The £50,000 Breakfast is a Cathy Gale-era episode (Death of a Great Dane) originally written by Roger Marshall and then reworked here by Brian Clemens into an Emma Peel-era one. And though it’s tempting to do a compare and contrast – as if to definitively nail the differences between the two eras – that can’t quite be done because Death of a Great Dane really marked the beginning of classic-era Avengers with its mad plots, people with odd names, extras thin (ish) on the ground and a general air of unreality all-pervading.
The same opener launches both – a man dies (here it’s a ventriloquist) and his stomach is found to contain a haul of diamonds. Steed and Peel are soon on the case, Mrs Peel off to talk to the dead man’s wife, Steed meeting the man’s employer, a mysterious financier magnate by name of Litoff, where Steed is quizzed about his bowler hat (a Benson, we learn) by Litoff’s butler (played here by effortlessly superior Cecil Parker).
Actually, Steed doesn’t meet Litoff – Steed’s not important enough – but Litoff’s right-hand woman Miss Pegram (the formidable Yolande Turner) and tries to pass himself off as a chancer willing to return diamonds he believes belonged originally to Litoff.
Do the diamonds have anything to do with the vast amount of wealth that’s been leaving British shores in recent months?
It’s notable that Pegram is a woman rather than the more usual right-hand man, since there’s obvious gender rebalancing going on in this episode vis a vis the original. More is evident when Mrs Peel heads to a shop selling old school ties, run by a modern young miss – it was Steed made this visit in the original, and a man ran the shop.
Another change. The wine-tasting in the original, an opportunity for fabulous one-upmanship, has been replaced by a very posh cigar-tasting, where Steed utters the line “Why the jungle music?” while nodding towards a group of calypso players, which is either a breathtaking bit of old-school racism (and incidentally a rare relaxing of The Avengers “no blacks” rule), or canny screenwriting – Steed playing to the prejudices of the man he wants to get close to, Litoff’s doctor Sir James Arnall (David Langton).
Langton is another bit of fine broad-brush character casting in an episode notable for them – Parker I’ve mentioned but Cardew Robinson (famous as Cardew “the Cad” to my parents’ generation) is also extremely good value as a vicar who specialises in burying dearly departed pets.
What stands out throughout is the dark tone and thriller-ish aspect, which were both hallmarks of the Gale era.
The big fight finish is also a tough affair, with Mrs Peel taking on right-hand-woman Miss Pegram in a brawl relying only a touch on speeded-up film to make things work (which always looks like the act of desperation it is).
There’s quite a lot of plot, a fair few people and no shortage of unnecessary detail in this episode – why a ventriloquist, for example? – and to get through it all the actors gabble their lines and scenes often don’t have quite enough air to breathe.
The original is better, poor picture quality, terrible sound and ungainly TV cameras notwithstanding. And though Parker is terribly good as an underling long reconciled to his discovery that his social superiors are, morally, scumbags, he’s outdone by the sly, supercilious Leslie French in the original. But then French was always known as a scene (if not show) stealer.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020