The Avengers: Series 6, Episode 33 – Bizarre

Steed and Tara in a Saturn V rocket

 

So we come to the end of The Avengers journey with Bizarre, 33rd episode of the final season.

The show started in January 1961 and was literally about an Avenger, Ian Hendry playing David Keel, a doctor going on a restorative-justice rampage after his wife was killed by drug smugglers. And it ends here in May 1969, having morphed from a crime-based show shot as live in black and white on big TV cameras into something a lot more spytastic, shot on film with all the gloss you could muster on a TV budget.

The early (surviving) episodes are almost unwatchable now, the terrible telecine transfers making them even lower in visual quality than the 405-lines original TV broadcasts, though there is a lot to be said for watching talented performers reacting with lightning reflexes to the demands of the live situation – runaway cameras, fluffs, corpses, doors in studio set-ups that refuse to stay shut etc. It was here that Patrick Macnee really proved his worth.

Personally, having now watched them all, it’s the late-era Cathy Gale episodes that hooked me most. The combination of early-years grit and later-era spy-fi made for good stories, and the interplay between Honor Blackman and Patrick Macnee was both enjoyable and credible. Not in a million years was Cathy Gale going to sleep with Steed – unless she killed him afterwards.

As for Tara King, the sexual chemistry is all wrong between her and Steed, though the production team will insist on it – at more than twice her age (47 to Linda Thorson’s 22-ish) Patrick Macnee is simply too old.

As Tara, the charming and nimble Thorson has been treated poorly in what has been a weekly display of extreme bad faith on the part of producers Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell. She has, rather nobly, risen above it and delivered in episodes that often barely required her presence.

And so to Bizarre, the last episode to be made and broadcast. And it’s fitting for a series that was now, starved of US finance, officially dead, that’s it’s all about the deceased, or people who refuse to stay dead, the episode getting going with a woman in a distraught condition and dressed in her nightclothes wandering barefoot across a snowy field.

She’s played by Sally Nesbitt, (incidentally the daughter of Lord Hunt of Everest-climbing fame), but is to all intents and purposes a late-era 1960s young woman – dolly bird with a gothic overlay (think Julie Driscoll of This Wheel’s on Fire fame). Her only purpose, in an episode with more embellishment than foundation, is to direct us towards what spooked her – a coffin on a train containing a man who wasn’t dead.

The action moves on, to the Happy Meadows cemetery, the “in” place to be buried. It’s run by a man called Bagpipes Happychap – named thus by a father as an act of retaliation against a mother who’d promised her husband a squealing bundle of joy.

 

John Steed in a freshly dug grave
Burying the series?

 

“We make death fun,” says Happychap, played by the great Roy Kinnear, who twinkles, flinches, gurns and eye-rolls his way through the episode as only he can. There’s even a little comedy run at one point.

And that’s about it. The action keeps returning to Happychap as Steed and his sidekick – not Tara King but James Kerry as agent Cordell for the most part – work on a case of missing City of London gents, with all trails leading back to Happy Meadows. And once the two agents get back there, they order yet another exhumation, which reveals yet another empty coffin, much to Happychap’s increasing distress.

The “dead men” are all aged financiers and all is eventually revealed in a plot turn that makes no sense on any level. Instead it’s best to see the whole episode as an exercise in gallows humour, lightly influenced by the work of Joe Orton, who was wont to mix up death and having a good time in plays like Entertaining Mr Sloane and Loot.

The performances are particularly ripe and are the main reason for watching and once again you realise how heavily British TV leans on excellent character actors. Fulton Mackay turns up at one point, in brownface as an Indian fakir on a bed of nails, a joke which manages to excuse itself before the accusations of racism can be got ready, just about.

It’s a bellowing walrus of camp, in other words, and a “bizarre” way to end the series.

Though it doesn’t end quite there – in a little coda, Steed and King ascend into the heavens in a Saturn V rocket (stock moonshot footage coming in handy here), before Mother turns and addresses the camera. “They’ll be back,” he twinkles, “You can count on it.”

