Esprit De Corps is a mad and twisty Avengers episode, one of many dealing with the subject of indoctrination, the focus here being an army unit that’s going to launch a coup d’etat and put the “rightful” heir back on the throne.
Mad enough, but there’s a fruitloop turn to come which I won’t spoil. Instead let me tell you that a 22-year-old John Thaw plays a key role, as an army captain (Thaw generally did play older than he was – at 33 he was seen-it-all cop Jack Regan in The Sweeney; he was only 45 when he played the retirement-dodging star of Inspector Morse). Thaw’s Captain Trench is being hoodwinked by the unhinged Brigadier General Sir Ian Stuart-Bollinger (Duncan Macrae) – Trench has no idea that the “exercises” he’s preparing his men for are in fact the coup that’s going to unseat the House of Windsor.
Steed and Gale get involved after a corporal is “accidentally” killed, in circumstances that look very far from accidental, and we meet the dapper chap in a new-fangled launderette doing his weekly wash. Though this is about as likely as a coup against the British monarchy being carried out by a handful of soldiers, it’s amusing enough, as is the sight of Steed dressed in what looks halfway to being a duffel coat.
To find out what’s going on, Steed sends Mrs Gale in to cosy up to Captain Trench, and on hearing that she’s going yet again to be the sweet stuff in a honey she trap pulls quite a face. Quite the feminist.
There’s more potential for allegations of sexism when Trench and Gale meet for the first time at a course he teaches in unarmed combat and he gives her the full body up and down – slow enough that we see it; fast enough that we believe it. It’s these tiny things that made Thaw so good.
I forgot to mention Roy Kinnear, who is the Roy Kinnear of fond memory, all facial tics and nervous sweats as a hapless roly-poly soldier struggling to do anything well. Which brings us to Duncan Macrae as the mad brigadier general, a man with a skull of a face and the ability to conjure the sense that inbreeding is what’s behind his insane scheme, which Gale and Steed (now posing as a Major, his old rank in the army) are of course going to thwart. No more needs to be said about the plot, except that it does, as earlier suggested, throw in a turn so random that you have to applaud.
Overall, there are two types of Avengers episodes – the early ones set in something vaguely approximating the real world (pubs often feature) and the later ones, which became increasingly surreal. This belongs firmly in the latter camp, though it’s helmed by two old hands – deft director Don Leaver, on great form here, and writer Eric Paice, whose scripts tend nicely toward the conspiratorial.
An excellently entertaining episode, thanks to its brilliant cast, polished writer and talented director. Take a bow all.
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© Steve Morrissey 2019