The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 16 – Small Game for Big Hunters

John Steed in the jungle

 

Two weeks after a coup in the Central African Republic, one day after a forcible change of regime in Nigeria, Small Game for Big Hunters had something of the topical about it – and the tropical – when it first went out in mid January 1966.

 

Prime Minister Harold Macmillan made his Wind of Change speech in 1960 after a monthlong tour of the African colonies. It still had enormous currency two prime ministers down the road when this episode aired. In fact you’ll hear the phrase used at least once, possibly twice.

 

But we’re not in Africa. Instead, TV budgets being what we are, we’re in the Home Counties just outside London, where a station doing research on rubber trees is staffed entirely by ex-colonial chaps and headed by Colonel Rawlings, a composite of every bluff, walrus-y Empire cliché you’ve ever seen, pushed over the line into liverish absurdity by the excellent Bill Fraser.

 

Steed is there to investigate an odd case of a comatose white man, who we met before the onscreen credits hacking through the undergrowth with a machete, to the sound of African drums and ribbiting frogs, only to be struck down by an arrow by a milepost startlingly (is the intention) informing us that we’re not in the “dark continent” but 23 miles from London.

 

Bill Fraser in eye patch as Colonel Rawlings
Blotto! Bill Fraser as the madly eccentric Colonel Rawlings

 

This episode splits right down the middle. In one setting we have Mrs Peel keeping an eye on the comatose man, and mediating between harrumphing man of science Dr Gibson (AJ Brown) and eccentric Professor Swain (Liam Redmond), who waves various African artefacts about hoping to work powerful ju-ju. In the other is Steed, at the research station (and ex-serviceman’s club) with the men in safari suits, where a pastiche of a “the heat, the flies, the incessant drumming” drama is playing out. In fact at one point Fraser gets to utter the line “the natives are restless tonight,” in his climate-controlled simulacrum of a remote African outpost.

 

If you can take it as it’s intended – as a fond satire on the cultural representation of the Empire – it’s all a lot of fun, and there’s even the odd “native” in “war paint” to add a bit of authenticity. (Razafi, the “native” is played by Paul Danquah, who famously seduced and impregnated Rita Tushingham in A Taste of Honey by deft deployment of the words “I dreamed about you last night – fell out of bed twice”, a line later repurposed by The Smiths).

 

Expressions are by and large kept poker-straight. Diana Rigg struggles here, almost breaking out into giggles every time Mrs Peel has a conversation with the batty prof. That aside, Rigg obviously senses that she’s got the boring branch of this bifurcated tale and it’s interesting to watch her turning up the mystery and wattage of her performance. How she’s doing this is beyond me. She was still doing it 50 years later in Game of Thrones. Remarkable.

 

Is the episode any good? Yes, it’s proper vintage era Avengers – bonkers, looking backwards as it goes forwards, gently mocking rather than hating, inclusive, fun, progressive, silly and yet with a serious point about giving up the fantasies of a lost imperial age.

 

All of which can be summed up as Steed and Peel epilogue their way out of the episode in this week’s exit vehicle – a canoe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 15 – Room Without a View

Mrs Peel behind bars

 

The title of EM Forster’s novel is parodied in Room Without a View, for reasons which never really became clear to me, but then on looking back over my notes to this episode I realised I could remember barely any of it.

 

Some things I do remember, though, such as the bare bones of the plot, which are standard formula stuff – a scientist (Peter Madden) back from a mysterious disappearance attempting to kill his wife (Jeanne Roland), having been brainwashed and broken by the Chinese. Which is presumably why the overwrought man is trying to kill her, since she’s oriental (Roland was born in Burma).

 

Is “oriental” a PC term or not? I can’t keep up, so forgive me if I’ve trodden on any toes. Far more egregiously, Roland gets no screen credit – a woman and non-white is presumably the reason why – even though she has a speaking role and interacts on more than one occasion and is a fine addition to a strong cast. Men in other episodes have had a credit for far less.

 

Back to the plot. Steed and Peel are soon on the case of the dangerous boffin, which seems connected to a hotel that’s implicated in more than its fair share of missing persons, all of whom are in the “brain drain” category of people the country can ill afford to lose. And at the centre of the web sits Pasold (Peter Arne), a supercilious brain-drainer in chief.