Kind of true. There was a stage play and The Avengers rode again on the radio in 1971. The New Avengers arrived in 1976. There was also the disastrous 1998 film starring Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman, in which everything was wrong, right down to Steed’s bowler. More recently there have been audio re-recordings, first of the lost episodes of series one, later the entire series.

But really, that was it. As the 1960s petered out, so did the show. You could draw parallels with The Beatles – the raw early years followed by increasing levels of phantasmagoria, the progressive yet backward looking modus operandi, the grip on the public imagination – but let’s not get too carried away.

 

 

 

 

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 6, Episode 32 – Get-A-Way!

Steed pours vodka on his bowler

 

The penultimate Avengers episode actually goes right back to the early days of this series’ production run. There was over a year between the completion of Get-A-Way! in February 1968 and its transmission in May 1969.

It’s one of the ones produced (or started, at any rate) by John Bryce, whose short-lived attempt to take The Avengers back to some version of realism never really had enough time to gain traction before the old team of Clemens and Fennell were reinstated.

Invisibility (realism?) is what Get-A-Way! is all about. Invisibility at a high-security prison for enemy agents, run as if it were a monastery – the warders wear habits (again, realism?) – where high-status spy Rostov (Vincent Harding) simply vanishes from his cell. Only to re-appear suddenly, only to bash a bemused warder over the head, leg it down a corridor and vanish again.

Post-credits and we’re chez Steed, where he is entertaining two old spying pals, their lascivious eyes all over Tara, who is discussed entirely in terms of her physical attributes rather than spying credentials.

But the gods of feminism are smiling and scant moments later, one of the spy buddies is dead, murdered by the unseen hand of escaped spy Rostov.

In familiar Avengers style Steed and King split up. He heads to the monastery/prison, she to the ministry to interview a man who keeps chameleons as pets, animals so well camouflaged they’re impossible to spot in their tank (sound the klaxon for a clue).

At the prison Steed interviews Ezdorf (Peter Bowles), a charming foreign spy in a red tracksuit only too happy to spill most of the beans. One of their number has already escaped, says Ezdorf, the remaining two will soon be gone also, and each has been tasked with assassinating a British operative. Guess who is in Ezdorf’s sights?

 

Peter Bowles as Ezdorf
Peter Bowles, an expert at rotters and cads

 

And soon, Lubin (Robert Russell) has flown the coop, in similar “pfft… and he was gone” style, leaving behind no clues as to how he did it, though in his cell there is a well-thumbed natural history magazine containing a feature on camouflage. Again, sound that klaxon.

We have more or less guessed the what if not the how of this episode. All that remains is for Steed, in another very Tara-lite episode, to join up a few dots. And a trip to the company that makes the vodka enjoyed by these pampered detainees allows him to do just that… eventually.

Realism? Well it is raining when Steed heads off to investigate the mysterious vodka, which I think is a first for the series – for all its aliens, mind-swaps and killer robots, it’s been the driving of open-topped cars in the British climate that’s always been one of the series’ most fantastical elements.

You wouldn’t class a prison run on monastic lines as realistic either. More than that, even given the miraculous power of the prisoners’ vodka, the whole establishment does seem to be run with extreme laxity.

The person disappearing/reappearing trick would be the USP of the series Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) – aka My Partner the Ghost in the US – which would debut later in 1969, and which would partially help with the cravings of “spy-fi” junkies high and dry after The Avengers departed for ever the following week. It’s used well here and is an effective bit of simple in-camera magic.

Bowles is the reason to watch, an actor whose oily charm would make him one of British TV’s go-to loveable rogues is in his element jousting verbally with Patrick Macnee. He even brings a certain dignity to hackneyed speeches of the “we’re alike, you and I” variety.

The cliches don’t stop there. Look out for the classic empty-cardboard-box fight towards the end.

As for the finale – a fight between two invisible people – what the hell was everyone thinking?

 

 

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 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.

 

 

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 6, Episode 30 – Take-Over

Steed arrives laden with gifts

 

Take-Over it was called in 1969 when it first aired. In the intervening decades the word takeover has lost its hyphen but this episode of The Avengers remains fresh and watchable precisely because of its antique quality.

