Charles Crichton directed one of the best Ealing comedies, 1951’s Lavender Hill Mob, and the highest grossing British comedy of the 1980s, 1988’s A Fish Called Wanda – both crime capers – so is just the man for an episode of The Avengers.
And the first shot of the first of five episodes he’d direct announces that “a director” is in the house – it’s a looming, upward-looking shot of a building at dusk, in near-silhouette, ominous as you like.
But Crichton wasn’t lauded for his visual style – though he had plenty. What got him the plaudits was his economy (famously praised by Wanda writer/star John Cleese), his ability to say in one shot what other directors would take three, or multiple edits, to achieve.
There’s plenty of that on display (or, more to the point, not on display) in Death at Bargain Prices, a Brian Clemens-scripted episode that moves briskly, has time for the odd visual gag, and combines good old-fashioned sneery villains with an up-to-date plot that’s Clemens all over.
The building in the opening shot is a department store, and soon we’re inside the deserted place, where a nervously sweating man has soon been felled by an assassin’s bullet.
He is an “agent” – I think that’s the first time that word has been used in The Avengers to describe exactly what Steed, Keel, Smith, King (Martin), Gale, Peel, and finally King (Tara) get up to – and Steed and Peel are soon investigating who killed him.
But first a bit of banter, which informs us that Mrs Peel is as at home in the realm of thermodynamics as she is in specialist pottery. In this respect she is exactly like Cathy Gale: whatever the subject, she really knows her stuff.
Which is a funny way of introducing the next bit of the plot, which inserts Peel into the department store where the dead man was found, as a floor girl bridling at the indignity of it all.
The store, right out of British TV sitcom Are You Being Served, is owned by harrumphing, dickie-bowed, wheelchair-using Horatio Kane (André Morell, one-time Dr Watson to Peter Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes), but effectively run by Wentworth (TP McKenna) who considers his boss a “foolish sick old man”.
Wentworth is of course up to no good, in what is a very British sort of plot turn – it’s never the bosses who are bad, it’s their immediate underlings. “If only the king knew there were such injustice in the land” etc etc.
This Richelieu/Louis XIV relationship turns out to be quite a new development. In the short time he has been there, Wentworth has got rid of lots of people who actually know how to do their job, and brought in another lot who patently don’t.
Shall I tell you what’s going on at the department store? No, that would ruin the dénouement, which is typical Clemens in its bravado and absurdity.
It’s all part of the enjoyment, and though we haven’t quite achieved Peak Avengers, Clemens has clearly now twigged that scoffing at aspects of the show can be part of the fun of it too.
Crichton, for his part, works little wonders – there’s a scene in which a villain is swinging back and forth on a rocking chair, and on one of the backswings is grabbed and throttled. Very economical; very Ealing. And there’s a brilliant piece of cross-cutting in the mad-genius-explains-it-all finale in which kidnapped scientist Professor Popplewell (Peter Howell) reveals that…
McKenna is a brilliantly oily baddie, as he was in his last Avengers outing (Trojan Horse, in series 3), and his crisp delivery adds to the real sense of pace.
But does Mrs Peel get into her leathers? Indeed she does, Clemens vaguely explaining away this unusual garb for a shopworker as part of some move to the sci-fi department, or something.
Look out for a very odd outfit worn by Diana Rigg and sending out quite conflicting signals – a waistcoat cut so low that it is serving up her breasts, teamed with a demure white top beneath that goes right up to her neck.
And Steed uses his brolly as a knockout weapon in the inevitable big fight finish, the conversion of his English gent’s outfit into something more multifunctional now nearly complete.
© Steve Morrissey 2019