The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 10 – Dial a Deadly Number

Clifford Evans, Peter Bowles, Patrick Macnee

 

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.

 

John Steed in a wine cellar
I don’t think he’s looking for a 92 Chateau La Tour

 

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

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 9 – The Hour That Never Was

John Steed and Emma Peel on a deserted air base

 

Mrs Peel comes of age in The Hour That Never Was, the ninth episode of series 4 and a typical classic-era Avengers based on unlikely goings-on in locales almost devoid of people.

 

“Comes of age” because in this episode she is clearly smarter than Steed, being the first one to notice that time appears to have stood still – it was 11am when they crashed while pootling down a country road towards a reunion at Steed’s old air base, and it’s still 11am some time later as they wander around the base, which is now seemingly suddenly deserted.

 

She’s also dressed in a style that’s hipper than usual – low-slung trousers, big fat belt, a vest that shows off her toned shoulders to good effect. The production team have clearly twigged that Diana Rigg is a major asset in terms of both acting nous and physicality.

 

If Mrs Peel is an up-to-the-minute dolly bird, John Steed is the counterweight, a newly middle-aged man now recounting drinking stories from his youth with a gleam in his eye as if it were yesterday.

 

But where are they, all these drinking buddies? And why have they disappeared just as the base is gearing up for its farewell shindig, after which the personnel will be “scattered all over the globe… wherever we’ve got an airbase” explains Steed to Peel, unwittingly laying out the reason for the disappearances – dirty tricks by persons whose interests are unaligned with Britain’s.

 

Patrick Macne and Roy Kinnear
A moment of light relief courtesy of the failsafe Roy Kinnear

It’s an impressive episode, in plot and staging. Not only is everything frozen in time, which includes rabbits on the runway, a goldfish in its bowl, but at a certain point in the proceedings we get to see that opening accident all over again, the aftermath of which plays out in a completely different way. No Mrs Peel. The mess now full of chaps celebrating, Gerald Harper as the hail-fellow-well-met RAF bon viveur pressing drinks on a bemused Steed.

 

This idea – alternate timelines leading to wildly different outcomes – seems ahead of the zeitgeist. 2018’s Black Mirror episode, Bandersnatch, famously used it to wild acclaim, but then writer/creator Charlie Brooker is heavily influenced by 1960s/70s mysteries (Tales of Mystery and Imagination, Tales of the Unexpected, The Outer Limits etc).

 

But there’s another modern resonance in this tale. Towards the end, as the mystery is solved and the culprits are revealed, they are referred to as “influencers”. Then, it’s malevolent foreign forces wreaking havoc on suggestible plastic minds who are the baddies. Now, it would be just as possible to point the finger at the liberal elite, mainstream media or deep state. Though, let’s face it, foreign forces working in secret have been known to gain traction in the West – Russia, China and Syria spring to mind.

 

But even more obviously, from the perspective of our Instagram/YouTube era of cheery stooges of capitalism, here’s The Avengers predicting the rise of influencers decades before it happened.

 

But never mind all that – there’s a good fight scene towards the end in a room filled with laughing gas (didn’t Adam West’s Batman do something similar?). And Roy Kinnear makes another Avengers appearance, this time as the only sentient human on the base, a vagrant who has made a career scavenging from RAF bases – “best dustbins in the business,” he exclaims, a moment of comic relief in a great episode that’s one of The Avengers’ standouts.

 

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 8 – A Surfeit of H2O

A man-shaped indentation in the ground

Undoubtedly a fancy episode when it first aired in late November 1965, A Surfeit of H2O manages to be whimsical, sinister, ridiculous and ingenious all in one go, with a good belt of fine character actors to help things along.

 

Water is what it’s about, as the title suggests, and before the title has even come up a poacher has died while out setting traps, drowned in an open field by a massive thunderstorm which appeared out of nowhere.

 

Decent special effects being a bit more than the show can afford, when Steed (dressed in absurd Edwardian hunting gear) and Peel arrive in a Mini Moke, there’s not a drop of water to be seen, which is odd considering how much you’d need to actually drown a man.

 

Quibbles aside, the eccentrics are soon arriving in droves – the dead man’s brother (Talfryn Thomas), who is convinced a mighty inundation is on the way, and a local by the name of Jonah Barnard (played by Noel Purcell, the go-to man when biblical hirsuteness and prophetic bellowing are required) so convinced this is true that he’s building an ark, and who informs Steed that he sees the same cloud in the same part of the sky every day.

