The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 18 – The Thirteenth Hole

Patrick Allen and Patrick Macnee

 

The Thirteenth Hole sees Steed and Peel in action at a golf club where golfers seem to keep dying. Once again, it’s an episode with a needlessly elaborate plot about an international consortium of bad hats getting up to skulduggery. But instead of prosecuting their roguery from an office or a warehouse out on a sensible industrial estate, they choose an idiosyncratic and public location – this time a golf club – which out here in the real world would provide over-easy access for any number of potential thwarters of their enterprise.

 

Or perhaps I’m taking the whole thing a bit too seriously.

 

The plot, when it finally fully reveals itself, is all about gaining access to the satellites in the sky used for relaying television signals – the first of these having been launched only four years earlier, in 1962.

 

Backtracking a bit, things get going when a golfer on the course swaps his 3 iron for a 303 rifle and shoots a fellow golfer. At the 13th hole, of course. However, a custom-made golfball at the dead man’s house gives Steed and Peel the clue they need to start an investigation that will lead to…

 

Three “voice of” supporting stars give this episode a bit of lift. Patrick Allen, commanding voiceover on numerous adverts, the infamous Protect and Survive UK government information films about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack (later repurposed by Frankie Goes to Hollywood in their Two Tribes song) and eventually a large number of Channel 4 station idents. Francis Matthews, suave voice of Paul Temple and Captain Scarlet on TV, and of any number of adverts requiring sophisticated reassurance. And Peter Jones, original voice of the Guide in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on TV and radio and another advertising voiceover legend.

 

As befits his craggy looks, Allen plays one of the club’s flintier golfers, Matthews the club secretary keen to keep the riff-raff out and Jones (dressed in pebble specs and a beret which make him look uncannily like Peter Glaze of children’s TV show Crackerjack) is another gullible scientist lured to the club, where his specialist knowledge on satellites or his life (or both) will soon be winkled from him.

 

A golf club was still an aspirational place in those days, and the producers stick with that thought, dressing Diana Rigg in some very on-trend clothes (hip-hugging tight trousers, white boots with a zip up the front) and having her made up to look foxy as hell, which wasn’t very hard.

 

A golf club was/is also traditionally both a site of entrenched male power and male absurdity. We see the former when the club captain (Donald Hewlett) offers to show Mrs Peel “a couple of strokes, either on or off the course,” bantery innuendo to the max.

 

The latter comes in the shape of Steed, passing himself off as a golfer in an outfit consisting of silly trilby, turtleneck sweater, trousers tucked into long socks, and carrying a variety of gadgets to ascertain wind speed, weather, incline and so on (including a sextant). The golf game that follows is a neat collection of all the old golfing sight gags – stuck in the bunker, balls in the rough, obvious cheating, nail scissors to snip the grass, and so on. Meanwhile, Laurie Johnson reinforces the comedy (or reminds us that this is comedy, if you’re not entirely convinced) with a soundtrack featuring parping, farting wind instruments.

 

Underground on the golf course
Meanwhile, in the golf… er… bunker

 

And after all this – dead scientists, rogue golfers, quaint outfits, comedy interludes and so on – the essence of the plot does finally announce itself.

 

It’s a jolly if pretty silly episode, the silliness being the eventual undoing of the show, once the shark had been well and truly jumped.

 

What’s really noticeable by this point in The Avengers development over the years is how often both Macnee and Rigg pull the not-quite-to-camera “thinks” face, Rigg particularly. She’s also now on equal if not dominant footing with Macnee, occasionally even going so far as to talk slightly over him, especially on his bantery exit lines.

 

There’s a big fight at the finish and the excellent Avengers Forever site points out that you can clearly see stuntman Ray Austin in it. I didn’t, but then I’m not too sure what Ray Austin looks like. But I had noticed that the stand-ins were more stand-outs – way too obvious. Kind of symptomatic of the whole episode.

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 17 – The Girl from Auntie

Liz Fraser, Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg on set

 

The Girl from Auntie this episode is called, a nod to The Man from Uncle, which had debuted about six months earlier on US TV and become an instant hit with its sexy spies, gadgets, 007 goofery and strong sense of the ridiculous, having clearly drunk from the same well as The Avengers.

