The Deadly Affair

Charles Dobbs on the phone

1966’s The Deadly Affair repeats the formula of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold – John Le Carré story, top British and European cast, London locations, great US director, ace British cinematographer, soundtrack by a big name – and if it isn’t quite up there with the 1965 film, it’s still one of the very best Le Carré adaptations.

It takes Le Carré’s first novel, A Call for the Dead, slaps a less sombre, more bums-on-seats title on it and also renames Le Carré’s masterspy George Smiley, as Charles Dobbs (Paramount, who had made The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, “owned” the Smiley name). Though in all important respects this is Smiley, an ageing, owlish penpusher with a wife called Ann (Harriet Andersson) whom he adores but who treats him like shit – she’s “a nymphomaniac slut” in her own words, and most of Dobbs’s colleagues would agree, since they’ve nearly all slept with her.

The plot hangs off the death of a ministry wonk. Suicide is the official explanation. Samuel Fennan (Robert Flemyng) was about to be outed as a former communist sympathiser, so the story goes, though Dobbs had quizzed Fennan on the very subject only that morning and Fennan had seemed happy to admit he’d been a Communist Party member in his university days – “Half the present Cabinet were Party men,” he points out. Unconvinced by the official line and suspecting murder, Dobbs sets about investigating, roping in Inspector Mendel (Harry Andrews), a cop on the verge of retirement, to help with the spade work. But first a trip to visit the dead man’s wife, Elsa. She is played by Simone Signoret, and let’s just say that you don’t hire Signoret simply to play the grieving widow.

James Mason’s mannered delivery works in his favour in The Deadly Affair. He’s a brilliant, silky Smiley (I mean Dobbs) – the silent but deadly quiet man whose unobtrusiveness is his secret weapon. The Dobbs character is of a piece with the shabby London settings captured by director Sidney Lumet. Far from the Swinging London of many mid-1960s movies, this is still the post-war world of damp rooms, electric fires and adultery, Lumet leaning in to Le Carré’s determination to present spying as a drab and morally ambiguous affair in much the same way Martin Ritt had in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.

Harry Andrews as Inspector Mendel
Harry Andrews as Inspector Mendel


Lumet also wanted to shoot in black and white, as Ritt did, but was prevailed upon by the studio to film The Deadly Affair in colour. Cinematographer Freddie Young gets Lumet half the way there, though, by “flashing” the film (exposing the negative to a controlled amount of light), a technique that drains out the colour, knocks back the contrast and increases shadow detail. This is a murky film that plays out in one underlit, beautifully photographed interior after another.

It’s also a superbly made film in terms of Lumet’s economical direction. From the opening shot, of Dobbs and Fennan already in mid-conversation in St James’s Park, Lumet does not hang about but drives the story forwards.

What a cast. As well as Signoret and Andersson – both greats of cinema – there’s the Austrian/Swiss actor Maximilian Schell, now amazingly almost a cinematic footnote but at the time about as big a star as a non-anglophone actor could be in Hollywood. One of Lumet’s fascinations is the way different actors work in different registers. Against the bluff, four-square Harry Andrews there’s puckish, nervous Roy Kinnear, for instance, and Lumet also stages several scenes at the theatre, where yet another different breed of actor, brother and sister Corin and Lynn Redgrave, play a camp director and his over-eager stage manager. We even get extracts from the plays they are supposedly working on – Shakespeare’s Macbeth and, particularly, Marlowe’s Edward II, where David Warner is playing the king and Timothy West is a witness to his terrible death (red hot poker where the sun don’t shine). Lumet is obviously indulging himself in a bit of “what I did on my holiday in London” postcard-writing with these scenes from Royal Shakespeare Company productions but they also provide a bit of contrast with the drabness of Dobbs’s milieu.

Quincy Jones’s lush John Barry-like score (title song sung by Astrud Gilberto) does something similiar, acting as a stark contrast to locations like semi-industrial Lots Road in West London, in the days before all of the Thames waterfront had gone upmarket. It’s where Dobbs finally unmasks his “traitor”, the dénouement playing out, grimly, quickly, in the dark and the pouring rain.

The years have been kind to this film, coating it in an allure it didn’t obviously have at the time. Mason is a superb Smiley (Dobbs, whatever) and this is a superb Le Carré adaptation.



PS: do yourself a favour and watch a restored version of the film, like the Amazon Blu-ray one listed below. It’s really worth it to see the results of the remarkable Freddie Young’s “flashing” technique. So much darkness, but so much detail.




