The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 2 – The Gravediggers

Steed tries to release Mrs Peel who is tied to the railway track

 

Like a classic album that warms us up with an opening track before hitting us with a doozy, episode two of series four of The Avengers, The Gravediggers, is vintage entertainment that gets just about everything right.

 

The plot is a mix of proper spy stuff and the eccentric, the macabre and the mad, and gets off onto its twin-track course with an opening shot of a newly filled grave out of which – after some ominous movement of the soil – an antenna pops.

 

Over on the North York Moors at Fylingdales early warning system (it’s not named as such, but those white golfball domes look very like it), a techie is having trouble with the tech – “It’s on the blink again,” he complains, while looking at a light that is literally blinking.

 

Since the security of the country is at stake, Steed and Peel are soon on the case. The trail leads to a Hospital for Ailing Railwaymen, a benevolent institution funded by philanthropist Horace Winslip, played to bufferish perfection by Ronald Fraser, eyes brimming with booze as usual.

 

Winslip is an eccentric to such a degree – he takes Steed on a “train journey” which consists of a stationary carriage being rocked by a flunkey while outside a scrolling diorama gives the impression of movement – that we can only assume that story editor Brian Clemens has been at work on Malcolm Hulke’s original script.

 

Mrs Peel, meanwhile, is posing as a nurse in the hospital, where top doc Paul Massie and matron Caroline Blakiston are up to something involving the post-mortem supplementation of the normal contents of the funeral casket – which gives rise to the episodes best line, “Forceps. Scalpel. Blow torch.”

 

Needless to say, the antenna poking out of the earth on a freshly dug grave, the hospital, the doctor and matron and the UK’s compromised missile-detection system are all intimately connected.

 

Ronald Fraser dressed as a train driver on board a miniature train
Ronald Fraser in full eccentric flow

Quentin Lawrence brings a properly cinematic feel to his direction of the episode, which is also really lifted by some very interesting performers: Fraser’s dignified pantomime routine made him a highly sought-after character actor in countless TV shows; there’s a young Steven Berkoff (still with lots of hair) as a thug at the hospital; Wanda Ventham (looking very much like Benedict Cumberbatch. Well, she is his mother) is remarkably fresh as Barbara Windsor-alike chirpy Nurse Spray (amazing to think that only seven years later she was a convincing seen-it-all blowsy semi-wreck in the BBC’s The Lotus Eaters); and fans of Get Carter and Coronation Street will enjoy Bryan Mosley’s brief appearance as an orderly.

 

Leather fans, on the other hand, will be waiting for Mrs Peel to climb into her fighting gear in Cathy Gale style. Though the second to be broadcast, The Gravediggers was the seventh of this series to be filmed, and Diana Rigg was already tiring of shooting combat sequences in sweltering hot and not particularly limber animal hide – she’d later switch to crimplene – so make the most of her in action here. And for those who equate leather with S&M, the scenes where Mrs Peel winds up tied to the track of a miniature railway, while Steed is involved in a fist fight on the top of a carriage, should tick a few boxes.

 

This finale on the railway track makes for great viewing, and thanks to Lawrence’s nimble direction it cleverly manages to be faithful to action movies, silent films and comedy all in one go – Buster Keaton would approve.

 

All in all a fitting crescendo to an episode balancing the silly and the thrilling with real flair.

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2019

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 1 – The Town of No Return

Emma Peel in fencing gear

 

And so, drum roll, The Town of No Return and the beginning of series 4. And with it the arrival of Diana Rigg as Mrs Emma Peel, the story going that the new partner for Steed would have to have “man appeal” or M-appeal for short. Hence the name.

 

She’s not the only new arrival – more money has clearly turned up, allowing the series to be shot on film and on location much more often. So no more studio-bound “as live” episodes rehearsed one day and shot the next. John Dankworth’s theme music has also been retired. Its jazzy plangency was fine for a 1950s style noirish detective series featuring Steed in trenchcoat with turned-up collar but it was becoming increasingly out of place as The Avengers became kookier. Instead, in comes Laurie Johnson’s glam, jaunty, upbeat, panto-dramatic theme, which still manages to find a placing in “greatest TV themes” polls over 50 years later.

 

This episode was originally shot with Elizabeth Shepherd as Mrs Peel, but was then reshot after it was decided that Shepherd wasn’t quite what was required. This might explain the confusion over who wrote and directed – the imdb tells us that Roy Ward Baker and Peter Graham Scott directed but the screen credits say it was Sidney Hayers. As to writers, the screen says Philip Levene, most other sources claim it was Brian Clemens.

