The Avengers: Series 6, Episode 13 – They Keep Killing Steed

Norman Jones and Ray McAnally

 

Improbable and fluffy, They Keep Killing Steed is a prime screenplay by showrunner and writer Brian Clemens, and a clear sign that the series is entirely back on track with a plot pivoting on the ideas of doubles – a classic Clemens trope.

The fluidly cinematic Robert Fuest does directorial duty in a plot that leans heavily on Patrick Macnee – he plays at least four, possibly five Steeds, created to undo a peace conference by substituting the real thing with one of the obviously dodgy fakes.

Tara King, meanwhile, gets a “double” plot of her own, when she’s co-opted by himbo babe-magnet billionaire Baron Von Curt (Ian Ogilvy) to act as his decoy wife to deter the lollymouthed pussy posse who assail him wherever he goes.

But rewinding to the beginning, the entire idea is summed up in a neat opening sequence – two men in a bunker release a third man from a mask. It looks, but does not sound, like Steed: “Dispensable,” they conclude, and kill him immediately.

We cut to Mother, organising the security on the peace conference from a lake, accompanied by silent strapping blonde Rhonda, and then quickly to the real Steed and Tara King, at a crummy hotel (you can almost smell the damp) where the peace conference is to take place. And then to Ray McAnally and Norman Jones as Arcos and Zerson, names and accents indicative of bad-guy status.

 

One of the fake Steeds
The real Steed… or is it?

 

In that loquacious way that villains have, McAnally’s Arcos lays out the plan – kidnap Steed, replace him with one of the copies, sabotage the peace conference. And so it plays out, until the real Steed – who has in the intervening period been picked up by a bogus taxi, knocked out and is now prisoner at the subterranean facility rather than dead in a ditch somewhere – breaks free, uses the same tech to copy the face of one of his captors and makes his escape…

The stage is now set for one of those Clemens dances between real and fake as the plot spins towards its climax.

It’s a good story and well told, hang the improbability, with Clemens at certain points deliberately withholding information that would make things a lot clearer but less enjoyable.

As for Tara and her “stand in” scenario as a billionaire’s beard – no, the Baron isn’t gay but it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that that’s what Clemens might have originally have had in mind – it’s also a neat story but has absolutely no connection to Steed’s “double” plot.

In an attempt to yoke the two together, Clemens has the Baron suddenly making an appearance at the peace conference, for reasons which make no sense – he has no security clearance unless just the fact of being very rich, a baron and blond is enough. There’s a touch of the “hey, it’s The Avengers” shrugging justification here which is the price (I suspect) Clemens thought was worth paying for a scenario that gets a lot in to its 50 minutes of self-contained plot.

Bernard Horsfall – one of those TV actors who never stopped working – is drafted in as a spy sidekick to Tara King at the conference and McAnally – pronounced Mack-an-alley rather than Muck-anally (just an FYI) – is reliably malevolent as Arcos.

An episode that relies on everyone knowing where their marks are and hitting them when required, it’s a slick return to Avengers form.

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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

 

 

 

***

The imdb refers to this as season seven. I’m saying six, along with most of the fan sites and Wikipedia, and in line with the pretty much definitive Studio Canal box set. The reason why the imdb and others say seven is because they’re taking the final block of eight Emma Peel episodes as a separate season. But since there were only eight episodes in that production block, lumping them together with the 16 episodes of what everyone agrees is season five brings the total up to 24, much closer to the usual Avengers run of about 26 episodes.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 6, Episode 12 – Have Guns – Will Haggle

John Steed with automatic weapon

 

 

Intended as a 90-minute episode designed to introduce Tara King and originally called Invitation to a Killing, what became the 12th episode of the final series of The Avengers instead ran the usual 50-ish minutes, wound up being called Have Guns – Will Haggle and features not one but two iterations of King.

The first is the ingenue blonde we are introduced to, producer John Bryce’s conception of King (Linda Thorson was his girlfriend at the time). The second, dropped in later by reshoot directors Robert Asher and Harry Booth, is slimmer, sleeker and has dark hair and a much more familiar Mrs Peel relationship with John Steed. Linda Thorson is fine as both. In fact by the time the episode has finished, she’s survived the Gale/Peel Replacement Ordeal and looks like a good fit for the series.

