The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 16 – Immortal Clay

Steed is briefed by One-Ten in a steam room

 

By a gigantic stroke of luck, it seems, while Mrs Gale is being given a guided tour of a ceramics atelier, she stumbles across a dead body in the room where the raw clay is kept.

Doubly handily, it seems that the company is engaged on cutting edge research to produce an indestructible tile to be used in the nose cone of a British rocket – what days, what days – and the dead man in question is one of the researchers engaged in its development and production.

Of course, Gale – in deliberately ass-backwards Avengers plotting – isn’t at the factory/studio/lab/atelier (Teddington Studios, in fact) by accident, and, by way of explanation, we are soon in a steam room where Steed is being briefed in typical arcane spy style by One-Ten, both men stripped to the waist and girt with towels.

Immortal Clay is the name of the episode, a pacy one broadcast in January 1963 – the 16th episode of series two – in the depths of the coldest British winter of the 20th century.

Doubtless a tale of a ceramic tile that could withstand the extreme heat of re-entry warmed a few shivering souls – who had central heating back then? But back to the plot, which sees Steed donning flat cap and gabardine mac to pose as a man from the Ceramics Research Council. What he finds is a British factory busily throwing away its technological advantage thanks to the dead hand of a pooh-poohing management – these two poles represented by Gary Watson, as the forward-thinking executive trying to work on hi-tech, investment-hungry new developments, such as tiles for space rockets, while his brother (Paul Eddington) is happy to plod along, unaware that the British Empire has ceased to exist and new forces are rising.

One of these is played by Steve Plytas, as a rent-an-ethnic Euro-nasty with connections behind “the Curtain” (as One-Ten puts it), and £20K to wave beneath the nose of the guy who does the actual hard work, played by James Bree in a brown overall to indicate lower social status.

In fictional form we’re watching a dissection of British industry, decades before Japanese ideas about egalitarian systems and American notions of responsive management set about trying to reverse its decline.

The Avengers may have started out as heavily in hock to film noir but by now the emphasis has shifted to the British kitchen sink – class is the concern, factory settings are common, regional accents (forelocks generally being tugged) are often heard.

This kitchen-sinkiness makes for an interesting episode, though hardly a classic one. John Braine and John Osborne seem to be the inspiration for James Mitchell’s screenplay which is thick with flawed characters – snobbish Eddington, unworldly Watson, desperate Bree, who has a thing for hot-but-dim secretary Mara (Didi Sullivan), a character mined for some terribly sexist humour.

As for Plytas as the excessively mannered De Groot, he was one of the 1960s most reliably oily villains, and one look at his face says enough.

Mrs Gale? She’s here, mostly as bait trying to get De Groot to show his hand, but it’s not really her episode. Nor Steed’s, either. Instead, it’s British industry that’s the focus. And it’s not a pretty sight.

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2018

 

The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 15 – Intercrime

Mrs Gale and the Intercrime gang

 

Twelve high level robberies in the last few weeks “and not one of them the work of an Englishman,” Steed says in the opening minutes of Intercrime, both the title of this episode and the name of a criminal outfit, a dark flipside of Interpol organising nefarious goings-on “all over Europe”.

This case for Steed and Mrs Gale, the 15th to be broadcast in the second series – and the first to go out in 1963, the year of JFK’s assassination –  is a busy affair, with more than its fair share of ridiculousness.

For example, to extract information from Hilda Stern (Julia Arnall), the German representative of Intercrime newly arrived in the UK, Mrs Gale poses as a criminal and ends up in Holloway prison sharing a cell (and confidences) with Stern (a faint foreshadowing of From Russia with Love‘s Rosa Klebb, who would arrive on screens later that year), who has been picked up on some passport irregularity. Enter the warden: “Why aren’t you in bed yet?” she asks Mrs Gale. Mrs Gale: “I was just finishing my cocoa.”

It’s all very twee, even more so in Honor Blackman’s barely disguised cut-glass accent, but there is a point to the cocoa reference – Gale has drugged Stern’s and is soon out and about trying to pass herself off as the German hardwoman to the London representatives of Intercrime (boss Kenneth J Warren and right-hand-man Alan Browning).

There clearly being no honour among thieves, the plot turns on the fact that Intercrime itself is being sold down the river by one of its number, and the London franchise co-opts “Hilda” to take out the miscreant.

Enough of the plot, which twists and turns a bit more, enjoyably, and gives Honor Blackman plenty of opportunity to seethe, which she is particularly good at – Mrs Gale isn’t annoyed because she’s not brave, but because she is a feminist wondering why she’s always doing the dirty work, or so Blackman’s face suggests.

