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 5 – Mission to Montreal

John Steed and Dr King

 

Mixing it up yet again, episode five of series two – Mission to Montreal – introduces yet another sidekick in a story set on board a cruise liner heading for Canada.

Jon Rollason plays Dr Martin King and brings the number of Steed’s accomplices in this series to three (Honor Blackman and Julie Stevens being the other two). King is an echo of Ian Hendry’s Dr David Keel in that he’s a doctor, and also one only too happy to indulge in a bit of espionage and rough stuff if necessary – not exactly what you’d expect from a well paid follower of Hippocrates, but there you go.

In fact he’s more than an echo – he is Dr Keel in all but name, Rollason’s three appearances in this series all coming about because there were three unfilmed scripts left over from the first series, which were hastily repurposed after Hendry left to pursue a career in films.

Again, as in episode one (Mr Teddy Bear) of this series, there is a little bit of blindsiding meta-business as we’re introduced to key character Carla Berotti, killed off in her first scene, only for the camera to pull back and reveal that Carla is an actress and this is a film set. The action then shifts to the liner, where fragile, sexually loose, drunk, pill-popping but most of all ageing Carla is in a full tyrannical funk as the ship sets off on its voyage from Liverpool to Montreal and the star sets about falling apart while her entourage try to keep her together. Enter Dr King as a medic who can give her something for her nerves, or a slap across the face if she gets hysterical, which she does.

Quite what Carla has to do with a piece of missing microfilm secreted somewhere on board, and quite why Steed is in disguise as a ship’s steward is all revealed in the fullness of time in a screenplay by Lester Powell that gives plenty of air time to the handsome Rollason and presses heavily on the noir pedal. There’s even a villain with an eye patch.

Money has been spent on the set. You could almost believe that this episode wasn’t shot in a studio at times, and director Don Leaver understands how to pace a drama by using close-ups to add a bit of va-va-voom. Noir, again, is the inspiration.

The woozy wonky actress trying to get her leg over is another echo of the 1940s but there are some very 1960s exchanges – talk of “squares”, the focus on having a good time and in particular a little speech by the chief engineer about tolerance and how “it can become a vice if not guided by a strong moral sense”. The chief engineer, spoiler alert, turns out to be a baddie in an episode that, really for the first time, moves The Avengers culturally into the 1960s and places it in the camp of the hip.

Nice to see John Bennett in his pomp as Carla Berotti’s minder, this heavy-lidded always busy character actor adept at playing intelligent serpentine tough guys more likely to cut you up with a stiletto than reduce you to a pulp with his fists.

And nice, too, to see Steed at the end, now out of disguise, restored to his bowler hat, the headgear becoming increasingly his signature and a sign that all is right in the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers Complete – watch it or buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2017

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 2 – Propellant 23

Gale and Steed

 

Set mostly in the airport at Marseille (a studio just to the north of London, apparently), this tight and fast episode gets underway with a passenger on a plane arriving from Tripoli getting very distraught and claiming he’s about to die. Without giving too much away, he does die, gratifyingly for the foreign spies who are after a flask of a highly volatile rocket fuel, Propellant 23. Unfortunately for them, the flask gets lost in the shuffle. Has it fallen down the back of a seat, been taken home by a light-fingered airport luggage worker, been drunk by the hotel barker who touts for business in the arrivals lounge, or been whisked away to behind the Iron Curtain?

The last possibility seems unlikely as there is a lot of continuing interest in this seemingly unimportant missing object by people who wouldn’t normally be that bothered, among them Geoffrey Palmer as suave ladies man Paul Manning. The airport police are also interested, since the dead passenger is now in their jurisdiction.

Enter Steed and Gale, who seem to be already in France, bantering as they set off in a sports car for a through-the-night drive to Marseille. As part of this to-and-fro we learn a bit more about the imperious, mysterious Mrs Gale – that she has some sort of interest in feeding the starving children of Africa. A humanitarian? An anthropologist? The queen of a foreign land? We’re not entirely sure.

At that airport we’re introduced to the various characters who work there – Laure (Katherine Woodville), the woman running the airport cafe, Jacques (Trader Faulkner) the drunk hotel barker she has a soft spot for, the various police, among them a French police lieutenant known as Curly (John Crocker) by his mocking colleagues – he’s battling hair loss with the latest in what is probably a long list of quack remedies.

And that’s it – with the flask as a McGuffin, the action moves between suave Paul, drunk Jacques, sweet Laure, the dead body, Steed and Gale and a mystery man in a hat with the sort of sweaty, swarthy complexion that was shorthand for Soviet Spy in 1960s TV.