The other hint that we’re not entirely in the hands of the Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell production duo but with worldlier, grittier Bryce is that there is a black man in a key role. Johnny Sekka, one of a handful of dark-skinned actors who odd-jobbed their way through 1960s British TV, plays Colonel Nsonga, an African general in the UK to buy a shipment of top secret and very hi-tech weapons, intending to go home and launch a coup.

Nsonga is not doing it through the usual channels. Instead, as we’ve seen in the opening sequence, the weapons have been stolen and are now being auctioned off by a hot young woman, played by a hot young Nicola Pagett, with Steed and King soon thrown into the mix, Steed as a prospective buyer, King as… well, let’s not go there.

A trope familiar from the Cathy Gale era – which Bryce produced – soon asserts itself. And you might as well dub it “posh people being posh”. Notice Steed’s easy familiarity with Nsonga, both of them products of the British private school system, Nsonga all colonial manners, though he’s obviously humouring Steed and beneath the urbanity is a man who wants to get somewhere fast.

 

John Steed and Tara King chat while lying in the grass
So, Tara, whaddya think of the show so far?

 

Personally, I liked the Bryce era stuff, and would suggest the very best Avengers episodes as the ones that came at the end of series 3 – they’re mad and out there but still seem rooted in the world of espionage rather than fantasy. But I’m not sure Bryce (or production designer Robert Jones) is bringing his A game here – when Tara King goes to visit an eccentric (of course) ballistics expert in his uniformly purple lab, her peach/pink (puce?) coat (hiding the fact that she’s overweight, it’s been suggested at the excellent The Avengers site) clashes hideously with the purple, as does her blond wig.

The whole episode is a mess – not only does Tara change from scene to scene but so does the season, thanks to the reshoots.

There are enough plus points to make it work, though. A tiny one is that we get to see Tara’s apartment – it’s in Primrose Hill, as hip at the time as it would be when the BritPop movers and shakers started their revival of the era (and area) 30 years on.

The absurd collection of villains who turn out for the auction of hookey weapons is another – Austin Powers could not have assembled a more risible gang of rentavillains. Mao and Nehru jackets both feature.

In spite of the choppy-changey nature of what is a rescue job, things do tie up nicely in a sweaty finale that features a bomb fizzing away, with both Macnee and Thorson pulling out the acting stops to convince us that this is a situation of extreme jeopardy.

A case of “phew, just about made it”, I reckon. Whether Donald James would recognise much of his original screenplay is another matter entirely.

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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

 

 

***

The imdb refers to this as season seven. I’m saying six, along with most of the fan sites and Wikipedia, and in line with the pretty much definitive Studio Canal box set. The reason why the imdb and others say seven is because they’re taking the final block of eight Emma Peel episodes as a separate season. But since there were only eight episodes in that production block, lumping them together with the 16 episodes of what everyone agrees is season five brings the total up to 24, much closer to the usual Avengers run of about 26 episodes.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 6, Episode 11 – Look – (Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One)…

Linda Thorson and John Cleese

 

Look – (Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One) but There Were These Two Fellers… that’s the full title to an episode determined that, since the day of The Avengers are numbered, things might as well go out with a bang.

It’s written by the insanely prolific Dennis Spooner, whose name came to dominate British TV as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s and was dead at the ridiculously young age of 53 in 1986. Perhaps it was overwork.

Musings on mortality to one side, this is a great episode for all sorts of reasons. Top of those is the cast, which is full of British comedians from all sorts of different traditions. Pride of place goes to old stager Jimmy Jewel, who plays one of a pair of clowns killing people theatrically – with a gun that goes bang, or with a bomb with “BOMB” emblazoned on it and a big fizzing fuse sticking out the top being just two examples.

The first of the deaths happens pre-credits, with Sir Jeremy Broadfoot (Richard Young) copping it when Maxie Martin (Jewel) and mute sidekick Jennings (Julian Chagrin) arrive at Broadfoot’s office to do the deed, but not before they’ve first performed a little vaudeville dance routine.

Sir Jeremy is responsible for the building of the Cupid project, an underground government bunker designed to withstand the impending nuclear holocaust. And after a fellow director of the company, Cleghorn (Bill Shine), has also been despatched in jocular fashion by Maxie and Jennings, the race is on for Steed and King to find out who’s behind the murders.

