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