 

All that said, sadly this is not a great episode, though it is stuffed with good things. It’s also not particularly heavy on Emma Peel, who was perhaps off talking to the Bond people – Honor Blackman’s Pussy Galore having made waves – or just enjoying a bit of a break when the episode was in production.

 

She turns up in the opening scene, in a bikini, then again towards the end. In between, the female sidekick role is taken by Liz Fraser, a familiar 1960s face who specialised in dizzy blondes and doesn’t disappoint as a character whose mouth is in motion at almost all times.

 

The plot: someone (Fraser) is impersonating Emma Peel. Why? Something to do with the forgery of famous paintings, which are stolen and the forgery inserted in their place, so no one’s the wiser. Why is someone impersonating Emma Peel, though? Coughs, mumbles, hurriedly moves on.

 

It’s a double-act affair, Steed and Georgie Price-Jones (Fraser) moving from one locale to the next, just in time to find another crop of dead bodies (big body count in this episode), always one step behind a mysterious, hypodermic-wielding old lady on a bike. Is this Auntie? Oh, it might be, though Alfred Burke also turns up later in the proceedings as someone called Gregorie Auntie, though he’s obviously not a “girl”, so lethal biddy it probably is. And her name is Aunt Hetty, so…

 

Murderous Aunt Hetty
Best avoided: hypodermic-wielding Aunt Hetty

 

But before we meet Gregorie Auntie and the people behind dodgy business Art Incorporated, we meet the occupants of the business next door, Arkwright’s Knitting. This is an outfit that teaches knitting and, as played by Bernard Cribbins, is run by a man with a wrist surely too limp to keep a pair of needles in productive action.

 

Roger Marshall’s script is full of in-jokes and running gags (the taxi driver having a lot of fun both with Steed and the various bits of sporting gear Steed keeps loading into his car), Laurie Johnson’s score this time out is more in Randall and Hopkirk (aka My Partner the Ghost in the US) jangly harpsichord territory and Roy Ward Baker’s direction is brisk and tries to keep an overstuffed screenplay moving, which he manages.

 

Why is Mrs Peel in a bikini early on and in a near-invisible (on 405 lines 1960s monochrome TV for sure) body stocking later on, making her appear naked? Salacious sexism is the only answer that can really be offered, and there is a clear tendency in this episode to treat women as chattels and objects of fun (whether meekly riding bicycles or sitting in knitting circles), not an accusation you’d usually level at a series that has championed smart independent women from the off.

 

Like I say, good stuff is in here – Fraser, Burke and Cribbins are all fun, there’s a distinct Swinging London vibe (look out for the John, Paul, George and Fred joke) and I really enjoyed watching Steed and Peel exiting the show in a Messerschmitt bubble car, one of the more idiosyncratic vehicles of the era.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 16 – Small Game for Big Hunters

John Steed in the jungle

 

Two weeks after a coup in the Central African Republic, one day after a forcible change of regime in Nigeria, Small Game for Big Hunters had something of the topical about it – and the tropical – when it first went out in mid January 1966.

 

Prime Minister Harold Macmillan made his Wind of Change speech in 1960 after a monthlong tour of the African colonies. It still had enormous currency two prime ministers down the road when this episode aired. In fact you’ll hear the phrase used at least once, possibly twice.

 

But we’re not in Africa. Instead, TV budgets being what we are, we’re in the Home Counties just outside London, where a station doing research on rubber trees is staffed entirely by ex-colonial chaps and headed by Colonel Rawlings, a composite of every bluff, walrus-y Empire cliché you’ve ever seen, pushed over the line into liverish absurdity by the excellent Bill Fraser.

 

Steed is there to investigate an odd case of a comatose white man, who we met before the onscreen credits hacking through the undergrowth with a machete, to the sound of African drums and ribbiting frogs, only to be struck down by an arrow by a milepost startlingly (is the intention) informing us that we’re not in the “dark continent” but 23 miles from London.

 

Bill Fraser in eye patch as Colonel Rawlings
Blotto! Bill Fraser as the madly eccentric Colonel Rawlings

 

This episode splits right down the middle. In one setting we have Mrs Peel keeping an eye on the comatose man, and mediating between harrumphing man of science Dr Gibson (AJ Brown) and eccentric Professor Swain (Liam Redmond), who waves various African artefacts about hoping to work powerful ju-ju. In the other is Steed, at the research station (and ex-serviceman’s club) with the men in safari suits, where a pastiche of a “the heat, the flies, the incessant drumming” drama is playing out. In fact at one point Fraser gets to utter the line “the natives are restless tonight,” in his climate-controlled simulacrum of a remote African outpost.