 

It certainly feels like Clemens, with his bizarro hallmarks evident from the very first shot – a man in a big waterproof envelope walking out of the sea, unzipping himself and then heading off inland in tweeds and carrying a brolly, to the complete disinterest of a local fisherman fixing a basket.

 

And then it’s the Steed-meets-Peel moment, in her apartment, a Swinging kind of place with a gigantic winking eye on the door, inside which Mrs Peel is fencing. Her action-woman credentials asserted and the baton successfully passed from Honor Blackman to Diana Rigg, the very comfortably paired duo (not least because they’d already shot 13 episodes together by the time this one was shot/reshot) head off to a seaside town where agents keep going missing.

 

En route we get a lift from Mary Poppins, as Steed offers Mrs Peel tea and pulls the works – China and Indian tea, crockery, a cake stand with petits fours – from his capacious carpet bag, as they travel on the train together.

 

A fellow traveller is Jimmy Smallwood, played by Patrick Newell, who would later become a significant part of The Avengers formula as Mother, Steed and his sidekick’s control, but here is playing a timid man visiting his brother, unaware that he’s going to become the latest victim of the mysterious disappearances.

 

The town itself, and particularly its pub, the Inebriated Gremlin, is a grim and unwelcoming place, in spite of the hail-fellow-well-met of mine host Piggy Warren (Terence Alexander perfectly cast as an ex RAF chap whose kept all the mannerisms and even the handlebar moustache). There, Steed and Peel go to work, she posing as a new teacher, he as a property scout, while the tally of victims keeps rising.

Terence Alexander as the jovial publican
RAF? I should jolly well say so – Terence Alexander

 

In many respects it’s Gale era Avengers – bantering dialogue, sexual tension, a mystery and a pub – but in one important regard it’s different. The town is pretty much deserted, as is the local RAF base. Everyone the duo meet – landlord, vicar, blacksmith, village school teacher – is a new arrival. This deserted set-up idea would propel The Avengers right through until it ended and it’s more evidence of Clemens’s hand, as is the ridiculous plot which I won’t give away but makes absolutely no sense – Clemens is more your character and dialogue man.

 

All in all it’s a great introduction to Mrs Peel – she’s smart, tough, fun and funny, looks a million dollars (and some of her outfits are quite extraordinary even by the Swinging standards of the day). And if there is the odd duff continuity moment, we can probably put that down to the fact that, where possible, outdoors footage shot almost a year earlier when Elizabeth Shepherd was still Mrs Peel, has been reused.

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2019

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 26 – Lobster Quadrille

Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman publicity shot

 

Episodes of The Avengers were often not shown in production order. But Lobster Quadrille was both the last one broadcast and the last one made in series three, going out on 21 March 1964, a day after it had been finished.

 

It’s also Honor Blackman’s farewell episode, before she headed off to be Pussy Galore to Sean Connery’s 007 in Goldfinger. And so you’d be tempted to think the production team might give her a good send-off. But in fact it’s a very John Steed-focused adventure, all about lobster fisherman, a dastardly plot to flood the country with heroin and a mystery Chinaman who connects the first with the second.

 

No, Chinaman is not the PC term for someone from China these days, but Burt Kwouk, of Pink Panther fame, is very definitely giving it the full Inscrutable Oriental as Mason, the owner of a chess shop visited by Mrs Gale after a couple of hoods (Gary Watson, Corin Redgrave) club a “journalist” (a spy, in other words) to death and the dead man’s burned body is found with an exotic chess piece on his person.

 

Watson and Redgrave are a pair of Cornish fishermen – lobsters a speciality – and are entirely unconvincing in their roles. Redgrave’s character name is Quentin Slim, for god’s sake, and he utters the phrase “listen, baby” at one point, about as unCornish-fisherman a formulation as you can imagine.

 

But then this is an odd episode, cobbled together by two writers – Richard Bates and Brian Clemens says the imdb, though it was just Clemens says the knowledgeable Avengers Forever website, under the pseudonym of Richard Lucas, which is backed up by the closing credits (I’ve just double-checked). Whether it’s one writer or two, it feels like two writers’ work, the grit of early scenes giving way to a much more phantasmagoric 1960s Alice in Wonderland vibe as the action shifts from Cornwall (ahem) to a London nightclub/restaurant decorated with giant blow-ups of Tenniel’s illustrations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Bates to Clemens, in my mental shorthand, if not in fact.

 

So, returning to the plot, while Mrs Gale is quizzing Mason, Steed is down in Cornwall talking to lobster kingpin Captain Slim (Leslie Sands) and the wife of his dead son, played by Jennie Linden, Her naturalness in front of the camera really gives the episode a lift, and helps enormously as more issue-driven Play for Today waters are charted as she tries to tell the big fella the real truth about his son.

