The Avengers: Series 6, Episode 14 – The Interrogators

Christopher Lee, Linda Thorson and Cecil Cheng

 

Charles Crichton directs and Christopher Lee guest-stars in The Interrogators, so we’re expecting good things of this episode of The Avengers, right?

The plot is a good one – writer Richard Harris fleshing out an idea by Brian Clemens – and hinges on army chaps being tested to destruction by an interrogation outfit run by army chap Colonel Mannering (Christopher Lee). But if Mannering is absolutely on the level and on our side, why are there sadistic Chinese soldiers also on the scene, one of them holding the dreaded fly whisk?

Of course he’s not on the level. Why hire Christopher Lee otherwise?

Rewind a bit and we get a quick run-through of what’s going on in full. Lieutenant Caspar (Philip Bond) arrives at the army dentist, plonks himself down in the dentist’s chair and is then subjected to a proper interrogation with torture, all part of a programme to familiarise the interrogee with the sort of techniques he’s likely to encounter if captured, or so he’s told.

Authenticity is key (which explains the Chinese guys, I suppose). In fact the role play is so good that “everyone talks… eventually,” as Mannering puts it, though not – it is eventually revealed – for the reasons we might initially suspect.

Of course, this being a Britain designed for export and a show built on whimsy, everything stops for tea, with the desperate, bedraggled captive Lieutenant Caspar bucking up considerably when he’s offered a cup too.

To the Batcave, or Mother’s HQ of the week, accessed through a door in the rear of a red telephone box. It’s an underground bunker decked out in lots of flowers and with a drinks trolley piloted by the redoubtable Rhonda (still no utterances, still no screen credit), where Steed is soon brought up to speed by Mother.

 

Steed prepares to enter Mother's HQ
The only red telephone box not to smell like a public toilet

 

Agents, it seems, are dying in their droves, which casts suspicion on Caspar, the man who ran them. Now we know that Caspar blabbed to Mannering as part of the “phoney” interrogation, the irony being that this makes him even less likely to blab again to Steed and Mother when they start asking him questions after Tara brings him in – a neat twist.

From here things run on straight rails, Tara visiting the dwellings of the agents being targeted for an early death, before being hoodwinked by Mannering into accompanying him to a training course and eventually winding up in the dentist’s chair herself.

Steed meanwhile makes a number of too-late interventions (agents dying in eccentric manner, like the one man band in a quarry cruelly cut down while practising) before jumping into a helicopter to follow a pigeon heading for the facility where Tara is now about to be questioned/interrogated/hoodwinked.

It’s all a bit mad, very lively, fiendishly plotted and all the better for being based on a cross/double-cross plot that makes some kind of sense – details like the one man band and pigeon chase to one side.

The solid cast helps – Lee, of course, a stiff but charming army intelligence man (which is exactly what he was during the Second World War) – Glynn Edwards just right as the burly menacing dentist, John Laycock as one-man-band Izzy Pound, Cardew “the Cad” Robinson (again) as a balloon seller who somehow manages to keep a business going in a park devoid of people, and not forgetting Cecil Cheng as the sadistic (and entirely stereotypical) Chinese torturer Captain Soo.

So, yes, good things.

 

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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 4 – Death at Bargain Prices

Mrs Peel at gunpoint

 

Charles Crichton directed one of the best Ealing comedies, 1951’s Lavender Hill Mob, and the highest grossing British comedy of the 1980s, 1988’s A Fish Called Wanda – both crime capers – so is just the man for an episode of The Avengers.

 

And the first shot of the first of five episodes he’d direct announces that “a director” is in the house – it’s a looming, upward-looking shot of a building at dusk, in near-silhouette, ominous as you like.

 

But Crichton wasn’t lauded for his visual style – though he had plenty. What got him the plaudits was his economy (famously praised by Wanda writer/star John Cleese), his ability to say in one shot what other directors would take three, or multiple edits, to achieve.

 

There’s plenty of that on display (or, more to the point, not on display) in Death at Bargain Prices, a Brian Clemens-scripted episode that moves briskly, has time for the odd visual gag, and combines good old-fashioned sneery villains with an up-to-date plot that’s Clemens all over.

 

The building in the opening shot is a department store, and soon we’re inside the deserted place, where a nervously sweating man has soon been felled by an assassin’s bullet.

 

He is an “agent” – I think that’s the first time that word has been used in The Avengers to describe exactly what Steed, Keel, Smith, King (Martin), Gale, Peel, and finally King (Tara) get up to – and Steed and Peel are soon investigating who killed him.

 

But first a bit of banter, which informs us that Mrs Peel is as at home in the realm of thermodynamics as she is in specialist pottery. In this respect she is exactly like Cathy Gale: whatever the subject, she really knows her stuff.

 

Which is a funny way of introducing the next bit of the plot, which inserts Peel into the department store where the dead man was found, as a floor girl bridling at the indignity of it all.

TP McKenna holds Peel and Steed at gunpoint
In case you were wondering if TP McKenna was the bad guy…

The store, right out of British TV sitcom Are You Being Served, is owned by harrumphing, dickie-bowed, wheelchair-using Horatio Kane (André Morell, one-time Dr Watson to Peter Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes), but effectively run by Wentworth (TP McKenna) who considers his boss a “foolish sick old man”.

 

Wentworth is of course up to no good, in what is a very British sort of plot turn – it’s never the bosses who are bad, it’s their immediate underlings. “If only the king knew there were such injustice in the land” etc etc.

 

This Richelieu/Louis XIV relationship turns out to be quite a new development. In the short time he has been there, Wentworth has got rid of lots of people who actually know how to do their job, and brought in another lot who patently don’t.

 

Shall I tell you what’s going on at the department store? No, that would ruin the dénouement, which is typical Clemens in its bravado and absurdity.

 

It’s all part of the enjoyment, and though we haven’t quite achieved Peak Avengers, Clemens has clearly now twigged that scoffing at aspects of the show can be part of the fun of it too.

 

Crichton, for his part, works little wonders – there’s a scene in which a villain is swinging back and forth on a rocking chair, and on one of the backswings is grabbed and throttled. Very economical; very Ealing. And there’s a brilliant piece of cross-cutting in the mad-genius-explains-it-all finale in which kidnapped scientist Professor Popplewell (Peter Howell) reveals that…

 

McKenna is a brilliantly oily baddie, as he was in his last Avengers outing (Trojan Horse, in series 3), and his crisp delivery adds to the real sense of pace.

 

But does Mrs Peel get into her leathers? Indeed she does, Clemens vaguely explaining away this unusual garb for a shopworker as part of some move to the sci-fi department, or something.

 

Look out for a very odd outfit worn by Diana Rigg and sending out quite conflicting signals – a waistcoat cut so low that it is serving up her breasts, teamed with a demure white top beneath that goes right up to her neck.

 

And Steed uses his brolly as a knockout weapon in the inevitable big fight finish, the conversion of his English gent’s outfit into something more multifunctional now nearly complete.

 

Lovely stuff.

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019