The Avengers: Series 6, Episode 2 – Game

Steed caught in a giant game

After new opening titles – a mix of the medieval (Steed’s swordplay with his brolly) and the modern (Tara King in sophisticated black evening dress and then action-girl attire) – we’re off into Game, the first proper Tara King era episode of The Avengers.

The excellent Robert Fuest (director of The Abominable Dr Phibes) is at the helm, directing a screenplay by Richard Harris which re-uses elements of his Winged Avenger episode in series 5.

That was a revenge plot built around a character getting payback for something that happened long ago. This is the same idea, though the way in which payback is given is more elaborate – here the men involved in a court-martial are made to play games in which the stake is their life.

First up, a man (Brian Badcoe) playing with a toy racing car – a Scalextric or something similar – when the car careens off the track and rolls over, the man dies in real life, his racing goggles filling up with jigsaw pieces.

Post-opening credits we get victim number two (Geoffrey Russell), playing a game of snakes and ladders, ascending a ladder for real until he’s startled by a snake and falls to his death. Again, the jigsaw pieces.

Luckily for our sleuthing duo, the murderer behind these fiendish deaths is the sort who likes to leave clues. And soon Tara is at the offices of the company that made the jigsaws, this encounter with eccentric jigsaw master (Desmond Walter-Ellis) as good a guide as any that this is a Brian Clemens-produced episode – Clemens and co-producer Fennell having been fired and replaced by John Bryce only to be hastily recalled when things went tits up (full story at Avengers Forever or Wikipedia).

 

Steed and King in the apartment
Ready for action: Steed and King

 

The killing continues. Another man – this time a stock market trader (Alex Scott) forced to play a finance game – is soon dead, and then another, a brigadier (Anthony Newlands), having met the villain of the piece, who goes by the joke name of Monte Bristow (the reliably sulphurous Peter Jeffrey), leading up to a big showcase finale, a chance for Fuest to show us what he can do, and for Patrick Macnee to remind us that he’s the star of the show.

Because Steed was also one of the men involved in the court-martial, he too is forced into playing a deadly game, in fact a series of games packaged together as one called Super Secret Agent – fight a fiendish Japanese wrestler, crack a safe and so on.

The prize being Tara King, who is now locked in the bottom half of an hourglass that’s quickly filling with sand.

Bait, victim, damsel in distress rather than super-capable karate-chopping buddy, that seems to be Tara King’s role, and Thorson plays her as less arch than Diana Rigg did, which is a welcome change, and with more liquid in the eyes, which is not. Even Tara’s odd combat scene is a bit below par, and Thorson’s body double is way too hefty to be plausible.

Director Fuest gets to play on one of those late 1960s sets full of oversized objects and his keen eye for a visual extracts the most out of what is still, for all its budget and exterior locations, a very studio-bound series.

It’s a good, brisk, well directed episode, and its decent cast includes Garfield Morgan as the mastermind’s supercilious butler, which is a bit of a bonus.

It’s a decent way to get to know Tara King better.

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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

 

 

***

The imdb refers to this as season seven. I’m saying six, along with most of the fan sites, and in line with the pretty much definitive Studio Canal box set. The reason why the imdb and others say seven is because they’re taking the final block of eight Emma Peel episodes as a separate season. But since there were only eight episodes in that production block, lumping them together with the 16 episodes of what everyone agrees is season five brings the total up to 24, much closer to the usual Avengers run of about 26 episodes.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 6, Episode 1 – The Forget-Me-Knot

Patrick Macnee and Lind Thorson

 

Exit Diana Rigg, enter Linda Thorson.

Out with the old, in with the new in The Forget-Me-Knot, a handover episode that saw Diana Rigg leave The Avengers and Linda Thorson join it.

Much has been said about Thorson – a good overview can be found here at Avengers Forever – and I’m not going to add to it here, except to say that I reckon she makes the best of what looks like a very bad situation. Departing/returning showrunner (all also detailed at Avengers Forever) Brian Clemens is clearly angling to ditch her as soon as he gets his feet back under the table and throughout this series again and again brings in obvious try-outs while “ill” or “injured” actionwoman King is forced to sit out one episode or another.

But on with this one. Steed and Peel, still, just about, and a story about amnesiac spies, with things getting going as Steed and Peel are about to enjoy an Irish coffee while doing a crossword. Enter a befuddled agent (Patrick Kavanagh) who remembers enough to have found the apartment but doesn’t really know much more than that, apart from the fact that a traitor is at work in the department.

