The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 26 – Lobster Quadrille

Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman publicity shot

 

Episodes of The Avengers were often not shown in production order. But Lobster Quadrille was both the last one broadcast and the last one made in series three, going out on 21 March 1964, a day after it had been finished.

 

It’s also Honor Blackman’s farewell episode, before she headed off to be Pussy Galore to Sean Connery’s 007 in Goldfinger. And so you’d be tempted to think the production team might give her a good send-off. But in fact it’s a very John Steed-focused adventure, all about lobster fisherman, a dastardly plot to flood the country with heroin and a mystery Chinaman who connects the first with the second.

 

No, Chinaman is not the PC term for someone from China these days, but Burt Kwouk, of Pink Panther fame, is very definitely giving it the full Inscrutable Oriental as Mason, the owner of a chess shop visited by Mrs Gale after a couple of hoods (Gary Watson, Corin Redgrave) club a “journalist” (a spy, in other words) to death and the dead man’s burned body is found with an exotic chess piece on his person.

 

Watson and Redgrave are a pair of Cornish fishermen – lobsters a speciality – and are entirely unconvincing in their roles. Redgrave’s character name is Quentin Slim, for god’s sake, and he utters the phrase “listen, baby” at one point, about as unCornish-fisherman a formulation as you can imagine.

 

But then this is an odd episode, cobbled together by two writers – Richard Bates and Brian Clemens says the imdb, though it was just Clemens says the knowledgeable Avengers Forever website, under the pseudonym of Richard Lucas, which is backed up by the closing credits (I’ve just double-checked). Whether it’s one writer or two, it feels like two writers’ work, the grit of early scenes giving way to a much more phantasmagoric 1960s Alice in Wonderland vibe as the action shifts from Cornwall (ahem) to a London nightclub/restaurant decorated with giant blow-ups of Tenniel’s illustrations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Bates to Clemens, in my mental shorthand, if not in fact.

 

So, returning to the plot, while Mrs Gale is quizzing Mason, Steed is down in Cornwall talking to lobster kingpin Captain Slim (Leslie Sands) and the wife of his dead son, played by Jennie Linden, Her naturalness in front of the camera really gives the episode a lift, and helps enormously as more issue-driven Play for Today waters are charted as she tries to tell the big fella the real truth about his son.

 

As I said, Honor Blackman is barely in the episode and spends a fair chunk of it tied up. Though she does get a judo scene towards the end, to remind us that she’s still here. That’s just before Steed and Gale have a prolonged farewell chat during which she announces she’s off on holiday to the Bahamas, where, Steed suggests, she’ll be “pussyfooting” about. Mrs Gale assures Steed she’ll be doing more than that. “Not pussyfooting?” he muses, after she’s left. “I must have been misinformed,” he says, Macnee just about resisting the urge to wink to camera.

 

After which it’s goodbye Mrs Gale, Steed wasting no time before picking up the phone and calling a mystery woman (we assume it’s Mrs Peel) who he addresses flirtily as “my dear”.

 

It’s been a good run for Blackman, who has transformed not just her character from a helpmeet to co-equal but also her billing and with it the role of women on TV. With the exit of Mrs Gale, one version of The Avengers ends and another begins.

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019

 

 

The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 25 – Esprit De Corp

Honor Blackman, Duncan Macrae and John Thaw in Esprit de Corps

 

Esprit De Corps is a mad and twisty Avengers episode, one of many dealing with the subject of indoctrination, the focus here being an army unit that’s going to launch a coup d’etat and put the “rightful” heir back on the throne.  

 

Mad enough, but there’s a fruitloop turn to come which I won’t spoil. Instead let me tell you that a 22-year-old John Thaw plays a key role, as an army captain (Thaw generally did play older than he was – at 33 he was seen-it-all cop Jack Regan in The Sweeney; he was only 45 when he played the retirement-dodging star of Inspector Morse). Thaw’s Captain Trench is being hoodwinked by the unhinged Brigadier General Sir Ian Stuart-Bollinger (Duncan Macrae) – Trench has no idea that the “exercises” he’s preparing his men for are in fact the coup that’s going to unseat the House of Windsor.  

