The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 24 – Mission… Highly Improbable

A mini Steed tries to make a phone call

The US TV series Mission: Impossible was not quite a year old and hadn’t yet aired in the UK when the Avengers episode Mission… Highly Improbable debuted in the UK in November 1967, so Brits wouldn’t have got the joke/reference.

It matters not – apart from the allusive title, there’s nothing else carrying over from the US show to the UK one. Apart, that is, from the high-budget looks. Everything looks like it’s been given two extra runs through the polisher – that’s the effect of American money.

However, even though The Avengers was riding high on both sides of the Atlantic, the spy craze was on the wane. The Robert Culp/Bill Cosby series I Spy and Get Smart, written by Mel Brooks (among others), probably marked the high water mark in 1965 and Mission: Impossible was the last primetime show of that ilk to be commissioned.

We’re at the beginning of the end of days, in other words, and nothing really says that better than the departure of Diana Rigg, off to play James Bond’s wife in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. This is her last full-on episode before Linda Thorson takes over as Steed’s new sidekick.

Going out with a bang, this episode takes the improbability literally in a scenario all about an incredible shrinking ray that’s been developed by an unworldly scientist (Noel Howlett, something of a go-to actor when it came to unworldliness) but is now being exploited by one of the boffin’s subordinates (Francis Matthews, a go-to man for oily charm).

“Show don’t tell” is the scriptwriter’s watchphrase, something Philip Levene adheres to strictly in his opening scene – white Rolls Royce containing crusty Sir Gerald Bancroft arrives at a Ministry of Defence testing ground, is granted access and before the security man (Nicholas Courtney, later Brigardier Lethbridge Stewart in Doctor Who) can bring up the rear on his motorbike the car has completely disappeared.

Since it’s a mystery, Steed is soon involved and, combing the area where the disappearance happened, finds a “toy” Rolls Royce. He’s unaware it is the missing car in miniature, and as we cut to the undergrowth, a mini Sir Gerald has soon been scooped up in a butterfly net by Chivers (Matthews), an operative in the metal fatigue department, we’re told.

We’re introduced to the good-natured Prof (Howlett) running the place, and his daughter (Jane Merrow), whom Steed stands far too close to (Merrow was another of the names in the frame to replace Diana Rigg), there’s a bit more zapping, more miniaturising, everything is in the realm of the highly improbable.

 

The show in a TV listings magazine
As described in a TV listings mag… TV Times, I think

 

And then Philip Levene injects a note of realism, in the shape of a demonstration of a new British armoured vehicle, a Saracen impervious to shelling, which is being shown off to a lot of visiting dignitaries, including a Soviet general. Er… right.

The general (who’s also the head of Soviet intelligence, Steed has informed the brass) is in the tradition of Avengers Cold War joke figures most notably embodied by Warren Mitchell in a couple of previous episodes, but is here made vainglorious flesh by Ronald Radd.

Chivers is planning to shrink the Saracen, then take it off the base and sell it to the highest bidder, and it’s only a matter of time before Steed himself – in trying to thwart this dastardly plot – has been shrunk to mini-Steed size, allowing us to see what exactly the budget has been spent on.

Cue several scenes of Steed being dwarfed by household objects like a huge smoking cigar and a massive telephone. And while it’s easy to raise the objection that not everything seems to have been shrunk to the same degree, the production design is impressive.

The shrinking motif can be seen as an allegory for the whole episode – it’s up, it’s down, it’s grounded in reality one second, fantasy the next. What’s more, like James Bond it insists that the Brits are on some sort of equal footing with the Soviets militarily, which is simply fanciful, though talking a good talk could be construed as being as part of a country’s arsenal, I suppose.

Caveats aside, it’s a good episode, high on its own whimsy, with Laurie Johnson’s incidental score featuring lots of music boxes, tubas, harps and xylophones, helping steer it in the high camp destination it’s heading for.

Mrs Peel? Some nice interchanges with Steed – the “Is everything to scale?” banter with his Mini-Me self most notably – but really this is one of those episodes where Steed bears the brunt of the action. If it’s a swansong for Emma you’re after, the previous week’s outing, Murdersville, is what you want.

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

I am an Amazon affiliate. Clicking on the link earns me a (vanishingly small) commission

 

 

Whether this episode is part of Series 6 or a continuation of Series 5 is moot. I’m going with the convention embraced by StudioCanal’s 2014 boxset and plumping for it being a late entrant to Series 5. It was originally conceived that way.

