The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 14 – Something Nasty in the Nursery

John Steed in a toy shop


Clive Dunn, Paul Eddington, Yootha Joyce and Penelope Keith – four of the biggest names in 1970s British TV comedy – were relative unknowns when Something Nasty in the Nursery aired in April 1967. But their presence is further proof, if any were needed, that The Avengers had slewed well towards the lighter end of the entertainment spectrum.

Writer Philip Levene’s Avengers scripts are often concerned with class at some level. That proves to be the case in a story about men – not just any men but powerful men “from the best family; they’re British to the core” as a defence chief tells Steed and Peel – reduced to infantilism by some powerful psycho-active effect.

But which of these men leaked the information that led to the death of another magnate, shot by his own gun? Having watched said magnate give up his gun willingly to a nanny after being reduced to babbling by some kind of groovy hypnosis we know the answer to this one.

Eddington is the next to be afflicted, then Patrick Newell (later to play Mother in the show), then Paul Hardwick, all of them falling victim to the babyfying force, the actors all having a great time playing gurgling infants, probably replaying an old exercise from drama school days, as powerful men reduced to the playpen and the goo-goo-gaa.

The nanny is what connects these men and their fates, a metaphor for the old boy network so stomping that it doesn’t need any decoding.

Steed and Peel are on the case and, having been directed to GONN (the Guild of Noble Nannies) by toyshop owner Clive Dunn (another of his fluting old gents) while factotum Yootha Joyce makes busy in the background, find that someone called Gordon (Trevor Bannister, yet another TV comedy face) is at the centre of the mystery.


Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee publicity still
A publicity still for series five


I say mystery but there isn’t any. We know from the off what’s going on, just not exactly how it’s being done. It turns out to be psychedelic drugs – a month before the release of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper, containing the trippy Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, you can’t say The Avengers wasn’t in tune with the zeitgeist.

Top marks for that at least. Because otherwise there’s a distinct lack of drama throughout – we know what’s being done and we know that nannies are involved – in fact we’re one step ahead of Steed and Peel all the way.

But it’s interesting watching the whole deferential model of society being jokily criticised. And it’s also fascinating to see The Avengers going meta – as Peel first muses that whenever she and Steed are on to someone, someone else always gets there first (a standard Avengers plot development). And then later, as Steed and Peel gaze into a crystal ball in their usual outro/epilogue scene, she utters the words, “Watch next week”.

This heavy winking to the audience is yet another sign, along with the recycling of plots (which has happened twice so far) and the turn to spoofing other genres, that the show is running out of ideas.

All that to one side – Penelope Keith as Nanny Brown? The credits say she’s there, but I didn’t see her. The imdb triva page suggests all her scenes were cut. Which would explain things.



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The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 13 – A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station

Diana Rigg and John Laurie


The Stephen Sondheim musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum – a hit on Broadway in 1962, in 1966 a film directed by Dick Lester and featuring Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers and Buster Keaton in his final role – is the obvious inspiration for the title of this episode, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station. But beyond the title, there’s not really any sign of the musical in this story, no shred of Forum’s plot about a slave helping his young master to navigate the waters of true love.


So, that diversion tackled, let’s get on to the episode itself, a very good one initially written by Roger Marshall, who walked out on The Avengers somewhere around here, and then re-written by Brian Clemens, under the nom de plume Brian Sheriff (“the Sheriff doing the Marshall’s job” as wittily explains).


Clemens’s hand is probably most evident in the character of Crewe (John Laurie) – stationmaster? train nut and station owner? I never quite nailed that down – a proper Clemens eccentric Steed and Peel meet at the deserted Norborough Station, where they were meant to be getting a handover from an operative who had details about some shady plan being hatched, and involving trains, national security etc etc.


The episode kicks off with this very same man running down a train corridor, pursued by two thuggish younger men. He’s clearly a man who drinks from the same well as Steed and Peel, since he kills one of his pursuers with his tie (silk, let’s hope), and actually makes it alive past the opening credits, only to meet his end shortly after the episode proper has been joined.


That before-and-after-the-credits business is a first for a series which had seemed nailed into a stylistic box, and perhaps we can attribute that to director John Krish, who seems much more sure of what he’s dealing with this time round, perhaps because he made his name with documentary films about the gritty infrastructure of industrial Britain and trains fit right into that area of expertise.


