So here we are, at Christmas 1963 (the 28 December, to be exact), with Dressed to Kill, a special seasonal episode written by Brian Clemens, who gets everyone into pantomime mode by setting the action on a train heading for a fancy dress party.
Steed is on board, dressed in Wild West gear, and why he’s there isn’t explained immediately by the pre-credits sequence – a man lugging a big piece of equipment across war department land and setting off a Cold War nuclear attack siren deliberately.
But back to the train, and we learn that the passengers are strangers meeting on the train for the first time, and they’re all off to a New Year’s party. Notable among this bag of social allsorts are John Junkin as a lottery winner eager to impress his social superiors as a sheriff whose gun unfurls a big “bang” pennant when he pulls the trigger. And there’s Leonard Rossiter, a self-made man also uneasy about his social position – a prototype of his sweaty, over-eager Rigsby (of 1970s sitcom Rising Damp) character clearly visible in his absurd leering Robin Hood.
The last script of Clemens’s that had been broadcast was a loose re-working of the Old Dark House idea. Here, it looks like he’s dusting down Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. That’s until the train comes to a premature halt and, before you can say TV studio, we’re at a secluded location, a very old world railway station. Here, after a bit more drinking and fannying about, Clemens’s actual inspiration becomes clear as people start dying one by one and the bones of another Christie story, Ten Little Indians, become visible. These people aren’t accidentally on this train together, they have been gathered by forces unknown for some kind of grisly payback.
Exotic, ridiculous, in odd costumes and set well away from everyday life, this is The Avengers as it is remembered – camp, bizarre and fun, if you find random death fun.
Bill Bain’s direction is as assured as Clemens’s script and Bain uses close-ups to good effect to concentrate our focus on important details and characters. There are few wide shots; Bain is also a dab hand at using TV’s square Academy ratio to good framing effect.
Mrs Gale? She arrives incognito once this very Steed-flavoured episode is well advanced, in time to get busy in a fight scene that reinforces the feeling that what Clemens really wanted to be in life was a writer of jokes – at one point Gale hurls a man into a speak-your-weight machine, which pipes up, “You are six stone two and have a strenuous day ahead.”
One more Clemens tendency reasserts itself at the end, after Steed and Gale have established just why this trainful of characters have been assembled, as they sip champagne and discuss its vintage – “45, the liberation of Paris and a very good year,” says Steed. Here, again, Clemens is trying to nudge Steed and Gale into the boozy, quippy territory of another whodunit writer – The Thin Man’s Dashiell Hammett. Why not? The repurposing of sleuthing boozers Nick and Nora Charles worked for Hart to Hart.
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© Steve Morrissey 2019