The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 6 – November Five

Cathy and Steed confer

 

 

Classic ass-backwards Avengers plotting is the hallmark of November Five, the sixth episode of the third series, which was first broadcast on Saturday 2 November 1963, three days before the Fifth of November (as it’s always called in the UK, in the same way that the Fourth of July is never July Four in the US). This is the day when Brits celebrate the thwarting of a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605 by Guy Fawkes and his cabal (or, depending on your political outlook, a celebration of the plot itself) by burning effigies of a “guy” on a fire.  

 

This fact has plot relevance because, as we see before the opening credits have even rolled, someone has only gone and assassinated a newly elected member of parliament, right at the declaration of his victory. In short order we cut to Parliament, where Steed is quizzing his local MP (David Langton) about the dead man. And in a bit of swift plotting, Mrs Gale is persuaded by Steed to stand in the election to find the man’s successor, and is despatched to a local keep-fit studio, which for some reason uses the services of the same PR company as the dead man.  

 

Back in Parliament, again, and Steed’s MP is getting mildly irritated at the fact that this bowler-hatted outsider keeps buttonholing him, all hail fellow well met and prying questions, not least about this shadowy PR company which, wouldn’t you know it, Steed’s MP is also involved with somehow.   Oh, and a five megaton warhead has also gone missing.   It turns out the dead MP knew something about the warhead, was about to go public with it, and died for his efforts. Mrs Gale, in an act of bravado, is shooting her mouth off to anyone who’ll listen that she also knows the same thing, and will also go public… Will this flush the killers out?  

 

Why is an MP concerning himself with a missing warhead, when this is the concern of the secret services? Like the fact that Steed and Gale know instantly that the PR company is the important lead to follow, much in this episode makes little sense. And the more you know about the workings of the British parliament – or any electoral system – the less sense it makes.  

 

Clearly written in an era when TV viewers had no idea how any of this politics stuff worked, this episode is also in thrall to the new notion of the fitness gym, where Iris Russell, as Fiona, is particularly effective as the darkly neurotic manager of this bright, cheerful and very modern place.  

 

It’s also nice to see Joe Robinson as Max, a heavy from the gym. He was Honor Blackman’s judo teacher in real life, gets a few lines of dialogue even, and if I can go off-piste for a second, you can find a nice story of him aged about 70 fighting off a gang of muggers in Cape Town if you look him up on the imdb. Don’t mess with Joe.  

 

Blackman gets into a lot of leather for her big finish – the more leather, the more lethal seems to be the idea – perhaps under the influence of Frederick Starke, who did Blackman’s wardrobe this time out. Leather apart, the clothes generally are a bit more Dior, more upmarket, and another sign that The Avengers is taking off.        

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019

 

 

The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 5 – Death of a Batman

André Morell and Philip Madoc

 

 

An episode called Death of a Batman in a series called The Avengers does sound like something DC Comics and Marvel might cook up between them. But here the word batman is used in the British Army sense – he’s essentially a butler to one of the officers, the class system as rigid in the armed forces as it was in civvie street.  

 

The story gets going with Steed hearing that a man called Wrightson, his old batman in the Second World War, has died. This kindly man of modest means was also somehow in possession of a huge amount of money, or so it turns out when his will is read. He was also pretty old. We’re told he died of old age, pretty much. So does Steed have an ageing portrait somewhere in his attic? Turns out the batman, Wrightson, was much older than Steed, and had even served in the First World War. Still doesn’t explain the money, though, does it? Steed and Gale investigate in a case that seems much more of a private affair than the previous week’s, which was all tech and spycraft.  

 

Considering that it was first broadcast on 26 October 1963 – the day the US announced it could hit any target anywhere in the world with a nuclear warhead fired from a submarine – this seems at first to be a disappointingly dowdy, kitchen-sink affair, too full of dull interiors and the sort of working class accents that do not usually scream “Classic Avengers!”  

 

But it’s a good episode, a fascinating one, thanks to the writing by Roger Marshall, and acting by Kitty Atwood and David Burke (as the dead man’s knows-her-place widow and angry-young-man son, suspicious of toffs like Steed turning up out the blue) and particularly André Morell – Watson to Peter Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes in Hammer’s Hound of the Baskervilles – and Katy Greenwood as hilarious aristocrat Lady Cynthia.

