The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 11 – Epic

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When writers run out of ideas, they either start cannibalising their own old ones (see the episode from two weeks’ prior – The Correct Way to Kill), they duck into comedy (no refuge for a series that already has its tongue boring a hole through its cheek) or they reach for genre parody.

Epic dips its toe in the water of the third option in an episode that parodies old-school Hollywood excess. Kenneth J Warren, Isa Miranda and Peter Wyngarde are the guest actors drafted into play a trio of archetypes, arch types, even – Warren is an Erich Von Stroheim stripe of director, all monocle, bullet head and high-flown notions of the importance of his art; Miranda is his Gloria Swanson-style fading star; Wyngarde a silver-haired flunkey hired by imperious director ZZ von Schnerk to appear in multiple roles in scenarios of his mad imagining.

Bolted onto this idea is the dream/nightmare fantasy beloved of 1960s TV series (particularly The Prisoner), after Mrs Peel is kidnapped, wakes up in a weird simulacrum of her world, inside a drama being directed by Schnerk and featuring Wyngarde’s Stewart Kirby.

Multiple familiar movie scenarios follow, each starring Mrs Peel and an increasingly waspish Kirby, in what could be called a foreshadowing of the Westworld idea of fantasy role-play, with Wyngarde in the Yul Brynner role (or Thandie Newton, according to taste/age).

ZZ Von Schnerk and a gigantic rotating saw blade
“No, Mrs Peel, I expect you to die!” etc etc

It’s Emma Rigg’s episode, almost entirely, and James Hill focuses very tightly on her face, which can take it, her harsh red lipstick, green trouser suit and white boots and polo-neck top working well with the colour red of the backgrounds, foregrounds, carpets, almost everything apart from Mrs Peel herself.

The tight focus also helps keep costs down – for British TV at the time, this is pushing well into cinematic territory, and that costs money. It’s also, obviously, a case of the TV world – workaday, practical, churn-em-out – having a pop at overcooked, precious, spoilt cinema. All a lot of fun.

A couple of odd, glaring moments – the arch over the studio gate is modelled to look like the entrance to a concentration camp. All that’s missing is the Arbeit Macht Frei. Bad taste. And the double-breasted jacket Steed’s wearing, when he does finally show up to save the day, has a hideous crease at somewhere around boob level – this is either seriously bad tailoring or Patrick Macnee has put on a lot of weight.

Terrible actors laying on the ham is an idea that would later be the cornerstone of the Vincent Price classic Theatre of Blood (co-starring Diana Rigg), but as the episode winds towards its finale, it’s The Pit and the Pendulum (another Price movie) that’s evoked as Mrs Peel is propelled towards a rotating blade – “It will pack out the arthouses,” cackles Schnerk.

Doesn’t it sound like a ton of fun? It is and it isn’t – the individual scenes all work, the overarching idea a bit less so, with the result that it feels like a series of far-fetched scenarios peopled with eccentric characters, which never quite adds up to a satisfying whole.

We’re at peak Clemens.

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© Steve Morrissey 2020


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