The Avengers: Series 2, Episode 16 – Immortal Clay

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By a gigantic stroke of luck, it seems, while Mrs Gale is being given a guided tour of a ceramics atelier, she stumbles across a dead body in the room where the raw clay is kept.

Doubly handily, it seems that the company is engaged on cutting edge research to produce an indestructible tile to be used in the nose cone of a British rocket – what days, what days – and the dead man in question is one of the researchers engaged in its development and production.

Of course, Gale – in deliberately ass-backwards Avengers plotting – isn’t at the factory/studio/lab/atelier (Teddington Studios, in fact) by accident, and, by way of explanation, we are soon in a steam room where Steed is being briefed in typical arcane spy style by One-Ten, both men stripped to the waist and girt with towels.

Immortal Clay is the name of the episode, a pacy one broadcast in January 1963 – the 16th episode of series two – in the depths of the coldest British winter of the 20th century.

Doubtless a tale of a ceramic tile that could withstand the extreme heat of re-entry warmed a few shivering souls – who had central heating back then? But back to the plot, which sees Steed donning flat cap and gabardine mac to pose as a man from the Ceramics Research Council. What he finds is a British factory busily throwing away its technological advantage thanks to the dead hand of a pooh-poohing management – these two poles represented by Gary Watson, as the forward-thinking executive trying to work on hi-tech, investment-hungry new developments, such as tiles for space rockets, while his brother (Paul Eddington) is happy to plod along, unaware that the British Empire has ceased to exist and new forces are rising.

One of these is played by Steve Plytas, as a rent-an-ethnic Euro-nasty with connections behind “the Curtain” (as One-Ten puts it), and £20K to wave beneath the nose of the guy who does the actual hard work, played by James Bree in a brown overall to indicate lower social status.

In fictional form we’re watching a dissection of British industry, decades before Japanese ideas about egalitarian systems and American notions of responsive management set about trying to reverse its decline.

The Avengers may have started out as heavily in hock to film noir but by now the emphasis has shifted to the British kitchen sink – class is the concern, factory settings are common, regional accents (forelocks generally being tugged) are often heard.

This kitchen-sinkiness makes for an interesting episode, though hardly a classic one. John Braine and John Osborne seem to be the inspiration for James Mitchell’s screenplay which is thick with flawed characters – snobbish Eddington, unworldly Watson, desperate Bree, who has a thing for hot-but-dim secretary Mara (Didi Sullivan), a character mined for some terribly sexist humour.

As for Plytas as the excessively mannered De Groot, he was one of the 1960s most reliably oily villains, and one look at his face says enough.

Mrs Gale? She’s here, mostly as bait trying to get De Groot to show his hand, but it’s not really her episode. Nor Steed’s, either. Instead, it’s British industry that’s the focus. And it’s not a pretty sight.

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© Steve Morrissey 2018

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