The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 13 – Too Many Christmas Trees

Patrick Macnee surrounded by cutout Christmas trees

 

Time magazine’s Swinging London issue appeared in April 1966 and made “official” what had been obvious for some time – something was going on in the UK capital.

 

To find out what that looked like at the time, you could do worse than examine Too Many Christmas Trees, the Christmas Day episode of The Avengers from 1965, a very swinging, very British mix of the modern and the antique.

 

Very mind-control-oriented too, the whole thing kicking off with a kitsch dream sequence – Steed in silk pyjamas and bowler hat wandering through a land of fake snow and cutout Christmas trees towards a wrapped Christmas gift with his name on it. A hideous Santa beckons. A dead man is revealed, while Santa ho-ho-ho’s menacingly in the background.

 

Back in the world of waking reality, Steed is far from his normal jocular self when Mrs Peel arrives, outfitted in nicely tailored tweed. It turns out the man who was dead in the dream has been found dead in reality too. And is suspected of having leaked secrets. In a cutaway to an overhead shot of four men seated around a table, a photograph of the dead man is replaced by a new photo… of Steed.

 

Menacing enough, but then it’s explained that the dead man had had a “brainstorm”, a gigantic breakdown which caused his brain to “explode”.

 

Is Steed next up for an exploding brain?

 

Off he and Mrs Peel head (the right word?) – in an open-topped car in mid-winter! – for one of those country weekends at a posh house, the sort of venue beloved by Agatha Christie, where an old-school Christmas is to be celebrated – all games and dressing up rather than television and catching up on the zzzz’s.

 

Here the dastardly plot comes more obviously into focus for us as things become less clear for Steed. Of course he’s being got at, and is the target of a gigantic plan to unhinge him, winkle secrets from his unconscious mind, and neutralise both him and, by extension, the British spying network.

 

In the meantime we meet Brandon Storey (Mervyn Johns), the host of the holiday festivities, Dr Felix Teasel (Edwin Richfield), a sulphurous psychoanalyst obviously up to no good, and Janice Crane (Jeannette Sterke), an attractive woman Steed believes he met in his dreams before meeting her in the flesh – more evidence of an imminent crack-up. Perhaps most significantly are fellow guests Martin Trasker (Alex Scott) and Jeremy Wade (Barry Warren), the Pushmepullyou of this mind-control operation with its big guns aimed at Steed.

 

Diana Rigg and Edwin Richfield
Diana Rigg and Edwin Richfield get into the party mood

 

Dream sequences feature heavily in this episode, and it’s a real plus that the vastly experienced Roy Ward Baker is on hand as director – he’d worked with Hitchcock and directed the great 1958 Titanic disaster movie A Night to Remember – to inject a bit of fantasy and menace.

 

There’s also a fair bit of dressing up, in particular for a fancy-dress party held at the big house. And since the house’s owner is a Dickens fanatic, the theme of the party is a given, allowing Steed the opportunity to get into a frock coat, while Mrs Peel dresses up as Oliver Twist, in tight trousers that display Oliver’s infamous camel toe.

 

In many ways it is a perfect Christmas episode, decked out with all the trimmings, with an overlay of the fabulous and the fantastical, though as in Scooby Doo there’s a very rational reason for all the otherworldly goings-on.

 

High points include all the dream sequences – the one in Napoleonic France is particularly enjoyable – the house itself, which is stuffed with Victoriana enough to justify my Swinging assertions all on its own, and a fight sequence in a hall of mirrors (more Orson Welles than Charles Dickens) which gives Mrs Peel a dynamic finale.

 

Combining the usual plot trope of the lability of the human mind with The Avengers‘ fascination with posh, eccentric and devious character types, it also gives the temperaments of Mrs Peel and John Steed – so often partners in urbanity – a chance to diverge. He’s nervous as hell throughout; she’s cool as they come. It is probably one of the best episodes of the entire run.

