For the first episode of 1964, broadcast on 4 January, the day that Auburn University in Alabama accepted Harold A Franklin as its first black student (accompanied by three US marshals and 100 state police to keep the mob at bay), John Steed and Mrs Gale are on the case of a missing albino elephant in an episode unsurprisingly titled The White Elephant.
The beast has been stolen from a private zoo which supplies mainstream zoos, run by upper-class English chap Noah Marshall (Godfrey Quigley) – modelled on John Aspinall (gambler, zoo-owner, anti-Semite and the man who allegedly facilitated murderer Lord Lucan’s escape from the UK).
Why this is of interest to more than the local police is because it’s not the first time this has happened, and soon Mrs Gale is undercover at the zoo, posing as a hunter (which is what her character once was, so no real stretch there) where brisk, efficient Judy Parfitt (in her second Avengers outing) is the right hand woman to the boss at Noah’s Ark.
John Lucarotti’s script is elegant, subtle and has some depth – and the sight of Steed and Gale doing yoga at home also brings a fresh 1960s new age-y feel which we’d more associate with the Mrs Peel era. In many respects, though, Lucarotti’s focus is on class, in an episode full of characters bridling against being stuck with a person of inferior status, as Parfitt’s Brenda Paterson is when she’s forced to consort with gopher Conniston (Scott Forbes). And when we finally meet Lawrence (another great baddie turn by Edwin Richfield), the mastermind behind the animal disappearances, he too is clearly put out by having to hobnob with gun craftsman Fitch (Bruno Barnabe) and oily rag Joseph (a quietly excellent Toke Townley).
Most fascinating, perhaps, is Lucarotti’s decision to give a big “I’ve had enough” kind of speech to Mrs Gale towards the end of the episode, when she lays into Steed in no uncertain terms, accusing him of being indolent, of winging every assignment on charisma and, essentially, not doing enough work. It’s a speech aimed not just at Steed but at the whole old boy network, we suspect, and it’s even more interesting because filming would start on Goldfinger, in which Blackman played Pussy Galore, in about five/six weeks, and everyone involved must have known at this point that Blackman was leaving. This is the speech that delivers the motivation when she announces her departure all of a sudden in eight episodes’s time.
But back to the matter at hand, and it’s no spoiler to say that the whole thing is about ivory smuggling. In fact it barely matters what it’s about, because the plot details of this episode aren’t really that fascinating. The class focus to one side, the really noteworthy thing is how much money has been spent on the production – the zoo is full of animals, and at times they make so much noise that the human action is eclipsed. The big fight finale, for instance, is bedlam.
Director Laurence Bourne’s camerawork, too, looks like a lot of thought and choreography has been lavished on it. It’s agile and particularly quick to respond in the sequence where Steed and Gale are being shot at.
Recorded, as it happens, on the day JFK was assassinated, for all its exotic feathered and furry friends, impressive spend and psychologically and socially astute script, this is just an OK episode rather than an actually good one. And, most disappointingly, no pachyderms ever make it onto the screen. Which you could call the elephant in the room, if you like a weak gag.
© Steve Morrissey 2019