The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 6 – The Master Minds

Emma Peel with bow and arrow

The Master Minds was episode six in series four in transmission terms, but only the second episode that Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee had made together. Hence the not-quite-thereness of their relationship – notice throughout how rarely Rigg actually looks at Steed. By series five the two of them were locked in almost permanent ocular combat.


It’s relevant because this is a classic Rigg-era Avengers episode – it’s all about boffins and mind control – trailing clouds of the Cathy Gale era, when relations between Steed and his sidekick were much more workmanlike, for all Steed’s suggestive banter.


The plot kicks into life when  government minister Sir Clive Todd (Laurence Hardy) is caught in flagrante delicte trying to steal secret documents. Arresting him is no use, since he’s a walking automaton with amnesia and is soon in hospital, where a government shrink (Ian MacNaughton, darkly glowering like a youthful John Laurie) will first try and tease open the man’s mind and later, himself hypnotised, will inject him with a lethal toxin.


But before that, a very welcome palate cleanser. This comes in the form of a scene-stealing Georgina Ward, as Davinia Todd, Sir Clive’s daughter, who was on holiday in the South of France but “got bored” and so decided to come home, so impulsively that she’s still wearing her bikini beneath the coat slung casually over her shoulders. The whole posh, bored, entitled rich girl thing nailed in a thumbnail and almost worth watching the whole episode for.

Georgina Ward in bikini under coat
Georgina Ward sets about stealing the scene

 


But back to the bad guys – a cabal of clever people, an organisation of eggheads called Ransack, appears to be behind Sir Clive’s misdeeds and Mrs Peel is soon undercover within the organisation, where she also succumbs to the same mind-controlling mantra which will send the gang off to a military base to do something that will imperil the realm.

 
And that’s about it, in plot terms at least. The “undercover” aspect of The Avengers formula is beginning to pall, but the idea that convocations of brainy chaps cannot be a good thing is relatively under-explored territory for the series. 


This “don’t trust brains” trope might have arrived from the US alongside the plot’s driver: brainwashing. Though details about the CIA’s MK Ultra experiments – which had been running since 1953 – wouldn’t start coming to light until the 1970s, dark mutterings about what the Soviets might be up to in the same field were already cultural currency (see both The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and The Ipcress File).


Other things of note: the head of the Ransack organisation, Professor Spencer (Martin Miller) has a faintly German accent, and so is automatically sinister – it’s still only 20 years since the end of the Second World War, after all, in which Steed is meant to have fought.

 
And talking of fighting, there is some very poorly executed rough stuff at the end of the episode, director Peter Graham Scott not quite dynamic enough with his cameras. Though props to whoever decided that Mrs Peel’s showdown with the “Master Mind” (no spoilers) should take place behind a cinema screen, in silhouette. It’s a neat visual touch, and allows the doubles to do what they do best without constantly having to keep their faces turned away from the camera.



 
 
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© Steve Morrissey 2019

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 5 – Castle De’ath

John Steed with a sword. Assailant with a gun

 

Three Bond movies had been released and a fourth was just around the corner, when Castle De’ath was broadcast on an autumnal Saturday night in 1965. It’s a mini-me version of Bond, with Scotland standing in for myriad exotic locations, a mini-sub standing in for all the 007 tech and Steed and Peel doing their best to quip for England as the plot takes them north of the border.

 

Things kick off with a pre-Steadycam handheld tour of the castle – every heartbeat of the cameraman registering – which winds up in a dungeon where a man is being tortured on the rack.

 

He’s an agent and soon dead, and the fact that he is taller in death than in life has rung a lot of alarm bells. Enter Steed and Peel, she pretending to be from some government agency specialising in helping old families open their stately piles to the public, he claiming to be a historian by the name of Jock McSteed, researching the McSteed family story.

 

Soon both are ensconced at the castle, where the De’ath family are at odds over what to do. The family is broke – but as is often the case in British drama (as in British life), they’re not so broke that they actually have to go out and work for a living – with dour clan chief Ian (Gordon Jackson) reluctant to open the place up to the great unwashed, while his progressive, gregarious brother Angus (Robert Urquhart) is all for it.