And the episode pretty much stays on the train, taking in its passengers, who seem to be an oddly unchanging lot, right down to the ticket collector, when it’s not back on the platform with Crewe (also the name of a railway town), Laurie fluting away so madly at one point that I laughed out loud.


A corpse in a casket
But is he travelling without a ticket?


I’ll say no more about the plot, except that it starts out heading in a very Cathy Gale direction, with Mrs Peel beetling off to the Admiralty undercover as a journalist, but ends up being all about the train, the people travelling on it and a plot to kill the prime minister.


As I said, Krish is on good form, keeps things tight and pacy, but he’s helped by a really good supporting cast. There really are no duffers in this episode, but standing out above the throng (even above inveterate scene-stealer Laurie) is James Hayter as the strangely ever-present ticket collector.


Details fans will notice that Mrs Peel appears to be wearing a Mary Quant hat at one point (though what do I know?), later followed by a canary yellow outfit with big buttoned lapels, which looks like it cost a mint. While Steed is kitted out with proper spy gadgetry, a tape recorder in his brolly!


Other period-specific details include a description of the agent who dies early on as “rather corpulent”. He’d be described as normal now. And the sight of a dining car on a British Rail train, how charming.


The other interesting departure from Avengers norms comes in the epilogue, when Steed and Peel are back at the apartment, having saved the prime minister’s life, who is about to visit to thank them in person. “That must be him in the top hat,” says Steed to Peel. “No, that’s him in the raincoat,” says Peel. They then quickly discuss whether either of them voted for him. With an almost invisible shake of the head Steed indicates that he didn’t. Neither did Mrs Peel. And so the pair of them pretend they are out and don’t answer the door.


Why’s that important? Because “the raincoat” indicates that it’s Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, whose Gannex mac was part of his brand, and The Avengers has just declared the political persuasion of lead characters whose week-to-week contact with any recognisable real world has been shading towards zero. Another bit of Krish devilment?

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The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 12 – The Superlative Seven

Charlotte Rampling and Diana Rigg


Charlotte Rampling, Donald Sutherland and Brian Blessed are the standout names in The Superlative Seven, a title suggesting this episode is going to borrow heavily from The Magnificent Seven of seven years before. In fact it’s more a reworking of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, with a bit of Hunger Games thrown in (appropriately, since a five-decades-older Sutherland would be prominent in that).


Blessed was probably the best known of the three at the time, having been a key cast member of the hit UK show Z Cars, though Rampling was close behind, Georgy Girl having made her a name the year before. Sutherland? More a familiar face than a big name, TV shows on both sides of the Atlantic making up much of his CV.


The Superlative Seven has cinematic ambition, though, and director Sidney Hayers does as much as he can in the confines of a studio to suggest scale, movement and the passing of time in a plot that sees the action move from a fancy-dress party on a plane to a big old house where the seven invitees are set against each other, six oven-ready coffins indicating the ultimate destination for most of them.


The introductions are done swiftly – Sutherland on a technicolor red set as the dojo of a martial arts school, Steed in an admiral’s uniform, full red (again) jacket and cockaigne hat, Rampling one of the other guests Steed meets when he first gets on the plane where the party is taking place.


“I’m Wild,” she purrs. “Hana Wild.” Rampling looks anything but, a slip of a girl at 19, she looks half afraid of the camera, but it’s a decent enough attempt at corny humour by writer Brian Clemens.


John Steed in admiral costume
Admiral John Steed is piped aboard


Last man on the plane is Blessed, dressed as an executioner, complete with big chopper – a gag Clemens leaves in his box. This rum gang – a pretend bullfighter and big game hunter among the generally not-very-PC partygoers – soon learn that each has been invited to this party by a different host. When they go to ask the pilot what’s going on… there is no pilot. The plane is being flown automatically. Hi-tech whizzbangery to impress the 1967 viewer.


Soon the plane has touched down on a mystery island, where Steed and fellow invitees have to kill each other in order to avoid death themselves – that’s the Hunger Games bit. Sutherland, he’s the bad hat controlling the “game”, and watching everything play out via CCTV (more whizzbangery).


Diana Rigg has clearly been given the week off, with Mrs Peel only turning up right at the end, in the nick of time as luck would have it, to save the day. She’s also dressed in red actionwear (athleisure, we’d probably call it today), this being the key colour of the episode.


This is the sort of plot that Clemens could churn out in his sleep – eccentric characters in a half-borrowed scenario with a sprinkling of paranoia to add spice.


