Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘TV Reviews’ Category

Philip Levene turns in his third script in a row with Escape in Time, which is possibly the most peculiar one yet. I remember being quite baffled by it the first time I saw it – not because the plot is particularly difficult to follow, but because it is just so preposterously far-fetched. It opens in the time-honoured style with one of Steed’s colleagues finding his way into a rather grandly appointed house. Poking around, he tumbles through a door and finds himself in a room appointed in the style of the 17th century, where he encounters Peter Bowles (his third Avengers-baddie engagement) in a spaniel wig, who shoots him with a flintlock pistol.

At least this time Steed knows what his colleague (whose corpse is fished out of the Thames a short while later) was working on – miscreants and evil-doers have been dropping out of sight, never to be seen again. Clearly some kind of escape route is in operation, but what? Luckily, someone else is on the case, gets himself mortally stabbed (Bowles again, in a different wig and facial hair), and staggers off to Steed’s new flat (he’s moved again since series 4), where he flops carefully onto his mark and gasps a few key expositional phrases to get Steed and Mrs Peel on the right track.

A fairly witty and deftly directed sequence follows, as Steed and Emma trail a fugitive South American dictator around a warren of jokily-named shops (the barber appears to be called Todd Sweeney, for instance). The man is replaced by a double while he’s out of their sight, while Mrs Peel’s attempt to follow one of the people he meets just leads to one of several filler action sequences, where she’s menaced by a guy on a scooter in hunting pink. Naturally, Steed decides to follow the escape route himself, and meets Waldo Thyssen (Bowles again, in modern dress), who claims to have invented a time machine which he’s using to allow wealthy fugitives to elude their pursuers…

As I say, even on first viewing I was saying to my fellow watcher (this was at my Avengers viewing party, as mentioned previously), ‘It can’t really be a time machine, can it?’ (This is the point at which one inevitably says: but it’s a Philip Levene script, so you never can tell.) Well, it’s not. The plot is basically this: Bowles is playing a lunatic who likes dressing up as his ancestors. He has somehow hit upon a way of convincing wealthy criminals that they are in the past, by putting smoke and lights in their faces and then wearing a selection of wigs. They then cough up their money, at which point he kills them and disposes of the bodies so they are never found (on the face of it, it looks like he just sticks the stiffs in boxes around his house). Why doesn’t he use his infallible disappearing-corpse technique on Steed’s associate from the start, rather than dumping him in a busy river like the Thames? Why are such financially-successful crooks so gullible? How is this operation remotely profitable? (There seem to be an awful lot of people on Thyssen’s payroll, to say nothing of all the properties he seems to have a stake in.)

Oh well. Fridge logic is the enemy of a lot of these episodes, and this one at least has a few funny moments and a nice set of performances from Bowles as Thyssen’s various personae. The general surrealness of the episode and its obsession with garish dressing up (various costume changes for all the characters) means that, for me, it is the first Avengers episode which seems to anticipate the style of The Prisoner (one of that series’ more whimsical episodes, anyway). The two series were obviously in production at the same time, although this episode was broadcast in early 1967, a good eight months or so before Patrick McGoohan’s magnum opus premiered. I expect it’s a general cultural trend from around this time, which we shall see more of as we progress through the colour episodes.

Yet another Levene script follows, in the form of The See-Through Man. This is that rarest of beasts, a near-sequel to a previous Avengers episode – or at least one featuring a returning guest-star, which is nearly as unusual. Rather like Escape in Time, it’s constructed around a very peculiar piece of narrative legerdemaine, which we shall come to in a moment.

An unseen individual breaks into a Ministry of Defence facility and steals some apparently trivial documents – not just unseen, but apparently unseeable (invisible, if you prefer), as Steed and Mrs Peel arrive mid-break-in and can’t see in anyone. It turns out that the missing papers were a proposal from a mad scientist named Quilby (Roy Kinnear, in the third of his four Avengers guest spots), concerning his new invisibility formula. Quilby admits selling the formula to a company which is a front for the Other Side for an eye-watering sum.

It turns out that a couple of top agents for the Other Side (literally: they are married) are in the country and making Ambassador Brodsky (Warren Mitchell reprising his role from Two’s a Crowd, in the last of his four guest spots) rather nervous. Could it be that the opposition have actually got their hands on the secret of invisibility and are using it to ensure the British authorities can’t get Quilby to replicate his discovery for them?

The tipping point that The Avengers seems to have passed during its transition to colour is this: in one of Levene’s scripts for the previous season, the twist would be that the opposition were aliens or psychics or killer robots. In these two scripts, the twist is that they’re not – the time machine was a hoax in Escape in Time, and the invisible man in this one is a fake too. (Though quite how they manage it is utterly perplexing – I am reminded of the Douglas Adams quote about actual invisibility, specifically that ‘the technology involved in making anything invisible is so infinitely complex that nine hundred and ninety-nine billion, nine hundred and ninety-nine million, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a trillion it is much simpler and more effective just to take the thing away and do without it’. It would almost seem to be easier to actually create an invisible agent than to attempt the kind of hoax depicted here (and, if one were to be awkward, one might point out the Other Side do just that in one of the Tara King episodes, which features killers who are genuinely invisible – from some angles anyway).