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 12 – Two’s a Crowd

Steed dead-ringer Gordon Webster

 

Tricks are what Two’s a Crowd is about, and the 12th episode of series four starts with two quite good ones. First up, a shot of a plane. It’s not a real plane, but a model, and the trick is that the model plane is meant to be a model, not – as was so often the case back then – a model masquerading as a real plane.

 

Trick number two is played when Emma Peel arrives at Steed’s apartment to find him out unconscious on the floor. He’s not really out cold, it’s a test for Emma, which she passes with flying colours by attacking the mystery man who suddenly is attacking her.

 

A plane that looks like a model plane because it is, a mystery assailant who is nothing of the sort – the notion of things standing in for other things is completed by the plot, which revolves around Steed being replaced by a double, a male model who looks just like him.

 

But, as with the plane, is the reason why it looks so much like Steed because it is Steed, one step ahead of the enemy? And is he one step ahead of them because he’s realised they’re bugging his apartment?

 

The enemy comes in the shape of Warren Mitchell, so entertaining in one of the best Avengers episodes (Series 3’s The Charmers, with Fenella Fielding) that he’s been got back in to play a version of the same role. Here he’s the twitchy Russian ambassador rubber-stamping tactical decisions taken by a cold-hearted flunky played with his usual sneer by Julian Glover.

 

Patrick Macnee, Julian Glover, Warren Mitchell
Julian Glover (centre) warming up for Game of Thrones 50 years later, with Patrick Macnee and Warren Mitchell

 

But neither of these men is really calling the shots. Instead that’s the mysterious Colonel Psev, an international man of mystery whose name clearly means something to these operators, but whose inclusion as a plot detail makes very little difference to an episode that should be a lot better than it is.

 

That’s in spite of an excellent performance by Mitchell, as a small man constantly fretting about his status. It’s his third outing and Clemens and the gang were wise to book him. Mitchell had just shot the pilot for Till Death Us Do Part, the show that would make him a household name (and typecast him for ever as working-class bigot Alf Garnett).

 

And not forgetting Patrick Macnee, who has fun playing a model only too familiar with catalogue work.

 

It’s a Philip Levene script, and as in Man-Eater of Surrey Green, Levene takes a spytastic idea and puts a pantomime spin on it. Roy Ward Baker adds some directorial flourishes from behind the camera and the lighting is noticeably better than usual. Budgets are clearly on the up.

 

And we hear the first mention of Mother, who would prop up (and often be the saving of) the Tara King episodes to come.

 

A big meh, for all its pluses, which also include a noticeably smarter wardrobe for Diana Rigg. Because she’s worth it.

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 11 – Man-Eater of Surrey Green

Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg

 

Man-Eater of Surrey Green is the perfect Avengers episode title. Camp, corny, a bit sexy, a lot parochial, it sums up the series perfectly. And this episode, which is a mix of scientific blah blah and a lot of eccentric bombing about.

 

Things kick off when two lab-coated scientists in love (Gillian Lewis and William Job) put their moist-eyed interchanges on hold when she suddenly hears a funny noise – it’s that 1960s mind-control noise created by someone furiously twiddling the knobs of an oscilloscope. Off she heads, in glassy-eyed “I hear and obey” fashion, to a Rolls Royce waiting to whisk her away.

 

Steed and Peel are soon on the case of the “missing horticulturalists”, not just any old garden variety horticulturalists but top ones engaged in hot research. Being Britain in the 1960s and The Avengers, the establishment is run not by a scientist but by a peer of the realm (Derek Farr) who inhabits a stately pile full of shop mannequins, up which plants are growing. Nice bit of 1960s set dressing.

 

Things get odd instantly – the missing scientist is at Sir Lyle Petersen’s house, of her own volition, she says, to help him run a freelance research operation into… and here she slows down her speech to an ominous extent “a new flowering shrub”.

