The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 25 – How to Succeed… at Murder

John Steed and Emma Peel

 

Feminist or not feminist? That’s the question that hovers over the whole of How to Succeed… at Murder, a Brian Clemens script for The Avengers that first aired in March 1966.

 

Secretaries are what it’s all about, trusted right-hand women of busy gammon-faced male business titans, who are all dying in quick succession. Leaving the running of their companies in the hands of women formerly trusted with little more than jotting down and transcribing shorthand… because these Girl Fridays are the only people who understand the fiendishly complicated systems these men have devised.

 

Is this a good thing (see how capable a woman can be!)? Or the opposite (things are so desperate that a woman is now in charge!)? Clemens keeps us guessing, leading us this way and that with a lively script that’s full of his trademark casual plotting and eccentric characters.

 

Christopher Benjamin as Hooter
Hooter to the rescue!

 

After an intro that sees men in suits meeting their makers sooner than anticipated – the first of them dying after his secretary has pulled out a comedy detonator and pressed the plunger, having first covered her typewriter and donned a tin hat – Steed and Peel arrive and are soon chasing clues.

 

Which takes us to proper eccentric number one, JJ Hooter (a very fruity Christopher Benjamin), a parfumier Peel buttonholes, hoping he can help her track down a scent from the murder scene. From the name alone we know what sort of character Hooter is. But in case we hadn’t twigged, he keeps his nose sheathed in what looks like a bandage-y condom to prevent his super-sensitive olfactory system from becoming overwhelmed by everyday niffs.

 

Also for those who haven’t twigged, shortly after the visit to the parfumier Steed explains to Peel the danger of important men leaving their businesses in the hands of women.

 

Are we applauding or hissing here? It isn’t quite clear, but as the action shifts towards a conspiratorial cabal of women (Sarah Lawson and Angela Browne among them) at a keep-fit class, radical feminism is obviously in Clemens’s viewfinder. So radical is this group’s politics that it would even be tempting to suggest that Clemens has read Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto (Solanas always denied that SCUM stood for the Society for Cutting Up Men) except it wouldn’t be published until the following year.

 

Jerome Willis as Joshua Rudge, an external accountant with connections to all the dead men, plays a go-between role in a story that takes a decidedly bizarre turn once he works out who is behind the nefarious goings-on – no spoilers, but let’s just say that the idea of women seizing control isn’t wholeheartedly embraced.

 

Direction is by Don Leaver, who has a real eye for the boxier TV format of the 1960s and is a keen user of the close-up and Laurie Johnson’s incidental music seems to be anticipating Brian Eno’s ambient experiments of a few years.

 

It’s all quite progressive, in other words, if you choose to see it that way. However, Diana Rigg in tight gym gear undercover at a secretaries’ keep-fit class? Perhaps not so much.

 

A fascinating episode which, regardless of its ultimate social/political destination, at least gives us a rare tour of the territory en route.

 

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 24 – A Sense of History

Patrick Mower and Patrick Macnee

 

Fifty years before a referendum determined that the UK wanted to leave the EU, the subject was tackled in this Avengers episode called A Sense of History. But Martin Woodhouse’s screenplay doesn’t call on Winston Churchill or the Second World War to help invoke British exceptionalism. He goes further back… to Robin Hood and Merry England.

 

Things kick off when an academic heading for a conference about Europia (a Utopian vision of a future Europe) is killed en route, by an arrow in his back, launched, possibly, from the bow of a student from the local St Bode’s college (the actors are mouthing “Bede” but in the post-dub it comes out as “Bode” – doubtless a lawyerly adjustment).

 

In go Steed and Peel, she as some kind of undercover student, he as an academic, to see what’s going on. It isn’t long before they encounter Duboys (Patrick Mower), a Flashman-esque in-yer-face right-wing zealot with considerable clout at the college and enough front to call one of his lecturers an idiot to his face.

 

Out in the woods, Richard Carlyon (Nigel Stock), the right hand man of the dead academic awaits developments, while inside the college John Barron (when he still had hair) as Henge (Stone Henge to the students, on account of how boring he is) represents the fogey-ish end of the academic spectrum, John Ringham’s Professor Acheson – a man in constant motion much given to comedy isometrics – the more progressive end.