 

There are even more oddballs, of a more sinister sort, over at the local “wine factory” – Grannie Gregson’s Glorious Grogs Ltd, makers of vegetable beverages – where Mrs Peel is soon exploring, dressed, appropriately in wet-look PVC.

 

Emma Peel in the rain
Wet, wet, wet: Mrs Peel gets a soaking

 

Eccentricity is what this episode is most about, rather than credible plotting, and Steed has soon joined the party. Posing as Steed of Steed, Steed, Steed, Steed, Steed and Jacques, wine merchants, he visits Grannie Gregson’s (whose amusing logo is an old lady in a rocking chair proudly showing off a rather phallic cucumber), where he tries to charm information out of a company employee (Sue Lloyd of The Ipcress File and, later, TV soap Crossroads fame), while in the background hovers a lab-coated Geoffrey Palmer, marking time until his extraordinary run of TV success arrived.

 

Are they manufacturing bad weather at Grannie Gregson’s? Well let’s just say that the guy in charge there is called Dr Sturm (Albert Lieven), and Emma Peel gets to utter the line “You diabolical mastermind, you!” before the episode is done.

 

A lot of the good work is undone by a chaotic closing fight scene, which features a lot of indistinguishable men in white lab coats fighting against Steed, Peel and the bellowing Jonah (biblical name obviously deliberate), who has proved to be one of the many little joys of this episode.

 

It’s a very 1960s affair – the ancient (Steed’s get-up) hard up against the modern (the Mini Moke, the same one used in the Dave Clark Five film Catch Us If You Can, apparently) – with a very liberated Emma Peel making more strides for women in clothes that must have been murder to wear and also gladdened the sex-starved of the era.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 7 – The Murder Market

Emma Peel in a coffin

 

The Murder Market is one of the episodes first shot with Elizabeth Shepherd playing Mrs Peel, then reshot with Diana Rigg in the role after it was decided that Shepherd didn’t fit the bill. Hence the two directors on the imdb credits – Wolf Rilla shot the original, Peter Graham Scott this version, which eventually was broadcast on 12 November 1965, a Friday night, rather than the usual Saturday (in the London region at least). Order was restored the following Saturday.

 

The title is a weak pun on “meat market” since the plot revolves around a dating agency with a natty sideline in murdering people – as established in the opening scene in which a much older man (Edward Underdown) meets a young woman (Suzanne Lloyd) on a pre-arranged date and winds up dead.

 

We cut to Steed’s pad – or is it Emma’s? – for Diana Rigg’s first ever scene with Patrick Macnee. And Rigg is a little wobbly, hasn’t quite established the permanently-raised-eyebrow performance that would soon come to characterise one of the 1960s TV’s most iconic characters.

 

After a bit of bantery to-and-fro, off Mr Peel is sent to talk to the dead man’s widow, where she also meet’s the dead man’s brother (John Woodvine, lurkingly sinister). Steed, meanwhile, launches himself onto the dating scene by signing up to Togetherness Inc, where the dead man had also been registered.

 

Togetherness Inc is a study in 1960s camp, where everyone dresses in morning suits, confetti tumbles from the air and the refreshments on offer are champagne and wedding cake. Diabetes for the main course.

 

Patrick Cargill and Patrick Macnee
Camp, moi? Patrick Cargill with Patrick Macnee and Peter Bayliss

 

It’s all a little (a lot) over the top, but then so is the man running it – Lovejoy (camp moniker), played to the hilt by Patrick Cargill, whose faintly supercilious air is exactly what the role requires, and whose verbal sparring with Patrick Macnee gives the episode a lot of its fizz.

 

Steed passes himself off as a bachelor with an inconvenient family member standing between himself and a large inheritance. Sure enough, Lovejoy has soon taken the bait and is discreetly offering a Strangers on a Train-style arrangement – Steed kills someone else’s bugbear and that someone else kills his. The wrinkle being that Steed’s assignment is to kill Emma Peel, who has in the interim made a nuisance of herself by having eyeballed the killer.

 

As an introduction to Mrs Peel it’s all very fine (though an entire year passed between the episode being shot and it being aired), though, as said, Rigg hasn’t quite got the character nailed – touches of Cathy Gale’s brusqueness towards Steed remain; the fully fledged Emma Peel deployed wit and charm to manage her partner in crime-fighting.

 

In one scene we see Mrs Peel playing a tuba while Steed practises golf – kooky 60s banter bouncing between them. Other 60s touches include the Joe Orton-esque fascination with funeral trappings – hearses, coffins and so on. And there’s a scene at a photographer’s studio in which a David Bailey-style photographer gives it the full “make love to the camera, darling” performance.