But first a bit of a prelim – man being escorted to prison makes a run for it when the car he’s in breaks down. Instead of chasing after him, his guards just hang back and watch. They even pull out cigars. Then one of them flicks a lighter, and the running man immediately falters, then falls to the floor choking. Dead.

With the opening credits out of the way, the plot proper gets underway. Tara is off for a weekend of sailing, Steed is off to the country to visit old friends for a weekend of hunting, shooting, wining and dining.

Linda Thorson as good as dispensed for another episode, it’s Patrick Macnee we’re following. But what Steed doesn’t know is that his old friends Bill and Laura are already playing host to a quartet of strangers who have arrived unannounced and proceeded to make themselves at home in their house.

Tom Adams, Garfield Morgan, Keith Buckley and Hilary Pritchard play the foursome. They arrive, and Laura and Bill at first assume they must be acquainted with the newcomers – they seem like their sort of people and in any case Bill and Laura are the sort of Brits who doesn’t want to make a fuss. And so instead of saying “who the hell are you” they let them in.

But the new arrivals don’t waste much time and have soon announced what they are there for – they intend to use Bill and Laura’s house as a base to sabotage a nearby peace conference.

 

Circe is an expert in micro-technology
Micro-technologist and bomb expert Circe

 

Writer Terry Nation has quite a bit of fun playing with our expectations of criminal behaviour – this lot dress for dinner, enjoy a sherry as an aperitif, complain about the absence of flowers on the table, the lack of real coffee, and so on. Civil and civilised.

And then Steed arrives. It’s February and he’s loaded up with Christmas presents – a hangover, he explains to what he assumes to be Bill and Laura’s other friends, from the days when he and Bill were Japanese PoWs.

What now opens up is a potential plot hole – surely a man this highly trained would spot that something was amiss? That coercion rather than a conviviality is what’s really going on here? Filling that hole is the charm of John Steed, Patrick Macnee laying it on thick as the ideal weekend guest, at one point taking part in a very recondite after-dinner parlour game involving the identification of pieces of avant-garde music.

Wits are taken out and sharpened, particularly those of Steed and Grenville (Adams), in nicely terse scenes that give this episode its USP.

At what point does Steed twig? Does he realise what’s going on from the off? We’re never quite sure, but by the time he and his friends’ captors head off for a bit of shooting, we’re pretty sure he knows, and they know he knows. But who is going to break first?

Robert Fuest’s cinematic direction keeps the very studio-bound episode moving and Terry Nation has a few neat ideas up his sleeve – like breathy blonde bimbo Circe (Pritchard) turning out in fact to be a genius at both miniature bomb design and microsurgery. Remember that choking guy in the pre-credits sequence?

And when Tara King does eventually turn up to save the day, she’s dressed in leather, a callback to Avengers action women of yore.

Doesn’t Macnee look middle-aged, though? 47-years-old and possibly in need of a country weekend himself. Or maybe he’d had too many of them. Either way, within weeks he’d be free to have as much R&R as he wanted.

 

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 6, Episode 29 – Requiem

Angela Douglas as Miranda

 

Requiem sounds like it should be the title for the last-ever episode of The Avengers, now only weeks away. That it’s not is a typical piece of perversity by showrunner Brian Clemens. Another is Clemens’s ongoing attempt to sideline Linda Thorson, which he’s still engaged in even this late in the day. Perhaps a further series was still a possibility. If it had come off, doubtless Tara King would have been noticeable by her absence.

Anyhow, the setup – a woman is killed in an underground car park by a pair of heavies. But it turns out it’s not a woman at all, but a man in drag – who has been acting as a decoy for the key witness in a trial against Murder International (an outfit we met earlier this series, in Noon-Doomsday).

Steed is despatched to babysit the actual intended target, Miranda (Angela Douglas), in a safe house, much to Tara’s annoyance. Though Tara is vaguely aware that the safe house is somewhere associated with Steed’s childhood, only he really knows where he and Miranda are going.

In short order Tara has been kidnapped by the same two thugs (Denis Shaw, Terence Sewards), drugged, escaped and got caught up in an explosion in Steed’s apartment which has left Mother obviously dead – his pinstriped legs are protruding from the rubble.