The men are in charge of the criminal operation but dramatically there’s a lot of meat for the women, including the unusual sight of a gunplay standoff between two women towards the end. No prizes for guessing which two.

Look out for a door accidentally swinging open to reveal one of those gigantic TV cameras being hastily wheeled out of shot – makes you realise how intricately these teleplays must have been choreographed when you see one of those lumbering beasts.

Though Steed features heavily in early scenes that get the whole Intercrime plot strand rolling, it’s undoubtedly Gale’s episode. Was there a more important female character in 1960s British TV?

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2018

 

The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 14 – Dead on Course

Dr King and John Steed

 

The Avengers might just as easily have been called The Amateurs, since that was the original premise of the show – a bunch of freelance helpmeets called in to assist gangmaster John Steed in the solving of various cases too tricky to be handled by the usual agencies.

No, it makes no real sense, but in Dead on Course, which was the 14th episode to be shown in series two, the concept remains vibrant and Jon Rollason’s Dr Martin King is the amateur called upon to help Steed work out why an experienced pilot would steer a plane into the sea off the coast of Ireland. Steed and King are there not because of the crash itself, but because it has happened before, and Doctor King is involved – flimsy reason – because he is some sort of expert in dead bodies.

Flimsy or not, King is soon on the case, up at the convent where the dead bodies have been taken and quizzing an order of nuns – and it’s a silent order, as it so often was in the 1960s.

It’s a subtle episode, nicely written by Eric Paice, who gives secondary characters more depth than is often the case – the Irish crash investigator bridling because his expertise is being called into question by these johnnie-come-lately Brits, for instance.

The whole set-up allows British TV to indulge in a bit of flagrant Oirishry, in fact, with Donal Donnelly giving particularly good value as a garrulous eejut who works at the local pub (again the pub) where Steed and King are staying.

As for the nunnery, it doesn’t take an eagle eye to spot that one of the sisters appears to be a mister. But is it going to be part of the big denouement, or did they just run out of actresses?

There’s a lot of plot to get through, and quite a lot is made of the difficulty of getting the Catholic Church to behave in the way that everyone else in Ireland would – legal jurisdiction seems unclear (not that it’s mentioned at all, but this is exactly how the sexual abuses and various baby-farming ops run by the Church in Ireland went unchecked for so long).

Patrick Macnee is, as ever, a marvel, using little dollops of theatrical technique to overcome the odd fluff, letting giving full booming throat when he’s conscious that the microphones are in danger of rendering his voice too tinnily.

It’s noticeably a very studio-bound episode, though that’s offset by snappy writing and fast line readings by all involved.

Not bad at all, and the combination of nuns and planes is a fairly unusual one, outside of Airplane and the disaster movies it was spoofing.

 

 

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The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 13 – Death Dispatch

Steed and One-Ten

 

John Steed and Cathy Gale’s party trick, a duet working variations on the theme of the invincibility of the British upper class, really comes into its own in Death Dispatch, the 13th broadcast episode of series two.

We’re off in the sort of colonial landscape described by Graham Greene – of swarthy thugs, Freudian dictators and minor functionaries of the Empire, a place where life is cheap and death is pitiless, as we see in the opening shots of this story where a low-level envoy newly in from Washington is quickly despatched in his hotel room in Jamaica.

Cut to Steed, ogling women from his Caribbean sun lounger and meeting his control, One-Ten (Douglas Muir), by a pool, before being briefed about the death and sent off on his mission, towards a nameless South American country where Miguel Rosas (Richard Warner), a dictator of Peronist stripe holds sway, advised by a shady American wonk (David Cargill).

Then cut again, right down Honor Blackman’s cleavage, for the moment Cathy Gale is introduced, more casual sexism in a series unafraid of it.

The two spend the rest of the episode bouncing, like skimming stones, from one flaky country to the next, avoiding murderous brown-skinned men on airport runways as they advance on Rosas and the answer to the plot’s McGuffin – who killed the courier and why? Along the way they banter like a pre-sex couple while in South America the petty potentate glowers, rages and explodes with the sort of fury that delineates insecure tyrants everywhere.

There is a wrinkle in the otherwise off-the-peg character of Rosas – he has an innocent daughter who spends her time riding horses and enjoying the benefits of dictatorship, all the while blithely unaware what sort of man her father is, or where his vast ill-gotten wealth comes from – she’s both his weakness and his human side.

