The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 26 – Killer Whale

Honor Blackman, Patrick Macnee and Patrick Magee

 

Killer Whale is a queer fish, the 26th and last episode of series two being a mix of the quite bizarre and the incredibly mundane.

Things get off to an eyebrow-raising start right from the off, with Steed in the process of losing 50 quid at a boxing bout as we join the action. Mrs Gale is luckier, though, managing to pick up a stray boxer during the evening and become his trainer. As you do.

Joey the boxer becomes Mrs Gale’s inside man at the gym, and a bit of investigation by the two of them, they establish that there’s a link between the liniment and bandages and the more rarefied atmosphere of a local couture boutique. This is where Steed comes in – lots of opportunity for courtly excess, of which Patrick Macnee is the master.

What’s connecting the two locales is – deep breath – the smuggling of ambergris, sourced from whales and used in the production of perfume. Why a boxing gym is involved in all this is bewildering, but writer John Lucarotti just about gets away with it.

He’s not quite so successful at explaining why supersleuths/spies Steed and Gale are involved. This is, after all, a simple case of the evasion of import duty. That’s the mundane element, and it’s never really convincingly established why a couple of undercover coppers wouldn’t have done the job better. More convincingly, in fact, than two characters who stick out like the anomalies they are – Mrs Gale in particular.

Adding some much needed authenticity is Kenneth Farrington as boxer Joey (he went on to spend a few years on soap Coronation Street as rough diamond Billy, son of Rovers Return pub landlords Jack and Annie Walker), and there’s the reassuringly familiar and pugnacious Patrick Magee (Samuel Beckett’s favourite actor), who plays gym owner Pancho. Magee has clearly been hired because his face is a theatrical shorthand for guilt.

Dull, however, is the verdict, the arcana and fine actors notwithstanding, though as we wind up series two it’s noticeable how budgets have grown, cameras have become more fluid and more time seems to have been lavished on productions – clearly, money is being made.

As for Mrs Gale and John Steed – she gets to don her leather gear about halfway through this episode, paving the way for a finale in which she kicks the shit out of trained boxers. Larks, and Gale’s most all-action outing so far. Steed has steadily, through the entire series, been heading in the other direction, becoming more louche, spending more time on hedonistic pursuits. Dapper, debonair John Steed never says no to a drink.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2018

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 25 – Six Hands across a Table

Gale and Steed

 

As I write, the UK is drunkenly stumbling towards its exit from the European Union. Rewind 55 years and Six Hands across the Table, the penultimate episode of the second series of The Avengers, is having a discussion similar to the one the country is having right now, a “whither us” debate about Britain – is it better going it alone or heading towards a more European version of the future?

The drama opens at a meeting of a shipbuilding cartel, part of an industry in trouble. (For those too young, that “industry in trouble” idea is why the country signed up to the European project in the first place.) Digression aside, this is a Gale heavy/Steed light episode hinging on where this consortium of shipbuilders should source their engines – a French nuclear model on the one hand or some other variant not smelling of garlic on the other – a decision which leads to the murder of the most vocal supporter of the European option.

Enter Gale and Steed, most notably Gale, who just happens to be already jodhpur deep at a country house weekend, one of those upper crust horsey events dedicated to drinking early in the day, where various members of the consortium are also congregating. Handy if you’re trying to work out who killed the proponent of the French option. Even handier if one of the consortium (Guy Doleman) seems to have a bit of a thing for Mrs G.

The Americans are the offstage bogeyman in this episode, in the shape of a shadowy US shipbuilder keen to take out this UK consortium, leading to one of the more stoutly patriotic of the consortium’s number (John Wentworth) to assert in a moment of protesting too much, “We’re still a great industrial power and our technical knowledge is second to none.”

The episode is confidently directed by Richmond Harding, who announces himself with a stylish overhead opening shot (unthinkable at the beginning of this series) of our shipbuilding gang working out what to do with their obstreperous Europhile chairman. All we see is their hands, hence the title.

