The Avengers: Series 6, Episode 2 – Game

Steed caught in a giant game

After new opening titles – a mix of the medieval (Steed’s swordplay with his brolly) and the modern (Tara King in sophisticated black evening dress and then action-girl attire) – we’re off into Game, the first proper Tara King era episode of The Avengers.

The excellent Robert Fuest (director of The Abominable Dr Phibes) is at the helm, directing a screenplay by Richard Harris which re-uses elements of his Winged Avenger episode in series 5.

That was a revenge plot built around a character getting payback for something that happened long ago. This is the same idea, though the way in which payback is given is more elaborate – here the men involved in a court-martial are made to play games in which the stake is their life.

First up, a man (Brian Badcoe) playing with a toy racing car – a Scalextric or something similar – when the car careens off the track and rolls over, the man dies in real life, his racing goggles filling up with jigsaw pieces.

Post-opening credits we get victim number two (Geoffrey Russell), playing a game of snakes and ladders, ascending a ladder for real until he’s startled by a snake and falls to his death. Again, the jigsaw pieces.

Luckily for our sleuthing duo, the murderer behind these fiendish deaths is the sort who likes to leave clues. And soon Tara is at the offices of the company that made the jigsaws, this encounter with eccentric jigsaw master (Desmond Walter-Ellis) as good a guide as any that this is a Brian Clemens-produced episode – Clemens and co-producer Fennell having been fired and replaced by John Bryce only to be hastily recalled when things went tits up (full story at Avengers Forever or Wikipedia).

 

Steed and King in the apartment
Ready for action: Steed and King

 

The killing continues. Another man – this time a stock market trader (Alex Scott) forced to play a finance game – is soon dead, and then another, a brigadier (Anthony Newlands), having met the villain of the piece, who goes by the joke name of Monte Bristow (the reliably sulphurous Peter Jeffrey), leading up to a big showcase finale, a chance for Fuest to show us what he can do, and for Patrick Macnee to remind us that he’s the star of the show.

Because Steed was also one of the men involved in the court-martial, he too is forced into playing a deadly game, in fact a series of games packaged together as one called Super Secret Agent – fight a fiendish Japanese wrestler, crack a safe and so on.

The prize being Tara King, who is now locked in the bottom half of an hourglass that’s quickly filling with sand.

Bait, victim, damsel in distress rather than super-capable karate-chopping buddy, that seems to be Tara King’s role, and Thorson plays her as less arch than Diana Rigg did, which is a welcome change, and with more liquid in the eyes, which is not. Even Tara’s odd combat scene is a bit below par, and Thorson’s body double is way too hefty to be plausible.

Director Fuest gets to play on one of those late 1960s sets full of oversized objects and his keen eye for a visual extracts the most out of what is still, for all its budget and exterior locations, a very studio-bound series.

It’s a good, brisk, well directed episode, and its decent cast includes Garfield Morgan as the mastermind’s supercilious butler, which is a bit of a bonus.

It’s a decent way to get to know Tara King better.

 

 

 

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***

The imdb refers to this as season seven. I’m saying six, along with most of the fan sites, and in line with the pretty much definitive Studio Canal box set. The reason why the imdb and others say seven is because they’re taking the final block of eight Emma Peel episodes as a separate season. But since there were only eight episodes in that production block, lumping them together with the 16 episodes of what everyone agrees is season five brings the total up to 24, much closer to the usual Avengers run of about 26 episodes.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 15 – The Joker

Ronald Lacey and Diana Rigg

 

The creeping feeling that The Avengers is running out of puff is further reinforced by The Joker, a rewrite of the Cathy Gale-era episode Don’t Look Behind You. Except in this case it’s Emma Peel who is stalked by an admirer with a deadly agenda.

It was a very good episode first time round and works its magic this time too. But before Mrs Peel can be sent off for a weekend at the house of bridge-playing Sir Cavalier Rusticana – Steed jokes that it sounds like an opera (hardly surprising since the joke name is modelled on the opera Cavalleria Rusticana) – first we see a mystery hand cutting a picture of Mrs Peel from a magazine called Better Bridge with Mathematics. And then cutting the picture into pieces – no fiendish cackle required.

Mrs Peel as a bridge whizz? Makes a lot of sense, and this facet of her personality, along with Steed’s sprained leg after falling down the stairs, allows writer Brian Clemens to devote the whole episode to her, leaving John Steed to do little more than sweep up at the end.

What was fascinating about Don’t Look Behind You was the array of oddball characters it wheeled out to confound Mrs Gale and entertain us. They’re all present in The Joker too, in the same order. And after Mrs Peel has driven down to the remote Exmoor mansion for a bridge-playing weekend, she first meets the owner’s niece (Sally Nesbitt), a dippy actress. Now merely posh rather than a proto-hippie chick, Ola is still all over the place, her mind darting hither and yon as she guides a politely bewildered Emma to her room, where Emma dresses for dinner (while being observed from a spyhole).

