The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 21 – A Touch of Brimstone

Emma Peel as the Queen of Sin

 

And so we come to A Touch of Brimstone, an episode that didn’t make it onto US TV screens in 1966, thanks to the bondage gear that Mrs Peel eventually gets into in the final scene.

 

How we get there is pretty interesting too. The whole thing opens very cinematically with a lovely shot of the back of an armchair advancing towards the camera. It’s being pushed by Peter Wyngarde, no sign of the luxuriant moustache that made him a household name in Department S and its Wyngarde-focused spin-off Jason King, though he is sporting fancy shirt cuffs and links, a foreshadowing of King’s sartorial style.

 

Wyngarde’s character, John Cleverly Cartney, is at some press conference where an East European somebody is making a warm speech about increasing friendship between his country and the UK. He lights a cigar. It explodes in his face.

 

“Very childish, but very damaging,” is how Steed describes it later to Mrs Peel. It being the latest in a line of diplomatically unfortunate practical jokes of a similar tenor.

 

And, once a theatre seat has given way beneath a visiting oil sheikh, thus losing the UK a contract worth a lot of money, Steed and Peel are sent in to investigate pdq.

 

Suspecting that Cartney is somehow involved, Mrs Peel arrives at his house posing as a high-end charity fundraiser seeking a donation. Wyngarde plays Cartney in characteristic man’s-man, ladies-man, man-about-town style – as a lecher, in other words – who makes a move on Mrs Peel the second she’s over his threshold.

 

As further hints that Cartney is behind the mischief, we meet Darcy (Colin Jeavons, brilliantly shifty), a man Cartney has in his pocket, and Sara (Carol Cleveland, later of Monty Python fame), a bosomy bird and one of Cartney’s treated-mean-and-kept-keen conquests.

 

Cartney, it turns out, runs something called the Hellfire Club, an association whose members all pledge to undertake challenges, when they’re not “wenching” and wining, all dressed in 18th-century garb.

 

Peter Wyngarde (right) in mask and hood
Ready to steal the entire episode: Peter Wyngarde (right)

 

 

The previous week, in The Danger Makers, it was Mrs Peel who infiltrated a secret society by going through its initiation ceremony. This week it’s Steed, at the Hellfire Club, where he drains a vast amount of booze in short order and then delights the assembled members by immediately asking for more. He’s most definitely in! But first, a slightly more dangerous test…

 

And so we head towards the finale, the last third of the episode being taken up with the Hellfire Club’s big night of the year, The Night of Sin. Which vaguely explains Mrs Peel ending up snake-draped and dressed in leather boots, basque and a leather choker studded with nails. “Uncommon handsome” is how Steed describes “The Queen of Sin”, getting into the period lingo. And so she is.

 

For all the sexy gear, it’s not that exciting an episode. There is too much emphasis on the period clothes and the dubious thrill of eavesdropping on a secret society comprising immature rich layabouts.

 

However, there is Wyngarde, who steals the episode. His flamboyant style of acting, flirting with the camera in a way that’s reminiscent of Peter O’Toole or Alan Rickman, is the reason why he became, for a while, one of TV’s biggest stars. The Marvel supervillain Jason Wyngarde is based on him. And Mike Myers has also claimed that he based Austin Powers on Wyngarde in his late 60s pomp. Yeh, maybe.

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 20 – The Danger Makers

Emma Peel plays a deadly beat the buzzer game

 

The Danger Makers is the 13th episode of The Avengers written by Roger Marshall, the amazingly prolific writer of scripts for everything from 1959’s William Tell to 1992’s London’s Burning by way of Public Eye, The Sweeney and Lovejoy. And it’s a bizarre and fascinating story, of men doing massively foolish things in an attempt to put the fizz back into an existence made flat by the advance of technology.

 

All this Marshall summarises neatly in an opening sequence about a man trying to commit suicide on a motor bike by engineering a crash. We know it’s a suicide attempt – or looks like it – because when he fails the first time, he has another, more successful go at it.

 

The deceased man is a general and is the latest in a line of top brass army chaps who have killed or maimed themselves in suspicious circumstances.

 

Off, in their different directions, Steed and Peel go – he to the barracks where the recently deceased general was stationed, she to the hospital to visit a bedbound patient, another member of this odd coterie of self-harming men.

 

At the barracks Steed questions Robertson, a military man played to the hilt by Nigel Davenport (father of Jack). Robertson is a bluff “jolly good chap” kind of fellow who, the instant Steed leaves, picks up a gun and starts playing Russian roulette with it.

 

At the hospital the same thing – the man Peel wants to talk to being more interested in easing himself out the window the moment everyone’s back is turned.

