The Avengers: Series 6, Episode 31 – Pandora

Tara King in front of a portrait of Pandora

 

The benign king deceived by his courtiers – a wicked grand vizier, a scheming cardinal, a treacherous brother – is a comforting story told and retold down the ages. The Avengers episode Pandora is Brian Clemens’s version of it: a man grieving for a lost love being fooled by his family into believing she is alive, the better to loosen his grip on the family fortune…

Pandora is that woman, dead 50 years but still mourned by maddened recluse Gregory (Peter Madden), around whom a massive deceit is daily confected that out in the wider world the First World War is still raging and Pandora is still alive.

All that bad guys Rupert (Julian Glover), Henry (James Cossins) and general factotum Miss Faversham (Kathleen Byron) need to complete the illusion is a Pandora.

Enter Tara King. Or exit Tara King, rather, from the antiques shop where she is meant to be picking up a clock but instead gets a dose of chloroform and wakes up seemingly back in 1915, dressed and coiffed in the style of the time.

While Tara is being persuaded/cajoled/threatened into playing along as Pandora, Steed is at the scene of the abduction where, handily, someone has dropped a piece of paper – a clue being always useful – with a name written on it.

 

Peter Madden as the deranged Gregory
Peter Madden as the deranged Gregory

 

Who is the Fierce Rabbit, he later asks Mother, who is tetchy at having to descend from his HQ of the Week, a hot air balloon (which we don’t see, but is a good joke about how absurd the series has become).

Seems Fierce Rabbit was “our man in Armentières”, a First World War-era agent eventually forced into reluctant retirement on account of his age. Steed tracks him down, starting at the agency’s records office where, flicking through to Fierce Rabbit, the files of Emma Peel and Cathy Gale are both glimpsed – those were the days, eh, Brian?

Fierce Rabbit turns out to be someone called Juniper, played by John Laurie at full-force nutjob, eyebrows waggling like crazy as he attempts to prove this superannuated spy has still got it by tracking down Tara, which he actually does in record time.

But there’s more. More cajoling of Tara, more huddled whispers about whether Gregory is going to buy into the deception, more vague nods towards the money he’s meant to have, where he’s likely to have hidden it and how Pandora fits into the whole scheme.

But never mind all that. This is, in fact, an episode that’s all about the performances – the plot feels like it’s being made up on the hoof and has an “oh, and another thing” quality to it, such as the revelation that Fierce Rabbit is not one but three different agents. As for the reveal about where the fortune is located… no spoilers.

While Tara King is being encouraged – with drugs – to play the role of bride-to-be Pandora, Linda Thorson is effectively given another benchwarming episode, leaving the stage clear for the likes of Laurie, Glover and in particular Kathleen Byron to wax gothic.

Byron was the deranged nun at the centre of the brilliant Powell/Pressburger film Black Narcissus and there are several visual references to that film by director Robert Fuest. That’s when he’s not vaguely alluding to another gothic masterpiece, Rebecca, with Byron standing in as a malign Mrs Danvers figure.

Brian Clemens’s story is a gender-flip of the much more likely situation – the First World War resulted in so many women losing their men, rather than vice versa. How many grieving widows, fianceés and girlfriends?

Fun is perhaps the wrong word to use, but for all its absurdities of plot, it’s an entertaining episode proving the enormous difference that can be made by the right faces in the right places.

 

 

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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

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 13 – A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station

Diana Rigg and John Laurie

 

The Stephen Sondheim musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum – a hit on Broadway in 1962, in 1966 a film directed by Dick Lester and featuring Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers and Buster Keaton in his final role – is the obvious inspiration for the title of this episode, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station. But beyond the title, there’s not really any sign of the musical in this story, no shred of Forum’s plot about a slave helping his young master to navigate the waters of true love.

 

So, that diversion tackled, let’s get on to the episode itself, a very good one initially written by Roger Marshall, who walked out on The Avengers somewhere around here, and then re-written by Brian Clemens, under the nom de plume Brian Sheriff (“the Sheriff doing the Marshall’s job” as www.theavengers.tv wittily explains).

 

Clemens’s hand is probably most evident in the character of Crewe (John Laurie) – stationmaster? train nut and station owner? I never quite nailed that down – a proper Clemens eccentric Steed and Peel meet at the deserted Norborough Station, where they were meant to be getting a handover from an operative who had details about some shady plan being hatched, and involving trains, national security etc etc.

 

The episode kicks off with this very same man running down a train corridor, pursued by two thuggish younger men. He’s clearly a man who drinks from the same well as Steed and Peel, since he kills one of his pursuers with his tie (silk, let’s hope), and actually makes it alive past the opening credits, only to meet his end shortly after the episode proper has been joined.

