The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 4 – The See-Through Man

Steed and Pell with chemistry apparatus

 

After time travel in the previous week’s episode, Escape in Time, The Avengers’ augmented interest in sci-fi gets another workout in The See-Through Man, a plot all about invisibility and its dastardly uses.

 

Comedy is the overarching tone and self-parody the effect as first one person then another is killed by an invisible man (he is referred to throughout as “he”, even before it’s been established that he is a he). Indeed, before the opening credits have even rolled a factotum at the Ministry of Defence has been dispatched by an unseeable assailant, all very nicely done by director Robert Asher.

 

Two bits of minor but annoying Avengers furniture are then quickly dealt with, first the pithy subhead (Steed Makes a Bomb; Emma Is Put to Sleep), followed by the “Mrs Peel, We’re Needed” command/salutation/entreaty from Steed to Peel, delivered this week from down the lens of a microscope.

 

It’s all meant to be too, too witty but is in fact already, after only a few airings, too too tiresome. The new-style opening has also robbed viewers of what was one of the more enjoyable aspects of The Avengers – the plot explication data-dump handled as a cross between sparring and flirting by Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg.

 

Gripes aside, it’s a “proper” Avengers episode – fanciful and ludicrous, yet handled at speed and with wit. Warren Mitchell turns up again as Soviet ambassadorial operator Brodny  (third time, I think) and his scenes with Steed are again an object lesson in oneupmanship, between characters and actors, as the two opponents in spying weigh personal admiration against bigger loyalties.

 

Steed quizzes boffin Quilby (Roy Kinnear)

 

Mitchell has had another think about Brodny and plays him this time out as about one third Groucho Marx, Brodny’s frock coat adding to the impression.

 

In a good episode for proper character actors, it’s Roy Kinnear as the madly eccentric scientist who invented the invisibility formula, and Moira Lister – whose legs are made much of – as the steely wife of invisible assassin Major Vazin, Lister playing her as a cross between Mata Hari and Rosa Klebb.

 

Comedy, as I say, is the idea – everyone has a comical accent or eccentricity. Warren Mitchell even tries a bit of that old standby – comedy running.

 

The cinematography is noticeably better than it is in the usual run of episodes, DP Wilkie Cooper having had a career in the movies before arriving for this, his first TV job. There’s a car chase featuring an invisible driver, which is done pretty convincingly for 1960s TV and a big fight finish between Lister and Rigg, which is also handled well by director Asher, though some of the punches being thrown are a bit feeble.

 

Thanks to Philip Levene’s brisk script, it’s a very good episode in concept and delivery, though the series has now lost the darkness and mystery which were a key part of its makeup in the Cathy Gale era.

 

In other words, good though it is, if you’re looking for a “jumped the shark” episode, look no further than The See-Through Man.

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 3 – Escape in Time

Emma Peel and John Steed cower in a doorway

 

Escape in Time is a good chance to see what the great documentary maker John Krish can do when handed an episode of The Avengers to direct.

 

The results are a mixed bag: visually interesting but dramatically a little flat, though the premise – a time-travelling bolthole into another era to aid escaping master criminals – is a fascinating one if you’re on board with the whole time-travel idea.

 

And it gives the production team at The Avengers a chance to get the fancy-dress box out – a sure sign of a series that’s jumping the shark. On the upside, Peter Bowles is in it, and we meet him very early on after one of Steed’s colleagues has been whisked back in time (nice bit of Krish camera work) to the Elizabethan era, where he’s shot by Bowles, in ruff, Van Dyke beard and diabolical Bowles grin.

 

Washed up in the river – back in the 20th century – the man is soon on a pathologist’s slab, where his wound is identified by Emma Peel as having been caused by a Tudor weapon. It turns out he was investigating the disappearance of a lot of villains and, according to man-from-the-ministry Clapham (long, lean Geoffrey Bayldon, later Catweazle) was about to make a breakthrough.

 

This is a handy bit of “no time for investigation” exposition by writer Philip Levene, who knows he’s got a lot to pack into this episode, and it conveniently sends Peel and Steed up the most fruitful avenue first.

