What do you get if you draft in a comedy writer to pen an episode of The Avengers? The answer is The Rotters, by Dave Freeman, a prolific writer for TV comedy from the likes of Benny Hill, Terry Scott, Roy Hudd and Tommy Cooper.
The shape of the episode however – opening shocker, call Steed and sidekick, say hello to various eccentrics as a particularly obvious clue is followed, meet mad mastermind before the big fight finale – that’s pure Brian Clemens.
Things get off to a by-the-book start. A man is being chased somewhere in the Department of Forestry Research. Seeking refuge, he locks the door of his office, only for the door to suddenly disappear. The man is soon no more, dead at the hands of Kenneth (Gerald Sim) and George (Jerome Willis).
Has the door been rendered invisible? Has it been shrunk? This being The Avengers, either is likely, but in fact it’s neither. And we get a kind of reverse clue as we cut to Mother’s HQ of the week, a vast space filled entirely with transparent plastic furniture, some of which the indefatigable Rhonda is inflating with a floor pump while dressed in a see-through PVC mac.
Mother briefs Steed and King about the killing, a matter of national importance etc etc. The action moves back to the killers Kenneth and George, prototype versions of the Bond henchmen Mr Wint and Mr Kidd. In other words they are camp, given to verbal flights of fancy and hover closer to each other than you expect in a pair of hired killers.
They’re from an outfit called Wormdoom and are soon working their way through members of the Institute for Timber Technology. As are we, since the timber experts are all eccentrics, none more so than a man called Palmer (John Nettleton), who is camped out among the mighty redwoods (saplings, in fact, but just think forward a few hundred years!). This died-in-the-wool Clemens eccentric is ripped from the pages of British Empire yarns, a man downing huge amounts of alcohol in an attempt to avoid “the white man’s grave”.
While Tara deals with Palmer, John Steed is at the Department of Forestry Research witnessing a pencil crumbling to dust in his hand, before heading off to meet another eccentric, Pym, an expert in death watch beetle he meets in belfry.
In a series relying heavily on a “this, then this, then this” structure of one damn thing after another, Steed and King work their way through more eccentrics than seem necessary – an antiques faker, a man already dead and in his coffin – before winding up at the BBC, British Burial Caskets, an organisation selling coffins that are guaranteed never to rot. Never.
And on we go to the end? Not quite. Steed has one more, slightly unnecessary encounter to get through before the veil is pulled back to reveal the criminal mastermind, who wants to hold the world to ransom for a thousand million pounds or he’ll spray it with dry rot (quite where he’s going to go once the entire planet’s ecosystem has collapsed is not divulged).
Shunted together rather than smoothly crafted, it’s a serviceable episode that feels not quite finished, in spite of the usual high-gloss direction by Robert Fuest. A lousy fight sequence towards the end reinforces the feeling. A real mixed bag – the eco disaster element, pungent henchmen and florid eccentrics really save it.
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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