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.

 

 

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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 4, Episode 17 – The Girl from Auntie

Liz Fraser, Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg on set

 

The Girl from Auntie this episode is called, a nod to The Man from Uncle, which had debuted about six months earlier on US TV and become an instant hit with its sexy spies, gadgets, 007 goofery and strong sense of the ridiculous, having clearly drunk from the same well as The Avengers.

 

All that said, sadly this is not a great episode, though it is stuffed with good things. It’s also not particularly heavy on Emma Peel, who was perhaps off talking to the Bond people – Honor Blackman’s Pussy Galore having made waves – or just enjoying a bit of a break when the episode was in production.

 

She turns up in the opening scene, in a bikini, then again towards the end. In between, the female sidekick role is taken by Liz Fraser, a familiar 1960s face who specialised in dizzy blondes and doesn’t disappoint as a character whose mouth is in motion at almost all times.

 

The plot: someone (Fraser) is impersonating Emma Peel. Why? Something to do with the forgery of famous paintings, which are stolen and the forgery inserted in their place, so no one’s the wiser. Why is someone impersonating Emma Peel, though? Coughs, mumbles, hurriedly moves on.

 

It’s a double-act affair, Steed and Georgie Price-Jones (Fraser) moving from one locale to the next, just in time to find another crop of dead bodies (big body count in this episode), always one step behind a mysterious, hypodermic-wielding old lady on a bike. Is this Auntie? Oh, it might be, though Alfred Burke also turns up later in the proceedings as someone called Gregorie Auntie, though he’s obviously not a “girl”, so lethal biddy it probably is. And her name is Aunt Hetty, so…

 

Murderous Aunt Hetty
Best avoided: hypodermic-wielding Aunt Hetty

 

But before we meet Gregorie Auntie and the people behind dodgy business Art Incorporated, we meet the occupants of the business next door, Arkwright’s Knitting. This is an outfit that teaches knitting and, as played by Bernard Cribbins, is run by a man with a wrist surely too limp to keep a pair of needles in productive action.

 

Roger Marshall’s script is full of in-jokes and running gags (the taxi driver having a lot of fun both with Steed and the various bits of sporting gear Steed keeps loading into his car), Laurie Johnson’s score this time out is more in Randall and Hopkirk (aka My Partner the Ghost in the US) jangly harpsichord territory and Roy Ward Baker’s direction is brisk and tries to keep an overstuffed screenplay moving, which he manages.

 

Why is Mrs Peel in a bikini early on and in a near-invisible (on 405 lines 1960s monochrome TV for sure) body stocking later on, making her appear naked? Salacious sexism is the only answer that can really be offered, and there is a clear tendency in this episode to treat women as chattels and objects of fun (whether meekly riding bicycles or sitting in knitting circles), not an accusation you’d usually level at a series that has championed smart independent women from the off.

 

Like I say, good stuff is in here – Fraser, Burke and Cribbins are all fun, there’s a distinct Swinging London vibe (look out for the John, Paul, George and Fred joke) and I really enjoyed watching Steed and Peel exiting the show in a Messerschmitt bubble car, one of the more idiosyncratic vehicles of the era.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

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

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020