The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 16 – Immortal Clay

Steed is briefed by One-Ten in a steam room

 

By a gigantic stroke of luck, it seems, while Mrs Gale is being given a guided tour of a ceramics atelier, she stumbles across a dead body in the room where the raw clay is kept.

Doubly handily, it seems that the company is engaged on cutting edge research to produce an indestructible tile to be used in the nose cone of a British rocket – what days, what days – and the dead man in question is one of the researchers engaged in its development and production.

Of course, Gale – in deliberately ass-backwards Avengers plotting – isn’t at the factory/studio/lab/atelier (Teddington Studios, in fact) by accident, and, by way of explanation, we are soon in a steam room where Steed is being briefed in typical arcane spy style by One-Ten, both men stripped to the waist and girt with towels.

Immortal Clay is the name of the episode, a pacy one broadcast in January 1963 – the 16th episode of series two – in the depths of the coldest British winter of the 20th century.

Doubtless a tale of a ceramic tile that could withstand the extreme heat of re-entry warmed a few shivering souls – who had central heating back then? But back to the plot, which sees Steed donning flat cap and gabardine mac to pose as a man from the Ceramics Research Council. What he finds is a British factory busily throwing away its technological advantage thanks to the dead hand of a pooh-poohing management – these two poles represented by Gary Watson, as the forward-thinking executive trying to work on hi-tech, investment-hungry new developments, such as tiles for space rockets, while his brother (Paul Eddington) is happy to plod along, unaware that the British Empire has ceased to exist and new forces are rising.

One of these is played by Steve Plytas, as a rent-an-ethnic Euro-nasty with connections behind “the Curtain” (as One-Ten puts it), and £20K to wave beneath the nose of the guy who does the actual hard work, played by James Bree in a brown overall to indicate lower social status.

In fictional form we’re watching a dissection of British industry, decades before Japanese ideas about egalitarian systems and American notions of responsive management set about trying to reverse its decline.

The Avengers may have started out as heavily in hock to film noir but by now the emphasis has shifted to the British kitchen sink – class is the concern, factory settings are common, regional accents (forelocks generally being tugged) are often heard.

This kitchen-sinkiness makes for an interesting episode, though hardly a classic one. John Braine and John Osborne seem to be the inspiration for James Mitchell’s screenplay which is thick with flawed characters – snobbish Eddington, unworldly Watson, desperate Bree, who has a thing for hot-but-dim secretary Mara (Didi Sullivan), a character mined for some terribly sexist humour.

As for Plytas as the excessively mannered De Groot, he was one of the 1960s most reliably oily villains, and one look at his face says enough.

Mrs Gale? She’s here, mostly as bait trying to get De Groot to show his hand, but it’s not really her episode. Nor Steed’s, either. Instead, it’s British industry that’s the focus. And it’s not a pretty sight.

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2018

 

The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 15 – Intercrime

Mrs Gale and the Intercrime gang

 

Twelve high level robberies in the last few weeks “and not one of them the work of an Englishman,” Steed says in the opening minutes of Intercrime, both the title of this episode and the name of a criminal outfit, a dark flipside of Interpol organising nefarious goings-on “all over Europe”.

This case for Steed and Mrs Gale, the 15th to be broadcast in the second series – and the first to go out in 1963, the year of JFK’s assassination –  is a busy affair, with more than its fair share of ridiculousness.

For example, to extract information from Hilda Stern (Julia Arnall), the German representative of Intercrime newly arrived in the UK, Mrs Gale poses as a criminal and ends up in Holloway prison sharing a cell (and confidences) with Stern (a faint foreshadowing of From Russia with Love‘s Rosa Klebb, who would arrive on screens later that year), who has been picked up on some passport irregularity. Enter the warden: “Why aren’t you in bed yet?” she asks Mrs Gale. Mrs Gale: “I was just finishing my cocoa.”

It’s all very twee, even more so in Honor Blackman’s barely disguised cut-glass accent, but there is a point to the cocoa reference – Gale has drugged Stern’s and is soon out and about trying to pass herself off as the German hardwoman to the London representatives of Intercrime (boss Kenneth J Warren and right-hand-man Alan Browning).