 

It’s all very swinging, and briskly, stylishly directed by Scott, who can’t hide the fact that Rigg hasn’t learned to fight yet. But Tony Williamson’s script (his first for The Avengers) compensates with plenty of zippy dialogue – between Rigg and Macnee, and Macnee and Cargill, whose drawling, quizzical, irony-rich delivery had made him a stage farceur rarely out of work. And, fanciful notion perhaps, might Cargill’s performance have influenced the direction Diana Rigg would take Mrs Peel?

 

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 6 – The Master Minds

Emma Peel with bow and arrow

The Master Minds was episode six in series four in transmission terms, but only the second episode that Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee had made together. Hence the not-quite-thereness of their relationship – notice throughout how rarely Rigg actually looks at Steed. By series five the two of them were locked in almost permanent ocular combat.


It’s relevant because this is a classic Rigg-era Avengers episode – it’s all about boffins and mind control – trailing clouds of the Cathy Gale era, when relations between Steed and his sidekick were much more workmanlike, for all Steed’s suggestive banter.


The plot kicks into life when  government minister Sir Clive Todd (Laurence Hardy) is caught in flagrante delicte trying to steal secret documents. Arresting him is no use, since he’s a walking automaton with amnesia and is soon in hospital, where a government shrink (Ian MacNaughton, darkly glowering like a youthful John Laurie) will first try and tease open the man’s mind and later, himself hypnotised, will inject him with a lethal toxin.


But before that, a very welcome palate cleanser. This comes in the form of a scene-stealing Georgina Ward, as Davinia Todd, Sir Clive’s daughter, who was on holiday in the South of France but “got bored” and so decided to come home, so impulsively that she’s still wearing her bikini beneath the coat slung casually over her shoulders. The whole posh, bored, entitled rich girl thing nailed in a thumbnail and almost worth watching the whole episode for.

Georgina Ward in bikini under coat
Georgina Ward sets about stealing the scene

 


But back to the bad guys – a cabal of clever people, an organisation of eggheads called Ransack, appears to be behind Sir Clive’s misdeeds and Mrs Peel is soon undercover within the organisation, where she also succumbs to the same mind-controlling mantra which will send the gang off to a military base to do something that will imperil the realm.

 
And that’s about it, in plot terms at least. The “undercover” aspect of The Avengers formula is beginning to pall, but the idea that convocations of brainy chaps cannot be a good thing is relatively under-explored territory for the series. 


This “don’t trust brains” trope might have arrived from the US alongside the plot’s driver: brainwashing. Though details about the CIA’s MK Ultra experiments – which had been running since 1953 – wouldn’t start coming to light until the 1970s, dark mutterings about what the Soviets might be up to in the same field were already cultural currency (see both The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and The Ipcress File).


Other things of note: the head of the Ransack organisation, Professor Spencer (Martin Miller) has a faintly German accent, and so is automatically sinister – it’s still only 20 years since the end of the Second World War, after all, in which Steed is meant to have fought.

 
And talking of fighting, there is some very poorly executed rough stuff at the end of the episode, director Peter Graham Scott not quite dynamic enough with his cameras. Though props to whoever decided that Mrs Peel’s showdown with the “Master Mind” (no spoilers) should take place behind a cinema screen, in silhouette. It’s a neat visual touch, and allows the doubles to do what they do best without constantly having to keep their faces turned away from the camera.



 
 
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© Steve Morrissey 2019

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 5 – Castle De’ath

John Steed with a sword. Assailant with a gun

 

Three Bond movies had been released and a fourth was just around the corner, when Castle De’ath was broadcast on an autumnal Saturday night in 1965. It’s a mini-me version of Bond, with Scotland standing in for myriad exotic locations, a mini-sub standing in for all the 007 tech and Steed and Peel doing their best to quip for England as the plot takes them north of the border.

 

Things kick off with a pre-Steadycam handheld tour of the castle – every heartbeat of the cameraman registering – which winds up in a dungeon where a man is being tortured on the rack.

 

He’s an agent and soon dead, and the fact that he is taller in death than in life has rung a lot of alarm bells. Enter Steed and Peel, she pretending to be from some government agency specialising in helping old families open their stately piles to the public, he claiming to be a historian by the name of Jock McSteed, researching the McSteed family story.

 

Soon both are ensconced at the castle, where the De’ath family are at odds over what to do. The family is broke – but as is often the case in British drama (as in British life), they’re not so broke that they actually have to go out and work for a living – with dour clan chief Ian (Gordon Jackson) reluctant to open the place up to the great unwashed, while his progressive, gregarious brother Angus (Robert Urquhart) is all for it.