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© Steve Morrissey 2021







The Avengers: Series 6, Episode 33 – Bizarre

Steed and Tara in a Saturn V rocket

 

So we come to the end of The Avengers journey with Bizarre, 33rd episode of the final season.

The show started in January 1961 and was literally about an Avenger, Ian Hendry playing David Keel, a doctor going on a restorative-justice rampage after his wife was killed by drug smugglers. And it ends here in May 1969, having morphed from a crime-based show shot as live in black and white on big TV cameras into something a lot more spytastic, shot on film with all the gloss you could muster on a TV budget.

The early (surviving) episodes are almost unwatchable now, the terrible telecine transfers making them even lower in visual quality than the 405-lines original TV broadcasts, though there is a lot to be said for watching talented performers reacting with lightning reflexes to the demands of the live situation – runaway cameras, fluffs, corpses, doors in studio set-ups that refuse to stay shut etc. It was here that Patrick Macnee really proved his worth.

Personally, having now watched them all, it’s the late-era Cathy Gale episodes that hooked me most. The combination of early-years grit and later-era spy-fi made for good stories, and the interplay between Honor Blackman and Patrick Macnee was both enjoyable and credible. Not in a million years was Cathy Gale going to sleep with Steed – unless she killed him afterwards.

As for Tara King, the sexual chemistry is all wrong between her and Steed, though the production team will insist on it – at more than twice her age (47 to Linda Thorson’s 22-ish) Patrick Macnee is simply too old.

As Tara, the charming and nimble Thorson has been treated poorly in what has been a weekly display of extreme bad faith on the part of producers Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell. She has, rather nobly, risen above it and delivered in episodes that often barely required her presence.

And so to Bizarre, the last episode to be made and broadcast. And it’s fitting for a series that was now, starved of US finance, officially dead, that’s it’s all about the deceased, or people who refuse to stay dead, the episode getting going with a woman in a distraught condition and dressed in her nightclothes wandering barefoot across a snowy field.

She’s played by Sally Nesbitt, (incidentally the daughter of Lord Hunt of Everest-climbing fame), but is to all intents and purposes a late-era 1960s young woman – dolly bird with a gothic overlay (think Julie Driscoll of This Wheel’s on Fire fame). Her only purpose, in an episode with more embellishment than foundation, is to direct us towards what spooked her – a coffin on a train containing a man who wasn’t dead.

The action moves on, to the Happy Meadows cemetery, the “in” place to be buried. It’s run by a man called Bagpipes Happychap – named thus by a father as an act of retaliation against a mother who’d promised her husband a squealing bundle of joy.

 

John Steed in a freshly dug grave
Burying the series?

 

“We make death fun,” says Happychap, played by the great Roy Kinnear, who twinkles, flinches, gurns and eye-rolls his way through the episode as only he can. There’s even a little comedy run at one point.

And that’s about it. The action keeps returning to Happychap as Steed and his sidekick – not Tara King but James Kerry as agent Cordell for the most part – work on a case of missing City of London gents, with all trails leading back to Happy Meadows. And once the two agents get back there, they order yet another exhumation, which reveals yet another empty coffin, much to Happychap’s increasing distress.

The “dead men” are all aged financiers and all is eventually revealed in a plot turn that makes no sense on any level. Instead it’s best to see the whole episode as an exercise in gallows humour, lightly influenced by the work of Joe Orton, who was wont to mix up death and having a good time in plays like Entertaining Mr Sloane and Loot.

The performances are particularly ripe and are the main reason for watching and once again you realise how heavily British TV leans on excellent character actors. Fulton Mackay turns up at one point, in brownface as an Indian fakir on a bed of nails, a joke which manages to excuse itself before the accusations of racism can be got ready, just about.

It’s a bellowing walrus of camp, in other words, and a “bizarre” way to end the series.

Though it doesn’t end quite there – in a little coda, Steed and King ascend into the heavens in a Saturn V rocket (stock moonshot footage coming in handy here), before Mother turns and addresses the camera. “They’ll be back,” he twinkles, “You can count on it.”

Kind of true. There was a stage play and The Avengers rode again on the radio in 1971. The New Avengers arrived in 1976. There was also the disastrous 1998 film starring Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman, in which everything was wrong, right down to Steed’s bowler. More recently there have been audio re-recordings, first of the lost episodes of series one, later the entire series.