 

Diana Rigg in doublet and hose
Doublet and hose make a comeback!

 

Who’s the baddie – the liberal or the conservative? How does Duboys fit in to it all? All is eventually revealed but before we arrive at the destination there is much to keep the interest sparking. Both Steed and Peel have to face down groups of students, whose unruliness and unwillingness to kowtow to authority foreshadows the events of 1968 – he does it simply by facing them down, in the way that men who have seen and done things in wartime often can. She does it by being disarming, as she needs to be when Duboys makes a move on her.

 

Mower, at about 28, is far too old to be playing a student, but then there was nothing odd about old-for-young back in the 1960s, still goes on today. But Mower’s big lion’s head, brutal looks and charisma mean he is well cast otherwise. Look out among the students for Jacqueline Pearce, later a member of the cast of the very 1970s, very cultish Blake’s Seven, but here in Juliette Greco-style eye make-up applied with trowel. (Digressive but bizarre fact: both of Pearce’s ex husbands went on to marry the actor Felicity Kendal.)

 

Less incidental but perhaps not exactly essential to know is what writer Woodhouse is doing with the names of his characters, so many of which have Robin Hood connections – Duboys refers to Robin Du Bois (literally “Robin of the Wood” as he was often known), John Pettit (Little John), Millerson (Much the Miller’s son), Allen (Alan a Dale) and of course Jacqueline Pearce as Marianne (Maid Marian). While out in the woods is Richard Carlyon (Richard Coeur de Lion aka the Lionheart), as offstage here as he was in the original tales. Thanks to dissolute.com.au for that observation, which had sailed over my head.

 

Is it any good though? The wrong-headedness about students of the time and their political leanings as regards Europe (violently against) is fascinating, as is the denouement concerning a shadowy elite engineering political change for its own ends. And the Robin Hood stuff adds another, debatably necessary, layer. But there are too many characters in it, too much plot, and Diana Rigg dressed as Robin Hood in the fancy dress finale, while striking, isn’t enough to compensate, though she does come close.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 23 – The House That Jack Built

Mrs Peel with an illuinated mask

 

John Lennon’s declaration that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus” had gone public just the day before The House That Jack Built aired in the UK on 5 March 1966. Not that this episode of The Avengers has anything to do with religion or popular music, or anything like that, but it swims in the same backward-looking yet progressive waters as the Beatles, and with a plot heavy on the paranoia, with suggestions of psychoactive substance use on the part of the writer, Brian Clemens, it couldn’t be more 1960s.

 

Patrick Macnee more or less gets a day off this time out, and once he’s set the plot in motion – with a bit of waffly nonsense involving a key in Mrs Peel’s possession registering as a distinct silhouette on the photographic prints Steed is developing – he’s absent for most of the rest of the plot, leaving Mrs Peel to head off to a mansion that she’s just been left by a dead uncle.

 

En route she picks up a hitch-hiker, a man dressed in a scoutmaster’s uniform. He’s a birdwatcher, he tells Mrs Peel. “I’m immensely fond of birds,” he says. Mrs Peel gives him the “Ooh, matron” sideways glance, not least because he’s as camp as a scout jamboree and you wouldn’t have counted him among nature’s most hetero of sexuals.

 

Like the Steed business, this stuff with scoutmaster Withers (Michael Wynne) is really just throat-clearing. The real plot gets going when Mrs Peel arrives at the house she has supposedly inherited (though Steed, back in London, has already discovered she has no uncle and has not inherited anything at all), allowing Clemens to launch one of those haunted house plots, in a building full of stuffed owls and much other Victoriana.

 

John Steed on the phone
To the rescue: Steed discovers Emma’s inheritance isn’t what it seems

 

Things quickly take a mind-fuckery, yeh baby, very 1960s turn, with much running around, wonky camera angles, Bridget Riley-inspired maze-like sets and doors which keep taking Mrs Peel back to the place she has just left.

 

Mrs Peel is not losing her mind, rather the house is sentient. It’s a smart house decades before there was any such thing in reality, since a dead scientist – whom Mrs Peel, in a too-convenient backstory about a previous existence when she ran a tech company (!), once fired – has uploaded his mind into the house to take his revenge on the woman who refused to acknowledge that the future was all about machines, machines I tell you, not human beings.