 

Not wasting time for logic to intrude, and dealing briskly with a poison cactus someone has left on his car seat (someone wants him dead), Steed is soon haring off to a farm in Wales with Mrs Peel, where a downed spaceship containing the skeleton of a dead alien astronaut awaits. Yes, quite.

 

Also waiting is the star of this episode, Athene Seyler as Doctor Sheldon, a stuff-and-nonsense sort in the Miss Marple mould, who strides about and booms knowledgeably, exactly how you’d expect an actress to perform who’d been playing dowagers, mother superiors and aged spinsters since the 1930s. She’s priceless.

 

Patrick Macnee and Athene Seyler
Athene Seyler (right) makes this episode her own

 

So what have we got so far? Mind control, gigantic alien plants (did I not mention those?), a space ship and unusual experiments, an eccentric scientist, plus the usual bantz. All the makings of one of the best Avengers episodes, in other words.

 

Peer through the plot shrubbery and it’s obvious that writer Philip Levene has decided to have a go at reworking The Day of the Triffids, which becomes increasingly obvious as the episode progresses and “that 1960s mind control noise” starts to assert itself as the fact around which the entire plot pivots.

 

Along the way we have Mrs Peel quizzing one of the yokels in the pub and drinking a pint of beer with him – Mrs Peel, being posh, is adaptable – and a big-fight finale which is unusual in two respects. First, Steed and Peel take Doctor Sheldon into the fray with them – clearly Brian Clemens and the gang realised what good value Seyler was. Second, what sort of martial-arts moves would you deploy against a tentacular alien plant (stage crew shaking bits of vegetation about from just off camera, for the most part)? This makes for one of the series’ more enjoyable fight finales.

 

Yes, the effects are very primitive but just let that side of things go and revel in an episode that’s fast-moving and amusing and as ridiculous as it is enjoyable.

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 10 – Dial a Deadly Number

Clifford Evans, Peter Bowles, Patrick Macnee

 

Set in the world of the well-to-do, the very satisfying Dial a Deadly Number first aired in the UK in the early days of December 1965 and returns to two regular Avengers fascinations – businessmen and undertakers.

 

In what sounds like the setup to a joke, there are these three business magnates sitting in a bar, bemoaning movements on the stock market. One of them gets bleeped, by an early manifestation of a pager, and heads back to the office.

 

There is no funny payoff, though, because en route to the boardroom, the bleeped man’s pager gets switched and he is soon dead of a sudden “heart attack” after being struck by some deadly force from within the gadget.

 

We cut to another gadget, as Steed admires his own musical pocket watch and we learn that the dead man is the sixth board chairman to have died in a year – and they all shared the same banker, Henry Boardman (name surely not accidental).

 

Steed and Peel split up. He hares of to question the banker Boardman (Clifford Evans), and while there also meets his business partner, John Harvey, played by a young Peter Bowles, looking a bit clean about the chops but already suave enough to furnish TV and movies with an entire career’s worth of cads and bounders, which is what he did. Peel, meanwhile, heads quickly to the undertaker’s before continuing on to the bleeper company.

 

Old school ways and cultural oneupmanship abound in this episode. After that pocket watch establishing the tone, Steed is later offered “sherry and biscuits” – not once, but twice, so this was the practice in certain social circles back then (or writer Roger Marshall thought it was) – before he and Mrs Peel meet again at another event denoting social rank, a cocktail party.

 

John Steed in a wine cellar
I don’t think he’s looking for a 92 Chateau La Tour

 

Things head even further into rarefied territory when the pair follow cocktails and a light grilling (given and received) with a wine tasting where things get very combative and Steed is forced to prove himself in a “duel”, a blind wine-tasting.

 

It’s all fabulously old school and, even better, Roger Marshall’s script is full of wit and dash. He not only revels in all the public-school dick-measuring of “name that vineyard” games but also has a lot of fun with some bantery dialogue in which Steed and Peel joust playfully – “Agreeable, well-rounded, a little on the flinty side” says he, offering her a glass of wine. “Venerable, devious, a little ambivalent,” she counters, tasting it while looking straight at him.