 

Brigadier Wiltshire with a comedy bomb
Brigadier Wiltshire hasn’t dealt with a bomb like this before

 

The clue. In classic Avengers episodes there’s always a clue. Here, it comes from a very long footprint left at one crime scene and a red nose at another. What can it all mean?

No chin-scratching required, Tara King is soon interviewing the man who co-ordinates the registration of a clown’s copyrighted looks – each face is painted onto a blown hen’s egg (this is indeed how it is, or was, done).

Playing the eccentric and comedically timid Marcus Rugman is John Cleese, his character a prototype of many a fawning Monty Python creation. No sign of Basil Fawlty belligerence.

While King is exploring avenue A, Steed is up avenue B, with professional joke writer Bradley Marler (Bernard Cribbins), whose office is full of discarded material, drifts of paper all over the floor. And if the discarded stuff is anything like the weak efforts Marler tries on the distinctly untickled Steed… Dennis Spooner started out as a joke writer, so he knows whereof he speaks.

While this has been going on, two developments. It seems that Maxie and Jennings are being debriefed after every kill by a pair Punch and Judy puppets (worked, uncredited, by Punch and Judy legend “Professor” John Styles). And we learn that the board of the building company whose members keep dying does contain one member who is a good 20 years younger than the rest, and he’s played by the reliably sinister John Woodvine (who, even when he played a good cop back then, was always a tough one).

Vaudeville (pronounced “voh-deville” by Steed and “vor-deville” by Cribbins) provides the background and, given that theatrical exaggeration was an Avengers go-to style, you’ve got to wonder why the show hasn’t been there before.

Jewel, a vaudeville/music hall old hand who was about to have a late-career renaissance on TV (this being part of it) is a combination of Dan Leno and Little Tich, stage legends of the late-Victorian era, whereas the character of sidekick Chagrin is clearly modelled on Harpo Marx, right down to the honking horn (digressive factoid: Chagrin was also the pyjama-clad “secret lemonade drinker” of the R White’s TV advertising campaign in the 1970s).

As the episode progresses we meet more vaudeville refugees and the motive behind the murders begins to reveal itself.

Tara’s hair: it’s long, it’s short. What’s going on? No idea, though the suspicion is that there’s been a bit of reshooting and editing once the Clemens/Fennell production team resumed control, and the changing hair is evidence of that.

The vampy incidental music on the harpsichord and the return to bold primary colours in the set design also indicate a return to business as usual.

“Going right over the top,” is how Spooner described this final season of The Avengers. On the evidence of the pantomime horse that turns up for the big finale, he was probably thinking about this episode.

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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

 

 

***

The imdb refers to this as season seven. I’m saying six, along with most of the fan sites and Wikipedia, and in line with the pretty much definitive Studio Canal box set. The reason why the imdb and others say seven is because they’re taking the final block of eight Emma Peel episodes as a separate season. But since there were only eight episodes in that production block, lumping them together with the 16 episodes of what everyone agrees is season five brings the total up to 24, much closer to the usual Avengers run of about 26 episodes.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 6, Episode 10 – Noon-Doomsday

Ray Brooks and TP McKenna play cowboys

 

High Noon, the 1952 movie starring Gary Cooper, is the inspiration behind this Terry Nation-scripted episode of The Avengers. Nation had done something similarly pastiche-y the previous week with Legacy of Death, an episode that leaned on 1940s noir.

Quick thumbnail of High Noon – Gary Cooper is the good guy finding everyone in the town has a pressing previous engagement, leaving him to fend alone when a bad guy comes calling. An injured Steed takes his place here, his broken leg forcing him to convalesce in a very exclusive sanatorium (Brian Clemens’s farm, in fact) and finding himself increasingly isolated and vulnerable as a sworn enemy comes ever closer.

The episode has a blocky structure – Steed is one block, whiling away his time as the other operatives from Department S gradually abandon him. A physically busy Tara is another, charging hither and yon in full action girl mode. Mother is the third, hanging out at Steed’s apartment and drinking his way through Steed’s high-end booze. Fourth block is TP McKenna and Ray Brooks, as a pair of baddies who have been introduced on horseback before settling down at a railway station where the hands of the station clock make explicit the High Noon connection.

