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 6, Episode 5 – Split!

Tara King about to undergo a mind-blend procedure

 

Split! is the title, as in personality, a mind-control episode co-written by Brian Clemens and the similarly fecund Dennis Spooner. After John Bryce’s trio of episodes, The Invasion of the Earthmen, The Curious Case of the Countless Clues and The Forget-Me-Knot (only the last of which had been seen when this first aired), Split! marks the sudden return of Clemens et al, brought in when the Bryce regime got very behind on production targets.

Reaching for an unused Emma Peel episode and reworking it pronto, Clemens and co also tweaked the opening credits, which are more serious (ironically, since Bryce’s remit was to return the series to the sort of realism it had thrived on when Cathy Gale was Steed’s partner).

Giving strict realism the heave-ho from the outset, Clemens and Spooner get the story underway at a government-run top-secret establishment called the Ministry of Top Secret Information, where an eminent employee (Maurice Good) receives a phone call from someone asking for Boris, tells the caller they must have the wrong number, puts the phone down and then shoots a colleague, his personality having changed completely. Seconds later he’s his old self again and has no idea what he’s done.

We know, don’t we, how this one is going to go – auto-suggestion, trigger word or phrase down the phone, human being turns to deadly killing machine – because this sort of plot has been done to death ever since. However, back then it was fairly new and played right into 1960s ideas about the malleability of the mind and the nature of indoctrination and subliminal suggestion.

 

Some handwriting under a magnifying glass
It’s very doubtful that’s a real magnifying glass

 

On we go, to meet Nigel Davenport as Lord Barnes, boss of the Ministry of Top Secret Information, and his aide Peter Rooke (Julian Glover, nearly 50 years before his outing in Game of Thrones), who guides Steed towards a handwriting expert, Swindin (Christopher Benjamin), prompted by a note written by the accused man which veers wildly in style.

Swindin has a speech impediment known as roticism, a wicked name for a condition that leaves sufferers incapable of pronouncing the letter R properly. And Clemens (it can only be him) amps up the wickedness by giving Swindin a favourite word – “wemarkable”. The same joke would later be used by Michael Palin’s Pontius Pilate in The Life of Brian – “Thwow him woughly to the floor, centuwion…” etc.

Jokes to one side, the graphologist has soon pointed out that the man’s personality seems to have altered drastically, to the extent that his handwriting matches that of a ruthless enemy agent, Boris Kartovsky.

Kartovsky, however, is very dead, or at least he’s meant to be. And since he was shot through the heart by Steed…

What’s going on? Is something a lot grander than auto-suggestion at work? Could Kartovsky’s personality still be viable somewhere, somehow?

All is eventually explained in a plot that is almost formula-written – men in white coats wielding mind-melding technology – but which shows the importance of a decent director and support cast. Roy Ward Baker keeps the action moving, his actors up to pace, with the result that Split! is punchy and bowls along.

The fact that it’s an old Peel episode re-tooled does remind us how different King and Peel are – Tara, while obviously resourceful, is at this stage still a far mousier proposition.

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

I am an Amazon affiliate. Clicking on the link earns me a (vanishingly small) commission

 

 

***

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 7 – The Living Dead

John Steed pecks Mrs Peel on the cheek

The zombie movie was sleeping fitfully in its crypt – George Romero would wake it in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead – when The Avengers episode The Living Dead first aired in February 1967.

Steed and Peel, it seems, are now ghosthunters as well as murder investigators, industrial-decline consultants and everyday spies, and are called in after stage drunk Kermit (Jack Woolgar), stumbling home one night espies the lid of a tomb opening and a man in white ascending from it. “The Duke!” Kermit exclaims.

Was it the first duke, of 17th century vintage? Or one only recently deceased – “a real man”, according to one local – who died in a mine collapse? Geoffrey (Howard Marion-Crawford), the current duke, is so in thrall to his gamekeeper (played with his usual heavy menace by Julian Glover) that he’s resistant to questioning on the matter. But, simply using superior social rank to swat aside one of the lower orders, Steed is soon subjecting the current duke to questioning.

It’s while he’s inside yet another Avengers mansion that Steed notices two odd things – sun lamps and boxes marked Sun Tan Lotion (plain old Sun Lotion in modern speak – in those days the emphasis was on the promotion of tanning not the protection of the skin).

Mrs Peel, meanwhile, has met Mandy (Pamela Ann Davy), a woman who looks like she likes sex and is ready for it, and a representative of an outfit of spirit investigators called FOG (Friends of Ghosts, I think). Show-regular Vernon Dobtcheff turns up shortly afterwards as the less giddy, more boffiny Spencer, a representative of SMOG (Scientific Measurement of Ghosts). Mandy prefers to divine the presence of spirits by “feel”; Spencer gets the gadgets out.