That it works so well is largely down to director Hayers, who’s determined to keep things moving, helped by art and costumes departments who are all pushing in the same cinematic direction.


That’s reinforced when you watch the episode on the Canal Plus restored discs I’ve got. The colours zing, the image is pin sharp. Too sharp at times – Patrick Macnee is replaced by a stunt double every time the action gets going. It’s something you wouldn’t have noticed on TV at the time, but 50+ years on, on a big high-resolution TV, it’s glaringly obvious.






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The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 11 – Epic

Mrs Peel surrounded by a halo reading a ZZ Schnerk Production

When writers run out of ideas, they either start cannibalising their own old ones (see the episode from two weeks’ prior – The Correct Way to Kill), they duck into comedy (no refuge for a series that already has its tongue boring a hole through its cheek) or they reach for genre parody.

Epic dips its toe in the water of the third option in an episode that parodies old-school Hollywood excess. Kenneth J Warren, Isa Miranda and Peter Wyngarde are the guest actors drafted into play a trio of archetypes, arch types, even – Warren is an Erich Von Stroheim stripe of director, all monocle, bullet head and high-flown notions of the importance of his art; Miranda is his Gloria Swanson-style fading star; Wyngarde a silver-haired flunkey hired by imperious director ZZ von Schnerk to appear in multiple roles in scenarios of his mad imagining.

Bolted onto this idea is the dream/nightmare fantasy beloved of 1960s TV series (particularly The Prisoner), after Mrs Peel is kidnapped, wakes up in a weird simulacrum of her world, inside a drama being directed by Schnerk and featuring Wyngarde’s Stewart Kirby.

Multiple familiar movie scenarios follow, each starring Mrs Peel and an increasingly waspish Kirby, in what could be called a foreshadowing of the Westworld idea of fantasy role-play, with Wyngarde in the Yul Brynner role (or Thandie Newton, according to taste/age).

ZZ Von Schnerk and a gigantic rotating saw blade
“No, Mrs Peel, I expect you to die!” etc etc

It’s Emma Rigg’s episode, almost entirely, and James Hill focuses very tightly on her face, which can take it, her harsh red lipstick, green trouser suit and white boots and polo-neck top working well with the colour red of the backgrounds, foregrounds, carpets, almost everything apart from Mrs Peel herself.

The tight focus also helps keep costs down – for British TV at the time, this is pushing well into cinematic territory, and that costs money. It’s also, obviously, a case of the TV world – workaday, practical, churn-em-out – having a pop at overcooked, precious, spoilt cinema. All a lot of fun.

A couple of odd, glaring moments – the arch over the studio gate is modelled to look like the entrance to a concentration camp. All that’s missing is the Arbeit Macht Frei. Bad taste. And the double-breasted jacket Steed’s wearing, when he does finally show up to save the day, has a hideous crease at somewhere around boob level – this is either seriously bad tailoring or Patrick Macnee has put on a lot of weight.

Terrible actors laying on the ham is an idea that would later be the cornerstone of the Vincent Price classic Theatre of Blood (co-starring Diana Rigg), but as the episode winds towards its finale, it’s The Pit and the Pendulum (another Price movie) that’s evoked as Mrs Peel is propelled towards a rotating blade – “It will pack out the arthouses,” cackles Schnerk.

Doesn’t it sound like a ton of fun? It is and it isn’t – the individual scenes all work, the overarching idea a bit less so, with the result that it feels like a series of far-fetched scenarios peopled with eccentric characters, which never quite adds up to a satisfying whole.

We’re at peak Clemens.

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The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 10 – Never, Never Say Die

Diana Rigg, Patrick Macnee and Christopher Lee


Christopher Lee! Christopher Lee of Dracula fame, intelligence operations during the Second World War, later a Bond villain, Saruman of Lord of the Rings and a heavy metal artist in his 90s, yes, that’s the man, lumbering about like Frankenstein’s monster (another role) the first time we see him, and shot from below, again Frankenstein-style, by director Robert Day as this episode of The Avengers kicks off with a car accident which renders the guest star dead.


Surely not? Surely so. But this episode isn’t called Never, Never Say Die for no reason, and no sooner has he been pronounced dead by a doctor at the hospital than he rises again, to the sound of the sort of boom-boom-booming music you associate with a Roman slave galley. Only to be knocked down and killed again on the way home, by the same car and driver. And only to break out of the ambulance (or was it?) he’s been put into.


