Set in the world of the well-to-do, the very satisfying Dial a Deadly Number first aired in the UK in the early days of December 1965 and returns to two regular Avengers fascinations – businessmen and undertakers.
In what sounds like the setup to a joke, there are these three business magnates sitting in a bar, bemoaning movements on the stock market. One of them gets bleeped, by an early manifestation of a pager, and heads back to the office.
There is no funny payoff, though, because en route to the boardroom, the bleeped man’s pager gets switched and he is soon dead of a sudden “heart attack” after being struck by some deadly force from within the gadget.
We cut to another gadget, as Steed admires his own musical pocket watch and we learn that the dead man is the sixth board chairman to have died in a year – and they all shared the same banker, Henry Boardman (name surely not accidental).
Steed and Peel split up. He hares of to question the banker Boardman (Clifford Evans), and while there also meets his business partner, John Harvey, played by a young Peter Bowles, looking a bit clean about the chops but already suave enough to furnish TV and movies with an entire career’s worth of cads and bounders, which is what he did. Peel, meanwhile, heads quickly to the undertaker’s before continuing on to the bleeper company.
Old school ways and cultural oneupmanship abound in this episode. After that pocket watch establishing the tone, Steed is later offered “sherry and biscuits” – not once, but twice, so this was the practice in certain social circles back then (or writer Roger Marshall thought it was) – before he and Mrs Peel meet again at another event denoting social rank, a cocktail party.
Things head even further into rarefied territory when the pair follow cocktails and a light grilling (given and received) with a wine tasting where things get very combative and Steed is forced to prove himself in a “duel”, a blind wine-tasting.
It’s all fabulously old school and, even better, Roger Marshall’s script is full of wit and dash. He not only revels in all the public-school dick-measuring of “name that vineyard” games but also has a lot of fun with some bantery dialogue in which Steed and Peel joust playfully – “Agreeable, well-rounded, a little on the flinty side” says he, offering her a glass of wine. “Venerable, devious, a little ambivalent,” she counters, tasting it while looking straight at him.
En route we’ve learned what a put-option is in stock market terms – making money when a share price drops (making the death of a prominent businessman a potentially lucrative business) – and been given an impression of what old-school British stock market trading was all about – insider trading, in all but name.
So who is distributing the deadly bleepers? You know, it barely matters, since the fun of this episode is in its depiction of social situations most viewers will never experience first hand (or want to, most likely), but the initial thought – it’s the dead men’s banker – is not too far from the truth.
Roger Marshall addresses the high-society focus of this episode towards the end by putting a justifying explains-it-all speech into the mouth of Fitch (John Carson), the oily rag who’s been doing all the grunt work of switching and secreting deadly bleepers, recovering the incriminating evidence from dead bodies, tidying up loose ends etc. It’s an unusual thing to do – it’s usually the evil genius who gets that perk, not his oddjob man.
Clearly Marshall is trying to even things up a bit.
And look out for David Niven’s schoolchum Michael Trubshawe*, who gets a credit surely off the back of Niven’s name, since his character, The General, is not given enough to do for Trubshawe to really justify one.
*Trubshawe also turned up in minor roles in four of Niven’s films. And his name turns up regularly in Niven films even when he’s not in them – in A Matter of Life and Death, doomed pilot Niven’s co-pilot (played by Robert Coote) is called Trubshawe. And a “Trubshaw” (played by Robert Griffiths) also turns up in the fairly disastrous The Elusive Pimpernel (which Niven hated).
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© Steve Morrissey 2020