 

Thrown also into the mix, almost as an afterthought, is a subplot about disappearing fish, “one of the mainstays of our economic life”, one of the De’aths warbles helpfully.

 

And between the competing brothers, the precarious fish stocks, some historical nonsense about Black Jamie, the disgraced laird who has been walled up in the east tower for the last 500 years, and a bit of low-level haunting, the plot winds towards a conclusion which, Bond-style, suddenly is all about submarines, ultrasonic waves and a seditious political plot.

 

Diana Rigg in a tartan trouser suit
Looking louche in tartan, Diana Rigg as Emma Peel

It’s a bit overstuffed, in other words. But if it’s John Steed in a kilt you want to see, or Mrs Peel in a tartan trouser suit, plus acres of fine tweed on the rest of the cast, then this is the episode for you. And Urquhart is particularly fine as the more go-getting, populist brother, easily putting Jackson into the shade with acting that’s simply more limber. For all Jackson’s merits, his beautiful voice couldn’t disguise the fact that he isn’t very good at playing against another actor, and in a long career he often came across as a man impatient to say his lines and get on to the next bit.

 

The relationship between Steed and “Mistress Peel”, as laird Ian (Jackson) curtly addresses her, has now settled down. Steed’s Cathy Gale-era lechery has been replaced by something more subtle – he’s still sexually in pursuit but really it’s more about giving it the old college try than expecting any results.

 

As for which one of the two brothers is the baddie – the go-ahead populist or the stuffed shirt – John Lucarotti’s script does a good job of keeping us guessing.

 

And did I mention the amphibious car?

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 4 – Death at Bargain Prices

Mrs Peel at gunpoint

 

Charles Crichton directed one of the best Ealing comedies, 1951’s Lavender Hill Mob, and the highest grossing British comedy of the 1980s, 1988’s A Fish Called Wanda – both crime capers – so is just the man for an episode of The Avengers.

 

And the first shot of the first of five episodes he’d direct announces that “a director” is in the house – it’s a looming, upward-looking shot of a building at dusk, in near-silhouette, ominous as you like.

 

But Crichton wasn’t lauded for his visual style – though he had plenty. What got him the plaudits was his economy (famously praised by Wanda writer/star John Cleese), his ability to say in one shot what other directors would take three, or multiple edits, to achieve.

 

There’s plenty of that on display (or, more to the point, not on display) in Death at Bargain Prices, a Brian Clemens-scripted episode that moves briskly, has time for the odd visual gag, and combines good old-fashioned sneery villains with an up-to-date plot that’s Clemens all over.

 

The building in the opening shot is a department store, and soon we’re inside the deserted place, where a nervously sweating man has soon been felled by an assassin’s bullet.

 

He is an “agent” – I think that’s the first time that word has been used in The Avengers to describe exactly what Steed, Keel, Smith, King (Martin), Gale, Peel, and finally King (Tara) get up to – and Steed and Peel are soon investigating who killed him.

 

But first a bit of banter, which informs us that Mrs Peel is as at home in the realm of thermodynamics as she is in specialist pottery. In this respect she is exactly like Cathy Gale: whatever the subject, she really knows her stuff.

 

Which is a funny way of introducing the next bit of the plot, which inserts Peel into the department store where the dead man was found, as a floor girl bridling at the indignity of it all.

TP McKenna holds Peel and Steed at gunpoint
In case you were wondering if TP McKenna was the bad guy…

The store, right out of British TV sitcom Are You Being Served, is owned by harrumphing, dickie-bowed, wheelchair-using Horatio Kane (André Morell, one-time Dr Watson to Peter Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes), but effectively run by Wentworth (TP McKenna) who considers his boss a “foolish sick old man”.

 

Wentworth is of course up to no good, in what is a very British sort of plot turn – it’s never the bosses who are bad, it’s their immediate underlings. “If only the king knew there were such injustice in the land” etc etc.

 

This Richelieu/Louis XIV relationship turns out to be quite a new development. In the short time he has been there, Wentworth has got rid of lots of people who actually know how to do their job, and brought in another lot who patently don’t.