 

Thrown also into the mix, almost as an afterthought, is a subplot about disappearing fish, “one of the mainstays of our economic life”, one of the De’aths warbles helpfully.

 

And between the competing brothers, the precarious fish stocks, some historical nonsense about Black Jamie, the disgraced laird who has been walled up in the east tower for the last 500 years, and a bit of low-level haunting, the plot winds towards a conclusion which, Bond-style, suddenly is all about submarines, ultrasonic waves and a seditious political plot.

 

Diana Rigg in a tartan trouser suit
Looking louche in tartan, Diana Rigg as Emma Peel

It’s a bit overstuffed, in other words. But if it’s John Steed in a kilt you want to see, or Mrs Peel in a tartan trouser suit, plus acres of fine tweed on the rest of the cast, then this is the episode for you. And Urquhart is particularly fine as the more go-getting, populist brother, easily putting Jackson into the shade with acting that’s simply more limber. For all Jackson’s merits, his beautiful voice couldn’t disguise the fact that he isn’t very good at playing against another actor, and in a long career he often came across as a man impatient to say his lines and get on to the next bit.

 

The relationship between Steed and “Mistress Peel”, as laird Ian (Jackson) curtly addresses her, has now settled down. Steed’s Cathy Gale-era lechery has been replaced by something more subtle – he’s still sexually in pursuit but really it’s more about giving it the old college try than expecting any results.

 

As for which one of the two brothers is the baddie – the go-ahead populist or the stuffed shirt – John Lucarotti’s script does a good job of keeping us guessing.

 

And did I mention the amphibious car?

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 3 – The Cybernauts

cybernaut with Steed and Peel

The sixth of the Diana Rigg episodes to be made, though the third to be shown, The Cybernauts looks vaguely back to the Honor Blackman era – Mrs Peel still in leather and a bit helmet-haired – but in other respects it’s the most forward-looking episode we’ve yet seen. Perhaps that’s what you’d expect with a sci-fi flavoured episode title with a ring of Doctor Who about it.

 

Or are we in the realm of the supernatural? In the traditional opening “death scene” we see a man in his house being attacked by some big creature impervious to bullets, strong enough to bend a rifle barrel with a swipe of the hand and clearly intent on murder.

 

And, after the episode title has appeared, we meet blithe spirits Steed and Peel as they quip away about a run of murders they seem unable to solve. However… a lead. The latest victim has been killed by a karate blow known only to a handful of people in Europe. So off Mrs Peel heads to a dojo, where she is complimented on her fighting skills with a “fights like a man” level remark, while Steed, Patrick Macnee easing into middle age, poses as the dead man’s replacement, sent in by Industrial Deployments, some British government quango, to negotiate with a representative (Burt Kwouk) of a Japanese electronics firm.

 

Interesting stuff here – not because Kwouk was hot off Goldfinger (with Honor Blackman) and the second Pink Panther film, A Shot in the Dark. And not because Kwouk is ethnically Chinese (though born in Warrington he was raised in Shanghai) rather than Japanese, since Kwouk’s career saw him sliding all over the oriental ethnosphere. Interesting instead because of how precisely this episode is delineating the future. Not only are the Japanese shown as leaders in electronics technology – at the time they were popularly seen as good for making tinny transistor radios and not much else – but Kwouk’s Mr Tusamo also informs a boggle-eyed Steed that in the future there will be computers the size of a cigarette packet (an iPhone, in other words).

 

Meanwhile, checking out a British company in the same field, Mrs Peel is treated to a demonstration of British hi-tech – a robot dog that comes when you call. Except it doesn’t, when company boss Jephcott (Bernard Horsfall) beckons. Over at another British tech company, run by a Dr Armstrong from his Dr Strangelove-inspired wheelchair (and played by the fabulously stately Michael Gough, who’d wind up as Alfred in the 1980s/90s Batman movies), Steed is horrified as Armstrong tells him about artificial intelligence, the robot workforce of the future and a machine that can answer any question you ask it (sounds a bit like Wikipedia).

 

Three suspects – the foreigner with the best tech, the Brit whose stuff doesn’t work, and another Brit whose vision of the future is unsettling at the very least. Who’s the wrong’un?

 

bandaged cybernaut in chair
Nothing sinister about this one at all

 

Unusually for The Avengers, writer Philip Levene spends quite a lot of energy misdirecting us – red herrings are not the usual way for this series. And it’s not the only innovation. The camerawork is noticeably crisper and more fluid than in the previous two episodes and a vast amount of care and attention has gone into Mrs Peel’s look – never a hair out of place, lippy seemingly laser-applied.