Tara’s legs are broken, kindly Doctor Wells (John Paul) tells her, and just to reinforce it, so does kindly army chap Major Firth (John Cairney), a man with exquisite Dirk Bogarde hair – aaah, Brylcreem.

 

Miranda and Steed wear each other's hats
Just a bit of innocent cross-dressing

Back in hiding, Steed has discovered that under her layers of disguise Miranda is a hot young woman, and so he immediately starts flirting with her. He’s also discovered that he and she share a love of military history, toy soldiers in other words, and to pass the time they are soon restaging some of the great battles of history – and she is trouncing him.

The action ducks back and forth and it gradually becomes clear that Tara is the focus of a gigantic deception –including the staging of Mother’s funeral – intended to fool her into divulging Steed’s whereabouts. Except she doesn’t know where he is. Or not exactly. She has clues, but they’re too sketchy to be of much use, though god knows everyone around her is keen to help her remember.

Though still in the episode, plotwise, Linda Thorson has effectively been removed from the action, leaving Angela Douglas to hold the fort (Fort Steed, in fact, his affectionate name for the room where he stages his toy battles) with Patrick Macnee.

Douglas is rather good as Miranda – the writing is in her favour too – who rises above casual sexism and ceaseless underestimation by Steed, who runs through most of the permutations of “don’t mind your pretty little head”.

As an episode it’s a bit of harmless fun, worth watching if you’ve time to kill. Highlights include the banter between Macnee and Douglas (“Groovy, baby,” she says at one point, the phrase dripping with unexpected irony). And the marvellous (and still silent) Rhonda even gets a fight scene. A fight move, actually, but it’s a decisive one. Her finest moment (and she’s had a few).

 

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 6, Episode 28 – My Wildest Dream

Philip Madoc and Peter Vaughan

 

Though broadcast towards the end of the Tara King era, My Wildest Dream was made towards the beginning. It marks the point where Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell had fully taken back control of the series from John Bryce and were able to start banging out episodes that were theirs through and through, rather than rehashes/cut-and-shuts of stuff Bryce had finished or half-finished. This was the first of that bunch.

It looks, perhaps no surprise, like an Emma Peel-era episode. Defiantly so, in fact – big bold colours, wide, empty sets, a pop-art influence. The dialogue is more Peel-era too – rat-a-tat-tat, knowing and smart.

The story is by Philip Levene and has a classic-era Avengers opening to it. A man climbs up a metal back staircase, gains access to an apartment and stabs a stranger brutally and repeatedly. Except this isn’t someone’s apartment, it’s a doctor’s office, and the stabbed man isn’t a man at all, it’s a dummy.

The face on the dummy is of the man’s boss and the doctor, a practitioner of “aggresso-therapy”, is played by Peter Vaughan. And though Vaughan was endlessly versatile, he did have a particular gift for the sinister. The good doctor is not curing the aggression but amplifying it.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Tara is fending off a fop (Edward Fox) in a tux who is trying to get into her pants, though dinner is what he’s dangling as an intro. And while Tara runs through her defensive strategies, another unfortunate (Murray Hayne) is being tutored by the sinister Dr Jaeger in the elimination of a rival (Hugh Moxey).

 

Tara King fends off a fop played by Edward Fox
Charm is no match for martial arts

 

Moxey has soon joined the large pile of bit-part actors whose sojourn on The Avengers didn’t last very long. Both dead characters, it turns out, were on the same board of directors. And before you can say “bit between teeth”, Dr Jaeger is working on another one of them, Slater (Philip Madoc) and trying to get him to kill Winthrop (John Savident, later, as Fred Elliott, a mainstay of Coronation Street).

The question is not so much why is Jaeger doing this – we know that will be revealed in the fullness of time – but why is his sulky hot nurse (Susan Travers) making anonymous tip-off phonecalls to Steed?

The answer is – because 50 minutes isn’t a long time and, plotwise, things need to keep moving. And sure enough Steed is soon visiting Dr Jaeger, passing himself off as a disturbed man who thinks he’s a horse – “It must be on account of my name,” he says, the episode’s funniest line.