 

Shall I tell you what’s going on at the department store? No, that would ruin the dénouement, which is typical Clemens in its bravado and absurdity.

 

It’s all part of the enjoyment, and though we haven’t quite achieved Peak Avengers, Clemens has clearly now twigged that scoffing at aspects of the show can be part of the fun of it too.

 

Crichton, for his part, works little wonders – there’s a scene in which a villain is swinging back and forth on a rocking chair, and on one of the backswings is grabbed and throttled. Very economical; very Ealing. And there’s a brilliant piece of cross-cutting in the mad-genius-explains-it-all finale in which kidnapped scientist Professor Popplewell (Peter Howell) reveals that…

 

McKenna is a brilliantly oily baddie, as he was in his last Avengers outing (Trojan Horse, in series 3), and his crisp delivery adds to the real sense of pace.

 

But does Mrs Peel get into her leathers? Indeed she does, Clemens vaguely explaining away this unusual garb for a shopworker as part of some move to the sci-fi department, or something.

 

Look out for a very odd outfit worn by Diana Rigg and sending out quite conflicting signals – a waistcoat cut so low that it is serving up her breasts, teamed with a demure white top beneath that goes right up to her neck.

 

And Steed uses his brolly as a knockout weapon in the inevitable big fight finish, the conversion of his English gent’s outfit into something more multifunctional now nearly complete.

 

Lovely stuff.

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 3 – The Cybernauts

cybernaut with Steed and Peel

The sixth of the Diana Rigg episodes to be made, though the third to be shown, The Cybernauts looks vaguely back to the Honor Blackman era – Mrs Peel still in leather and a bit helmet-haired – but in other respects it’s the most forward-looking episode we’ve yet seen. Perhaps that’s what you’d expect with a sci-fi flavoured episode title with a ring of Doctor Who about it.

 

Or are we in the realm of the supernatural? In the traditional opening “death scene” we see a man in his house being attacked by some big creature impervious to bullets, strong enough to bend a rifle barrel with a swipe of the hand and clearly intent on murder.

 

And, after the episode title has appeared, we meet blithe spirits Steed and Peel as they quip away about a run of murders they seem unable to solve. However… a lead. The latest victim has been killed by a karate blow known only to a handful of people in Europe. So off Mrs Peel heads to a dojo, where she is complimented on her fighting skills with a “fights like a man” level remark, while Steed, Patrick Macnee easing into middle age, poses as the dead man’s replacement, sent in by Industrial Deployments, some British government quango, to negotiate with a representative (Burt Kwouk) of a Japanese electronics firm.

 

Interesting stuff here – not because Kwouk was hot off Goldfinger (with Honor Blackman) and the second Pink Panther film, A Shot in the Dark. And not because Kwouk is ethnically Chinese (though born in Warrington he was raised in Shanghai) rather than Japanese, since Kwouk’s career saw him sliding all over the oriental ethnosphere. Interesting instead because of how precisely this episode is delineating the future. Not only are the Japanese shown as leaders in electronics technology – at the time they were popularly seen as good for making tinny transistor radios and not much else – but Kwouk’s Mr Tusamo also informs a boggle-eyed Steed that in the future there will be computers the size of a cigarette packet (an iPhone, in other words).

 

Meanwhile, checking out a British company in the same field, Mrs Peel is treated to a demonstration of British hi-tech – a robot dog that comes when you call. Except it doesn’t, when company boss Jephcott (Bernard Horsfall) beckons. Over at another British tech company, run by a Dr Armstrong from his Dr Strangelove-inspired wheelchair (and played by the fabulously stately Michael Gough, who’d wind up as Alfred in the 1980s/90s Batman movies), Steed is horrified as Armstrong tells him about artificial intelligence, the robot workforce of the future and a machine that can answer any question you ask it (sounds a bit like Wikipedia).

 

Three suspects – the foreigner with the best tech, the Brit whose stuff doesn’t work, and another Brit whose vision of the future is unsettling at the very least. Who’s the wrong’un?

