The United States launched the Echo 2 satellite on 25 January 1964, the day that the Mandrake episode of The Avengers aired. And though the week before’s outing, The Wringer, had been a very up-to-date affair, set in the world of international espionage and modern brainwashing techniques, Mandrake harks back to earlier episodes of the series in its dourness and its down-to-earth setting.
Under-the-earth setting, in fact, because the plot concerns itself with a mystery about a string of dead businessmen, all of whom have been buried in the same remote Cornish town, Tinby, for no good reason. They don’t come from there and have no connection to the place. Battle is joined when an acquaintance of Steed’s, the latest mystery death, winds up six feet under the Cornish sod too.
Mandrake is a properly 1960s title though, I’ll give it that, redolent of Aleister Crowley and witches’ covens. But anyone hoping for naked cavorting or goat-eyed sorcerers will be sadly disappointed.
However, we do get the marvellous John Le Mesurier, playing the latest in a long string of diffident males, here as a doctor at the rainy funeral Steed is attending. Of course something is afoot, and Le Mesurier’s good (ie bad) Doctor Macombie is up to his neck in it.
Enter Mrs Gale, again incognito, again as a journalist, asked by Steed to try and winkle out information from Tinby church’s voluble cleric (George Benson – no, not that one). En passant Rev Whyper tells her that there used to be a mandrake plant by the lych gate, so there’s our title explained.
Enter also Jackie Pallo, as a gravedigger/sexton with an obviously watertight reason to be in the churchyard but looking shifty all the same. Fans of old-school British wrestling will remember Pallo as one of its stalwarts, a vastly entertaining grappler with a ribbon in hair that resembled an 18th-century powdered wig. His autobiography was titled You Grunt, I’ll Groan, and, fittingly, when it comes to dialogue, he gets little more than a few grunts in exchanges with Mrs Gale.
Two more locations: one is a plant-filled office where the dodgy doctor and the mastermind of their little scheme (Philip Locke) sign up for a sizeable sum people eager to be bereaved tout suite. The other is a Christmas card factory Steed visits and where he flirts saucily with general factotum Judy (played by Randall and Hopkirk’s Annette Andre – “Jeannie! Jeannie!”).
It’s another Roger Marshall script, and apart from its downbeat settings, it’s pleasingly full of characters worrying about their class/status, its explains-it-all reveal is satisfyingly based on a fairly reasonable premise and, for those who think The Avengers is often too fanciful (Marshall and the more extravagant Brian Clemens didn’t exactly see eye to eye), this detour into detective territory will be a welcome relief.
In terms of actors, Le Mesurier gets the best of it, and his sweaty-browed milquetoast is lovely, as ever, to watch. Annette Andre initially wobbles but settles down once the bantering with Macnee gets going in earnest.
As for Jackie Pallo, you don’t hire a wrestler without giving him a fight scene, and in the Mrs Gale v Sexton fight sequence, he throws himself about like a man who does this sort of thing for a living. Look closely and you can see the leather-clad Honor Blackman accidentally kicking Pallo properly full on in the face and into an open grave – she knocked him out.
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© Steve Morrissey 2019