First broadcast on 21 December 1963 – a more obviously Christmas-y episode would go out the following week – Death a la Carte is pretty much The Avengers as usual. Which means: exotic foreigners, death served up in unusual ways and a bit of stealth undercover work for Steed and/or Gale.
Both are incognito this time around, Mrs Gale as some sort of fixer/hostess trying to make life easy for a visiting emir, Steed as a chef in his kitchen. Yes, cheffing is just one of his talents. We learn pretty much straight away that the emir is in the UK for his annual health check, which looks less straightforward than usual this time around, and, from an early tight camera shot of some hands tampering with some mushrooms, we are already assuming that death by poisoning is what’s in store for the potentate if Steed and Gale fail in their mission.
Quite why they are acting as undercover security isn’t exactly made clear, but by now we just accept that British interests are being protected somehow.
Food, drink and comedy are the focuses of TV stalwart John Lucarotti’s script – from the glass of champagne Mrs Gale offers the emir welcoming him to his temporary penthouse home (this Arab clearly isn’t a Wahaabi), to the bickering among the three top chefs in the kitchen – a Frenchman, an Italian and Steed’s Sebastian Somethingorother – about whose country’s cuisine is the best. This is all done in cliched chef style, though some of the comedy accents and national stereotyping on display is satisfingly explained/excused by the time the closing credits have rolled. As for the executive chef, a camp Ken Parry, and dolly-bird bottlewasher Josie (Coral Atkins) – who seems to have been hired on the shapeliness of her legs – that’s just more of the same.
This kind of clownish fun had at the expense of foreigners, “the gays” and women would never be acceptable today, but even worse than this, to modern eyes, is the fact that the emir is played in brownface by Londoner Henry Soskin (aka Henry Lincoln). No, “but it’s just a bit of fun” doesn’t get you very far when it comes to an argument either.
Perhaps more important dramatically is that the whole thing is a bit ramshackle, rough around the edges, with quite a lot of characters – the emir and his heavies, the doctors attending him, the kitchen staff including Steed, Mrs Gale – jostling for screen time in a rather small space. This could not be emphasised more obviously than by the moment when a camera – probably dodging to avoid one of the actors – bangs obviously into a drinks table.
Whether the emir is going to get poisoned, and who’s going to do the poisoning, is the sturdy axle this plot turns on, and it’s enough, just about, to take us through the 50-odd minutes.
Roll on the Christmas episode.
© Steve Morrissey 2019