Time magazine’s Swinging London issue appeared in April 1966 and made “official” what had been obvious for some time – something was going on in the UK capital.
To find out what that looked like at the time, you could do worse than examine Too Many Christmas Trees, the Christmas Day episode of The Avengers from 1965, a very swinging, very British mix of the modern and the antique.
Very mind-control-oriented too, the whole thing kicking off with a kitsch dream sequence – Steed in silk pyjamas and bowler hat wandering through a land of fake snow and cutout Christmas trees towards a wrapped Christmas gift with his name on it. A hideous Santa beckons. A dead man is revealed, while Santa ho-ho-ho’s menacingly in the background.
Back in the world of waking reality, Steed is far from his normal jocular self when Mrs Peel arrives, outfitted in nicely tailored tweed. It turns out the man who was dead in the dream has been found dead in reality too. And is suspected of having leaked secrets. In a cutaway to an overhead shot of four men seated around a table, a photograph of the dead man is replaced by a new photo… of Steed.
Menacing enough, but then it’s explained that the dead man had had a “brainstorm”, a gigantic breakdown which caused his brain to “explode”.
Is Steed next up for an exploding brain?
Off he and Mrs Peel head (the right word?) – in an open-topped car in mid-winter! – for one of those country weekends at a posh house, the sort of venue beloved by Agatha Christie, where an old-school Christmas is to be celebrated – all games and dressing up rather than television and catching up on the zzzz’s.
Here the dastardly plot comes more obviously into focus for us as things become less clear for Steed. Of course he’s being got at, and is the target of a gigantic plan to unhinge him, winkle secrets from his unconscious mind, and neutralise both him and, by extension, the British spying network.
In the meantime we meet Brandon Storey (Mervyn Johns), the host of the holiday festivities, Dr Felix Teasel (Edwin Richfield), a sulphurous psychoanalyst obviously up to no good, and Janice Crane (Jeannette Sterke), an attractive woman Steed believes he met in his dreams before meeting her in the flesh – more evidence of an imminent crack-up. Perhaps most significantly are fellow guests Martin Trasker (Alex Scott) and Jeremy Wade (Barry Warren), the Pushmepullyou of this mind-control operation with its big guns aimed at Steed.
Dream sequences feature heavily in this episode, and it’s a real plus that the vastly experienced Roy Ward Baker is on hand as director – he’d worked with Hitchcock and directed the great 1958 Titanic disaster movie A Night to Remember – to inject a bit of fantasy and menace.
There’s also a fair bit of dressing up, in particular for a fancy-dress party held at the big house. And since the house’s owner is a Dickens fanatic, the theme of the party is a given, allowing Steed the opportunity to get into a frock coat, while Mrs Peel dresses up as Oliver Twist, in tight trousers that display Oliver’s infamous camel toe.
In many ways it is a perfect Christmas episode, decked out with all the trimmings, with an overlay of the fabulous and the fantastical, though as in Scooby Doo there’s a very rational reason for all the otherworldly goings-on.
High points include all the dream sequences – the one in Napoleonic France is particularly enjoyable – the house itself, which is stuffed with Victoriana enough to justify my Swinging assertions all on its own, and a fight sequence in a hall of mirrors (more Orson Welles than Charles Dickens) which gives Mrs Peel a dynamic finale.
Combining the usual plot trope of the lability of the human mind with The Avengers‘ fascination with posh, eccentric and devious character types, it also gives the temperaments of Mrs Peel and John Steed – so often partners in urbanity – a chance to diverge. He’s nervous as hell throughout; she’s cool as they come. It is probably one of the best episodes of the entire run.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020