Acme Precision is what all the dead men have in common, and this is another of those “board members keep dying” episodes full of fine character actors all hired because their faces remove a layer of storytelling necessity.

Edward Fox would hardly fall into the character-actor category, though at this point he was still bouncing around waiting for his breakthrough. He bides his time here with a role that appears to be warming up Hugh Grant’s later persona – posh, smug, floppy haired and with on eyebrow perpetually raised.

Though its position near the end of the run suggests Clemens and co didn’t rate it that highly, My Wildest Dream is not a bad episode at all, though it does seem to end all of a sudden, as if time just ran out on everyone. Sometimes that’s the best way to go.

 

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 6, Episode 27 – Thingumajig

John Steed in a pair of welder's goggles

 

Thingumajig, a can’t-be-bothered title for an average episode that starts well – a woman carrying a skull into a small church is horrified when the organ starts playing on its own and the lights start to strobe. Meanwhile, underground, her fellow archaeologist is so wrapped up in excavating something that he doesn’t hear her shouts. Seconds later he’s dead, having been menaced by something slithering towards him. All he leaves behind is a picture of his attacker drawn in the sand – a square outline, more or less – and a curiously molten/fused torch.

If it all sounds like a Doctor Who plot, that’s because it’s written by Terry Nation – creator of the Daleks and Davros – but The Avengers’ format starts to assert itself when John Steed and Tara King, having taken on the case, decide to split up. He heads off to investigate the scene of the death with the vicar of the church (Jeremy Lloyd), who happens to be an old mate, while Tara goes to visit an electrics expert called Truman. Truman (Willoughby Goddard) is a stock Brian Clemens eccentric who sneezes his way through her questioning.

Back at the church, meanwhile, another man has died. Yet the dig goes on. And then another dies. And then it’s realised that the fish in the local pond have all died too.

The imdb explains that Linda Thorson was ill for this episode, which explains why Dora Reisser takes such a prominent role as Inge the archaeologist. Could be. Inge and Steed spend a lot of time staring into each other eyes, time that would actually be better spent looking into the case, and if it wasn’t for the fact that there were only four more episodes teed up for production, you’d guess that showrunner Brian Clemens was trying out yet another potential replacement for Thorson.

 

John Steed examines the mystery box
So that’s the Thingumajig

 

Whatever. The actual star of this episode is Iain Cuthbertson, playing an almost gigglingly demented local who seems more keen to know what’s going on than seems strictly necessary.

What is actually going on is that Terry Nation has been doing some reading into Nikola Tesla’s ideas about the transfer of electrical power over distance – wireless charging, we now call it. And the Thingumajig that’s killing people and frying their metallic equipment is some sort of cube-shaped compact capacitor capable of loading up with massive amounts of energy. And when it discharges… zzzzzt!

“An interesting theory,” is how Steed describes it. It certainly is. The world today is still catching up with Tesla’s ideas, more than a century after his change of fortune led to him abandoning most of them. Thingumajig marks one of popular culture’s first attempts, however obliquely, to rehabilitate the ideas of a man who had at the time been almost forgotten, long before Elon Musk picked up the baton.

As for sparks in this episode, they come from some snappy interchanges rather than the story itself, which could be described as one of Nation’s Dr Who-style “running around in tunnels” offerings.

It looks like Dr Who, too, director Leslie Norman proving himself an adept at gun-for-hire work in TV after notable movie hits like 1958’s Dunkirk.

Fans of crazed scientists incensed at the way they’ve been treated by a small-minded backward world (see Tesla again) will enjoy the big finish.

 

 

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 6, Episode 26 – Homicide and Old Lace

Gerald Harper with the Crown Jewels

 

An episode written by Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks, and then rewritten by Brian Clemens when he returned to the series. It was Clemens who inserted the framework narrative device – Mother visiting a pair of aged aunts and spinning them yarns about legendary feats of Avengers derring-do.

