Two weeks after a coup in the Central African Republic, one day after a forcible change of regime in Nigeria, Small Game for Big Hunters had something of the topical about it – and the tropical – when it first went out in mid January 1966.
Prime Minister Harold Macmillan made his Wind of Change speech in 1960 after a monthlong tour of the African colonies. It still had enormous currency two prime ministers down the road when this episode aired. In fact you’ll hear the phrase used at least once, possibly twice.
But we’re not in Africa. Instead, TV budgets being what we are, we’re in the Home Counties just outside London, where a station doing research on rubber trees is staffed entirely by ex-colonial chaps and headed by Colonel Rawlings, a composite of every bluff, walrus-y Empire cliché you’ve ever seen, pushed over the line into liverish absurdity by the excellent Bill Fraser.
Steed is there to investigate an odd case of a comatose white man, who we met before the onscreen credits hacking through the undergrowth with a machete, to the sound of African drums and ribbiting frogs, only to be struck down by an arrow by a milepost startlingly (is the intention) informing us that we’re not in the “dark continent” but 23 miles from London.
This episode splits right down the middle. In one setting we have Mrs Peel keeping an eye on the comatose man, and mediating between harrumphing man of science Dr Gibson (AJ Brown) and eccentric Professor Swain (Liam Redmond), who waves various African artefacts about hoping to work powerful ju-ju. In the other is Steed, at the research station (and ex-serviceman’s club) with the men in safari suits, where a pastiche of a “the heat, the flies, the incessant drumming” drama is playing out. In fact at one point Fraser gets to utter the line “the natives are restless tonight,” in his climate-controlled simulacrum of a remote African outpost.
If you can take it as it’s intended – as a fond satire on the cultural representation of the Empire – it’s all a lot of fun, and there’s even the odd “native” in “war paint” to add a bit of authenticity. (Razafi, the “native” is played by Paul Danquah, who famously seduced and impregnated Rita Tushingham in A Taste of Honey by deft deployment of the words “I dreamed about you last night – fell out of bed twice”, a line later repurposed by The Smiths).
Expressions are by and large kept poker-straight. Diana Rigg struggles here, almost breaking out into giggles every time Mrs Peel has a conversation with the batty prof. That aside, Rigg obviously senses that she’s got the boring branch of this bifurcated tale and it’s interesting to watch her turning up the mystery and wattage of her performance. How she’s doing this is beyond me. She was still doing it 50 years later in Game of Thrones. Remarkable.
Is the episode any good? Yes, it’s proper vintage era Avengers – bonkers, looking backwards as it goes forwards, gently mocking rather than hating, inclusive, fun, progressive, silly and yet with a serious point about giving up the fantasies of a lost imperial age.
All of which can be summed up as Steed and Peel epilogue their way out of the episode in this week’s exit vehicle – a canoe.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020