Expat American Reed De Rouen clearly finds British industrial malaise fascinating and his screenplay fingers the chummy old school tie – this cabal of bosses are meant to be in competition with each other, not cooperating. Rouen has also, perhaps for balance, added in a subplot about the unions and a possible strike in the offing. This makes things a touch overwrought and a bit too talky at times and adds little to the first verdict – cabals of industry bosses are a bad thing.

In terms of personnel, Honor Blackman bosses this episode, with Patrick Macnee barely getting a look-in, though there is a funny moment when this lethal, toned superspy is leaving Gale’s room via the window and gives out a middle-aged “ooh” as he lifts his leg over the sill. Edward de Souza, John Wentworth and Guy Doleman all give good value, but it’s Philip Madoc who stands out as a dead-eyed psychopath, the Welsh character actor who built a career on his ability to look sinister.

The message? Be careful of people waving the flag. De Rouen is not against patriotism per se but self-aggrandisement dressed up as disinterested altruism. Again, quite a timely message as we head towards Brexit.

 

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2018

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 24 – A Chorus of Frogs

Shima, Stevens, Pohlmann and Macnee

 

A mix of the familiar and the exotic in A Chorus of Frogs, the 24th episode in the broadcast run of series two of The Avengers, and another chance for Julie Stevens’s Venus Smith to do her wide-eyed naive thing.

It’s a useful character trait, since there is plenty of explicatory work to be done in an episode that kicks off with a frogman dying of the bends, before taking in a group of the dead man’s fellow divers (and, it seems, spies) called the Frogs, a large yacht that’s home to a Bond villain fattie (Eric Pohlmann) and a head-in-the-clouds scientist (Frank Gatliff) who hasn’t quite realised that the diving technology he’s working on is actually a mini-submarine that’s intended as a vital bit of military kit.

Talking of not quite realising, this is Venus Smith’s sixth outing as Steed’s sidekick and she still hasn’t quite sussed that she’s working for the British Secret Service (or some associated body). Still, that is part of her charm, as is the obligatory song – she’s a professional nightclub chanteuse, dammit – which I must admit I could have done without this time around.

However, it is all part of the plot, since Smith is working on this large yacht out in Greece, having been planted there by Steed, who obviously knew in advance that some skulduggery was going to be afoot – we know not how, nor, in the scheme of things, should we care too much.

As well as a key role for Julie Stevens, there are also strong females in the shape of Colette Wilde, one of the Frogs concerned that this latest death isn’t the accident it at first it appears to be, and Yvonne Shima, who starts off as the plaything of millionaire baddie Mason (Pohlmann) but develops more character and dramatic weight as the story progresses – she’s more than just a pretty face.

Money has been spent, clearly, on the sets, which are lavish by usual standards, and the sense of a series steering deliberately away from British villains and mundane crimes is strong.

The exotic setting, side characters and plotlines of Martin Woodhouse’s screenplay combine to give a taste of things to come, but also of things viewers might just have been considering for themselves – the era of the European summer holiday was just dawning and this neat bit of aspirational television fits right in.

 

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2018

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 23 – Conspiracy of Silence

Steed throttles a clown

 

Tight direction is the saving of Conspiracy of Silence, episode 23 of the second series of The Avengers, a mix of the confusing and the humdrum. Why, for example, is Steed being targeted by a killer while he’s out walking his dog? The imdb brief description tells us it’s because he interrupted a drug-trafficking op run by the Mafia. So, assuming you are the Mafia, why not just kill him in one of the more usual ways, rather than deploy an innocent, Carlo (Robert Rietty), transformed into an automaton killer by a trigger phrase in a redundant mind-control subplot?

Perhaps The Avengers were just warming up the idea for future episodes – mind control became a standard trope eventually. Or perhaps I wasn’t concentrating properly. What I did get was that the whole plot focuses on that 1960s staple, the circus, where Italians are the norm and Mrs Gale has soon been sent undercover – she’s a journalist writing a big story, they’re told – and is billeted with Rickie (Sandra Dorne, one of those blonde British bombshells who each got a handful of years of steady work before being replaced by the next one).