Apart from this much of the episode is broad farce written around big comic turns from Roy Kinnear and especially Warren Mitchell. I don’t find these to be quite as wearisome as some commentators do, but it does seem like Diana Rigg in particular gets a bit sidelined as a result – though she does get a good scene where she reveals that she’s rumbled the Other Side’s nefarious plan to bankrupt the UK by tricking it into investing millions in researching an impossible weapon (shades of the story about how Robert Heinlein and some American SF writers came up with the notion of ‘Star Wars’ weapon satellites in the 1980s after Reagan asked them to win the Cold War for him). Possibly also notable for an odd reference to the Beatles – Brodsky claims to have concert tickets, which is rather unlikely given they’d stopped gigging by the time this episode was made. But these two episodes and the previous pair are odd in all kinds of ways; a return to something closer to normality would almost be welcome at this point.

Read Full Post »

Now, here’s a genuinely odd thing: having been watching an average of four or five episodes of The Avengers a week since April, I figured a little mini-break between series 4 and 5, coinciding with some time with my family, might not be a bad idea. So away I went, leaving all my DVDs at home. And it was all very relaxing, thanks, I have nothing at all to complain about. But, as I say, one genuinely weird thing did happen – at one point I stepped out of the room for a few moments, leaving my parents in command of the TV remote, and when I returned what should I find them watching? The first episode of series 5, which one of the high-numbers TV channel had decided to rerun with near-perfect timing. As I say, very strange.

The first episodes of series 5 were the ones I initially watched as a swivel-eyed devotee, anyway, so I know them quite well. The year was 1991 and a rerun of The New Avengers had recently concluded – this had woken up all my memories of the repeats of the original show I’d seen in the late 80s. I happened to know that the man who advised my parents on their insurance was into classic cult TV (it’s better not to ask, honestly), and on his next visit he lent me his tape of the first three episodes, which I duly had a friend copy for me. I was possibly the only teenager of my generation to organise an Avengers viewing party – one friend came along, mainly because he’d enjoyed the New Avengers repeats, I think. (Looking back on my youth sometimes, I’m almost astonished that I’m able to function in society as well as I am, these days.)

Anyway, series 5 begins with Philip Levene’s From Venus with Love, a script which was rejected for the previous year because it was ‘too bizarre’ (what, and Man-Eater of Surrey Green wasn’t?). An astronomer about his viewing is stricken by a sudden heatwave that causes his lucozade to erupt into froth. Moments later he falls dead, his hair bleached white, as a strange noise echoes about the place. The same thing happens again to another astromomer, which gives Steed and Mrs Peel something to do other than just discuss the state of the corpses – a pattern is emerging.

Yes, someone is killing off stargazers, a group who seem to get more and more eccentric as the episode goes on: there’s an aristocratic chimney-sweep, and an old soldier intent on recording his memoirs on tape, complete with sound effects. (This character, the Brigadier, is played by Jon Pertwee, a fact which invariably causes clanging cognitive dissonance in members of my former tribe. Pertwee is routinely described as the main guest star despite only being in the episode for a few minutes.) It all seems to revolve around the British Venusian Society, a club planning on launching a private space probe to the second planet – but have they inadvertently provoked the secretive Venusians into a pre-emptive strike against them?

This being a Levene script, you wouldn’t rule it out, but the actual revelation, when it comes, is possibly even weirder and certainly more convoluted: a disgruntled opthalmologist (Philip Locke, in the last of three appearances as an Avengers baddie), annoyed at the way funding for medical research has been redirected to pay for the BVS’s project, has bolted a laser gun onto the front of a sports car and is using this to kill off the society’s membership (everyone assumes the vehicle is a UFO, for some reason).

On the other hand, the credibility of the script is certainly matched by its scientific accuracy and its general coherence: at one point, Mrs Peel is telling Steed about the BVS for the first time, at which point the chimney-sweep is killed by the ‘UFO’. She promptly jumps into her Lotus and gives chase (apparently not giving much thought to why the UFO is using the public highway). We then have a series of scenes in which Steed locates, visits, and talks to members of the BVS (Barbara Shelley and Derek Newark turn up in decent roles). Then the action cuts back to Mrs Peel, who is still chasing the UFO. How long has she been doing this for? Common sense suggests it must have been hours.

Of course, we have departed the realm of common sense now: The Avengers, which was once a fairly straight detective show, and then became an off-beat adventure series, has now entered the realms of total fantasy, where the simple fact that things happen is much more important than how or why they happen. This is reflected in the increasingly formalistic and stylised nature of the show, with the ‘we’re needed’ and tag scenes bookending each story (Channel 4 cut these for the 1980s repeat run). One wonders how much of this was a natural development from the previous season, and how much a deliberate choice to court the American market which the producers now had half an eye on (the attentive viewer will note the opening title card announces ‘The Avengers in Color‘ – note the spelling).

Speaking of which, the switch to colour does encourage some spectacular, if not downright garish, decisions from the costuming and art departments: at one point we see Steed lounging about in what appears to be a maroon silk tuxedo with a mauve shirt, while a purple jumpsuit seems to have become Emma’s outfit of choice. (It’s not just them: in the next episode one of the villains is wearing magenta socks.) One is almost inclined to feel sorry for the retinas of our American cousins, given that this show wasn’t broadcast in colour on its original UK showing (colour TV didn’t start here until the end of the decade, and remained something of a minority pursuit until the mid-1970s).

