Feminist or not feminist? That’s the question that hovers over the whole of How to Succeed… at Murder, a Brian Clemens script for The Avengers that first aired in March 1966.
Secretaries are what it’s all about, trusted right-hand women of busy gammon-faced male business titans, who are all dying in quick succession. Leaving the running of their companies in the hands of women formerly trusted with little more than jotting down and transcribing shorthand… because these Girl Fridays are the only people who understand the fiendishly complicated systems these men have devised.
Is this a good thing (see how capable a woman can be!)? Or the opposite (things are so desperate that a woman is now in charge!)? Clemens keeps us guessing, leading us this way and that with a lively script that’s full of his trademark casual plotting and eccentric characters.
After an intro that sees men in suits meeting their makers sooner than anticipated – the first of them dying after his secretary has pulled out a comedy detonator and pressed the plunger, having first covered her typewriter and donned a tin hat – Steed and Peel arrive and are soon chasing clues.
Which takes us to proper eccentric number one, JJ Hooter (a very fruity Christopher Benjamin), a parfumier Peel buttonholes, hoping he can help her track down a scent from the murder scene. From the name alone we know what sort of character Hooter is. But in case we hadn’t twigged, he keeps his nose sheathed in what looks like a bandage-y condom to prevent his super-sensitive olfactory system from becoming overwhelmed by everyday niffs.
Also for those who haven’t twigged, shortly after the visit to the parfumier Steed explains to Peel the danger of important men leaving their businesses in the hands of women.
Are we applauding or hissing here? It isn’t quite clear, but as the action shifts towards a conspiratorial cabal of women (Sarah Lawson and Angela Browne among them) at a keep-fit class, radical feminism is obviously in Clemens’s viewfinder. So radical is this group’s politics that it would even be tempting to suggest that Clemens has read Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto (Solanas always denied that SCUM stood for the Society for Cutting Up Men) except it wouldn’t be published until the following year.
Jerome Willis as Joshua Rudge, an external accountant with connections to all the dead men, plays a go-between role in a story that takes a decidedly bizarre turn once he works out who is behind the nefarious goings-on – no spoilers, but let’s just say that the idea of women seizing control isn’t wholeheartedly embraced.
Direction is by Don Leaver, who has a real eye for the boxier TV format of the 1960s and is a keen user of the close-up and Laurie Johnson’s incidental music seems to be anticipating Brian Eno’s ambient experiments of a few years.
It’s all quite progressive, in other words, if you choose to see it that way. However, Diana Rigg in tight gym gear undercover at a secretaries’ keep-fit class? Perhaps not so much.
A fascinating episode which, regardless of its ultimate social/political destination, at least gives us a rare tour of the territory en route.
I am an Amazon affiliate. Clicking on the link earns me a (vanishingly small) commission
© Steve Morrissey 2020