As I say, it’s the direction here that’s the standout, Peter Hammond keeping things tight and crisp, especially in outdoor sequences shot on film of a shocking standard (normal practice on British TV in the 1960s) and with the sound post-dubbed. He even gets a touch imaginative out in the woods, letting the camera suggest panic, frenzy and threat as Steed is shot at, and gives chase.

Hammond is also good at conjuring atmosphere in the circus – this is one of those dead-on-its-arse outfits that TV was killing, full of troupers whose “let’s go on with the show” attitude was really the only thing keeping things going.

Hitman Carlo is one of those troupers, a clown who, along with Rickie, circus manager Gutman (Roy Purcell) and the Professor (Willie Shearer, one of 1960s TV’s go-to guys when a midget was required) are just a handful of the slightly too many characters chasing not quite enough action.

The sound doesn’t help. It’s awful to the point of inaudibility on the DVD I watched and we’re reminded again that these are not transfers of the original videotapes, all of which were wiped for series one, two and three, but 16mm telerecordings (aka kinescopes), so a second generation of a poor original.

I say the direction saves the day but perhaps I’m being unfair – the interplay between Macnee and Blackman is also rather enjoyable, each trying to make the other corpse with eccentric line readings and what I’m guessing is frequent improvisation.

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2018

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 22 – The Man in the Mirror

Venus photographs a dead man

 

At this stage in the game – we’re at episode 22 now – we more or less expect someone to be dead before the opening credits have rolled. But Man in the Mirror rings the changes a touch – there’s a dead body in the opening shot.

The plot is slight and utterly fanciful and centres on Venus Smith – in a stripy t shirt and wearing that 1960s hat faintly modelled on the soldier’s shako (funny how the lovin’ decade loved its military regalia) – visiting a funfair with her dog. She takes some snaps and, when they’re developed, it turns out that in one of the shots is the dead man, alive as you like, reflected in a mirror.

Steed, meanwhile, late for a briefing, has been busted down to office duties after mounting a magisterial defence of his tardiness and is set to work on the case of a ciphers clerk who might have been selling secrets to the enemy. No prizes for guessing that the clerk and the dead man and the guy in the photograph are one and the same.

Being a Venus Smith episode, a song or two is in order, and we soon get one as we cut to a studio where the chanteuse is laying down some tracks with a jazz combo.

If Smith’s songs seem unnecessary, Steed’s demotion is also an odd detail. It’s thrown in as if it’s going to be pivotal, but in practical terms he seems unaffected by it and is soon carrying on pretty much as usual, visiting the funfair, interacting with Venus Smith and setting about cracking the case.

It’s a dog’s breakfast of an episode, relying on luck for its breakthroughs rather than detective work or insight, but there are some bright points. Ray Barrett is in it, for starters. A familiar face on 1960s/70s TV, the Australian Barrett was a go-to actor who brought a thoughtful edge to the various bruisers he played. Here he’s a heavy at the funfair.

Writers Geoffrey Orme and Anthony Terpiloff seem quite interested in the relationship between the funfair owner (Julian Somers) and his disgruntled girlfriend/potential wife (Daphne Anderson), and there’s a fair bit of Armchair Theatre-style badinage/bickering between the two of them. More usually in The Avengers, the back-and-forth is between Steed and his female companion.

Talking of which, the women in this episode – the dead man’s spiky wife (Rhoda Lewis) excepted – tend to be of the doormat variety, which isn’t The Avengers way at all.

It all feels as if it’s been cobbled together in a hurry, right down to the hall of mirrors finale which the script seems to be setting us up for.

Mark this one down as missable.

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 21 – The White Dwarf

Mrs Gale reads a children's science book

A top astronomer dies before the opening credits in The White Dwarf, the 21st episode broadcast in series 2 of The Avengers. Turns out that a large astral body might be heading towards Earth and if it does in fact arrive, we’re all toast. And Professor Richter was the only man who knew absolutely for sure whether it was coming this way or not. Who would want such a man dead?