The imdb prefers to say we’re now in Series 6 (a short one of only eight episodes), while the Avengers Forever site leans towards calling this Series 5 (though it draws a distinction between two distinct production blocks – 5A and 5B).

There’s not much in it either way, but lumping this episode in with Series 5 means all the Emma Peel colour episodes are together, and since Series 5 is often referred to as THE classic series, that’s an advantage.

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 23 – Murdersville

Publicity shot on a beach

 

Murdersville feels like a very loose rewrite of a Cathy Gale-era Avengers episode, though having wracked my brains, I don’t believe it can be.

The hallmarks are there though – old school English village, locals, a pub – real life, in other words, which the Emma Peel-era Avengers (Cybernauts, invisible men, an extra-terrestrial) so far has kept as far away from as possible.

There’s human warmth, too, which is also odd. In The Avengers, when someone dies it’s the opportunity for a quick gag, James Bond style. Not so here, but that’s because Mrs Peel has no one to quip with, against or at, since Steed is back at the ranch, and this is an extra-mural episode featuring an off-duty Emma helping old childhood friend Major Paul Croft (Eric Flynn), recently back from some outpost of Empire, move into the charming locale of Little Storping in the Swuff, one of the country’s best-kept villages, we’re told.

And sure enough, local yokels are consuming warm, flat English beer from jugs and playing dominoes while exchanging the smallest of small talk when Major Croft’s batman (yes, really) arrives to smooth the path for the incoming officer-class gent.

But this is no normal village, these no normal villagers. In short order, alerted to his arrival by his batman, the major’s belongings have been trashed by the pub locals, and soon murder is also afoot…

Once Mrs Peel and Major Croft arrive on the scene things move slightly more into Avengers territory, with Emma shifting immediately into investigation mode. But the villagers are ahead of her and she soon winds up bonked over the head. The result of a prang in her car, the locals insist, when she wakes up later in the pub.

 

Local librarian in scold's bridle
The local librarian gets a taste of medieval justice

 

In a plot-tastic episode, things now start to move at speed. Steed is summoned by Peel in a coded phone call – she makes out to the ransom-hungry drinkers that he’s her husband, alerting Steed to the dangerous situation with her first “darling” – Mrs Peel makes a run for it, is chased by a helicopter (!) and finally winds up in the local museum locked in a chastity belt, only to find the real locals, the ones who wouldn’t sign up to the dastardly hoax going on out in the real world – the village has become a commercial murder enterprise. If you’ve got someone you want killing, this is your place.

No, no criminal mastermind, no megalomaniac trying to take over the world, just a mafia style racket involving the denizens of a charming English village who are all paid handsomely for their compliance (the ones who will comply).

En route to the finale we get to see a medieval scold’s bridle in action and a ducking stool, reminders that real olde-worlde English villages weren’t always all about cream teas and quaint pubs.

Spend a minute thinking about it and the plot is ridiculous, Brian Clemens almost over-reaching himself this time. But some fine playing sold it to me, at least, in particular Colin Blakely and John Ronane as the beer-swilling yokels with a particularly avaricious glint in the eye.

As I say, it lacks the wit and banter you’d have got if Steed had been there as a sparring partner, but this gives space for a development of Peel’s character – she’s vulnerable here, with less time for the cocked eyebrow and the sharp tongue.

And with all the running around she has to do, you’ve got to wonder about that outfit she’s in. It’s Crimplene, which tends to smell. Enter Mrs Peel, exit Mrs Pee-ew!

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

I am an Amazon affiliate. Clicking on the link earns me a (vanishingly small) commission

 

 

 

 

 

***

Whether this episode is part of Series 6 or a continuation of Series 5 is moot. I’m going with the convention embraced by StudioCanal’s 2014 boxset and plumping for it being a late entrant to Series 5. It was originally conceived that way.

The imdb prefers to say we’re now in Series 6 (a short one of only eight episodes), while the Avengers Forever site leans towards calling this Series 5 (though it draws a distinction between two distinct production blocks – 5A and 5B).

There’s not much in it either way, but lumping this episode in with Series 5 means all the Emma Peel colour episodes are together, and since Series 5 is often referred to as THE classic series, that’s an advantage.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 22 – The Positive Negative Man

The creature attacks Emma Peel

 

A mad spy-fi story, the sort that made The Avengers the legendary show it is, The Positive Negative Man gets off to a Cybernauts-style start with a big lumbering creature – a man in silver greasepainted face and a metal sleeve on one finger – zapping a scientist (Bill Wallis) as he labours over some boffin-y task.