 

The notion of the brain drain as an international conspiracy against the UK was prevalent at the time, and suggested that skulduggery was causing highly qualified Brits to become expats, rather than it being just a case of individuals preferring the terms and conditions offered by other countries. But, bogus or not, without that idea, Room Without a View would go nowhere.

 

Its on-message politics to one side, there are three things that stood out for me in this episode. Or rather they did when I had my memory jogged on reading my notes.

 

The first is the excellent supporting cast. Peter Jeffrey as a ministry flunkey doing everything by the book. Long-legged Philip Latham as the manager of the hotel from which the brains are being spirited away. Paul Whitsun-Jones, as the hotel owner, a little fattie who is the butt of many jokes about what he can and cannot eat. Vernon Dobtcheff, a go-to man at the time for characters from the other side of the Iron Curtain.

 

The second is how clearly The Avengers has now internalised not just James Bond but the spoof responses to 007 that were beginning to litter the decade – films featuring louche spies Matt Helm (played by Dean Martin) and Derek Flint (James Coburn) were just around the corner.

 

Steed pulls Mrs Peel in a rickshaw
Exit vehicle: a rickshaw, just to add an extra oriental shake

 

Also notable are the aspirational attitudes on display – fine food is served up in fancy hotels, with a sneer if you’re not quite of the right social class. Which leads to some of the most amusing moments, when Emma (who is working undercover on the front desk at the dodgy Chessman Hotel) is forced to take orders from manager Carter (Latham), bridling every time he snaps his fingers at her. Perhaps that’s why in this episode Diana Rigg has decided to play Mrs Peel with an even more assertively cut-glass accent than usual.

 

Roy Ward Baker directs and brings some movie slickness to the whole affair, and is helped by Roger Marshall’s screenplay, which factors in multiple location changes. The action even switches to China at one point. But the editing has a more filmic quality too – more cutaways, more edits, slicker, pacier, more dynamic.

 

Don’t look too closely at the fight sequences, where the stunt doubles really don’t pass muster. Macnee’s stand-in is particularly obvious, though these episodes were designed to be shown on lo-def 405-lines TVs, so it’s forgivable.

 

Like I say, can’t remember much of it, so in spite of its obvious pluses, I’d give it a swerve if you were looking for an episode of The Avengers to watch.

 

The following week’s episode is a different matter altogether.

 

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 14 – Silent Dust

Emma punts, Steed relaxes

 

Silent Dust first aired on New Year’s Eve 1965 and from a 21st-century vantage point has all the makings of a very prescient episode of The Avengers. In what starts out as an obvious parody of a nature documentary, we first observe birds nesting in the trees, then watch as the birds start dropping off the branches.

 

The second eco-themed outing for Steed and Peel (see A Surfeit of H2O) owes a debt to Rachel Carson’s massively consequential 1962 book Silent Spring. Carson was the first to bring to public attention the doubts that many scientists had been harbouring about the effects of widely available insecticides such as DDT, and detailed the effects on wildlife, birds in particular, as well as the knock-on further up the food chain – cancer in humans.

 

All that said, though the title of Silent Dust nods to Carson, this is In many respects much more your standard Avengers thing than it at first appears. For all its eco-catastrophe plot, it’s class hierarchy that’s really on writer Roger Marshall’s agenda.

 

But first a bit of a lark, and not of the avian variety. A punt is coming towards us. Two people. One punting, the other reclining. We assume, because we are sexists, that Steed is upright and Peel recumbent. It’s the other way round – Steed is under the parasol and Mrs Peel is in sensible but stylishly cut punting gear and straw boater.

 

The duo are on the water looking for birds, or more specifically what’s causing them to die en masse, a search that soon takes them – via a gamekeeper called Mellors (a joke for Lady Chatterley’s Lover fans, another totemic book for the 1960s) – to William Franklyn’s silky local squire Omrod, who gives Mrs Peel the undressing up-and-down, which she responds to with a “Well I might if you play your cards right” look.