More minor psychological sketching in the script by Leonard Fincham comes in the character of Gerald Harper’s Foreign Office flunkey, a smooth Brylcreemed posh boy trying to maintain his status while doing what he clearly considers to be skivvy work.

Though slightly absurd, with a baddie not a million miles from central casting, it’s a nice, neat tale told rather well, with enough curlicues to give it interest, and with a recognisable 007 dynamic – the Americans in the wings are the real force, the Brits carry on superficially as if they still have an Empire (after all, we’re only six years after the Suez Crisis – the moment when the Brits realised it was game over), though the relentless supercilious quippery tells a different story.

 

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The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 12 – The Big Thinker

Tony Booth plays cards

 

 

Things go technological in the 12th episode of series two – The Big Thinker – a tale of a big brain computer called Plato and the scientists who minister to it like Delphic virgins in white lab coats.

Hanging on like grim death to the notion that Britain was still at the forefront of things cyber in the early 1960s, the plot turns on the demise of a scientist – frozen to death after getting caught inside the workings of an electronic beast that gives the UK a crucial lead in tech and spying – at which point Steed and Gale are sent in to investigate.

I say Steed and Gale, but the most notable thing about this episode is that it’s dominated by Honor Blackman’s Cathy Gale. It was a rare thing for a woman to take pole position in TV shows at the time, and perhaps came about because Blackman was getting “honorary male” status, as a holdover from the show’s original conceptual idea, which was to have Steed partnered with a fellow male.

Talking of males, Anthony Booth (father of Cherie, the future wife of PM Tony Blair) plays Dr Kearns, a wayward scientist, possibly half-modelled on Alan Turing – brilliant, hectoring, troubled and with an eye on the ladies (so not entirely modelled on Turing), and a bit of a gambler, which takes Kearns and Gale into town, where the scientist gets into a spot of gambler’s trouble.

Mrs Gale is ahead of him, of course, and helps him out in one of many displays of debonair noblesse oblige, a role that usually falls to Steed.

Booth, a left wing firebrand in real life, deploys what he probably thinks is a radical chic acting style to counter the cool aristo posing of Blackman. It’s highly erratic in terms of line readings, vocal inflection and physical gesture. It probably infuriated the other actors and whatever its motivation it’s highly off-putting here, though it does at least add energy to a story that seems to be going out of its way not to be involving.

There’s banter aplenty, and at least the sparring between Gale and Kearns helps bridge the chasm of ennui that threatens to open up at any minute.

It’s Honor Blackman’s episode, Patrick Macnee wandering in here and there as if to remind us that he’s the titular star of the show more than for any real plot advancement. And she acquits herself well, carrying the show in much the same way as she flips an assailant over her shoulder, with ease.

 

 

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The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 11 – Traitor in Zebra

Richard Leech and Honor Blackman

 

In its heyday – Emma Peel era, shot on film, in colour, with the Laurie Johnson theme music – The Avengers became famous, notorious even, for its plots taking place in a nearly depopulated world. All very necessary, the better to maintain the suspension of disbelief – the outrageous storylines and arch characters simply wouldn’t stand up to exposure to the cold light of reality, so the theory goes.

There’s nothing like that going on in the 11th broadcast episode of series two, Traitor in Zebra, which is thick with characters and stiff with “real life” situations.

Patrick Macnee goes undercover as Commander Steed, a naval shrink investigating whether one of her majesty’s men (Michael Danvers-Walker, son of Bob Danvers-Walker, voice of the British Pathe newsreels for decades) has been passing secrets about British cryptography to the enemy, and if so, how. Meanwhile, down at the local boozer, Honor Blackman’s Cathy Gale is inserting herself into local village life, drinking with the lads and playing darts when she isn’t passing herself off as a scientist working up at the lab where the secrets have been stolen. It’s all very chummy.

The plot is a basic whodunit, with Steed and Gale meeting regularly at the pub to swap theories about who the mole could be. Possibles include Danvers-Walker himself, a young William Gaunt as a go-getting rising naval star, Richard Leech as Franks, an amorous local reporter, pipe smoker and tweed wearer. There’s also John Sharp, a familiar TV face particularly good at playing devious characters. Could this shifty villager or local shop girl Linda (Katy Wild) be involved somehow too?

For all the superior supporting players, and a decent cliff-edge finish, this episode is actually a rather humdrum affair, with flat direction by Richmond Harding and too much exposition in John Gilbert’s screenplay. On the upside the Steed/Gale dynamic of flirting, bickering and bantering is by now well established and saves the too-often pub-based action from becoming terminally static.