 

Steed and Gale get involved after a corporal is “accidentally” killed, in circumstances that look very far from accidental, and we meet the dapper chap in a new-fangled launderette doing his weekly wash. Though this is about as likely as a coup against the British monarchy being carried out by a handful of soldiers, it’s amusing enough, as is the sight of Steed dressed in what looks halfway to being a duffel coat.  

 

To find out what’s going on, Steed sends Mrs Gale in to cosy up to Captain Trench, and on hearing that she’s going yet again to be the sweet stuff in a honey she trap pulls quite a face. Quite the feminist.  

 

There’s more potential for allegations of sexism when Trench and Gale meet for the first time at a course he teaches in unarmed combat and he gives her the full body up and down – slow enough that we see it; fast enough that we believe it. It’s these tiny things that made Thaw so good.  

 

I forgot to mention Roy Kinnear, who is the Roy Kinnear of fond memory, all facial tics and nervous sweats as a hapless roly-poly soldier struggling to do anything well. Which brings us to Duncan Macrae as the mad brigadier general, a man with a skull of a face and the ability to conjure the sense that inbreeding is what’s behind his insane scheme, which Gale and Steed (now posing as a Major, his old rank in the army) are of course going to thwart. No more needs to be said about the plot, except that it does, as earlier suggested, throw in a turn so random that you have to applaud.  

 

Overall, there are two types of Avengers episodes – the early ones set in something vaguely approximating the real world (pubs often feature) and the later ones, which became increasingly surreal. This belongs firmly in the latter camp, though it’s helmed by two old hands – deft director Don Leaver, on great form here, and writer Eric Paice, whose scripts tend nicely toward the conspiratorial.  

 

An excellently entertaining episode, thanks to its brilliant cast, polished writer and talented director. Take a bow all.          

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019    

 

 

The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 24 – Concerto

Nigel Stock and Patrick Macnee

 

Shot in April 1963 but not actually broadcast until April 1964, Concerto is a spytastic episode with a Cold War setting, espionage chicanery and so on, with a plot about a concert pianist being accused of rape and murder. Or more to the point, a plot about Steed and his Russian opposite number Zalenko (Nigel Stock) trying to prevent pianist Stefan Veliko (Sandor Elès) being fingered as a criminal in order to keep trade talks between the two countries on the road.  

 

It’s a Steed-heavy episode, with Mrs Gale relegated to babysitting the accused man within minutes of the episode kicking off, right after a journalist has cried blue murder after a supposed sexual assault and been strangled to death for her trouble, though not by the Russian musician.  

 

It’s the to and fro between Steed and Zalenko, and Macnee and Stock, that gives this episode its zing, that familiar but always welcome intrusion of human warmth into the chilliness of the Cold War here exhibiting itself as bantery shop-talking in a Soho strip club where Macnee’s effortless breeziness in front of a TV camera contrasts with Stock’s more stage-derived style of acting.  

 

The script is by Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke and perhaps it took their combined forces to keep the impish fingers of Brian Clemens off the script, and perhaps that explains why it took so long for it to get onto the screen – Clemens didn’t like it, maybe. Because beneath the jovial bonhomie, this is a dark episode, gritty, realistic, with death a weighty matter, not a frippery to be brushed aside (as became increasingly the case in the series). The lighting sticks with the theme – dark, pools of shadow everywhere. Even in the casting of the young women in the strip joint, down to the cellulite wobbling on their thighs, we can see a general resistance to the usual urge to “go glamour”.  

 

Detail hounds will enjoy Steed using his brolly as a weapon at one point – I think that’s the first time we’ve seen it deployed that way. Big buttons on women’s coats seem to be the fashion statement of the moment. And notice how well tucked up all the men are, with scarves under their thick overcoats. The winter of 62/63 was one of the worst on record for the UK, the Big Freeze (as the newspapers dubbed it) had only just come to an end after months of record-busting weather and the central-heating revolution had not yet happened.  

 

For a Cold War episode that’s quite appropriate.      