Anyway, the script department was probably right: From Venus with Love is just too weird to work as a coherent episode. Nevertheless, Levene has another go with The Fear Merchants. This opens with a man in his pyjamas waking up in a sports stadium and promptly having a fit of the ab-dabs. It seems he is a leading figure in the UK ceramics industry, a number of whom have recently had complete psychological breakdowns in equally odd circumstances: turning up on mountain tops, in canoes out at sea, and so on. Evidence points towards one Jeremy Raven, an ambitious young businessman who seems intent on cornering the market by any means necessary…

Watching the episode again now, one’s first reaction is that something very odd seems to have been going on in the casting department: solid character actors like Andrew Keir, Bernard Horsfall and Edward Burnham are cast in one-scene parts (Burnham and Horsfall barely get any dialogue), while as the ambitious and ruthless young Raven they have secured the services of Brian Wilde (then 40), best known for playing the timorous screw Barraclough in Porridge and ex-army bore Foggy in Last of the Summer Wine. On the other hand, Patrick Cargill plays the villain (again) with his usual aplomb, while there’s a nicely underplayed turn as his henchman from Garfield Morgan (resembling a young Eric Morecambe somewhat).

In the end the plot makes a bit more sense than the previous week’s, but it’s a near thing. Cargill and his cronies have set up a management consultancy firm (the ‘Business Efficiency Bureau’) which functions by eradicating their client’s competitors. How do they do this? Psychological analysis identifies their underlying phobias, which are then ruthlessly exploited. Fair enough, it is a reasonable basis for the episode (much of it is a series of set-piece ‘phobia’ sequences) – but if you have hit upon a method of giving anyone a nervous breakdown, isn’t there an easier way of monetising this than going through all these shenanigans with management consultancy? The Business Efficiency Bureau is not, itself, the most efficient of cover operations: one wonders just how many small businessmen they have to drive into a stupor to pay for their office space. Still, Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg are clearly not taking it too seriously, which is sensible, and as a result it stays watchable and fun. One does sense that the edge of the best series 4 episodes has been dulled, though, perhaps permanently.

*

Anyone who’s been reading along with this cruise through The Avengers – an attempt to find some positivity in fairly dismal times – may recall that I started shortly after the death of Honor Blackman back in April. Since I wrote the above the news has broken of the passing of Dame Diana Rigg, giving these current pieces a resonance I could frankly have happily lived without. While it was The Avengers that brought Rigg to fame, it was really only a relatively small part of a tremendously distinguished and successful career, ranging from doing Chekhov on stage to being (briefly) the first Mrs James Bond. There was also a terrific performance in Theatre of Blood, and an award-winning one in the 1989 BBC drama Mother Love. However, one way or another I think it is for Emma Peel and The Avengers that Diana Rigg will be remembered, and remembered for a long time. An exceptional talent. RIP.

Read Full Post »

The penultimate episode of The Avengers‘ fourth season is How to Succeed… At Murder, written by Brian Clemens. This is the fourth episode out of the last five to be written by Clemens; given how strongly he started this run he could be forgiven for flagging a little bit by this point, and a totally impartial observer might suggest this is indeed the case.

The story opens with a typical office scene: a hard-working businessman giving instructions over the intercom to his long-suffering secretary. She clearly feels she has suffered quite long enough as she proceeds to don a tin hat and blast him out of the window with high explosives! Very quickly it becomes clear that a secret society of murderous secretaries has been formed and is doing its best to advance the interests of the people who really do all the work in big business…

Of course, the deaths of eleven top businessmen by foul play is likely to be noticed and Steed and Mrs Peel are soon on the case, with Steed doing his best to come up with a motive for the string of deaths – nothing seems to connect them, nor those benefitting from them – while the whiff of a clue – the faintest trace of a perfume, left at the scene of one of the killings and captured in a tyre pump – sends Emma to the offices of the owner of the greatest nose in London, Mr J.J. Hooter (Christopher Benjamin).

Unfortunately, Hooter’s own secretary is part of the plot and bumps him off, which at least gives our heroes the inkling of a clue as to what’s going on: all the secretaries are introducing such fiendishly byzantine office management systems that, when the ostensible boss dies, the only person capable of taking over is them (diabolical scheme or not, I must confess that this was part of my own sacking-avoidance strategy in my last substantial office job). Soon enough Steed is advertising for his own secretarial assistance, while Emma is working hard to position herself as a potential recruit for the scheme…

It sounds like a set-up with potential, and there are some typical Avengers touches going on – the diabolical mastermind delivers their instructions to the group via a remote-controlled ventriloquist’s dummy, while Christopher Benjamin – a character actor quite at home giving a very big performance, given the right script – has fun with his small role as Hooter. But the villain’s real motivation, when it comes to light, drags the episode off into the realm of melodrama, which isn’t a place where the series feels particularly comfortable, and in places it all feels a little bit strained – trying too hard to be whimsical.

There’s also something not-quite-right about the whole main thrust of the episode, which concerns put-upon secretaries rising up in an act of rebellion. You could argue that this is Clemens actually being a bit prescient about the rise of the women’s liberation movement, given that some accounts indicate it didn’t really establish itself in the UK until 1968 (this episode was first shown in 1966), but – quite apart from the fact that the feminists are the bad guys – it doesn’t really present the women killers as particularly bright or effective: they are basically stooges for someone whose motivation isn’t as it first appears, and haven’t been bright enough to figure this out for themselves. When Steed finds himself attacked by two of them, he ends up sitting on the first, with the second over his knee as he tickles the information he needs out of her. Other than (as ever) Mrs Peel, this is hardly the most stirring depiction of emancipated womanhood. I mean, it’s not awful, but there are other much better episodes this season.