A case for Steed and Peel, obviously. But not before we’ve seen this violent unkillable man wreaking havoc with a succession of innocents either pulled from the mind of writer Philip Levene directly, or embroidered by script editor Brian Clemens, or possibly thrown in for Avengers-style flavour by director Robert Day, who by now knows what sort of tone the show is aiming for.


First a man lying on the grass eating a banana (the comedy comestible), then an old duffer (played by Arnold Ridley, later of Dad’s Army) in an admiral’s hat playing with a toy boat. Lumbering, silent Professor Stone (Lee) making short work of both of them. No actual dialogue as yet – nice work if you can get it.


It seems to be the weekend, since Steed is wearing brown shoes, is sporting a brown bowler and is attired in tweedy twill of some sort when he arrives at Professor Stone’s house, only to be beaten to it by the same ambulance we’ve seen before, and off the Prof is bundled to the Neoteric Research Unit run by the Ministry of Technology, a facility devoted to futuristic tech stuff that is so out there that its access procedure requires visitors to run their plastic ID cards through two levels of security. Fancy!


Mrs Peel, meanwhile, has arrived at the house of Mr Eccles, a radio ham and chess nut whose name was found at the home of Prof Stone (why this name and no other was of interest is a typical bit of can’t-be-arsed scripting). Eccles is playing multiple games of chess with opponents all around the world, and changing his accent according to their nationality.


While Peel makes eyes at Eccles in an attempt to loosen him up, Steed is laying on the professional bonhomie with Stone back at the unit, where radio waves seem to be part of the mystery.


Professor Stone works on a victim
Anyone for a bit of mind control?


At the bottom of it all, without giving away every movement of the episode, is a Terminator-style plot about people being duplicated, all in the interests of science. Exactly who’s being duplicated being all down to connections, knowing the right sort of people, the right sort of channels, blah blah. Elites, elites, elites, in other words.


No, it has not dated well, since this idea has been done to death in the decades since, but it was a fresh idea at the time, and it is a neatly written episode that’s also been tightly directed. Worth noticing, apart from how easy this must have been for Lee to do – he lumbers and does little else – is how well directed the fights are. There’s an early tussle between Steed and Stone during which Steed (I mean Macnee’s body double) is launched very convincingly across a room by Stone (Lee’s body double, though it could be Lee himself). And the later fights are also well choreographed and have much more convincing heft than we’re used to.


Physicality to one side, stick this one in the box marked “the scary modern age we live in”.





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The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 9 – The Correct Way to Kill

Olga reveals an arsenal under her coat


So we arrive at The Correct Way to Kill, a rewrite of the series 3 episode The Charmers, and a frank admission that The Avengers has pretty much run out of ideas.


Or, since we’re being generous, that it’s taking a prize episode out for a well deserved second airing – The Charmers was excellent, though in no small part because it featured Fenella Fielding.


She’s not visible here but the bare bones of the plot remain the same – someone is killing enemy agents on British soil, putting Steed in the frame. Enemy agent Ivan (Philip Madoc) has been sent to dispatch Steed but, after listening to Steed’s protestations of innocence, buys into the idea that a third party is involved and coms up with a suggestion himself – the two men swap partners just to make sure the other really is on the level.


This is how Ivan and Mrs Peel end up being a double act in this episode, while Steed is paired with Olga (Anna Quayle), a comedy Russian with a severe and possibly lesbian take on her job (“I will fight to the very last man, figuratively speaking”).


One new element – the actual murderers are a pair of very proper Brits. One of them (Graham Armitage) in fact such a stickler for protocol that he won’t address the man he’s about to assassinate until he’s been formally introduced.


One old element, though with a new name – SNOB (Sociability, Nobility, Omnipotence, Breeding Inc), an academy turning out spies, or at least assassins, run by a man called Ponsonby (Terence Alexander), whose emphasis on the correct use of bowler hat and rolled-up brolly places him squarely in the Avengers tradition.


Emma in hidding at the SNOB Academy
Guess who SNOB are targeting next?

Mrs Gale went to the dentist’s first time out. This time Mrs Peel is at the chiropodist’s, a final haunt of one of the dead agents, where she is separated from Ivan, who ends up in a consignment of umbrellas at a shop specialising in them, where Steed and Olga find him in a crate.