 

Pay attention and you might learn something about the stock market and insider trading, a subject The Avengers is fond of. Morell’s Lord Teale is an investment banker who advises the wealthy on what to do with their money, and then seems to do exactly the opposite with it, in the case of the sex-mad Lady Cynthia. Teale advises her to keep her money exactly where it is, and as soon as she leaves the room sells off everything to re-invest in tech firms of vital national strategic interest. Since the randy Lady Cynthia has been purring about one of her recent conquests, a Scandinavian air steward – “that blond hair; those open sandwiches” – we’re perhaps being given to understand that she deserves to be manipulated. Either way it’s a funny diversion in an otherwise exposition-heavy scene divulging that this is all part of a plan hatched with Teale’s slippery business partner Van Doren, played Philip Madoc, a stalwart villain of 1960s UK TV.  

 

Mrs Gale is soon undercover, playing a receptionist at Teale and Van Doren’s consultancy, where things are not going too well for the company, and haven’t been helped at all by the death of the batman, who knew the aristo from the First World War, though the fact that Wrightson had returned the medal awarded on Lord Teale’s say-so tells us he had moral qualms about being involved with him.  

 

A story about the honest lower orders, shady, sexually incontinent aristocrats and stock market swizzes plays straight to the prejudices of the viewers, of course, and allows all the actors to camp it up, particularly Morell and Madoc who just about resist the urge to play a pair of pantomime villains.  

 

Notably, Mrs Gale gets a fight scene early on in the episode, when she finds a villain rootling around in the dead man’s house, a sign of her increasing importance in the franchise, and Patrick Macnee is a lot more energetic than usual. It looks like he’s trying to keep up.  

 

Will you entirely understand what was going on by the end? I didn’t fully, but I felt like I’d been entertained. For sure, it is a step back from the Swinging Avengers style of the previous week’s The Nutshell, but Death of a Batman was far from the drab episode suggested by the opening scenes.          

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019  

The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 4 – The Nutshell

edina ronay and patrick macnee

 

 

Roughly five months after it was made in May 1963, on 19 October, the day that the 14thEarl of Home – who had not been elected to any office at all – was announced as the new prime minister of the country, the United Kingdom sat down to watch The Nutshell, the fourth episode out of the traps in the third series of The Avengers.  

 

It’s doubtful that the aristocratic PM with the stiffest of upper lips was much interested in the doings of a bowler-hatted spy, even though both were Eton-educated and probably had the same Savile Row tailor. But if Sir Alec (as he later became, when in tail-wagging-dog style he’d been elected to the House of Commons) had been watching on that Saturday evening, he’d have witnessed the final arrival of the programme in what might be called archetypal Avengers territory – no pubs, no members of the public, lots of tech, esoteric locations, boffins, double-cross, spy-speak, and much more.  

 

And we’re in up to the oxters in the opening shot, as Edina Ronay (who’d also had a significant role in The Removal Men, in series 2) heaves into view in a frog suit, darts around in what is obviously a high-tech facility of some sort, photographs a secret document, and high-tails it.  

 

The facility is in fact a secret underground bunker called Nutshell – a vague acronym for Nuclear Underground Target Shelter – and the theory goes that the burglar must have had inside help to get in.   Fascinatingly, and quite a development in terms of set-up, it’s Mrs Gale who knows all the details of the case (the last vestiges of the original idea that Steed worked with a network of amateurs, like a Fagin Spymaster, having been finally swept away), and it’s she who briefs Steed, once they’ve had a small chat about the pros and the cons of the arms race – mutual assured destruction has guaranteed peace (she says)… until some mad fool tries to pull off a first strike (he says).  

 

Off we go, into the bunker, where a man called Disco – Director of Intelligence, Security and Combined Operations – informs Steed and Gale that “someone has stolen Big Ben”, the list of every double agent operating behind the Iron Curtain, and another acronym.   It wouldn’t be an episode of The Avengers unless Steed, Gale, or both of them, were trying to pass themselves off as something they weren’t, and soon John Steed is behaving in a very dubious manner, helping with the escape of a shady East European involved in the whole Big Ben business.  

