Silent Dust first aired on New Year’s Eve 1965 and from a 21st-century vantage point has all the makings of a very prescient episode of The Avengers. In what starts out as an obvious parody of a nature documentary, we first observe birds nesting in the trees, then watch as the birds start dropping off the branches.
The second eco-themed outing for Steed and Peel (see A Surfeit of H2O) owes a debt to Rachel Carson’s massively consequential 1962 book Silent Spring. Carson was the first to bring to public attention the doubts that many scientists had been harbouring about the effects of widely available insecticides such as DDT, and detailed the effects on wildlife, birds in particular, as well as the knock-on further up the food chain – cancer in humans.
All that said, though the title of Silent Dust nods to Carson, this is In many respects much more your standard Avengers thing than it at first appears. For all its eco-catastrophe plot, it’s class hierarchy that’s really on writer Roger Marshall’s agenda.
But first a bit of a lark, and not of the avian variety. A punt is coming towards us. Two people. One punting, the other reclining. We assume, because we are sexists, that Steed is upright and Peel recumbent. It’s the other way round – Steed is under the parasol and Mrs Peel is in sensible but stylishly cut punting gear and straw boater.
The duo are on the water looking for birds, or more specifically what’s causing them to die en masse, a search that soon takes them – via a gamekeeper called Mellors (a joke for Lady Chatterley’s Lover fans, another totemic book for the 1960s) – to William Franklyn’s silky local squire Omrod, who gives Mrs Peel the undressing up-and-down, which she responds to with a “Well I might if you play your cards right” look.
These male/female interchanges are the other thing that Marshall is concerned with in an episode packed with a dizzying number of characters – including an oily rag called Juggins, who swigs cider (we assume) from a jug to get the fires of nominative determinism roaring, a Dr Manfred (Charles Lloyd Pack), an eccentric expert in fertilisers, Clare (Isobel Black), daughter of an even more eccentric expert in fertilisers – we meet her painting a man in a hammock (another gender reversal) – a concerned rose grower (Norman Bird) Mrs Peel quizzes in a pub, another rose grower (Joanna Wake), whose land has been mysteriously poisoned. And on we go.
As if that weren’t enough, and perhaps with the bit in his teeth after the previous week’s episode chockful of dream sequences, director Roy Ward Baker gives us another one this time round too, of Steed in the Wild West having a bullet pulled from his leg by Mrs Peel as a male doctor (more gender switcheroo, and a foreshadowing of the male role Diana Rigg would play in Theatre of Blood, with Vincent Price).
What’s it all about? Well Franklyn is involved, as are toxic organophosphate fertilisers – and that really is prescient since it was as much as three decades later that speculative suspicions were being raised that these compounds were responsible for the Mad Cow (BSE/CJD) debacle, organophosphates being a similar class of drugs to Carson’s DDT (an organochlorine).
But what makes this episode fun and engaging is the picture it paints of the class structure in the English shires – poachers and gamekeepers, landowners and foxhunting. We even get a demo against blood sports, which allows Laurie Johnson to have another go at some of his incidental music, adding a horsey gallop rhythm element that’s very episode-specific. Now there’s a sign of a series on the up.
An inventive, enjoyable and fast-moving episode delving into the class system and notable for its exploration of gender roles – Mrs Peel even gets the lion’s share of the physical action. I mean lioness’s, obviously.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020