The Great Great Britain Crime was the original title, under producer John Bryce. Clemens renamed it Homicide and Old Lace. And the old dears are rather good fun, a pair of bloodthirsty old broads who love nothing better than a wallow in gory tales of yore, keen on Cagney-era slang (“gats”, “rods” etc) and handy with a gun – they’re ready to shoot Mother the second he comes through their door (setting us up nicely for Rhonda’s quick-draw two-gun riposte).

Hulke and Dicks hated the finished product, so does much of the blogosphere. I suspect it’s because it cuts a bit too close to the bone – not only is Clemens signalling that the show is literally recycling past glories (with footage from Emma Peel episodes) but the old dears (Joyce Carey and Mary Merrall) are rather given to passing funny-but-true comments about the absurdity of the plotting. The silent-movie soundtrack of tinkly piano only rubs salt in the wound.

 

Tara King with sub machinegun
Tara King says it with lead

 

It’s also very light on Tara King, who doesn’t feature at all in the usual bantering outro. Instead, Steed remarks on Rhonda’s persistent silence, cueing up one of the rare funny exit interchanges of this series.

Hulke and Dicks’ original plot was doing its share of recycling too: the international criminal organisation Intercrime is revived in a story featuring Gerald Harper as the dim military man entrusted with safeguarding decent copies of the nation’s priceless works of art, copies of which will be exhibited in place of the real items in the event of impending invasion.

Their neat original idea (preserved by Clemens) involves a switcheroo – using Steed as a go-between – with Intercrime making off with the originals, leaving the fakes behind. Who’ll know the difference? Small matters like the difficulty of fencing huge quantities of world-famous art are not gone into – this is Saturday night TV after all.

Patrick Newell, as Mother, has been a beacon in this series, a twinkling, ridiculous but very welcome presence and he is given his head here, and lays it on as thick as he can as he relays the convoluted story to two feisty but aged women fascinated by the mechanics of death and the availability of red-eye whiskey.

According to the excellent Avengers Forever site, it’s The Bird Who Knew Too Much, Murdersville, The Fear Merchants and Never, Never Say Die that have been cannibalised for old footage. Over there they take a dim view of Homicide and Old Lace – and they do have a point. This isn’t really an Avengers episode at all, really.

But for audacity you have to hand it to Clemens. Faced with material he couldn’t or wouldn’t use and with a deadline looming, he got creative. I cannot think of another show of the era which would have or could have re-used its own archive. And commenting on your own show’s plot and characters as you plunder the past is all very meta, too.

 

 

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 6, Episode 25 – Who Was That Man I Saw You With?

Steed, King and a stack of champagne glasses

 

There’s something a bit dead in the water about Who Was That Man I Saw You With?, a late-era Avengers episode with a lot going for it – but no spark.

Jeremy Burnham wrote it, and atones for the messiness of Fog (the previous week’s episode) with a tightly constructed and well plotted story. There’s a bit of futurology in here too. Britain, it seems, has got itself a Star Wars defence system long before Ronald Reagan mooted the idea of a defensive umbrella that could blast incoming enemy missiles out of the sky.

The system itself – codename Field Marshal – is magnificent, of course, but there are fears that a lone-wolf operator could penetrate the highly fortified command centre and disable it, thus rendering the country open to enemy attack.

Tara King is sent in to see if it’s possible, and since none other than John Steed designed the defence system of the defence system – if you follow me – there’s rhyme and reason in Tara having a go.

Little does she know that a diabolical mastermind plans to re-purpose her, and thus use the country’s own agent to compromise its own security.

There are two diabolical villains, in fact. The one who does all the actual work is played by Alan Browning – later he played one of TV’s most memorable villains, Alan Howard in Coronation Street. The one who sits back and strokes the metaphorical cat is played by Alan MacNaughtan (yes, too many Alans), his Gilpin a supremely dandyish mastermind. When we first meet him he’s wearing a green facemask. Later he calls attention to the superb beauty of his own feet.

Masterminds, eh.

 

Alan MacNaughtan in a green face mask
Alan MacNaughtan as narcissist Gilpin

 

This Browning/MacNaughtan double act again revives the old class-based Avengers pecking order of villainy – the guy at the top never actually does the dirty work, he’s got a factotum somewhere to handle all that stuff.