 

Ray Brooks and TP McKenna
Waiting for their man

 

The episodes cycles through these four blocks – Mother drinking, Brooks and McKenna indulging in dick-measuring banter and demonstrations of knife and gun skills as they await the appointed hour, Tara, Steed, and, in the wings waiting to deliver the coup de grace, a man called Kafka, onetime head of Murder International and an old foe of Steed out for payback.

The High Noon comparisons are easily overdone – Steed and King don’t fit that neatly into the Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly template, though Brooks and McKenna are a much closer analogue of the two gunmen in High Noon waiting for the fateful arrival of the train carrying murderous cargo.

So, a gunfight finale? Yes, indeedy, to the sound of a mariachi band, no less, which is all a bit absurd in the setting of an English farmyard but the set-up does kind of demand it.

Kafka? The name adds a layer of doom, or that’s the intention at least. Department S? There was a new TV show in the works with that title and Terry Nation was one of its main writers, so that probably explains that.

“Lose some weight,” had been one of the orders barked at Thorson when she got the role. She’s still noticeably bulky here, about halfway through the production run, though got svelter as the series progressed. I point it out not to be sexist, but because relatively green director Peter Sykes seems not to have noticed and isn’t helping things by repeatedly drawing the eye to Tara’s rear end as she engages in energetic derring-do.

Overall, a fun enough episode, but lacking that Avengers sparkle.

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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

 

 

***

The imdb refers to this as season seven. I’m saying six, along with most of the fan sites and Wikipedia, and in line with the pretty much definitive Studio Canal box set. The reason why the imdb and others say seven is because they’re taking the final block of eight Emma Peel episodes as a separate season. But since there were only eight episodes in that production block, lumping them together with the 16 episodes of what everyone agrees is season five brings the total up to 24, much closer to the usual Avengers run of about 26 episodes.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 6, Episode 9 – Legacy of Death

Ronald Lacey and Stratford Johns

 

“A bit crap,” is what I wrote in my notes towards the end of watching The Avengers episode Legacy of Death. Perhaps I was being too harsh. My memory of it now is of being a pleasingly entertaining episode, and that’s largely down to the work of Stratford Johns and Ronald Lacey, who do a knock-up and knockabout job of pastiching Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, Casablanca/Maltese Falcon era.

Pastiche is pretty much the watchword throughout, this being one of the banes of this farewell series (at what point did everyone realise that’s what it was?).

But on to the plot – written by Dr Who’s Daleks creator Terry Nation and opening with a man called Farrer (Richard Hurndall, who’d briefly play the time-travelling Doctor many years down the line) lowering himself into his coffin to avoid being killed by two assassins on their way in from the airport, according to his trusty aide Zoltan (John Hollis).

The men arrive – it is Sidney Street (Johns) and Humbert Green (Lacey) – but Farrer is already dead and Zoltan has hidden the dagger his master gave to him for safe-keeping before he croaked.

Soon, after a visit from the mysterious Zoltan, Steed has that same dagger, though he’s none the wiser about where it’s from. Tara arrives, keen to share some bubbly with her colleague. And soon after that the first of a string of rival comedy (ie foreign) assailants turns up, keen to relieve Steed of “the dagger of a thousand deaths”, as one of them puts it.

 

Tara King tied up
Tied up: manservant Winkler and his boss Baron Von Orlak are just two of the villains after the dagger

 

None really creates as much of an impression as Johns, who is excellent when pushed into caricature, as he is here, with much excessive mopping of his sweaty features with a hankie that was probably wrung out between takes.

The whole thing culminates back at the ranch (Farrer’s mansion) where the dagger is found to be the key to something eye-widening, which Steed and King will soon be getting their hands on if the villains, who have now all banded together, don’t get the dagger off them first.

Comedy is the intention, and everyone is overdoing it except Patrick Macnee, who has either taken it on his own shoulders to keep the brand pure, or has been instructed by director Don Chaffey to act as the pivot around which the carousel spins.

If you were to sum up the episode in a soundbite, it’s a case of an awful lot of people dying awfully casually. Yes, the law of diminishing returns does apply.

What’s it all about? The dagger leads to untold riches, or something. It doesn’t really matter, Nation fully understanding that this is an exercise in archness.

Things to look out for – a firm called Dickens, Dickens, Dickens, Dickens & Dickens (a sign that Brian Clemens was involved somewhere), a glimpse of Tara’s apartment (I didn’t know she even had one), and a late appearance of the Chinese water torture, which by this point in the 20th century had been done well and truly to death as a despicable way of extracting information (and of behaving, let’s face it). A relic.