 

If you can take it as it’s intended – as a fond satire on the cultural representation of the Empire – it’s all a lot of fun, and there’s even the odd “native” in “war paint” to add a bit of authenticity. (Razafi, the “native” is played by Paul Danquah, who famously seduced and impregnated Rita Tushingham in A Taste of Honey by deft deployment of the words “I dreamed about you last night – fell out of bed twice”, a line later repurposed by The Smiths).

 

Expressions are by and large kept poker-straight. Diana Rigg struggles here, almost breaking out into giggles every time Mrs Peel has a conversation with the batty prof. That aside, Rigg obviously senses that she’s got the boring branch of this bifurcated tale and it’s interesting to watch her turning up the mystery and wattage of her performance. How she’s doing this is beyond me. She was still doing it 50 years later in Game of Thrones. Remarkable.

 

Is the episode any good? Yes, it’s proper vintage era Avengers – bonkers, looking backwards as it goes forwards, gently mocking rather than hating, inclusive, fun, progressive, silly and yet with a serious point about giving up the fantasies of a lost imperial age.

 

All of which can be summed up as Steed and Peel epilogue their way out of the episode in this week’s exit vehicle – a canoe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 15 – Room Without a View

Mrs Peel behind bars

 

The title of EM Forster’s novel is parodied in Room Without a View, for reasons which never really became clear to me, but then on looking back over my notes to this episode I realised I could remember barely any of it.

 

Some things I do remember, though, such as the bare bones of the plot, which are standard formula stuff – a scientist (Peter Madden) back from a mysterious disappearance attempting to kill his wife (Jeanne Roland), having been brainwashed and broken by the Chinese. Which is presumably why the overwrought man is trying to kill her, since she’s oriental (Roland was born in Burma).

 

Is “oriental” a PC term or not? I can’t keep up, so forgive me if I’ve trodden on any toes. Far more egregiously, Roland gets no screen credit – a woman and non-white is presumably the reason why – even though she has a speaking role and interacts on more than one occasion and is a fine addition to a strong cast. Men in other episodes have had a credit for far less.

 

Back to the plot. Steed and Peel are soon on the case of the dangerous boffin, which seems connected to a hotel that’s implicated in more than its fair share of missing persons, all of whom are in the “brain drain” category of people the country can ill afford to lose. And at the centre of the web sits Pasold (Peter Arne), a supercilious brain-drainer in chief.

 

The notion of the brain drain as an international conspiracy against the UK was prevalent at the time, and suggested that skulduggery was causing highly qualified Brits to become expats, rather than it being just a case of individuals preferring the terms and conditions offered by other countries. But, bogus or not, without that idea, Room Without a View would go nowhere.

 

Its on-message politics to one side, there are three things that stood out for me in this episode. Or rather they did when I had my memory jogged on reading my notes.

 

The first is the excellent supporting cast. Peter Jeffrey as a ministry flunkey doing everything by the book. Long-legged Philip Latham as the manager of the hotel from which the brains are being spirited away. Paul Whitsun-Jones, as the hotel owner, a little fattie who is the butt of many jokes about what he can and cannot eat. Vernon Dobtcheff, a go-to man at the time for characters from the other side of the Iron Curtain.

 

The second is how clearly The Avengers has now internalised not just James Bond but the spoof responses to 007 that were beginning to litter the decade – films featuring louche spies Matt Helm (played by Dean Martin) and Derek Flint (James Coburn) were just around the corner.

 

Steed pulls Mrs Peel in a rickshaw
Exit vehicle: a rickshaw, just to add an extra oriental shake

 

Also notable are the aspirational attitudes on display – fine food is served up in fancy hotels, with a sneer if you’re not quite of the right social class. Which leads to some of the most amusing moments, when Emma (who is working undercover on the front desk at the dodgy Chessman Hotel) is forced to take orders from manager Carter (Latham), bridling every time he snaps his fingers at her. Perhaps that’s why in this episode Diana Rigg has decided to play Mrs Peel with an even more assertively cut-glass accent than usual.