Off Steed heads to HQ, to visit Mother, his wheelchair-using, fat, eccentric superior – a man (Patrick Newell) playing someone called Mother being a sign that there’s life in the series yet – pausing only to deflect an attack by an over-enthusiastic trainee (it’s Tara King) as he passes through the spy school.

Mrs Peel, meanwhile, is trying to shake loose some memories from the amnesiac’s mind, only to have her own compromised when a pair of thugs arrive and do to her what they’d done to him, rendering her blank too.

And that’s about it for her. Most of the rest of the episode Mr Peel spends locked up.

Emma Peel with gun
Farewell Emma Peel – cheekbones as deadly as her gun

 

Steed too ends up being struck by an amnesiac dart – three in fact, just for good measure – and wakes up in hospital where the doctor concludes that the man in front of him in the hospital bed has had a few drinks too many. Considering that Steed drinks in Mad Men fashion, that’s not a bad diagnosis, albeit the wrong one.

So who’s the traitor? Well, Tara King to one side, and assuming it’s not Mother, that leaves the only two others we meet – played by Jeremy Burnham and Jeremy Young. Choose your Jeremy.

Without detailing the entire plot, Tara does help save the day and order is restored, only for Emma Peel to discover that her husband has been found alive and well. And, too hastily to be credible (and surely that’s because this stuff was shot AFTER Rigg had actually left the series and she was doing everyone a favour by turning up at all for reshoots), Peel is gone, bidding Steed a touching farewell, Steed addressing her as “Emma” rather than Mrs Peel, the sudden drop of formality going off like an emotional depth charge.

Emma’s parting shot is to cross Tara on the stairs as Tara arrives, where Emma passes on some sexist information about the way Steed likes his tea.

And so a new chapter begins, with Tara King presented as an agent making up in pluck what she lacks in experience.

Notice Patrick Macnee’s physical bearing in this episode. He’s moving in the way you associate with an ageing stage farceur – the appearance of being lively rather than liveliness itself. Technique filling in the gap opened up by sadness – just a thought.

Another thought. Thorson pretty good. Acquitted herself well. Rigg a tough act to follow.

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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

 

 

***

The imdb refers to this as season seven. I’m saying six, along with most of the fan sites, and in line with the pretty much definitive Studio Canal box set. The reason why the imdb and others say seven is because they’re taking the final block of eight Emma Peel episodes as a separate season. But since there were only eight episodes in that production block, lumping them together with the 16 episodes of what everyone agrees is season five brings the total up to 24, much closer to the usual Avengers run of about 26 episodes.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 24 – Mission… Highly Improbable

A mini Steed tries to make a phone call

The US TV series Mission: Impossible was not quite a year old and hadn’t yet aired in the UK when the Avengers episode Mission… Highly Improbable debuted in the UK in November 1967, so Brits wouldn’t have got the joke/reference.

It matters not – apart from the allusive title, there’s nothing else carrying over from the US show to the UK one. Apart, that is, from the high-budget looks. Everything looks like it’s been given two extra runs through the polisher – that’s the effect of American money.

However, even though The Avengers was riding high on both sides of the Atlantic, the spy craze was on the wane. The Robert Culp/Bill Cosby series I Spy and Get Smart, written by Mel Brooks (among others), probably marked the high water mark in 1965 and Mission: Impossible was the last primetime show of that ilk to be commissioned.

We’re at the beginning of the end of days, in other words, and nothing really says that better than the departure of Diana Rigg, off to play James Bond’s wife in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. This is her last full-on episode before Linda Thorson takes over as Steed’s new sidekick.

Going out with a bang, this episode takes the improbability literally in a scenario all about an incredible shrinking ray that’s been developed by an unworldly scientist (Noel Howlett, something of a go-to actor when it came to unworldliness) but is now being exploited by one of the boffin’s subordinates (Francis Matthews, a go-to man for oily charm).

“Show don’t tell” is the scriptwriter’s watchphrase, something Philip Levene adheres to strictly in his opening scene – white Rolls Royce containing crusty Sir Gerald Bancroft arrives at a Ministry of Defence testing ground, is granted access and before the security man (Nicholas Courtney, later Brigardier Lethbridge Stewart in Doctor Who) can bring up the rear on his motorbike the car has completely disappeared.