 

As I said, Honor Blackman is barely in the episode and spends a fair chunk of it tied up. Though she does get a judo scene towards the end, to remind us that she’s still here. That’s just before Steed and Gale have a prolonged farewell chat during which she announces she’s off on holiday to the Bahamas, where, Steed suggests, she’ll be “pussyfooting” about. Mrs Gale assures Steed she’ll be doing more than that. “Not pussyfooting?” he muses, after she’s left. “I must have been misinformed,” he says, Macnee just about resisting the urge to wink to camera.

 

After which it’s goodbye Mrs Gale, Steed wasting no time before picking up the phone and calling a mystery woman (we assume it’s Mrs Peel) who he addresses flirtily as “my dear”.

 

It’s been a good run for Blackman, who has transformed not just her character from a helpmeet to co-equal but also her billing and with it the role of women on TV. With the exit of Mrs Gale, one version of The Avengers ends and another begins.

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2019

 

 

The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 25 – Esprit De Corp

Honor Blackman, Duncan Macrae and John Thaw in Esprit de Corps

 

Esprit De Corps is a mad and twisty Avengers episode, one of many dealing with the subject of indoctrination, the focus here being an army unit that’s going to launch a coup d’etat and put the “rightful” heir back on the throne.  

 

Mad enough, but there’s a fruitloop turn to come which I won’t spoil. Instead let me tell you that a 22-year-old John Thaw plays a key role, as an army captain (Thaw generally did play older than he was – at 33 he was seen-it-all cop Jack Regan in The Sweeney; he was only 45 when he played the retirement-dodging star of Inspector Morse). Thaw’s Captain Trench is being hoodwinked by the unhinged Brigadier General Sir Ian Stuart-Bollinger (Duncan Macrae) – Trench has no idea that the “exercises” he’s preparing his men for are in fact the coup that’s going to unseat the House of Windsor.  

 

Steed and Gale get involved after a corporal is “accidentally” killed, in circumstances that look very far from accidental, and we meet the dapper chap in a new-fangled launderette doing his weekly wash. Though this is about as likely as a coup against the British monarchy being carried out by a handful of soldiers, it’s amusing enough, as is the sight of Steed dressed in what looks halfway to being a duffel coat.  

 

To find out what’s going on, Steed sends Mrs Gale in to cosy up to Captain Trench, and on hearing that she’s going yet again to be the sweet stuff in a honey she trap pulls quite a face. Quite the feminist.  

 

There’s more potential for allegations of sexism when Trench and Gale meet for the first time at a course he teaches in unarmed combat and he gives her the full body up and down – slow enough that we see it; fast enough that we believe it. It’s these tiny things that made Thaw so good.  

 

I forgot to mention Roy Kinnear, who is the Roy Kinnear of fond memory, all facial tics and nervous sweats as a hapless roly-poly soldier struggling to do anything well. Which brings us to Duncan Macrae as the mad brigadier general, a man with a skull of a face and the ability to conjure the sense that inbreeding is what’s behind his insane scheme, which Gale and Steed (now posing as a Major, his old rank in the army) are of course going to thwart. No more needs to be said about the plot, except that it does, as earlier suggested, throw in a turn so random that you have to applaud.  

 

Overall, there are two types of Avengers episodes – the early ones set in something vaguely approximating the real world (pubs often feature) and the later ones, which became increasingly surreal. This belongs firmly in the latter camp, though it’s helmed by two old hands – deft director Don Leaver, on great form here, and writer Eric Paice, whose scripts tend nicely toward the conspiratorial.  

 

An excellently entertaining episode, thanks to its brilliant cast, polished writer and talented director. Take a bow all.          

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2019    

 

 

Never Look Away

Tom Schilling paints

 

The Lives of Others director atones for The Tourist with an era-straddling epic about about art and love

 

I was talking to a journalist friend of mine a couple of weeks ago, about Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s new film. He recalled interviewing the director around the time of his triumphant debut, The Lives of Others. Von Donnersmarck, he said, was almost hyperventilating with the excitement of having been approached to direct a Hollywood caper with big stars, budgets, etc.

 

That film turned out to be The Tourist, a vanity project for Angelina Jolie and (to a lesser extent) co-star Johnny Depp, written and re-written so many times (including by Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes) that what started as a flyaway whimsical fancy ended up as a shocking piece of nonsense.

 

Cue Von Donnersmarck’s exit from Hollywood, to lick his wounds and wonder what the fuck just happened. But he’s bounced back with Never Look Away, a film which, like The Lives of Others, tells a political story from a personal angle and somehow doesn’t shortchange either.