But really, that was it. As the 1960s petered out, so did the show. You could draw parallels with The Beatles – the raw early years followed by increasing levels of phantasmagoria, the progressive yet backward looking modus operandi, the grip on the public imagination – but let’s not get too carried away.

 

 

 

 

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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 4 – The See-Through Man

Steed and Pell with chemistry apparatus

 

After time travel in the previous week’s episode, Escape in Time, The Avengers’ augmented interest in sci-fi gets another workout in The See-Through Man, a plot all about invisibility and its dastardly uses.

 

Comedy is the overarching tone and self-parody the effect as first one person then another is killed by an invisible man (he is referred to throughout as “he”, even before it’s been established that he is a he). Indeed, before the opening credits have even rolled a factotum at the Ministry of Defence has been dispatched by an unseeable assailant, all very nicely done by director Robert Asher.

 

Two bits of minor but annoying Avengers furniture are then quickly dealt with, first the pithy subhead (Steed Makes a Bomb; Emma Is Put to Sleep), followed by the “Mrs Peel, We’re Needed” command/salutation/entreaty from Steed to Peel, delivered this week from down the lens of a microscope.

 

It’s all meant to be too, too witty but is in fact already, after only a few airings, too too tiresome. The new-style opening has also robbed viewers of what was one of the more enjoyable aspects of The Avengers – the plot explication data-dump handled as a cross between sparring and flirting by Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg.

 

Gripes aside, it’s a “proper” Avengers episode – fanciful and ludicrous, yet handled at speed and with wit. Warren Mitchell turns up again as Soviet ambassadorial operator Brodny  (third time, I think) and his scenes with Steed are again an object lesson in oneupmanship, between characters and actors, as the two opponents in spying weigh personal admiration against bigger loyalties.

 

Steed quizzes boffin Quilby (Roy Kinnear)

 

Mitchell has had another think about Brodny and plays him this time out as about one third Groucho Marx, Brodny’s frock coat adding to the impression.

 

In a good episode for proper character actors, it’s Roy Kinnear as the madly eccentric scientist who invented the invisibility formula, and Moira Lister – whose legs are made much of – as the steely wife of invisible assassin Major Vazin, Lister playing her as a cross between Mata Hari and Rosa Klebb.

 

Comedy, as I say, is the idea – everyone has a comical accent or eccentricity. Warren Mitchell even tries a bit of that old standby – comedy running.

 

The cinematography is noticeably better than it is in the usual run of episodes, DP Wilkie Cooper having had a career in the movies before arriving for this, his first TV job. There’s a car chase featuring an invisible driver, which is done pretty convincingly for 1960s TV and a big fight finish between Lister and Rigg, which is also handled well by director Asher, though some of the punches being thrown are a bit feeble.

 

Thanks to Philip Levene’s brisk script, it’s a very good episode in concept and delivery, though the series has now lost the darkness and mystery which were a key part of its makeup in the Cathy Gale era.

 

In other words, good though it is, if you’re looking for a “jumped the shark” episode, look no further than The See-Through Man.

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 4, Episode 9 – The Hour That Never Was

John Steed and Emma Peel on a deserted air base

 

Mrs Peel comes of age in The Hour That Never Was, the ninth episode of series 4 and a typical classic-era Avengers based on unlikely goings-on in locales almost devoid of people.

 

“Comes of age” because in this episode she is clearly smarter than Steed, being the first one to notice that time appears to have stood still – it was 11am when they crashed while pootling down a country road towards a reunion at Steed’s old air base, and it’s still 11am some time later as they wander around the base, which is now seemingly suddenly deserted.

 

She’s also dressed in a style that’s hipper than usual – low-slung trousers, big fat belt, a vest that shows off her toned shoulders to good effect. The production team have clearly twigged that Diana Rigg is a major asset in terms of both acting nous and physicality.

 

If Mrs Peel is an up-to-the-minute dolly bird, John Steed is the counterweight, a newly middle-aged man now recounting drinking stories from his youth with a gleam in his eye as if it were yesterday.

 

But where are they, all these drinking buddies? And why have they disappeared just as the base is gearing up for its farewell shindig, after which the personnel will be “scattered all over the globe… wherever we’ve got an airbase” explains Steed to Peel, unwittingly laying out the reason for the disappearances – dirty tricks by persons whose interests are unaligned with Britain’s.

