The Avengers: Series 6, Episode 17 – Killer

Tara King and John Steed examine a clue

 

Were showrunner Brian Clemens, fellow producer Albert Fennell and the rest of the production team trying to get rid of Linda Thorson? She had been introduced during his brief interregnum by producer John Bryce and when Clemens and Fennell returned, they were stuck with her.

Killer is an episode bursting with agents – who die one after the other and wind up gift-wrapped in plastic – but Thorson’s character Tara King is notably absent, having told Steed in dialogue that protests a bit too much that she is off on holiday and there is nothing he can do about it… so there.

Instead Steed is paired with Lady Diana Forbes-Blakeney – referred to as “Forbes” by the instantly flirtatious Steed and played by the elegant Jennifer Croxton, who behaves throughout like someone who knows she’s stepping on someone else’s toes.

Tony Williamson’s plot sees one agent after another being lured to what looks like a deserted film set (which is what it is – either Elstree or Pinewood) where they are summarily dispatched before winding up shrink-wrapped and as clean as a whitle in a cemetery. No forensic clues for Clarke (Richard Wattis, in trademark bottle-bottom glasses and twittish accent), the agency’s crime scene investigator, to work on – “He’s even had a manicure,” says Clarke to Steed.

The plot runs on that mid/late 1960s staple, psychological torment, with one agent after another “cracking” before meeting his maker, a succession of characters breaking another Avengers rule about keeping the numbers down. The suspicion rears its head that Fennell and Clemens might be putting in the foundations of a new show, one built on the idea of a team of agents (see Mission: Impossible in the US, or Department S here, co-created by Clemens’s old friend Dennis Spooner).
Or, in Croxton, we can see the beginnings of a later TV figure – Purdey in The New Avengers, Croxton being very much in the svelte, slinky Joanna Lumley mould.

 

Jennifer Croxton
Lady Diana Forbes-Blakeney on the case

 

Musings to one side, the very Prisoner-like plot follows one agent to his doom, repairs to the cemetery for some explication, then jumps back to the film set where another agent is about to meet his maker. Harry Towb takes a significant role, as does Charles Houston and William Franklyn’s Brinstead is introduced early on.

The running joke – agent arrives on scene, asks Franklyn where “Remak” is, Franklyn looks about conspiratorially – is lost on anyone who doesn’t remember Franklyn as the face and voice of the “Schh… You Know Who” spy-spoof advertising campaign, for Schweppes tonic water, which ran from 1965-1973 and made him a household name.

It’s a case of payback – the Schweppes campaign owed its joky tone at least to The Avengers.

As if the episode didn’t have enough characters in it, there is one Clemens eccentric thrown in for good measure (Michael Ward as the very camp Freddie), who helps Steed home in on the death-dealing nemesis, which turns out – no spoiler here, it’s flagged up early on – to be a computer, Remak standing for Remote Electro-Matic Agent Killer.

A busy episode it may be – Anthony Valentine also turns up, and I haven’t mentioned Mother or Rhonda, who also feature – but the finale is a good one, the artificially intelligent Remak setting Steed a series of challenges to the death. Does Steed win through? Well there are roughly another 16 episodes in this season to go, so… Steed’s brolly, bowler and heavy coat all doing sterling support work here.

Director Cliff Owen’s camera is noticeably tighter on the action than previous directors’, Steed’s bowler is noticeably smaller, sits more jauntily on his head. In fact with Croxton – physically a bit stiff but a passable fighter and a decent actor in an invidious situation – and the multiplicity of characters, there’s a suggestion of a show renewing itself.

All that said, however, Macnee and Thorson are reunited for a smart, bantering epilogue scene that’s one of the best, involving an inflatable liferaft doing what it’s designed to do inside the confines of Steed’s apartment. Perhaps Clemens and Fennell were feeling guilty.

 

 

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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 14 – Silent Dust

Emma punts, Steed relaxes

 

Silent Dust first aired on New Year’s Eve 1965 and from a 21st-century vantage point has all the makings of a very prescient episode of The Avengers. In what starts out as an obvious parody of a nature documentary, we first observe birds nesting in the trees, then watch as the birds start dropping off the branches.

 

The second eco-themed outing for Steed and Peel (see A Surfeit of H2O) owes a debt to Rachel Carson’s massively consequential 1962 book Silent Spring. Carson was the first to bring to public attention the doubts that many scientists had been harbouring about the effects of widely available insecticides such as DDT, and detailed the effects on wildlife, birds in particular, as well as the knock-on further up the food chain – cancer in humans.

 

All that said, though the title of Silent Dust nods to Carson, this is In many respects much more your standard Avengers thing than it at first appears. For all its eco-catastrophe plot, it’s class hierarchy that’s really on writer Roger Marshall’s agenda.

 

But first a bit of a lark, and not of the avian variety. A punt is coming towards us. Two people. One punting, the other reclining. We assume, because we are sexists, that Steed is upright and Peel recumbent. It’s the other way round – Steed is under the parasol and Mrs Peel is in sensible but stylishly cut punting gear and straw boater.

 

The duo are on the water looking for birds, or more specifically what’s causing them to die en masse, a search that soon takes them – via a gamekeeper called Mellors (a joke for Lady Chatterley’s Lover fans, another totemic book for the 1960s) – to William Franklyn’s silky local squire Omrod, who gives Mrs Peel the undressing up-and-down, which she responds to with a “Well I might if you play your cards right” look.

 

These male/female interchanges are the other thing that Marshall is concerned with in an episode packed with a dizzying number of characters – including an oily rag called Juggins, who swigs cider (we assume) from a jug to get the fires of nominative determinism roaring, a Dr Manfred (Charles Lloyd Pack), an eccentric expert in fertilisers, Clare (Isobel Black), daughter of an even more eccentric expert in fertilisers – we meet her painting a man in a hammock (another gender reversal) – a concerned rose grower (Norman Bird) Mrs Peel quizzes in a pub, another rose grower (Joanna Wake), whose land has been mysteriously poisoned. And on we go.

 

A protestor against blood sports
Down with violence? Now there’s something we can all get behind

 

As if that weren’t enough, and perhaps with the bit in his teeth after the previous week’s episode chockful of dream sequences, director Roy Ward Baker gives us another one this time round too, of Steed in the Wild West having a bullet pulled from his leg by Mrs Peel as a male doctor (more gender switcheroo, and a foreshadowing of the male role Diana Rigg would play in Theatre of Blood, with Vincent Price).

 

What’s it all about? Well Franklyn is involved, as are toxic organophosphate fertilisers – and that really is prescient since it was as much as three decades later that speculative suspicions were being raised that these compounds were responsible for the Mad Cow (BSE/CJD) debacle, organophosphates being a similar class of drugs to Carson’s DDT (an organochlorine).

 

But what makes this episode fun and engaging is the picture it paints of the class structure in the English shires – poachers and gamekeepers, landowners and foxhunting. We even get a demo against blood sports, which allows Laurie Johnson to have another go at some of his incidental music, adding a horsey gallop rhythm element that’s very episode-specific. Now there’s a sign of a series on the up.

 

An inventive, enjoyable and fast-moving episode delving into the class system and notable for its exploration of gender roles – Mrs Peel even gets the lion’s share of the physical action. I mean lioness’s, obviously.

 

 

 

 

 

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