Since it’s a mystery, Steed is soon involved and, combing the area where the disappearance happened, finds a “toy” Rolls Royce. He’s unaware it is the missing car in miniature, and as we cut to the undergrowth, a mini Sir Gerald has soon been scooped up in a butterfly net by Chivers (Matthews), an operative in the metal fatigue department, we’re told.

We’re introduced to the good-natured Prof (Howlett) running the place, and his daughter (Jane Merrow), whom Steed stands far too close to (Merrow was another of the names in the frame to replace Diana Rigg), there’s a bit more zapping, more miniaturising, everything is in the realm of the highly improbable.

 

The show in a TV listings magazine
As described in a TV listings mag… TV Times, I think

 

And then Philip Levene injects a note of realism, in the shape of a demonstration of a new British armoured vehicle, a Saracen impervious to shelling, which is being shown off to a lot of visiting dignitaries, including a Soviet general. Er… right.

The general (who’s also the head of Soviet intelligence, Steed has informed the brass) is in the tradition of Avengers Cold War joke figures most notably embodied by Warren Mitchell in a couple of previous episodes, but is here made vainglorious flesh by Ronald Radd.

Chivers is planning to shrink the Saracen, then take it off the base and sell it to the highest bidder, and it’s only a matter of time before Steed himself – in trying to thwart this dastardly plot – has been shrunk to mini-Steed size, allowing us to see what exactly the budget has been spent on.

Cue several scenes of Steed being dwarfed by household objects like a huge smoking cigar and a massive telephone. And while it’s easy to raise the objection that not everything seems to have been shrunk to the same degree, the production design is impressive.

The shrinking motif can be seen as an allegory for the whole episode – it’s up, it’s down, it’s grounded in reality one second, fantasy the next. What’s more, like James Bond it insists that the Brits are on some sort of equal footing with the Soviets militarily, which is simply fanciful, though talking a good talk could be construed as being as part of a country’s arsenal, I suppose.

Caveats aside, it’s a good episode, high on its own whimsy, with Laurie Johnson’s incidental score featuring lots of music boxes, tubas, harps and xylophones, helping steer it in the high camp destination it’s heading for.

Mrs Peel? Some nice interchanges with Steed – the “Is everything to scale?” banter with his Mini-Me self most notably – but really this is one of those episodes where Steed bears the brunt of the action. If it’s a swansong for Emma you’re after, the previous week’s outing, Murdersville, is what you want.

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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

 

 

Whether this episode is part of Series 6 or a continuation of Series 5 is moot. I’m going with the convention embraced by StudioCanal’s 2014 boxset and plumping for it being a late entrant to Series 5. It was originally conceived that way.

The imdb prefers to say we’re now in Series 6 (a short one of only eight episodes), while the Avengers Forever site leans towards calling this Series 5 (though it draws a distinction between two distinct production blocks – 5A and 5B).

There’s not much in it either way, but lumping this episode in with Series 5 means all the Emma Peel colour episodes are together, and since Series 5 is often referred to as THE classic series, that’s an advantage.

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 23 – Murdersville

Publicity shot on a beach

 

Murdersville feels like a very loose rewrite of a Cathy Gale-era Avengers episode, though having wracked my brains, I don’t believe it can be.

The hallmarks are there though – old school English village, locals, a pub – real life, in other words, which the Emma Peel-era Avengers (Cybernauts, invisible men, an extra-terrestrial) so far has kept as far away from as possible.

There’s human warmth, too, which is also odd. In The Avengers, when someone dies it’s the opportunity for a quick gag, James Bond style. Not so here, but that’s because Mrs Peel has no one to quip with, against or at, since Steed is back at the ranch, and this is an extra-mural episode featuring an off-duty Emma helping old childhood friend Major Paul Croft (Eric Flynn), recently back from some outpost of Empire, move into the charming locale of Little Storping in the Swuff, one of the country’s best-kept villages, we’re told.

And sure enough, local yokels are consuming warm, flat English beer from jugs and playing dominoes while exchanging the smallest of small talk when Major Croft’s batman (yes, really) arrives to smooth the path for the incoming officer-class gent.

But this is no normal village, these no normal villagers. In short order, alerted to his arrival by his batman, the major’s belongings have been trashed by the pub locals, and soon murder is also afoot…

Once Mrs Peel and Major Croft arrive on the scene things move slightly more into Avengers territory, with Emma shifting immediately into investigation mode. But the villagers are ahead of her and she soon winds up bonked over the head. The result of a prang in her car, the locals insist, when she wakes up later in the pub.