The man has been thrown clean across the room. This being “the Ministry”, Steed and Peel are soon called in, only to become mired in protocol – do they or do they not have enough security clearance to conduct any sort of investigation, sort of thing.

Tony Williamson’s script tugs in two directions. One is techy – the odd creature and the charge he seems able to store in his body – while the other has fun at the expense of bureaucratic procedure. We learn from Ministry official Cynthia Wentworth-Howe (Caroline Blakiston) that as a Top Hush category of secretary she has the sort of security clearance that outranks all others, apart from Button Lip, a grade almost beyond the aspiration of mortal humans.

And so into battle Steed and Peel go, as much against the dead hand of procedure as the bad guys. First thing they establish, once they’ve satisfied Cynthia that they’re kosher enough to gain access to the dead scientist’s safe, is that all the documents inside have been burnt to ashes, including information on Project 90, a hush-hush experiment now in mothballs.

 

A red security clearance card
Very important security clearance

 

So when another scientist (Sandor Elès) associated with Project 90 also gets a zapping from the creature (whose white wellington boots give us a clue as to what’s going on here), Steed and Peel know which line of enquiry to pursue – which is handy because there is no other.

It turns out the Project 90 team was working on “broadcast power”, which is either a charmingly retrospective idea (the brilliant Nikola Tesla worked on it in the 1890s) or remarkably forward looking (we’d now call it wireless charging), depending on your point of view. It should be fertile territory, but the bare-bones straightforwardness of what Williamson does with it – once we learn about Project 90 it’s obvious that somone associated with it is going to be behind the zapping – means there isn’t much of a plot to follow.

Enter Ray McAnally, as a scientist who was thrown off Project 90, and it’s just a question of joining the dots.

Why the greasepaint and wellies? It’s a way of insulating the creature from the charge he carries like some organic capacitor. And once Steed and Peel have twigged what’s afoot, the stage is set for The Avengers’ first big fight finale in rubber boots.

Along the way we’ve had some wacky sound effects, proving that it wasn’t just the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop who knew how to squawk and rumble, and a deliberate pastiche of Batman/Spider-Man incidental fight music by Laurie Johnson.

These spy-fi episodes are what made The Avengers the distinctive show it was. Yet half a century on they don’t have the pure grip that some of the more traditional spy-thriller episodes have. The hypnotic effect of remarkable futuristic tech wears off when the real future catches up.

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

I am an Amazon affiliate. Clicking on the link earns me a (vanishingly small) commission

 

 

 

 

 

***

Whether this episode is part of Series 6 or a continuation of Series 5 is moot. I’m going with the convention embraced by StudioCanal’s 2014 boxset and plumping for it being a late entrant to Series 5. It was originally conceived that way.

The imdb prefers to say we’re now in Series 6 (a short one of only eight episodes), while the Avengers Forever site leans towards calling this Series 5 (though it draws a distinction between two distinct production blocks – 5A and 5B).

There’s not much in it either way, but lumping this episode in with Series 5 means all the Emma Peel colour episodes are together, and since Series 5 is often referred to as THE classic series, that’s an advantage.

The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 21 – You Have Just Been Murdered

Diana Rig on a bridge

You Have Just Been Murdered is what this episode of The Avengers is called and it’s what’s written on a card left behind at the house of a man who has just been menaced with a gun by an intruder. The gunman returns later with a fake knife, “kills” his victim again, and leaves behind another note – “You have just been murdered… again!”

It turns out that Jarvis (Geoffrey Chater) is the third wealthy chap to have withdrawn a million pounds from the bank recently, and Steed and Peel are soon on a case which seems, at first, second and last glance, about keeping the very rich and their money happily together.

This has the makings of a classic episode – a weird premise, a set of men (naturally) who are rich (ditto) being menaced and Steed and Peel mixing in high society to get to the bottom (the top, in fact) of what is, let’s face it, a straightforward case of extortion with menaces, all dressed up.

So off the pair go to a party for the very well-to-do, Mrs Peel wearing a very, very feathery number, where they hope to meet Jarvis. But their hopes are dashed, since Jarvis is now dead for real, leading them to fix on Rathbone (Leslie French), who darted out of the room the moment it was announced that Jarvis had been murderered.