There clearly being no honour among thieves, the plot turns on the fact that Intercrime itself is being sold down the river by one of its number, and the London franchise co-opts “Hilda” to take out the miscreant.

Enough of the plot, which twists and turns a bit more, enjoyably, and gives Honor Blackman plenty of opportunity to seethe, which she is particularly good at – Mrs Gale isn’t annoyed because she’s not brave, but because she is a feminist wondering why she’s always doing the dirty work, or so Blackman’s face suggests.

The men are in charge of the criminal operation but dramatically there’s a lot of meat for the women, including the unusual sight of a gunplay standoff between two women towards the end. No prizes for guessing which two.

Look out for a door accidentally swinging open to reveal one of those gigantic TV cameras being hastily wheeled out of shot – makes you realise how intricately these teleplays must have been choreographed when you see one of those lumbering beasts.

Though Steed features heavily in early scenes that get the whole Intercrime plot strand rolling, it’s undoubtedly Gale’s episode. Was there a more important female character in 1960s British TV?

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2018

 

The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 13 – Death Dispatch

Steed and One-Ten

 

John Steed and Cathy Gale’s party trick, a duet working variations on the theme of the invincibility of the British upper class, really comes into its own in Death Dispatch, the 13th broadcast episode of series two.

We’re off in the sort of colonial landscape described by Graham Greene – of swarthy thugs, Freudian dictators and minor functionaries of the Empire, a place where life is cheap and death is pitiless, as we see in the opening shots of this story where a low-level envoy newly in from Washington is quickly despatched in his hotel room in Jamaica.

Cut to Steed, ogling women from his Caribbean sun lounger and meeting his control, One-Ten (Douglas Muir), by a pool, before being briefed about the death and sent off on his mission, towards a nameless South American country where Miguel Rosas (Richard Warner), a dictator of Peronist stripe holds sway, advised by a shady American wonk (David Cargill).

Then cut again, right down Honor Blackman’s cleavage, for the moment Cathy Gale is introduced, more casual sexism in a series unafraid of it.

The two spend the rest of the episode bouncing, like skimming stones, from one flaky country to the next, avoiding murderous brown-skinned men on airport runways as they advance on Rosas and the answer to the plot’s McGuffin – who killed the courier and why? Along the way they banter like a pre-sex couple while in South America the petty potentate glowers, rages and explodes with the sort of fury that delineates insecure tyrants everywhere.

There is a wrinkle in the otherwise off-the-peg character of Rosas – he has an innocent daughter who spends her time riding horses and enjoying the benefits of dictatorship, all the while blithely unaware what sort of man her father is, or where his vast ill-gotten wealth comes from – she’s both his weakness and his human side.

More minor psychological sketching in the script by Leonard Fincham comes in the character of Gerald Harper’s Foreign Office flunkey, a smooth Brylcreemed posh boy trying to maintain his status while doing what he clearly considers to be skivvy work.

Though slightly absurd, with a baddie not a million miles from central casting, it’s a nice, neat tale told rather well, with enough curlicues to give it interest, and with a recognisable 007 dynamic – the Americans in the wings are the real force, the Brits carry on superficially as if they still have an Empire (after all, we’re only six years after the Suez Crisis – the moment when the Brits realised it was game over), though the relentless supercilious quippery tells a different story.

 

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The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 12 – The Big Thinker

Tony Booth plays cards

 

 

Things go technological in the 12th episode of series two – The Big Thinker – a tale of a big brain computer called Plato and the scientists who minister to it like Delphic virgins in white lab coats.

Hanging on like grim death to the notion that Britain was still at the forefront of things cyber in the early 1960s, the plot turns on the demise of a scientist – frozen to death after getting caught inside the workings of an electronic beast that gives the UK a crucial lead in tech and spying – at which point Steed and Gale are sent in to investigate.

I say Steed and Gale, but the most notable thing about this episode is that it’s dominated by Honor Blackman’s Cathy Gale. It was a rare thing for a woman to take pole position in TV shows at the time, and perhaps came about because Blackman was getting “honorary male” status, as a holdover from the show’s original conceptual idea, which was to have Steed partnered with a fellow male.