 

Local librarian in scold's bridle
The local librarian gets a taste of medieval justice

 

In a plot-tastic episode, things now start to move at speed. Steed is summoned by Peel in a coded phone call – she makes out to the ransom-hungry drinkers that he’s her husband, alerting Steed to the dangerous situation with her first “darling” – Mrs Peel makes a run for it, is chased by a helicopter (!) and finally winds up in the local museum locked in a chastity belt, only to find the real locals, the ones who wouldn’t sign up to the dastardly hoax going on out in the real world – the village has become a commercial murder enterprise. If you’ve got someone you want killing, this is your place.

No, no criminal mastermind, no megalomaniac trying to take over the world, just a mafia style racket involving the denizens of a charming English village who are all paid handsomely for their compliance (the ones who will comply).

En route to the finale we get to see a medieval scold’s bridle in action and a ducking stool, reminders that real olde-worlde English villages weren’t always all about cream teas and quaint pubs.

Spend a minute thinking about it and the plot is ridiculous, Brian Clemens almost over-reaching himself this time. But some fine playing sold it to me, at least, in particular Colin Blakely and John Ronane as the beer-swilling yokels with a particularly avaricious glint in the eye.

As I say, it lacks the wit and banter you’d have got if Steed had been there as a sparring partner, but this gives space for a development of Peel’s character – she’s vulnerable here, with less time for the cocked eyebrow and the sharp tongue.

And with all the running around she has to do, you’ve got to wonder about that outfit she’s in. It’s Crimplene, which tends to smell. Enter Mrs Peel, exit Mrs Pee-ew!

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

***

Whether this episode is part of Series 6 or a continuation of Series 5 is moot. I’m going with the convention embraced by StudioCanal’s 2014 boxset and plumping for it being a late entrant to Series 5. It was originally conceived that way.

The imdb prefers to say we’re now in Series 6 (a short one of only eight episodes), while the Avengers Forever site leans towards calling this Series 5 (though it draws a distinction between two distinct production blocks – 5A and 5B).

There’s not much in it either way, but lumping this episode in with Series 5 means all the Emma Peel colour episodes are together, and since Series 5 is often referred to as THE classic series, that’s an advantage.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 22 – The Positive Negative Man

The creature attacks Emma Peel

 

A mad spy-fi story, the sort that made The Avengers the legendary show it is, The Positive Negative Man gets off to a Cybernauts-style start with a big lumbering creature – a man in silver greasepainted face and a metal sleeve on one finger – zapping a scientist (Bill Wallis) as he labours over some boffin-y task.

The man has been thrown clean across the room. This being “the Ministry”, Steed and Peel are soon called in, only to become mired in protocol – do they or do they not have enough security clearance to conduct any sort of investigation, sort of thing.

Tony Williamson’s script tugs in two directions. One is techy – the odd creature and the charge he seems able to store in his body – while the other has fun at the expense of bureaucratic procedure. We learn from Ministry official Cynthia Wentworth-Howe (Caroline Blakiston) that as a Top Hush category of secretary she has the sort of security clearance that outranks all others, apart from Button Lip, a grade almost beyond the aspiration of mortal humans.

And so into battle Steed and Peel go, as much against the dead hand of procedure as the bad guys. First thing they establish, once they’ve satisfied Cynthia that they’re kosher enough to gain access to the dead scientist’s safe, is that all the documents inside have been burnt to ashes, including information on Project 90, a hush-hush experiment now in mothballs.

 

A red security clearance card
Very important security clearance

 

So when another scientist (Sandor Elès) associated with Project 90 also gets a zapping from the creature (whose white wellington boots give us a clue as to what’s going on here), Steed and Peel know which line of enquiry to pursue – which is handy because there is no other.

It turns out the Project 90 team was working on “broadcast power”, which is either a charmingly retrospective idea (the brilliant Nikola Tesla worked on it in the 1890s) or remarkably forward looking (we’d now call it wireless charging), depending on your point of view. It should be fertile territory, but the bare-bones straightforwardness of what Williamson does with it – once we learn about Project 90 it’s obvious that somone associated with it is going to be behind the zapping – means there isn’t much of a plot to follow.

Enter Ray McAnally, as a scientist who was thrown off Project 90, and it’s just a question of joining the dots.

Why the greasepaint and wellies? It’s a way of insulating the creature from the charge he carries like some organic capacitor. And once Steed and Peel have twigged what’s afoot, the stage is set for The Avengers’ first big fight finale in rubber boots.

