The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 24 – A Chorus of Frogs

Shima, Stevens, Pohlmann and Macnee

 

A mix of the familiar and the exotic in A Chorus of Frogs, the 24th episode in the broadcast run of series two of The Avengers, and another chance for Julie Stevens’s Venus Smith to do her wide-eyed naive thing.

It’s a useful character trait, since there is plenty of explicatory work to be done in an episode that kicks off with a frogman dying of the bends, before taking in a group of the dead man’s fellow divers (and, it seems, spies) called the Frogs, a large yacht that’s home to a Bond villain fattie (Eric Pohlmann) and a head-in-the-clouds scientist (Frank Gatliff) who hasn’t quite realised that the diving technology he’s working on is actually a mini-submarine that’s intended as a vital bit of military kit.

Talking of not quite realising, this is Venus Smith’s sixth outing as Steed’s sidekick and she still hasn’t quite sussed that she’s working for the British Secret Service (or some associated body). Still, that is part of her charm, as is the obligatory song – she’s a professional nightclub chanteuse, dammit – which I must admit I could have done without this time around.

However, it is all part of the plot, since Smith is working on this large yacht out in Greece, having been planted there by Steed, who obviously knew in advance that some skulduggery was going to be afoot – we know not how, nor, in the scheme of things, should we care too much.

As well as a key role for Julie Stevens, there are also strong females in the shape of Colette Wilde, one of the Frogs concerned that this latest death isn’t the accident it at first it appears to be, and Yvonne Shima, who starts off as the plaything of millionaire baddie Mason (Pohlmann) but develops more character and dramatic weight as the story progresses – she’s more than just a pretty face.

Money has been spent, clearly, on the sets, which are lavish by usual standards, and the sense of a series steering deliberately away from British villains and mundane crimes is strong.

The exotic setting, side characters and plotlines of Martin Woodhouse’s screenplay combine to give a taste of things to come, but also of things viewers might just have been considering for themselves – the era of the European summer holiday was just dawning and this neat bit of aspirational television fits right in.

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2018

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 22 – The Man in the Mirror

Venus photographs a dead man

 

At this stage in the game – we’re at episode 22 now – we more or less expect someone to be dead before the opening credits have rolled. But Man in the Mirror rings the changes a touch – there’s a dead body in the opening shot.

The plot is slight and utterly fanciful and centres on Venus Smith – in a stripy t shirt and wearing that 1960s hat faintly modelled on the soldier’s shako (funny how the lovin’ decade loved its military regalia) – visiting a funfair with her dog. She takes some snaps and, when they’re developed, it turns out that in one of the shots is the dead man, alive as you like, reflected in a mirror.

Steed, meanwhile, late for a briefing, has been busted down to office duties after mounting a magisterial defence of his tardiness and is set to work on the case of a ciphers clerk who might have been selling secrets to the enemy. No prizes for guessing that the clerk and the dead man and the guy in the photograph are one and the same.

Being a Venus Smith episode, a song or two is in order, and we soon get one as we cut to a studio where the chanteuse is laying down some tracks with a jazz combo.

If Smith’s songs seem unnecessary, Steed’s demotion is also an odd detail. It’s thrown in as if it’s going to be pivotal, but in practical terms he seems unaffected by it and is soon carrying on pretty much as usual, visiting the funfair, interacting with Venus Smith and setting about cracking the case.

It’s a dog’s breakfast of an episode, relying on luck for its breakthroughs rather than detective work or insight, but there are some bright points. Ray Barrett is in it, for starters. A familiar face on 1960s/70s TV, the Australian Barrett was a go-to actor who brought a thoughtful edge to the various bruisers he played. Here he’s a heavy at the funfair.

Writers Geoffrey Orme and Anthony Terpiloff seem quite interested in the relationship between the funfair owner (Julian Somers) and his disgruntled girlfriend/potential wife (Daphne Anderson), and there’s a fair bit of Armchair Theatre-style badinage/bickering between the two of them. More usually in The Avengers, the back-and-forth is between Steed and his female companion.

Talking of which, the women in this episode – the dead man’s spiky wife (Rhoda Lewis) excepted – tend to be of the doormat variety, which isn’t The Avengers way at all.

It all feels as if it’s been cobbled together in a hurry, right down to the hall of mirrors finale which the script seems to be setting us up for.

Mark this one down as missable.

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 20 – School for Traitors

Venus Smith and John Steed

 

 

Mrs Gale takes a rest and Venus Smith gets another outing in an episode set at an elite Oxbridge-style university and kicking off with a death (again) before the credits (again).

Steed is sent in to find out what happened to the man he was meant to have been keeping an eye on, after a briefing from a different control, One-Seven (Frederick Farley), a ridiculous throwback complete with cigarette holder and winged collar.

