The Avengers: Series 6, Episode 11 – Look – (Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One)…

Linda Thorson and John Cleese

 

Look – (Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One) but There Were These Two Fellers… that’s the full title to an episode determined that, since the day of The Avengers are numbered, things might as well go out with a bang.

It’s written by the insanely prolific Dennis Spooner, whose name came to dominate British TV as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s and was dead at the ridiculously young age of 53 in 1986. Perhaps it was overwork.

Musings on mortality to one side, this is a great episode for all sorts of reasons. Top of those is the cast, which is full of British comedians from all sorts of different traditions. Pride of place goes to old stager Jimmy Jewel, who plays one of a pair of clowns killing people theatrically – with a gun that goes bang, or with a bomb with “BOMB” emblazoned on it and a big fizzing fuse sticking out the top being just two examples.

The first of the deaths happens pre-credits, with Sir Jeremy Broadfoot (Richard Young) copping it when Maxie Martin (Jewel) and mute sidekick Jennings (Julian Chagrin) arrive at Broadfoot’s office to do the deed, but not before they’ve first performed a little vaudeville dance routine.

Sir Jeremy is responsible for the building of the Cupid project, an underground government bunker designed to withstand the impending nuclear holocaust. And after a fellow director of the company, Cleghorn (Bill Shine), has also been despatched in jocular fashion by Maxie and Jennings, the race is on for Steed and King to find out who’s behind the murders.

 

Brigadier Wiltshire with a comedy bomb
Brigadier Wiltshire hasn’t dealt with a bomb like this before

 

The clue. In classic Avengers episodes there’s always a clue. Here, it comes from a very long footprint left at one crime scene and a red nose at another. What can it all mean?

No chin-scratching required, Tara King is soon interviewing the man who co-ordinates the registration of a clown’s copyrighted looks – each face is painted onto a blown hen’s egg (this is indeed how it is, or was, done).

Playing the eccentric and comedically timid Marcus Rugman is John Cleese, his character a prototype of many a fawning Monty Python creation. No sign of Basil Fawlty belligerence.

While King is exploring avenue A, Steed is up avenue B, with professional joke writer Bradley Marler (Bernard Cribbins), whose office is full of discarded material, drifts of paper all over the floor. And if the discarded stuff is anything like the weak efforts Marler tries on the distinctly untickled Steed… Dennis Spooner started out as a joke writer, so he knows whereof he speaks.

While this has been going on, two developments. It seems that Maxie and Jennings are being debriefed after every kill by a pair Punch and Judy puppets (worked, uncredited, by Punch and Judy legend “Professor” John Styles). And we learn that the board of the building company whose members keep dying does contain one member who is a good 20 years younger than the rest, and he’s played by the reliably sinister John Woodvine (who, even when he played a good cop back then, was always a tough one).

Vaudeville (pronounced “voh-deville” by Steed and “vor-deville” by Cribbins) provides the background and, given that theatrical exaggeration was an Avengers go-to style, you’ve got to wonder why the show hasn’t been there before.

Jewel, a vaudeville/music hall old hand who was about to have a late-career renaissance on TV (this being part of it) is a combination of Dan Leno and Little Tich, stage legends of the late-Victorian era, whereas the character of sidekick Chagrin is clearly modelled on Harpo Marx, right down to the honking horn (digressive factoid: Chagrin was also the pyjama-clad “secret lemonade drinker” of the R White’s TV advertising campaign in the 1970s).

As the episode progresses we meet more vaudeville refugees and the motive behind the murders begins to reveal itself.

Tara’s hair: it’s long, it’s short. What’s going on? No idea, though the suspicion is that there’s been a bit of reshooting and editing once the Clemens/Fennell production team resumed control, and the changing hair is evidence of that.

The vampy incidental music on the harpsichord and the return to bold primary colours in the set design also indicate a return to business as usual.

“Going right over the top,” is how Spooner described this final season of The Avengers. On the evidence of the pantomime horse that turns up for the big finale, he was probably thinking about this episode.