SNOB is where all parties are headed for the big showdown, but en route there has been much fun at Olga’s expense – she finds Steed impossibly decadent; he’s responded by positively ladling on the charm. And Percy and Algy, the two proper Brits, have been great value as the very well mannered killers, Peter Barkworth’s Percy over-enunciating to such a degree you wonder how often he cracked up while working on the episode.


Charles Crichton directs, though there’s less sign of his fabled light touch until it comes to the fight finish when the nicely choreographed camera movements catch the eye.


In fact all of it is nicely done. But if you can take the degraded black and white image, shot on galumphing TV cameras, the series 3 original is crisper, more menacing and – thanks to Fenellla Fielding – a lot funnier.






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The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 8 – The Hidden Tiger

John Steed with pet cat


Well written and brilliantly cast, The Hidden Tiger is also very neatly directed by Sidney Hayers, who starts the episode with a point-of-view shot of a butler being dispatched by forces unseen while he is putting out a bowl of milk for the cat.


In death the man lies draped in a tiger skin that was only moments earlier adorning the wall of the stately home – where else? – where he’s employed.


And, in a now familiar pattern, very shortly after Steed and Peel (back to being investigators of the oddball) get onto the case, posh, handsome Sir David Harper (Jack Gwillim) is also dead, another pov sequence having helped him shuffle off this mortal coil while Steed and Peel were sniffing around his experimental farm – a red herring or a red-hot clue?


Brian Clemens Eccentric number one arrives shortly afterwards, an extravagantly colonial hunter (a lip-licking John Phillips) who audibly salivates when he utters the word “meat” and joins Steed and Peel as they look into the theory that the beast on the loose is in fact a big cat.


One mysterious death later and the trail has led to P.U.R.R.R – the Philanthropic Union for Rescue, Relief and Recuperation (of cats) – a funeral home specialising in the interment of cats, run by a cat-mad Mr Cheshire (comedian Ronnie Barker, looking middle-aged before his time) and assisted by the feline Angora (Gabrielle Drake, sister of musician Nick, and later the focus of much teenage longing in the Gerry Anderson sci-fi adventure series UFO).



Gabrielle Drake, Patrick Macnee and Ronnie Barker
Gabrielle Drake with Patrick Macnee and Ronnie Barker



Cheshire asks Steed, in passing, what his “pussy” is called. Steed, elaborately double-taking, replies “Emma”.


Right, so we know exactly where we stand – well before the early-1980s watershed that diverted much of this sort of thing to an underground culvert.


The obvious sexism to one side, this is a mad, camp and very entertaining episode, thanks to Philip Levene’s brisk screenplay and Hayers’ fluid direction. Money has clearly been spent on the stylish sets too, and Laurie Johnson again has written some episode-specific accompanying music, dark bassoons huffing away quite pleasingly here and there.


What’s behind it all? Well, without giving the game away too much, let’s just say a mad megalomaniac scientist is trying to take over the world by weaponising an everyday domestic fixture. And that’s enough of that.


For fans of GPO dial telephones, this is your episode – they feature so heavily you’d shout “product placement” if you saw it today. But since the GPO was the only, monopoly, supplier of phones at the time, it seems unlikely.


One of the better episodes of the fifth season – a well played fugue of all the expected elements of The Avengers.






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The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 7 – The Living Dead

John Steed pecks Mrs Peel on the cheek

The zombie movie was sleeping fitfully in its crypt – George Romero would wake it in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead – when The Avengers episode The Living Dead first aired in February 1967.

Steed and Peel, it seems, are now ghosthunters as well as murder investigators, industrial-decline consultants and everyday spies, and are called in after stage drunk Kermit (Jack Woolgar), stumbling home one night espies the lid of a tomb opening and a man in white ascending from it. “The Duke!” Kermit exclaims.

Was it the first duke, of 17th century vintage? Or one only recently deceased – “a real man”, according to one local – who died in a mine collapse? Geoffrey (Howard Marion-Crawford), the current duke, is so in thrall to his gamekeeper (played with his usual heavy menace by Julian Glover) that he’s resistant to questioning on the matter. But, simply using superior social rank to swat aside one of the lower orders, Steed is soon subjecting the current duke to questioning.

It’s while he’s inside yet another Avengers mansion that Steed notices two odd things – sun lamps and boxes marked Sun Tan Lotion (plain old Sun Lotion in modern speak – in those days the emphasis was on the promotion of tanning not the protection of the skin).