 

A paranoid Mrs Peel is increasingly spooked

 

Just as we’re wondering if Ola might be the mystery picture desecrator, she makes her excuses and leaves the house, heading off into the village to visit a “friend”. At which point weirdo number two turns up (Ronald Lacey), a property mogul scouting for new acquisitions whose car just happens to have run out of fuel outside the house. He claims to know Mrs Peel but says she won’t recognise him on account of his plastic surgery.

In his dark shades and with that unusual backstory, is this Strange Young Man (as the imdb calls him) the mystery hand? Since Lacey was often called on to play extremely creepy characters (you might remember him as the Nazi Toht in Invaders of the Lost Ark), director Sidney Hayers has no trouble getting a menacing character into the frame.

But Lacey, too, is soon eclipsed, replaced as potential mutilator-in-chief by Peter Jeffrey as Max, an old flame – he and Mrs Peel met in Berlin – still carrying a torch.

So we’ve got three potential stalkers, two red herrings and one big old house. As the production design grows increasingly paranoid – giant playing cards, a scratchy old German song (Mein Liebling, Mein Rose by Whispering Carl Schmidt) being played again and again, everything takes a rather Lewis Carroll turn and Emma is ends up eventually running around a house filled with voices coming from every direction. However, Steed has finally bestirred himself and is hobbling towards the fog-shrouded house. To the rescue!

This is top-notch 1960s TV. The production and sound design are excellent, the screenplay weird yet taut, the casting and playing perfect, the direction cinematic and economical and Laurie Johnson makes a significant contribution with the German song, which he wrote.

Even so, the Cathy Gale original has the edge. Perhaps those big old clunky TV cameras with their Dalek-like glide are better at connoting paranoia. Or perhaps it’s just that black and white suits the Dark Old House genre better.

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 15 – Room Without a View

Mrs Peel behind bars

 

The title of EM Forster’s novel is parodied in Room Without a View, for reasons which never really became clear to me, but then on looking back over my notes to this episode I realised I could remember barely any of it.

 

Some things I do remember, though, such as the bare bones of the plot, which are standard formula stuff – a scientist (Peter Madden) back from a mysterious disappearance attempting to kill his wife (Jeanne Roland), having been brainwashed and broken by the Chinese. Which is presumably why the overwrought man is trying to kill her, since she’s oriental (Roland was born in Burma).

 

Is “oriental” a PC term or not? I can’t keep up, so forgive me if I’ve trodden on any toes. Far more egregiously, Roland gets no screen credit – a woman and non-white is presumably the reason why – even though she has a speaking role and interacts on more than one occasion and is a fine addition to a strong cast. Men in other episodes have had a credit for far less.

 

Back to the plot. Steed and Peel are soon on the case of the dangerous boffin, which seems connected to a hotel that’s implicated in more than its fair share of missing persons, all of whom are in the “brain drain” category of people the country can ill afford to lose. And at the centre of the web sits Pasold (Peter Arne), a supercilious brain-drainer in chief.

 

The notion of the brain drain as an international conspiracy against the UK was prevalent at the time, and suggested that skulduggery was causing highly qualified Brits to become expats, rather than it being just a case of individuals preferring the terms and conditions offered by other countries. But, bogus or not, without that idea, Room Without a View would go nowhere.

 

Its on-message politics to one side, there are three things that stood out for me in this episode. Or rather they did when I had my memory jogged on reading my notes.

 

The first is the excellent supporting cast. Peter Jeffrey as a ministry flunkey doing everything by the book. Long-legged Philip Latham as the manager of the hotel from which the brains are being spirited away. Paul Whitsun-Jones, as the hotel owner, a little fattie who is the butt of many jokes about what he can and cannot eat. Vernon Dobtcheff, a go-to man at the time for characters from the other side of the Iron Curtain.

 

The second is how clearly The Avengers has now internalised not just James Bond but the spoof responses to 007 that were beginning to litter the decade – films featuring louche spies Matt Helm (played by Dean Martin) and Derek Flint (James Coburn) were just around the corner.

 

Steed pulls Mrs Peel in a rickshaw
Exit vehicle: a rickshaw, just to add an extra oriental shake

 

Also notable are the aspirational attitudes on display – fine food is served up in fancy hotels, with a sneer if you’re not quite of the right social class. Which leads to some of the most amusing moments, when Emma (who is working undercover on the front desk at the dodgy Chessman Hotel) is forced to take orders from manager Carter (Latham), bridling every time he snaps his fingers at her. Perhaps that’s why in this episode Diana Rigg has decided to play Mrs Peel with an even more assertively cut-glass accent than usual.

 

Roy Ward Baker directs and brings some movie slickness to the whole affair, and is helped by Roger Marshall’s screenplay, which factors in multiple location changes. The action even switches to China at one point. But the editing has a more filmic quality too – more cutaways, more edits, slicker, pacier, more dynamic.

 

Don’t look too closely at the fight sequences, where the stunt doubles really don’t pass muster. Macnee’s stand-in is particularly obvious, though these episodes were designed to be shown on lo-def 405-lines TVs, so it’s forgivable.

 

Like I say, can’t remember much of it, so in spite of its obvious pluses, I’d give it a swerve if you were looking for an episode of The Avengers to watch.

 

The following week’s episode is a different matter altogether.

 

 

 

 

 

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