 

Simon Oates as Skelton
Skelton is one of the bad guys

 

Mrs Peel gives chase, back to Rathbone’s mansion and, having been denied entry by Rathbone’s gamekeeper, breaks in by climbing over a wall, only to be menaced by a German shepherd dog before again being apprehended by the gamekeeper.

For reasons which make even less sense than the oddly pristine state of Mrs Peel’s all-white outfit (clambering over a wall, hugging trees, dodging a vicious dog seem to have left no trace), she is soon granted an audience with the frightened Rathbone.

And on Peel and Steed sail towards an eventual meeting with master villain Needle (“No quips please… though I am a little hard to find”), played with unctuous smoothness by George Murcell. Needle, it turns out, has ambitions to be the most powerful person in the world. Mwahahaha.

The Avengers was the most lavish show on British TV at the time and this is one of the most polished and expensive-looking episodes. The James Bond vibe is noticeable throughout – camerawork, lighting, fights, even the editing (bearing in mind the constraints of TV budgets), not to mention Needle, a megalomaniac villain of the Bond sort and no mistaking.

The increase in production values does come with a bit of collateral damage. One of the joys of The Avengers, particularly in the earlier series when they were shot much more like a TV soap (multi cameras, as close to live as could be managed), was watching the brilliant Patrick Macnee busking through the fluffs and amping up his character when, for example, a camera banged into the set. There’s no need for that now that everything is so slick.

And so, for all its pluses, this episode’s many claims to classic status have to be weighed against the loss of that added bit of sparkle.

 

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

I am an Amazon affiliate. Clicking on the link earns me a (vanishingly small) commission

 

 

 

***

Whether this episode is part of Series 6 or a continuation of Series 5 is moot. I’m going with the convention embraced by StudioCanal’s 2014 boxset and plumping for it being a late entrant to Series 5. It was originally conceived that way.

The imdb prefers to say we’re now in Series 6 (a short one of only eight episodes), while the Avengers Forever site leans towards calling this Series 5 (though it draws a distinction between two distinct production blocks – 5A and 5B).

There’s not much in it either way, but lumping this episode in with Series 5 means all the Emma Peel colour episodes are together, and since Series 5 is often referred to as THE classic series, that’s an advantage.

 

The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 20 – Dead Man’s Treasure

Valerie Van Ost

 

Dead Man’s Treasure takes that old staple of the country house weekend – the treasure hunt – and turns it into a reasonably thrilling car-chase adventure unsure quite how jokey it wants to be.

My hunch is that the thrills come courtesy of writer Michel Winder, the jokes from showrunner Brian Clemens, since camping it up is pretty much Clemens’s shtick.

But on to the plot, and things get going in a very familiar style as one of Steed’s agent colleagues dies in time-honoured “The treasure’s in the … aaaagh” style, having been pursued in his nippy Sunbeam Alpine by stylish dastards in an E Type Jaguar.

For car nuts, this is your episode. The Jag (Clemens’s own, so the incredibly useful The Avengers website informs me) and Sunbeam are soon joined by all manner of old rustbuckets, I mean classics – a Triumph TR4 and TR5, various MGs, a Merc 250 automatic and a Daimler limo – as Steed and Peel investigate the death of the agent, who has hidden something important somewhere on the dash towards his death.

The duo wind up undercover at a car rally/treasure hunt in the British countryside, organised by Lord Benstead (Arthur Lowe, soon of Dad’s Army fame), an eccentric car-loving aristocrat probably modelled on Lord Montagu of Beaulieu (who founded what is now the National Motor Museum in 1952). After Steed and the noble lord have indulged in some larky cross-purposes chat – is Steed talking about a car or Mrs Peel with his references to chassis and bodywork (groan)? – everyone is paired off for a dash across country, picking up clues as they go. Steed and Peel, obviously, are interested in one clue much more than the others.

 

Diana Rigg and Normal Bowler
Gunning the engine!

 

Mrs Peel winds up with Mike (Norman Bowler) as a running mate, a man with sex clearly on his mind, while Steed is paired off with Penny (Valerie Van Ost), a posh blonde dolly bird who, so the running joke goes, has had a LOT of fiancés.

We’ve also been introduced to what looks like the forerunner of the game Grand Theft Auto – Lord Benstead has a driving simulator back at the ranch, tended to by shady butler Bates (Ivor Dean, an actor who was the master of looking distinctly unimpressed).