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019    

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 23 – The Charmers

Fenella Fielding publicity shot for The Charmers
  Charm, rather than grit or narrative or psychological coherence, are really what The Avengers are about, and in the appropriately titled The Charmers we get tons of it, thanks to a fine script by Brian Clemens and light, deft playing by the guest actors.     It’s also, more or less, the first of the properly jokey, larky Avengers, though it kicks off in familiar style – a death before the opening credits, by the sword.     1960s TV loved a “touché” and we learn that this killing of an enemy agent is the latest in a spate of them. While the enemy being murdered in quantity might ordinarily be a good thing, matters have got out of hand and the uneasy balance between spying organisations has been upset, leading to Steed being targeted in a tit-for-tat by a Soviet (we assume) hitman keen to even things up.     After a bit of flashing wit and swordplay – Steed offering to his would-be assassin, “But I haven’t killed anyone for at least a week,” and “But that was a foil; my weapon’s a rapier” – our man heads off to the foreign embassy to see if he can sort things out.     Here things start to become comedic, since Warren Mitchell plays the vaguely East European/Soviet envoy, Keller, a camp and hypochondriac worrier who is soon persuaded by Steed – in a nicely written back and forth in which each tries to out-charm the other (Steed wins, of course) – that what they need to do is find out who’s actually doing the killing. “You mean it wasn’t you?” “No, we thought it was you,” kind of thing.     To this end, and to demonstrate they’re dealing honestly, both men swap partners, Steed lending Keller Mrs Gale (bridling at being treated like a chattel) and Keller, devious as only a man who does not play cricket can be, sends Steed one of his “operatives”, who is actually an out-of-work actress picked at random. Keller tells her Steed is a writer and she needs to shadow him as background for a role.     For all its charm, the weakness of Clemens’s writing is that this bit of the plot is ridiculous – Steed would pick up instantly what was going on, as would the actress.     However, the two actors plug on at comedic cross-purposes, and since it’s Fenella Fielding playing the actress, much fun is had. Fielding spends all her screen time with her head up, eyelids fluttering, chest thrust forward and, when at all possible, legs crossed way too high on the thigh. The breathy vamp, in other words, which was her speciality in a long and unvaried career.     Mrs Gale, meanwhile, is stuck with Keller, who spends most of the episode with a Vick inhaler up his nose (watching Blackman trying not to corpse at Mitchell’s wild overplaying is one of this episode’s small joys).     The action shifts first to a dentist’s visited by the most recently dead spy, where Mrs Gale pretends she needs a check-up, while Steed ends up at an academy of charm for aspiring young gentlemen, where chaps are instructed on how to wear a bowler hat, carry a brolly and hail a cab. It is also, of course, a spy academy and the source of the problem.     As I say, the plot doesn’t matter too much; it’s the individual scenes, bantering, funny, fast, that make this such an enjoyable episode.     Though it’s almost sacrilege to say it, since the Mrs Peel era is often considered to be the finest, it’s tempting to suggest that The Avengers peaks around here, which might be why Clemens decided to reuse most of the plot, and some of the lines, in the season five episode The Correct Way to Kill.           The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon       © Steve Morrissey 2019      

