The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 14 – Dead on Course

Dr King and John Steed

 

The Avengers might just as easily have been called The Amateurs, since that was the original premise of the show – a bunch of freelance helpmeets called in to assist gangmaster John Steed in the solving of various cases too tricky to be handled by the usual agencies.

No, it makes no real sense, but in Dead on Course, which was the 14th episode to be shown in series two, the concept remains vibrant and Jon Rollason’s Dr Martin King is the amateur called upon to help Steed work out why an experienced pilot would steer a plane into the sea off the coast of Ireland. Steed and King are there not because of the crash itself, but because it has happened before, and Doctor King is involved – flimsy reason – because he is some sort of expert in dead bodies.

Flimsy or not, King is soon on the case, up at the convent where the dead bodies have been taken and quizzing an order of nuns – and it’s a silent order, as it so often was in the 1960s.

It’s a subtle episode, nicely written by Eric Paice, who gives secondary characters more depth than is often the case – the Irish crash investigator bridling because his expertise is being called into question by these johnnie-come-lately Brits, for instance.

The whole set-up allows British TV to indulge in a bit of flagrant Oirishry, in fact, with Donal Donnelly giving particularly good value as a garrulous eejut who works at the local pub (again the pub) where Steed and King are staying.

As for the nunnery, it doesn’t take an eagle eye to spot that one of the sisters appears to be a mister. But is it going to be part of the big denouement, or did they just run out of actresses?

There’s a lot of plot to get through, and quite a lot is made of the difficulty of getting the Catholic Church to behave in the way that everyone else in Ireland would – legal jurisdiction seems unclear (not that it’s mentioned at all, but this is exactly how the sexual abuses and various baby-farming ops run by the Church in Ireland went unchecked for so long).

Patrick Macnee is, as ever, a marvel, using little dollops of theatrical technique to overcome the odd fluff, letting giving full booming throat when he’s conscious that the microphones are in danger of rendering his voice too tinnily.

It’s noticeably a very studio-bound episode, though that’s offset by snappy writing and fast line readings by all involved.

Not bad at all, and the combination of nuns and planes is a fairly unusual one, outside of Airplane and the disaster movies it was spoofing.

 

 

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The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 9 – The Sell-Out

Patrick Macnee and Frank Gatliff

 

Just as the keel of the series had started to lift, floating at last in its own water, episode nine of series two plonks it back on the sea floor. The Sell-Out is a throwback to series one, which itself harks even further back – to the film noir genre which originally originally inspired the series. The trenchcoats, the respect for authority, the sense of white knights in a dark world.

As The Avengers moved away from this founding idea, noticeably less and less actual avenging got done.

In a plot set at the United Nations, Jon Rollason is back as Macnee’s sidekick, displacing Honor Blackman as the producers use up another of the episodes originally written for Macnee and original star Ian Hendry. After a quick one two – a killing done hitman-style followed by a briefing in a museum, where John Steed meets handler One Twelve (an excellent Arthur Hewlett) and is dressed down for his flippancy – the plot revolves around Steed guarding a UN big noise (Carleton Hobbs) while at the same time being watched like a hawk by his own side. Is he on the take? Is he “losing his grip”, as the dubious and shadowy senior spy Harvey (Frank Gatliff) insinuates?

The Sell-Out is still good spy stuff, though there are two main problems with the episode. I’ve already alluded to the first, which is that the show itself has moved on into fanciful territory and Dr Martin King is far too meat and potatoes – no slight against actor Jon Rollason, by the way. The other is more technical, and concerns the use of outside broadcast footage, which is of a shockingly bad quality, is clearly shot by a second unit director and lacks the intimacy which director Don Leaver brings to the scenes shot in the studio.

These grumbles aside, it’s again notable how good Macnee is, physically aware that he can compensate for trundling studio cameras by moving on to his marks with speed and adding little flourishes to deliver at least a simulacrum of action – that brolly comes in handy. His voice, in the days of terrible sound, also seems pitched right into the the sweet spot of generally cruddy studio microphones; Macnee is almost crooning his lines.

 

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The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 5 – Mission to Montreal

John Steed and Dr King

 

Mixing it up yet again, episode five of series two – Mission to Montreal – introduces yet another sidekick in a story set on board a cruise liner heading for Canada.

Jon Rollason plays Dr Martin King and brings the number of Steed’s accomplices in this series to three (Honor Blackman and Julie Stevens being the other two). King is an echo of Ian Hendry’s Dr David Keel in that he’s a doctor, and also one only too happy to indulge in a bit of espionage and rough stuff if necessary – not exactly what you’d expect from a well paid follower of Hippocrates, but there you go.

In fact he’s more than an echo – he is Dr Keel in all but name, Rollason’s three appearances in this series all coming about because there were three unfilmed scripts left over from the first series, which were hastily repurposed after Hendry left to pursue a career in films.

Again, as in episode one (Mr Teddy Bear) of this series, there is a little bit of blindsiding meta-business as we’re introduced to key character Carla Berotti, killed off in her first scene, only for the camera to pull back and reveal that Carla is an actress and this is a film set. The action then shifts to the liner, where fragile, sexually loose, drunk, pill-popping but most of all ageing Carla is in a full tyrannical funk as the ship sets off on its voyage from Liverpool to Montreal and the star sets about falling apart while her entourage try to keep her together. Enter Dr King as a medic who can give her something for her nerves, or a slap across the face if she gets hysterical, which she does.

Quite what Carla has to do with a piece of missing microfilm secreted somewhere on board, and quite why Steed is in disguise as a ship’s steward is all revealed in the fullness of time in a screenplay by Lester Powell that gives plenty of air time to the handsome Rollason and presses heavily on the noir pedal. There’s even a villain with an eye patch.

Money has been spent on the set. You could almost believe that this episode wasn’t shot in a studio at times, and director Don Leaver understands how to pace a drama by using close-ups to add a bit of va-va-voom. Noir, again, is the inspiration.

The woozy wonky actress trying to get her leg over is another echo of the 1940s but there are some very 1960s exchanges – talk of “squares”, the focus on having a good time and in particular a little speech by the chief engineer about tolerance and how “it can become a vice if not guided by a strong moral sense”. The chief engineer, spoiler alert, turns out to be a baddie in an episode that, really for the first time, moves The Avengers culturally into the 1960s and places it in the camp of the hip.

Nice to see John Bennett in his pomp as Carla Berotti’s minder, this heavy-lidded always busy character actor adept at playing intelligent serpentine tough guys more likely to cut you up with a stiletto than reduce you to a pulp with his fists.

And nice, too, to see Steed at the end, now out of disguise, restored to his bowler hat, the headgear becoming increasingly his signature and a sign that all is right in the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2017