The Avengers: Series 1, Episode 15 – The Frighteners

Doris Hare, Patrick Macnee and Ian Hendry

 

The 15th of 26 episodes in the first series is a story that Humphrey Bogart might recognise. A tale of a greasy heel sending his thugs around to put “the frighteners” on a society lothario who is wooing the impressionable daughter of a local business big noise, it looks and feels every inch like a film noir.

It’s something director Peter Hammond clearly relishes and, on a TV budget, he does impressive things with pools of shadow, out of which loom both goodies and baddies. Two levels of baddies, what’s more – the Deacon (Willoughby Goddard) is the sweaty and corpulently effete manager of muscle, while Sir Thomas Weller (Stratford Johns) is the sort of crook who pays to have his dirty work done for him, though he looks like he’d rather be doing it himself. And that’s not including the heavies themselves, the slightly rentamob Philip Locke and Godfrey James.

Steed and Keel both appear in this one, Steed first appearing in the back of a dimly lit cab to brief Keel on their latest job – taking out a pair of “massage demonstrators” who are plying their trade in London. Really? A couple of low-level fists for hire, that’s the gig? Indeed it is, and all the more mystifying is that Steed seems now to have become a kind of crime-fighting Fagin, with a network of cheery Cockney street operatives addressing him with an “Ere, Guv” wherever he goes.

If it asks a lot of unanswered questions about what organisation it is exactly that Steed actually works for – the Savile Row division of the CID is what it looks like – it doesn’t detract too much from the story, which is starting to move in what would later become the recognisable baroque Avengers way.

Preventing a silver-tongued lounge lizard (Philip Gilbert) from eloping with the breathy, silly daughter (Dawn Beret) of some magnate, and stopping him from getting a thorough beating first, yup, that’s it. But it’s efficient and, to an extent, quippily done, with Willoughby Goddard and Stratford Johns providing a lot of the acting wallop, while there’s a nice comic turn by Doris Hare towards the end. And nice to see Macnee beginning to stretch out in his first real lead role in a career that was already 25 years long. Hat fans – Steed wears a trilby, not a bowler. Looks dapper enough in it, though.

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2017

 

 

The Avengers: Series 1, Episode 6 – Girl on the Trapeze

Heavy Zibbo waves a gun in Dr Keel's face

The sixth episode of the series (numbers two to five having vanished) and we’re edging into what would later be familiar Avengers territory. There are devious foreigners, a complex plot and a surprising amount of agency for the female sidekick.

Dennis Spooner’s screenplay concerns a woman throwing herself off a London bridge into the Thames, an act which Dr Keel (Ian Hendry) just happens to witness as he’s on the way to a party. Being a public spirited chap he rushes down the steps to the river, where a passing copper and a swarthy type with a thick accent are already on the scene. The woman is dead, but there’s not much water in her lungs and Keel wonders if there might be a cause other than drowning.

Back at the police station, the duty detective is only to happy to accept conjecture as part of Keel’s witness statement and the doctor is soon heading off with his new receptionist to check out what’s going on at a visiting Soviet circus, whence the trail points.

There, without divulging the entire plot, all is revealed, after much skulking, gunplay, hostage taking, bodyswapping and fisticuffs.

Directed by Don Leaver, it’s a satisfying little chamber piece shot almost entirely on claustrophobic studio sets – the doctor’s surgery, the cop shop, backstage at the circus – with some usefully choreographed fight action to spice things up. Again, there’s the clear attention to blocking and tight framing – this is a well rehearsed episode making the most of those unwieldy studio cameras – and again no one cares too much if a line is fluffed. It all feels very live.

No sign of John Steed. He’s not in the episode at all. But Ingrid Hafner as Carol (Keel’s new receptionist, after the death of Peggy in the first episode) has a surprising amount to do for a female character in the early 1960s. She’s not only brave but also resourceful, coming up with a useful bit of cunning trickery to outwit the Soviet thugs as they try to put their dastardly plan into action. She’s not yet a karate-chopping dynamo but is clearly a Cathy Gale/Emma Peel/Tara King in utero.

But. What is also clear from this episode is that this show’s entire premise will not do. Ordinary doctors do not get involved in international espionage, even if completely by accident. Nor do they get taken into the confidence of hard-pressed cops trying to work out who or what killed an unfortunate young woman. Class deference can explain some of it – working class cop doffing the cap to nicely spoken gent etc etc – but in the long run, something is going to have to give.