It’s a good sci-fi premise which sees The Avengers edging further into the world they would eventually dominate – the esoteric.

And off we go to some science facility in Cornwall, Mrs Gale undercover as usual, as Dr Gale, checking into the local small hotel where all the boffins live, a vegan, no-drinking, no-smoking establishment that’s more 21st century than 1960s Britain.

Back in London we discover who exactly stood to gain from the scientist’s death, a couple of shifty stock market dealers named Barker and Johnson (George A Cooper, Bill Nagy) who are using information leaked from a government source – the brother of Johnson – to make a market killing.

There are lots of nice touches in Malcolm Hulke’s script. It’s human frailty rather than Ayn Rand-style government-is-bad conspiracy that’s at the heart of the dastardliness. Put another way, an over-fondness for money, aka cupidity, a word that seems to have dropped entirely out of daily use in the modern world, surprise surprise.

Another curlicue is Miss Tregarth, the vegan B&B landlady, all shitty service and high expectations of her guests, a brilliant study of British manners anticipating Fawlty Towers and played to the hilt by Constance Chapman.

The influence of Quatermass – Nigel Kneale’s massive popular, critically respected sci-fi creation which was to the 1950s what Doctor Who was to the 1960s – is evident in the amount of scientific chit-chat bandied between various boffins. But there’s no bogging down when it comes to action. Both Mrs Gale and Mr Steed have breakthroughs, but they come as a result of decisive moments of action – for instance, at one point Steed, posing as a stockbroker, breezes into the office of leaky government scientist Henry Johnson (Peter Copley) and asks him straight out if the world is about to end.

The elements are falling into place: fanciful government departments, unhinged schemers, a fair bit of tech, lots of blithe banter. If it all comes to too hasty a conclusion with – a standard Avengers ta-daa – a gunfight, much fun has been had along the way.

For students of 1960s manners, there’s also a nice scene in which Steed knocks up a meal, Ipcress File-style, the swinging bachelor showing he’s as capable in the kitchen as well as any other room you might care to mention. Check out the wooden salad bowl, very Habitat, another sign that the grip of 1950s austerity is being loosened.


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© Steve Morrissey 2018



The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 20 – School for Traitors

Venus Smith and John Steed

 

 

Mrs Gale takes a rest and Venus Smith gets another outing in an episode set at an elite Oxbridge-style university and kicking off with a death (again) before the credits (again).

Steed is sent in to find out what happened to the man he was meant to have been keeping an eye on, after a briefing from a different control, One-Seven (Frederick Farley), a ridiculous throwback complete with cigarette holder and winged collar.

A much chattier, gamine Venus Smith is introduced early on. Smith just happens to be gigging at the university’s rag week, which is handy for Steed, who has soon also inveigled his way into the grove of academe and is chatting away to a young academic (John Standing) and gently pumping him for intel over a game of bar billiards at the local pub.

The story soon resolves itself into something familiar and something that’s actually rather hot-button. In the familiar corner we have a distant cousin of The Browning Version – scholastic shenanigans, hooky cash and honour besmirched – revolving around Green (Terence Woodfield), a working class student caught up in a money-lending racket. And in the hot-button corner – and this is why the episode is called School for Traitors – a story about the recruiting of spies at a prestigious university, spies who would go on to progress to the very uppermost echelons of the British Establishment. Given that Kim Philby, one of the Cambridge Five group of spies, had just fled to Russia, a fact that wouldn’t be confirmed until some months after this episode was transmitted in February 1963, writer James Mitchell either took a punt on a rumour, or was just very lucky. But then he was something of a spy expert and went on to write a good chunk of the excellent TV series Callan.

The two strands – money and spying – are tied together by blackmail, the luckless student caught out by the money-lending scam being brought into the spying fold by the promise of his debts being wiped out. This is all organised by local pub landlord Higby, played here by Reginald Marsh, a brilliant actor who often did comedy but here reminds us what a great sinister presence he could be when he wanted to be.

