The zombie movie was sleeping fitfully in its crypt – George Romero would wake it in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead – when The Avengers episode The Living Dead first aired in February 1967.
Steed and Peel, it seems, are now ghosthunters as well as murder investigators, industrial-decline consultants and everyday spies, and are called in after stage drunk Kermit (Jack Woolgar), stumbling home one night espies the lid of a tomb opening and a man in white ascending from it. “The Duke!” Kermit exclaims.
Was it the first duke, of 17th century vintage? Or one only recently deceased – “a real man”, according to one local – who died in a mine collapse? Geoffrey (Howard Marion-Crawford), the current duke, is so in thrall to his gamekeeper (played with his usual heavy menace by Julian Glover) that he’s resistant to questioning on the matter. But, simply using superior social rank to swat aside one of the lower orders, Steed is soon subjecting the current duke to questioning.
It’s while he’s inside yet another Avengers mansion that Steed notices two odd things – sun lamps and boxes marked Sun Tan Lotion (plain old Sun Lotion in modern speak – in those days the emphasis was on the promotion of tanning not the protection of the skin).
Mrs Peel, meanwhile, has met Mandy (Pamela Ann Davy), a woman who looks like she likes sex and is ready for it, and a representative of an outfit of spirit investigators called FOG (Friends of Ghosts, I think). Show-regular Vernon Dobtcheff turns up shortly afterwards as the less giddy, more boffiny Spencer, a representative of SMOG (Scientific Measurement of Ghosts). Mandy prefers to divine the presence of spirits by “feel”; Spencer gets the gadgets out.
So, an apparition in a cemetery, sun lamps and sun cream, a mine “collapse”, a scary bruiser keen to keep snoopers at bay. Yes, something is going on underground. In fact it’s quite a big something. And after Mrs Peel has been abducted by a “ghost”, only to wake up in a vast, subterranean modernist world of bright young people building a bold futurist society in scenes reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, do we start to understand what.
It is at this point, Steed having repurposed his bowler with a miner’s lamp, while Glover’s Masgard has donned a red hard hat, colour significant, that the mists start to clear – this construction is a vast bunker being readied for the upcoming apocalypse.
Taking place to a large extent in the “real” world of pubs, with everyday people scattered hither and yon, it’s much more a Cathy Gale episode than an Emma Peel one. Once the action shifts underground it becomes clear why the great documentarian John Krish has been brought in to direct – there is a realism to these scenes that someone like, say, Roy Ward Baker would have no interest in capturing.
The tone is jaunty, even by 1960s TV’s standards. At one point Mrs Peel kills an entire execution squad and mimics a military march as she steps by the dead bodies. It’s also noticeable that Diana Rigg – perhaps she’s been watching the rushes – has lost a touch of weight and looks more toned. Crimplene is an unforgiving fabric. In fact it was only in the previous episode, The Winged Avenger, that Diana Rigg seemed to have sorted out Mrs Peel knicker problem. Action women need action underwear.
For all its ambition, extravagant plotting and eccentric side characters, plus menace from the reliably skull-like Glover, it’s a flat episode that lacks real joie de vivre. Luckily, the following episode redresses the balance.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020