The Avengers: Series 6, Episode 10 – Noon-Doomsday

Ray Brooks and TP McKenna play cowboys

 

High Noon, the 1952 movie starring Gary Cooper, is the inspiration behind this Terry Nation-scripted episode of The Avengers. Nation had done something similarly pastiche-y the previous week with Legacy of Death, an episode that leaned on 1940s noir.

Quick thumbnail of High Noon – Gary Cooper is the good guy finding everyone in the town has a pressing previous engagement, leaving him to fend alone when a bad guy comes calling. An injured Steed takes his place here, his broken leg forcing him to convalesce in a very exclusive sanatorium (Brian Clemens’s farm, in fact) and finding himself increasingly isolated and vulnerable as a sworn enemy comes ever closer.

The episode has a blocky structure – Steed is one block, whiling away his time as the other operatives from Department S gradually abandon him. A physically busy Tara is another, charging hither and yon in full action girl mode. Mother is the third, hanging out at Steed’s apartment and drinking his way through Steed’s high-end booze. Fourth block is TP McKenna and Ray Brooks, as a pair of baddies who have been introduced on horseback before settling down at a railway station where the hands of the station clock make explicit the High Noon connection.

 

Ray Brooks and TP McKenna
Waiting for their man

 

The episodes cycles through these four blocks – Mother drinking, Brooks and McKenna indulging in dick-measuring banter and demonstrations of knife and gun skills as they await the appointed hour, Tara, Steed, and, in the wings waiting to deliver the coup de grace, a man called Kafka, onetime head of Murder International and an old foe of Steed out for payback.

The High Noon comparisons are easily overdone – Steed and King don’t fit that neatly into the Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly template, though Brooks and McKenna are a much closer analogue of the two gunmen in High Noon waiting for the fateful arrival of the train carrying murderous cargo.

So, a gunfight finale? Yes, indeedy, to the sound of a mariachi band, no less, which is all a bit absurd in the setting of an English farmyard but the set-up does kind of demand it.

Kafka? The name adds a layer of doom, or that’s the intention at least. Department S? There was a new TV show in the works with that title and Terry Nation was one of its main writers, so that probably explains that.

“Lose some weight,” had been one of the orders barked at Thorson when she got the role. She’s still noticeably bulky here, about halfway through the production run, though got svelter as the series progressed. I point it out not to be sexist, but because relatively green director Peter Sykes seems not to have noticed and isn’t helping things by repeatedly drawing the eye to Tara’s rear end as she engages in energetic derring-do.

Overall, a fun enough episode, but lacking that Avengers sparkle.

 

 

 

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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 4, Episode 4 – Death at Bargain Prices

Mrs Peel at gunpoint

 

Charles Crichton directed one of the best Ealing comedies, 1951’s Lavender Hill Mob, and the highest grossing British comedy of the 1980s, 1988’s A Fish Called Wanda – both crime capers – so is just the man for an episode of The Avengers.

 

And the first shot of the first of five episodes he’d direct announces that “a director” is in the house – it’s a looming, upward-looking shot of a building at dusk, in near-silhouette, ominous as you like.

 

But Crichton wasn’t lauded for his visual style – though he had plenty. What got him the plaudits was his economy (famously praised by Wanda writer/star John Cleese), his ability to say in one shot what other directors would take three, or multiple edits, to achieve.

 

There’s plenty of that on display (or, more to the point, not on display) in Death at Bargain Prices, a Brian Clemens-scripted episode that moves briskly, has time for the odd visual gag, and combines good old-fashioned sneery villains with an up-to-date plot that’s Clemens all over.

 

The building in the opening shot is a department store, and soon we’re inside the deserted place, where a nervously sweating man has soon been felled by an assassin’s bullet.

 

He is an “agent” – I think that’s the first time that word has been used in The Avengers to describe exactly what Steed, Keel, Smith, King (Martin), Gale, Peel, and finally King (Tara) get up to – and Steed and Peel are soon investigating who killed him.

 

But first a bit of banter, which informs us that Mrs Peel is as at home in the realm of thermodynamics as she is in specialist pottery. In this respect she is exactly like Cathy Gale: whatever the subject, she really knows her stuff.

 

Which is a funny way of introducing the next bit of the plot, which inserts Peel into the department store where the dead man was found, as a floor girl bridling at the indignity of it all.

TP McKenna holds Peel and Steed at gunpoint
In case you were wondering if TP McKenna was the bad guy…

The store, right out of British TV sitcom Are You Being Served, is owned by harrumphing, dickie-bowed, wheelchair-using Horatio Kane (André Morell, one-time Dr Watson to Peter Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes), but effectively run by Wentworth (TP McKenna) who considers his boss a “foolish sick old man”.