In spite of its moments of creakiness and general end-of-an-era atmosphere, it is a fine episode for watchers of Linda Thorson. She rises to the challenge and carries an episode that sidelines Steed to such an extent that his every appearance seems tokenistic.

Talking of tokens – Mother and Rhonda turn up, Mother’s HQ of the week this week being a Norman castle. Which allows the production team the equivalent of a little office joke – girl Friday Rhonda dressed ludicrously in a medieval heraldic doublet. Rhonda’s face is absolutely impassive, not a flicker, which just makes the moment even funnier.

A couple of locations seem gratuitous. One in a cobwebby dungeon, plus the big fight finale in a boxing ring, which director Don Chaffey amusingly choreographs as if this were an episode of Saturday afternoon wrestling on ITV. All that’s missing is commentator Kent Walton and a “Good afternoon, grapple fans”.

The relationship between Steed and his women has always been an odd one – Julie Stevens was the novice at the master’s feet, Honor Blackman the business colleague, Diana Rigg the perpetual tease. Linda Thorson’s big gooey eyes in this episode suggest she’s hopelessly infatuated with Steed, which might have seemed like some sort of feminist statement at the time (I’m being generous) but from a 50-year plus vantage point looks more than a little creepy.

Back in late January 1969, when shooting on this episode wrapped, everyone involved would have known that within a few short weeks this groundbreaking TV series would be done. An end of term feeling is in the air.

 

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 6, Episode 24 – Fog

Nigel Green

 

London was still notorious for its fog in 1969 when The Avengers episode Fog aired, even though the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968 had largely consigned all-enveloping, life-shortening meteorological damp blankets to history.

No matter, fog is what’s called for and so fog is what we get, a thick pea-souper so dense that it seems to have transported the world back to the late Victorian era – an organ grinder, a blind man tap-tap-tapping his way through the street and a knife sharpener all turn up in the opening moments of an episode that’s actually about members of a disarmament delegation arriving in London, only to start turning up dead, one by one.

Hold on to that plot detail – members of a committee being killed – because Jeremy Burnham’s script seems to have trouble with it, instead focusing (in a woolly, foggy way) on the machinations of a strange secret society, the Gaslight Ghoul Club, whose members dress in Victorian garb, ride penny-farthings and gather to discuss the unsolved mystery of the Gaslight Ghoul, a Jack the Ripper-style killer.

Is he walking abroad again, this Gaslight Ghoul, laying low visiting foreign dignitaries? It certainly looks like it after one of the committee is murdered by a gentleman with a swordstick, who makes good his escape in a hansom cab.

No, it makes no sense, unless time travel is part of the plot. But, putting objections to one side for a moment, the familiar plot structure eventually starts to assert itself – it seems the killer has dropped his cape. A clue! Tara is soon ensconced with a dithery theatrical costumier (Norman Chappell), whose information leads her and Steed to the Gaslight Ghoul gang, whose president – known as The President – is played by Nigel Green, the star of The Ipcress File. He’s a fine edition to the episode, and a man who looks good in top hat, beard, cape and all the accoutrements of the Victorian gent.

 

A hansom cab in the fog
Giddy-up says the driver. The horse says neigh!

 

But back to the disarmament committee, who we barely meet. Steed tells us that another one of them has died – off camera, as if to rub home the point about the script being barely interested. Enter Mother, in a Mini Moke (the defining vehicle of the 1960s) driven by Rhonda, to drop a bit more explication into the episode.

Even this can’t quite yank the episode into the present tense though, or tie the visiting committee convincingly into what’s less a plot than a mood – fog does seem an appropriate metaphor here.

Whodunit? You won’t care, and nor does writer Burnham, who has to furnish his killer with one of those dastardly explains-it-all speeches which more or less introduces him to us, fills us in with a bit of his backstory and then reveals him as the murderer all in one fell swoop.

It is unsatisfactory on pretty much every level – even the fight stand-ins stand out. The fog doesn’t hide quite as many sins as perhaps director John Hough expects, especially on a remastered dvd.

 

 

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