The Avengers: Series 6, Episode 21 – Love All

Sir Rodney and Martha

 

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.

 

Close up of a computer console
The computer does all the work

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 9 – The Correct Way to Kill

Olga reveals an arsenal under her coat

 

So we arrive at The Correct Way to Kill, a rewrite of the series 3 episode The Charmers, and a frank admission that The Avengers has pretty much run out of ideas.

 

Or, since we’re being generous, that it’s taking a prize episode out for a well deserved second airing – The Charmers was excellent, though in no small part because it featured Fenella Fielding.

 

She’s not visible here but the bare bones of the plot remain the same – someone is killing enemy agents on British soil, putting Steed in the frame. Enemy agent Ivan (Philip Madoc) has been sent to dispatch Steed but, after listening to Steed’s protestations of innocence, buys into the idea that a third party is involved and coms up with a suggestion himself – the two men swap partners just to make sure the other really is on the level.

 

This is how Ivan and Mrs Peel end up being a double act in this episode, while Steed is paired with Olga (Anna Quayle), a comedy Russian with a severe and possibly lesbian take on her job (“I will fight to the very last man, figuratively speaking”).

 

One new element – the actual murderers are a pair of very proper Brits. One of them (Graham Armitage) in fact such a stickler for protocol that he won’t address the man he’s about to assassinate until he’s been formally introduced.

 

One old element, though with a new name – SNOB (Sociability, Nobility, Omnipotence, Breeding Inc), an academy turning out spies, or at least assassins, run by a man called Ponsonby (Terence Alexander), whose emphasis on the correct use of bowler hat and rolled-up brolly places him squarely in the Avengers tradition.

 

Emma in hidding at the SNOB Academy
Guess who SNOB are targeting next?

Mrs Gale went to the dentist’s first time out. This time Mrs Peel is at the chiropodist’s, a final haunt of one of the dead agents, where she is separated from Ivan, who ends up in a consignment of umbrellas at a shop specialising in them, where Steed and Olga find him in a crate.

 

SNOB is where all parties are headed for the big showdown, but en route there has been much fun at Olga’s expense – she finds Steed impossibly decadent; he’s responded by positively ladling on the charm. And Percy and Algy, the two proper Brits, have been great value as the very well mannered killers, Peter Barkworth’s Percy over-enunciating to such a degree you wonder how often he cracked up while working on the episode.

 

Charles Crichton directs, though there’s less sign of his fabled light touch until it comes to the fight finish when the nicely choreographed camera movements catch the eye.

 

In fact all of it is nicely done. But if you can take the degraded black and white image, shot on galumphing TV cameras, the series 3 original is crisper, more menacing and – thanks to Fenellla Fielding – a lot funnier.

 

 

 

 

 

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 1 – The Town of No Return

Emma Peel in fencing gear

 

And so, drum roll, The Town of No Return and the beginning of series 4. And with it the arrival of Diana Rigg as Mrs Emma Peel, the story going that the new partner for Steed would have to have “man appeal” or M-appeal for short. Hence the name.

 

She’s not the only new arrival – more money has clearly turned up, allowing the series to be shot on film and on location much more often. So no more studio-bound “as live” episodes rehearsed one day and shot the next. John Dankworth’s theme music has also been retired. Its jazzy plangency was fine for a 1950s style noirish detective series featuring Steed in trenchcoat with turned-up collar but it was becoming increasingly out of place as The Avengers became kookier. Instead, in comes Laurie Johnson’s glam, jaunty, upbeat, panto-dramatic theme, which still manages to find a placing in “greatest TV themes” polls over 50 years later.

 

This episode was originally shot with Elizabeth Shepherd as Mrs Peel, but was then reshot after it was decided that Shepherd wasn’t quite what was required. This might explain the confusion over who wrote and directed – the imdb tells us that Roy Ward Baker and Peter Graham Scott directed but the screen credits say it was Sidney Hayers. As to writers, the screen says Philip Levene, most other sources claim it was Brian Clemens.

 

It certainly feels like Clemens, with his bizarro hallmarks evident from the very first shot – a man in a big waterproof envelope walking out of the sea, unzipping himself and then heading off inland in tweeds and carrying a brolly, to the complete disinterest of a local fisherman fixing a basket.

 

And then it’s the Steed-meets-Peel moment, in her apartment, a Swinging kind of place with a gigantic winking eye on the door, inside which Mrs Peel is fencing. Her action-woman credentials asserted and the baton successfully passed from Honor Blackman to Diana Rigg, the very comfortably paired duo (not least because they’d already shot 13 episodes together by the time this one was shot/reshot) head off to a seaside town where agents keep going missing.

 

En route we get a lift from Mary Poppins, as Steed offers Mrs Peel tea and pulls the works – China and Indian tea, crockery, a cake stand with petits fours – from his capacious carpet bag, as they travel on the train together.

 

A fellow traveller is Jimmy Smallwood, played by Patrick Newell, who would later become a significant part of The Avengers formula as Mother, Steed and his sidekick’s control, but here is playing a timid man visiting his brother, unaware that he’s going to become the latest victim of the mysterious disappearances.

 

The town itself, and particularly its pub, the Inebriated Gremlin, is a grim and unwelcoming place, in spite of the hail-fellow-well-met of mine host Piggy Warren (Terence Alexander perfectly cast as an ex RAF chap whose kept all the mannerisms and even the handlebar moustache). There, Steed and Peel go to work, she posing as a new teacher, he as a property scout, while the tally of victims keeps rising.

Terence Alexander as the jovial publican
RAF? I should jolly well say so – Terence Alexander

 

In many respects it’s Gale era Avengers – bantering dialogue, sexual tension, a mystery and a pub – but in one important regard it’s different. The town is pretty much deserted, as is the local RAF base. Everyone the duo meet – landlord, vicar, blacksmith, village school teacher – is a new arrival. This deserted set-up idea would propel The Avengers right through until it ended and it’s more evidence of Clemens’s hand, as is the ridiculous plot which I won’t give away but makes absolutely no sense – Clemens is more your character and dialogue man.

 

All in all it’s a great introduction to Mrs Peel – she’s smart, tough, fun and funny, looks a million dollars (and some of her outfits are quite extraordinary even by the Swinging standards of the day). And if there is the odd duff continuity moment, we can probably put that down to the fact that, where possible, outdoors footage shot almost a year earlier when Elizabeth Shepherd was still Mrs Peel, has been reused.

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019