The simulator will feature in the drive-or-die finale, but between then and now there is a lot of time for the production team to enjoy themselves. Speeded-up film, jaunty “swinging” music on the soundtrack and acres of back projection are prominent in the cross-country chase through one village after another, all chosen for their cuteness – we don’t actually see a half-timbered duck pond but we get close. At one point the cars hurtle through a village called Swingingdale. “Not very swinging,” is Mrs Peel’s verdict.

It’s zany, in short, and if zany is your thing – and cars – it’s a good episode. I thought the humour undercut a rather good story that might have been better if Clemens had taken his foot off the comedy pedal a touch. It’s called The Avengers, not The Monkees.

BTW: Van Ost, the Avengers Forever website tells us, was one of several actresses tried out as a replacement for Mrs Peel.

 

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

I am an Amazon affiliate. Clicking on the link earns me a (vanishingly small) commission

 

 

Whether this episode is part of Series 6 or a continuation of Series 5 is moot. I’m going with the convention embraced by StudioCanal’s 2014 boxset and plumping for it being a late entrant to Series 5. It was originally conceived that way.

The imdb prefers to say we’re now in Series 6 (a short one of only eight episodes), while the Avengers Forever site leans towards calling this Series 5 (though it draws a distinction between two distinct production blocks – 5A and 5B).

There’s not much in it either way, but lumping this episode in with Series 5 means all the Emma Peel colour episodes are together, and since Series 5 is often referred to as THE classic series, that’s an advantage.

The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 19 – The £50,000 Breakfast

Pauline Delaney as Mrs Rhodes, with ventriloquist's dummy

 

The £50,000 Breakfast is a Cathy Gale-era episode (Death of a Great Dane) originally written by Roger Marshall and then reworked here by Brian Clemens into an Emma Peel-era one. And though it’s tempting to do a compare and contrast – as if to definitively nail the differences between the two eras – that can’t quite be done because Death of a Great Dane really marked the beginning of classic-era Avengers with its mad plots, people with odd names, extras thin (ish) on the ground and a general air of unreality all-pervading.

The same opener launches both – a man dies (here it’s a ventriloquist) and his stomach is found to contain a haul of diamonds. Steed and Peel are soon on the case, Mrs Peel off to talk to the dead man’s wife, Steed meeting the man’s employer, a mysterious financier magnate by name of Litoff, where Steed is quizzed about his bowler hat (a Benson, we learn) by Litoff’s butler (played here by effortlessly superior Cecil Parker).

Actually, Steed doesn’t meet Litoff – Steed’s not important enough – but Litoff’s right-hand woman Miss Pegram (the formidable Yolande Turner) and tries to pass himself off as a chancer willing to return diamonds he believes belonged originally to Litoff.

Do the diamonds have anything to do with the vast amount of wealth that’s been leaving British shores in recent months?

It’s notable that Pegram is a woman rather than the more usual right-hand man, since there’s obvious gender rebalancing going on in this episode vis a vis the original. More is evident when Mrs Peel heads to a shop selling old school ties, run by a modern young miss – it was Steed made this visit in the original, and a man ran the shop.

Another change. The wine-tasting in the original, an opportunity for fabulous one-upmanship, has been replaced by a very posh cigar-tasting, where Steed utters the line “Why the jungle music?” while nodding towards a group of calypso players, which is either a breathtaking bit of old-school racism (and incidentally a rare relaxing of The Avengers “no blacks” rule), or canny screenwriting – Steed playing to the prejudices of the man he wants to get close to, Litoff’s doctor Sir James Arnall (David Langton).

 

Mrs Peel in handcuffs and John Steed trying to undo them
Surely Steed isn’t struggling?

 

Langton is another bit of fine broad-brush character casting in an episode notable for them – Parker I’ve mentioned but Cardew Robinson (famous as Cardew “the Cad” to my parents’ generation) is also extremely good value as a vicar who specialises in burying dearly departed pets.

What stands out throughout is the dark tone and thriller-ish aspect, which were both hallmarks of the Gale era.

The big fight finish is also a tough affair, with Mrs Peel taking on right-hand-woman Miss Pegram in a brawl relying only a touch on speeded-up film to make things work (which always looks like the act of desperation it is).

There’s quite a lot of plot, a fair few people and no shortage of unnecessary detail in this episode – why a ventriloquist, for example? – and to get through it all the actors gabble their lines and scenes often don’t have quite enough air to breathe.