Fans of Pink Panther style fist fights – no one looks like they’re getting hurt – will enjoy the finale, which also comes with an Agatha Christie-style reveal during which everything is explained.

Stylish enough, but with too much of an emphasis on a particularly arch sort of comedy. On second/third thoughts, still “a bit crap”.

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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

 

 

***

The imdb refers to this as season seven. I’m saying six, along with most of the fan sites and Wikipedia, and in line with the pretty much definitive Studio Canal box set. The reason why the imdb and others say seven is because they’re taking the final block of eight Emma Peel episodes as a separate season. But since there were only eight episodes in that production block, lumping them together with the 16 episodes of what everyone agrees is season five brings the total up to 24, much closer to the usual Avengers run of about 26 episodes.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 6, Episode 8 – All Done with Mirrors

Tara King near a cliff edge

 

A strange episode in many respects, All Done with Mirrors leaves John Steed almost entirely out of the picture, instead focusing on Tara King’s attempts to find out who is leaking secrets from a communications facility when Steed is arrested as a suspect mole.

It’s all a ruse, of course, Steed will in fact be spending his time with Mother, Rhonda and some bikini-clad lovelies at HQ of the week, a swimming pool equipped with an excellent bar.

King, instead, is given a right hand man, Watney (the excellent Dinsdale Landen) to help her investigate the security breaches.

Invisible forces are at work in this one, literally, with an opening sequence which sees agent Roger (John Bown) tailing and then killing a leaky fellow agent (Peter Elliott) who appears to be literally talking to himself, before Roger himself is killed by an unseen hand.

It’s all done with mirrors, the spoilerish title has told us that. But just in case we haven’t got the idea, writer Leigh Vance (a newbie) takes us to Beachy Head, where another agent, jabbering away to nobody, is soon heading over the cliff edge to his doom.

Tara, dressed for action in practical lime green denim (or is it corduroy?), heads to a secret military establishment where the government is conducting research into solar power – if only the British government had been doing that for real etc etc – with Watney in tow as a kind of Plod to her resourceful secret agent. He asks the questions; she does the real work.

 

Mother afloat in the pool
Mother isn’t exactly dressed for a pool party

 

After yet another man has died, croaking “It’s all done with mirrors” on his way out, Tara winds up at a lighthouse where she meets eccentric army chap Colonel Withers (Michael Trubshawe, in real life David Niven’s army pal) and his right hand man, Barlow (Edwin Richfield). In The Avengers Richfield is as good a sign as any that we’ve finally arrived at the locus of evil, his face more generally a kind of 1960s shorthand for badness incarnate, or human folly unleashed.

From here it’s a downhill glide to the finale.

So, we’ve got a distinct lack of Steed, Linda Thorson in her own hair rather than the series of wigs and bad dye jobs she’s been wearing in previous episodes, a writer new to the series, directorial duties well handled by another newbie to the role (Ray Austin, stunt supervisor in the Emma Peel era), and a number of non-core characters – Dinsdale Landen for one, Joanna Vogel (as a newspaper reporter) for another – breaking one of the unwritten rules of The Avengers (actually, I suspect Brian Clemens did write them down somewhere) about real-life not being allowed to intrude.

A new broom? Or a sign that, without Macnee, the producers were signalling that they had so little faith in the episode that they could load it up with try-outs? Or perhaps Mission: Impossible’s huge success in the US is having an influence, and Clemens et al are trying to build out a team. A thought.

Whichever it is, it’s a very good episode for Thorson watchers – she gets plenty to do, both at the level of acting and in terms of action.

Further down the cast there is some woefully bad acting and there needs to be an alert about the scene in which a man falls down all 365 of the lighthouse stairs to the sound of a comedy tuba. This is that alert.

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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

 

 

***

The imdb refers to this as season seven. I’m saying six, along with most of the fan sites and Wikipedia, and in line with the pretty much definitive Studio Canal box set. The reason why the imdb and others say seven is because they’re taking the final block of eight Emma Peel episodes as a separate season. But since there were only eight episodes in that production block, lumping them together with the 16 episodes of what everyone agrees is season five brings the total up to 24, much closer to the usual Avengers run of about 26 episodes.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 6, Episode 7 – False Witness

A meeting on the top deck of a bus

 

An episode of The Avengers with the name of director Charles Crichton on it is usually a good sign. A claim borne out by False Witness, a permutation on a favourite of showrunner Brian Clemens – mind control – scripted by Jeremy Burnham in such a way as to keep us guessing what’s going on for a quite a while.