(Also perhaps worthy of mention is a prop noticeboard which bears a curious resemblance to one from Quick-Quick Slow Death: at least some of the names – the non-plot-relevant ones – are the same. Whether this is just an example of the producers being thrifty (some other props get re-used across the series) or if there’s an in-joke going on here I don’t know.)

Yet another Clemens script closes out the season – which, for anyone keeping score, means that practically the last fifth of it is all the work of the same writer (which to me suggests at least a minor crisis in the script department). This final episode is entitled Honey for the Prince and opens with Clemens deploying a device he would later work practically to death on The New Avengers.

Two agents enter a room filled with cod-Arabian decor and objects; there is inevitably a small oil lamp, which one of them rubs. Poof! An assassin with a submachinegun appears in a cloud of smoke and opens up at them both. After the title card we are into a charming scene (virtually the only one on location in the episode) with Steed and Mrs Peel practically skipping home together from a party, clearly having a wonderful time in each other’s company. This changes when they get to Steed’s flat, of course, where they find an about-to-expire agent waiting for them. Naturally he can only utter a couple of suggestive words – ‘genie’ and ‘honey’ – before pegging out.

A quick trip to the apartment of the other dead agent – he is the kind of man who keeps a framed photo of himself on his desk, just so the audience know whose room this is – reveals about forty jars of honey in the cupboard, and all this after a suspicious character is stumbled upon burning key papers (he gets away). The honey is from the shop of the first of this episode’s eccentrics, a Mr B. Bumble, while a fortuitous phone-call to one of the dead men, intercepted by Steed, suggests a connection to a company called QQF.

It seems that QQF – run by another eccentric, this one played by Ron Moody – specialises in making people’s fantasies a reality (being a cowboy, winning the battle of Waterloo, and so on). The owner’s suggestion to Steed is that he leaves reality behind by trying the life of a glamorous secret agent for a bit, which Steed treats with a straight bat. It turns out that someone has been using QQF’s services to live out their fantasy of ‘assassinating the Prince of Barabia’ (one of those obscure but important countries that often turn up in these episodes), which is of course a wonderful way of planning to do it for real.

Not-bad stuff so far, but the episode takes a bit of a left turn in the closing stages, most of which take place within the Barabian Embassy. The Prince himself is played by Zia Mohyeddin, and is a cricket-loving Anglophile, who can’t stand honey but whose wives – of which there are a very great number – love the stuff, forcing him to buy it in bulk. As the assassination is set to be carried out within the Prince’s harem, this presents Steed with a bit of an issue, as only eunuchs and the Prince himself are allowed inside…

Cue what I believe the kids call ‘fan service’, as Mrs Peel is pressed into service as a belly dancer to grab the Prince’s attention and join his collection of wives. It’s fairly amusing stuff, though I kept finding myself thinking of Carry On Up the Khyber – not that there’s anything wrong with this classic film, of course, but it’s a very different viewing experience from the traditional Avengers episode. Probably there are a few too many traditional Arabian stereotypes on display for comfort, too, although the script isn’t afraid to be inappropriate in other ways too. ‘I counted only six veils,’ says a slightly disappointed Prince following Emma’s dance routine. ‘Very poorly educated,’ replies Steed – but the gag is then soured when (to try and dissuade the amorous nobleman) he suggests that Mrs Peel is also ‘retarded’, which any way you slice it is a bum note by modern standards. Not the best way of ending a run which has, by any rational standard, been a slice of TV heaven, but back before the advent of the ‘season finale’ this sort of thing used to happen fairly regularly, and it’s only because the series at its best has been so exceptional that the occasional slightly wobbly instalment stands out.

Read Full Post »

Brian Clemens writes his third episode in a row with The House that Jack Built, and the impression one can’t help but have is of someone with enviable versatility: A Touch of Brimstone is a knowing black comedy, What the Butler Saw much more of a knockabout farce, and The House that Jack Built is something else again and much more serious.

It opens with, we are invited to assume, an escaped convict on the run – the man manages to overpower one of his pursuers and take his gun, then breaks into a lonely old country house. The place seems musty and deserted, until he opens a door and finds himself facing a charging lion…

Meanwhile, Steed is developing some holiday snaps when Emma visits him with the news she’s just inherited a house – from an uncle she never even knew existed! (And no alarm bells whatsoever seem to ring…) She’s been posted the key by the solicitor involved and is off to check the place out. It’s only after she’s gone that Steed notices the rather unusual effect the key has had on his photographic plates. He suggests to a colleague that the key has some sort of electronic property, but it looks more like that it’s rather radioactive. But anyway. Smelling a rat, he takes steps to ensure Mrs Peel’s safety before setting off after her.

Pausing only to pick up a rather sinister boy scout, Mrs Peel arrives at her new property (which, hardly surprisingly, is the same old house from the top of the episode). All seems reasonably normal at first, until she finds herself trapped in what seems to be an impossible maze of repeating rooms and corridors. After her explorations indicate she has somehow stumbled into a realm where logic just doesn’t apply, she actually seems on the verge of losing it – but manages to keep things together. In a curious device (well-suited to a rather experimental episode) we are given the privilege of hearing Mrs Peel’s interior monologue as she attempts to figure out just what has happened to her.