 

These male/female interchanges are the other thing that Marshall is concerned with in an episode packed with a dizzying number of characters – including an oily rag called Juggins, who swigs cider (we assume) from a jug to get the fires of nominative determinism roaring, a Dr Manfred (Charles Lloyd Pack), an eccentric expert in fertilisers, Clare (Isobel Black), daughter of an even more eccentric expert in fertilisers – we meet her painting a man in a hammock (another gender reversal) – a concerned rose grower (Norman Bird) Mrs Peel quizzes in a pub, another rose grower (Joanna Wake), whose land has been mysteriously poisoned. And on we go.

 

A protestor against blood sports
Down with violence? Now there’s something we can all get behind

 

As if that weren’t enough, and perhaps with the bit in his teeth after the previous week’s episode chockful of dream sequences, director Roy Ward Baker gives us another one this time round too, of Steed in the Wild West having a bullet pulled from his leg by Mrs Peel as a male doctor (more gender switcheroo, and a foreshadowing of the male role Diana Rigg would play in Theatre of Blood, with Vincent Price).

 

What’s it all about? Well Franklyn is involved, as are toxic organophosphate fertilisers – and that really is prescient since it was as much as three decades later that speculative suspicions were being raised that these compounds were responsible for the Mad Cow (BSE/CJD) debacle, organophosphates being a similar class of drugs to Carson’s DDT (an organochlorine).

 

But what makes this episode fun and engaging is the picture it paints of the class structure in the English shires – poachers and gamekeepers, landowners and foxhunting. We even get a demo against blood sports, which allows Laurie Johnson to have another go at some of his incidental music, adding a horsey gallop rhythm element that’s very episode-specific. Now there’s a sign of a series on the up.

 

An inventive, enjoyable and fast-moving episode delving into the class system and notable for its exploration of gender roles – Mrs Peel even gets the lion’s share of the physical action. I mean lioness’s, obviously.

 

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 13 – Too Many Christmas Trees

Patrick Macnee surrounded by cutout Christmas trees

 

Time magazine’s Swinging London issue appeared in April 1966 and made “official” what had been obvious for some time – something was going on in the UK capital.

 

To find out what that looked like at the time, you could do worse than examine Too Many Christmas Trees, the Christmas Day episode of The Avengers from 1965, a very swinging, very British mix of the modern and the antique.

 

Very mind-control-oriented too, the whole thing kicking off with a kitsch dream sequence – Steed in silk pyjamas and bowler hat wandering through a land of fake snow and cutout Christmas trees towards a wrapped Christmas gift with his name on it. A hideous Santa beckons. A dead man is revealed, while Santa ho-ho-ho’s menacingly in the background.

 

Back in the world of waking reality, Steed is far from his normal jocular self when Mrs Peel arrives, outfitted in nicely tailored tweed. It turns out the man who was dead in the dream has been found dead in reality too. And is suspected of having leaked secrets. In a cutaway to an overhead shot of four men seated around a table, a photograph of the dead man is replaced by a new photo… of Steed.

 

Menacing enough, but then it’s explained that the dead man had had a “brainstorm”, a gigantic breakdown which caused his brain to “explode”.

 

Is Steed next up for an exploding brain?

 

Off he and Mrs Peel head (the right word?) – in an open-topped car in mid-winter! – for one of those country weekends at a posh house, the sort of venue beloved by Agatha Christie, where an old-school Christmas is to be celebrated – all games and dressing up rather than television and catching up on the zzzz’s.

 

Here the dastardly plot comes more obviously into focus for us as things become less clear for Steed. Of course he’s being got at, and is the target of a gigantic plan to unhinge him, winkle secrets from his unconscious mind, and neutralise both him and, by extension, the British spying network.

 

In the meantime we meet Brandon Storey (Mervyn Johns), the host of the holiday festivities, Dr Felix Teasel (Edwin Richfield), a sulphurous psychoanalyst obviously up to no good, and Janice Crane (Jeannette Sterke), an attractive woman Steed believes he met in his dreams before meeting her in the flesh – more evidence of an imminent crack-up. Perhaps most significantly are fellow guests Martin Trasker (Alex Scott) and Jeremy Wade (Barry Warren), the Pushmepullyou of this mind-control operation with its big guns aimed at Steed.

