Clive Dunn, Paul Eddington, Yootha Joyce and Penelope Keith – four of the biggest names in 1970s British TV comedy – were relative unknowns when Something Nasty in the Nursery aired in April 1967. But their presence is further proof, if any were needed, that The Avengers had slewed well towards the lighter end of the entertainment spectrum.
Writer Philip Levene’s Avengers scripts are often concerned with class at some level. That proves to be the case in a story about men – not just any men but powerful men “from the best family; they’re British to the core” as a defence chief tells Steed and Peel – reduced to infantilism by some powerful psycho-active effect.
But which of these men leaked the information that led to the death of another magnate, shot by his own gun? Having watched said magnate give up his gun willingly to a nanny after being reduced to babbling by some kind of groovy hypnosis we know the answer to this one.
Eddington is the next to be afflicted, then Patrick Newell (later to play Mother in the show), then Paul Hardwick, all of them falling victim to the babyfying force, the actors all having a great time playing gurgling infants, probably replaying an old exercise from drama school days, as powerful men reduced to the playpen and the goo-goo-gaa.
The nanny is what connects these men and their fates, a metaphor for the old boy network so stomping that it doesn’t need any decoding.
Steed and Peel are on the case and, having been directed to GONN (the Guild of Noble Nannies) by toyshop owner Clive Dunn (another of his fluting old gents) while factotum Yootha Joyce makes busy in the background, find that someone called Gordon (Trevor Bannister, yet another TV comedy face) is at the centre of the mystery.
I say mystery but there isn’t any. We know from the off what’s going on, just not exactly how it’s being done. It turns out to be psychedelic drugs – a month before the release of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper, containing the trippy Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, you can’t say The Avengers wasn’t in tune with the zeitgeist.
Top marks for that at least. Because otherwise there’s a distinct lack of drama throughout – we know what’s being done and we know that nannies are involved – in fact we’re one step ahead of Steed and Peel all the way.
But it’s interesting watching the whole deferential model of society being jokily criticised. And it’s also fascinating to see The Avengers going meta – as Peel first muses that whenever she and Steed are on to someone, someone else always gets there first (a standard Avengers plot development). And then later, as Steed and Peel gaze into a crystal ball in their usual outro/epilogue scene, she utters the words, “Watch next week”.
This heavy winking to the audience is yet another sign, along with the recycling of plots (which has happened twice so far) and the turn to spoofing other genres, that the show is running out of ideas.
All that to one side – Penelope Keith as Nanny Brown? The credits say she’s there, but I didn’t see her. The imdb triva page suggests all her scenes were cut. Which would explain things.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020