 

That before-and-after-the-credits business is a first for a series which had seemed nailed into a stylistic box, and perhaps we can attribute that to director John Krish, who seems much more sure of what he’s dealing with this time round, perhaps because he made his name with documentary films about the gritty infrastructure of industrial Britain and trains fit right into that area of expertise.

 

And the episode pretty much stays on the train, taking in its passengers, who seem to be an oddly unchanging lot, right down to the ticket collector, when it’s not back on the platform with Crewe (also the name of a railway town), Laurie fluting away so madly at one point that I laughed out loud.

 

A corpse in a casket
But is he travelling without a ticket?

 

I’ll say no more about the plot, except that it starts out heading in a very Cathy Gale direction, with Mrs Peel beetling off to the Admiralty undercover as a journalist, but ends up being all about the train, the people travelling on it and a plot to kill the prime minister.

 

As I said, Krish is on good form, keeps things tight and pacy, but he’s helped by a really good supporting cast. There really are no duffers in this episode, but standing out above the throng (even above inveterate scene-stealer Laurie) is James Hayter as the strangely ever-present ticket collector.

 

Details fans will notice that Mrs Peel appears to be wearing a Mary Quant hat at one point (though what do I know?), later followed by a canary yellow outfit with big buttoned lapels, which looks like it cost a mint. While Steed is kitted out with proper spy gadgetry, a tape recorder in his brolly!

 

Other period-specific details include a description of the agent who dies early on as “rather corpulent”. He’d be described as normal now. And the sight of a dining car on a British Rail train, how charming.

 

The other interesting departure from Avengers norms comes in the epilogue, when Steed and Peel are back at the apartment, having saved the prime minister’s life, who is about to visit to thank them in person. “That must be him in the top hat,” says Steed to Peel. “No, that’s him in the raincoat,” says Peel. They then quickly discuss whether either of them voted for him. With an almost invisible shake of the head Steed indicates that he didn’t. Neither did Mrs Peel. And so the pair of them pretend they are out and don’t answer the door.

 

Why’s that important? Because “the raincoat” indicates that it’s Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, whose Gannex mac was part of his brand, and The Avengers has just declared the political persuasion of lead characters whose week-to-week contact with any recognisable real world has been shading towards zero. Another bit of Krish devilment?

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 1 – Brief for Murder

John Steed

Whoop de doo, it’s season three of The Avengers and to celebrate its continuing success, the opening credits have been given a bit of a makeover – they’re much more Saul Bass now – there’s more money being spent on the production, the camerawork is more filmic and the editing is noticeably snappier.

Brian Clemens has also arrived as a writer. In fact Clemens had contributed two scripts (his first, Brought to Book, co-written with Patrick Brawn) for the first series but those episodes have now disappeared, so this is his extant debut, if there is such a thing.

And Brief for Murder has the Clemens fingerprints all over it – a tricksy plot, misdirection and smart dialogue. Take the establishing scenes here – a man who is obviously guilty of treason is acquitted in court in what is an obvious case of corruption or miscarriage of justice. Cut to a local pub where the wrong’un is celebrating, and if that isn’t his star witness John Steed buying him drinks and wishing him god speed. Mrs Gale enters, lips pursed, brows beetled and makes a scene, accusing Steed of consorting with traitors and perverting the course of justice. They fall out. We suspect this is a ploy, because this is The Avengers, but Clemens has us hooked all the same.

Another Clemens standby, archness, rears its head in the following scene, as we cut to two old lawyer brothers cackling malevolently over their legal chicanery in getting this miscreant off and drinking brandy out of the most gigantic glasses. And then we’re off to a yoga class, Clemens realising that scenes set in old world pubs and lawyers’ chambers work much better when juxtaposed with something altogether more modern. I forgot to mention that the brandy-quaffing brothers also use quill pens and dress in a ridiculously old-fashioned manner. It’s all a bit of a pantomime, another Clemens trait.

Quite why the two lawyer brothers have different accents is never explained, but John Laurie and Harold Scott’s mugging and Michael Gambon-style thespian knavery gives the episode a real boost and gives Macnee a bit of a rest – usually it’s just him doing the colour work.

But back to the plot. Having publicly declared that Mrs Gale should die, Steed then kills her and ends up tried for murder, the bowler hat he left at the scene of the crime being all the evidence the prosecution needs.

I will say no more, except that there’s an interesting OJ Simpson style twist to come.

The end credits, too, have been jazzed up a bit. The cadences are still falling, which might suit a 1950s noirish policier, but are beginning to sound very out of step with the more ironic, camper Avengers on offer. To compensate, composer/arranger John Dankworth has laid on more horns and exotic percussion, all of which bang away merrily, a trope new composer Laurie Johnson (not Laurie Holloway, as I originally wrote – thank you, Jamie) would run with when his new theme arrived, with a new co-star, in series four.

This episode, then, is a harbinger of things to come, but a satisfying little mystery in its own right too.

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© Steve Morrissey 2018