 

bandaged cybernaut in chair
Nothing sinister about this one at all

 

Unusually for The Avengers, writer Philip Levene spends quite a lot of energy misdirecting us – red herrings are not the usual way for this series. And it’s not the only innovation. The camerawork is noticeably crisper and more fluid than in the previous two episodes and a vast amount of care and attention has gone into Mrs Peel’s look – never a hair out of place, lippy seemingly laser-applied.

 

One hangover from the Cathy Gale era is that Mrs Peel seems to be in leather gear just in time for the fights, which is vaguely absurd, though there is a very nice late sequence when Steed is showing off his fighting skills to the sound of Laurie Johnson’s soundtrack playing The Avengers second theme in a string quartet arrangement – Hong Kong director John Woo would later use this contrast between all-action visuals and stately soundtrack repeatedly, and you wonder if he saw it here first.

 

As for the whodunit aspect, the reveal is ingenious – Levene is good at this sort of thing – and wouldn’t be out of keeping among Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot stories, if that isn’t too much of a giveaway.

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 2 – The Gravediggers

Steed tries to release Mrs Peel who is tied to the railway track

 

Like a classic album that warms us up with an opening track before hitting us with a doozy, episode two of series four of The Avengers, The Gravediggers, is vintage entertainment that gets just about everything right.

 

The plot is a mix of proper spy stuff and the eccentric, the macabre and the mad, and gets off onto its twin-track course with an opening shot of a newly filled grave out of which – after some ominous movement of the soil – an antenna pops.

 

Over on the North York Moors at Fylingdales early warning system (it’s not named as such, but those white golfball domes look very like it), a techie is having trouble with the tech – “It’s on the blink again,” he complains, while looking at a light that is literally blinking.

 

Since the security of the country is at stake, Steed and Peel are soon on the case. The trail leads to a Hospital for Ailing Railwaymen, a benevolent institution funded by philanthropist Horace Winslip, played to bufferish perfection by Ronald Fraser, eyes brimming with booze as usual.

 

Winslip is an eccentric to such a degree – he takes Steed on a “train journey” which consists of a stationary carriage being rocked by a flunkey while outside a scrolling diorama gives the impression of movement – that we can only assume that story editor Brian Clemens has been at work on Malcolm Hulke’s original script.

 

Mrs Peel, meanwhile, is posing as a nurse in the hospital, where top doc Paul Massie and matron Caroline Blakiston are up to something involving the post-mortem supplementation of the normal contents of the funeral casket – which gives rise to the episodes best line, “Forceps. Scalpel. Blow torch.”

 

Needless to say, the antenna poking out of the earth on a freshly dug grave, the hospital, the doctor and matron and the UK’s compromised missile-detection system are all intimately connected.

 

Ronald Fraser dressed as a train driver on board a miniature train
Ronald Fraser in full eccentric flow

Quentin Lawrence brings a properly cinematic feel to his direction of the episode, which is also really lifted by some very interesting performers: Fraser’s dignified pantomime routine made him a highly sought-after character actor in countless TV shows; there’s a young Steven Berkoff (still with lots of hair) as a thug at the hospital; Wanda Ventham (looking very much like Benedict Cumberbatch. Well, she is his mother) is remarkably fresh as Barbara Windsor-alike chirpy Nurse Spray (amazing to think that only seven years later she was a convincing seen-it-all blowsy semi-wreck in the BBC’s The Lotus Eaters); and fans of Get Carter and Coronation Street will enjoy Bryan Mosley’s brief appearance as an orderly.

 

Leather fans, on the other hand, will be waiting for Mrs Peel to climb into her fighting gear in Cathy Gale style. Though the second to be broadcast, The Gravediggers was the seventh of this series to be filmed, and Diana Rigg was already tiring of shooting combat sequences in sweltering hot and not particularly limber animal hide – she’d later switch to crimplene – so make the most of her in action here. And for those who equate leather with S&M, the scenes where Mrs Peel winds up tied to the track of a miniature railway, while Steed is involved in a fist fight on the top of a carriage, should tick a few boxes.

