The Avengers: Series 6, Episode 6 – Whoever Shot Poor George Oblique Stroke XR40?

Steed with the computer, George

 

Whoever Shot Poor George Oblique Stroke XR40? isn’t just a great title, it’s an announcement that the classic Avengers team – Fennell and Clemens – are back in the driving seat.

This was the second episode they turned out after taking back control of the series from John Bryce and it’s clear there’s an obvious determination to demonstrate that everything is back as it should be.

Most noticeably, this means Tara King is snappier, posher, archer and tougher – it’s Emma Peel in all but name – and Patrick Macnee responds accordingly with line readings that are zippier than we’ve got used to in this final series.

What Whoever Shot Poor George Oblique Stroke XR40? isn’t – as an episode title at least – is a very good setup to a plot punchline. Because no matter how highly you score on the IQ ratings, it’s pretty obvious that victim George is not a man but a computer (or “computor”, as it’s spelled here, old school). The question, once that gigantic non-reveal has been got out of the way, is whodunit?

 

Guest star Frank Windsor in a lab coat
You can trust this man – he’s in a lab coat

 

Even that isn’t particularly the point. What Tony Williamson’s script is trying to do is run a few computer anthropomorphism jokes past us, a good year or so before Stanley Kubrick did the same with HAL 2000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Steed and King are called in after a saboteur breaks into the Ministry of Technology – Cybernetic and Computor Division – and shoots George, a computer with AI capabilities.

The injuries look terminal (boom tish) but just in case there’s a chance George can be saved, a futuristic computer physician Dr Ardmore (Anthony Nicholls) is called in and, rather than just switching George off and on again, decides he needs to operate.

Cue a number of sight gags in which George is treated as if he were a human on the slab, and Dr Ardmore goes through the “swab”, “suction” routine, while the anaesthetist gives progress reports – “He’s hanging on” etc.

All very amusing. Perhaps more amusing is the crusty old cove who’s meant to have created this electronic marvel, one Sir Wilfred Pelley (Clifford Evans), an aged aristocrat attended by his own manservant, played by Dennis Price. Price had been the co-star of Ealing comedy classic Kind Hearts and Coronets but he was also a dab hand at butlers – he played Jeeves in the 1965 series The World of Wooster. Surely he’s too esteemed an actor to be in a role so minor.

Judy Parfitt – in her third Avengers appearance – is also worth keeping in the frame if you’re looking for arch villains, as is Frank Windsor, at the time one of the most famous faces on British TV thanks to the Z Cars cop series, and it’s harder-edged spin-off, Softly Softly.

It’s a great cast, in other words, and a lovely central conceit – the computer that’s treated as if it were human – though the entire effect is charming rather than devastating, perhaps because what we get to see of the computer’s much vaunted intelligence actually seems a bit twee.

Nice to see Linda Thorson being treated as an independent operative in her own right, not just as Steed’s right-hand woman. And she even gets some action. The series seems back on track.

 

 

 

 

 

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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 3, Episode 15 – The White Elephant

Judy Parfitt

 

For the first episode of 1964, broadcast on 4 January, the day that Auburn University in Alabama accepted Harold A Franklin as its first black student (accompanied by three US marshals and 100 state police to keep the mob at bay), John Steed and Mrs Gale are on the case of a missing albino elephant in an episode unsurprisingly titled The White Elephant.  

 

The beast has been stolen from a private zoo which supplies mainstream zoos, run by upper-class English chap Noah Marshall (Godfrey Quigley) – modelled on John Aspinall (gambler, zoo-owner, anti-Semite and the man who allegedly facilitated murderer Lord Lucan’s escape from the UK).  

 

Why this is of interest to more than the local police is because it’s not the first time this has happened, and soon Mrs Gale is undercover at the zoo, posing as a hunter (which is what her character once was, so no real stretch there) where brisk, efficient Judy Parfitt (in her second Avengers outing) is the right hand woman to the boss at Noah’s Ark.  

 

John Lucarotti’s script is elegant, subtle and has some depth – and the sight of Steed and Gale doing yoga at home also brings a fresh 1960s new age-y feel which we’d more associate with the Mrs Peel era.   In many respects, though, Lucarotti’s focus is on class, in an episode full of characters bridling against being stuck with a person of inferior status, as Parfitt’s Brenda Paterson is when she’s forced to consort with gopher Conniston (Scott Forbes). And when we finally meet Lawrence (another great baddie turn by Edwin Richfield), the mastermind behind the animal disappearances, he too is clearly put out by having to hobnob with gun craftsman Fitch (Bruno Barnabe) and oily rag Joseph (a quietly excellent Toke Townley).  