Talking of which, John Standing, only three years into a screen career, looks entirely at home on screen, playing a variation of the posh charmer on which he’d build a career, here suggesting his character is a lot brighter than he’s letting on.

And it seems the producers have worked out what to do with Julie Stevens, making Venus Smith a lot more garrulous, perhaps a version of the stereotyped silly young woman, but a self-possessed modern, 1960s one rather than the vampish 1950s-ish coquette she started out being. If Smith’s character is a bit implausible – a nightclub singer and part-time spy – Stevens is nevertheless rather good at both variations, though the modern version is a better foil for Steed, and useful in terms of explication.

Class is a concern – as it would be in Callan, a spy series in which Edward Woodward played a chippy working class spy in a toff’s world – and without giving away too much, let’s just say that the working class characters tend towards the good, and the higher up in status we go, the more rotten it gets.

Interesting aspects abound in this incident packed story, but it’s still fairly flabby, perhaps more fascinating as history than as drama.

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2018

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 19 – The Golden Eggs

Steed, Gale and Dr Ashe

 

Because The Avengers were not broadcast in production order*, you do get the odd anomaly. The getting-to-know-you dialogue between Steed and Mrs Gale in Warlock, the 18th (broadcast order) episode of series 2, makes more sense when you know this episode was designed as the Series 2 opener, introducing Steed’s new sidekick.

There’s another incongruity in the follow-up, which sees actor Peter Arne again playing a baddie, as he had done the previous week (if you were watching in 1963). Then he was the eponymous warlock. This time he’s playing Redfern, the toff at the peak of a criminal pyramid which has pulled off the feat of stealing a pair of golden eggs, which contain – unbeknown to most – a deadly virus.

“A bit of a late-Victorian tea-cosy,” is how Steed describes the wing-collared gentleman boffin whose eggs have been purloined – a nice bit of vivid writing by Martin Woodhouse, a multi-talented individual, a doctor who designed and built computers and had retired from TV by the mid-1960s to write scientific thrillers.

Contrast the fussy egghead with Steed and Gale, who seem to be living in a freewheeling, co-habiting 1960s way – she’s got the decorators in is the excuse – and we have the makings of a classic Avengers set-up, complete with rigid class structure: the villains go from oily rag (Gordon Whiting), to his managerial superior (Robert Bernal) to the distinctly la-di-dah Arne, who spends most of the episode fiddling with antique clockwork gewgaws much like a Bond villain.

The episode is heavily Maguffined, being essentially a search for the eggs, and is focused on Mrs Gale, as an undercover journalist trying to tease from the scientist (Donald Eccles) what might have befallen them. Steed is brought in an explicator/debriefer capacity in what’s little more than an incidental role.

If it’s not entirely successful, that’s because with three different social classes of villainy there are too many characters flapping about not doing enough, but the dark, wintry looks conjured up by director Peter Hammond are attractive (if you can see past the foggy 1960s production values) and Mrs Gale is designed to stand out in her Spanish hat and tartan cape combo. Leather fans will also note that Honor Blackman pulls on the jump suit when the going gets tough – no wonder the James Bond people wanted her for Pussy Galore.

 

* The business of production order versus broadcast order is gone into at some length on the incredibly useful The Avengers Forever site.

 

 

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The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 18 – Warlock

Peter Arne as Cosmo Gallion

Woo hoo, the suggestion of nudity and all sorts of pagan goings-on are all over the screen in the opening sequence of Warlock, as groovy hipsters gyrate themselves into a frenzy around a photo of… a middle aged man.

All is soon explained as we join John Steed, arriving at the home of scientist Peter Neville (Alban Blakelock), where the housekeeper is as bright as a button but the man himself in a bug-eyed catatonic funk.

Hooray – mind control, the big theme of The Avengers (and much 1960s cultural output) in years to come – has finally berthed, the idea being that the scientist’s mind has been somehow stolen by a group of occultists after he himself foolishly dabbled in necromancy.