Of course it turned out it was going to be the excellent Hendry – who went off to a film career and a lifelong battle with the bottle, leaving urbane Patrick Macnee to rule the roost after the series was given a conceptual makeover. But that’s another story.



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© Steve Morrissey 2017




The Avengers: Series 1, Episode 1 – Hot Snow

Katherine Woodville and Ian Hendry

In many ways the British TV series The Avengers was the Beatles of TV. The series was created in 1961 by Sydney Newman (who also created Doctor Who) as a gritty black and white TV programme very much in thrall to existing 1950s styles and finished in 1969, a spy series with kaleidoscope eyes. Over its long and winding run people came and went, sidekicks were added and dropped and women became an increasingly important part of the mix. Like all long-running series it became a stopping off point for all sorts – stars on the climb and on the wane, directors learning their craft, scriptwriters ditto. Christopher Lee and Charlotte Rampling are among those turning up, notable directors include the great documentarian John Krish and Ealing legend Charles Crichton, while the series gave a home to writers such as Daleks-creator Terry Nation, though the real driving force of The Avengers (and much of British TV for decades) was Brian Clemens.

So it’s a fascinating treasure trove of “look who it it is!” sightings, at the very least. But the series also marks the coming of age of television in the UK. Produced by ABC, a cinema chain that didn’t even want to go into TV but found itself arm-twisted into doing so, the early series were shot in studios, in black and white, and recorded on crappy 405 lines video tape. But once the US got interested, budgets went up, as did production values and the series started to be shot on film and in colour. The later ones still look good today.

The series is often bracketed alongside James Bond as a tongue in cheek spy caper, a symptom of the British loss of empire and changed status in the world – we’re still in charge, goes the theory, of irony at least. But The Avengers started before Bond, and it started out more like Batman than 007 – vengeance was the driver and Ian Hendry its star, as a common or garden doctor whose fiancee is killed by a drugs gang. Enter a shadowy John Steed to help him extract his just deserts.

To Hot Snow itself, one of two episodes setting up the premise and tenor of the series. Sadly, only the first third of it still exists, up to the first advertising break, so around 17 minutes of grainy blurry footage. But what survives is enough – even through the murk – to convince 21st century audiences that there was something good going on. Film noir is the obvious inspiration, rather than the spy thriller, from Johnny Dankworth’s brassy downbeat jazz theme tune (Laurie Johnson reversed its falling cadences in the upbeat new theme which come much later) the opening scene shows us a thug (Godfrey Quigley) in a trench coat breaking into the doctors’ surgery, where the lovely Peggy (Katherine Woodville) is receptionist and nurse for Doctors David Keel (Hendry) and Richard Tredding (Philip Stone). There is much coming and going, as the thug skulks, doors are opened and closed as he tries to retrieve a mystery package.

We learn, in a nice scene back at the villians’ lair, that this has something to do with £4,000’s worth of cocaine, in an expository scene between effete Charlie (Murray Melvin) and weaselly sidekick Johnson (Charles Wade), both of whom live in fear of “the big man”, a faceless boss whose hand is seen caressing a small dog and who orders the execution of Peggy – she saw Johnson as he delivered the package and so has to go. As the card comes up for the end of Part One, Peggy is dead and Dr Keel is cradling her outside the jeweller’s where they were about to buy an engagement ring.

Shot live, or as live, it is a carefully crafted 17 minutes, with scenes blocked to make the most of the cumbersome TV cameras. The acting is fresh, with the actors frequently almost running into each other’s lines, eyes alive with trepidation and mirth. Old it may be, but it’s tightly made TV, imaginatively framed, briskly edited and has a real pace. The character actors are well cast and used – something The Avengers always got right.

However, it isn’t The Avengers as it came to be. Not a bit of it. No Steed (not in this surviving fragment, at any rate), in fact Patrick Macnee has second billing after Ian Hendry. No bowler hat (Steed is pictured in trench coat in the opening credits), no camp, irony, kitsch or hint of genre subversion. Drugs and deviant sexuality (it is suggested that Charlie is gay) is where this early episode gets it kicks. And in the death of a bright and innocent young woman.

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2017

 

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