Along the way we’ve had some wacky sound effects, proving that it wasn’t just the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop who knew how to squawk and rumble, and a deliberate pastiche of Batman/Spider-Man incidental fight music by Laurie Johnson.

These spy-fi episodes are what made The Avengers the distinctive show it was. Yet half a century on they don’t have the pure grip that some of the more traditional spy-thriller episodes have. The hypnotic effect of remarkable futuristic tech wears off when the real future catches up.

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

***

Whether this episode is part of Series 6 or a continuation of Series 5 is moot. I’m going with the convention embraced by StudioCanal’s 2014 boxset and plumping for it being a late entrant to Series 5. It was originally conceived that way.

The imdb prefers to say we’re now in Series 6 (a short one of only eight episodes), while the Avengers Forever site leans towards calling this Series 5 (though it draws a distinction between two distinct production blocks – 5A and 5B).

There’s not much in it either way, but lumping this episode in with Series 5 means all the Emma Peel colour episodes are together, and since Series 5 is often referred to as THE classic series, that’s an advantage.

The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 21 – You Have Just Been Murdered

Diana Rig on a bridge

You Have Just Been Murdered is what this episode of The Avengers is called and it’s what’s written on a card left behind at the house of a man who has just been menaced with a gun by an intruder. The gunman returns later with a fake knife, “kills” his victim again, and leaves behind another note – “You have just been murdered… again!”

It turns out that Jarvis (Geoffrey Chater) is the third wealthy chap to have withdrawn a million pounds from the bank recently, and Steed and Peel are soon on a case which seems, at first, second and last glance, about keeping the very rich and their money happily together.

This has the makings of a classic episode – a weird premise, a set of men (naturally) who are rich (ditto) being menaced and Steed and Peel mixing in high society to get to the bottom (the top, in fact) of what is, let’s face it, a straightforward case of extortion with menaces, all dressed up.

So off the pair go to a party for the very well-to-do, Mrs Peel wearing a very, very feathery number, where they hope to meet Jarvis. But their hopes are dashed, since Jarvis is now dead for real, leading them to fix on Rathbone (Leslie French), who darted out of the room the moment it was announced that Jarvis had been murderered.

 

Simon Oates as Skelton
Skelton is one of the bad guys

 

Mrs Peel gives chase, back to Rathbone’s mansion and, having been denied entry by Rathbone’s gamekeeper, breaks in by climbing over a wall, only to be menaced by a German shepherd dog before again being apprehended by the gamekeeper.

For reasons which make even less sense than the oddly pristine state of Mrs Peel’s all-white outfit (clambering over a wall, hugging trees, dodging a vicious dog seem to have left no trace), she is soon granted an audience with the frightened Rathbone.

And on Peel and Steed sail towards an eventual meeting with master villain Needle (“No quips please… though I am a little hard to find”), played with unctuous smoothness by George Murcell. Needle, it turns out, has ambitions to be the most powerful person in the world. Mwahahaha.

The Avengers was the most lavish show on British TV at the time and this is one of the most polished and expensive-looking episodes. The James Bond vibe is noticeable throughout – camerawork, lighting, fights, even the editing (bearing in mind the constraints of TV budgets), not to mention Needle, a megalomaniac villain of the Bond sort and no mistaking.

The increase in production values does come with a bit of collateral damage. One of the joys of The Avengers, particularly in the earlier series when they were shot much more like a TV soap (multi cameras, as close to live as could be managed), was watching the brilliant Patrick Macnee busking through the fluffs and amping up his character when, for example, a camera banged into the set. There’s no need for that now that everything is so slick.

And so, for all its pluses, this episode’s many claims to classic status have to be weighed against the loss of that added bit of sparkle.

 

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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

 

 

 

***

Whether this episode is part of Series 6 or a continuation of Series 5 is moot. I’m going with the convention embraced by StudioCanal’s 2014 boxset and plumping for it being a late entrant to Series 5. It was originally conceived that way.

The imdb prefers to say we’re now in Series 6 (a short one of only eight episodes), while the Avengers Forever site leans towards calling this Series 5 (though it draws a distinction between two distinct production blocks – 5A and 5B).

There’s not much in it either way, but lumping this episode in with Series 5 means all the Emma Peel colour episodes are together, and since Series 5 is often referred to as THE classic series, that’s an advantage.

 

The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 20 – Dead Man’s Treasure

Valerie Van Ost

 

Dead Man’s Treasure takes that old staple of the country house weekend – the treasure hunt – and turns it into a reasonably thrilling car-chase adventure unsure quite how jokey it wants to be.

