“Steed puts out a light; Emma takes fright” runs the subhead to The Fear Merchants, second episode of the fifth series of The Avengers, and its belly-flop rhythm makes it apparent that this novelty is already not a good idea.
But on with the episode, which starts well with a man who stands alone inside an empty football stadium, frightened to the point of insanity though there is nothing there to terrify him.
He’s not the first, either, apparently. In fact he’s the latest in a line of top British ceramics experts driven to the edge of reason by nothing in particular – a mouse in the case of Fox (Bernard Horsfall), who gives Steed a lead to the top-end ceramics outfit he used to work for.
What’s going on? And is an organisation called the Business Efficiency Bureau (BEB) involved? Well it’s headed by a man called Pemberton, played by the silken Patrick Cargill, a character who wears sunglasses indoors. And Pemberton is ably assisted by the Rosa Klebb-like Dr Voss (Annette Carell, a specialist at these sort of roles)… so there’s a good chance.
Also working at the BEB is Gilbert (played by Garfield Morgan, later of The Sweeney), a psychologist (dodgy) who wears those nicotine-tinted shades beloved, in screen dramas, of child murderers, war criminals and sexual deviants.
A large flashing sign bearing the word “villain” would be more subtle but at least we know where we are.
Also in the mix is Raven (Brian Wilde, later of Porridge), a go-getting industrialist of Elon Musk stripe who has called in the BEB to help him streamline the industry (put it entirely under his control, in other words) using Gilbert’s psychological profiling to get the measure of his rivals and scare them off (or to death).
It’s a welcome return of an Avengers standby subject – shaky British manufacturing struggling to come to terms with open markets after the loss of its empire – given a paranoid Brian Clemens update (the excellent script is by Philip Levene, though Clemens’s tweaks are evident – Mrs Peel’s take-up of avant-garde sculpture looks like one of his).
It’s a very techy episode – gadgets abound, with sliding doors, lie detectors and a box that prefigures a 3D printer featuring prominently.
Production values are high, in other words, with the whole thing much more in keeping with glossy shows from later in the decade (The Prisoner, Randall and Hopkirk, The Champions). Cinematography (by Wilkie Cooper and Alan Hume) is dynamic, while the overall direction (by Gordon Flemyng) aims for the visual drama of cinema, with an increased use of Laurie Johnson’s incidental music particularly effective.
This all culminates in a tense finale, where Steed (or Patrick Macnee’s body double, to be more accurate) is menaced by a digger in a quarry.
A word about German-born Annette Carell, who is particularly effective as a sadistic henchperson. She’d be dead of a barbiturates overdoes only months after making this episode and I suspect that her menacing presence, as well as the super-suave Cargill, is what drives Diana Rigg’s particularly perky, snarky, bright and blasé performance this time out.
Cargill and Carell as a Blofeld/Oddjob combo – what might have been.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020
5 thoughts on “The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 2 – The Fear Merchants”
Glad you mentioned Dr. Voss, one of my favorite villains. And yes, shecis menacing. I wonder what she’s thinking as she prepares to draw a gun on Mrs. Peel!
But your criticism of this episode is accurate & this particular scene illustrates why. This is someone Mrs. Peel could’ve flattened w. ease. And how did Dr. Voss get her from the apartment to her office? The Mrs. Peel we know could have had Dr. Voss on the floor telling everything she & Steed needed to know.
Perhaps I’m missing something & this happens in other episodes, but to this fan, it’s a big gap.
Hi John, Thanks for the comment. Yes, Voss is a great villain. A female henchman. Fairly unusual but a breath of fresh air, and Annette Carell does quite a lot with very little. As to the illogicalities you mention, that’s a constant problem with the series. It’s got other fish to fry and isn’t too bothered if everything doesn’t quite add up.
Spot on. In the “Superlative Seven,” we see male and female “superagents” defeat a sumo wrestler/samurai swordsman in short order. And we see five of the seven beaten at their own game and killed–albeit in the background and in shadows. But then we find out after the Gemini twins are exposed that it’s all a fraud, that Donald Sutherland’s magnificant villain is a conman. Well, if that’s true, how did his agents accomplish what they did–notably the demonstration at the beginning?
It was good to see Charlotte Rampling at the genesis of her career and especially alongside Mrs. Peel. But she was one tough customer herself. So how was Mrs. Peel able to subdue her and have her on the ground so quickly–in an ambush we never saw any part of?
Digressing a moment, amazing how Mrs. Wilde disappears at end of episode after polishing off the villain with fancy gunplay. It would have been nice to see Mrs. Wilde and Mrs. Peel flying home with Steed and polishing off a magnum of champagne–possibly setting the stage for Charlotte Rampling to succeed Diana Rigg as his partner.
Yes, Rampling and Rigg, a heady combo in the sexy Sixties.
Interesting observation you make though. By the time this episode was being shot, the production team probably knew that Diana Rigg was going to leave and maybe Rampling was being tried out. Her character, with her name spelled differently (Hanna Wild rather than Hana Wilde) did become Steed’s partner in the short lived stage version of the Avengers, apparently.
Fascinating, although Hana was no match for Mrs. Peel. Would she have been a worthy successor to Mrs. Gale and Mrs. Peel–strong-willed, tough customer, who could save Steed as often as he saved her?
Has anyone else observed that the supersoldier formula appeared to be real when it is tested out at the beginning for the fight with the wrestler/swordsman? And the evidence that it was fake was the use of twins–forgetting all those fights that killed the other five guests on the island? Just because cast included Donald Sutherland and Charlotte Rampling doesn’t excuse events that don’t add up.