Charm, rather than grit or narrative or psychological coherence, are really what The Avengers is about, and in the appropriately titled The Charmers we get tons of it, thanks to a fine script by Brian Clemens and light, deft playing by the guest actors.
It’s also, more or less, the first of the properly jokey, larky Avengers, though it kicks off in familiar style – a death before the opening credits, by the sword.
1960s TV loved a “touché” and we learn that this killing of an enemy agent is the latest in a spate of them. While the enemy being slain in great number might ordinarily be a good thing, matters have got out of hand. The uneasy balance between spying organisations has been upset, and now Steed is being targeted in a tit-for-tat by a Soviet (we assume) hitman keen to even things up.
After a bit of flashing wit and swordplay – Steed offering to his would-be assassin, “But I haven’t killed anyone for at least a week,” and “But that was a foil; my weapon’s a rapier” – our man heads off to the foreign embassy to see if he can sort things out.
Here things start to become comedic, since Warren Mitchell plays the vaguely East European/Soviet envoy, Keller, a camp and hypochondriac worrier who is soon persuaded by Steed – in a nicely written back and forth in which each tries to out-charm the other (Steed wins, of course) – that what they need to do is find out who’s actually doing the killing. “You mean it wasn’t you?” “No, we thought it was you,” kind of thing.
To this end, and to demonstrate they’re dealing honestly with each other, the men swap partners, Steed lending Keller Mrs Gale (bridling at being treated like a chattel) while Keller, devious as only a man who does not play cricket can be, sends Steed one of his “operatives”, actually an out-of-work actress picked at random. Keller tells her Steed is a writer and she needs to shadow him as background for a role.
For all its charm, the weakness of Clemens’s writing is that this bit of the plot is ridiculous – Steed would pick up instantly what was going on, as would the actress.
However, the two actors plug on at comedic cross-purposes, and since it’s Fenella Fielding playing the actress, much fun is had. Fielding spends all her screen time with her head up, eyelids fluttering, chest thrust forward and, when at all possible, legs crossed way too high on the thigh. The breathy vamp, in other words, which was her speciality in a long and unvaried career.
Mrs Gale, meanwhile, is stuck with Keller, who spends most of the episode with a Vick inhaler up his nose (watching Blackman trying not to corpse at Mitchell’s wild overplaying is one of this episode’s small joys).
The action shifts first to a dentist’s visited by the most recently dead spy, where Mrs Gale pretends she needs a check-up, while Steed ends up at an academy of charm for aspiring young gentlemen, where chaps are instructed on how to wear a bowler hat, carry a brolly and hail a cab. It is also, of course, a spy academy and the source of the problem.
As I say, the plot doesn’t matter too much; it’s the individual scenes, bantering, funny, fast, that make this such an enjoyable episode.
Though it’s almost sacrilege to say it, since the Mrs Peel era is often considered to be the finest, it’s tempting to suggest that The Avengers peaks around here, which might be why Clemens decided to reuse most of the plot of this episode, and some of its dialogue, in the season five episode The Correct Way to Kill.
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© Steve Morrissey 2019