 

Wentworth is of course up to no good, in what is a very British sort of plot turn – it’s never the bosses who are bad, it’s their immediate underlings. “If only the king knew there were such injustice in the land” etc etc.

 

This Richelieu/Louis XIV relationship turns out to be quite a new development. In the short time he has been there, Wentworth has got rid of lots of people who actually know how to do their job, and brought in another lot who patently don’t.

 

Shall I tell you what’s going on at the department store? No, that would ruin the dénouement, which is typical Clemens in its bravado and absurdity.

 

It’s all part of the enjoyment, and though we haven’t quite achieved Peak Avengers, Clemens has clearly now twigged that scoffing at aspects of the show can be part of the fun of it too.

 

Crichton, for his part, works little wonders – there’s a scene in which a villain is swinging back and forth on a rocking chair, and on one of the backswings is grabbed and throttled. Very economical; very Ealing. And there’s a brilliant piece of cross-cutting in the mad-genius-explains-it-all finale in which kidnapped scientist Professor Popplewell (Peter Howell) reveals that…

 

McKenna is a brilliantly oily baddie, as he was in his last Avengers outing (Trojan Horse, in series 3), and his crisp delivery adds to the real sense of pace.

 

But does Mrs Peel get into her leathers? Indeed she does, Clemens vaguely explaining away this unusual garb for a shopworker as part of some move to the sci-fi department, or something.

 

Look out for a very odd outfit worn by Diana Rigg and sending out quite conflicting signals – a waistcoat cut so low that it is serving up her breasts, teamed with a demure white top beneath that goes right up to her neck.

 

And Steed uses his brolly as a knockout weapon in the inevitable big fight finish, the conversion of his English gent’s outfit into something more multifunctional now nearly complete.

 

Lovely stuff.

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019

 

 

 

 

 

The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 20 – Trojan Horse

Mrs Gale and Tony Heuston

At one point almost every episode of The Avengers started with a death before the opening credits. Trojan Horse plays with that idea, showing us a punter who won’t pay his betting debts being killed by some heavies. After his killers have left the scene, the dead man gets up and walks away.

It’s a ruse, a scam initiated by master bookmaker Tony Heuston (TP McKenna) who wants rich toff Lucien ffordsham (Geoffrey Whitehead) to believe he’s implicated in a murder, and to use that leverage against him.

Steed and Gale are in the neighbourhood because they’re protecting Sebastian, a valuable racehorse belonging to a Middle Eastern potentate, who is in the UK to race it.

As part of this Foreign Office operation, Steed ends up loitering around the stables, where he is soon introducing himself to posh stable totty Ann Meadows (Lucinda Curtis, complete with Cilla Black-style Vidal Sassoon hair style) and tapping her for information, though clearly interested in tapping her for anything else that might be on offer.

These stables are the locus of numerous fascinating scenes in which forelocks are tugged, deference is paid and the toffs stand legs athwart, hands on hips, while the lower orders scuttle about in front of them. It is actually uncomfortable to watch, because the behaviour extends to the actors not just their characters – watch as those playing toffs ride over the lines of fellow actors playing lower-status parts.

Steed, meanwhile, flirts with everything with a vagina.

Over to Mrs Gale, who gets some very choice dialogue as she tries to infiltrate the organisation of crooked bookie Heuston. To impress him and win herself a job, Gale indulges in odds-related banter, then turns mental-arithmetic cartwheels by computing the winnings on a multi-race accumulator (and all in the much more challenging pounds, shillings and pence). A different type of flirting than Steed’s, it gets her the gig from a clearly impressed Heuston.

Of course the entire “sheikh’s horse” side of the plot is a feint – Steed and Gale are really there to close down the real focus of Heuston’s operation: training killers.

As suggested, egalitarian Malcolm Hulke’s script goes to town on the class angle, Steed at one point eating a pricey Bath Oliver biscuit with caviar, the TV signifier of “posh” – a real gent would actually have been more likely to have a Bath Oliver with Patum Peperium, but there you go.

But there’s sexism in spades too. At one point, while Mrs Gale watches a horse race on TV, Steed ogles her openly, mocks her even. It’s saved from being awkward because Macnee’s playing suggests he is mocking Steed’s behaviour. But then Macnee often does things with the writing that aren’t there in the script.

McKenna is always a good villain, and the actor is comfortable in an episode that’s all about oily upstarts like Heuston being put back in their box so order can be restored and the right people can get back to running things.

And for those interested in clothes, there are lots of lovely thick worsted, tweedy items here – cardigans and proper jumpers abound. The sort of clothes people wore before central heating ushered in the T shirt era.

But for all these details, the political angle, the social comment, the little sparkles in the dialogue and the fine playing, Trojan Horse sadly never really grabs the interest in the way it should.

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2019