For a long time it was thought that only a couple of episodes from series one of The Avengers had survived. And then Tunnel of Fear turned up in a “private film collection”, as the press release guardedly puts it, swelling the number of complete episodes from two to a mighty three out of a possible 26.
There’s about a third of the very first episode, Hot Snow, too – reviewed here. We might not have the full run of the season but with Tunnel of Fear we now have enough to get a sketchy impression of the direction of the show. Hot Snow in first position establishing David Keel (Ian Hendry) as a doctor “avenging” his wife’s death; Girl on the Trapeze, six episodes in, demonstrating the importance of Carol Wilson (Ingrid Hafner) as Keel’s smart and dynamic right hand woman; The Frighteners at episode 15 reveals the extent of the shadowy John Steed’s (Patrick Macnee) connection to a mysterious organisation; and then this, in the number 20 slot.
What’s most obvious on watching Tunnel of Fear is that Patrick Macnee has clearly taken over from Ian Hendry as the star of the show. The episode starts in Dr Keel’s surgery, where an injured escaped criminal bursts in seeking sanctuary, but doesn’t quite get onto its hind quarters until John Steed arrives, and takes over from Keel as the driving force behind everything that follows. It makes sense – Keel is a doctor, an amateur who is meant to be out of his depth when it comes to the underworld, which is where much of series one’s focus lay.
The action moves from the capital to the coastal town of Southend, where the fugitive has connections to a circus. By sheer chance Steed is waist deep in a case centring on Southend, involving vital defence information leaking out of the country. Wouldn’t it be a coincidence if the escaped man and the espionage were connected in some way?
The show shifts a gear at the seaside – the circus, dancing girls, a hypnotist, Steed suddenly posing as a carnival barker, the criminal reunited with his girl (in her scanties) and his dear old mum, and let’s not forget the leak of the defence information, though the screenplay almost does. Enter a nebulous Mr Big to give the spying aspect of the story some heft.
It’s a busy plot and a fast moving one, written by John Kruse in his only Avengers gig (he also wrote the great film The Hell Drivers), fluently directed by Guy Verney (also in his only Avengers gig), with casting that’s on the nose. Anthony Bate as Harry, the escaped con, all glottal stops and “I woz framed” dialogue from an actor who’d later become a go-to for casting directors looking for silky upper-class types with duplicitous motives (he’s one of so many great performances in the TV version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy); Doris Rogers as Harry’s mum, barrowloads of Cockney “luv a duck, me old china” charm; and Miranda Connell as Harry’s girl Claire, a young woman who knows how to handle herself and a man.
John Steed’s wandering hands – he’s all over one of the dancing girls – look inappropriate to modern eyes, but what also can’t be missed is the fact that Steed is all over the episode as the dominant character. Keel, the “avenger” after whom the show is named, cannot compete. Partly that’s because of the show’s premise – Steed is the pro in this partnership – and partly that’s because the actors are working in different registers, Hendry more naturalistic, Macnee playing to the back of the room. If Hendry is walking down the street, Macnee is promenading down the boulevard. On scratchy old 405 lines TV with boomy sound, one of these styles work better than the other, and it was probably to huge sighs of relief all round that Hendry decided to go off and work in the movies when this season ended. And wasn’t he great in Get Carter?
As to the quality of the picture in this restoration, it’s no better or worse than the other complete season one episodes – woolly telecine footage cleaned up as well as can be done. Beneath the fog it’s clear that director Verney’s framing and lighting are superb.
The Avengers – Get the entire box set at Amazon (minus Tunnel of Fear, until someone gets their act together)
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© Steve Morrissey 2021