 

The Avengers loves a mind-control plot but this goes one beyond that – it’s about men in the grip of an ideology. Their danger-seeking is self-willed. They’re in a club, the Danger Makers Society, which exists to put a bit of spice back into life and have a plan to do just that by pulling off a massively improbable heist.

 

Nigel Davenport with a gun to his head
One way to liven things up: Nigel Davenport

 

And when Mrs Peel apparently indicates approval by not dismissing Robertson out of hand when he makes a grand speech explaining his theory of danger, risk, excitement and technology’s emasculating effect (how very resonant), she, too, is invited to join the club. As the episode starts to wind towards its conclusion, she is initiated into the club via a life-threatening ordeal.

 

Though I don’t generally go a bundle on Steed and Peel’s more military-themed adventures, this is a fine episode, stacked with the sort of supporting character actors the UK has always been great at producing. A frictionless Douglas Wilmer is a persuasively smooth shrink in the George Sanders mould, Fabia Drake is a fabulous stuff-and-nonsense hyper-posh dowager, Moray Watson the convincingly deranged plot lynchpin conveniently accoutred with a black eye patch, just in case we hadn’t twigged.

 

Charles Crichton directs with typical economy, wringing from one well-placed camera what lesser directors would only achieve with several set-ups and/or edits.

 

Fans of clothes might be able to confirm that Diana Rigg is dressed in Chanel at one point, I thought. Certainly upmarket tailoring is involved.

 

And fans of comical stand-in action will enjoy the big fight finish – Steed’s fencing double is taller than him; Peel is obviously being doubled by a man for the more bruise-inducing rough stuff. Didn’t they have stuntwomen back in those days?

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

I am an Amazon affiliate. Clicking on the link earns me a (vanishingly small) commission

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 19 – Quick-Quick Slow Death

Mrs Peel listens in as John Steed is spirited away

 

Lean, arch and fast, Quick-Quick Slow Death is high-church Avengers, with barely a normal person in it. Instead a busload of eccentrics power a plot that starts odd – a full-grown man in evening dress and bearing a “Lucille” tattoo on his arm being disgorged from a baby’s runaway pram after it’s crashed at speed – and keeps getting odder.

 

Steed and Peel are soon on the case of the dead “agent” – the series has also finally decided how to describe the line of work that Steed and his various partners are in – with Peel off to a tattoo parlour to pursue the “Lucille” line of enquiry, while Steed heads to the tailor who rented the dead man his suit.

 

After the chatty Northern (and so automatically funny) tattooist has been mined for information, Peel is off to a shoe shop, where Northern is swapped out with Italian and more comedy blood is squeezed from the stone as shoe-guy Piedi (David Kernan) rhapsodises about Peel’s feet in an accent that keeps slipping disastrously, and amusingly.

 

While Steed heads to a bank where the dead man seems to have closed his account on the day he died – suspicious! – Peel heads to a dance class run by Eunice Gayson – aka the woman who first prompted Sean Connery to say “Bond. James Bond.” All cut-glass accent and with a bracingly no-nonsense manner, Gayson plays a woman called Lucille. The plot thickens.

 

Steed and Peel ready for ballroom dancing
A nicely colourised Steed and Peel in ballroom gear

 

At bottom it’s a variant on the Avengers standby – the “doubles” plot – with Mrs Peel soon meeting Peever (James Belchamber), one of the dead men (another agent has since died, and his body has been whisked away by undertakers – like that ever happens), who seems very much alive. Only for Steed to also meet Peever and confirm that he is in fact an impostor. Turns out enemy agents are being infiltrated into the country and swapped out with single men whose absence won’t be noticed.

 

Does the plot matter? Not really. This episode is really a series of sketches loosely hung together, all brimming with eccentricity, directed at speed by James Hill (who also did the Castle De’Ath episode) with an eye for an appealing angle. It’s written with real zip and a drole touch by Robert Banks Stewart, who would go on to create two cop series – Shoestring and Bergerac – with a similarly dry MO.

 

It’s also a vehicle for dressing up. There’s a lot of it in this one: evening dress, undertaker’s outfits, ballroom attire, Mrs Peel more the fashion sophisticate than the usual dolly bird, while Steed swaps the bowler for an admiral’s hat at one point, and later gets into full white tie for the finale set at the dance studio of Lucille, an obvious bad hat.

 

It’s a fairly breathless example of The Avengers getting it just right – walking the entertaining/plausible tightrope skilfully – and is a lot of fun.

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

I am an Amazon affiliate. Clicking on the link earns me a (vanishingly small) commission

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020