 

En route we’ve learned what a put-option is in stock market terms – making money when a share price drops (making the death of a prominent businessman a potentially lucrative business) – and been given an impression of what old-school British stock market trading was all about – insider trading, in all but name.

 

So who is distributing the deadly bleepers? You know, it barely matters, since the fun of this episode is in its depiction of social situations most viewers will never experience first hand (or want to, most likely), but the initial thought – it’s the dead men’s banker – is not too far from the truth.

 

Roger Marshall addresses the high-society focus of this episode towards the end by putting a justifying explains-it-all speech into the mouth of Fitch (John Carson), the oily rag who’s been doing all the grunt work of switching and secreting deadly bleepers, recovering the incriminating evidence from dead bodies, tidying up loose ends etc. It’s an unusual thing to do – it’s usually the evil genius who gets that perk, not his oddjob man.

 

Clearly Marshall is trying to even things up a bit.

 

And look out for David Niven’s schoolchum Michael Trubshawe*, who gets a credit surely off the back of Niven’s name, since his character, The General, is not given enough to do for Trubshawe to really justify one.

 

 

 

*Trubshawe also turned up in minor roles in four of Niven’s films. And his name turns up regularly in Niven films even when he’s not in them – in A Matter of Life and Death, doomed pilot Niven’s co-pilot (played by Robert Coote) is called Trubshawe. And a “Trubshaw” (played by Robert Griffiths) also turns up in the fairly disastrous The Elusive Pimpernel (which Niven hated).

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

November 1st

Lindsay Duncan and Sophia Myles in a car

 

Short and sweet isn’t the way write/director Charlie Manton plays it in this revenge-driven short starring Lindsay Duncan and Sophia Myles

 

Uh oh, I thought, when actors Lindsay Duncan and Sophia Myles first opened their mouths, and out came Southern-fried accents. Duncan is from Edinburgh and Myles is a Londoner and if there’s anything that listening to too many BBC Radio 4 afternoon plays has taught me, it’s to be wary of Brits doing American.

 

And maybe neither of them is entirely on target vocally 100 per cent of the time. But there’s no doubting the performances, Duncan’s in particular, in what feels like the very satisfying last act of an intensely fraught drama about a mother and daughter heading off to a correctional facility where the man who killed a family member is about to be executed.

 

Another “uh oh” springing to mind – when a Brit director locates their short in the US, too often the result is a film relying on calling-card pyrotechnics rather than dramatic rigour or heft.

 

But writer/director Charlie Manton’s November 1st is in fact a rigorous, hefty work with a lovely final payoff – no, no spoilers – that sees Duncan and Myles’s mother and daughter do little more than share a car journey, have a fraught meal in a roadside pull-in, spend the night in a shabby motel, before heading for the penitentiary, sniping all the way.

 

Lindsay Duncan and Sophia Myles in a motel bedroom
You want it darker? – mother and daughter prepare to turn in

 

The arguments are never quite fully formed, in the way they’re often not in real life, but revenge and redemption, guilt and innocence, and qualms about the morality of legalised killing are in there, along with decades of pain – this murder happened back in the 1980s – and how that pain disfigures both the survivor (the mother) and those who stand by and watch (the daughter).

 

This collision of logic and emotion, animal rage and rational humanism, is at the heart of a story about a journey towards “closure” and what that actually means.

 

Treating the short as if it’s the last third of a film forces the actors to go from 0-60 in an eyeblink, but they pull it off and soon any qualms about accents and authenticity have been banished to wherever this drama was shot. You could tell me it was Florida and I’d believe you. I’d also believe Norfolk – its flatness and big skies double well.

 

DP Molly Manning Walker shoots dark and flat and close up on the actors. Handy when cash is tight but it does really throw the onus on the actors, who really need to deliver. Duncan and Myles both do, in an angry yet subtle drama of surprising complexity.

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020