Talking of males, Anthony Booth (father of Cherie, the future wife of PM Tony Blair) plays Dr Kearns, a wayward scientist, possibly half-modelled on Alan Turing – brilliant, hectoring, troubled and with an eye on the ladies (so not entirely modelled on Turing), and a bit of a gambler, which takes Kearns and Gale into town, where the scientist gets into a spot of gambler’s trouble.

Mrs Gale is ahead of him, of course, and helps him out in one of many displays of debonair noblesse oblige, a role that usually falls to Steed.

Booth, a left wing firebrand in real life, deploys what he probably thinks is a radical chic acting style to counter the cool aristo posing of Blackman. It’s highly erratic in terms of line readings, vocal inflection and physical gesture. It probably infuriated the other actors and whatever its motivation it’s highly off-putting here, though it does at least add energy to a story that seems to be going out of its way not to be involving.

There’s banter aplenty, and at least the sparring between Gale and Kearns helps bridge the chasm of ennui that threatens to open up at any minute.

It’s Honor Blackman’s episode, Patrick Macnee wandering in here and there as if to remind us that he’s the titular star of the show more than for any real plot advancement. And she acquits herself well, carrying the show in much the same way as she flips an assailant over her shoulder, with ease.

 

 

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The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 11 – Traitor in Zebra

Richard Leech and Honor Blackman

 

In its heyday – Emma Peel era, shot on film, in colour, with the Laurie Johnson theme music – The Avengers became famous, notorious even, for its plots taking place in a nearly depopulated world. All very necessary, the better to maintain the suspension of disbelief – the outrageous storylines and arch characters simply wouldn’t stand up to exposure to the cold light of reality, so the theory goes.

There’s nothing like that going on in the 11th broadcast episode of series two, Traitor in Zebra, which is thick with characters and stiff with “real life” situations.

Patrick Macnee goes undercover as Commander Steed, a naval shrink investigating whether one of her majesty’s men (Michael Danvers-Walker, son of Bob Danvers-Walker, voice of the British Pathe newsreels for decades) has been passing secrets about British cryptography to the enemy, and if so, how. Meanwhile, down at the local boozer, Honor Blackman’s Cathy Gale is inserting herself into local village life, drinking with the lads and playing darts when she isn’t passing herself off as a scientist working up at the lab where the secrets have been stolen. It’s all very chummy.

The plot is a basic whodunit, with Steed and Gale meeting regularly at the pub to swap theories about who the mole could be. Possibles include Danvers-Walker himself, a young William Gaunt as a go-getting rising naval star, Richard Leech as Franks, an amorous local reporter, pipe smoker and tweed wearer. There’s also John Sharp, a familiar TV face particularly good at playing devious characters. Could this shifty villager or local shop girl Linda (Katy Wild) be involved somehow too?

For all the superior supporting players, and a decent cliff-edge finish, this episode is actually a rather humdrum affair, with flat direction by Richmond Harding and too much exposition in John Gilbert’s screenplay. On the upside the Steed/Gale dynamic of flirting, bickering and bantering is by now well established and saves the too-often pub-based action from becoming terminally static.

The Avengers is at its best when the exotic beasts hold sway. There’s not even the slightest sign of that happening here. But, in a studio not far away, and shot around the same time, Sean Connery’s James Bond was borrowing about 50 per cent of John Steed – debonair, eye for the ladies, Jermyn Street apparel, superior attitude, natty hat – and was about to upend British film-making.

The traffic was not to be all one way.

 

 

 

 

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The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 10 – Death on the Rocks

Cathy Gale and John Steed

 

The tone is light and bantery, a set of the features that would become permanent eventually, but in other respects this tenth episode of series two is one of the weaker entrants so far in the Avengers canon.

Nothing wrong with any individual bit of it – a plot about Steed and Mrs Gales setting up home together (I say!), the better to pose as husband and wife, so they can infiltrate some diamond gang that’s trying to muscle in and control the trade by swamping the market with gems. And before you can say “takeover”, Steed has become a partner in a near-moribund diamond trading company, from where he will outwit the interlopers and restore order, pausing only to size up the daughter (Toni Gilpin) of the business’s owner (Meier Tzelniker) for potential conquest.

The British empire was dead but The Avengers clearly missed that memo, and naked colonial ambition of all sorts is what Steed and Gale are involved in here. So much so that it’s hard to be entirely on their side, no matter how thuggish their opponents, or whipcrack Steel and Gale’s flirty exchanges.