 

Who’s the mole? John Cater is rather excellent as the crepuscular Disco, Charles Tingwell puts in a warm, bluff performance as the head of security, essentially playing the same character he did in the Margaret Rutherford-era Miss Marple films. And, er, there aren’t really many other characters it could be – Patricia Haines and Christine Shaw’s roles seem too minor – so place your bets.  

 

There is tons of tech – CCTV is ubiquitous (and that really is ahead of its time), x-ray machines of the sort we now have at airports, fingerprint readers, control rooms festooned with TV screens, it’s like a seedbed of the surveillance culture of the future.  

 

Good actors and great tech to one side, what really makes it one of the best episodes so far is the screenplay by Philip Chambers, who keeps us guessing as to who the mole is, throwing more and more suspects into the mix as we head for the finale. Even Steed is implicated. But this far in, no one is going to buy that for a minute, surely?        

 

 

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 © Steve Morrissey 2019  

The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 3 – Man with Two Shadows

Cathy Gale assesses John Steed

 

Shown the same day that RA (“Rab”) Butler made his big pitch to be the new leader of the Conservative party after Macmillan’s shock resignation (Butler’s big speech was a total fail), Man with Two Shadows also plays with the idea of the wrong man – the double being so fruitful a concept that The Avengers would return to it often, as did a lot of 1960s TV. Perhaps the widely prevalent notion of “false consciousness” – there is a right way of seeing things and a wrong way – has something to do with it.  

 

Another well worn path is that of someone being killed before the opening credits have rolled. In this case it’s a spy called Gordon who is offed by his exact spitting image, who has been hiding in the wardrobe.  

 

We cut to an interrogation, where another spy is being debriefed/interrogated by Steed, who is amazed and confounded by the man’s personality – it’s all over the place. One minute he’s American, the next a Nazi, but reigning over all his multiple bits and pieces is the fact that this spy is a gibbering wreck. What the man does reveal, however, as he chaotically zigzags from one personality to another (nice bit of bonkers acting by Terence Lodge) is the existence of a “doubles” program which is replacing key people in the country with their exact copies.  

 

A quick visit to the apartment that Steed and Gale share – more bickering than flirting this time out – and we’re off to the holiday camp where the double of the spy Gordon is now hiding out and where, we soon see, a double of John Steed is about to replace the real thing, when he gets the chance.  

 

Crime writer James Mitchell’s neat script throws in a bit of real colour here – the spy has struck up a holiday romance with a young woman called Julie (Gwendolyn Watts), a chatty romantic sort who’s convinced this dreamboat is going to propose to her. Gordon, or his replacement, is horrified by this development. For starters it’s a complication he doesn’t need, and secondly she’s way below him in terms of social class. I say!  

 

That’s enough plot, apart from to say that at some point Mrs Gale is going to have to work out which Steed is which, and try not to kill the wrong one.   The slightly comic, slightly kitchen sink romantic sub-plot apart, it’s an efficient bit of low-budget sci-fi, with the likes of Geoffrey Palmer, as a doctor called in to provide a bit more scientific bottom to the episode, helping to keep things moving along.  

 

Cathy gets a fight scene and what stands out is that Honor Blackman is notably better at the martial arts than she was – she’s been training. And the camera following her, that’s also much more nimble than we’re used to, especially considering the standard of TV shows in the 1960s.    

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2019

The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 2 – The Undertakers

Honor Blackman, Lally Bowers

 

On Saturday 5 October 1963, a day after the US Joint Chiefs of Staff had updated their plan to invade Cuba the following July (President Kennedy’s assassination would intervene), and while JFK’s wife Jackie was enjoying the company of shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis in Greece (she would later marry him), TV audiences in the UK got their own kicks by sitting down to watch the second episode of series three of The Avengers, altogether a camper, more knockabout affair than series two.

 

And there was nothing camper in the 1960s than death, there being a positive Joe Orton-esque quality to the superb opener to The Undertakers – one member of a coffin-carrying team of pallbearers peels off from the group, draws a gun and shoots a man, whereupon the group doff their top hats, the coffin lid is removed and… instant takeaway.

 

We cut to the apartment that Steed and Gale seem to share, where Steed is flirting with Cathy Gale in a manner bordering on the needy, while Gale entirely ignores his pleading comments and continues cleaning and re-assembling the rifle she’s working on, this scene-setting bit of business-plus-badinage being part of the Avengers formula.