So, an apparition in a cemetery, sun lamps and sun cream, a mine “collapse”, a scary bruiser keen to keep snoopers at bay. Yes, something is going on underground. In fact it’s quite a big something. And after Mrs Peel has been abducted by a “ghost”, only to wake up in a vast, subterranean modernist world of bright young people building a bold futurist society in scenes reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, we start to understand what.

It is at this point, Steed having repurposed his bowler with a miner’s lamp, while Glover’s Masgard has donned a red hard hat, colour significant, that the mists start to clear – this construction is a vast bunker being readied for the upcoming apocalypse.

The underground bunker
An impressive set by the standards of 1960s UK TV


Taking place to a large extent in the “real” world of pubs, with everyday people all over the place, it’s much more a Cathy Gale episode than an Emma Peel one. Once the action shifts underground, it becomes clear why the great documentary-maker John Krish has been brought in to direct – there is a realism to these scenes that someone like, say, Roy Ward Baker would have no interest in capturing.

The tone is jaunty, even by 1960s TV’s standards. At one point Mrs Peel kills an entire execution squad and mimics a military march as she steps by the dead bodies. It’s also noticeable that Diana Rigg – perhaps she’s been watching the rushes – has lost a touch of weight and looks more toned. Crimplene is an unforgiving fabric. In fact it was only in the previous episode, The Winged Avenger, that Diana Rigg seemed to have sorted out Mrs Peel knicker problem. Action women need action underwear.

For all its ambition, extravagant plotting and eccentric side characters, plus menace from the reliably skull-like Glover, it’s a flat episode that lacks real joie de vivre. Luckily, the following episode redresses the balance.

  

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© Steve Morrissey 2020



The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 12 – Two’s a Crowd

Steed dead-ringer Gordon Webster

 

Tricks are what Two’s a Crowd is about, and the 12th episode of series four starts with two quite good ones. First up, a shot of a plane. It’s not a real plane, but a model, and the trick is that the model plane is meant to be a model, not – as was so often the case back then – a model masquerading as a real plane.

 

Trick number two is played when Emma Peel arrives at Steed’s apartment to find him out unconscious on the floor. He’s not really out cold, it’s a test for Emma, which she passes with flying colours by attacking the mystery man who suddenly is attacking her.

 

A plane that looks like a model plane because it is, a mystery assailant who is nothing of the sort – the notion of things standing in for other things is completed by the plot, which revolves around Steed being replaced by a double, a male model who looks just like him.

 

But, as with the plane, is the reason why it looks so much like Steed because it is Steed, one step ahead of the enemy? And is he one step ahead of them because he’s realised they’re bugging his apartment?

 

The enemy comes in the shape of Warren Mitchell, so entertaining in one of the best Avengers episodes (Series 3’s The Charmers, with Fenella Fielding) that he’s been got back in to play a version of the same role. Here he’s the twitchy Russian ambassador rubber-stamping tactical decisions taken by a cold-hearted flunky played with his usual sneer by Julian Glover.

 

Patrick Macnee, Julian Glover, Warren Mitchell
Julian Glover (centre) warming up for Game of Thrones 50 years later, with Patrick Macnee and Warren Mitchell

 

But neither of these men is really calling the shots. Instead that’s the mysterious Colonel Psev, an international man of mystery whose name clearly means something to these operators, but whose inclusion as a plot detail makes very little difference to an episode that should be a lot better than it is.

 

That’s in spite of an excellent performance by Mitchell, as a small man constantly fretting about his status. It’s his third outing and Clemens and the gang were wise to book him. Mitchell had just shot the pilot for Till Death Us Do Part, the show that would make him a household name (and typecast him for ever as working-class bigot Alf Garnett).

 

And not forgetting Patrick Macnee, who has fun playing a model only too familiar with catalogue work.

 

It’s a Philip Levene script, and as in Man-Eater of Surrey Green, Levene takes a spytastic idea and puts a pantomime spin on it. Roy Ward Baker adds some directorial flourishes from behind the camera and the lighting is noticeably better than usual. Budgets are clearly on the up.

 

And we hear the first mention of Mother, who would prop up (and often be the saving of) the Tara King episodes to come.

 

A big meh, for all its pluses, which also include a noticeably smarter wardrobe for Diana Rigg. Because she’s worth it.

 

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

I am an Amazon affiliate. Clicking on the link earns me a (vanishingly small) commission

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020