 

Fruitful for our sleuth/spies does not necessarily translate as interesting for the viewer, though. For too much of this episode Peel is getting into scrapes of her own outside a barber’s shop (Steed visits the barber; Emma has a close shave! is the episode subhead) as she follows the comings and goings of Josino (Ricardo Montez), a villain who is probably going to time-travel his way out of trouble.

 

On the street outside the barber’s is a newspaper billboard. “Where is Blake” it shouts. This rare intrusion of external reality in The Avengers refers to Soviet spy George Blake, who escaped from Wormwood Scrubs in 1966 by climbing the wall and jumping down onto the roof of a waiting Ford Transit van – they raised the height of the walls after that – and stands as a counterweight to all the fantastical to-ing and fro-ing. A documentarist’s touch.

 

Emma Peel in the stocks
Did you say “socks” or “stocks”?

 

Thyssen (Bowles), after having killed a number of people in a variety of epochs, soon gets a visit from Steed, posing as a rich guy who needs to make a quick exit from the here and now. In short order Steed has been given a taster of an escape into the past, a trip to 1790.

 

For all its trips into the past, though, this is a very 1960s episode, psychedelically flavoured, full of blind alleys, weird stuff happening for no real reason and fashion that’s designed almost as a dare, it seems.

 

Krish shoots a lot of it almost like a silent film, which gives Bowles rein to play the Thyssens of various eras as men who are devious verging on the deviant. Judy Parfitt, as Thyssen’s right-hand woman, sadly doesn’t get much to do in her third outing in the show.

 

It should all work but it doesn’t – perhaps spies and time travel is just one bridge too far – and the obviousness of the studio sets doesn’t help very much.

 

But if you’ve ever wanted to see Steed’s brolly emitting gas – a Bond-like gadget! – this is for you. And Krish’s direction, and in particular his love of a wonky camera angle, is something to admire.

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 2 – The Fear Merchants

Annette Carell, Patrick Cargill and Garfield Morgan

“Steed puts outlight; Emma takes fright” runs the subhead to The Fear Merchants, second episode of the fifth series of The Avengers, and its belly-flop rhythm makes it apparent that this novelty is already not a good idea.

But on with the episode, which starts well with a man who stands alone inside an empty football stadium, frightened to the point of insanity though there is nothing there to terrify him.

He’s not the first, either, apparently. In fact he’s the latest in a line of top British ceramics experts driven to the edge of reason by nothing in particular – a mouse in the case of Fox (Bernard Horsfall), who gives Steed a lead to the top-end ceramics outfit he used to work for.

What’s going on? And is an organisation called the Business Efficiency Bureau (BEB) involved? Well it’s headed by a man called Pemberton, played by the silken Patrick Cargill, a character who wears sunglasses indoors. And Pemberton is ably assisted by the Rosa Klebb-like Dr Voss (Annette Carell, a specialist at these sort of roles)… so there’s a good chance.

Also working at the BEB is Gilbert (played by Garfield Morgan, later of The Sweeney), a psychologist (dodgy) who wears those nicotine-tinted shades beloved, in screen dramas, of child murderers, war criminals and sexual deviants.

A large flashing sign bearing the word “villain” would be more subtle but at least we know where we are.

Also in the mix is Raven (Brian Wilde, later of Porridge), a go-getting industrialist of Elon Musk stripe who has called in the BEB to help him streamline the industry (put it entirely under his control, in other words) using Gilbert’s psychological profiling to get the measure of his rivals and scare them off (or to death).

It’s a welcome return of an Avengers standby subject – shaky British manufacturing struggling to come to terms with open markets after the loss of its empire – given a paranoid Brian Clemens update (the excellent script is by Philip Levene, though Clemens’s tweaks are evident – Mrs Peel’s take-up of avant-garde sculpture looks like one of his).

A latex-gloved hand near some surgical instruments
You don’t need to be phobic to be afraid!


It’s a very techy episode – gadgets abound, with sliding doors, lie detectors and a box that prefigures a 3D printer featuring prominently.