Along with colonial assumptions, this episode is thick with class snobbery as again and again the higher status Steed and Gale tell those lower down the social ladder what is and isn’t in – the Beatles had yet to upend that particular table. An early scene in which Gale bamboozles a working class decorator with some needless chat about an art piece he’s simply too dumb to understand pretty much says it all.

And bringing up the rear, so to speak, is the blatant sexism of Steed, not just in his “ding dong” Leslie Phillips appraisals of anything in a skirt, but in his attempts to charm the couture pants off Mrs Gale. The Avengers scores a point here – she will have nothing to do with him (and full marks to Honor Blackman for really playing these scenes with an iron fist inside the velvet coquetry).

As if in sympathy, the sound and video capture are ropier than usual this time round, too. And though director Jonathan Alwyn does a polished job with the lumbering cameras and basic lighting rigs available to him – close-ups nicely used, actors moved cleverly from one set-up to the next – things get away from him in some of the action scenes. Mrs Gale does a bit of judo on heavy Doug Robinson and there’s a guns-blazing finale back at the Steeds’ home towards the end, both breaking through the suspension of disbelief with their awkwardness.

Nice enough, fascinating enough, if you’re interested in TV of the period, or The Avengers more widely, but things wrap up at the end before they feel like they have even got going. As if someone in the production team had issued the brief “Diamonds” to writer Eric Paice and then left it at that.

 

 

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The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 7 – The Mauritius Penny

John Steed in the dentist's chair

 

An episode about a missing postage stamp? Thou shittest. Indeed not. That is exactly what The Avengers are up to in the seventh episode of series two, a bizarre story that starts off in the genteel world of philately and ends up at a meeting of neo-Nazis, by way of a gun-running operation.

But if that is really what it was all about all along – Nazis and guns – why didn’t Steed tell Mrs Gale that right at the outset, instead of making out it’s all about a missing and very rare stamp? It’s all very baffling but also pretty charming, an episode steeped in class distinction right from the off, as a stamp dealer is killed by a grunty oik while on the phone to stamp fiend Lord Matterley.

Enter John Steed, making value judgments about wine and women (the sexism of these early episodes is quite breathtaking at times), coolly asserting his superiority as the murder trail leads him from the auction house to a villain who went to the same school as Steed, and was even in the same house.

There are fights along the way and they are terribly staged – at one point Steed is rendered unconscious after a policeman touches him on the back of the head with a featherlight truncheon, and later Cathy gets to demonstrate some karate, not entirely convincingly.

The intriguing thing about this episode, written by solid TV hands Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks, is its lack of good guys – Steed and Gale apart, there’s barely a clean nose in it – and the way the class system out in the world of stamp auctions, from brown-coated warehousemen up to fastidious collecting gents, is reflected in the criminal world too.

Talking of which, good to see Alfred Burke as an oily-rag villain, other baddies’ names being withheld for reasons of not wishing to spoil the plot.

Other nice touches include Cathy Gale’s clothes, which seem to be getting more expensive as the series goes on, and Steed getting into a spot of bother in a scene that seems to foreshadow The Marathon Man’s gruesome dentistry.

All in all, a fast episode, too fast really, that packs in a lot of plot into very little space.

As for the nostalgia factor, Burke aside, and not forgetting the distinguished Richard Vernon as Lord Matterley, how about neo-Nazis as a laughable sideshow rather than a clear and present danger?

 

 

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The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 4 – Bullseye

Steed and Gale

 

Like one of those arcane “tontine plots”, the fourth episode of series two offers us a scenario where a string of people die so somebody in the same eco-system can ultimately benefit.

Julie Stevens womanfully did sidekick duty in the last episode, but Honor Blackman’s Cathy Gale returns this time round to help Steed unravel another mystery that yet again seems to be more a matter for the police than any covert organisation – an arms company resisting a takeover bid by pushy johnny-come-lately Henry Cade (Ronald Radd) finds its board members dying one after the other. Is Cade – already painted as the unacceptable face of capitalism (as if being in the arms business hadn’t already ticked that box) – responsible?

