Roughly five months after it was made in May 1963, on 19 October, the day that the 14th Earl of Home – who had not been elected to any office at all – was announced as the new prime minister of the country, the United Kingdom sat down to watch The Nutshell, the fourth episode out of the traps in the third series of The Avengers.
It’s doubtful that the aristocratic PM with the stiffest of upper lips was much interested in the doings of a bowler-hatted spy, even though both were Eton-educated and probably had the same Savile Row tailor. But if Sir Alec (as he later became, when in tail-wagging-dog style he’d been elected to the House of Commons) had been watching on that Saturday evening, he’d have witnessed the final arrival of the programme in what might be called archetypal Avengers territory – no pubs, no members of the public, lots of tech, esoteric locations, boffins, double-cross, spy-speak, and much more.
And we’re in up to the oxters in the opening shot, as Edina Ronay (who’d also had a significant role in The Removal Men, in series 2) heaves into view in a frog suit, darts around in what is obviously a high-tech facility of some sort, photographs a secret document, and high-tails it.
The facility is in fact a secret underground bunker called Nutshell – a vague acronym for Nuclear Underground Target Shelter – and the theory goes that the burglar must have had inside help to get in. Fascinatingly, and quite a development in terms of set-up, it’s Mrs Gale who knows all the details of the case (the last vestiges of the original idea that Steed worked with a network of amateurs, like a Fagin Spymaster, having been finally swept away), and it’s she who briefs Steed, once they’ve had a small chat about the pros and the cons of the arms race – mutual assured destruction has guaranteed peace (she says)… until some mad fool tries to pull off a first strike (he says).
Off we go, into the bunker, where a man called Disco – Director of Intelligence, Security and Combined Operations – informs Steed and Gale that “someone has stolen Big Ben”, the list of every double agent operating behind the Iron Curtain, and another acronym. It wouldn’t be an episode of The Avengers unless Steed, Gale, or both of them, were trying to pass themselves off as something they weren’t, and soon John Steed is behaving in a very dubious manner, helping with the escape of a shady East European involved in the whole Big Ben business.
Who’s the mole? John Cater is rather excellent as the crepuscular Disco, Charles Tingwell puts in a warm, bluff performance as the head of security, essentially playing the same character he did in the Margaret Rutherford-era Miss Marple films. And, er, there aren’t really many other characters it could be – Patricia Haines and Christine Shaw’s roles seem too minor – so place your bets.
There is tons of tech – CCTV is ubiquitous (and that really is ahead of its time), x-ray machines of the sort we now have at airports, fingerprint readers, control rooms festooned with TV screens, it’s like a seedbed of the surveillance culture of the future.
Good actors and great tech to one side, what really makes it one of the best episodes so far is the screenplay by Philip Chambers, who keeps us guessing as to who the mole is, throwing more and more suspects into the mix as we head for the finale. Even Steed is implicated. But this far in, no one is going to buy that for a minute, surely?
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© Steve Morrissey 2019