The Avengers is at its best when the exotic beasts hold sway. There’s not even the slightest sign of that happening here. But, in a studio not far away, and shot around the same time, Sean Connery’s James Bond was borrowing about 50 per cent of John Steed – debonair, eye for the ladies, Jermyn Street apparel, superior attitude, natty hat – and was about to upend British film-making.

The traffic was not to be all one way.

 

 

 

 

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The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 10 – Death on the Rocks

Cathy Gale and John Steed

 

The tone is light and bantery, a set of the features that would become permanent eventually, but in other respects this tenth episode of series two is one of the weaker entrants so far in the Avengers canon.

Nothing wrong with any individual bit of it – a plot about Steed and Mrs Gales setting up home together (I say!), the better to pose as husband and wife, so they can infiltrate some diamond gang that’s trying to muscle in and control the trade by swamping the market with gems. And before you can say “takeover”, Steed has become a partner in a near-moribund diamond trading company, from where he will outwit the interlopers and restore order, pausing only to size up the daughter (Toni Gilpin) of the business’s owner (Meier Tzelniker) for potential conquest.

The British empire was dead but The Avengers clearly missed that memo, and naked colonial ambition of all sorts is what Steed and Gale are involved in here. So much so that it’s hard to be entirely on their side, no matter how thuggish their opponents, or whipcrack Steel and Gale’s flirty exchanges.

Along with colonial assumptions, this episode is thick with class snobbery as again and again the higher status Steed and Gale tell those lower down the social ladder what is and isn’t in – the Beatles had yet to upend that particular table. An early scene in which Gale bamboozles a working class decorator with some needless chat about an art piece he’s simply too dumb to understand pretty much says it all.

And bringing up the rear, so to speak, is the blatant sexism of Steed, not just in his “ding dong” Leslie Phillips appraisals of anything in a skirt, but in his attempts to charm the couture pants off Mrs Gale. The Avengers scores a point here – she will have nothing to do with him (and full marks to Honor Blackman for really playing these scenes with an iron fist inside the velvet coquetry).

As if in sympathy, the sound and video capture are ropier than usual this time round, too. And though director Jonathan Alwyn does a polished job with the lumbering cameras and basic lighting rigs available to him – close-ups nicely used, actors moved cleverly from one set-up to the next – things get away from him in some of the action scenes. Mrs Gale does a bit of judo on heavy Doug Robinson and there’s a guns-blazing finale back at the Steeds’ home towards the end, both breaking through the suspension of disbelief with their awkwardness.

Nice enough, fascinating enough, if you’re interested in TV of the period, or The Avengers more widely, but things wrap up at the end before they feel like they have even got going. As if someone in the production team had issued the brief “Diamonds” to writer Eric Paice and then left it at that.

 

 

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The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 9 – The Sell-Out

Patrick Macnee and Frank Gatliff

 

Just as the keel of the series had started to lift, floating at last in its own water, episode nine of series two plonks it back on the sea floor. The Sell-Out is a throwback to series one, which itself harks even further back – to the film noir genre which originally originally inspired the series. The trenchcoats, the respect for authority, the sense of white knights in a dark world.

As The Avengers moved away from this founding idea, noticeably less and less actual avenging got done.

In a plot set at the United Nations, Jon Rollason is back as Macnee’s sidekick, displacing Honor Blackman as the producers use up another of the episodes originally written for Macnee and original star Ian Hendry. After a quick one two – a killing done hitman-style followed by a briefing in a museum, where John Steed meets handler One Twelve (an excellent Arthur Hewlett) and is dressed down for his flippancy – the plot revolves around Steed guarding a UN big noise (Carleton Hobbs) while at the same time being watched like a hawk by his own side. Is he on the take? Is he “losing his grip”, as the dubious and shadowy senior spy Harvey (Frank Gatliff) insinuates?

The Sell-Out is still good spy stuff, though there are two main problems with the episode. I’ve already alluded to the first, which is that the show itself has moved on into fanciful territory and Dr Martin King is far too meat and potatoes – no slight against actor Jon Rollason, by the way. The other is more technical, and concerns the use of outside broadcast footage, which is of a shockingly bad quality, is clearly shot by a second unit director and lacks the intimacy which director Don Leaver brings to the scenes shot in the studio.

These grumbles aside, it’s again notable how good Macnee is, physically aware that he can compensate for trundling studio cameras by moving on to his marks with speed and adding little flourishes to deliver at least a simulacrum of action – that brolly comes in handy. His voice, in the days of terrible sound, also seems pitched right into the the sweet spot of generally cruddy studio microphones; Macnee is almost crooning his lines.