A much chattier, gamine Venus Smith is introduced early on. Smith just happens to be gigging at the university’s rag week, which is handy for Steed, who has soon also inveigled his way into the grove of academe and is chatting away to a young academic (John Standing) and gently pumping him for intel over a game of bar billiards at the local pub.

The story soon resolves itself into something familiar and something that’s actually rather hot-button. In the familiar corner we have a distant cousin of The Browning Version – scholastic shenanigans, hooky cash and honour besmirched – revolving around Green (Terence Woodfield), a working class student caught up in a money-lending racket. And in the hot-button corner – and this is why the episode is called School for Traitors – a story about the recruiting of spies at a prestigious university, spies who would go on to progress to the very uppermost echelons of the British Establishment. Given that Kim Philby, one of the Cambridge Five group of spies, had just fled to Russia, a fact that wouldn’t be confirmed until some months after this episode was transmitted in February 1963, writer James Mitchell either took a punt on a rumour, or was just very lucky. But then he was something of a spy expert and went on to write a good chunk of the excellent TV series Callan.

The two strands – money and spying – are tied together by blackmail, the luckless student caught out by the money-lending scam being brought into the spying fold by the promise of his debts being wiped out. This is all organised by local pub landlord Higby, played here by Reginald Marsh, a brilliant actor who often did comedy but here reminds us what a great sinister presence he could be when he wanted to be.

Talking of which, John Standing, only three years into a screen career, looks entirely at home on screen, playing a variation of the posh charmer on which he’d build a career, here suggesting his character is a lot brighter than he’s letting on.

And it seems the producers have worked out what to do with Julie Stevens, making Venus Smith a lot more garrulous, perhaps a version of the stereotyped silly young woman, but a self-possessed modern, 1960s one rather than the vampish 1950s-ish coquette she started out being. If Smith’s character is a bit implausible – a nightclub singer and part-time spy – Stevens is nevertheless rather good at both variations, though the modern version is a better foil for Steed, and useful in terms of explication.

Class is a concern – as it would be in Callan, a spy series in which Edward Woodward played a chippy working class spy in a toff’s world – and without giving away too much, let’s just say that the working class characters tend towards the good, and the higher up in status we go, the more rotten it gets.

Interesting aspects abound in this incident packed story, but it’s still fairly flabby, perhaps more fascinating as history than as drama.

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2018

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 17 – Box of Tricks

Smith and Steed examine a box

 

A thin, confusingly plotted and frankly rather dull episode is only emphasised by the terrible picture and sound quality (on the old box set I’m watching this series on, anyway).

And it’s a Venus Smith episode, which means a song from the chanteuse, but not until after the opening credits. Before they roll, we watch as a magician in the night club does the disappearing lady trick. Glamorous assistant enters magic box covered in spangles. Magician utters the magic words. Glamorous assistant exits magic box covered in spangles and blood – dead.

We cut to a seemingly unrelated story, set in the house of a senior military gent (Maurice Hedley) in a wheelchair, overseen by his well meaning daughter (Jane Barrett), who is keen on any quack remedy (including a mysterious box said to deliver healing vibes) to restore dear papa to full health. Hence the presence of Steed, posing as a masseur, who is soon chirruping away about his work on the local Nato base, where he has come into the possession of a number of secrets. Will anyone take the bait?

Meanwhile, back at the club, the magician (Ian Weston) seems to have lost another assistant, and rather than the police stepping in, Steed arrives to co-opt Smith into posing as assistant number three. To what end, we have no idea, but actor Julie Stevens is at least given a few lines to express how nervous she feels about the latest assignment .

These two stories – the wheelchair-using general and the nightclub magician – seem to have no overlap and even as we enter the home straight it’s unclear how they relate to each other. The result is an episode that is a struggle to remain interested in. This has to be the fault of writers Edward Rhodes and Peter Ling (Ling went on to be a moving force behind the long-running UK TV soap Crossroads), though it’s got to be someone higher up the production pecking order who decided that this disengaging episode would really benefit from two songs from the much more gamine, 1960s-ish Venus Smith – this seems to be one more than is strictly necessary and slows things down almost to a standstill.

Cathy Gale does not feature, though was apparently involved in earlier drafts of the script – possibly as the masseuse working up at the general’s house? This would make sense since Smith and Steed have previous and he is her control. Either way, a bit of Gale’s judo could only have been a plus.

 

 

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2018

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 6 – The Removal Men

Edina Ronay and Douglas Muir

 

Heady Europeanism, alcohol, jazz music and sexual licence are the watchwords of The Removal Men, number six in the second series. And Julie Stevens, appropriately, returns as Steed’s helpmeet in an episode set on the French Riviera, where a Bardot-like sexy French actress (played to the hilt by Edina Ronay, who went on to become a designer) needs protection from some thugs who want to kill her because of her outspoken political views on some far flung colony.