My hunch is that the thrills come courtesy of writer Michel Winder, the jokes from showrunner Brian Clemens, since camping it up is pretty much Clemens’s shtick.

But on to the plot, and things get going in a very familiar style as one of Steed’s agent colleagues dies in time-honoured “The treasure’s in the … aaaagh” style, having been pursued in his nippy Sunbeam Alpine by stylish dastards in an E Type Jaguar.

For car nuts, this is your episode. The Jag (Clemens’s own, so the incredibly useful The Avengers website informs me) and Sunbeam are soon joined by all manner of old rustbuckets, I mean classics – a Triumph TR4 and TR5, various MGs, a Merc 250 automatic and a Daimler limo – as Steed and Peel investigate the death of the agent, who has hidden something important somewhere on the dash towards his death.

The duo wind up undercover at a car rally/treasure hunt in the British countryside, organised by Lord Benstead (Arthur Lowe, soon of Dad’s Army fame), an eccentric car-loving aristocrat probably modelled on Lord Montagu of Beaulieu (who founded what is now the National Motor Museum in 1952). After Steed and the noble lord have indulged in some larky cross-purposes chat – is Steed talking about a car or Mrs Peel with his references to chassis and bodywork (groan)? – everyone is paired off for a dash across country, picking up clues as they go. Steed and Peel, obviously, are interested in one clue much more than the others.

 

Diana Rigg and Normal Bowler
Gunning the engine!

 

Mrs Peel winds up with Mike (Norman Bowler) as a running mate, a man with sex clearly on his mind, while Steed is paired off with Penny (Valerie Van Ost), a posh blonde dolly bird who, so the running joke goes, has had a LOT of fiancés.

We’ve also been introduced to what looks like the forerunner of the game Grand Theft Auto – Lord Benstead has a driving simulator back at the ranch, tended to by shady butler Bates (Ivor Dean, an actor who was the master of looking distinctly unimpressed).

The simulator will feature in the drive-or-die finale, but between then and now there is a lot of time for the production team to enjoy themselves. Speeded-up film, jaunty “swinging” music on the soundtrack and acres of back projection are prominent in the cross-country chase through one village after another, all chosen for their cuteness – we don’t actually see a half-timbered duck pond but we get close. At one point the cars hurtle through a village called Swingingdale. “Not very swinging,” is Mrs Peel’s verdict.

It’s zany, in short, and if zany is your thing – and cars – it’s a good episode. I thought the humour undercut a rather good story that might have been better if Clemens had taken his foot off the comedy pedal a touch. It’s called The Avengers, not The Monkees.

BTW: Van Ost, the Avengers Forever website tells us, was one of several actresses tried out as a replacement for Mrs Peel.

 

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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

 

 

Whether this episode is part of Series 6 or a continuation of Series 5 is moot. I’m going with the convention embraced by StudioCanal’s 2014 boxset and plumping for it being a late entrant to Series 5. It was originally conceived that way.

The imdb prefers to say we’re now in Series 6 (a short one of only eight episodes), while the Avengers Forever site leans towards calling this Series 5 (though it draws a distinction between two distinct production blocks – 5A and 5B).

There’s not much in it either way, but lumping this episode in with Series 5 means all the Emma Peel colour episodes are together, and since Series 5 is often referred to as THE classic series, that’s an advantage.

The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 19 – The £50,000 Breakfast

Pauline Delaney as Mrs Rhodes, with ventriloquist's dummy

 

The £50,000 Breakfast is a Cathy Gale-era episode (Death of a Great Dane) originally written by Roger Marshall and then reworked here by Brian Clemens into an Emma Peel-era one. And though it’s tempting to do a compare and contrast – as if to definitively nail the differences between the two eras – that can’t quite be done because Death of a Great Dane really marked the beginning of classic-era Avengers with its mad plots, people with odd names, extras thin (ish) on the ground and a general air of unreality all-pervading.

The same opener launches both – a man dies (here it’s a ventriloquist) and his stomach is found to contain a haul of diamonds. Steed and Peel are soon on the case, Mrs Peel off to talk to the dead man’s wife, Steed meeting the man’s employer, a mysterious financier magnate by name of Litoff, where Steed is quizzed about his bowler hat (a Benson, we learn) by Litoff’s butler (played here by effortlessly superior Cecil Parker).