 

Diana Rigg and Edwin Richfield
Diana Rigg and Edwin Richfield get into the party mood

 

Dream sequences feature heavily in this episode, and it’s a real plus that the vastly experienced Roy Ward Baker is on hand as director – he’d worked with Hitchcock and directed the great 1958 Titanic disaster movie A Night to Remember – to inject a bit of fantasy and menace.

 

There’s also a fair bit of dressing up, in particular for a fancy-dress party held at the big house. And since the house’s owner is a Dickens fanatic, the theme of the party is a given, allowing Steed the opportunity to get into a frock coat, while Mrs Peel dresses up as Oliver Twist, in tight trousers that display Oliver’s infamous camel toe.

 

In many ways it is a perfect Christmas episode, decked out with all the trimmings, with an overlay of the fabulous and the fantastical, though as in Scooby Doo there’s a very rational reason for all the otherworldly goings-on.

 

High points include all the dream sequences – the one in Napoleonic France is particularly enjoyable – the house itself, which is stuffed with Victoriana enough to justify my Swinging assertions all on its own, and a fight sequence in a hall of mirrors (more Orson Welles than Charles Dickens) which gives Mrs Peel a dynamic finale.

 

Combining the usual plot trope of the lability of the human mind with The Avengers‘ fascination with posh, eccentric and devious character types, it also gives the temperaments of Mrs Peel and John Steed – so often partners in urbanity – a chance to diverge. He’s nervous as hell throughout; she’s cool as they come. It is probably one of the best episodes of the entire run.

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 12 – Two’s a Crowd

Steed dead-ringer Gordon Webster

 

Tricks are what Two’s a Crowd is about, and the 12th episode of series four starts with two quite good ones. First up, a shot of a plane. It’s not a real plane, but a model, and the trick is that the model plane is meant to be a model, not – as was so often the case back then – a model masquerading as a real plane.

 

Trick number two is played when Emma Peel arrives at Steed’s apartment to find him out unconscious on the floor. He’s not really out cold, it’s a test for Emma, which she passes with flying colours by attacking the mystery man who suddenly is attacking her.

 

A plane that looks like a model plane because it is, a mystery assailant who is nothing of the sort – the notion of things standing in for other things is completed by the plot, which revolves around Steed being replaced by a double, a male model who looks just like him.

 

But, as with the plane, is the reason why it looks so much like Steed because it is Steed, one step ahead of the enemy? And is he one step ahead of them because he’s realised they’re bugging his apartment?

 

The enemy comes in the shape of Warren Mitchell, so entertaining in one of the best Avengers episodes (Series 3’s The Charmers, with Fenella Fielding) that he’s been got back in to play a version of the same role. Here he’s the twitchy Russian ambassador rubber-stamping tactical decisions taken by a cold-hearted flunky played with his usual sneer by Julian Glover.

 

Patrick Macnee, Julian Glover, Warren Mitchell
Julian Glover (centre) warming up for Game of Thrones 50 years later, with Patrick Macnee and Warren Mitchell

 

But neither of these men is really calling the shots. Instead that’s the mysterious Colonel Psev, an international man of mystery whose name clearly means something to these operators, but whose inclusion as a plot detail makes very little difference to an episode that should be a lot better than it is.

 

That’s in spite of an excellent performance by Mitchell, as a small man constantly fretting about his status. It’s his third outing and Clemens and the gang were wise to book him. Mitchell had just shot the pilot for Till Death Us Do Part, the show that would make him a household name (and typecast him for ever as working-class bigot Alf Garnett).

 

And not forgetting Patrick Macnee, who has fun playing a model only too familiar with catalogue work.

 

It’s a Philip Levene script, and as in Man-Eater of Surrey Green, Levene takes a spytastic idea and puts a pantomime spin on it. Roy Ward Baker adds some directorial flourishes from behind the camera and the lighting is noticeably better than usual. Budgets are clearly on the up.

