The Avengers: Series 1, Episode 20 – Tunnel of Fear

John Steed and David Keel

For a long time it was thought that only a couple of episodes from series one of The Avengers had survived. And then Tunnel of Fear turned up in a “private film collection”, as the press release guardedly puts it, swelling the number of complete episodes from two to a mighty three out of a possible 26.

There’s about a third of the very first episode, Hot Snow, too – reviewed here. We might not have the full run of the season but with Tunnel of Fear we now have enough to get a sketchy impression of the direction of the show. Hot Snow in first position establishing David Keel (Ian Hendry) as a doctor “avenging” his wife’s death; Girl on the Trapeze, six episodes in, demonstrating the importance of Carol Wilson (Ingrid Hafner) as Keel’s smart and dynamic right hand woman; The Frighteners at episode 15 reveals the extent of the shadowy John Steed’s (Patrick Macnee) connection to a mysterious organisation; and then this, in the number 20 slot.

What’s most obvious on watching Tunnel of Fear is that Patrick Macnee has clearly taken over from Ian Hendry as the star of the show. The episode starts in Dr Keel’s surgery, where an injured escaped criminal bursts in seeking sanctuary, but doesn’t quite get onto its hind quarters until John Steed arrives, and takes over from Keel as the driving force behind everything that follows. It makes sense – Keel is a doctor, an amateur who is meant to be out of his depth when it comes to the underworld, which is where much of series one’s focus lay.

The action moves from the capital to the coastal town of Southend, where the fugitive has connections to a circus. By sheer chance Steed is waist deep in a case centring on Southend, involving vital defence information leaking out of the country. Wouldn’t it be a coincidence if the escaped man and the espionage were connected in some way?

The show shifts a gear at the seaside – the circus, dancing girls, a hypnotist, Steed suddenly posing as a carnival barker, the criminal reunited with his girl (in her scanties) and his dear old mum, and let’s not forget the leak of the defence information, though the screenplay almost does. Enter a nebulous Mr Big to give the spying aspect of the story some heft.

Keel and Steed are menaced
At bay in Southend

It’s a busy plot and a fast moving one, written by John Kruse in his only Avengers gig (he also wrote the great film The Hell Drivers), fluently directed by Guy Verney (also in his only Avengers gig), with casting that’s on the nose. Anthony Bate as Harry, the escaped con, all glottal stops and “I woz framed” dialogue from an actor who’d later become a go-to for casting directors looking for silky upper-class types with duplicitous motives (he’s one of so many great performances in the TV version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy); Doris Rogers as Harry’s mum, barrowloads of Cockney “luv a duck, me old china” charm; and Miranda Connell as Harry’s girl Claire, a young woman who knows how to handle herself and a man.

John Steed’s wandering hands – he’s all over one of the dancing girls – look inappropriate to modern eyes, but what also can’t be missed is the fact that Steed is all over the episode as the dominant character. Keel, the “avenger” after whom the show is named, cannot compete. Partly that’s because of the show’s premise – Steed is the pro in this partnership – and partly that’s because the actors are working in different registers, Hendry more naturalistic, Macnee playing to the back of the room. If Hendry is walking down the street, Macnee is promenading down the boulevard. On scratchy old 405 lines TV with boomy sound, one of these styles work better than the other, and it was probably to huge sighs of relief all round that Hendry decided to go off and work in the movies when this season ended. And wasn’t he great in Get Carter?

As to the quality of the picture in this restoration, it’s no better or worse than the other complete season one episodes – woolly telecine footage cleaned up as well as can be done. Beneath the fog it’s clear that director Verney’s framing and lighting are superb.

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

The Avengers: Series 1, Episode 6 – Girl on the Trapeze

Heavy Zibbo waves a gun in Dr Keel's face

The sixth episode of the series (numbers two to five having vanished) and we’re edging into what would later be familiar Avengers territory. There are devious foreigners, a complex plot and a surprising amount of agency for the female sidekick.

Dennis Spooner’s screenplay concerns a woman throwing herself off a London bridge into the Thames, an act which Dr Keel (Ian Hendry) just happens to witness as he’s on the way to a party. Being a public spirited chap he rushes down the steps to the river, where a passing copper and a swarthy type with a thick accent are already on the scene. The woman is dead, but there’s not much water in her lungs and Keel wonders if there might be a cause other than drowning.

Back at the police station, the duty detective is only to happy to accept conjecture as part of Keel’s witness statement and the doctor is soon heading off with his new receptionist to check out what’s going on at a visiting Soviet circus, whence the trail points.

There, without divulging the entire plot, all is revealed, after much skulking, gunplay, hostage taking, bodyswapping and fisticuffs.

Directed by Don Leaver, it’s a satisfying little chamber piece shot almost entirely on claustrophobic studio sets – the doctor’s surgery, the cop shop, backstage at the circus – with some usefully choreographed fight action to spice things up. Again, there’s the clear attention to blocking and tight framing – this is a well rehearsed episode making the most of those unwieldy studio cameras – and again no one cares too much if a line is fluffed. It all feels very live.

No sign of John Steed. He’s not in the episode at all. But Ingrid Hafner as Carol (Keel’s new receptionist, after the death of Peggy in the first episode) has a surprising amount to do for a female character in the early 1960s. She’s not only brave but also resourceful, coming up with a useful bit of cunning trickery to outwit the Soviet thugs as they try to put their dastardly plan into action. She’s not yet a karate-chopping dynamo but is clearly a Cathy Gale/Emma Peel/Tara King in utero.

But. What is also clear from this episode is that this show’s entire premise will not do. Ordinary doctors do not get involved in international espionage, even if completely by accident. Nor do they get taken into the confidence of hard-pressed cops trying to work out who or what killed an unfortunate young woman. Class deference can explain some of it – working class cop doffing the cap to nicely spoken gent etc etc – but in the long run, something is going to have to give.

Of course it turned out it was going to be the excellent Hendry – who went off to a film career and a lifelong battle with the bottle, leaving urbane Patrick Macnee to rule the roost after the series was given a conceptual makeover. But that’s another story.

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© Steve Morrissey 2017