An episode written by Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks, and then rewritten by Brian Clemens when he returned to the series. It was Clemens who inserted the framework narrative device – Mother visiting a pair of aged aunts and spinning them yarns about legendary feats of Avengers derring-do.
The Great Great Britain Crime was the original title, under producer John Bryce. Clemens renamed it Homicide and Old Lace. And the old dears are rather good fun, a pair of bloodthirsty old broads who love nothing better than a wallow in gory tales of yore, keen on Cagney-era slang (“gats”, “rods” etc) and handy with a gun – they’re ready to shoot Mother the second he comes through their door (setting us up nicely for Rhonda’s quick-draw two-gun riposte).
Hulke and Dicks hated the finished product, so does much of the blogosphere. I suspect it’s because it cuts a bit too close to the bone – not only is Clemens signalling that the show is literally recycling past glories (with footage from Emma Peel episodes) but the old dears (Joyce Carey and Mary Merrall) are rather given to passing funny-but-true comments about the absurdity of the plotting. The silent-movie soundtrack of tinkly piano only rubs salt in the wound.
It’s also very light on Tara King, who doesn’t feature at all in the usual bantering outro. Instead, Steed remarks on Rhonda’s persistent silence, cueing up one of the rare funny exit interchanges of this series.
Hulke and Dicks’ original plot was doing its share of recycling too: the international criminal organisation Intercrime is revived in a story featuring Gerald Harper as the dim military man entrusted with safeguarding decent copies of the nation’s priceless works of art, copies of which will be exhibited in place of the real items in the event of impending invasion.
Their neat original idea (preserved by Clemens) involves a switcheroo – using Steed as a go-between – with Intercrime making off with the originals, leaving the fakes behind. Who’ll know the difference? Small matters like the difficulty of fencing huge quantities of world-famous art are not gone into – this is Saturday night TV after all.
Patrick Newell, as Mother, has been a beacon in this series, a twinkling, ridiculous but very welcome presence and he is given his head here, and lays it on as thick as he can as he relays the convoluted story to two feisty but aged women fascinated by the mechanics of death and the availability of red-eye whiskey.
According to the excellent Avengers Forever site, it’s The Bird Who Knew Too Much, Murdersville, The Fear Merchants and Never, Never Say Die that have been cannibalised for old footage. Over there they take a dim view of Homicide and Old Lace – and they do have a point. This isn’t really an Avengers episode at all, really.
But for audacity you have to hand it to Clemens. Faced with material he couldn’t or wouldn’t use and with a deadline looming, he got creative. I cannot think of another show of the era which would have or could have re-used its own archive. And commenting on your own show’s plot and characters as you plunder the past is all very meta, too.
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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