Don Leaver is in the director’s chair, and there are hints of The Third Man in his use of close-ups (which he’s always used to great effect), a mood compounded by the jaunty mitteleuropean tune we hear at one point in a jeweller’s shop, where fenced diamonds add another thrill.

But jazz is the main musical texture, unsurprisingly since Venus Smith (Stevens), is a nightclub singer who only works for Steed with some reluctance, a point underlined by the fact that the forward thrust of the story actually pauses for a song by Smith and The Dave Lee Trio (a real band) – “reminiscent of Bill Evans when he was playing with Miles Davis” opines a cop ruminatively at one point about Dave Lee’s pianistic tinkling.

Again Venus Smith is portrayed as a goodtime girl who enjoys sex with whoever takes her fancy, but really she’s more window-dressing than she was in episode 3, this time around more an act than an agent.

It’s Steed who does the work, again going undercover among the assassins who have the actress in their sights – Avengers villains do seem to accept a newcomer far too quickly for people engaged in the risk business, but I suppose them’s the breaks in a 50-minute self-contained episode.

Roger Marshall and Jeremy Scott’s screenplay is snappy, bantering and fast-moving and, as well as the observation on jazz, includes a scene in which Steed and his control One-Ten (Douglas Muir) gamely and with stomachs pulled in strip down to their swimming gear for a de-brief and make out they’re catching some rays on the Cote d’Azur, rather than staring into the lights of a studio just outside London.

The entire effect is like reading Elizabeth David’s run of books on Mediterranean cooking from the 1950s and early 1960s – this is clearly high-order stuff, even if the years have worn away the glamour a bit.

The 1950s dowdiness of series one still pervades, though, battling against the exotic setting, snappy dialogue and faint disapproval of alcohol which marked out the 1960s.

And we get to see Steed in a T shirt, a thick-knit aertex-style thing, but a T shirt all the same. Is there no end to the sartorial wonder?

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers Complete – watch it or buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2017

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 3 – The Decapod

Venus Smith sings

 

Just when you thought it was Steed and Gale, Macnee and Blackman, along pops Julie Stevens (later in the decade a regular on the children’s TV show Playaway) as a sidekick in the third episode of series two. What’s afoot? Clearly there were worries behind the scenes before the series got underway and, having lost their big star in Ian Hendry, a double whammy of Macnee and Blackman not quite taking with the viewing public was insured against by drafting in ancillary helpmeet Stevens.

As Venus Smith, she plays a nightclub singer helping Steed get to the bottom of a murder after a pretty girl is murdered inside the “Balkan Embassy”. Cypriot and 1960s and 70s rent-an-ethnic Paul Stassino plays the handsome representative of the ruling junta the British government sends Steed to protect. Or is that a cover for something more serpentine?

The foreigners are hilariously typical of 1960s TV – brutes, fools, lechers and criminals – and Steed has no trouble inserting Smith into the embassy as this visiting big noise’s new private secretary. Nor does he have any trouble smooth-talking Smith into taking the gig – patting a passing cigarette girl on the bottom after having done so as if to underline his caddish charm – with a vague promise of a tour of the Balkans and a big paycheck.

Like Emma Peel, Tara King and Cathy Gale, Venus Smith has the bi-syllabic first name followed by mono-syllabic second of Steed’s regular assistants. Except Venus Smith is a civilian – she’s not only a singer but she does in fact sing a number or two in the show (starting with You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me). You could argue that Gale is a civilian too, the various references to an outside life indicating as much, but Smith is clearly outside the circle of trust; Gale isn’t.

So what’s The Decapod? It’s the name of a wrestler, who we first espy killing the comely blonde in the opening sequence, before turning up later, fighting Georgi (Doug Robinson), one of the ambassador’s bodyguards, who goes under the fight name of The Beast of the Balkans. And it’s a typical piece of Avengers plotting – confusing, colourful and not exactly the quickest way of getting from A to B for anyone involved. And it later turns out there are two Decapods, in fact, as the denouement is upon us.

En (a circuitous and never credible) route we discover that Venus Smith is a feisty and mercenary young woman who doesn’t mind being pawed by a Balkan general, that The Avengers production team are prepared to slow down the action with not one but two songs by Smith, and that when you are shot and killed on a 1960s TV show there are no bullet holes and no blood.

It’s all highly enjoyable, in a ridiculous way, and with its focus on more arcane areas of society (both the foreign embassy and the wrestling ring), it foreshadows many Avengers storylines to come.

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers Complete – watch it or buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2017