What the Butler Saw is an episode about what the butler did rather than saw, though it does kick off with John Le Mesurier – tongue doing at least half of his acting as usual – handing his employer a gun and looking on as a minion asking for too large a cut of an ill-gotten gain is murdered.
What the butler actually saw, in the soft-porn flickerbook images of the Victorian Mutoscope machines, was his mistress disrobing. Appropriately, the reference points in this episode are Victorian – the 1949 Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets (set in Victorian times) in particular.
Which is why Steed, aiming to find out which of a number of potential leakers is spilling state secrets to the enemy, dresses up, Alec Guinness-style, in one disguise after another in an attempt to flush out the mole. All the suspects are men, all have butlers.
Screenwriter Brian Clemens indulges his love of the florid eccentric in a series of encounters between Steed (dressed in full beard and naval uniform) and Admiral Willows (Humphrey Lestoq); Steed (now as an army man) and Brigadier Crawford; Steed (in RAF outfit and panto moustache) and Group Captain Miles (Denis Quilley).
The first two present no real challenge, but the skirt-chasing Miles is hard to get at, Steed instead having to make do with Squadron Leader Hogg (Leon Sinden), Miles’s number two, whose moustache rivals Steed’s for ridiculousness. Cue an amusing scene of the two men exchanging acronym-thick banter at tally-ho volume.
Along the way we meet butlers one (Le Mesurier), two (Norman Scace) and three (Thorley Walters, once a fine Watson to Christopher Lee’s Sherlock Holmes).
Where’s Mrs Peel? Not much in evidence, initially, though she’s eventually brought in to the story to break through to the unreachable Group Captain, Steed quite explicitly instructing her to use all her wiles to reach Miles since the fate of the nation is at stake. Diana Rigg loads up her voice with irony as she accepts what is basically a #MeToo assignment.
And while Peel sets off to act as the honey in the trap, Steed heads for the Brighter More Beautiful Butling school, where gentlemen’s gentlemen learn how to polish shoes, iron shirts and all the rest of it.
No one quite knew where to position the armed services in the 1960s. The Second World War was a vivid if infrequently mentioned event, and a grateful culture was not about to dismiss its warriors out of hand, even though the hierarchies of the armed services were out of keeping with more meritocratic times. Gentle ribbing rather than outright ridicule is the approach Clemens takes, and he applies the same comedic brush in his depiction of the school for butlers, again, a reminder of uncool class-based structures.
Mrs Peel, meanwhile, is dealing with the sort of seduction scene that plays all the clichés – champagne, etchings, log fires, low lights – for laughs, even though what Miles is doing as he pursues his quarry amounts to harassment on an almost Weinsteinian scale.
The budgets are noticeably bigger in this episode – the producers have even sprung for a helicopter – and Bill Bain’s direction is lavishly cinematic. As Steed and Peel exit in the chopper, “going up” are the last words we hear. It’s a hopeful exit line by Clemens, who was perhaps aware at some level that his show (and it really was his show by now) has peaked.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020