening round these parts. Mechanical instruments, from cars to food mixers, just suddenly stop working, only to spring back to life an hour or so later.

 

While Steed is being brought up to speed on all this (though that’s obviously why he’s there in the first place), Mrs Gale arrives with the gang, the last knockings of pre-Beatles youth, and we get to see a fabulous double-take as Steed spots her.

 

Again with the self-assuredness of the gentleman, Steed has soon inveigled his way into the gang, who are in awe of Mrs Gale’s riding skills – she can do a “ton plus ten” one of them say, which is a fair speed for British bikes on British roads.

 

Steed has soon hatched a cunning plan: to stage a motorbike point-to-point and, if the bikes break down, to use their positions to triangulate the source of what must be some sophisticated jamming signal. It is, of course, the old ladies’ house.

 

All that remains now is for Steed to pull his third smooth-operator move of the episode, visit the old ladies undercover as a member of the “National Distrust” – a kind of national grumblers council – and charm the pants off Cynthia and Ermyntrude while learning more about what exactly is going on there. At one point, Steed having asked what’s up the stairs, Ermyntrude replies – “My bedroom,” in a voice quavering with decades of longing.

 

It’s the prime actors rather than the often fairly ramshackle plots that makes so many episodes of The Avengers watchable classic TV. And Nora Nicholson and Athene Seyler are the standouts of this episode, a pair of old stagers who deliver fruit by the truckload and whose backstory as a pair of sisters who have lived together perhaps for ever (Ermyntrude refers to her sister as “Cyn”) is never in doubt.

 

As gang leader Dave, Donald Webster is also charming, a Liverpool lad who had probably just had the provincial accent knocked out of him at drama school, only to be cast here (and in plenty of other shows, even turning up in 1971’s Straw Dogs) as a geezer with dropped aitches to spare.

 

Talking of charm, it is a Steed-heavy episode, and Patrick Macnee even gets to show off a bit of ju jitsu in the big fight finale, which gets a bit chaotic, eventually escaping completely director Peter Hammond’s cameras – shooting as-live was still for the most part the order of the day.

 

All in all though, a great episode – tight, full of incident, wit and lovely performances.

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019

 

 

The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 20 – Trojan Horse

Mrs Gale and Tony Heuston

At one point almost every episode of The Avengers started with a death before the opening credits. Trojan Horse plays with that idea, showing us a punter who won’t pay his betting debts being killed by some heavies. After his killers have left the scene, the dead man gets up and walks away.

It’s a ruse, a scam initiated by master bookmaker Tony Heuston (TP McKenna) who wants rich toff Lucien ffordsham (Geoffrey Whitehead) to believe he’s implicated in a murder, and to use that leverage against him.

Steed and Gale are in the neighbourhood because they’re protecting Sebastian, a valuable racehorse belonging to a Middle Eastern potentate, who is in the UK to race it.

As part of this Foreign Office operation, Steed ends up loitering around the stables, where he is soon introducing himself to posh stable totty Ann Meadows (Lucinda Curtis, complete with Cilla Black-style Vidal Sassoon hair style) and tapping her for information, though clearly interested in tapping her for anything else that might be on offer.

These stables are the locus of numerous fascinating scenes in which forelocks are tugged, deference is paid and the toffs stand legs athwart, hands on hips, while the lower orders scuttle about in front of them. It is actually uncomfortable to watch, because the behaviour extends to the actors not just their characters – watch as those playing toffs ride over the lines of fellow actors playing lower-status parts.

Steed, meanwhile, flirts with everything with a vagina.

Over to Mrs Gale, who gets some very choice dialogue as she tries to infiltrate the organisation of crooked bookie Heuston. To impress him and win herself a job, Gale indulges in odds-related banter, then turns mental-arithmetic cartwheels by computing the winnings on a multi-race accumulator (and all in the much more challenging pounds, shillings and pence). A different type of flirting than Steed’s, it gets her the gig from a clearly impressed Heuston.

Of course the entire “sheikh’s horse” side of the plot is a feint – Steed and Gale are really there to close down the real focus of Heuston’s operation: training killers.

As suggested, egalitarian Malcolm Hulke’s script goes to town on the class angle, Steed at one point eating a pricey Bath Oliver biscuit with caviar, the TV signifier of “posh” – a real gent would actually have been more likely to have a Bath Oliver with Patum Peperium, but there you go.

But there’s sexism in spades too. At one point, while Mrs Gale watches a horse race on TV, Steed ogles her openly, mocks her even. It’s saved from being awkward because Macnee’s playing suggests he is mocking Steed’s behaviour. But then Macnee often does things with the writing that aren’t there in the script.

McKenna is always a good villain, and the actor is comfortable in an episode that’s all about oily upstarts like Heuston being put back in their box so order can be restored and the right people can get back to running things.

And for those interested in clothes, there are lots of lovely thick worsted, tweedy items here – cardigans and proper jumpers abound. The sort of clothes people wore before central heating ushered in the T shirt era.

But for all these details, the political angle, the social comment, the little sparkles in the dialogue and the fine playing, Trojan Horse sadly never really grabs the interest in the way it should.

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© Steve Morrissey 2019

The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 19 – The Secrets Broker

Patricia English and Ronald Allen

The Beatles were number one in America for the first time, with I Want to Hold Your Hand, when this latest episode of The Avengers, The Secrets Broker, aired in the UK on 1 February 1964.

But though The Avengers went on to become one of the key harmonics of the Swinging London vibe, there’s scant evidence of it in this episode, the latest in the haphazard, piecemeal “one step forward, two steps back” way that the show almost blindly stumbled its way to glory.