The original is better, poor picture quality, terrible sound and ungainly TV cameras notwithstanding. And though Parker is terribly good as an underling long reconciled to his discovery that his social superiors are, morally, scumbags, he’s outdone by the sly, supercilious Leslie French in the original. But then French was always known as a scene (if not show) stealer.

 

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

I am an Amazon affiliate. Clicking on the link earns me a (vanishingly small) commission

 

 

The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 18 – Death’s Door

Spooky mystery figure

 

Closer co-operation between European countries is a good thing, right? That’s the idea driving Death’s Door, an episode with a mind-control theme and a jaunty spy-fi approach to what is essentially an espionage thriller plot.

But before the Europhobes get all steamed up, the co-operation, though never quite spelled out, appears to be more military than economic, more NATO than the EU (Common Market, EEC, EC – choose acronym according to vintage).

I’m going on the various badges and insignia on display at a conference where Sir Andrew Boyd (Clifford Evans) is about to crown his career by leading different European nations into some sort of unified treaty arrangement. He never quite gets there, instead turning tail and fleeing the scene just before his triumphal moment. Conference aborted.

Having mysteriously become psychic (or so he thinks), Sir Andrew apparently fears that he’s going to meet a grisly end at the conference. And when he actually dies at an attempt to reconvene, his deputy Lord Melford (the usually dastardly Allan Cuthbertson) steps in, a title obviously being de rigueur if you’re going to do anything important for your country.

Melford, too, is soon overcome by premonitions while sleeping. Cue a dream sequence in a style we could call Budget Dali – faceless men, giant objects, disembodied voices, portents of death and so on.

 

One Budget Dali dreamscape for Allan Cuthbertson

 

Steed suspects foul play rather than psychic forces. And when Melford recounts elements of his dream to Steed, one of them is the presence in the dream of an Eastern Bloc observer. Steed’s suspicions are reinforced.

Steed can see where this is going as clearly as anyone watching – mindfuckery is at work – and heads off to find out more about the man from behind the Iron Curtain and soon finds himself under fire.

This all leads to one of the most ludicrous but ingenious bits of impromptu counter-attack you’re ever likely to see, as a weaponless Steed (well, it’s not gentlemanly) defends himself against hostile bullets by doing something remarkable with a rock and a sharp stone. I won’t ruin it.

Later, Mrs Peel, too, gets a bit of rough-and-tumble. In a fight scene at her apartment clearly influenced by Adam West-era Batman, Laurie Johnson lays on the “biff” “pow” musical stabs while Mrs Peel does her stuff with an apprehended villain in a sequence too reliant on speeded-up film. Undercranking being one of the silent era’s more tiresome stand-bys.

The whole thing is a plot to wreck the conference, and thereby European unity, hatched behind the Iron Curtain (I’m sure Vladimir Putin would approve).

It’s a jolly enough jaunt, and the surreal excursions are a nice touch by director Sidney Hayers, but Philip Levene’s script (doubtless camped up a bit by producer Brian Clemens) feels as if it’s going through the motions.

However, this was the first episode of Diana Rigg’s final block to be shot (though Return of the Cybernauts was the first to be aired) after production recommenced, and Clemens has taken the opportunity to drop two annoying bits of show furniture – the two line teaser (Steed does this; Emma does that) and the “Mrs Peel we’re needed”.

Hooray.

 

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

I am an Amazon affiliate. Clicking on the link earns me a (vanishingly small) commission

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 17 – Return of the Cybernauts

A cybernaut at the door

When the British Film Institute celebrated 50 Years of Emma Peel in 2015, as well as interviewing the venerable Dame Diana Rigg – halfway through her run on Game of Thrones at the time – the BFI screened two episodes of Peel-era Avengers show.

Return of the Cybernauts was one (The House That Jack Built the other), chosen, presumably, because it had a big-name star in the shape of Peter Cushing in its cast, because it was something of a fan favourite and, I’m also guessing, because the production values were more polished than they had been hitherto.

Because the show had been Emmy nominated, the ABC network ordered more, of which this was the first, stumping up enough American cash to give the underpaid Diana Rigg more money (she had threatened to leave). That money is also clearly visible on screen, in the sets, the clothes, the lighting. Everything in Return of the Cybernauts is simply just a bit glossier.

That’s really evident right after the pre-credits sequence. After we’ve been re-introduced to the big, lumbering and seemingly invincible creature first encountered in The Cybernauts, now scything through a door and killing a man with a single blow, we meet impeccably dressed and groomed Steed and Peel having a chummy evening chez Paul Beresford (Cushing), a man who is as suave as he is flirtatious and whose attention to Mrs Peel is clearly unsettling Steed.