 

Most fascinating, perhaps, is Lucarotti’s decision to give a big “I’ve had enough” kind of speech to Mrs Gale towards the end of the episode, when she lays into Steed in no uncertain terms, accusing him of being indolent, of winging every assignment on charisma and, essentially, not doing enough work. It’s a speech aimed not just at Steed but at the whole old boy network, we suspect, and it’s even more interesting because filming would start on Goldfinger, in which Blackman played Pussy Galore, in about five/six weeks, and everyone involved must have known at this point that Blackman was leaving. This is the speech that delivers the motivation when she announces her departure all of a sudden in eight episodes’s time.  

 

But back to the matter at hand, and it’s no spoiler to say that the whole thing is about ivory smuggling. In fact it barely matters what it’s about, because the plot details of this episode aren’t really that fascinating. The class focus to one side, the really noteworthy thing is how much money has been spent on the production – the zoo is full of animals, and at times they make so much noise that the human action is eclipsed. The big fight finale, for instance, is bedlam.  

 

Director Laurence Bourne’s camerawork, too, looks like a lot of thought and choreography has been lavished on it. It’s agile and particularly quick to respond in the sequence where Steed and Gale are being shot at.  

 

Recorded, as it happens, on the day JFK was assassinated, for all its exotic feathered and furry friends, impressive spend and psychologically and socially astute script, this is just an OK episode rather than an actually good one. And, most disappointingly, no pachyderms ever make it onto the screen. Which you could call the elephant in the room, if you like a weak gag.      

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019        

 

 

The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 4 – Bullseye

Steed and Gale

 

Like one of those arcane “tontine plots”, the fourth episode of series two offers us a scenario where a string of people die so somebody in the same eco-system can ultimately benefit.

Julie Stevens womanfully did sidekick duty in the last episode, but Honor Blackman’s Cathy Gale returns this time round to help Steed unravel another mystery that yet again seems to be more a matter for the police than any covert organisation – an arms company resisting a takeover bid by pushy johnny-come-lately Henry Cade (Ronald Radd) finds its board members dying one after the other. Is Cade – already painted as the unacceptable face of capitalism (as if being in the arms business hadn’t already ticked that box) – responsible?

We meet Cathy Gale, after her series hiatus, newly installed as a shareholder with a 20 per cent stake in the Anderson Small Arms Company, asking searching questions at an extraordinary general meeting held to discuss the takeover bid, a supplementary frisson added by the fact that the chairman is already dead – shot, appropriately.

More of the board are to follow in what plays out like a classic whodunit, polished in British style by fine character actors and witty badinage between the leads.

Ronald Radd is a real asset as the bullishly rapacious takeover merchant angling after the Anderson business and there’s 27-year-old Judy Parfitt as a company functionary, a commanding presence whose bearing and skill marks her out as someone who’s going to be turning up on TV for decades (most recently seen in Call the Midwife).

Spilling round the edges of Eric Paice’s screenplay are vague digs at antique British business practices – the bufferish old major with stick-in-the-mud ways; the middle-aged lothario with an eye on the typing pool; the general air of the old boys club and so on.

It turns out that it’s not all about one businessman trying to take over another business. There is a bigger picture. This is all conveniently added, in what feels like a hasty addendum, in a quick exchange between Steed (who has financed Mrs Gale’s £50K holding, it turns out, but is otherwise barely in this episode) and Gale at the London Stock Exchange (stock footage, appropriately) – Anderson’s arms are heading for an unnamed African country on the verge of revolution.

Gale wears more Michael Whittaker gear – a  jaunty Spanish bullfighter’s hat and a tartan cape at one point. Steed is a symphony of Jermyn Street clobber – shirt and tie, jacket and coat, casual trilby hat. That’s how sensible chaps used to dress before central heating. He’s probably also wearing a vest.

Nice to see Mrs Gale’s martial arts skills – ka-rah-tay, they pronounce it – are coming along too.

Really, it’s a version of the well-made play that the theatre set would flock to see in London’s West End until Terence Rattigan and his ilk went out of style. Nothing wrong with that.

 

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2017