The phrase “pale, stale and male” was still waiting to be coined when this episode was first broadcast on a dark February night in 1969. And you didn’t hear the term “misogyny” on TV much either, particularly not on a Saturday evening entertainment show.
But that’s where we are in The Avengers‘ episode Love All – no, no tennis is involved.
It’s a classically formatted 50 minutes – the setup, the briefing, the visits to various eccentrics and the dénouement, with a couple of bizarre murders thrown in along the way just to keep things moving.
The setup plonks us down in a briefing room full of white, ageing gents, all being told something about missiles – this being the department of Missile Redeployment – by big boss Sir Rodney (Robert Harris), who emphasises how very top secret this briefing is, and how no word of what they are discussing must be repeated outside those four walls.
And yet, scant moments later, there is Sir Rodney, eyes all dewy, mouth working overtime, spilling his secrets to his cleaning lady, a proper Mrs Mop called Martha (Veronica Strong).
There’s a leak in the department, Mother tells Steed, after Steed has dropped in (literally, through a manhole cover) to Mother’s HQ of the week, a subterranean space kitted out with cricket nets. And while Mother attacks balls bowled by the silent Rhonda, Steed is ordered to go off and do some plugging.
Rodders, as Martha calls Sir Rodney, is the classic soul lost to love, going so far as to search for her out in the city when Mrtha’s not at work. And he finds her, though she’s unrecognisable out of charlady attire, which is just a disguise, Rodders winding up dead shortly afterwards, guilty of both fraternising with the enemy and of slumming it with someone of the lower orders.
Being a classic episode, a Handy Clue has soon presents itself, the trace of a scent on Sir Rodney, which leads Tara to the English firm that makes it. Enter a Clemens Eccentric. He’s an anti-eccentric, in fact, a camp man called Bellchamber (Peter Stephens) who makes the bold claim that he has no personality “whatsoever”. Even more handily for a shortish self-contained episode, Martha just happens to be in the shop when Tara arrives, allowing the plot to get a move on.
Steed gets his own eccentric after following a clue found by Tara, to an outfit called Casanova Ink, a publisher of romantic fiction run by Thelma (Patsy Rowlands), a big bag of fluff clearly modelled on romantic novelist Barbara Cartland. Thelma reveals that the books aren’t actually written by her at all; a computer bangs them out in seconds, to a strict algorithm (another word never used on Saturday night TV back then). You could say the same about some episodes of The Avengers, of course…
And on we go, up the chain of social class, until we meet moustachioed smoothie Bromfield (Terence Alexander, specialist in long-limbed charm) and all is eventually revealed – subliminal messages transmitted by microdots hidden in the pages of the books are behind the cases of amour fou, though it could, let’s face it, have been hypnosis or drugs, anything whose effects were, to use a word frequently heard on 1960s TV, subliminal.
Along the way, yes, someone utters the word “misogynist”, and the pale, stale, male element is emphasised and re-emphasised, and then justified – men like this (boring, sexless) are in positions like these (powerful, well rewarded) precisely because they aren’t victims of impetuous emotional outbursts and won’t be seized by the desire to tell all to anything in a skirt.
This ambivalence about the “patriarchy” (as no one ever calls it) gives Jeremy Burnham’s screenplay a bit of dramatic undertow, and keeps the episode anchored in something real, even when things start getting ridiculous, as they do when everyone suddenly starts falling in love with Steed.
A good idea well executed that builds towards a strong finish, it’s one of the best examples of the Tara King-era Avengers.
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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