 

 

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***

The imdb refers to this as season seven. I’m saying six, along with most of the fan sites and Wikipedia, and in line with the pretty much definitive Studio Canal box set. The reason why the imdb and others say seven is because they’re taking the final block of eight Emma Peel episodes as a separate season. But since there were only eight episodes in that production block, lumping them together with the 16 episodes of what everyone agrees is season five brings the total up to 24, much closer to the usual Avengers run of about 26 episodes.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

 

Winnie the Pooh

Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

18 January

 

 

AA Milne born, 1882

On this day in 1882, Alan Alexander Milne was born in Hampstead, London, UK.

The son of a Scottish teacher, he was educated at his father’s small public school in Kilburn, London, where one of his teachers was HG Wells. After that he attended Westminster, one of the country’s leading private schools, before going to Cambridge University on a mathematics scholarship. While there he was noticed by the humorous Punch magazine, to which he started contributing. After Cambridge he got a job at Punch and became a prolific writer, producing 18 plays and three novels.

He fought in the First World War, and after it, in 1920, his son, Christopher Robin, was born. In 1924 he published When We Were Very Young, a collection of children’s poems illustrated by Punch’s EH Shepard, and started on the series of short stories that would become the Winnie the Pooh books.

Though he also wrote at least four screenplays in the 1920s, it was the books he wrote for his son that have endured. Named Winnie the Pooh after a Canadian black bear named Winnie (shortened from Winnipeg) a military mascot left to London Zoo after the First World War was over, the visual inspiration for the bear in the books actually came from illustrator EH Shepard’s son’s teddy bear, named Growler.

Most of the rest of the animals – Kanga, Tigger, Roo and Piglet – were modelled on Christopher Robin’s own stuffed animals (which still exist). A few others (Owl, Rabbit) were dreamt up by Milne himself. Pooh first appeared by name in a short story called The Wrong Sort of Bees, in the London Evening News, on Christmas Eve 1925.

A versatile writer who enjoyed turning his hand to stage work, journalism, screenplays, detective stories, AA Milne was slightly put out by the success of his children’s books (Winnie the Pooh, 1926; The House at Pooh Corner, 1928; Now We Are Six, 1927).

In later life Milne found he could barely get any interest at all in any work he wrote unless it was aimed at children. In 2011 Forbes magazine ranked Winnie the Pooh the second most valuable character in terms of merchandising – second only to Mickey Mouse. And gaining.

 

 

 

Winnie the Pooh (2011, dir: Stephen J Anderson, Don Hall)

Not the first Pooh animated feature by a long stretch, this Winnie the Pooh is distinctive because it’s the first film made by Disney since they bought out all the other rights holders to Winnie the Pooh in 2001, for $350m.

Hence, possibly, the simple “it all starts here” title.

And in spite of misgivings by Anglophiles, Milne maniacs and Pooh lovers, it’s a sweet and short adventure, much as Milne might have liked.

A conflation of several Pooh stories, it majors on the loss of Eeyore’s tail and the contest held by his friends to find him a new one. This choice must also warrant a tick from the traditionalists, because if there’s anything that can be guaranteed to dampen the helium optimism of Disney, it’s a touch of Eeyore miserablism.

Talking of voices, Jim Cummings is handling Pooh, as he has done for years, and if he’s a touch midwestern for some tastes, he’s such a likeable dimwitted Pooh, so wheezy and galumphing, that it’s doubtful any except the most autistic conservative will object.

The same holds true for the animation – yes, it shades just a touch towards Disney but it is only a touch. The opposite is true of the songs – some of them might make you pine for the uppity-tuppity-tup of Disney legends the Sherman brothers, who wrote only the theme song.

These are only niggles though, because on the whole this is a charming and intelligent tale, a reminder that Disney can still produce simple, excellent animation with a voice cast chosen for what they do, rather than their famous name, exceptions John Cleese (the narrator) and Craig Ferguson (Owl), taking their cues admirably from their more professional, less well known fellow voice artists.

With some clever interplay between the film and the book Cleese is meant to be reading from, to reassure parents who worry if their child is going to pick up the book habit, this film bounces along with a Tiggerish energy and does not outstay its welcome. If you’re five, externally or internally, it’ll probably hit the spot.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Bright, fun, kiddie-centric yet intelligent
  • Lots of awards recognition from film critics societies
  • The song So Long is written and performed by Zooey Deschanel
  • Hand animated – rare these days

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

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