The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 22 – The Outside-In Man

Steed and Gale
Whether The Avengers is or isn’t a spy series depends very much on the episode you watch. In The Outside-In Man we’re very much in spy mode, right from the opening scene, in which Steed is seen walking into a butcher’s shop. Then, Man from Uncle style (which was in development when this episode aired in February 1964), he walks from the front of the shop and into the walk-in fridge with the butcher, who immediately drops his Cockney accent to brief him on his job. Butcher/control Quilpie (Ronald Radd) is an M-like figure and has a secretary (Virginia Stride) called Alice but in demeanour and function her name might as well be Miss Moneypenny. It’s all very James Bond, in other words, and since Honor Blackman would be heading off in that direction in just a handful of weeks to work on Goldfinger, which was already in production when this episode was shot, a couple of weeks before transmission, the traffic is clearly two-way. But, the plot the plot. This actually is rather good, being the work of Philip Chambers, who’d scripted the similarly spytastic episode The Nutshell. Good because it turns on realpolitik – rogue spy Mark Charter (James Maxwell) is trying to kill a former colleague who defected to the other side, because that’s the mission Charter was given some years earlier. The thing is, Sharp (Philip Anthony), the defectee, has since gained a miraculous promotion and is now a general in the enemy power’s army. On top of that, the general is now in the UK with full diplomatic immunity to seal an arms treaty on behalf of “his” country. So Steed’s mission is not to thwart baddies on the other side, but to stop someone from our side doing what he was once asked to do, to someone who in any other circumstances would be a justifiable target. It’s a neat concept and it powers the episode along smoothly, the spy-gone-bad being a fairly bulletproof formula,  case-hardened in this instance by the added detail that poor Mark Charter has spent years in a jail in Abarainia (third Iran, third Azerbaijan, third Bahrain?) being tortured after getting caught trying to pull off his assassination. So we have Steed sitting inside his own organisation, trying to locate and neutralise the once-benign, now-possibly-bonkers agent; Gale meanwhile has been installed within the general’s organisation, trying to work the same trick there, just in case someone from that side of the fence is trying to scupper the talks. There’s a very tidy and entirely apposite subplot, too, set in the gentlemen’s club Charter belongs to, and where, after five years away, he still expects “his chair” to be ready for him when he turns up out of the blue – and is outraged when it’s occupied.   This trope – people being in the wrong chair – is repeated throughout the episode and is a nice analogue for the breaking of the social code. The details of the case of the Cambridge Five weren’t fully known at the time this episode was written, and yet in the story of the spy who’s defected and become some high-ranking somebody for the other side, we see various echoes of what happened to 1960s spies Burgess, Maclean, Philby et al – most of whom weren’t actually, it turned out, heaped with any of the honours they were widely supposed to have received (unless you count booze). As befits a brain-not-brawn episode, the whole thing dénoues – if there is such a word – in what will be for action fans a bit of an anticlimax. But, until then it’s been a fascinating story, ably brought to the screen by director Jonathan Alwyn. But most of the plaudits must go to writer Chambers, whose pacy script also switches location frequently, a tactic that injects energy into what could easily have been a collection of too many talky scenes. The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon © Steve Morrissey 2019

The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 21 – Build a Better Mousetrap

Steed charms his way into the gang

Build a Better Mousetrap is a great episode of The Avengers – it’s Brian Clemens at his best, from its very Clemens-y joshing title, to his use of British eccentrics, and his mix of the venerable with the modern, the tech with the antique and the old with the young, not forgetting Clemens’s usual dabble in the sociology of class.

 

And it gets off to a flying start, making sensible use of Mrs Gale’s penchant for leather by inserting her into a motorcycle gang, somewhat improbably. As the episode gets going, one of this gang’s number is frightening two harmless old ladies (Athene Seyler, Nora Nicholson), who retaliate by threatening to put a spell on them. The gang laugh, they sneer but they do leave.

 

And before anyone can say abracadabra, we’re off to a pub somewhere in the vicinity, where Steed is deploying his supertoff manner to buttonhole a colonel (John Tate) and his comely daughter Caroline (Alison Seebohm). And while we’re asking ourselves why he’s doing this, a little flirtation gets going between Steed and Caroline – “Do you ride, Mr Steed?” she purrs. “I love it,” says Steed, looking like he loves it only too much.

 

We learn that the pub is just down the road from some nuclear research facility and that something odd keeps happening round these parts. Mechanical instruments, from cars to food mixers, just suddenly stop working, only to spring back to life an hour or so later.

 

While Steed is being brought up to speed on all this (though that’s obviously why he’s there in the first place), Mrs Gale arrives with the gang, the last knockings of pre-Beatles youth, and we get to see a fabulous double-take as Steed spots her.

 

Again with the self-assuredness of the gentleman, Steed has soon inveigled his way into the gang, who are in awe of Mrs Gale’s riding skills – she can do a “ton plus ten” one of them say, which is a fair speed for British bikes on British roads.

 

Steed has soon hatched a cunning plan: to stage a motorbike point-to-point and, if the bikes break down, to use their positions to triangulate the source of what must be some sophisticated jamming signal. It is, of course, the old ladies’ house.

 

All that remains now is for Steed to pull his third smooth-operator move of the episode, visit the old ladies undercover as a member of the “National Distrust” – a kind of national grumblers council – and charm the pants off Cynthia and Ermyntrude while learning more about what exactly is going on there. At one point, Steed having asked what’s up the stairs, Ermyntrude replies – “My bedroom,” in a voice quavering with decades of longing.

 

It’s the prime actors rather than the often fairly ramshackle plots that makes so many episodes of The Avengers watchable classic TV. And Nora Nicholson and Athene Seyler are the standouts of this episode, a pair of old stagers who deliver fruit by the truckload and whose backstory as a pair of sisters who have lived together perhaps for ever (Ermyntrude refers to her sister as “Cyn”) is never in doubt.

