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.

 

 

 

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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 4, Episode 20 – The Danger Makers

Emma Peel plays a deadly beat the buzzer game

 

The Danger Makers is the 13th episode of The Avengers written by Roger Marshall, the amazingly prolific writer of scripts for everything from 1959’s William Tell to 1992’s London’s Burning by way of Public Eye, The Sweeney and Lovejoy. And it’s a bizarre and fascinating story, of men doing massively foolish things in an attempt to put the fizz back into an existence made flat by the advance of technology.

 

All this Marshall summarises neatly in an opening sequence about a man trying to commit suicide on a motor bike by engineering a crash. We know it’s a suicide attempt – or looks like it – because when he fails the first time, he has another, more successful go at it.

 

The deceased man is a general and is the latest in a line of top brass army chaps who have killed or maimed themselves in suspicious circumstances.

 

Off, in their different directions, Steed and Peel go – he to the barracks where the recently deceased general was stationed, she to the hospital to visit a bedbound patient, another member of this odd coterie of self-harming men.

 

At the barracks Steed questions Robertson, a military man played to the hilt by Nigel Davenport (father of Jack). Robertson is a bluff “jolly good chap” kind of fellow who, the instant Steed leaves, picks up a gun and starts playing Russian roulette with it.

 

At the hospital the same thing – the man Peel wants to talk to being more interested in easing himself out the window the moment everyone’s back is turned.

 

The Avengers loves a mind-control plot but this goes one beyond that – it’s about men in the grip of an ideology. Their danger-seeking is self-willed. They’re in a club, the Danger Makers Society, which exists to put a bit of spice back into life and have a plan to do just that by pulling off a massively improbable heist.

 

Nigel Davenport with a gun to his head
One way to liven things up: Nigel Davenport

 

And when Mrs Peel apparently indicates approval by not dismissing Robertson out of hand when he makes a grand speech explaining his theory of danger, risk, excitement and technology’s emasculating effect (how very resonant), she, too, is invited to join the club. As the episode starts to wind towards its conclusion, she is initiated into the club via a life-threatening ordeal.

 

Though I don’t generally go a bundle on Steed and Peel’s more military-themed adventures, this is a fine episode, stacked with the sort of supporting character actors the UK has always been great at producing. A frictionless Douglas Wilmer is a persuasively smooth shrink in the George Sanders mould, Fabia Drake is a fabulous stuff-and-nonsense hyper-posh dowager, Moray Watson the convincingly deranged plot lynchpin conveniently accoutred with a black eye patch, just in case we hadn’t twigged.

 

Charles Crichton directs with typical economy, wringing from one well-placed camera what lesser directors would only achieve with several set-ups and/or edits.

 

Fans of clothes might be able to confirm that Diana Rigg is dressed in Chanel at one point, I thought. Certainly upmarket tailoring is involved.

 

And fans of comical stand-in action will enjoy the big fight finish – Steed’s fencing double is taller than him; Peel is obviously being doubled by a man for the more bruise-inducing rough stuff. Didn’t they have stuntwomen back in those days?

 

 

 

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