 

The film touches down in three separate eras, making broadly the same point in each. We start in 1937, the Nazis ascendant, at the infamous Entartete Kunst show, where “degenerate” artwork – art not in the obvious service of society – by the likes of Kandinsky, Picasso and Klee was exhibited with the sole purpose of mocking it.

 

And there we meet the woman we assume is going to be the focus of the film, hot-on-art, cool-on-Hitler Elisabeth May (Saskia Rosendahl), so Aryan in looks that she’s chosen as the schoolgirl who will present the Führer with a posy of flowers when he visits Dresden, their local big city.

 

But this isn’t her story. It’s the story of her nephew, Kurt, a little boy who is infected by his aunt’s enthusiasm for life and art and is appalled when his joyous aunt is taken away by the Nazis for sterilisation after a nervous breakdown – she clearly has undesirable genes, which need removing from the Aryan pool.

 

The doctor supervising the process is Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), a zealous true believer. It’s Kurt and the Prof who will wind through the rest of the story, which tracks through the war, which both survive, through the post-War reconstruction of the almost-obliterated Dresden, and into the 1960s.

 

The professor is a survivor, and in the same way that many Fassbinder films of the 1970s were concerned with the enduring and unhealthy influence of the Nazis – actually and ideologically – in post-War West Germany, Von Donnersmarck points out that the same happened on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain: the professor thrives, partly by luck, partly by instinct and partly thanks to the deference of people towards a “Herr Professor”.

 

The nephew (now played by Tom Schilling) becomes an art student and rises through the academy, where he sucks on the teat of socialist realism, which insists that art must have a political function, just as the Nazis had done.

 

And on the two go, dancing in separate circles which start to overlap when Kurt falls badly for a girl called Ellie (Paula Beer), unaware that she’s the daughter of the man who took his beloved aunt from him, though bristling whenever he’s in the professor’s company.

 

This dance takes both men to the West, the Professor having fled when details about his past threatened to destroy him, the politically disabused student and his inamorata having made the journey on the Berlin U-Bahn from East to West, a well worn route that was later to be sealed off with the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

 

Kurt and Ellie end up in Düsseldorf where Von Donnersmarck has a lot of fun with the latest dogma that Kurt encounters, this being pretty much the birthplace of conceptual art.

 

It’s a recent history of Germany, in other words, how it worked its way through the war and out of it, then shook itself down and started again, often carrying too much baggage from the past.

 

And though it looks like I’ve blabbed the plot of the film, in fact those details above are just the backdrop. Von Donnersmarck very cleverly, and in just the same way as he did with The Lives of Others, drapes over the top a personal narrative that is a touch Hollywood Excessive, as the lives of the Professor and Kurt, and to a lesser extent Ellie, are brought into knuckle-grazing proximity. And I’m saying nothing about any of that because gives the film its shocking tug.

 

Will Kurt continue to tussle with dogma? Will the Professor be nailed for his crimes? Will von Donnersmarck somehow find a way of making these two separate strands come joyously together?

 

Yes, yes and yes are the answers, but not quite in ways that you might imagine.

 

Unusually for a film about art, it is actually interested in the artistic process, which puts it up there as a portrait of the artistic temperament (genius, if you like) with John Maybury’s film about Francis Bacon, Love Is the Devil, and Ed Harris’s Pollock, his homage to “Jack the Dripper”. Perhaps that’s because it is closely based on the life of Gerhard Richter, who spent a considerable amount of time being interviewed by Von Donnersmarck only to eventually disown the film, whose plot (falls for the daughter of the man responsible for the death of a loved one) is Richter’s story.

 

Richter’s absence accounts, at least partly, for the film’s German title (Werk ohne Autor – Work without Author), since the artist has refused to sign off on the film, though Von Donnersmarck’s original title probably also has notions of “authority” and “authorised art” in its sights.

 

Maybe Richter took against the Hollywood turn of the plot towards the end, when Kurt finds his own voice in what seems suddenly like too much of a theatrical flourish.

 

This seems to have stuck in the craw of some. Personally, I don’t care too much how films end as long as I’ve had plenty to chew on en route. And I did here – the historical scene-setting in optimistic, Nazi-era Dresden, austere GDR and avant-garde Düsseldorf, plus all of the performances (particularly Koch, as the charismatic yet ice-cold Nazi prof). And there is something quite novel in a film about art which refuses to be an arthouse film.

 

Von Donnersmarck even manages a happy ending.

 

Buy Never Look Away on Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2019