The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 21 – A Touch of Brimstone

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And so we come to A Touch of Brimstone, an episode that didn’t make it onto US TV screens in 1966, thanks to the bondage gear that Mrs Peel eventually gets into in the final scene.

How we get there is pretty interesting too. The whole thing opens very cinematically with a lovely shot of the back of an armchair advancing towards the camera. It’s being pushed by Peter Wyngarde, no sign of the luxuriant moustache that made him a household name in Department S and its Wyngarde-focused spin-off Jason King, though he is sporting fancy shirt cuffs and links, a foreshadowing of King’s sartorial style.

Wyngarde’s character, John Cleverly Cartney, is at some press conference where an East European somebody is making a warm speech about increasing friendship between his country and the UK. He lights a cigar. It explodes in his face.

“Very childish, but very damaging,” is how Steed describes it later to Mrs Peel. It being the latest in a line of diplomatically unfortunate practical jokes of a similar tenor.

And, once a theatre seat has given way beneath a visiting oil sheikh, thus losing the UK a contract worth a lot of money, Steed and Peel are sent in to investigate pdq.

Suspecting that Cartney is somehow involved, Mrs Peel arrives at his house posing as a high-end charity fundraiser seeking a donation. Wyngarde plays Cartney in characteristic man’s-man, ladies-man, man-about-town style – as a lecher, in other words – who makes a move on Mrs Peel the second she’s over his threshold.

As further hints that Cartney is behind the mischief, we meet Darcy (Colin Jeavons, brilliantly shifty), a man Cartney has in his pocket, and Sara (Carol Cleveland, later of Monty Python fame), a bosomy bird and one of Cartney’s treated-mean-and-kept-keen conquests.

Cartney, it turns out, runs something called the Hellfire Club, an association whose members all pledge to undertake challenges, when they’re not “wenching” and wining, all dressed in 18th-century garb.

Peter Wyngarde (right) in mask and hood
Ready to steal the entire episode: Peter Wyngarde (right)

The previous week, in The Danger Makers, it was Mrs Peel who infiltrated a secret society by going through its initiation ceremony. This week it’s Steed, at the Hellfire Club, where he drains a vast amount of booze in short order and then delights the assembled members by immediately asking for more. He’s most definitely in! But first, a slightly more dangerous test…

And so we head towards the finale, the last third of the episode being taken up with the Hellfire Club’s big night of the year, The Night of Sin. Which vaguely explains Mrs Peel ending up snake-draped and dressed in leather boots, basque and a leather choker studded with nails. “Uncommon handsome” is how Steed describes “The Queen of Sin”, getting into the period lingo. And so she is.

For all the sexy gear, it’s not that exciting an episode. There is too much emphasis on the period clothes and the dubious thrill of eavesdropping on a secret society comprising immature rich layabouts.

However, there is Wyngarde, who steals the episode. His flamboyant style of acting, flirting with the camera in a way that’s reminiscent of Peter O’Toole or Alan Rickman, is the reason why he became, for a while, one of TV’s biggest stars. The Marvel supervillain Jason Wyngarde is based on him. And Mike Myers has also claimed that he based Austin Powers on Wyngarde in his late 60s pomp. Yeh, maybe.

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

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