 

And we hear the first mention of Mother, who would prop up (and often be the saving of) the Tara King episodes to come.

 

A big meh, for all its pluses, which also include a noticeably smarter wardrobe for Diana Rigg. Because she’s worth it.

 

 

 

 

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The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 11 – Man-Eater of Surrey Green

Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg

 

Man-Eater of Surrey Green is the perfect Avengers episode title. Camp, corny, a bit sexy, a lot parochial, it sums up the series perfectly. And this episode, which is a mix of scientific blah blah and a lot of eccentric bombing about.

 

Things kick off when two lab-coated scientists in love (Gillian Lewis and William Job) put their moist-eyed interchanges on hold when she suddenly hears a funny noise – it’s that 1960s mind-control noise created by someone furiously twiddling the knobs of an oscilloscope. Off she heads, in glassy-eyed “I hear and obey” fashion, to a Rolls Royce waiting to whisk her away.

 

Steed and Peel are soon on the case of the “missing horticulturalists”, not just any old garden variety horticulturalists but top ones engaged in hot research. Being Britain in the 1960s and The Avengers, the establishment is run not by a scientist but by a peer of the realm (Derek Farr) who inhabits a stately pile full of shop mannequins, up which plants are growing. Nice bit of 1960s set dressing.

 

Things get odd instantly – the missing scientist is at Sir Lyle Petersen’s house, of her own volition, she says, to help him run a freelance research operation into… and here she slows down her speech to an ominous extent “a new flowering shrub”.

 

Not wasting time for logic to intrude, and dealing briskly with a poison cactus someone has left on his car seat (someone wants him dead), Steed is soon haring off to a farm in Wales with Mrs Peel, where a downed spaceship containing the skeleton of a dead alien astronaut awaits. Yes, quite.

 

Also waiting is the star of this episode, Athene Seyler as Doctor Sheldon, a stuff-and-nonsense sort in the Miss Marple mould, who strides about and booms knowledgeably, exactly how you’d expect an actress to perform who’d been playing dowagers, mother superiors and aged spinsters since the 1930s. She’s priceless.

 

Patrick Macnee and Athene Seyler
Athene Seyler (right) makes this episode her own

 

So what have we got so far? Mind control, gigantic alien plants (did I not mention those?), a space ship and unusual experiments, an eccentric scientist, plus the usual bantz. All the makings of one of the best Avengers episodes, in other words.

 

Peer through the plot shrubbery and it’s obvious that writer Philip Levene has decided to have a go at reworking The Day of the Triffids, which becomes increasingly obvious as the episode progresses and “that 1960s mind control noise” starts to assert itself as the fact around which the entire plot pivots.

 

Along the way we have Mrs Peel quizzing one of the yokels in the pub and drinking a pint of beer with him – Mrs Peel, being posh, is adaptable – and a big-fight finale which is unusual in two respects. First, Steed and Peel take Doctor Sheldon into the fray with them – clearly Brian Clemens and the gang realised what good value Seyler was. Second, what sort of martial-arts moves would you deploy against a tentacular alien plant (stage crew shaking bits of vegetation about from just off camera, for the most part)? This makes for one of the series’ more enjoyable fight finales.

 

Yes, the effects are very primitive but just let that side of things go and revel in an episode that’s fast-moving and amusing and as ridiculous as it is enjoyable.

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 10 – Dial a Deadly Number

Clifford Evans, Peter Bowles, Patrick Macnee

 

Set in the world of the well-to-do, the very satisfying Dial a Deadly Number first aired in the UK in the early days of December 1965 and returns to two regular Avengers fascinations – businessmen and undertakers.

 

In what sounds like the setup to a joke, there are these three business magnates sitting in a bar, bemoaning movements on the stock market. One of them gets bleeped, by an early manifestation of a pager, and heads back to the office.

 

There is no funny payoff, though, because en route to the boardroom, the bleeped man’s pager gets switched and he is soon dead of a sudden “heart attack” after being struck by some deadly force from within the gadget.

 

We cut to another gadget, as Steed admires his own musical pocket watch and we learn that the dead man is the sixth board chairman to have died in a year – and they all shared the same banker, Henry Boardman (name surely not accidental).

