An episode called Death of a Batman in a series called The Avengers does sound like something DC Comics and Marvel might cook up between them. But here the word batman is used in the British Army sense – he’s essentially a butler to one of the officers, the class system as rigid in the armed forces as it was in civvie street.
The story gets going with Steed hearing that a man called Wrightson, his old batman in the Second World War, has died. This kindly man of modest means was also somehow in possession of a huge amount of money, or so it turns out when his will is read. He was also pretty old. We’re told he died of old age, pretty much. So does Steed have an ageing portrait somewhere in his attic? Turns out the batman, Wrightson, was much older than Steed, and had even served in the First World War. Still doesn’t explain the money, though, does it? Steed and Gale investigate in a case that seems much more of a private affair than the previous week’s, which was all tech and spycraft.
Considering that it was first broadcast on 26 October 1963 – the day the US announced it could hit any target anywhere in the world with a nuclear warhead fired from a submarine – this seems at first to be a disappointingly dowdy, kitchen-sink affair, too full of dull interiors and the sort of working class accents that do not usually scream “Classic Avengers!”
But it’s a good episode, a fascinating one, thanks to the writing by Roger Marshall, and acting by Kitty Atwood and David Burke (as the dead man’s knows-her-place widow and angry-young-man son, suspicious of toffs like Steed turning up out the blue) and particularly André Morell – Watson to Peter Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes in Hammer’s Hound of the Baskervilles – and Katy Greenwood as hilarious aristocrat Lady Cynthia.
Pay attention and you might learn something about the stock market and insider trading, a subject The Avengers is fond of. Morell’s Lord Teale is an investment banker who advises the wealthy on what to do with their money, and then seems to do exactly the opposite with it, in the case of the sex-mad Lady Cynthia. Teale advises her to keep her money exactly where it is, and as soon as she leaves the room sells off everything to re-invest in tech firms of vital national strategic interest. Since the randy Lady Cynthia has been purring about one of her recent conquests, a Scandinavian air steward – “that blond hair; those open sandwiches” – we’re perhaps being given to understand that she deserves to be manipulated. Either way it’s a funny diversion in an otherwise exposition-heavy scene divulging that this is all part of a plan hatched with Teale’s slippery business partner Van Doren, played Philip Madoc, a stalwart villain of 1960s UK TV.
Mrs Gale is soon undercover, playing a receptionist at Teale and Van Doren’s consultancy, where things are not going too well for the company, and haven’t been helped at all by the death of the batman, who knew the aristo from the First World War, though the fact that Wrightson had returned the medal awarded on Lord Teale’s say-so tells us he had moral qualms about being involved with him.
A story about the honest lower orders, shady, sexually incontinent aristocrats and stock market swizzes plays straight to the prejudices of the viewers, of course, and allows all the actors to camp it up, particularly Morell and Madoc who just about resist the urge to play a pair of pantomime villains.
Notably, Mrs Gale gets a fight scene early on in the episode, when she finds a villain rootling around in the dead man’s house, a sign of her increasing importance in the franchise, and Patrick Macnee is a lot more energetic than usual. It looks like he’s trying to keep up.
Will you entirely understand what was going on by the end? I didn’t fully, but I felt like I’d been entertained. For sure, it is a step back from the Swinging Avengers style of the previous week’s The Nutshell, but Death of a Batman was far from the drab episode suggested by the opening scenes.
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© Steve Morrissey 2019