Dead Man’s Treasure takes that old staple of the country house weekend – the treasure hunt – and turns it into a reasonably thrilling car-chase adventure unsure quite how jokey it wants to be.
My hunch is that the thrills come courtesy of writer Michel Winder, the jokes from showrunner Brian Clemens, since camping it up is pretty much Clemens’s shtick.
But on to the plot, and things get going in a very familiar style as one of Steed’s agent colleagues dies in time-honoured “The treasure’s in the … aaaagh” style, having been pursued in his nippy Sunbeam Alpine by stylish dastards in an E Type Jaguar.
For car nuts, this is your episode. The Jag (Clemens’s own, so the incredibly useful The Avengers website informs me) and Sunbeam are soon joined by all manner of old rustbuckets, I mean classics – a Triumph TR4 and TR5, various MGs, a Merc 250 automatic and a Daimler limo – as Steed and Peel investigate the death of the agent, who has hidden something important somewhere on the dash towards his death.
The duo wind up undercover at a car rally/treasure hunt in the British countryside, organised by Lord Benstead (Arthur Lowe, soon of Dad’s Army fame), an eccentric car-loving aristocrat probably modelled on Lord Montagu of Beaulieu (who founded what is now the National Motor Museum in 1952). After Steed and the noble lord have indulged in some larky cross-purposes chat – is Steed talking about a car or Mrs Peel with his references to chassis and bodywork (groan)? – everyone is paired off for a dash across country, picking up clues as they go. Steed and Peel, obviously, are interested in one clue much more than the others.
Mrs Peel winds up with Mike (Norman Bowler) as a running mate, a man with sex clearly on his mind, while Steed is paired off with Penny (Valerie Van Ost), a posh blonde dolly bird who, so the running joke goes, has had a LOT of fiancés.
We’ve also been introduced to what looks like the forerunner of the game Grand Theft Auto – Lord Benstead has a driving simulator back at the ranch, tended to by shady butler Bates (Ivor Dean, an actor who was the master of looking distinctly unimpressed).
The simulator will feature in the drive-or-die finale, but between then and now there is a lot of time for the production team to enjoy themselves. Speeded-up film, jaunty “swinging” music on the soundtrack and acres of back projection are prominent in the cross-country chase through one village after another, all chosen for their cuteness – we don’t actually see a half-timbered duck pond but we get close. At one point the cars hurtle through a village called Swingingdale. “Not very swinging,” is Mrs Peel’s verdict.
It’s zany, in short, and if zany is your thing – and cars – it’s a good episode. I thought the humour undercut a rather good story that might have been better if Clemens had taken his foot off the comedy pedal a touch. It’s called The Avengers, not The Monkees.
BTW: Van Ost, the Avengers Forever website tells us, was one of several actresses tried out as a replacement for Mrs Peel.
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Whether this episode is part of Series 6 or a continuation of Series 5 is moot. I’m going with the convention embraced by StudioCanal’s 2014 boxset and plumping for it being a late entrant to Series 5. It was originally conceived that way.
The imdb prefers to say we’re now in Series 6 (a short one of only eight episodes), while the Avengers Forever site leans towards calling this Series 5 (though it draws a distinction between two distinct production blocks – 5A and 5B).
There’s not much in it either way, but lumping this episode in with Series 5 means all the Emma Peel colour episodes are together, and since Series 5 is often referred to as THE classic series, that’s an advantage.