 

Steed and Peel split up. He hares of to question the banker Boardman (Clifford Evans), and while there also meets his business partner, John Harvey, played by a young Peter Bowles, looking a bit clean about the chops but already suave enough to furnish TV and movies with an entire career’s worth of cads and bounders, which is what he did. Peel, meanwhile, heads quickly to the undertaker’s before continuing on to the bleeper company.

 

Old school ways and cultural oneupmanship abound in this episode. After that pocket watch establishing the tone, Steed is later offered “sherry and biscuits” – not once, but twice, so this was the practice in certain social circles back then (or writer Roger Marshall thought it was) – before he and Mrs Peel meet again at another event denoting social rank, a cocktail party.

 

John Steed in a wine cellar
I don’t think he’s looking for a 92 Chateau La Tour

 

Things head even further into rarefied territory when the pair follow cocktails and a light grilling (given and received) with a wine tasting where things get very combative and Steed is forced to prove himself in a “duel”, a blind wine-tasting.

 

It’s all fabulously old school and, even better, Roger Marshall’s script is full of wit and dash. He not only revels in all the public-school dick-measuring of “name that vineyard” games but also has a lot of fun with some bantery dialogue in which Steed and Peel joust playfully – “Agreeable, well-rounded, a little on the flinty side” says he, offering her a glass of wine. “Venerable, devious, a little ambivalent,” she counters, tasting it while looking straight at him.

 

En route we’ve learned what a put-option is in stock market terms – making money when a share price drops (making the death of a prominent businessman a potentially lucrative business) – and been given an impression of what old-school British stock market trading was all about – insider trading, in all but name.

 

So who is distributing the deadly bleepers? You know, it barely matters, since the fun of this episode is in its depiction of social situations most viewers will never experience first hand (or want to, most likely), but the initial thought – it’s the dead men’s banker – is not too far from the truth.

 

Roger Marshall addresses the high-society focus of this episode towards the end by putting a justifying explains-it-all speech into the mouth of Fitch (John Carson), the oily rag who’s been doing all the grunt work of switching and secreting deadly bleepers, recovering the incriminating evidence from dead bodies, tidying up loose ends etc. It’s an unusual thing to do – it’s usually the evil genius who gets that perk, not his oddjob man.

 

Clearly Marshall is trying to even things up a bit.

 

And look out for David Niven’s schoolchum Michael Trubshawe*, who gets a credit surely off the back of Niven’s name, since his character, The General, is not given enough to do for Trubshawe to really justify one.

 

 

 

*Trubshawe also turned up in minor roles in four of Niven’s films. And his name turns up regularly in Niven films even when he’s not in them – in A Matter of Life and Death, doomed pilot Niven’s co-pilot (played by Robert Coote) is called Trubshawe. And a “Trubshaw” (played by Robert Griffiths) also turns up in the fairly disastrous The Elusive Pimpernel (which Niven hated).

 

 

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The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 9 – The Hour That Never Was

John Steed and Emma Peel on a deserted air base

 

Mrs Peel comes of age in The Hour That Never Was, the ninth episode of series 4 and a typical classic-era Avengers based on unlikely goings-on in locales almost devoid of people.

 

“Comes of age” because in this episode she is clearly smarter than Steed, being the first one to notice that time appears to have stood still – it was 11am when they crashed while pootling down a country road towards a reunion at Steed’s old air base, and it’s still 11am some time later as they wander around the base, which is now seemingly suddenly deserted.

 

She’s also dressed in a style that’s hipper than usual – low-slung trousers, big fat belt, a vest that shows off her toned shoulders to good effect. The production team have clearly twigged that Diana Rigg is a major asset in terms of both acting nous and physicality.

 

If Mrs Peel is an up-to-the-minute dolly bird, John Steed is the counterweight, a newly middle-aged man now recounting drinking stories from his youth with a gleam in his eye as if it were yesterday.

 

But where are they, all these drinking buddies? And why have they disappeared just as the base is gearing up for its farewell shindig, after which the personnel will be “scattered all over the globe… wherever we’ve got an airbase” explains Steed to Peel, unwittingly laying out the reason for the disappearances – dirty tricks by persons whose interests are unaligned with Britain’s.