 

It’s all very Terminator and, in its notion of someone being menaced by unseen forces, foreshadows our own era of internet trolling rather well.

 

The whole house, we learn, runs on “solar energy and frictionless bearings”, which also seems very now, though the rampant paranoia is very much of its time, as are the special effects which, though they’ve clearly had money spent on them, won’t wow a modern audience.

 

Mrs Peel’s pluck will, however. It’s still fairly rare for a woman to get this much agency, and to be seen to be triumphing against unseen male forces – call it the patriarchy if you like – though let’s not fool ourselves, it’s Steed who arrives to save the day.

 

The Prisoner would later take this paranoid attitude and make a cult TV series out of it – endless running, wonky angles, scientific surrealism and thwarted escape attempts were co-creator/star Patrick McGoohan’s stock in trade for the 17 episodes which went into production just six months after this episode aired. He must have been watching.

 

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 22 – What the Butler Saw

Steed at the school for butlers

 

What the Butler Saw is an episode about what the butler did rather than saw, though it does kick off with John Le Mesurier – tongue doing at least half of his acting as usual – handing his employer a gun and looking on as a minion asking for too large a cut of an ill-gotten gain is murdered.

 

What the butler actually saw, in the soft-porn flickerbook images of the Victorian Mutoscope machines, was his mistress disrobing. Appropriately, the reference points in this episode are Victorian – the 1949 Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets (set in Victorian times) in particular.

 

Which is why Steed, aiming to find out which of a number of potential leakers is spilling state secrets to the enemy, dresses up, Alec Guinness-style, in one disguise after another in an attempt to flush out the mole. All the suspects are men, all have butlers.

 

Screenwriter Brian Clemens indulges his love of the florid eccentric in a series of encounters between Steed (dressed in full beard and naval uniform) and Admiral Willows (Humphrey Lestoq); Steed (now as an army man) and Brigadier Crawford; Steed (in RAF outfit and panto moustache) and Group Captain Miles (Denis Quilley).

 

The first two present no real challenge, but the skirt-chasing Miles is hard to get at, Steed instead having to make do with Squadron Leader Hogg (Leon Sinden), Miles’s number two, whose moustache rivals Steed’s for ridiculousness. Cue an amusing scene of the two men exchanging acronym-thick banter at tally-ho volume.

 

Along the way we meet butlers one (Le Mesurier), two (Norman Scace) and three (Thorley Walters, once a fine Watson to Christopher Lee’s Sherlock Holmes).

 

Where’s Mrs Peel? Not much in evidence, initially, though she’s eventually brought in to the story to break through to the unreachable Group Captain, Steed quite explicitly instructing her to use all her wiles to reach Miles since the fate of the nation is at stake. Diana Rigg loads up her voice with irony as she accepts what is basically a #MeToo assignment.

 

Emma Peel and Group Captain Miles
Emma Peel fends off Grope Captain Miles

 

And while Peel sets off to act as the honey in the trap, Steed heads for the Brighter More Beautiful Butling school, where gentlemen’s gentlemen learn how to polish shoes, iron shirts and all the rest of it.

 

No one quite knew where to position the armed services in the 1960s. The Second World War was a vivid if infrequently mentioned event, and a grateful culture was not about to dismiss its warriors out of hand, even though the hierarchies of the armed services were out of keeping with more meritocratic times. Gentle ribbing rather than outright ridicule is the approach Clemens takes, and he applies the same comedic brush in his depiction of the school for butlers, again, a reminder of uncool class-based structures.

 

Mrs Peel, meanwhile, is dealing with the sort of seduction scene that plays all the clichés – champagne, etchings, log fires, low lights – for laughs, even though what Miles is doing as he pursues his quarry amounts to harassment on an almost Weinsteinian scale.

 

The budgets are noticeably bigger in this episode – the producers have even sprung for a helicopter – and Bill Bain’s direction is lavishly cinematic. As Steed and Peel exit in the chopper, “going up” are the last words we hear. It’s a hopeful exit line by Clemens, who was perhaps aware at some level that his show (and it really was his show by now) has peaked.

 

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020