But back to Crichton, whose Ealing films like The Lavender Hill Mob show a fondness for getting out of the studio when possible. He satisfies his urge here, adding a layer of fascination for anyone keen to have a look at London’s streets in the 1960s. So much of The Avengers was shot either in the studio or out in the leafy Home Counties and it’s really noticeable how much extra energy Crichton’s location footage brings to a story that’s actually fairly static on the page.

But to it, the story I mean. And we’re straight in to the dark stuff as a spy is killed because his lookout didn’t warn him that an assailant was on the way, even though the lookout clearly see danger on the horizon. What’s going on?

More is explained on the top deck of a London bus, Mother’s “office of the week” (the conceit of this series) for a briefing including cocktails, thanks to silent right-hand woman Rhonda, after which Steed’s task is to keep an eye (“two eyes” says the clearly suspicious Mother) on the man detailed to guard a key witness in a Very Important Trial.

We meet the criminal who’s the focus of the trial, a Lord Edgefield (William Job), and key witness Plummer (Michael Lees), a man who is bizarrely able to pass a lie-detector test even though he’s telling obvious, verifiable lies. What, again, is going on, apart from an early manifestation of fake news?

 

Tara King in her Lotus Europa
Tara King in her Lotus Europa

 

Tara, meanwhile, after giving chase to a suspicious milkman at Plummer’s place, ends up at Dreemykreem Dairies, where she accidentally swallows some milk and starts saying exactly the opposite of what she’s trying to say.

Now we know what’s going on. The mind control thing, with milk as a vector.

And, it being a dairy, it can only be a matter of time before the plot requires Tara to find herself in a butter-making machine, where things, obvs, take a churn for the worse.

Eagle eyes will spot all sorts of snags of logic in this dairy sequence – Tara is swimming in milk one second, dry the next, smashed milk bottles littering the place seem to have disappeared seconds later. Continuity is shot to shit. It doesn’t matter in the broader scheme of things.

As I said, it’s a zippier episode on the screen than it could have been, thanks to Crichton’s decision to shoot on the streets as much as possible. Terry Nation (always associated with Dr Who) gets script editor credit and Laurie Johnson has the sole music credit this week, Howard Blake (later of The Snowman fame) having been given a rest now that Johnson was back from writing a musical.

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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

 

 

***

The imdb refers to this as season seven. I’m saying six, along with most of the fan sites and Wikipedia, and in line with the pretty much definitive Studio Canal box set. The reason why the imdb and others say seven is because they’re taking the final block of eight Emma Peel episodes as a separate season. But since there were only eight episodes in that production block, lumping them together with the 16 episodes of what everyone agrees is season five brings the total up to 24, much closer to the usual Avengers run of about 26 episodes.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 6, Episode 6 – Whoever Shot Poor George Oblique Stroke XR40?

Steed with the computer, George

 

Whoever Shot Poor George Oblique Stroke XR40? isn’t just a great title, it’s an announcement that the classic Avengers team – Fennell and Clemens – are back in the driving seat.

This was the second episode they turned out after taking back control of the series from John Bryce and it’s clear there’s an obvious determination to demonstrate that everything is back as it should be.

Most noticeably, this means Tara King is snappier, posher, archer and tougher – it’s Emma Peel in all but name – and Patrick Macnee responds accordingly with line readings that are zippier than we’ve got used to in this final series.

What Whoever Shot Poor George Oblique Stroke XR40? isn’t – as an episode title at least – is a very good setup to a plot punchline. Because no matter how highly you score on the IQ ratings, it’s pretty obvious that victim George is not a man but a computer (or “computor”, as it’s spelled here, old school). The question, once that gigantic non-reveal has been got out of the way, is whodunit?

 

Guest star Frank Windsor in a lab coat
You can trust this man – he’s in a lab coat

 

Even that isn’t particularly the point. What Tony Williamson’s script is trying to do is run a few computer anthropomorphism jokes past us, a good year or so before Stanley Kubrick did the same with HAL 2000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Steed and King are called in after a saboteur breaks into the Ministry of Technology – Cybernetic and Computor Division – and shoots George, a computer with AI capabilities.

