Intended as a 90-minute episode designed to introduce Tara King and originally called Invitation to a Killing, what became the 12th episode of the final series of The Avengers instead ran the usual 50-ish minutes, wound up being called Have Guns – Will Haggle and features not one but two iterations of King.
The first is the ingenue blonde we are introduced to, producer John Bryce’s conception of King (Linda Thorson was his girlfriend at the time). The second, dropped in later by reshoot directors Robert Asher and Harry Booth, is slimmer, sleeker and has dark hair and a much more familiar Mrs Peel relationship with John Steed. Linda Thorson is fine as both. In fact by the time the episode has finished, she’s survived the Gale/Peel Replacement Ordeal and looks like a good fit for the series.
The other hint that we’re not entirely in the hands of the Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell production duo but with worldlier, grittier Bryce is that there is a black man in a key role. Johnny Sekka, one of a handful of dark-skinned actors who odd-jobbed their way through 1960s British TV, plays Colonel Nsonga, an African general in the UK to buy a shipment of top secret and very hi-tech weapons, intending to go home and launch a coup.
Nsonga is not doing it through the usual channels. Instead, as we’ve seen in the opening sequence, the weapons have been stolen and are now being auctioned off by a hot young woman, played by a hot young Nicola Pagett, with Steed and King soon thrown into the mix, Steed as a prospective buyer, King as… well, let’s not go there.
A trope familiar from the Cathy Gale era – which Bryce produced – soon asserts itself. And you might as well dub it “posh people being posh”. Notice Steed’s easy familiarity with Nsonga, both of them products of the British private school system, Nsonga all colonial manners, though he’s obviously humouring Steed and beneath the urbanity is a man who wants to get somewhere fast.
Personally, I liked the Bryce era stuff, and would suggest the very best Avengers episodes as the ones that came at the end of series 3 – they’re mad and out there but still seem rooted in the world of espionage rather than fantasy. But I’m not sure Bryce (or production designer Robert Jones) is bringing his A game here – when Tara King goes to visit an eccentric (of course) ballistics expert in his uniformly purple lab, her peach/pink (puce?) coat (hiding the fact that she’s overweight, it’s been suggested at the excellent The Avengers site) clashes hideously with the purple, as does her blond wig.
The whole episode is a mess – not only does Tara change from scene to scene but so does the season, thanks to the reshoots.
There are enough plus points to make it work, though. A tiny one is that we get to see Tara’s apartment – it’s in Primrose Hill, as hip at the time as it would be when the BritPop movers and shakers started their revival of the era (and area) 30 years on.
The absurd collection of villains who turn out for the auction of hookey weapons is another – Austin Powers could not have assembled a more risible gang of rentavillains. Mao and Nehru jackets both feature.
In spite of the choppy-changey nature of what is a rescue job, things do tie up nicely in a sweaty finale that features a bomb fizzing away, with both Macnee and Thorson pulling out the acting stops to convince us that this is a situation of extreme jeopardy.
A case of “phew, just about made it”, I reckon. Whether Donald James would recognise much of his original screenplay is another matter entirely.
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The imdb refers to this as season seven. I’m saying six, along with most of the fan sites and Wikipedia, and in line with the pretty much definitive Studio Canal box set. The reason why the imdb and others say seven is because they’re taking the final block of eight Emma Peel episodes as a separate season. But since there were only eight episodes in that production block, lumping them together with the 16 episodes of what everyone agrees is season five brings the total up to 24, much closer to the usual Avengers run of about 26 episodes.
© Steve Morrissey 2020