 

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The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 8 – Death of a Great Dane

Cathy Gale in low cut dress

 

We’re now eight episodes into the second series of The Avengers and change is afoot. Even before Death of a Great Dane gets underway, something clearly sets this episode apart from the ones that came before.

John Dankworth’s theme music has been perked up a bit – that 1950s-influenced jazz-inflected drone was sitting increasingly at odds with the jaunty direction that the series has started take, largely thanks to Patrick Macnee’s playing of the dashing John Steed. And Honor Blackman gets a co-starring credit in the titles, where her face is featured prominently. Ever since Ian Hendry left at the end of series one, Patrick Macnee’s face alone had appeared.

Blackman is also noticeably sleeker, more tanned, more your Bond babe (which she eventually became, as Pussy Galore) and the interaction between Steed and Gale is more noticeably sexual – he’s hitting on her, jokily, in what would probably be called an inappropriate fashion today, though Mrs Gale clearly knows how to take care of herself and fights back with “I could eat you for breakfast, sonny” looks. And the camera, too, is fond of shots that demonstrate not just a more flexible rig, but a keener interest in Blackman’s cleavage.

Plot? More McGuffin-y than we’re used to, about diamonds being found in a dead man’s stomach, the possibility of there being a turf war between rival cartels somehow being a potential spoke in the wheel as the UK starts talks to join the Common Market – “could be the difference between going in and crawling in”, we’re told, in an interchange between Steed and Gale. Which is why they’ve been dragged in, presumably.

The plot moves into vaguely contemporary territory when it’s hinted that the mastermind behind the whole diamond caper might not actually exist; we’re faintly not just in the world of avatars, but of fake news.

The character actors – always a real plus in The Avengers – are really high tone this time around, with John Laurie, as a buffer somehow involved in the diamond cartel shenanigans, delivering much more than is written in the script. But Leslie French as a butler trumps him with a performance of such sibilant superciliousness that he threatens to upstage even the mighty Macnee.

Again class looms large, and this being the 1960s the more rarefied your social standing, the more likely you are to be a shit, this tendency counter-balanced by Steed and Gale, pillars of the British noblesse oblige tradition.

As for Avengers iconography, this is the episode in which Cathy Gale dons leather, and Steed’s bowler hat maker is mentioned by name (Bates or possibly Bateson, the stiff upper lip perhaps having swallowed the last syllable).

We’re just on the borders of kinky boots territory. After a few false starts, The Avengers has found its formula.

 

 

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The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 7 – The Mauritius Penny

John Steed in the dentist's chair

 

An episode about a missing postage stamp? Thou shittest. Indeed not. That is exactly what The Avengers are up to in the seventh episode of series two, a bizarre story that starts off in the genteel world of philately and ends up at a meeting of neo-Nazis, by way of a gun-running operation.

But if that is really what it was all about all along – Nazis and guns – why didn’t Steed tell Mrs Gale that right at the outset, instead of making out it’s all about a missing and very rare stamp? It’s all very baffling but also pretty charming, an episode steeped in class distinction right from the off, as a stamp dealer is killed by a grunty oik while on the phone to stamp fiend Lord Matterley.

Enter John Steed, making value judgments about wine and women (the sexism of these early episodes is quite breathtaking at times), coolly asserting his superiority as the murder trail leads him from the auction house to a villain who went to the same school as Steed, and was even in the same house.

There are fights along the way and they are terribly staged – at one point Steed is rendered unconscious after a policeman touches him on the back of the head with a featherlight truncheon, and later Cathy gets to demonstrate some karate, not entirely convincingly.

The intriguing thing about this episode, written by solid TV hands Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks, is its lack of good guys – Steed and Gale apart, there’s barely a clean nose in it – and the way the class system out in the world of stamp auctions, from brown-coated warehousemen up to fastidious collecting gents, is reflected in the criminal world too.

Talking of which, good to see Alfred Burke as an oily-rag villain, other baddies’ names being withheld for reasons of not wishing to spoil the plot.

Other nice touches include Cathy Gale’s clothes, which seem to be getting more expensive as the series goes on, and Steed getting into a spot of bother in a scene that seems to foreshadow The Marathon Man’s gruesome dentistry.

All in all, a fast episode, too fast really, that packs in a lot of plot into very little space.

As for the nostalgia factor, Burke aside, and not forgetting the distinguished Richard Vernon as Lord Matterley, how about neo-Nazis as a laughable sideshow rather than a clear and present danger?

 

 

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