We meet Cathy Gale, after her series hiatus, newly installed as a shareholder with a 20 per cent stake in the Anderson Small Arms Company, asking searching questions at an extraordinary general meeting held to discuss the takeover bid, a supplementary frisson added by the fact that the chairman is already dead – shot, appropriately.

More of the board are to follow in what plays out like a classic whodunit, polished in British style by fine character actors and witty badinage between the leads.

Ronald Radd is a real asset as the bullishly rapacious takeover merchant angling after the Anderson business and there’s 27-year-old Judy Parfitt as a company functionary, a commanding presence whose bearing and skill marks her out as someone who’s going to be turning up on TV for decades (most recently seen in Call the Midwife).

Spilling round the edges of Eric Paice’s screenplay are vague digs at antique British business practices – the bufferish old major with stick-in-the-mud ways; the middle-aged lothario with an eye on the typing pool; the general air of the old boys club and so on.

It turns out that it’s not all about one businessman trying to take over another business. There is a bigger picture. This is all conveniently added, in what feels like a hasty addendum, in a quick exchange between Steed (who has financed Mrs Gale’s £50K holding, it turns out, but is otherwise barely in this episode) and Gale at the London Stock Exchange (stock footage, appropriately) – Anderson’s arms are heading for an unnamed African country on the verge of revolution.

Gale wears more Michael Whittaker gear – a  jaunty Spanish bullfighter’s hat and a tartan cape at one point. Steed is a symphony of Jermyn Street clobber – shirt and tie, jacket and coat, casual trilby hat. That’s how sensible chaps used to dress before central heating. He’s probably also wearing a vest.

Nice to see Mrs Gale’s martial arts skills – ka-rah-tay, they pronounce it – are coming along too.

Really, it’s a version of the well-made play that the theatre set would flock to see in London’s West End until Terence Rattigan and his ilk went out of style. Nothing wrong with that.

 

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2017

 

 

The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 2 – Propellant 23

Gale and Steed

 

Set mostly in the airport at Marseille (a studio just to the north of London, apparently), this tight and fast episode gets underway with a passenger on a plane arriving from Tripoli getting very distraught and claiming he’s about to die. Without giving too much away, he does die, gratifyingly for the foreign spies who are after a flask of a highly volatile rocket fuel, Propellant 23. Unfortunately for them, the flask gets lost in the shuffle. Has it fallen down the back of a seat, been taken home by a light-fingered airport luggage worker, been drunk by the hotel barker who touts for business in the arrivals lounge, or been whisked away to behind the Iron Curtain?

The last possibility seems unlikely as there is a lot of continuing interest in this seemingly unimportant missing object by people who wouldn’t normally be that bothered, among them Geoffrey Palmer as suave ladies man Paul Manning. The airport police are also interested, since the dead passenger is now in their jurisdiction.

Enter Steed and Gale, who seem to be already in France, bantering as they set off in a sports car for a through-the-night drive to Marseille. As part of this to-and-fro we learn a bit more about the imperious, mysterious Mrs Gale – that she has some sort of interest in feeding the starving children of Africa. A humanitarian? An anthropologist? The queen of a foreign land? We’re not entirely sure.

At that airport we’re introduced to the various characters who work there – Laure (Katherine Woodville), the woman running the airport cafe, Jacques (Trader Faulkner) the drunk hotel barker she has a soft spot for, the various police, among them a French police lieutenant known as Curly (John Crocker) by his mocking colleagues – he’s battling hair loss with the latest in what is probably a long list of quack remedies.

And that’s it – with the flask as a McGuffin, the action moves between suave Paul, drunk Jacques, sweet Laure, the dead body, Steed and Gale and a mystery man in a hat with the sort of sweaty, swarthy complexion that was shorthand for Soviet Spy in 1960s TV.

The tone sits somewhere between the movie Casablanca and the British TV series ’Allo ’Allo – exotic ruffians in foreign climes and a lot of people with very odd accents. Jonathan Alwyn directs in a brisk manner and needs to because Jon Manchip White’s screenplay fits a lot of people and plot into the 50 minutes. It’s an enjoyable, studio-bound spy caper that manages a few moments of real tension. Only the hair-loss comedy subplot could do with a trim.

Fans of Doctor Who might enjoy seeing Nicholas Courtney (later Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart) as the plane’s captain.

 

 

The Avengers Complete – watch it or buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2017