The injuries look terminal (boom tish) but just in case there’s a chance George can be saved, a futuristic computer physician Dr Ardmore (Anthony Nicholls) is called in and, rather than just switching George off and on again, decides he needs to operate.

Cue a number of sight gags in which George is treated as if he were a human on the slab, and Dr Ardmore goes through the “swab”, “suction” routine, while the anaesthetist gives progress reports – “He’s hanging on” etc.

All very amusing. Perhaps more amusing is the crusty old cove who’s meant to have created this electronic marvel, one Sir Wilfred Pelley (Clifford Evans), an aged aristocrat attended by his own manservant, played by Dennis Price. Price had been the co-star of Ealing comedy classic Kind Hearts and Coronets but he was also a dab hand at butlers – he played Jeeves in the 1965 series The World of Wooster. Surely he’s too esteemed an actor to be in a role so minor.

Judy Parfitt – in her third Avengers appearance – is also worth keeping in the frame if you’re looking for arch villains, as is Frank Windsor, at the time one of the most famous faces on British TV thanks to the Z Cars cop series, and it’s harder-edged spin-off, Softly Softly.

It’s a great cast, in other words, and a lovely central conceit – the computer that’s treated as if it were human – though the entire effect is charming rather than devastating, perhaps because what we get to see of the computer’s much vaunted intelligence actually seems a bit twee.

Nice to see Linda Thorson being treated as an independent operative in her own right, not just as Steed’s right-hand woman. And she even gets some action. The series seems back on track.

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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

 

 

***

The imdb refers to this as season seven. I’m saying six, along with most of the fan sites and Wikipedia, and in line with the pretty much definitive Studio Canal box set. The reason why the imdb and others say seven is because they’re taking the final block of eight Emma Peel episodes as a separate season. But since there were only eight episodes in that production block, lumping them together with the 16 episodes of what everyone agrees is season five brings the total up to 24, much closer to the usual Avengers run of about 26 episodes.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 6, Episode 5 – Split!

Tara King about to undergo a mind-blend procedure

 

Split! is the title, as in personality, a mind-control episode co-written by Brian Clemens and the similarly fecund Dennis Spooner. After John Bryce’s trio of episodes, The Invasion of the Earthmen, The Curious Case of the Countless Clues and The Forget-Me-Knot (only the last of which had been seen when this first aired), Split! marks the sudden return of Clemens et al, brought in when the Bryce regime got very behind on production targets.

Reaching for an unused Emma Peel episode and reworking it pronto, Clemens and co also tweaked the opening credits, which are more serious (ironically, since Bryce’s remit was to return the series to the sort of realism it had thrived on when Cathy Gale was Steed’s partner).

Giving strict realism the heave-ho from the outset, Clemens and Spooner get the story underway at a government-run top-secret establishment called the Ministry of Top Secret Information, where an eminent employee (Maurice Good) receives a phone call from someone asking for Boris, tells the caller they must have the wrong number, puts the phone down and then shoots a colleague, his personality having changed completely. Seconds later he’s his old self again and has no idea what he’s done.

We know, don’t we, how this one is going to go – auto-suggestion, trigger word or phrase down the phone, human being turns to deadly killing machine – because this sort of plot has been done to death ever since. However, back then it was fairly new and played right into 1960s ideas about the malleability of the mind and the nature of indoctrination and subliminal suggestion.

 

Some handwriting under a magnifying glass
It’s very doubtful that’s a real magnifying glass

 

On we go, to meet Nigel Davenport as Lord Barnes, boss of the Ministry of Top Secret Information, and his aide Peter Rooke (Julian Glover, nearly 50 years before his outing in Game of Thrones), who guides Steed towards a handwriting expert, Swindin (Christopher Benjamin), prompted by a note written by the accused man which veers wildly in style.

Swindin has a speech impediment known as roticism, a wicked name for a condition that leaves sufferers incapable of pronouncing the letter R properly. And Clemens (it can only be him) amps up the wickedness by giving Swindin a favourite word – “wemarkable”. The same joke would later be used by Michael Palin’s Pontius Pilate in The Life of Brian – “Thwow him woughly to the floor, centuwion…” etc.