 

Patrick Macne and Roy Kinnear
A moment of light relief courtesy of the failsafe Roy Kinnear

It’s an impressive episode, in plot and staging. Not only is everything frozen in time, which includes rabbits on the runway, a goldfish in its bowl, but at a certain point in the proceedings we get to see that opening accident all over again, the aftermath of which plays out in a completely different way. No Mrs Peel. The mess now full of chaps celebrating, Gerald Harper as the hail-fellow-well-met RAF bon viveur pressing drinks on a bemused Steed.

 

This idea – alternate timelines leading to wildly different outcomes – seems ahead of the zeitgeist. 2018’s Black Mirror episode, Bandersnatch, famously used it to wild acclaim, but then writer/creator Charlie Brooker is heavily influenced by 1960s/70s mysteries (Tales of Mystery and Imagination, Tales of the Unexpected, The Outer Limits etc).

 

But there’s another modern resonance in this tale. Towards the end, as the mystery is solved and the culprits are revealed, they are referred to as “influencers”. Then, it’s malevolent foreign forces wreaking havoc on suggestible plastic minds who are the baddies. Now, it would be just as possible to point the finger at the liberal elite, mainstream media or deep state. Though, let’s face it, foreign forces working in secret have been known to gain traction in the West – Russia, China and Syria spring to mind.

 

But even more obviously, from the perspective of our Instagram/YouTube era of cheery stooges of capitalism, here’s The Avengers predicting the rise of influencers decades before it happened.

 

But never mind all that – there’s a good fight scene towards the end in a room filled with laughing gas (didn’t Adam West’s Batman do something similar?). And Roy Kinnear makes another Avengers appearance, this time as the only sentient human on the base, a vagrant who has made a career scavenging from RAF bases – “best dustbins in the business,” he exclaims, a moment of comic relief in a great episode that’s one of The Avengers’ standouts.

 

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 8 – A Surfeit of H2O

A man-shaped indentation in the ground

Undoubtedly a fancy episode when it first aired in late November 1965, A Surfeit of H2O manages to be whimsical, sinister, ridiculous and ingenious all in one go, with a good belt of fine character actors to help things along.

 

Water is what it’s about, as the title suggests, and before the title has even come up a poacher has died while out setting traps, drowned in an open field by a massive thunderstorm which appeared out of nowhere.

 

Decent special effects being a bit more than the show can afford, when Steed (dressed in absurd Edwardian hunting gear) and Peel arrive in a Mini Moke, there’s not a drop of water to be seen, which is odd considering how much you’d need to actually drown a man.

 

Quibbles aside, the eccentrics are soon arriving in droves – the dead man’s brother (Talfryn Thomas), who is convinced a mighty inundation is on the way, and a local by the name of Jonah Barnard (played by Noel Purcell, the go-to man when biblical hirsuteness and prophetic bellowing are required) so convinced this is true that he’s building an ark, and who informs Steed that he sees the same cloud in the same part of the sky every day.

 

There are even more oddballs, of a more sinister sort, over at the local “wine factory” – Grannie Gregson’s Glorious Grogs Ltd, makers of vegetable beverages – where Mrs Peel is soon exploring, dressed, appropriately in wet-look PVC.

 

Emma Peel in the rain
Wet, wet, wet: Mrs Peel gets a soaking

 

Eccentricity is what this episode is most about, rather than credible plotting, and Steed has soon joined the party. Posing as Steed of Steed, Steed, Steed, Steed, Steed and Jacques, wine merchants, he visits Grannie Gregson’s (whose amusing logo is an old lady in a rocking chair proudly showing off a rather phallic cucumber), where he tries to charm information out of a company employee (Sue Lloyd of The Ipcress File and, later, TV soap Crossroads fame), while in the background hovers a lab-coated Geoffrey Palmer, marking time until his extraordinary run of TV success arrived.

 

Are they manufacturing bad weather at Grannie Gregson’s? Well let’s just say that the guy in charge there is called Dr Sturm (Albert Lieven), and Emma Peel gets to utter the line “You diabolical mastermind, you!” before the episode is done.

