The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 22 – What the Butler Saw

Steed at the school for butlers


What the Butler Saw is an episode about what the butler did rather than saw, though it does kick off with John Le Mesurier – tongue doing at least half of his acting as usual – handing his employer a gun and looking on as a minion asking for too large a cut of an ill-gotten gain is murdered.


What the butler actually saw, in the soft-porn flickerbook images of the Victorian Mutoscope machines, was his mistress disrobing. Appropriately, the reference points in this episode are Victorian – the 1949 Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets (set in Victorian times) in particular.


Which is why Steed, aiming to find out which of a number of potential leakers is spilling state secrets to the enemy, dresses up, Alec Guinness-style, in one disguise after another in an attempt to flush out the mole. All the suspects are men, all have butlers.


Screenwriter Brian Clemens indulges his love of the florid eccentric in a series of encounters between Steed (dressed in full beard and naval uniform) and Admiral Willows (Humphrey Lestoq); Steed (now as an army man) and Brigadier Crawford; Steed (in RAF outfit and panto moustache) and Group Captain Miles (Denis Quilley).


The first two present no real challenge, but the skirt-chasing Miles is hard to get at, Steed instead having to make do with Squadron Leader Hogg (Leon Sinden), Miles’s number two, whose moustache rivals Steed’s for ridiculousness. Cue an amusing scene of the two men exchanging acronym-thick banter at tally-ho volume.


Along the way we meet butlers one (Le Mesurier), two (Norman Scace) and three (Thorley Walters, once a fine Watson to Christopher Lee’s Sherlock Holmes).


Where’s Mrs Peel? Not much in evidence, initially, though she’s eventually brought in to the story to break through to the unreachable Group Captain, Steed quite explicitly instructing her to use all her wiles to reach Miles since the fate of the nation is at stake. Diana Rigg loads up her voice with irony as she accepts what is basically a #MeToo assignment.


Emma Peel and Group Captain Miles
Emma Peel fends off Grope Captain Miles


And while Peel sets off to act as the honey in the trap, Steed heads for the Brighter More Beautiful Butling school, where gentlemen’s gentlemen learn how to polish shoes, iron shirts and all the rest of it.


No one quite knew where to position the armed services in the 1960s. The Second World War was a vivid if infrequently mentioned event, and a grateful culture was not about to dismiss its warriors out of hand, even though the hierarchies of the armed services were out of keeping with more meritocratic times. Gentle ribbing rather than outright ridicule is the approach Clemens takes, and he applies the same comedic brush in his depiction of the school for butlers, again, a reminder of uncool class-based structures.


Mrs Peel, meanwhile, is dealing with the sort of seduction scene that plays all the clichés – champagne, etchings, log fires, low lights – for laughs, even though what Miles is doing as he pursues his quarry amounts to harassment on an almost Weinsteinian scale.


The budgets are noticeably bigger in this episode – the producers have even sprung for a helicopter – and Bill Bain’s direction is lavishly cinematic. As Steed and Peel exit in the chopper, “going up” are the last words we hear. It’s a hopeful exit line by Clemens, who was perhaps aware at some level that his show (and it really was his show by now) has peaked.





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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