The tone sits somewhere between the movie Casablanca and the British TV series ’Allo ’Allo – exotic ruffians in foreign climes and a lot of people with very odd accents. Jonathan Alwyn directs in a brisk manner and needs to because Jon Manchip White’s screenplay fits a lot of people and plot into the 50 minutes. It’s an enjoyable, studio-bound spy caper that manages a few moments of real tension. Only the hair-loss comedy subplot could do with a trim.

Fans of Doctor Who might enjoy seeing Nicholas Courtney (later Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart) as the plane’s captain.

 

 

The Avengers Complete – watch it or buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2017

 

The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 1 – Mr Teddy Bear

John Steed and Cathy Gale

 

Ian Hendry has left, Patrick Macnee has been bumped up to star and Honor Blackman has been drafted in as a sidekick who’s not just a pretty face. But there’s more than just those cosmetic differences – if they are just that – going on. In the opener for series two, it’s clear things have gone just a tiny bit self-referential too and that The Avengers is beginning to push against not just the envelope of its own founding principles, but also against those of television.

The self-referentiality comes in the opening scene, set in a TV studio where a notable traveller and writer is about to be interviewed in some highbrow arts show (by genuine TV face Tim Brinton). But instead of speaking, the imperially-moustached Colonel Wayne-Gilley dies dramatically on air, eyes bulging, leaping upwards before falling to the ground where a camera swings down to watch him hit the floor. But is it the camera shooting the TV show that’s followed him down, or is it the camera shooting this episode of The Avengers, or are they the same thing?

That, and the arrival of the jokey episode title – Mr Teddy Bear – indicate we’re really in new territory. No more small beer. The case is high-profile, for starters, the killer is of international renown, and the method – cyanide pills activated by a tiny clockwork mechanism inside the capsule – arcane. We’re also introduced to Steed’s organisation, in the shape of One Ten (Douglas Muir), a desk-bound boss with whom much exposition is done in short order. Damn useful these desk-bound bosses, as the Bond series would find out with its own version – M.

“Anyway, Steed, get him. That’s as near an order as I can make it,” One Ten says to Steed, slightly mysteriously – is he his boss or isn’t he? And off Steed heads, back home, where we meet Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman), smoking a cigarette in a holder and trading banter as Steed lays out his plan to ensnare the assassin Mr Bear by getting Gale to pose as a woman who wants to buy Mr Bear’s services – to kill Steed.

There’s a lot more spy stuff – disembodied voices down the phone, meeting in exotic locations, surveillance by camera, pursuit by person or persons unknown – but most notable of all is the fact that the villain remains hidden the entire time. We know whodunit but we’re not quite sure what he looks like, another enduring Avengers theme.

And Steed and Cathy Gale. Do they live together? What is the exact nature of their relationship? It has the same prickly wham-bam quality that Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd would later borrow for Moonlighting, or William Powell and Myrna Loy had in The Thin Man.

Teasing. Conceptually a very important idea in this series.

 

 

 

The Avengers Complete – watch it or buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2017

 

 

The Avengers: Series 1, Episode 15 – The Frighteners

Doris Hare, Patrick Macnee and Ian Hendry

 

The 15th of 26 episodes in the first series is a story that Humphrey Bogart might recognise. A tale of a greasy heel sending his thugs around to put “the frighteners” on a society lothario who is wooing the impressionable daughter of a local business big noise, it looks and feels every inch like a film noir.

It’s something director Peter Hammond clearly relishes and, on a TV budget, he does impressive things with pools of shadow, out of which loom both goodies and baddies. Two levels of baddies, what’s more – the Deacon (Willoughby Goddard) is the sweaty and corpulently effete manager of muscle, while Sir Thomas Weller (Stratford Johns) is the sort of crook who pays to have his dirty work done for him, though he looks like he’d rather be doing it himself. And that’s not including the heavies themselves, the slightly rentamob Philip Locke and Godfrey James.

Steed and Keel both appear in this one, Steed first appearing in the back of a dimly lit cab to brief Keel on their latest job – taking out a pair of “massage demonstrators” who are plying their trade in London. Really? A couple of low-level fists for hire, that’s the gig? Indeed it is, and all the more mystifying is that Steed seems now to have become a kind of crime-fighting Fagin, with a network of cheery Cockney street operatives addressing him with an “Ere, Guv” wherever he goes.

If it asks a lot of unanswered questions about what organisation it is exactly that Steed actually works for – the Savile Row division of the CID is what it looks like – it doesn’t detract too much from the story, which is starting to move in what would later become the recognisable baroque Avengers way.