 

As gang leader Dave, Donald Webster is also charming, a Liverpool lad who had probably just had the provincial accent knocked out of him at drama school, only to be cast here (and in plenty of other shows, even turning up in 1971’s Straw Dogs) as a geezer with dropped aitches to spare.

 

Talking of charm, it is a Steed-heavy episode, and Patrick Macnee even gets to show off a bit of ju jitsu in the big fight finale, which gets a bit chaotic, eventually escaping completely director Peter Hammond’s cameras – shooting as-live was still for the most part the order of the day.

 

All in all though, a great episode – tight, full of incident, wit and lovely performances.

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019

 

 

The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 20 – Trojan Horse

Mrs Gale and Tony Heuston

At one point almost every episode of The Avengers started with a death before the opening credits. Trojan Horse plays with that idea, showing us a punter who won’t pay his betting debts being killed by some heavies. After his killers have left the scene, the dead man gets up and walks away.

It’s a ruse, a scam initiated by master bookmaker Tony Heuston (TP McKenna) who wants rich toff Lucien ffordsham (Geoffrey Whitehead) to believe he’s implicated in a murder, and to use that leverage against him.

Steed and Gale are in the neighbourhood because they’re protecting Sebastian, a valuable racehorse belonging to a Middle Eastern potentate, who is in the UK to race it.

As part of this Foreign Office operation, Steed ends up loitering around the stables, where he is soon introducing himself to posh stable totty Ann Meadows (Lucinda Curtis, complete with Cilla Black-style Vidal Sassoon hair style) and tapping her for information, though clearly interested in tapping her for anything else that might be on offer.

These stables are the locus of numerous fascinating scenes in which forelocks are tugged, deference is paid and the toffs stand legs athwart, hands on hips, while the lower orders scuttle about in front of them. It is actually uncomfortable to watch, because the behaviour extends to the actors not just their characters – watch as those playing toffs ride over the lines of fellow actors playing lower-status parts.

Steed, meanwhile, flirts with everything with a vagina.

Over to Mrs Gale, who gets some very choice dialogue as she tries to infiltrate the organisation of crooked bookie Heuston. To impress him and win herself a job, Gale indulges in odds-related banter, then turns mental-arithmetic cartwheels by computing the winnings on a multi-race accumulator (and all in the much more challenging pounds, shillings and pence). A different type of flirting than Steed’s, it gets her the gig from a clearly impressed Heuston.

Of course the entire “sheikh’s horse” side of the plot is a feint – Steed and Gale are really there to close down the real focus of Heuston’s operation: training killers.

As suggested, egalitarian Malcolm Hulke’s script goes to town on the class angle, Steed at one point eating a pricey Bath Oliver biscuit with caviar, the TV signifier of “posh” – a real gent would actually have been more likely to have a Bath Oliver with Patum Peperium, but there you go.

But there’s sexism in spades too. At one point, while Mrs Gale watches a horse race on TV, Steed ogles her openly, mocks her even. It’s saved from being awkward because Macnee’s playing suggests he is mocking Steed’s behaviour. But then Macnee often does things with the writing that aren’t there in the script.

McKenna is always a good villain, and the actor is comfortable in an episode that’s all about oily upstarts like Heuston being put back in their box so order can be restored and the right people can get back to running things.

And for those interested in clothes, there are lots of lovely thick worsted, tweedy items here – cardigans and proper jumpers abound. The sort of clothes people wore before central heating ushered in the T shirt era.

But for all these details, the political angle, the social comment, the little sparkles in the dialogue and the fine playing, Trojan Horse sadly never really grabs the interest in the way it should.

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© Steve Morrissey 2019

The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 19 – The Secrets Broker

Patricia English and Ronald Allen

The Beatles were number one in America for the first time, with I Want to Hold Your Hand, when this latest episode of The Avengers, The Secrets Broker, aired in the UK on 1 February 1964.

But though The Avengers went on to become one of the key harmonics of the Swinging London vibe, there’s scant evidence of it in this episode, the latest in the haphazard, piecemeal “one step forward, two steps back” way that the show almost blindly stumbled its way to glory.