 

A lot of the good work is undone by a chaotic closing fight scene, which features a lot of indistinguishable men in white lab coats fighting against Steed, Peel and the bellowing Jonah (biblical name obviously deliberate), who has proved to be one of the many little joys of this episode.

 

It’s a very 1960s affair – the ancient (Steed’s get-up) hard up against the modern (the Mini Moke, the same one used in the Dave Clark Five film Catch Us If You Can, apparently) – with a very liberated Emma Peel making more strides for women in clothes that must have been murder to wear and also gladdened the sex-starved of the era.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 7 – The Murder Market

Emma Peel in a coffin

 

The Murder Market is one of the episodes first shot with Elizabeth Shepherd playing Mrs Peel, then reshot with Diana Rigg in the role after it was decided that Shepherd didn’t fit the bill. Hence the two directors on the imdb credits – Wolf Rilla shot the original, Peter Graham Scott this version, which eventually was broadcast on 12 November 1965, a Friday night, rather than the usual Saturday (in the London region at least). Order was restored the following Saturday.

 

The title is a weak pun on “meat market” since the plot revolves around a dating agency with a natty sideline in murdering people – as established in the opening scene in which a much older man (Edward Underdown) meets a young woman (Suzanne Lloyd) on a pre-arranged date and winds up dead.

 

We cut to Steed’s pad – or is it Emma’s? – for Diana Rigg’s first ever scene with Patrick Macnee. And Rigg is a little wobbly, hasn’t quite established the permanently-raised-eyebrow performance that would soon come to characterise one of the 1960s TV’s most iconic characters.

 

After a bit of bantery to-and-fro, off Mr Peel is sent to talk to the dead man’s widow, where she also meet’s the dead man’s brother (John Woodvine, lurkingly sinister). Steed, meanwhile, launches himself onto the dating scene by signing up to Togetherness Inc, where the dead man had also been registered.

 

Togetherness Inc is a study in 1960s camp, where everyone dresses in morning suits, confetti tumbles from the air and the refreshments on offer are champagne and wedding cake. Diabetes for the main course.

 

Patrick Cargill and Patrick Macnee
Camp, moi? Patrick Cargill with Patrick Macnee and Peter Bayliss

 

It’s all a little (a lot) over the top, but then so is the man running it – Lovejoy (camp moniker), played to the hilt by Patrick Cargill, whose faintly supercilious air is exactly what the role requires, and whose verbal sparring with Patrick Macnee gives the episode a lot of its fizz.

 

Steed passes himself off as a bachelor with an inconvenient family member standing between himself and a large inheritance. Sure enough, Lovejoy has soon taken the bait and is discreetly offering a Strangers on a Train-style arrangement – Steed kills someone else’s bugbear and that someone else kills his. The wrinkle being that Steed’s assignment is to kill Emma Peel, who has in the interim made a nuisance of herself by having eyeballed the killer.

 

As an introduction to Mrs Peel it’s all very fine (though an entire year passed between the episode being shot and it being aired), though, as said, Rigg hasn’t quite got the character nailed – touches of Cathy Gale’s brusqueness towards Steed remain; the fully fledged Emma Peel deployed wit and charm to manage her partner in crime-fighting.

 

In one scene we see Mrs Peel playing a tuba while Steed practises golf – kooky 60s banter bouncing between them. Other 60s touches include the Joe Orton-esque fascination with funeral trappings – hearses, coffins and so on. And there’s a scene at a photographer’s studio in which a David Bailey-style photographer gives it the full “make love to the camera, darling” performance.

 

It’s all very swinging, and briskly, stylishly directed by Scott, who can’t hide the fact that Rigg hasn’t learned to fight yet. But Tony Williamson’s script (his first for The Avengers) compensates with plenty of zippy dialogue – between Rigg and Macnee, and Macnee and Cargill, whose drawling, quizzical, irony-rich delivery had made him a stage farceur rarely out of work. And, fanciful notion perhaps, might Cargill’s performance have influenced the direction Diana Rigg would take Mrs Peel?

 

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019