The Winged Avenger, self-referentiality to one side, is a comic-book title and a comic-book episode – look at the framing throughout – and intriguingly suggests that The Avengers now has another genre reference point, having conclusively ditched noirish crime fiction as a motherlode even before Honor Blackman left the show at the end of series three.
Hold on to that hard because this episode is in dramatic terms dead in the water, flat, lacking interest. Though all starts well as a gigantic, semi-feathered (and entirely ridiculous) bird kills an ageing magnate (William Fox), who turns out to be the fourth publishing nabob in a row, the creature having scaled the company building to the accompaniment of much scraping of metallic talons etc.
His son (Donald Pickering), more of a ditherer than his steely dad, is next, at which point Steed and Peel’s investigation takes on some urgency. Perhaps one of the publisher’s authors is involved. Enter Nigel Green, recently of The Ipcress File (and dead in real life only five years later at the age of 47), as Sir Lexius Cray, an eccentric climbing guru whose eccentricity is demonstrated by a speech about the propriety of eating a dog against, say, tucking into his butler.
The butler, Tay-Ling, is a comic-book Chinese in the Charlie Chan style – that is to say he’s played by a white guy made up to look oriental, with with a pigtail just in case his get-up (and the frequently dropped accent of the obviously Scottish John Garrie) doesn’t convince.
We could work up a bit of outrage at this sort of cultural appropriation, or the racial insult intended, intentional or not, etc etc, if this sort of wild, absurd characterisation weren’t exactly what The Avengers is all about. If there is a shitty stick going about, everyone gets whacked with it.
On we go to another bonkers side character, Jack MacGowran as Professor Poole, a slightly meatier, slightly less camp version of Carry On star Charles Hawtrey, a guy who flaps about in a Dracula-like cape who’s invented boots that enable the wearer to walk up buildings.
“Meanwhile, back at the apartment,” Mrs Peel says, as Peel and Steed are having one of their “meanwhile back at the apartment” explicatory conversations. It’s not only a bit of meta-reference – increasingly common – but also a direct reference to the Adam West Batman, which had debuted the previous year (in the US). In fact the whole of series five of The Avengers owes a debt to Batman writer Lorenzo Semple Jr’s pop style of writing and his strict formatting of each episode (deployed more successfully by Semple than enthusiastic magpie borrower Brian Clemens).
A comic-book outfit called Winged Avenger Enterprises is behind the whole thing, with a pair of comic-book artists – inker Arnie Packer (Neil Hallett) and writer Stanton (the always brilliantly unsettling Colin Jeavons) – allowing The Avengers to make its most audacious segway yet, from live action to actual comic-book action.
It’s brilliant, it’s audacious, it’s years ahead of its time (think Tarantino in Kill Bill) and if only it had been yoked to a plot that had some drama in it, well…
However, the big fight finale, with Batman borrowings of the words “Pow!” and “Splat”, while composer Laurie Johnson does a fair vamp of the Batman theme, is either more cock-eyed hilarity or a terrible cultural cringe. Take your pick.
Most odd. But never mind all that. How do you rate such a melding of the downright dull (the content) with the utterly fascinating (the form)? Holy critical conundrum!
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© Steve Morrissey 2020