The Avengers: Series 6, Episode 9 – Legacy of Death

Ronald Lacey and Stratford Johns

 

“A bit crap,” is what I wrote in my notes towards the end of watching The Avengers episode Legacy of Death. Perhaps I was being too harsh. My memory of it now is of being a pleasingly entertaining episode, and that’s largely down to the work of Stratford Johns and Ronald Lacey, who do a knock-up and knockabout job of pastiching Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, Casablanca/Maltese Falcon era.

Pastiche is pretty much the watchword throughout, this being one of the banes of this farewell series (at what point did everyone realise that’s what it was?).

But on to the plot – written by Dr Who’s Daleks creator Terry Nation and opening with a man called Farrer (Richard Hurndall, who’d briefly play the time-travelling Doctor many years down the line) lowering himself into his coffin to avoid being killed by two assassins on their way in from the airport, according to his trusty aide Zoltan (John Hollis).

The men arrive – it is Sidney Street (Johns) and Humbert Green (Lacey) – but Farrer is already dead and Zoltan has hidden the dagger his master gave to him for safe-keeping before he croaked.

Soon, after a visit from the mysterious Zoltan, Steed has that same dagger, though he’s none the wiser about where it’s from. Tara arrives, keen to share some bubbly with her colleague. And soon after that the first of a string of rival comedy (ie foreign) assailants turns up, keen to relieve Steed of “the dagger of a thousand deaths”, as one of them puts it.

 

Tara King tied up
Tied up: manservant Winkler and his boss Baron Von Orlak are just two of the villains after the dagger

 

None really creates as much of an impression as Johns, who is excellent when pushed into caricature, as he is here, with much excessive mopping of his sweaty features with a hankie that was probably wrung out between takes.

The whole thing culminates back at the ranch (Farrer’s mansion) where the dagger is found to be the key to something eye-widening, which Steed and King will soon be getting their hands on if the villains, who have now all banded together, don’t get the dagger off them first.

Comedy is the intention, and everyone is overdoing it except Patrick Macnee, who has either taken it on his own shoulders to keep the brand pure, or has been instructed by director Don Chaffey to act as the pivot around which the carousel spins.

If you were to sum up the episode in a soundbite, it’s a case of an awful lot of people dying awfully casually. Yes, the law of diminishing returns does apply.

What’s it all about? The dagger leads to untold riches, or something. It doesn’t really matter, Nation fully understanding that this is an exercise in archness.

Things to look out for – a firm called Dickens, Dickens, Dickens, Dickens & Dickens (a sign that Brian Clemens was involved somewhere), a glimpse of Tara’s apartment (I didn’t know she even had one), and a late appearance of the Chinese water torture, which by this point in the 20th century had been done well and truly to death as a despicable way of extracting information (and of behaving, let’s face it). A relic.

Fans of Pink Panther style fist fights – no one looks like they’re getting hurt – will enjoy the finale, which also comes with an Agatha Christie-style reveal during which everything is explained.

Stylish enough, but with too much of an emphasis on a particularly arch sort of comedy. On second/third thoughts, still “a bit crap”.

 

 

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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 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