I am tempted to say that what has happened is that Patrick Macnee was due a week’s holiday and this is the solo-Emma counterpart to The Girl from Auntie (Steed is absent from much of the episode, and many of Macnee’s contributions are on location). What has happened in terms of the story is that an aggrieved former employee of Knight Industries (a corporation which Emma apparently runs, or used to run before she joined the series) has decided to exact his revenge: the man is, or was, an expert in automation (no doubt he moved in the same circles as Dr Armstrong from The Cybernauts) and has converted the house into a sort of cybernetic death-trap for Emma’s benefit. The nasty twist is that the house doesn’t actually kill you, it just drives you insane, to the point where you make use of the ‘suicide booth’ its creator has thoughtfully provided…

It’s a very different episode from other recent offerings, much less of an obvious comedy, and in parts almost a single-hander for Diana Rigg as she explores the labyrinth inside the house. (Could it be the producers had decided that an episode could include fantastical plot elements, or be made in an off-beat, comic style, but not both at the same time?) The robot house instantly puts one in mind of one of the more overtly science-fictional episodes, but it does seem to me that (if you discard the SF element) this is just as much a remake of Don’t Look Behind You as season five’s The Joker – in all three, Steed’s partner is lured to a remote country house by an obsessive figure from their past; Steed has a much reduced role and – apart from a few peripheral eccentrics – the female lead basically carries the episode.

Possibly it’s also worth noting that, for all his obvious versatility, Clemens seems to have handled these ‘solo’ episodes very differently depending on who’s the lead. Steed gets put into spoof-Christie scenarios, with large groups of eccentric strangers being picked off one-by-one (I’m thinking of Dressed to Kill and The Superlative Seven) – Cathy and Emma are lured off to old dark houses for a spot of implied fem jeop. (See also some of the exploitation movie scripts written by Clemens.) Oh well – the characters are emancipated even if the scripts sometimes aren’t. This episode is a bit of a curiosity, let down by a weak climax, but a good showcase for Diana Rigg’s monumental talent.

I’m the not the greatest scholar when it come to the production of The Avengers (not compared to some other shows, anyway), but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Martin Woodhouse’s A Sense of History was an unproduced script from season three (maybe even season two) given a light polish and then pressed into service to fill a gap in the schedule here (even Brian Clemens may have demurred at writing four scripts in a row, although the annals of TV history do record heroic figures who have achieved far greater feats – Terry Nation wrote the first fourteen Blake’s 7s, while Joe Straczynski wrote fifty-seven episodes of Babylon 5 in a row (and seventy of the last seventy-one). It certainly feels like a video-taped episode in some ways: limited in scope, with subplots amongst the guest characters, while Steed seems to have reverted to being a much harder and more ruthless man than he’s been in a while (cheerfully talking about breaking someone’s arm to make a point) – Emma is written much ‘straighter’ than usual, too.

The episode opens with a distinguished economist, noted for his plan to create a modern-day utopia by combining all the economies of Europe for the good of all (strange to realise it was once possible to suggest such notions in the UK without being denounced as a traitor or a fantasist), being ambushed by a group of students apparently intent on a rag week prank – but the prank turns deadly and the man is left with an arrow in him.

Steed and Mrs Peel are soon on the case, accompanied by the victim’s assistant, Richard Carlyon (the name is a fairly obvious pun, tying in with the episode’s Robin Hood motif) – Carlyon is played by Nigel Stock, a capable character actor perhaps best known for his association with various Sherlock Holmes adaptations, but also the gentleman recruited to fill in as protagonist of The Prisoner when Patrick McGoohan was unavailable for one episode. The only clue is that the dead man was on his way to one of the grand old universities, where he was due to meet with someone holding entirely different opinions, who had good reason not to wish him well.

So it’s off to St. Stock Footage University for most of the rest of the episode (the name of the institution differs depends on whether it’s written or spoken, presumably because after they filmed the episode they found out there really was a St Bede’s, forcing a hasty overdub as St. Bode’s in post-production). Emma is a visiting lecturer, Steed is a former graduate doing some research into newts (naturally), the faculty are musty and eccentric and the students are revolting (most prominent amongst them are Patrick Mower – latterly an Emmerdale stalwart, but previously a decent juvenile lead and purveyor of various hard-man types in shows like Target – and Jacqueline Pearce, still playing the kind of fragile-victim role she always seemed stuck with until she cut her hair and became Supreme Commander of the universe in Blake’s 7).

A lot of the episodes from this series are beginning to acquire a sort of swinging-sixties vibe, but this one feels more like the fifties, mainly due to the depiction of the students – ties and gowns and very coffee-bar radical. Most of the plot revolves around trying to find out who wrote a rather concerning political thesis found amongst the victim’s effects, which doesn’t make for the most fully-developed episode, although the identity of this week’s diabolical mastermind is unusually difficult to guess – Steed and Mrs Peel have three goes before finally bagging the right person. Most of the episode isn’t especially memorable, though, but it does score strongly for the final act, set during a Robin Hood-themed fancy dress party (various gags about Steed’s droopy sword, while Mrs Peel looks devastating in her costume, maybe even more so than in the famous one from A Touch of Brimstone). Some consolations here, but slightly below-standard in many ways.