Jokes to one side, the graphologist has soon pointed out that the man’s personality seems to have altered drastically, to the extent that his handwriting matches that of a ruthless enemy agent, Boris Kartovsky.

Kartovsky, however, is very dead, or at least he’s meant to be. And since he was shot through the heart by Steed…

What’s going on? Is something a lot grander than auto-suggestion at work? Could Kartovsky’s personality still be viable somewhere, somehow?

All is eventually explained in a plot that is almost formula-written – men in white coats wielding mind-melding technology – but which shows the importance of a decent director and support cast. Roy Ward Baker keeps the action moving, his actors up to pace, with the result that Split! is punchy and bowls along.

The fact that it’s an old Peel episode re-tooled does remind us how different King and Peel are – Tara, while obviously resourceful, is at this stage still a far mousier proposition.

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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

 

 

***

The imdb refers to this as season seven. I’m saying six, along with most of the fan sites and Wikipedia, and in line with the pretty much definitive Studio Canal box set. The reason why the imdb and others say seven is because they’re taking the final block of eight Emma Peel episodes as a separate season. But since there were only eight episodes in that production block, lumping them together with the 16 episodes of what everyone agrees is season five brings the total up to 24, much closer to the usual Avengers run of about 26 episodes.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 6, Episode 4 – You’ll Catch Your Death

Steed and King in fetching hats

 

Boring but prescient is how you’d describe You’ll Catch Your Death, fourth episode of the final series of The Avengers.

Prescient because it’s all about biological warfare, people dying due to exposure to some deadly toxin, Steed and King investigating the demises of the dead men (naturally) who all happened to be ear, nose and throat specialists.

We see one of them (Hamilton Dyce) keeling over as this episode opens, having just opened a letter with nothing inside.

A clue! Yes, the envelope is the clue, the only one, in fact. And once the envelope has been traced back to the shop it was brought from – handily (and an Avengers standby/weakness) a bespoke establishment not some pile-em-high warehouse – we’re only a few seconds away from learning that a nursing academy recently ordered 10,000 of these envelopes… but no writing paper!

So there’s your bad guys, right there. The end!

 

Tara is drugged
Tara King incapacitated – a recurring theme of the series

 

And, yes, that is about it. The riddle of who, though not why, has been solved almost instantly. Filling up the time until the final credits roll is what Jeremy Burnham (new to the series as a writer, though as an actor he’d already been in the show three times) and director Paul Dickson (on his only stint behind the camera) now set out to do, though Burnham’s banter between Steed and King fails to sparkle. Dickson’s decision to do everything in stately fashion – gliding cameras, cars swishing into shot – doesn’t help get the blood coursing either.

Seeking the positives, we have Linda Thorson looking pretty damn good in a rakishly tilted fedora, a nicely eccentric scene with Mother (Patrick Newell), in this episode’s “office of the week” – a concrete swimming pool in a vast outdoor wasteland, attended by the mute Rhonda (Rhonda Fletcher, who unjustly never gets a screen credit even though she’s one of the mini-joys of this last series).

Tara also gets some fight scenes and is more convincing this time out than in the previous week’s episode, even though this was made only about three weeks later (some intensive training, maybe?).

And there’s a worrying development when Tara is chloroformed and temporarily disabled. It’s not much on its own but taken with the later attempts to neutralise Linda Thorson for one bogus reason or another, it looks like the sinister start to a chronic bout of bad faith by showrunner Brian Clemens et al.

Fruity character turns by Henry Magee (the envelope man), Dudley Sutton and Peter (later better known as drag star Bette) Bourne, and “boffins” Fulton Mackay and Roland Culver (who can do old empire chaps like Colonel Timothy in his sleep) add some sparkle, but only some.

Why the dead ENT guys? They’re the only people capable of finding an anti-serum to the deadly biological weapon, and were working on one.

Like I say, er…

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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

 

 

***

The imdb refers to this as season seven. I’m saying six, along with most of the fan sites and Wikipedia, and in line with the pretty much definitive Studio Canal box set. The reason why the imdb and others say seven is because they’re taking the final block of eight Emma Peel episodes as a separate season. But since there were only eight episodes in that production block, lumping them together with the 16 episodes of what everyone agrees is season five brings the total up to 24, much closer to the usual Avengers run of about 26 episodes.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020