The Nicolas Cage/John Travolta film Face/Off might perhaps have borrowed its central idea from Who’s Who???, a crackingly conceived episode of The Avengers built around the idea of a mind-swap between Steed and the dastardly Basil (Freddie Jones).
There’s a bit plot business before we get to the big central idea – we are introduced to Basil and sidekick Lola (Patricia Haines) deliberately killing “one of our very best agents”, in the words of the original and as-yet-unaltered John Steed, expressly with the intention of flushing Steed and Peel out into the open to steal their identities.
But nothing really held my interest until what looked like an old radar console from a Second World War movie was rolled out and the mind-swap began. Would the valves be up to it? Swap achieved, the bogus Steed is soon back at base, where he is immediately arousing Mrs Peel’s suspicions by addressing her as “Emma”. Not his style.
Who are these guys – Basil and Lola, and the boffin Krelmar (Arnold Diamond) who’s teched all this together? They seem to be some kind of residue of the Nazi era, a gang out to bust the Flower Network of spies, whose agents all have floral names – Poppy, Bluebell, Pansy, Daffodil (played by this episode’s writer, Philip Levene) – by infiltrating it.
So far, so dastardly. Things become slightly more complicated when Lola and Mrs Peel mind-swap and, with wit and originality, the show tries to keep viewers up to speed on who’s who with faux public information announcements after each advertising break. The villains look like this (Steed and Peel) and the good guys look like this (Basil and Lola) kind of thing.
The fact that there is something of a relationship between Basil and Lola allows Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg to be a lot fruitier than they normally would – doing the kissing thing, dancing together (in “yeh, baby” Austin Powers fashion) and so on. It’s Haines and Jones who actually embrace the mind-swap idea fully. Neither Rigg nor Macnee seem entirely committed to playing different characters, a bit of gum-chewing (Rigg) and cigar-chomping (Macnee) and they’re about done.
People who insist that TV-land should bear some relationship to the actual world we live in will hate the car chase, which zips from a central London mews location to the countryside and back to suburbia in no time at all.
More importantly, in terms of consistency, neither writer Levene, the actors nor director John Llewellyn Moxey seem to have worked out whether the transfer of “psyche” (as it’s called) involves all aspects of the personality, or whether some of it remains in the body, or whether that’s muscle-memory or some other residual effect.
It’s not really Face/Off in utero, in other words, and for all its ingenious plotting, and performances from Jones and Haines that really zing, it doesn’t quite work.
Apparently (thanks to theavengers.tv for this info), necessity was the mother of this episode. Macnee was off on holiday and Rigg was halfway out of the series – hence the need for a couple of actors who could do a good chunk of the dramatic heavy lifting.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020