Coined as a film-making term by Alfred Hitchcock collaborator Angus McPhail, the Macguffin (spell it anyway you like) is a simple plot device which doesn’t do much on its own, but acts as a string on which a number of scenes can be strung, lending an illusion of wholeness to something which, without it, would just be a jumble.
Take Me to Your Leader is the Macguffin idea at its purest, the driver of an effectively brisk and noticeably slick episode of The Avengers, written by Terry Nation and directed by Robert Fuest – pretty much the A team by this stage in the proceedings.
The device? A red briefcase, one that talks, or squawks when we first encounter it in the pre-credits sequence, when someone tries to steal it and another someone retaliates by killing the thief.
In this episode what the case wants the case gets, as it’s passed from one person to another, along a chain, destination: the leader.
Booby-trapped and containing a wealth of top secret codes and ciphers, the case of the errant briefcase is clearly a job for John Steed and Tara King, who are charged with reporting back on the Mr Big the case is ultimately destined for, as it is daisy-chained from one pair of hands to another.
I say Steed but in the initial scenes Tara King is paired with Captain Andrews (Hugh Cross), a hasty last-minute rewrite designed to cover Patrick Macnee’s absence from the set. Look out for the bit where Tara and Captain Andrews jump into a Messerschmitt bubble car for an absurd car chase – though trilby-wearing Andrews gets in, the second unit guys have clearly caught a bowler-wearing chap in footage they recorded earlier. No one will notice, will they? Course not.
Steed returns around ten minutes in and from here on it’s the red case, Steed, King and one potential Mr Big after another. These include Penelope Keith as a character called Audrey (also her character name in the sitcom To the Manor Born), a teacher of ballet to little “monsters” who likes nothing better than a restorative scream when she’s alone after class is over.
Another link in the chain is Sally (Elisabeth Robillard), one of Audrey’s little monsters. To prise info about the ultimate destination or location of the case, Steed attempts to bribe Sally with sweeties. She’s having none of it and demands money. Ten bob (50p) suggests Steed. £25 counters Sally, the young actress’s trills a remarkably effective counterpoint to the silky-tongued Steed. It’s the episode’s best scene.
Events intervene, both end up thwarted and on the red case goes, spreading suspicion as it works its way up the chain. Could Tara be Mr Big? Could it be Mother? It’s a neat plot device slightly ruined by the fact that the real leader has been revealed fairly early on.
Glossily shot, briskly acted and well paced, with humour and jeopardy, smarts and the odd helping hand from the fates, it’s a good, almost cinematic episode with some standout moments – who doesn’t like a bubble car? Or a smart kid? And seeing faces that would later almost wear out their welcome on TV (Michael Robbins, of On the Buses fame, turns up as well as Penelope Keith) adds extra texture for those whose memories stretch back that far. If yours doesn’t, they’re gifted performers it’s worth watching anyway.
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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