The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 11 – Epic

Mrs Peel surrounded by a halo reading a ZZ Schnerk Production

When writers run out of ideas, they either start cannibalising their own old ones (see the episode from two weeks’ prior – The Correct Way to Kill), they duck into comedy (no refuge for a series that already has its tongue boring a hole through its cheek) or they reach for genre parody.

Epic dips its toe in the water of the third option in an episode that parodies old-school Hollywood excess. Kenneth J Warren, Isa Miranda and Peter Wyngarde are the guest actors drafted into play a trio of archetypes, arch types, even – Warren is an Erich Von Stroheim stripe of director, all monocle, bullet head and high-flown notions of the importance of his art; Miranda is his Gloria Swanson-style fading star; Wyngarde a silver-haired flunkey hired by imperious director ZZ von Schnerk to appear in multiple roles in scenarios of his mad imagining.

Bolted onto this idea is the dream/nightmare fantasy beloved of 1960s TV series (particularly The Prisoner), after Mrs Peel is kidnapped, wakes up in a weird simulacrum of her world, inside a drama being directed by Schnerk and featuring Wyngarde’s Stewart Kirby.

Multiple familiar movie scenarios follow, each starring Mrs Peel and an increasingly waspish Kirby, in what could be called a foreshadowing of the Westworld idea of fantasy role-play, with Wyngarde in the Yul Brynner role (or Thandie Newton, according to taste/age).

ZZ Von Schnerk and a gigantic rotating saw blade
“No, Mrs Peel, I expect you to die!” etc etc



It’s Emma Rigg’s episode, almost entirely, and James Hill focuses very tightly on her face, which can take it, her harsh red lipstick, green trouser suit and white boots and polo-neck top working well with the colour red of the backgrounds, foregrounds, carpets, almost everything apart from Mrs Peel herself.

The tight focus also helps keep costs down – for British TV at the time, this is pushing well into cinematic territory, and that costs money. It’s also, obviously, a case of the TV world – workaday, practical, churn-em-out – having a pop at overcooked, precious, spoilt cinema. All a lot of fun.

A couple of odd, glaring moments – the arch over the studio gate is modelled to look like the entrance to a concentration camp. All that’s missing is the Arbeit Macht Frei. Bad taste. And the double-breasted jacket Steed’s wearing, when he does finally show up to save the day, has a hideous crease at somewhere around boob level – this is either seriously bad tailoring or Patrick Macnee has put on a lot of weight.

Terrible actors laying on the ham is an idea that would later be the cornerstone of the Vincent Price classic Theatre of Blood (co-starring Diana Rigg), but as the episode winds towards its finale, it’s The Pit and the Pendulum (another Price movie) that’s evoked as Mrs Peel is propelled towards a rotating blade – “It will pack out the arthouses,” cackles Schnerk.

Doesn’t it sound like a ton of fun? It is and it isn’t – the individual scenes all work, the overarching idea a bit less so, with the result that it feels like a series of far-fetched scenarios peopled with eccentric characters, which never quite adds up to a satisfying whole.

We’re at peak Clemens.



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© Steve Morrissey 2020

  


The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 21 – A Touch of Brimstone

Emma Peel as the Queen of Sin

 

And so we come to A Touch of Brimstone, an episode that didn’t make it onto US TV screens in 1966, thanks to the bondage gear that Mrs Peel eventually gets into in the final scene.

 

How we get there is pretty interesting too. The whole thing opens very cinematically with a lovely shot of the back of an armchair advancing towards the camera. It’s being pushed by Peter Wyngarde, no sign of the luxuriant moustache that made him a household name in Department S and its Wyngarde-focused spin-off Jason King, though he is sporting fancy shirt cuffs and links, a foreshadowing of King’s sartorial style.

 

Wyngarde’s character, John Cleverly Cartney, is at some press conference where an East European somebody is making a warm speech about increasing friendship between his country and the UK. He lights a cigar. It explodes in his face.

 

“Very childish, but very damaging,” is how Steed describes it later to Mrs Peel. It being the latest in a line of diplomatically unfortunate practical jokes of a similar tenor.

 

And, once a theatre seat has given way beneath a visiting oil sheikh, thus losing the UK a contract worth a lot of money, Steed and Peel are sent in to investigate pdq.

 

Suspecting that Cartney is somehow involved, Mrs Peel arrives at his house posing as a high-end charity fundraiser seeking a donation. Wyngarde plays Cartney in characteristic man’s-man, ladies-man, man-about-town style – as a lecher, in other words – who makes a move on Mrs Peel the second she’s over his threshold.

 

As further hints that Cartney is behind the mischief, we meet Darcy (Colin Jeavons, brilliantly shifty), a man Cartney has in his pocket, and Sara (Carol Cleveland, later of Monty Python fame), a bosomy bird and one of Cartney’s treated-mean-and-kept-keen conquests.

 

Cartney, it turns out, runs something called the Hellfire Club, an association whose members all pledge to undertake challenges, when they’re not “wenching” and wining, all dressed in 18th-century garb.

 

Peter Wyngarde (right) in mask and hood
Ready to steal the entire episode: Peter Wyngarde (right)

 

 

The previous week, in The Danger Makers, it was Mrs Peel who infiltrated a secret society by going through its initiation ceremony. This week it’s Steed, at the Hellfire Club, where he drains a vast amount of booze in short order and then delights the assembled members by immediately asking for more. He’s most definitely in! But first, a slightly more dangerous test…

 

And so we head towards the finale, the last third of the episode being taken up with the Hellfire Club’s big night of the year, The Night of Sin. Which vaguely explains Mrs Peel ending up snake-draped and dressed in leather boots, basque and a leather choker studded with nails. “Uncommon handsome” is how Steed describes “The Queen of Sin”, getting into the period lingo. And so she is.

 

For all the sexy gear, it’s not that exciting an episode. There is too much emphasis on the period clothes and the dubious thrill of eavesdropping on a secret society comprising immature rich layabouts.

 

However, there is Wyngarde, who steals the episode. His flamboyant style of acting, flirting with the camera in a way that’s reminiscent of Peter O’Toole or Alan Rickman, is the reason why he became, for a while, one of TV’s biggest stars. The Marvel supervillain Jason Wyngarde is based on him. And Mike Myers has also claimed that he based Austin Powers on Wyngarde in his late 60s pomp. Yeh, maybe.

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020