As I write, the UK is drunkenly stumbling towards its exit from the European Union. Rewind 55 years and Six Hands across the Table, the penultimate episode of the second series of The Avengers, is having a discussion similar to the one the country is having right now, a “whither us” debate about Britain – is it better going it alone or heading towards a more European version of the future?
The drama opens at a meeting of a shipbuilding cartel, part of an industry in trouble. (For those too young, that “industry in trouble” idea is why the country signed up to the European project in the first place.) Digression aside, this is a Gale heavy/Steed light episode hinging on where this consortium of shipbuilders should source their engines – a French nuclear model on the one hand or some other variant not smelling of garlic on the other – a decision which leads to the murder of the most vocal supporter of the European option.
Enter Gale and Steed, most notably Gale, who just happens to be already jodhpur deep at a country house weekend, one of those upper crust horsey events dedicated to drinking early in the day, where various members of the consortium are also congregating. Handy if you’re trying to work out who killed the proponent of the French option. Even handier if one of the consortium (Guy Doleman) seems to have a bit of a thing for Mrs G.
The Americans are the offstage bogeyman in this episode, in the shape of a shadowy US shipbuilder keen to take out this UK consortium, leading to one of the more stoutly patriotic of the consortium’s number (John Wentworth) to assert in a moment of protesting too much, “We’re still a great industrial power and our technical knowledge is second to none.”
The episode is confidently directed by Richmond Harding, who announces himself with a stylish overhead opening shot (unthinkable at the beginning of this series) of our shipbuilding gang working out what to do with their obstreperous Europhile chairman. All we see is their hands, hence the title.
Expat American Reed De Rouen clearly finds British industrial malaise fascinating and his screenplay fingers the chummy old school tie – this cabal of bosses are meant to be in competition with each other, not cooperating. Rouen has also, perhaps for balance, added in a subplot about the unions and a possible strike in the offing. This makes things a touch overwrought and a bit too talky at times and adds little to the first verdict – cabals of industry bosses are a bad thing.
In terms of personnel, Honor Blackman bosses this episode, with Patrick Macnee barely getting a look-in, though there is a funny moment when this lethal, toned superspy is leaving Gale’s room via the window and gives out a middle-aged “ooh” as he lifts his leg over the sill. Edward de Souza, John Wentworth and Guy Doleman all give good value, but it’s Philip Madoc who stands out as a dead-eyed psychopath, the Welsh character actor who built a career on his ability to look sinister.
The message? Be careful of people waving the flag. De Rouen is not against patriotism per se but self-aggrandisement dressed up as disinterested altruism. Again, quite a timely message as we head towards Brexit.
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© Steve Morrissey 2018