Production values are high, in other words, with the whole thing much more in keeping with glossy shows from later in the decade (The Prisoner, Randall and Hopkirk, The Champions). Cinematography (by Wilkie Cooper and Alan Hume) is dynamic, while the overall direction (by Gordon Flemyng) aims for the visual drama of cinema, with an increased use of Laurie Johnson’s incidental music particularly effective.

This all culminates in a tense finale, where Steed (or Patrick Macnee’s body double, to be more accurate) is menaced by a digger in a quarry.

A word about German-born Annette Carell, who is particularly effective as a sadistic henchperson. She’d be dead of a barbiturates overdoes only months after making this episode and I suspect that her menacing presence, as well as the super-suave Cargill, is what drives Diana Rigg’s particularly perky, snarky, bright and blasé performance this time out.

Cargill and Carell as a Blofeld/Oddjob combo – what might have been.

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 1 – From Venus with Love

Jeremy Lloyd

 

 

For a lot of people, series five of The Avengers IS The Avengers. It’s in colour, for starters, and takes full advantage of the extended tonal pallet by really laying on the visuals – in From Venus with Love, the first episode to air (the fourth of the series to be made) – colour is laid on with abandon, almost at random, it sometimes seems, by an exuberant production team who splash it on walls, floors and wherever they can. Reds and blues, in the main, because they register best.

 

It also fine-tunes the Steed/Peel relationship, moves Diana Rigg permanently out of leather (a hangover from the Honor Blackman era) and into Crimplene, and dandifies John Steed even further. He’s now export-strength Steed.

 

And it strips away the last vestiges of normal life, for the most part – by series five The Avengers had reached its final incarnation, as a spy-fi series set in a world devoid of normal people (no more scenes in pubs), populated by eccentrics and with plotlines featuring hi-tech gadgets and more often driven by some cadet Bond villain of a megalomaniac bent than a foreign (ie Soviet) spy organisation.

 

The title alone of From Venus with Love makes the James Bond connection clear, but there is more – a laser beam features prominently in a story about astronomers dying suddenly, having rapidly aged (much use of white powder – uncharacteristically shocking hair and make-up in this episode).

 

John Steed in white bowler hat with Emma Peel
No, it’ll never catch on

 

By murder number two Steed and Peel are properly on the case, Steed in a fantastic purple two-tone suit and a less fantastic lilac shirt, and quizzing astronomer Bertram Fortescue-Winthrop-Smythe, a member of the British Venusian Society (BVS) who goes by the demotic handle of Bert Smith and works as a chimney sweep, albeit one who practises his trade in top hat and tails.

 

Jeremy Lloyd (whose Swinging Posh Brit shtick made him a late-60s face in the UK and the US) has the sort of accent that could dislodge soot and sends Steed and Peel off in two different directions – she’s chasing a mysterious ball of white light in her Lotus Elan; he’s off to interview Venus (Barbara Shelley), head of the BVS. There, having accidentally-on-purpose disclosed that he’s minted, Steed is warmly welcomed into the fold, providing he passes the eye test, conducted by another Brian Clemens eccentric (Philip Locke).

 

The BVS believe that humanity should be heading towards Venus rather than the Moon and, further into the episode, that Venusians are invading the Earth.

 

Of course what’s really going on is a lot more mundane, which is handy when you don’t have a fortune to spend on special effects.

 

It’s a ridiculous episode but a good one, propelled by good natured banter and eccentricity – future Doctor Who Jon Pertwee turns up as a general recalling his war experiences prompted by sound-effects records; Kenneth Benda plays a noble lord who locks himself in his own strongroom, the better to appreciate his valuable art collection.

 

Two new developments. Each episode of series five opens with a “Steed does this; Emma does that” chapter subhead – “Steed is shot full of holes; Emma sees stars” in this case (he gets the serious surname; she the frivolous forename). And each ends, not with an “exit vehicle” as series four did, but with a bit of eyebrow-cocking banter, usually uttered while the duo consume vintage champagne.

 

And though personally I think the show peaked somewhere towards the end of series three/beginning of series four, it’s series five that defines it, and, by backing itself into a formulaic corner, also sows the seeds of its own destruction.

 

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020