Preventing a silver-tongued lounge lizard (Philip Gilbert) from eloping with the breathy, silly daughter (Dawn Beret) of some magnate, and stopping him from getting a thorough beating first, yup, that’s it. But it’s efficient and, to an extent, quippily done, with Willoughby Goddard and Stratford Johns providing a lot of the acting wallop, while there’s a nice comic turn by Doris Hare towards the end. And nice to see Macnee beginning to stretch out in his first real lead role in a career that was already 25 years long. Hat fans – Steed wears a trilby, not a bowler. Looks dapper enough in it, though.

 

The Avengers Complete – watch it or buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2017

 

 

The Avengers: Series 1, Episode 1 – Hot Snow

Katherine Woodville and Ian Hendry

In many ways the British TV series The Avengers was the Beatles of TV. The series was created in 1961 by Sydney Newman (who also created Doctor Who) as a gritty black and white TV programme very much in thrall to existing 1950s styles and finished in 1969, a spy series with kaleidoscope eyes. Over its long and winding run people came and went, sidekicks were added and dropped and women became an increasingly important part of the mix. Like all long-running series it became a stopping off point for all sorts – stars on the climb and on the wane, directors learning their craft, scriptwriters ditto. Christopher Lee and Charlotte Rampling are among those turning up, notable directors include the great documentarian John Krish and Ealing legend Charles Crichton, while the series gave a home to writers such as Daleks-creator Terry Nation, though the real driving force of The Avengers (and much of British TV for decades) was Brian Clemens.

So it’s a fascinating treasure trove of “look who it it is!” sightings, at the very least. But the series also marks the coming of age of television in the UK. Produced by ABC, a cinema chain that didn’t even want to go into TV but found itself arm-twisted into doing so, the early series were shot in studios, in black and white, and recorded on crappy 405 lines video tape. But once the US got interested, budgets went up, as did production values and the series started to be shot on film and in colour. The later ones still look good today.

The series is often bracketed alongside James Bond as a tongue in cheek spy caper, a symptom of the British loss of empire and changed status in the world – we’re still in charge, goes the theory, of irony at least. But The Avengers started before Bond, and it started out more like Batman than 007 – vengeance was the driver and Ian Hendry its star, as a common or garden doctor whose fiancee is killed by a drugs gang. Enter a shadowy John Steed to help him extract his just deserts.

To Hot Snow itself, one of two episodes setting up the premise and tenor of the series. Sadly, only the first third of it still exists, up to the first advertising break, so around 17 minutes of grainy blurry footage. But what survives is enough – even through the murk – to convince 21st century audiences that there was something good going on. Film noir is the obvious inspiration, rather than the spy thriller, from Johnny Dankworth’s brassy downbeat jazz theme tune (Laurie Johnson reversed its falling cadences in the upbeat new theme which come much later) the opening scene shows us a thug (Godfrey Quigley) in a trench coat breaking into the doctors’ surgery, where the lovely Peggy (Katherine Woodville) is receptionist and nurse for Doctors David Keel (Hendry) and Richard Tredding (Philip Stone). There is much coming and going, as the thug skulks, doors are opened and closed as he tries to retrieve a mystery package.

We learn, in a nice scene back at the villians’ lair, that this has something to do with £4,000’s worth of cocaine, in an expository scene between effete Charlie (Murray Melvin) and weaselly sidekick Johnson (Charles Wade), both of whom live in fear of “the big man”, a faceless boss whose hand is seen caressing a small dog and who orders the execution of Peggy – she saw Johnson as he delivered the package and so has to go. As the card comes up for the end of Part One, Peggy is dead and Dr Keel is cradling her outside the jeweller’s where they were about to buy an engagement ring.

Shot live, or as live, it is a carefully crafted 17 minutes, with scenes blocked to make the most of the cumbersome TV cameras. The acting is fresh, with the actors frequently almost running into each other’s lines, eyes alive with trepidation and mirth. Old it may be, but it’s tightly made TV, imaginatively framed, briskly edited and has a real pace. The character actors are well cast and used – something The Avengers always got right.

However, it isn’t The Avengers as it came to be. Not a bit of it. No Steed (not in this surviving fragment, at any rate), in fact Patrick Macnee has second billing after Ian Hendry. No bowler hat (Steed is pictured in trench coat in the opening credits), no camp, irony, kitsch or hint of genre subversion. Drugs and deviant sexuality (it is suggested that Charlie is gay) is where this early episode gets it kicks. And in the death of a bright and innocent young woman.

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2017

 

The Avengers Complete – watch it or buy it at Amazon