There’s something a bit dead in the water about Who Was That Man I Saw You With?, a late-era Avengers episode with a lot going for it – but no spark.
Jeremy Burnham wrote it, and atones for the messiness of Fog (the previous week’s episode) with a tightly constructed and well plotted story. There’s a bit of futurology in here too. Britain, it seems, has got itself a Star Wars defence system long before Ronald Reagan mooted the idea of a defensive umbrella that could blast incoming enemy missiles out of the sky.
The system itself – codename Field Marshal – is magnificent, of course, but there are fears that a lone-wolf operator could penetrate the highly fortified command centre and disable it, thus rendering the country open to enemy attack.
Tara King is sent in to see if it’s possible, and since none other than John Steed designed the defence system of the defence system – if you follow me – there’s rhyme and reason in Tara having a go.
Little does she know that a diabolical mastermind plans to re-purpose her, and thus use the country’s own agent to compromise its own security.
There are two diabolical villains, in fact. The one who does all the actual work is played by Alan Browning – later he played one of TV’s most memorable villains, Alan Howard in Coronation Street. The one who sits back and strokes the metaphorical cat is played by Alan MacNaughtan (yes, too many Alans), his Gilpin a supremely dandyish mastermind. When we first meet him he’s wearing a green facemask. Later he calls attention to the superb beauty of his own feet.
This Browning/MacNaughtan double act again revives the old class-based Avengers pecking order of villainy – the guy at the top never actually does the dirty work, he’s got a factotum somewhere to handle all that stuff.
In spite of its moments of creakiness and general end-of-an-era atmosphere, it is a fine episode for watchers of Linda Thorson. She rises to the challenge and carries an episode that sidelines Steed to such an extent that his every appearance seems tokenistic.
Talking of tokens – Mother and Rhonda turn up, Mother’s HQ of the week this week being a Norman castle. Which allows the production team the equivalent of a little office joke – girl Friday Rhonda dressed ludicrously in a medieval heraldic doublet. Rhonda’s face is absolutely impassive, not a flicker, which just makes the moment even funnier.
A couple of locations seem gratuitous. One in a cobwebby dungeon, plus the big fight finale in a boxing ring, which director Don Chaffey amusingly choreographs as if this were an episode of Saturday afternoon wrestling on ITV. All that’s missing is commentator Kent Walton and a “Good afternoon, grapple fans”.
The relationship between Steed and his women has always been an odd one – Julie Stevens was the novice at the master’s feet, Honor Blackman the business colleague, Diana Rigg the perpetual tease. Linda Thorson’s big gooey eyes in this episode suggest she’s hopelessly infatuated with Steed, which might have seemed like some sort of feminist statement at the time (I’m being generous) but from a 50-year plus vantage point looks more than a little creepy.
Back in late January 1969, when shooting on this episode wrapped, everyone involved would have known that within a few short weeks this groundbreaking TV series would be done. An end of term feeling is in the air.
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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