It’s a bit old school, this episode, in other words, even though it starts out with a scene at a clairvoyant’s – very 1960s (the doors of perception, and all that) –  where psychic Mimi Wilson (Avice Landon) has a message for one of the onlookers. It’s a gun in a box, and Wilson wants it to be used to spirit someone to the other side.

The man who winds up dead turns out to be an acquaintance of Steed and soon Mrs Gale has been despatched to the secret facility near which he was killed. There, research is led by a husband and wife team (John Ringham, Patricia English), though the wife is secretly banging handsome co-worker Allan Paignton (Ronald Allen, later of the TV soap Crossroads), a fact that Gale works out a lot faster than the husband seems to have managed.

Steed, meanwhile, heads to a wine merchant’s, where a Mr Waller (Jack May, for decades the voice of Nelson Gabriel in the BBC radio soap The Archers) takes his order for large quantities of high-end plonk – a great opportunity for some whipcrack status-measuring one-upmanship between May and Macnee, who both fall hungrily on the juicy banter written by Ludovic Peters.

How does the research establishment connect with the wine merchant’s? How did Steed know to home in on Waller? That, as ever, is never fully explained – moments of omniscience being part of the Avengers’ gifts, it seems. But the action oscillates between the research facility, the wine shop and the love nest of Paignton, where some fairly serious making out (for this show and this era) takes place.

There’s even time for the occasional visit to Gale’s house, where Steed appears to be a permanent visitor, while wandering through all the action is Landon as the psychic, using her hold over people to encourage more murder and mayhem, all in an attempt to wrest secret information from the research lab, where suspicions about a mole in their midst are rising. Here, in a key bit of plotting, the facility boss (Ringham) accidentally on purpose throws suspicion on lowly technician Jim Carey (Brian Hankins, incidentally Ronald Allen’s real-life lover).

It’s neatly directed, with enough changes of perspective to keep things visually fresh and written with enough for the actors to chew on, but the setup is lacklustre, there’s too much reliance on happenstance and fruity characters (thank you, Jack May) and the phoney supernatural element are not enough to drag The Secrets Brokers properly into the middle 1960s.

Props to Patrick Macnee, who comes into his own in episodes like this, gluing things together with his swaggering delivery and what feels like little ad-libs. Blackman, good though she is, can’t match Steed at his best.

And if that feels like I’m dissing women in general, wait till you see the fight finale – Gale is a martial-arts menace in black leather; yet the less-than-formidable male Paignton is more than capable of stopping two attacking women on his own, and in a restrictive (and very nice) sheepskin jacket.

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© Steve Morrissey 2019

The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 18 – Mandrake

Honor Blackman and John Le Mesurier

 

The United States launched the Echo 2 satellite on 25 January 1964, the day that the Mandrake episode of The Avengers aired. And though the week before’s outing, The Wringer, had been a very up-to-date affair, set in the world of international espionage and modern brainwashing techniques, Mandrake harks back to earlier episodes of the series in its dourness and its down-to-earth setting.

 

Under-the-earth setting, in fact, because the plot concerns itself with a mystery about a string of dead businessmen, all of whom have been buried in the same remote Cornish town, Tinby, for no good reason. They don’t come from there and have no connection to the place. Battle is joined when an acquaintance of Steed’s, the latest mystery death, winds up six feet under the Cornish sod too.

 

Mandrake is a properly 1960s title though, I’ll give it that, redolent of Aleister Crowley and witches’ covens. But anyone hoping for naked cavorting or goat-eyed sorcerers will be sadly disappointed.

 

However, we do get the marvellous John Le Mesurier, playing the latest in a long string of diffident males, here as a doctor at the rainy funeral Steed is attending. Of course something is afoot, and Le Mesurier’s good (ie bad) Doctor Macombie is up to his neck in it.

 

Enter Mrs Gale, again incognito, again as a journalist, asked by Steed to try and winkle out information from Tinby church’s voluble cleric (George Benson – no, not that one). En passant Rev Whyper tells her that there used to be a mandrake plant by the lych gate, so there’s our title explained.

 

Enter also Jackie Pallo, as a gravedigger/sexton with an obviously watertight reason to be in the churchyard but looking shifty all the same. Fans of old-school British wrestling will remember Pallo as one of its stalwarts, a vastly entertaining grappler with a ribbon in hair that resembled an 18th-century powdered wig. His autobiography was titled You Grunt, I’ll Groan, and, fittingly, when it comes to dialogue, he gets little more than a few grunts in exchanges with Mrs Gale.