Actually, Steed doesn’t meet Litoff – Steed’s not important enough – but Litoff’s right-hand woman Miss Pegram (the formidable Yolande Turner) and tries to pass himself off as a chancer willing to return diamonds he believes belonged originally to Litoff.

Do the diamonds have anything to do with the vast amount of wealth that’s been leaving British shores in recent months?

It’s notable that Pegram is a woman rather than the more usual right-hand man, since there’s obvious gender rebalancing going on in this episode vis a vis the original. More is evident when Mrs Peel heads to a shop selling old school ties, run by a modern young miss – it was Steed made this visit in the original, and a man ran the shop.

Another change. The wine-tasting in the original, an opportunity for fabulous one-upmanship, has been replaced by a very posh cigar-tasting, where Steed utters the line “Why the jungle music?” while nodding towards a group of calypso players, which is either a breathtaking bit of old-school racism (and incidentally a rare relaxing of The Avengers “no blacks” rule), or canny screenwriting – Steed playing to the prejudices of the man he wants to get close to, Litoff’s doctor Sir James Arnall (David Langton).

 

Mrs Peel in handcuffs and John Steed trying to undo them
Surely Steed isn’t struggling?

 

Langton is another bit of fine broad-brush character casting in an episode notable for them – Parker I’ve mentioned but Cardew Robinson (famous as Cardew “the Cad” to my parents’ generation) is also extremely good value as a vicar who specialises in burying dearly departed pets.

What stands out throughout is the dark tone and thriller-ish aspect, which were both hallmarks of the Gale era.

The big fight finish is also a tough affair, with Mrs Peel taking on right-hand-woman Miss Pegram in a brawl relying only a touch on speeded-up film to make things work (which always looks like the act of desperation it is).

There’s quite a lot of plot, a fair few people and no shortage of unnecessary detail in this episode – why a ventriloquist, for example? – and to get through it all the actors gabble their lines and scenes often don’t have quite enough air to breathe.

The original is better, poor picture quality, terrible sound and ungainly TV cameras notwithstanding. And though Parker is terribly good as an underling long reconciled to his discovery that his social superiors are, morally, scumbags, he’s outdone by the sly, supercilious Leslie French in the original. But then French was always known as a scene (if not show) stealer.

 

 

 

 

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The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 18 – Death’s Door

Spooky mystery figure

 

Closer co-operation between European countries is a good thing, right? That’s the idea driving Death’s Door, an episode with a mind-control theme and a jaunty spy-fi approach to what is essentially an espionage thriller plot.

But before the Europhobes get all steamed up, the co-operation, though never quite spelled out, appears to be more military than economic, more NATO than the EU (Common Market, EEC, EC – choose acronym according to vintage).

I’m going on the various badges and insignia on display at a conference where Sir Andrew Boyd (Clifford Evans) is about to crown his career by leading different European nations into some sort of unified treaty arrangement. He never quite gets there, instead turning tail and fleeing the scene just before his triumphal moment. Conference aborted.

Having mysteriously become psychic (or so he thinks), Sir Andrew apparently fears that he’s going to meet a grisly end at the conference. And when he actually dies at an attempt to reconvene, his deputy Lord Melford (the usually dastardly Allan Cuthbertson) steps in, a title obviously being de rigueur if you’re going to do anything important for your country.

Melford, too, is soon overcome by premonitions while sleeping. Cue a dream sequence in a style we could call Budget Dali – faceless men, giant objects, disembodied voices, portents of death and so on.

 

One Budget Dali dreamscape for Allan Cuthbertson

 

Steed suspects foul play rather than psychic forces. And when Melford recounts elements of his dream to Steed, one of them is the presence in the dream of an Eastern Bloc observer. Steed’s suspicions are reinforced.

Steed can see where this is going as clearly as anyone watching – mindfuckery is at work – and heads off to find out more about the man from behind the Iron Curtain and soon finds himself under fire.

This all leads to one of the most ludicrous but ingenious bits of impromptu counter-attack you’re ever likely to see, as a weaponless Steed (well, it’s not gentlemanly) defends himself against hostile bullets by doing something remarkable with a rock and a sharp stone. I won’t ruin it.

Later, Mrs Peel, too, gets a bit of rough-and-tumble. In a fight scene at her apartment clearly influenced by Adam West-era Batman, Laurie Johnson lays on the “biff” “pow” musical stabs while Mrs Peel does her stuff with an apprehended villain in a sequence too reliant on speeded-up film. Undercranking being one of the silent era’s more tiresome stand-bys.