It’s a bit old school, this episode, in other words, even though it starts out with a scene at a clairvoyant’s – very 1960s (the doors of perception, and all that) –  where psychic Mimi Wilson (Avice Landon) has a message for one of the onlookers. It’s a gun in a box, and Wilson wants it to be used to spirit someone to the other side.

The man who winds up dead turns out to be an acquaintance of Steed and soon Mrs Gale has been despatched to the secret facility near which he was killed. There, research is led by a husband and wife team (John Ringham, Patricia English), though the wife is secretly banging handsome co-worker Allan Paignton (Ronald Allen, later of the TV soap Crossroads), a fact that Gale works out a lot faster than the husband seems to have managed.

Steed, meanwhile, heads to a wine merchant’s, where a Mr Waller (Jack May, for decades the voice of Nelson Gabriel in the BBC radio soap The Archers) takes his order for large quantities of high-end plonk – a great opportunity for some whipcrack status-measuring one-upmanship between May and Macnee, who both fall hungrily on the juicy banter written by Ludovic Peters.

How does the research establishment connect with the wine merchant’s? How did Steed know to home in on Waller? That, as ever, is never fully explained – moments of omniscience being part of the Avengers’ gifts, it seems. But the action oscillates between the research facility, the wine shop and the love nest of Paignton, where some fairly serious making out (for this show and this era) takes place.

There’s even time for the occasional visit to Gale’s house, where Steed appears to be a permanent visitor, while wandering through all the action is Landon as the psychic, using her hold over people to encourage more murder and mayhem, all in an attempt to wrest secret information from the research lab, where suspicions about a mole in their midst are rising. Here, in a key bit of plotting, the facility boss (Ringham) accidentally on purpose throws suspicion on lowly technician Jim Carey (Brian Hankins, incidentally Ronald Allen’s real-life lover).

It’s neatly directed, with enough changes of perspective to keep things visually fresh and written with enough for the actors to chew on, but the setup is lacklustre, there’s too much reliance on happenstance and fruity characters (thank you, Jack May) and the phoney supernatural element are not enough to drag The Secrets Brokers properly into the middle 1960s.

Props to Patrick Macnee, who comes into his own in episodes like this, gluing things together with his swaggering delivery and what feels like little ad-libs. Blackman, good though she is, can’t match Steed at his best.

And if that feels like I’m dissing women in general, wait till you see the fight finale – Gale is a martial-arts menace in black leather; yet the less-than-formidable male Paignton is more than capable of stopping two attacking women on his own, and in a restrictive (and very nice) sheepskin jacket.

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© Steve Morrissey 2019

The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 18 – Mandrake

Honor Blackman and John Le Mesurier

 

The United States launched the Echo 2 satellite on 25 January 1964, the day that the Mandrake episode of The Avengers aired. And though the week before’s outing, The Wringer, had been a very up-to-date affair, set in the world of international espionage and modern brainwashing techniques, Mandrake harks back to earlier episodes of the series in its dourness and its down-to-earth setting.

 

Under-the-earth setting, in fact, because the plot concerns itself with a mystery about a string of dead businessmen, all of whom have been buried in the same remote Cornish town, Tinby, for no good reason. They don’t come from there and have no connection to the place. Battle is joined when an acquaintance of Steed’s, the latest mystery death, winds up six feet under the Cornish sod too.

 

Mandrake is a properly 1960s title though, I’ll give it that, redolent of Aleister Crowley and witches’ covens. But anyone hoping for naked cavorting or goat-eyed sorcerers will be sadly disappointed.

 

However, we do get the marvellous John Le Mesurier, playing the latest in a long string of diffident males, here as a doctor at the rainy funeral Steed is attending. Of course something is afoot, and Le Mesurier’s good (ie bad) Doctor Macombie is up to his neck in it.

 

Enter Mrs Gale, again incognito, again as a journalist, asked by Steed to try and winkle out information from Tinby church’s voluble cleric (George Benson – no, not that one). En passant Rev Whyper tells her that there used to be a mandrake plant by the lych gate, so there’s our title explained.

 

Enter also Jackie Pallo, as a gravedigger/sexton with an obviously watertight reason to be in the churchyard but looking shifty all the same. Fans of old-school British wrestling will remember Pallo as one of its stalwarts, a vastly entertaining grappler with a ribbon in hair that resembled an 18th-century powdered wig. His autobiography was titled You Grunt, I’ll Groan, and, fittingly, when it comes to dialogue, he gets little more than a few grunts in exchanges with Mrs Gale.

 

Two more locations: one is a plant-filled office where the dodgy doctor and the mastermind of their little scheme (Philip Locke) sign up for a sizeable sum people eager to be bereaved tout suite. The other is a Christmas card factory Steed visits and where he flirts saucily with general factotum Judy (played by Randall and Hopkirk’s Annette Andre – “Jeannie! Jeannie!”).

 

It’s another Roger Marshall script, and apart from its downbeat settings, it’s pleasingly full of characters worrying about their class/status, its explains-it-all reveal is satisfyingly based on a fairly reasonable premise and, for those who think The Avengers is often too fanciful (Marshall and the more extravagant Brian Clemens didn’t exactly see eye to eye), this detour into detective territory will be a welcome relief.

 

In terms of actors, Le Mesurier gets the best of it, and his sweaty-browed milquetoast is lovely, as ever, to watch. Annette Andre initially wobbles but settles down once the bantering with Macnee gets going in earnest.

 

As for Jackie Pallo, you don’t hire a wrestler without giving him a fight scene, and in the Mrs Gale v Sexton fight sequence, he throws himself about like a man who does this sort of thing for a living. Look closely and you can see the leather-clad Honor Blackman accidentally kicking Pallo properly full on in the face and into an open grave – she knocked him out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019