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 5, Episode 10 – Never, Never Say Die

Diana Rigg, Patrick Macnee and Christopher Lee

 

Christopher Lee! Christopher Lee of Dracula fame, intelligence operations during the Second World War, later a Bond villain, Saruman of Lord of the Rings and a heavy metal artist in his 90s, yes, that’s the man, lumbering about like Frankenstein’s monster (another role) the first time we see him, and shot from below, again Frankenstein-style, by director Robert Day as this episode of The Avengers kicks off with a car accident which renders the guest star dead.

 

Surely not? Surely so. But this episode isn’t called Never, Never Say Die for no reason, and no sooner has he been pronounced dead by a doctor at the hospital than he rises again, to the sound of the sort of boom-boom-booming music you associate with a Roman slave galley. Only to be knocked down and killed again on the way home, by the same car and driver. And only to break out of the ambulance (or was it?) he’s been put into.

 

A case for Steed and Peel, obviously. But not before we’ve seen this violent unkillable man wreaking havoc with a succession of innocents either pulled from the mind of writer Philip Levene directly, or embroidered by script editor Brian Clemens, or possibly thrown in for Avengers-style flavour by director Robert Day, who by now knows what sort of tone the show is aiming for.

 

First a man lying on the grass eating a banana (the comedy comestible), then an old duffer (played by Arnold Ridley, later of Dad’s Army) in an admiral’s hat playing with a toy boat. Lumbering, silent Professor Stone (Lee) making short work of both of them. No actual dialogue as yet – nice work if you can get it.

 

It seems to be the weekend, since Steed is wearing brown shoes, is sporting a brown bowler and is attired in tweedy twill of some sort when he arrives at Professor Stone’s house, only to be beaten to it by the same ambulance we’ve seen before, and off the Prof is bundled to the Neoteric Research Unit run by the Ministry of Technology, a facility devoted to futuristic tech stuff that is so out there that its access procedure requires visitors to run their plastic ID cards through two levels of security. Fancy!

 

Mrs Peel, meanwhile, has arrived at the house of Mr Eccles, a radio ham and chess nut whose name was found at the home of Prof Stone (why this name and no other was of interest is a typical bit of can’t-be-arsed scripting). Eccles is playing multiple games of chess with opponents all around the world, and changing his accent according to their nationality.

 

While Peel makes eyes at Eccles in an attempt to loosen him up, Steed is laying on the professional bonhomie with Stone back at the unit, where radio waves seem to be part of the mystery.

 

Professor Stone works on a victim
Anyone for a bit of mind control?

 

At the bottom of it all, without giving away every movement of the episode, is a Terminator-style plot about people being duplicated, all in the interests of science. Exactly who’s being duplicated being all down to connections, knowing the right sort of people, the right sort of channels, blah blah. Elites, elites, elites, in other words.

 

No, it has not dated well, since this idea has been done to death in the decades since, but it was a fresh idea at the time, and it is a neatly written episode that’s also been tightly directed. Worth noticing, apart from how easy this must have been for Lee to do – he lumbers and does little else – is how well directed the fights are. There’s an early tussle between Steed and Stone during which Steed (I mean Macnee’s body double) is launched very convincingly across a room by Stone (Lee’s body double, though it could be Lee himself). And the later fights are also well choreographed and have much more convincing heft than we’re used to.

 

Physicality to one side, stick this one in the box marked “the scary modern age we live in”.

 

 

 

 

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

 

The Wicker Man

The wicker man in The Wicker Man

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

21 December

 

 

The Southern Solstice

Today is the Southern solstice. If you are in the northern hemisphere, it marks the point at which the sun rises least above the horizon. If you are in the southern hemisphere, it is midsummer, longest day of the year. And correspondingly the shortest in the north. Towards the equator the effect is minimal, with day and night length tending to match each other the whole year through. But in London, where I am writing this, it means the sun will come up a handful of minutes after 8am and set just before 4pm. Tomorrow, the 22 December, the day will be one second longer than today. The day after, 8 seconds, the day after that, 14 seconds. By New Year’s Day there will be a whole extra minute of daylight. Though this being London doesn’t mean there’s any guarantee we’ll see it.

 

 

 

The Wicker Man (1973, dir: Robin Hardy)

So how about a film about the solstice? It stars Edward Woodward as prudish Christian police officer Sergeant Howie, arriving on a remote Scottish island to investigate a missing child. What he finds there shocks him to his core – a pagan community that has reverted to “the old ways”, a society in which women have a remarkable fondness for shedding their clothes, where festivals are celebrated by feasting, ritual, music and dance. Where death seems to be viewed more as an opportunity for rebirth rather than as the final curtain. As the copper blunders about, exploding with apoplexy every time he finds something his strict morality cannot compute, he is, unawares, being carefully groomed for an event which delivers one of the best knockout finales of any horror film ever. If you have seen The Wicker Man before and are slightly hesitant about watching it again, can I nudge you towards the most recent assemblage. Put together in 2013, it restores a lot of the material cut in order to turn the film into something more conventional, in an attempt to get a reluctant public to watch it in 1973. But which destroyed it. So there’s a lot more music and singing – and you can almost go along with director Robin Hardy’s assertion that the film is in fact a musical (almost). There is a lot more nudity and paganism. Most important of all, there are a lot more reaction shots from the locals, the cold stares that greet Sergeant Howie as he officiously goes about his business. It’s understandable why they were cut – there are so many of them – but these “fuck you” shots really add to the mood, to the sense of this man being an outsider, that the uniform means nothing if the people it’s meant to awe just aren’t awed. There is a good discussion about why this “final cut” isn’t definitive here on rogerebert.com, but for my money this is a much better film than the last go at it, about ten years ago. Now, almost back to the way Hardy intended it, the most infrequent of directors (three films in 40 years, one a sequel to The Wicker Man) gave it this seal of approval – “The film as I saw it in the editing suite the other day fulfills my vision of what it was intended to convey to the audience.” There is some wriggle room in that statement for an even more complete version, if missing footage ever shows up, but for the moment, this is it. As for Neil LaBute’s remake, starring Nicolas Cage, it’s a nice try, and the feminist angle is interesting, but it just doesn’t come close.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Passionate advocate of the film Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle
  • Anthony Shaffer’s bullish on-the-nose script
  • This is the perfect role for Woodward – blinding fury a specialty
  • For “pagan” read “hippie” – the British view on the whole “letting it all hang out” thing

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

The Wicker Man: The Final Cut – at Amazon