Read Full Post »

As I have mentioned before, as we get towards the close of The Avengers‘ fourth season, there is perhaps the faintest sense of things becoming a tiny bit formulaic – but with a formula as good as this one, where’s the problem? Roger Marshall’s The Danger Makers opens with a lone motorcyclist doing dangerous high-speed runs across a rural junction (apparently this was known as ‘chicken-running’). Soon enough the inevitable happens, and he bounces his bike off the side of a lorry, bringing his biker career to a permanent halt. But rather than someone young and foolish, the dead rider turns out to be a distinguished, white-haired army general, wearing a black rose on his uniform…

And not the first senior military figure to die or be seriously injured in unusual circumstances recently – or so Steed tells Mrs Peel. There seems to have been quite a crop of them doing insanely hazardous things – chicken-running, climbing St Paul’s Cathedral, crossing the Atlantic in a canoe, and so on. What on earth is going on? Steed’s investigations take him to the most recent victim’s posting, where he meets his colleague Major Robertson (Nigel Davenport), who speaks in glowing terms of the dead man. So do the junior officers, but they also report the general was prone to doing odd things – swimming the local reservoir in full battle-dress, for instance.

We the audience are already aware that Robertson has some odd personal habits – playing Russian roulette by himself, likewise playing chicken with live grenades – so it is not really a surprise when he receives orders (unofficially) to silence one of the few survivors of these acts of military eccentricity. This he does – leaving the four white feathers of cowardice on the body…

Steed receives a clue from a soon-to-be-killed minor character (there’s that formula again) that leads him to Manton House, a military museum (run by a sort of low-key version of the crazed innocent stock character, played by Fabia Drake this week) and home to the Danger Makers, a society of black-rose-wearing military types longing to place themselves in mortal jeopardy (they are quite disgusted by the push-button nature of modern warfare), all with Roman and Greek-type codenames (Mercury, Pegasus, Apollo, etc). On infiltrating the group Steed assigns himself the nickname Bacchus (presumably from his aspect as god of wine rather than religious ecstasy). ‘I might have guessed,’ says Emma, on hearing of this. But who is the mastermind behind the Danger Makers and what’s he up to?

Nothing especially distinguished about the first half, but the home straight of the episode is filled with cracking scenes – Emma tries to join the club, and has to play a version of one of those wire loop games, but on a massive scale, and with lethal voltage running through the wires. There’s another big sword fight between our heroes and the club members – everyone grabbing weapons off the walls, and of course Steed ends up with a feather duster. Best of all is what I think is one of the definitive Steed scenes, in which he starts off hand-cuffed to the wall and awaiting his executioner. Just how he persuades Robertson to uncuff him and hand over his gun I will not reveal (go and watch the episode), but it is brillantly written and performed by Macnee and Davenport and very, very funny. The revelation of the identity of this week’s diabolical mastermind is hardly a surprise (there’s only really one candidate) but this hardly spoils another very entertaining episode.

Next up is Brian Clemens’ A Touch of Brimstone, which I find I have already reviewed at length, upon the occasion of its writer’s passing in 2015. Like The Danger Makers, it features a secret society, someone taking a fancy to Mrs Peel, and a rousing climax with Steed getting a great character moment and a big sword-fight: but the overall impression is quite different, mainly due to the highly kinky atmosphere the episode generates. Looking back I see that past-me was pretty much on the ball, although he didn’t clock the unusually dominant role given to the villain, who comes across almost a malevolent anti-Steed. Nevertheless an iconic and justly famous episode.

Clemens turns in two on the trot with What the Butler Saw, which makes up for the lack of mystery in the previous episode by having a diabolical mastermind whose identity is almost impossible to guess (largely because it doesn’t make a great deal of sense). After a hook scene with said (unseen) mastermind listening to a complaint from an unhappy underling, then summoning his own butler (who brings a gun to dispose of the malcontent), the episode opens with Steed getting a tip-off that someone is selling secrets to the Other Side – naturally, his source is bumped off seconds later.

The three possible candidates are an admiral, a brigadier and a group-captain, which is the cue for one of the most absurd sequences in the whole of The Avengers, as Steed adopts a different identity to check up on each one. It’s largely the same scene played out three times, except for variation’s in Steed’s cover, as he visits the admiral (Steed is Commander Red, with an impressive beard, arriving by motor launch), the brigadier (Major White, pencil moustache, arriving by armoured car) and the group-captain (Squadron-Leader Blue, handlebar moustache, arriving by helicopter). It seems the admiral likes to gamble, the brigadier likes to drink, and the group-captain likes girls. I leave it to the attentive reader to guess which of the suspects he asks Mrs Peel to get closer to.

Meanwhile, Steed has noticed that two of the possible traitors have butlers who came from the same place – a school for butlers and gentlemens’ gentlemen (motto: ‘They also serve who also stand and wait’), mostly run by Thorley Walters (a fine and very watchable actor, not much remembered these days) – an odd coincidence is that as well as Walters (who played one of Dracula’s thralls in Dracula: Prince of Darkness), the cast also contains Ewan Hooper (who played Dracula’s thrall in Dracula Has Risen From The Grave). It’s a small (or possibly thrall) world sometimes.