The whole thing is a plot to wreck the conference, and thereby European unity, hatched behind the Iron Curtain (I’m sure Vladimir Putin would approve).

It’s a jolly enough jaunt, and the surreal excursions are a nice touch by director Sidney Hayers, but Philip Levene’s script (doubtless camped up a bit by producer Brian Clemens) feels as if it’s going through the motions.

However, this was the first episode of Diana Rigg’s final block to be shot (though Return of the Cybernauts was the first to be aired) after production recommenced, and Clemens has taken the opportunity to drop two annoying bits of show furniture – the two line teaser (Steed does this; Emma does that) and the “Mrs Peel we’re needed”.

Hooray.

 

 

 

 

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The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 17 – Return of the Cybernauts

A cybernaut at the door

When the British Film Institute celebrated 50 Years of Emma Peel in 2015, as well as interviewing the venerable Dame Diana Rigg – halfway through her run on Game of Thrones at the time – the BFI screened two episodes of Peel-era Avengers show.

Return of the Cybernauts was one (The House That Jack Built the other), chosen, presumably, because it had a big-name star in the shape of Peter Cushing in its cast, because it was something of a fan favourite and, I’m also guessing, because the production values were more polished than they had been hitherto.

Because the show had been Emmy nominated, the ABC network ordered more, of which this was the first, stumping up enough American cash to give the underpaid Diana Rigg more money (she had threatened to leave). That money is also clearly visible on screen, in the sets, the clothes, the lighting. Everything in Return of the Cybernauts is simply just a bit glossier.

That’s really evident right after the pre-credits sequence. After we’ve been re-introduced to the big, lumbering and seemingly invincible creature first encountered in The Cybernauts, now scything through a door and killing a man with a single blow, we meet impeccably dressed and groomed Steed and Peel having a chummy evening chez Paul Beresford (Cushing), a man who is as suave as he is flirtatious and whose attention to Mrs Peel is clearly unsettling Steed.

What the pair don’t know, but we do once Steed and Peel have left, is that debonair Beresford is the man behind the murderous cybernaut. We later learn he is the brother of the cybernaut’s inventor (Michael Gough who appered in the cybernaut’s original outing and who we see in archive footage) and that he’s out for revenge against Steed and Peel, who he blames for his brother’s death.

In a clear breach of security, Steed and Peel have told Beresford that the case they’re on involves missing scientists. And wouldn’t you know it but Beresford is behind that too. And he has plans to turn the scientists into killing machines expressly targeted at Steed and Peel.

 

Charles Tingwell, Peter Cushing, Fulton Mackay
Cybernaughties Charles Tingwell, Peter Cushing and Fulton Mackay

 

Why bother, when you already have a deadly cybernaut at your disposal? There is no real reason given. It’s just one of many holes in an episode that appears to have simply thrown plot elements together hurriedly and shaken them about.

OK, so it’s best not watched as a tight, self-contained story, but there are still joys to be had. Beyond its exquisite production design, these come mainly from the playing of the cast – Cushing’s almost balletic dash and his quick switch from charm personified to the epitome of evil; a returning Frederick Jaeger as his right hand man; Fulton Mackay (a world away from the upright prison warder Mr Mackay in Porridge) and Charles Tingwell (ham-handed good-natured cop to Margaret Rutherford’s Miss Marple) as two of the scientists being pressured by Beresford into doing his bidding; and Aimi MacDonald as a sex-mad secretary who tries to chat up the silent-and-deadly cybernaut. Smirk-inducing.

Jolly enough, though the cult status surrounding the cybernaut (clearly a cousin of Dr Who’s cybermen) baffles me – The New Avengers also had a cybernaut episode in 1976, and home-video distributor Network released a raved-over Blu-ray box set containing all three episodes as a package in time for Christmas 2019.

By the way, Cybernauts plural? There’s only one!

 

***

Whether this episode is part of Series 6 or a continuation of Series 5 is moot. I’m going with the convention embraced by StudioCanal’s 2014 boxset and plumping for it being a late entrant to Series 5. It was originally conceived that way.

The imdb prefers to say we’re now in Series 6 (a short one of only eight episodes), while the Avengers Forever site leans towards calling this Series 5 (though it draws a distinction between two distinct production blocks – 5A and 5B).

There’s not much in it either way, but lumping this episode in with Series 5 means all the Emma Peel colour episodes are together, and since Series 5 is often referred to as THE classic series, that’s an advantage.

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020