The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 16 – Who’s Who???

Lola and Emma in a mind-swap machine

The Nicolas Cage/John Travolta film Face/Off might perhaps have borrowed its central idea from Who’s Who???, a crackingly conceived episode of The Avengers built around the idea of a mind-swap between Steed and the dastardly Basil (Freddie Jones).

There’s a bit plot business before we get to the big central idea – we are introduced to Basil and sidekick Lola (Patricia Haines) deliberately killing “one of our very best agents”, in the words of the original and as-yet-unaltered John Steed, expressly with the intention of flushing Steed and Peel out into the open to steal their identities.

But nothing really held my interest until what looked like an old radar console from a Second World War movie was rolled out and the mind-swap began. Would the valves be up to it? Swap achieved, the bogus Steed is soon back at base, where he is immediately arousing Mrs Peel’s suspicions by addressing her as “Emma”. Not his style.

Who are these guys – Basil and Lola, and the boffin Krelmar (Arnold Diamond) who’s teched all this together? They seem to be some kind of residue of the Nazi era, a gang out to bust the Flower Network of spies, whose agents all have floral names – Poppy, Bluebell, Pansy, Daffodil (played by this episode’s writer, Philip Levene) – by infiltrating it.

So far, so dastardly. Things become slightly more complicated when Lola and Mrs Peel mind-swap and, with wit and originality, the show tries to keep viewers up to speed on who’s who with faux public information announcements after each advertising break. The villains look like this (Steed and Peel) and the good guys look like this (Basil and Lola) kind of thing.

John Steed with a gun
Will the real John Steed please stand up!



The fact that there is something of a relationship between Basil and Lola allows Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg to be a lot fruitier than they normally would – doing the kissing thing, dancing together (in “yeh, baby” Austin Powers fashion) and so on. It’s Haines and Jones who actually embrace the mind-swap idea fully. Neither Rigg nor Macnee seem entirely committed to playing different characters, a bit of gum-chewing (Rigg) and cigar-chomping (Macnee) and they’re about done.

People who insist that TV-land should bear some relationship to the actual world we live in will hate the car chase, which zips from a central London mews location to the countryside and back to suburbia in no time at all.

More importantly, in terms of consistency, neither writer Levene, the actors nor director John Llewellyn Moxey seem to have worked out whether the transfer of “psyche” (as it’s called) involves all aspects of the personality, or whether some of it remains in the body, or whether that’s muscle-memory or some other residual effect.

It’s not really Face/Off in utero, in other words, and for all its ingenious plotting, and performances from Jones and Haines that really zing, it doesn’t quite work.

Apparently (thanks to theavengers.tv for this info), necessity was the mother of this episode. Macnee was off on holiday and Rigg was halfway out of the series – hence the need for a couple of actors who could do a good chunk of the dramatic heavy lifting.



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 5, Episode 15 – The Joker

Ronald Lacey and Diana Rigg

 

The creeping feeling that The Avengers is running out of puff is further reinforced by The Joker, a rewrite of the Cathy Gale-era episode Don’t Look Behind You. Except in this case it’s Emma Peel who is stalked by an admirer with a deadly agenda.

It was a very good episode first time round and works its magic this time too. But before Mrs Peel can be sent off for a weekend at the house of bridge-playing Sir Cavalier Rusticana – Steed jokes that it sounds like an opera (hardly surprising since the joke name is modelled on the opera Cavalleria Rusticana) – first we see a mystery hand cutting a picture of Mrs Peel from a magazine called Better Bridge with Mathematics. And then cutting the picture into pieces – no fiendish cackle required.

Mrs Peel as a bridge whizz? Makes a lot of sense, and this facet of her personality, along with Steed’s sprained leg after falling down the stairs, allows writer Brian Clemens to devote the whole episode to her, leaving John Steed to do little more than sweep up at the end.

What was fascinating about Don’t Look Behind You was the array of oddball characters it wheeled out to confound Mrs Gale and entertain us. They’re all present in The Joker too, in the same order. And after Mrs Peel has driven down to the remote Exmoor mansion for a bridge-playing weekend, she first meets the owner’s niece (Sally Nesbitt), a dippy actress. Now merely posh rather than a proto-hippie chick, Ola is still all over the place, her mind darting hither and yon as she guides a politely bewildered Emma to her room, where Emma dresses for dinner (while being observed from a spyhole).

 

A paranoid Mrs Peel is increasingly spooked

 

Just as we’re wondering if Ola might be the mystery picture desecrator, she makes her excuses and leaves the house, heading off into the village to visit a “friend”. At which point weirdo number two turns up (Ronald Lacey), a property mogul scouting for new acquisitions whose car just happens to have run out of fuel outside the house. He claims to know Mrs Peel but says she won’t recognise him on account of his plastic surgery.

In his dark shades and with that unusual backstory, is this Strange Young Man (as the imdb calls him) the mystery hand? Since Lacey was often called on to play extremely creepy characters (you might remember him as the Nazi Toht in Invaders of the Lost Ark), director Sidney Hayers has no trouble getting a menacing character into the frame.

But Lacey, too, is soon eclipsed, replaced as potential mutilator-in-chief by Peter Jeffrey as Max, an old flame – he and Mrs Peel met in Berlin – still carrying a torch.

So we’ve got three potential stalkers, two red herrings and one big old house. As the production design grows increasingly paranoid – giant playing cards, a scratchy old German song (Mein Liebling, Mein Rose by Whispering Carl Schmidt) being played again and again, everything takes a rather Lewis Carroll turn and Emma is ends up eventually running around a house filled with voices coming from every direction. However, Steed has finally bestirred himself and is hobbling towards the fog-shrouded house. To the rescue!

This is top-notch 1960s TV. The production and sound design are excellent, the screenplay weird yet taut, the casting and playing perfect, the direction cinematic and economical and Laurie Johnson makes a significant contribution with the German song, which he wrote.

Even so, the Cathy Gale original has the edge. Perhaps those big old clunky TV cameras with their Dalek-like glide are better at connoting paranoia. Or perhaps it’s just that black and white suits the Dark Old House genre better.

 

 

 

 

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