Seeking answers, Steed heads to the Natural History Museum, where Mrs Gale gives him and us an overview – the influence of the occult is very strong, she avers, if you believe in that sort of thing.

And off we go again, in a fast moving episode written by Doreen Montgomery (whose career stretching back to the 1930s included a co-credit on Fanny by Gaslight) to the lair of the occultists, where scientist Peter Neville is just arriving, trancelike and intoning Aleister Crowley’s maxim “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,” thus tapping into another two of the 1960s great obsessions – freedom and Crowley himself. The devil has nothing to do with it, of course, instead it’s foreign powers seeking to wrest from Neville’s hand the formula for a revolutionary fuel which the scientist has spent his formidable brain power working on.

Peter Arne plays occultist-in-chief Cosmo Gallion (great name), a paranormalist by day who goes to the dark side by night and practises arcane rituals described helpfully by his assistant as “dangerous”.

It wouldn’t be an episode of The Avengers without a bit of undercover work, and in short order Mrs Gale has inserted herself into Gallion’s orbit and waits for him to take the bait. Which he does.

This was supposed to be the episode that first introduced the public to Mrs Gale – hence the “getting to know you” dialogue at the Natural History Museum, and the fact that Honor Blackman’s accent is so sharp it could etch glass. She’d knock it back a couple of notches as she eased into the character and became more familiar with Macnee’s jolly  return-of-volley style of reading lines.

No more needs be said about the plot of this rather saucy, flavoursome episode, which some take issue with because it deals with the supernatural, though in fact it really deals with human credulity and suggestibility.

It probably had real power when it was first broadcast in the dog days of January 1963, as Britain lay locked in the icy grip of the worst winter for 200 years. Outside the sea might have been freezing, but on TV there was the suggestion of lusts unbridled as the members of Gallion’s coven (most of whom move like the trained dancers they are) do an early 1960s version of letting it all hang out.

Austin Powers, eat your heart out.

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2018

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 17 – Box of Tricks

Smith and Steed examine a box

 

A thin, confusingly plotted and frankly rather dull episode is only emphasised by the terrible picture and sound quality (on the old box set I’m watching this series on, anyway).

And it’s a Venus Smith episode, which means a song from the chanteuse, but not until after the opening credits. Before they roll, we watch as a magician in the night club does the disappearing lady trick. Glamorous assistant enters magic box covered in spangles. Magician utters the magic words. Glamorous assistant exits magic box covered in spangles and blood – dead.

We cut to a seemingly unrelated story, set in the house of a senior military gent (Maurice Hedley) in a wheelchair, overseen by his well meaning daughter (Jane Barrett), who is keen on any quack remedy (including a mysterious box said to deliver healing vibes) to restore dear papa to full health. Hence the presence of Steed, posing as a masseur, who is soon chirruping away about his work on the local Nato base, where he has come into the possession of a number of secrets. Will anyone take the bait?

Meanwhile, back at the club, the magician (Ian Weston) seems to have lost another assistant, and rather than the police stepping in, Steed arrives to co-opt Smith into posing as assistant number three. To what end, we have no idea, but actor Julie Stevens is at least given a few lines to express how nervous she feels about the latest assignment .

These two stories – the wheelchair-using general and the nightclub magician – seem to have no overlap and even as we enter the home straight it’s unclear how they relate to each other. The result is an episode that is a struggle to remain interested in. This has to be the fault of writers Edward Rhodes and Peter Ling (Ling went on to be a moving force behind the long-running UK TV soap Crossroads), though it’s got to be someone higher up the production pecking order who decided that this disengaging episode would really benefit from two songs from the much more gamine, 1960s-ish Venus Smith – this seems to be one more than is strictly necessary and slows things down almost to a standstill.

Cathy Gale does not feature, though was apparently involved in earlier drafts of the script – possibly as the masseuse working up at the general’s house? This would make sense since Smith and Steed have previous and he is her control. Either way, a bit of Gale’s judo could only have been a plus.

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2018