 

Patrick Macne and Roy Kinnear
A moment of light relief courtesy of the failsafe Roy Kinnear

It’s an impressive episode, in plot and staging. Not only is everything frozen in time, which includes rabbits on the runway, a goldfish in its bowl, but at a certain point in the proceedings we get to see that opening accident all over again, the aftermath of which plays out in a completely different way. No Mrs Peel. The mess now full of chaps celebrating, Gerald Harper as the hail-fellow-well-met RAF bon viveur pressing drinks on a bemused Steed.

 

This idea – alternate timelines leading to wildly different outcomes – seems ahead of the zeitgeist. 2018’s Black Mirror episode, Bandersnatch, famously used it to wild acclaim, but then writer/creator Charlie Brooker is heavily influenced by 1960s/70s mysteries (Tales of Mystery and Imagination, Tales of the Unexpected, The Outer Limits etc).

 

But there’s another modern resonance in this tale. Towards the end, as the mystery is solved and the culprits are revealed, they are referred to as “influencers”. Then, it’s malevolent foreign forces wreaking havoc on suggestible plastic minds who are the baddies. Now, it would be just as possible to point the finger at the liberal elite, mainstream media or deep state. Though, let’s face it, foreign forces working in secret have been known to gain traction in the West – Russia, China and Syria spring to mind.

 

But even more obviously, from the perspective of our Instagram/YouTube era of cheery stooges of capitalism, here’s The Avengers predicting the rise of influencers decades before it happened.

 

But never mind all that – there’s a good fight scene towards the end in a room filled with laughing gas (didn’t Adam West’s Batman do something similar?). And Roy Kinnear makes another Avengers appearance, this time as the only sentient human on the base, a vagrant who has made a career scavenging from RAF bases – “best dustbins in the business,” he exclaims, a moment of comic relief in a great episode that’s one of The Avengers’ standouts.

 

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 25 – Esprit De Corp

Honor Blackman, Duncan Macrae and John Thaw in Esprit de Corps

 

Esprit De Corps is a mad and twisty Avengers episode, one of many dealing with the subject of indoctrination, the focus here being an army unit that’s going to launch a coup d’etat and put the “rightful” heir back on the throne.  

 

Mad enough, but there’s a fruitloop turn to come which I won’t spoil. Instead let me tell you that a 22-year-old John Thaw plays a key role, as an army captain (Thaw generally did play older than he was – at 33 he was seen-it-all cop Jack Regan in The Sweeney; he was only 45 when he played the retirement-dodging star of Inspector Morse). Thaw’s Captain Trench is being hoodwinked by the unhinged Brigadier General Sir Ian Stuart-Bollinger (Duncan Macrae) – Trench has no idea that the “exercises” he’s preparing his men for are in fact the coup that’s going to unseat the House of Windsor.  

 

Steed and Gale get involved after a corporal is “accidentally” killed, in circumstances that look very far from accidental, and we meet the dapper chap in a new-fangled launderette doing his weekly wash. Though this is about as likely as a coup against the British monarchy being carried out by a handful of soldiers, it’s amusing enough, as is the sight of Steed dressed in what looks halfway to being a duffel coat.  

 

To find out what’s going on, Steed sends Mrs Gale in to cosy up to Captain Trench, and on hearing that she’s going yet again to be the sweet stuff in a honey she trap pulls quite a face. Quite the feminist.  

 

There’s more potential for allegations of sexism when Trench and Gale meet for the first time at a course he teaches in unarmed combat and he gives her the full body up and down – slow enough that we see it; fast enough that we believe it. It’s these tiny things that made Thaw so good.  

 

I forgot to mention Roy Kinnear, who is the Roy Kinnear of fond memory, all facial tics and nervous sweats as a hapless roly-poly soldier struggling to do anything well. Which brings us to Duncan Macrae as the mad brigadier general, a man with a skull of a face and the ability to conjure the sense that inbreeding is what’s behind his insane scheme, which Gale and Steed (now posing as a Major, his old rank in the army) are of course going to thwart. No more needs to be said about the plot, except that it does, as earlier suggested, throw in a turn so random that you have to applaud.  

 

Overall, there are two types of Avengers episodes – the early ones set in something vaguely approximating the real world (pubs often feature) and the later ones, which became increasingly surreal. This belongs firmly in the latter camp, though it’s helmed by two old hands – deft director Don Leaver, on great form here, and writer Eric Paice, whose scripts tend nicely toward the conspiratorial.  

 

An excellently entertaining episode, thanks to its brilliant cast, polished writer and talented director. Take a bow all.          

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019