 

Steed is meant to be off on a trip to New York, accompanying an important scientist. But before he can make the trip, the man is dead and a double seems to have been recruited to take his place. What is going on? Actually, you could ask that question about every ten minutes during this episode, as Steed first stumbles, seemingly by accident, on the funeral parlour from where this death-and-double scheme operates, then Gale arrives at the door of the people who are masterminding the whole operation, also seemingly by accident. What scriptwriter Malcolm Hulke is doing is something you’d never get nowadays – he’s withholding important details about the investigative process, forcing us to assume that Steed and Gale know far more than they’re letting on. Does this work? Not at all. Nor does the rather mundane reveal as to what, ultimately, this death-and-double scheme is really all about – no spoilers, but tax avoidance is involved.

 

Coherence isn’t really the prime concern here – Gale, posing as an assistant at a home where millionaires are stacking up like planes over an airport gets into her leather gear at one point, as care assistants the world over do for no particular reason. Though of course we know the reason – there’s a fight scene coming over the brow of the hill.

 

Stopping it all from being a bit of a yawn are the superb actors involved, particularly Lally Bowers, a proper British character actress who could give Margaret Rutherford a run for her money when it comes to the eye-roll and the swooping flute.

 

And its far-from-flattering portrait of the super-rich adds some grit, too – the 1% long before the term existed. But then the 1960s, as well as being fascinated by death, as the young are, also rejected money, this being a time of more or less full employment, rising living standards and a country that had, in the words of Harold Macmillan, the prime minister of the time, never had it so good. Unlike the PM himself, who had resigned on health grounds within two weeks of this show being transmitted.

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2019

The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 1 – Brief for Murder

John Steed

Whoop de doo, it’s season three of The Avengers and to celebrate its continuing success, the opening credits have been given a bit of a makeover – they’re much more Saul Bass now – there’s more money being spent on the production, the camerawork is more filmic and the editing is noticeably snappier.

Brian Clemens has also arrived as a writer. In fact Clemens had contributed two scripts (his first, Brought to Book, co-written with Patrick Brawn) for the first series but those episodes have now disappeared, so this is his extant debut, if there is such a thing.

And Brief for Murder has the Clemens fingerprints all over it – a tricksy plot, misdirection and smart dialogue. Take the establishing scenes here – a man who is obviously guilty of treason is acquitted in court in what is an obvious case of corruption or miscarriage of justice. Cut to a local pub where the wrong’un is celebrating, and if that isn’t his star witness John Steed buying him drinks and wishing him god speed. Mrs Gale enters, lips pursed, brows beetled and makes a scene, accusing Steed of consorting with traitors and perverting the course of justice. They fall out. We suspect this is a ploy, because this is The Avengers, but Clemens has us hooked all the same.

Another Clemens standby, archness, rears its head in the following scene, as we cut to two old lawyer brothers cackling malevolently over their legal chicanery in getting this miscreant off and drinking brandy out of the most gigantic glasses. And then we’re off to a yoga class, Clemens realising that scenes set in old world pubs and lawyers’ chambers work much better when juxtaposed with something altogether more modern. I forgot to mention that the brandy-quaffing brothers also use quill pens and dress in a ridiculously old-fashioned manner. It’s all a bit of a pantomime, another Clemens trait.

Quite why the two lawyer brothers have different accents is never explained, but John Laurie and Harold Scott’s mugging and Michael Gambon-style thespian knavery gives the episode a real boost and gives Macnee a bit of a rest – usually it’s just him doing the colour work.

But back to the plot. Having publicly declared that Mrs Gale should die, Steed then kills her and ends up tried for murder, the bowler hat he left at the scene of the crime being all the evidence the prosecution needs.

I will say no more, except that there’s an interesting OJ Simpson style twist to come.

The end credits, too, have been jazzed up a bit. The cadences are still falling, which might suit a 1950s noirish policier, but are beginning to sound very out of step with the more ironic, camper Avengers on offer. To compensate, composer/arranger John Dankworth has laid on more horns and exotic percussion, all of which bang away merrily, a trope new composer Laurie Johnson (not Laurie Holloway, as I originally wrote – thank you, Jamie) would run with when his new theme arrived, with a new co-star, in series four.

This episode, then, is a harbinger of things to come, but a satisfying little mystery in its own right too.

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2018