There is indeed a sliver of plot buried here somewhere about secrets being stolen and sold on, but this is the most blatant Maguffin: the episode is almost a pure comedy, and not a particularly black one, either. From Steed’s facial hair and silly disguises, we move on to Mrs Peel’s unorthodox manner of attracting her target’s attention, and the highlight of the episode follows, as she has to contend with the over-amorous gentleman (a fun performance by Denis Quilley) with Steed in the vicinity as his new butler. This is before we even get to the scene depicting security arrangements for the three suspects’ secret meetings (they climb into a plastic sack together) or Steed battling (or possibly butling) with an enemy domestic played by John le Mesurier. All the jokes land, but the action sequences are decent too, and the results are almost wholly joyous.

Read Full Post »

Genre’s a funny old thing, especially when you start playing games with it. I used to watch a lot of rather formulaic American TV shows and in some cases the only specific episodes I can remember are the ones which stirred a big dollop of fantasy or horror into an otherwise naturalistic set-up: both CHiPs and Matt Houston did episodes about alien abductions, while there were also episodes of Quantum Leap featuring vampires and the Devil. As we have recently touched upon, British series have sometimes done the same thing – just today they repeated the episode of The Saint with the giant ants in it, while we’ve been talking about those episodes of The Avengers which included things like alien plants and genuine telepathy, rather than the usual tongue-in-cheek whimsy. (I suppose it works the other way too: the various Star Trek series would very occasionally do a show which was SF only in virtue of its setting.)

In conjunction with this, I recently mentioned the Bergerac Christmas special from 1986, which is a) exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about and b) memorable for being properly scary (at least it was when I was not yet in my teens). Bergerac, for those not in the know, was a sort of precursor to modern shows like Death in Paradise and Midsummer Murders, in that it was built around competently-presented detective story plots (with perhaps a touch more action to them than usual), occurring against an attractive, escapist background. To pay for the thing, the BBC went into partnership with an Australian network, and quite possibly the Jersey tourist board too, given this is where the series is largely set.

Our lead character is Jim Bergerac (played by John Nettles), a detective with the (fictitious) Bureau des Etrangers, a usefully vague fictitious branch of the Jersey police. Bergerac has the two essential attributes of a 1980s TV detective, namely a memorable car (a 1947 Triumph roadster, it says here) and a complicated personal life (he is divorced and has a history of alcoholism).

The Christmas show in question is entitled Fires in the Fall, and was written by Chris Boucher (this must have been one of the last things he did on the show before departing to focus on Star Cops, which we have also discussed recently). The tone is quite properly set by a scene in a darkened graveyard and what sounds like a child’s voice chanting a nursery rhyme. Yes, this is going to be a bit spooky. The plot itself gets underway with Bergerac’s father-in-law, local tycoon Charlie Hungerford (Terence Alexander), asking for his help in exposing a man named Raoul Barnaby (Barrie Ingham) whom Charlie believes to be a fake medium (widescale cognitive dissonance ensues for anyone used to John Nettles himself playing a character named Barnaby in Midsummer Murders).

Barnaby has been attempting to insert himself into the good graces of wealthy local widow Roberta Jardine (Margaretta Scott), a friend of Charlie’s, by trying to contact her late husband. Jim and his partner Susan (the great Louise Jameson) duly attend the seance, something Susan is not entirely pleased about following a rather eerie experience at an old house she is involved in selling. Further odd events ensue at the seance, with the voice of a young girl being heard, strange scratches appearing, and a grave in an one of the island’s cemeteries bursting into flame at the same time.

Barnaby appears convinced he has been contacted by the spirit of the girl whose grave was interfered with, and goes to the press with this – a scummy reporter (Paul Brooke) duly appears – which in turn forces Bergerac’s boss to task him with finally closing the case on the girl’s death. Apparently she was the only victim of a spree of arsons back in the 1960s, but what is the connection to the Jardine family? It turns out the cop who was assigned to the case back then retired after it went nowhere – well, not quite ‘retired’, but took a well-paid job with Jardine’s company. There are also some irregularities involved with the firm of undertakers who handled the interment.

Bergerac thinks he’s cracked the case – the arson attacks back in the 1960s were the work of Mrs Jardine’s disturbed son, who is known to have committed suicide. Bergerac thinks he killed himself out of guilt, after being responsible for the girl’s accidental death, and the family covered up the scandal. Now Mrs Jardine’s rapacious niece (Amanda Hillwood) has uncovered the family’s dark secret, and – in partnership with Barnaby, an old associate of hers – is using it to damage her aunt’s mental stability to the point where they can fake her suicide, allowing them to inherit the family fortune.

So far, a satisfying and clever detective story, as smart and cynical as the best of Boucher’s work elsewhere. The supernatural trappings just seem to be set dressing, fun though they are. But what was that scene with the spooky old house all about? Before we even have time to ponder that, things abruptly take a different turn. Mrs Jardine abruptly rumbles Barnaby as a fraud after he affects to receive messages from her dead son. The corrupt copper involved in the cover-up (Ron Pember) and Barnaby himself are found dead in mysterious circumstances, with a black-robed figure seen near them shortly before, both times.