Mrs Peel, meanwhile, has met Mandy (Pamela Ann Davy), a woman who looks like she likes sex and is ready for it, and a representative of an outfit of spirit investigators called FOG (Friends of Ghosts, I think). Show-regular Vernon Dobtcheff turns up shortly afterwards as the less giddy, more boffiny Spencer, a representative of SMOG (Scientific Measurement of Ghosts). Mandy prefers to divine the presence of spirits by “feel”; Spencer gets the gadgets out.

So, an apparition in a cemetery, sun lamps and sun cream, a mine “collapse”, a scary bruiser keen to keep snoopers at bay. Yes, something is going on underground. In fact it’s quite a big something. And after Mrs Peel has been abducted by a “ghost”, only to wake up in a vast, subterranean modernist world of bright young people building a bold futurist society in scenes reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, we start to understand what.

It is at this point, Steed having repurposed his bowler with a miner’s lamp, while Glover’s Masgard has donned a red hard hat, colour significant, that the mists start to clear – this construction is a vast bunker being readied for the upcoming apocalypse.

The underground bunker
An impressive set by the standards of 1960s UK TV

Taking place to a large extent in the “real” world of pubs, with everyday people all over the place, it’s much more a Cathy Gale episode than an Emma Peel one. Once the action shifts underground, it becomes clear why the great documentary-maker John Krish has been brought in to direct – there is a realism to these scenes that someone like, say, Roy Ward Baker would have no interest in capturing.

The tone is jaunty, even by 1960s TV’s standards. At one point Mrs Peel kills an entire execution squad and mimics a military march as she steps by the dead bodies. It’s also noticeable that Diana Rigg – perhaps she’s been watching the rushes – has lost a touch of weight and looks more toned. Crimplene is an unforgiving fabric. In fact it was only in the previous episode, The Winged Avenger, that Diana Rigg seemed to have sorted out Mrs Peel knicker problem. Action women need action underwear.

For all its ambition, extravagant plotting and eccentric side characters, plus menace from the reliably skull-like Glover, it’s a flat episode that lacks real joie de vivre. Luckily, the following episode redresses the balance.


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The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 6 – The Winged Avenger

Emma Peel in cartoon form being menaged by a giant bird


The Winged Avenger, self-referentiality to one side, is a comic-book title and a comic-book episode – look at the framing throughout – and intriguingly suggests that The Avengers now has another genre reference point, having conclusively ditched noirish crime fiction as a motherlode even before Honor Blackman left the show at the end of series three.


Hold on to that hard because this episode is in dramatic terms dead in the water, flat, lacking interest. Though all starts well as a gigantic, semi-feathered (and entirely ridiculous) bird kills an ageing magnate (William Fox), who turns out to be the fourth publishing nabob in a row, the creature having scaled the company building to the accompaniment of much scraping of metallic talons etc.


His son (Donald Pickering), more of a ditherer than his steely dad, is next, at which point Steed and Peel’s investigation takes on some urgency. Perhaps one of the publisher’s authors is involved. Enter Nigel Green, recently of The Ipcress File (and dead in real life only five years later at the age of 47), as Sir Lexius Cray, an eccentric climbing guru whose eccentricity is demonstrated by a speech about the propriety of eating a dog against, say, tucking into his butler.


The butler, Tay-Ling, is a comic-book Chinese in the Charlie Chan style – that is to say he’s played by a white guy made up to look oriental, with with a pigtail just in case his get-up (and the frequently dropped accent of the obviously Scottish John Garrie) doesn’t convince.


We could work up a bit of outrage at this sort of cultural appropriation, or the racial insult intended, intentional or not, etc etc, if this sort of wild, absurd characterisation weren’t exactly what The Avengers is all about. If there is a shitty stick going about, everyone gets whacked with it.


On we go to another bonkers side character, Jack MacGowran as Professor Poole, a slightly meatier, slightly less camp version of Carry On star Charles Hawtrey, a guy who flaps about in a Dracula-like cape who’s invented boots that enable the wearer to walk up buildings.