What the pair don’t know, but we do once Steed and Peel have left, is that debonair Beresford is the man behind the murderous cybernaut. We later learn he is the brother of the cybernaut’s inventor (Michael Gough who appered in the cybernaut’s original outing and who we see in archive footage) and that he’s out for revenge against Steed and Peel, who he blames for his brother’s death.

In a clear breach of security, Steed and Peel have told Beresford that the case they’re on involves missing scientists. And wouldn’t you know it but Beresford is behind that too. And he has plans to turn the scientists into killing machines expressly targeted at Steed and Peel.

 

Charles Tingwell, Peter Cushing, Fulton Mackay
Cybernaughties Charles Tingwell, Peter Cushing and Fulton Mackay

 

Why bother, when you already have a deadly cybernaut at your disposal? There is no real reason given. It’s just one of many holes in an episode that appears to have simply thrown plot elements together hurriedly and shaken them about.

OK, so it’s best not watched as a tight, self-contained story, but there are still joys to be had. Beyond its exquisite production design, these come mainly from the playing of the cast – Cushing’s almost balletic dash and his quick switch from charm personified to the epitome of evil; a returning Frederick Jaeger as his right hand man; Fulton Mackay (a world away from the upright prison warder Mr Mackay in Porridge) and Charles Tingwell (ham-handed good-natured cop to Margaret Rutherford’s Miss Marple) as two of the scientists being pressured by Beresford into doing his bidding; and Aimi MacDonald as a sex-mad secretary who tries to chat up the silent-and-deadly cybernaut. Smirk-inducing.

Jolly enough, though the cult status surrounding the cybernaut (clearly a cousin of Dr Who’s cybermen) baffles me – The New Avengers also had a cybernaut episode in 1976, and home-video distributor Network released a raved-over Blu-ray box set containing all three episodes as a package in time for Christmas 2019.

By the way, Cybernauts plural? There’s only one!

 

***

Whether this episode is part of Series 6 or a continuation of Series 5 is moot. I’m going with the convention embraced by StudioCanal’s 2014 boxset and plumping for it being a late entrant to Series 5. It was originally conceived that way.

The imdb prefers to say we’re now in Series 6 (a short one of only eight episodes), while the Avengers Forever site leans towards calling this Series 5 (though it draws a distinction between two distinct production blocks – 5A and 5B).

There’s not much in it either way, but lumping this episode in with Series 5 means all the Emma Peel colour episodes are together, and since Series 5 is often referred to as THE classic series, that’s an advantage.

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 16 – Who’s Who???

Lola and Emma in a mind-swap machine

The Nicolas Cage/John Travolta film Face/Off might perhaps have borrowed its central idea from Who’s Who???, a crackingly conceived episode of The Avengers built around the idea of a mind-swap between Steed and the dastardly Basil (Freddie Jones).

There’s a bit plot business before we get to the big central idea – we are introduced to Basil and sidekick Lola (Patricia Haines) deliberately killing “one of our very best agents”, in the words of the original and as-yet-unaltered John Steed, expressly with the intention of flushing Steed and Peel out into the open to steal their identities.

But nothing really held my interest until what looked like an old radar console from a Second World War movie was rolled out and the mind-swap began. Would the valves be up to it? Swap achieved, the bogus Steed is soon back at base, where he is immediately arousing Mrs Peel’s suspicions by addressing her as “Emma”. Not his style.

Who are these guys – Basil and Lola, and the boffin Krelmar (Arnold Diamond) who’s teched all this together? They seem to be some kind of residue of the Nazi era, a gang out to bust the Flower Network of spies, whose agents all have floral names – Poppy, Bluebell, Pansy, Daffodil (played by this episode’s writer, Philip Levene) – by infiltrating it.

So far, so dastardly. Things become slightly more complicated when Lola and Mrs Peel mind-swap and, with wit and originality, the show tries to keep viewers up to speed on who’s who with faux public information announcements after each advertising break. The villains look like this (Steed and Peel) and the good guys look like this (Basil and Lola) kind of thing.

John Steed with a gun
Will the real John Steed please stand up!