 

One hangover from the Cathy Gale era is that Mrs Peel seems to be in leather gear just in time for the fights, which is vaguely absurd, though there is a very nice late sequence when Steed is showing off his fighting skills to the sound of Laurie Johnson’s soundtrack playing The Avengers second theme in a string quartet arrangement – Hong Kong director John Woo would later use this contrast between all-action visuals and stately soundtrack repeatedly, and you wonder if he saw it here first.

 

As for the whodunit aspect, the reveal is ingenious – Levene is good at this sort of thing – and wouldn’t be out of keeping among Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot stories, if that isn’t too much of a giveaway.

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 1 – The Town of No Return

Emma Peel in fencing gear

 

And so, drum roll, The Town of No Return and the beginning of series 4. And with it the arrival of Diana Rigg as Mrs Emma Peel, the story going that the new partner for Steed would have to have “man appeal” or M-appeal for short. Hence the name.

 

She’s not the only new arrival – more money has clearly turned up, allowing the series to be shot on film and on location much more often. So no more studio-bound “as live” episodes rehearsed one day and shot the next. John Dankworth’s theme music has also been retired. Its jazzy plangency was fine for a 1950s style noirish detective series featuring Steed in trenchcoat with turned-up collar but it was becoming increasingly out of place as The Avengers became kookier. Instead, in comes Laurie Johnson’s glam, jaunty, upbeat, panto-dramatic theme, which still manages to find a placing in “greatest TV themes” polls over 50 years later.

 

This episode was originally shot with Elizabeth Shepherd as Mrs Peel, but was then reshot after it was decided that Shepherd wasn’t quite what was required. This might explain the confusion over who wrote and directed – the imdb tells us that Roy Ward Baker and Peter Graham Scott directed but the screen credits say it was Sidney Hayers. As to writers, the screen says Philip Levene, most other sources claim it was Brian Clemens.

 

It certainly feels like Clemens, with his bizarro hallmarks evident from the very first shot – a man in a big waterproof envelope walking out of the sea, unzipping himself and then heading off inland in tweeds and carrying a brolly, to the complete disinterest of a local fisherman fixing a basket.

 

And then it’s the Steed-meets-Peel moment, in her apartment, a Swinging kind of place with a gigantic winking eye on the door, inside which Mrs Peel is fencing. Her action-woman credentials asserted and the baton successfully passed from Honor Blackman to Diana Rigg, the very comfortably paired duo (not least because they’d already shot 13 episodes together by the time this one was shot/reshot) head off to a seaside town where agents keep going missing.

 

En route we get a lift from Mary Poppins, as Steed offers Mrs Peel tea and pulls the works – China and Indian tea, crockery, a cake stand with petits fours – from his capacious carpet bag, as they travel on the train together.

 

A fellow traveller is Jimmy Smallwood, played by Patrick Newell, who would later become a significant part of The Avengers formula as Mother, Steed and his sidekick’s control, but here is playing a timid man visiting his brother, unaware that he’s going to become the latest victim of the mysterious disappearances.

 

The town itself, and particularly its pub, the Inebriated Gremlin, is a grim and unwelcoming place, in spite of the hail-fellow-well-met of mine host Piggy Warren (Terence Alexander perfectly cast as an ex RAF chap whose kept all the mannerisms and even the handlebar moustache). There, Steed and Peel go to work, she posing as a new teacher, he as a property scout, while the tally of victims keeps rising.

Terence Alexander as the jovial publican
RAF? I should jolly well say so – Terence Alexander

 

In many respects it’s Gale era Avengers – bantering dialogue, sexual tension, a mystery and a pub – but in one important regard it’s different. The town is pretty much deserted, as is the local RAF base. Everyone the duo meet – landlord, vicar, blacksmith, village school teacher – is a new arrival. This deserted set-up idea would propel The Avengers right through until it ended and it’s more evidence of Clemens’s hand, as is the ridiculous plot which I won’t give away but makes absolutely no sense – Clemens is more your character and dialogue man.

 

All in all it’s a great introduction to Mrs Peel – she’s smart, tough, fun and funny, looks a million dollars (and some of her outfits are quite extraordinary even by the Swinging standards of the day). And if there is the odd duff continuity moment, we can probably put that down to the fact that, where possible, outdoors footage shot almost a year earlier when Elizabeth Shepherd was still Mrs Peel, has been reused.

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2019