Emma Peel rests her chin on John Steed's shoulder
The sort of faces you pull when you’re in something this camp


“Meanwhile, back at the apartment,” Mrs Peel says, as Peel and Steed are having one of their “meanwhile back at the apartment” explicatory conversations. It’s not only a bit of meta-reference – increasingly common – but also a direct reference to the Adam West Batman, which had debuted the previous year (in the US). In fact the whole of series five of The Avengers owes a debt to Batman writer Lorenzo Semple Jr’s pop style of writing and his strict formatting of each episode (deployed more successfully by Semple than enthusiastic magpie borrower Brian Clemens).


A comic-book outfit called Winged Avenger Enterprises is behind the whole thing, with a pair of comic-book artists – inker Arnie Packer (Neil Hallett) and writer Stanton (the always brilliantly unsettling Colin Jeavons) – allowing The Avengers to make its most audacious segway yet, from live action to actual comic-book action.


It’s brilliant, it’s audacious, it’s years ahead of its time (think Tarantino in Kill Bill) and if only it had been yoked to a plot that had some drama in it, well…


However, the big fight finale, with Batman borrowings of the words “Pow!” and “Splat”, while composer Laurie Johnson does a fair vamp of the Batman theme, is either more cock-eyed hilarity or a terrible cultural cringe. Take your pick.


Most odd. But never mind all that. How do you rate such a melding of the downright dull (the content) with the utterly fascinating (the form)? Holy critical conundrum!






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The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 5 – The Bird Who Knew Too Much

Diana Rigg and Ron Moody


Even being kind The Bird Who Knew Too Much is a fairly crap episode of The Avengers, a half-hearted rewrite of an Alan Pattillo story by Brian Clemens.


But it gets off to a quirky enough start – a man on the run is shot and, instead of shedding blood, gives out a little trickle of bird seed. Steed Fancies Pigeons: Peel Gets the Bird is what the irritating subhead card reads before action recommences after the credits with another one of “our” gang – a pigeon keeper (a “fancier” in the terminology) – winding up  backwards in a tank of wet cement. “He was a pretty solid sort of man,” Steed later explains to Peel as the two get their sleuthing into gear. “Still is,” quips Peel back at him. Terrible joke.


Bird-themed death number three is the “partner” of the “solid” dead man Frank. Whether it’s a life or business partner we never get to find out because he too is soon dead, but not before he’s pointed the finger of suspicion at one Captain Crusoe, or it might be Caruso, depending on who’s speaking (the imdb says Caruso – “uncredited”).


John Steed does some modelling with a blonde woman
John Steed supermodel!


Peel heads off to a shop specialising in birds, to meet a man called Twitter (John Wood), a Clemens eccentric with a sidekick (which is as good an indicator of villainy in The Avengers as a black hat used to be in the westerns) played by Anthony Valentine, shockingly youthful if your memory of him is as the louche Raffles in mid-1970s TV.


Steed meanwhile is at the studio of a photographer (Kenneth Cope), a vague relation of every David Bailey-like 1960s snapper – chirpy, demotic, not over-burdened by any artistic imperative – where he is soon doing a bit of impromptu modelling, thanks to a mix-up. Mrs Peel gets her turn later.

Mr Caruso is a parrot – and I’m going with Caruso: he sings, like the operatic tenor, though the spelling Crusoe works too, if you’re thinking Robinson Crusoe. This is a plot twist I’d not normally give away but it’s so obviously flagged that you wonder what on earth they were thinking. Caruso is implicated in aerial photography of a clandestine sort. Er… the end.


It’s not much of a plot, with no real surprises. But there is joy to be had from the supporting characters. Look at the expression on Diana Rigg’s face every time she has a scene with Ron Moody, playing the owner of Mr Caruso, an eccentric professor who teaches birds to speak – she looks absolutely delighted, as if the two are old friends catching up.


Kenneth Cope is bang-on as the swinging photographer, more or less warming up his “deceased” role in Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), which would go into production a year down the line. And Anthony Valentine, long streak of piss though he is, does manage to spin a bit more Raffles suaveté into his performance as the episode wears on.


Look out for what might be called the Clemens Moment – this is the point when a highly trained and hugely competent, smart and alert operative does something utterly stupid, simply to move the plot along. In this case Emma goes back to the photographer’s to steal the parrot and, hearing a noise in the darkroom, investigates, as if offering herself up for a chloroforming.


Roy Rossotti, in his directorial debut in any field, applies lush cinematic touches he must have learned as a second unit director for David Lean on the ravishingly good-looking Dr Zhivago, and it really helps unify an episode whose separate parts – the bird, the photographer – don’t quite gel.





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© Steve Morrissey 2020