 

Two more locations: one is a plant-filled office where the dodgy doctor and the mastermind of their little scheme (Philip Locke) sign up for a sizeable sum people eager to be bereaved tout suite. The other is a Christmas card factory Steed visits and where he flirts saucily with general factotum Judy (played by Randall and Hopkirk’s Annette Andre – “Jeannie! Jeannie!”).

 

It’s another Roger Marshall script, and apart from its downbeat settings, it’s pleasingly full of characters worrying about their class/status, its explains-it-all reveal is satisfyingly based on a fairly reasonable premise and, for those who think The Avengers is often too fanciful (Marshall and the more extravagant Brian Clemens didn’t exactly see eye to eye), this detour into detective territory will be a welcome relief.

 

In terms of actors, Le Mesurier gets the best of it, and his sweaty-browed milquetoast is lovely, as ever, to watch. Annette Andre initially wobbles but settles down once the bantering with Macnee gets going in earnest.

 

As for Jackie Pallo, you don’t hire a wrestler without giving him a fight scene, and in the Mrs Gale v Sexton fight sequence, he throws himself about like a man who does this sort of thing for a living. Look closely and you can see the leather-clad Honor Blackman accidentally kicking Pallo properly full on in the face and into an open grave – she knocked him out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019

 

 

The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 17 – The Wringer

Patrick Macnee and Peter Sallis

 

Peter Sallis hasn’t yet developed the voice that would make him the ideal Wallace (of Wallace and Gromit fame) in his outing as an amnesiac spook on the run in The Wringer, an episode in which a string of spies have been killed and Steed has been brought in to find out why, which prompts Sallis to then dob Steed in as the one doing the killing.

 

It’s one of the best stories in this series, perhaps because The Avengers had long ago given up all pretence that Mrs Gale is an amateur helping Steed out – she’s now as clued in as he is – or that Steed is essentially the Man Friday of the law enforcement world with a “no job too small” remit. And there’s the relatively unusual “spooky tech” element, a trope The Avengers would increasingly rely on as the years went by.

 

International espionage is the name of the game here, and in Martin Woodhouse’s bleak script, heavily into the idea that there’s a moral equivalence between Soviet and Western authorities, the influence of John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In from the Cold – published a few months earlier to instant acclaim – is clear. It’s an unusual position for The Avengers to take, too. Normally, Steed’s lot are obviously the good guys.

 

Reinforcing the impression of a Le Carré influence on the plot is what happens after Steed is fingered by Sallis – he’s handed over to British Intelligence’s department of interrogation, where the Wringer (Terence Lodge) and his sidekick (Neil Robinson) get to work with mind-scrambling techniques that also seem influenced by what happened to Le Carré’s antihero Alex Leamas (a sonic/visual attack on the psyche).

 

“Time is what you care to make it, baby,” the hipsterish Wringer says to Steed after they’ve been first introduced, before going on to quote Wittgenstein while he gets ready to mess with the still relatively dapper chap’s head.

 

The casting here is brilliant, with Lodge an excellently creepy torturer – the horrible Manfred Mann combed-forward haircut and beard really help – and Robinson adding to the sense of seediness with faint suggestions by both actors that these colleagues perhaps share other interests in common. That idea – the deviant gay villain – comes right out of James Bond.

 

Mrs Gale, meanwhile, in a change up in importance for her as a member of whatever spying organisation she and Steed belong to, is loudly protesting Steed’s innocence, is calling out his control (Paul Whitsun-Jones – a pre-figuring of the Mother figure) and is working to prove that there’s more to this interrogation team than meets the eye.

 

It is all in all an excellent episode, thanks to Woodhouse’s intelligent script, director Don Leaver’s determination to get cameras into tight spaces, his team’s skilfull dolly shots back and forth and the very well executed special effects sequences and “outdoor” sequences that belie the meagre TV budget – though it looks to me like the spend on this episode was considerably more than the series was used to.

 

Also, if you fancy it, The Wringer contains the kernel of the idea for another of the 1960s most cult TV series – The Prisoner, which was entirely about efforts to debrief spies, and built on the morally relativistic notion that maybe the good guys and bad guys are one and the same.

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2019