 

This finale on the railway track makes for great viewing, and thanks to Lawrence’s nimble direction it cleverly manages to be faithful to action movies, silent films and comedy all in one go – Buster Keaton would approve.

 

All in all a fitting crescendo to an episode balancing the silly and the thrilling with real flair.

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 1 – The Town of No Return

Emma Peel in fencing gear

 

And so, drum roll, The Town of No Return and the beginning of series 4. And with it the arrival of Diana Rigg as Mrs Emma Peel, the story going that the new partner for Steed would have to have “man appeal” or M-appeal for short. Hence the name.

 

She’s not the only new arrival – more money has clearly turned up, allowing the series to be shot on film and on location much more often. So no more studio-bound “as live” episodes rehearsed one day and shot the next. John Dankworth’s theme music has also been retired. Its jazzy plangency was fine for a 1950s style noirish detective series featuring Steed in trenchcoat with turned-up collar but it was becoming increasingly out of place as The Avengers became kookier. Instead, in comes Laurie Johnson’s glam, jaunty, upbeat, panto-dramatic theme, which still manages to find a placing in “greatest TV themes” polls over 50 years later.

 

This episode was originally shot with Elizabeth Shepherd as Mrs Peel, but was then reshot after it was decided that Shepherd wasn’t quite what was required. This might explain the confusion over who wrote and directed – the imdb tells us that Roy Ward Baker and Peter Graham Scott directed but the screen credits say it was Sidney Hayers. As to writers, the screen says Philip Levene, most other sources claim it was Brian Clemens.

 

It certainly feels like Clemens, with his bizarro hallmarks evident from the very first shot – a man in a big waterproof envelope walking out of the sea, unzipping himself and then heading off inland in tweeds and carrying a brolly, to the complete disinterest of a local fisherman fixing a basket.

 

And then it’s the Steed-meets-Peel moment, in her apartment, a Swinging kind of place with a gigantic winking eye on the door, inside which Mrs Peel is fencing. Her action-woman credentials asserted and the baton successfully passed from Honor Blackman to Diana Rigg, the very comfortably paired duo (not least because they’d already shot 13 episodes together by the time this one was shot/reshot) head off to a seaside town where agents keep going missing.

 

En route we get a lift from Mary Poppins, as Steed offers Mrs Peel tea and pulls the works – China and Indian tea, crockery, a cake stand with petits fours – from his capacious carpet bag, as they travel on the train together.

 

A fellow traveller is Jimmy Smallwood, played by Patrick Newell, who would later become a significant part of The Avengers formula as Mother, Steed and his sidekick’s control, but here is playing a timid man visiting his brother, unaware that he’s going to become the latest victim of the mysterious disappearances.

 

The town itself, and particularly its pub, the Inebriated Gremlin, is a grim and unwelcoming place, in spite of the hail-fellow-well-met of mine host Piggy Warren (Terence Alexander perfectly cast as an ex RAF chap whose kept all the mannerisms and even the handlebar moustache). There, Steed and Peel go to work, she posing as a new teacher, he as a property scout, while the tally of victims keeps rising.

Terence Alexander as the jovial publican
RAF? I should jolly well say so – Terence Alexander

 

In many respects it’s Gale era Avengers – bantering dialogue, sexual tension, a mystery and a pub – but in one important regard it’s different. The town is pretty much deserted, as is the local RAF base. Everyone the duo meet – landlord, vicar, blacksmith, village school teacher – is a new arrival. This deserted set-up idea would propel The Avengers right through until it ended and it’s more evidence of Clemens’s hand, as is the ridiculous plot which I won’t give away but makes absolutely no sense – Clemens is more your character and dialogue man.

 

All in all it’s a great introduction to Mrs Peel – she’s smart, tough, fun and funny, looks a million dollars (and some of her outfits are quite extraordinary even by the Swinging standards of the day). And if there is the odd duff continuity moment, we can probably put that down to the fact that, where possible, outdoors footage shot almost a year earlier when Elizabeth Shepherd was still Mrs Peel, has been reused.

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019