 

Roy Ward Baker directs and brings some movie slickness to the whole affair, and is helped by Roger Marshall’s screenplay, which factors in multiple location changes. The action even switches to China at one point. But the editing has a more filmic quality too – more cutaways, more edits, slicker, pacier, more dynamic.

 

Don’t look too closely at the fight sequences, where the stunt doubles really don’t pass muster. Macnee’s stand-in is particularly obvious, though these episodes were designed to be shown on lo-def 405-lines TVs, so it’s forgivable.

 

Like I say, can’t remember much of it, so in spite of its obvious pluses, I’d give it a swerve if you were looking for an episode of The Avengers to watch.

 

The following week’s episode is a different matter altogether.

 

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 14 – Silent Dust

Emma punts, Steed relaxes

 

Silent Dust first aired on New Year’s Eve 1965 and from a 21st-century vantage point has all the makings of a very prescient episode of The Avengers. In what starts out as an obvious parody of a nature documentary, we first observe birds nesting in the trees, then watch as the birds start dropping off the branches.

 

The second eco-themed outing for Steed and Peel (see A Surfeit of H2O) owes a debt to Rachel Carson’s massively consequential 1962 book Silent Spring. Carson was the first to bring to public attention the doubts that many scientists had been harbouring about the effects of widely available insecticides such as DDT, and detailed the effects on wildlife, birds in particular, as well as the knock-on further up the food chain – cancer in humans.

 

All that said, though the title of Silent Dust nods to Carson, this is In many respects much more your standard Avengers thing than it at first appears. For all its eco-catastrophe plot, it’s class hierarchy that’s really on writer Roger Marshall’s agenda.

 

But first a bit of a lark, and not of the avian variety. A punt is coming towards us. Two people. One punting, the other reclining. We assume, because we are sexists, that Steed is upright and Peel recumbent. It’s the other way round – Steed is under the parasol and Mrs Peel is in sensible but stylishly cut punting gear and straw boater.

 

The duo are on the water looking for birds, or more specifically what’s causing them to die en masse, a search that soon takes them – via a gamekeeper called Mellors (a joke for Lady Chatterley’s Lover fans, another totemic book for the 1960s) – to William Franklyn’s silky local squire Omrod, who gives Mrs Peel the undressing up-and-down, which she responds to with a “Well I might if you play your cards right” look.

 

These male/female interchanges are the other thing that Marshall is concerned with in an episode packed with a dizzying number of characters – including an oily rag called Juggins, who swigs cider (we assume) from a jug to get the fires of nominative determinism roaring, a Dr Manfred (Charles Lloyd Pack), an eccentric expert in fertilisers, Clare (Isobel Black), daughter of an even more eccentric expert in fertilisers – we meet her painting a man in a hammock (another gender reversal) – a concerned rose grower (Norman Bird) Mrs Peel quizzes in a pub, another rose grower (Joanna Wake), whose land has been mysteriously poisoned. And on we go.

 

A protestor against blood sports
Down with violence? Now there’s something we can all get behind

 

As if that weren’t enough, and perhaps with the bit in his teeth after the previous week’s episode chockful of dream sequences, director Roy Ward Baker gives us another one this time round too, of Steed in the Wild West having a bullet pulled from his leg by Mrs Peel as a male doctor (more gender switcheroo, and a foreshadowing of the male role Diana Rigg would play in Theatre of Blood, with Vincent Price).

 

What’s it all about? Well Franklyn is involved, as are toxic organophosphate fertilisers – and that really is prescient since it was as much as three decades later that speculative suspicions were being raised that these compounds were responsible for the Mad Cow (BSE/CJD) debacle, organophosphates being a similar class of drugs to Carson’s DDT (an organochlorine).

 

But what makes this episode fun and engaging is the picture it paints of the class structure in the English shires – poachers and gamekeepers, landowners and foxhunting. We even get a demo against blood sports, which allows Laurie Johnson to have another go at some of his incidental music, adding a horsey gallop rhythm element that’s very episode-specific. Now there’s a sign of a series on the up.

 

An inventive, enjoyable and fast-moving episode delving into the class system and notable for its exploration of gender roles – Mrs Peel even gets the lion’s share of the physical action. I mean lioness’s, obviously.

 

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020