The fact that there is something of a relationship between Basil and Lola allows Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg to be a lot fruitier than they normally would – doing the kissing thing, dancing together (in “yeh, baby” Austin Powers fashion) and so on. It’s Haines and Jones who actually embrace the mind-swap idea fully. Neither Rigg nor Macnee seem entirely committed to playing different characters, a bit of gum-chewing (Rigg) and cigar-chomping (Macnee) and they’re about done.

People who insist that TV-land should bear some relationship to the actual world we live in will hate the car chase, which zips from a central London mews location to the countryside and back to suburbia in no time at all.

More importantly, in terms of consistency, neither writer Levene, the actors nor director John Llewellyn Moxey seem to have worked out whether the transfer of “psyche” (as it’s called) involves all aspects of the personality, or whether some of it remains in the body, or whether that’s muscle-memory or some other residual effect.

It’s not really Face/Off in utero, in other words, and for all its ingenious plotting, and performances from Jones and Haines that really zing, it doesn’t quite work.

Apparently (thanks to theavengers.tv for this info), necessity was the mother of this episode. Macnee was off on holiday and Rigg was halfway out of the series – hence the need for a couple of actors who could do a good chunk of the dramatic heavy lifting.



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© Steve Morrissey 2020


The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 15 – The Joker

Ronald Lacey and Diana Rigg

 

The creeping feeling that The Avengers is running out of puff is further reinforced by The Joker, a rewrite of the Cathy Gale-era episode Don’t Look Behind You. Except in this case it’s Emma Peel who is stalked by an admirer with a deadly agenda.

It was a very good episode first time round and works its magic this time too. But before Mrs Peel can be sent off for a weekend at the house of bridge-playing Sir Cavalier Rusticana – Steed jokes that it sounds like an opera (hardly surprising since the joke name is modelled on the opera Cavalleria Rusticana) – first we see a mystery hand cutting a picture of Mrs Peel from a magazine called Better Bridge with Mathematics. And then cutting the picture into pieces – no fiendish cackle required.

Mrs Peel as a bridge whizz? Makes a lot of sense, and this facet of her personality, along with Steed’s sprained leg after falling down the stairs, allows writer Brian Clemens to devote the whole episode to her, leaving John Steed to do little more than sweep up at the end.

What was fascinating about Don’t Look Behind You was the array of oddball characters it wheeled out to confound Mrs Gale and entertain us. They’re all present in The Joker too, in the same order. And after Mrs Peel has driven down to the remote Exmoor mansion for a bridge-playing weekend, she first meets the owner’s niece (Sally Nesbitt), a dippy actress. Now merely posh rather than a proto-hippie chick, Ola is still all over the place, her mind darting hither and yon as she guides a politely bewildered Emma to her room, where Emma dresses for dinner (while being observed from a spyhole).

 

A paranoid Mrs Peel is increasingly spooked

 

Just as we’re wondering if Ola might be the mystery picture desecrator, she makes her excuses and leaves the house, heading off into the village to visit a “friend”. At which point weirdo number two turns up (Ronald Lacey), a property mogul scouting for new acquisitions whose car just happens to have run out of fuel outside the house. He claims to know Mrs Peel but says she won’t recognise him on account of his plastic surgery.

In his dark shades and with that unusual backstory, is this Strange Young Man (as the imdb calls him) the mystery hand? Since Lacey was often called on to play extremely creepy characters (you might remember him as the Nazi Toht in Invaders of the Lost Ark), director Sidney Hayers has no trouble getting a menacing character into the frame.

But Lacey, too, is soon eclipsed, replaced as potential mutilator-in-chief by Peter Jeffrey as Max, an old flame – he and Mrs Peel met in Berlin – still carrying a torch.

So we’ve got three potential stalkers, two red herrings and one big old house. As the production design grows increasingly paranoid – giant playing cards, a scratchy old German song (Mein Liebling, Mein Rose by Whispering Carl Schmidt) being played again and again, everything takes a rather Lewis Carroll turn and Emma is ends up eventually running around a house filled with voices coming from every direction. However, Steed has finally bestirred himself and is hobbling towards the fog-shrouded house. To the rescue!

This is top-notch 1960s TV. The production and sound design are excellent, the screenplay weird yet taut, the casting and playing perfect, the direction cinematic and economical and Laurie Johnson makes a significant contribution with the German song, which he wrote.

Even so, the Cathy Gale original has the edge. Perhaps those big old clunky TV cameras with their Dalek-like glide are better at connoting paranoia. Or perhaps it’s just that black and white suits the Dark Old House genre better.

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020