It turns out that the dead son did not in fact die: he was just horribly burned and smuggled off to a Swiss sanatorium by his mother, with the story of his death put about to facilitate the cover-up. Now, it seems, he is back in Jersey, and seeking revenge on the individuals involved in his mother’s murder (quite why he offs the bent copper is a bit of a plot hole). It also seems that he used to live in the spooky old house where Susan had her scary experience at the start…

Cue a rather creepy sequence where Susan is stalked around the old house again by the cowled spectre – all of the set-piece ‘phantom attacks’ are very well directed, with Tom Clegg the gentleman responsible. Perhaps running and screaming is a bit less than Louise Jameson deserves as a performer, but Bergerac was a show with a very large and unwieldy regular cast at this point (there’s Bergerac, his girlfriend, his ex-father-in-law, his ex-wife, his daughter, his boss, his boss’ secretary, two other detectives from the Bureau, and a nightclub owner of his acquaintance) and I suppose this was as elegant a way of incorporating all of them into the plot as any. It’s almost a shame they don’t make more of this horror angle, but the script still manages to bring it into the resolution of the main story: the villain confesses to the murder after glimpsing Nemesis over the shoulder of an oblivious, genially sceptical Bergerac: an almost uncannily creepy moment.

And Boucher still hasn’t quite finished – the final twist of the episode is that the believed-dead son has not snuck back to Jersey, killed his mother’s tormentors and then escaped. According to the Swiss staff, he has been there in the sanatorium all the time. Nettles delivers this information with a completely straight face, in complete contrast to the amused scepticism about the supernatural that’s been going in. It’s very nicely pitched, in fact: it’s up to the viewer to decide whether this a simple case of the Swiss staff getting it wrong, or some sort of psychic projection, or something even stranger and more obscure. Anyone who doesn’t like Christmas ghost stories is afforded just enough wriggle-room to be able to avoid feeling peeved.

At the time this felt like a fun seasonal change of pace, but it seems that Bergerac did its first horror-tinged episode earlier in the same season (I should say that every other episode was shown in 1985) – What Dreams May Come, starring Charles Gray (and very much informed by Gray’s appearance in The Devil Rides Out). The annual excursion into something a bit supernatural became something of a Bergerac tradition (I remember my teenage sister being genuinely scared by 1990’s The Dig, about a Viking burial site with a spectral guardian), but I don’t think any of them were quite as effective as Fires in the Fall (maybe the ninety-minute run-time helps the story and atmosphere develop). No-one, I think, would describe Bergerac as a genuinely classic piece of TV, but this is a solidly entertaining episode.

 

Read Full Post »

Tony Williamson’s Too Many Christmas Trees is another very popular episode (or so I understand) which once again feels like it’s pushing the format of the series. It was The Avengers‘ Christmas episode for December 1965, which may explain the Dickensian elements deftly inserted into the script, as well as the titular arboreal growths.

Steed is troubled by restless nights (and little wonder, you might think) – recurring nightmares featuring a malevolent Father Christmas and the death of a long-standing colleague. When he tells Mrs Peel about this, she suggests the explanation is quite simple (she is an expert in psychoanalysis this week) – the colleague is under suspicion for leaking secrets and Steed has been tasked with ending the leak. Subconsciously he wishes the man were dead so he will be spared this disagreeable task. Steed is somewhat reassured, until he learns his colleague really has pegged it – are his nightmares precognitive on top of everything else?

Well, to take his mind off things, Emma drags Steed along to a Christmas houseparty at the home of a renowned Dickens-loving eccentric (Mervyn Johns). Unfortunately, both of them are unwittingly being manipulated, by a cabal of psychics who are controlling Steed’s dreams (and somewhat influencing his waking moments too). Can Mrs Peel figure out what’s happening before Steed’s sanity goes completely to bits?

All this, and an in-joke about Goldfinger, too (Steed gets a post-card from Mrs Gale, posted from Fort Knox). Apparently this was a favourite of Patrick Macnee’s, as well, which doesn’t really surprise me given the actor’s keenness to include more paranormal and supernatural elements in the series. I suppose that pitting our heroes against no-two-ways-about-it actual telepaths isn’t quite as out there as man-eating alien plants, but it still feels like a step over some sort of line; I just wish I knew what that line was.

Nevertheless, a fun and solid episode with some nicely-realised dream sequences and some lovely dialogue between our heroes, not to mention the stirring sight of Diana Rigg in her Oliver Twist costume. The episode’s Christmassiness is basically limited to the Dickensian elements – though I suppose the story has a sort of seasonal spookiness to it, as well. (It occurs to me that even a show like Bergerac did a full-on ghost story at Christmas one year, and I didn’t have a problem with that, so why do I have an issue with The Avengers occasionally doing genuine sci-fi or paranormal fantasy? Hmmm.) Apparently there’s a lift from The Lady from Shanghai in there somewhere too. A rich blend here, whichever way you look at it.

Roger Marshall’s Silent Dust is a very odd mixture of the deadly serious and the highly whimsical – the opening sequence shows the English countryside at its loveliest, an idyll which is abruptly punctured when the birds literally start dropping dead out of the sky. (Which, if nothing else, shows that the similarity of the episode title to that of Rachel Carson’s epochal ecological book Silent Spring is entirely intentional.) Steed and Mrs Peel appear on the scene (by punt, naturally), to investigate the sudden disappearance of our feathered friends. You would have thought this might be rather out of Steed’s line, but for the fact that something very similar has happened before.

Steed visits the site, a whole area rendered a barren wasteland by a fertiliser which went horribly wrong – a substance codenamed ‘silent dust’. Could it be that someone has got their hands on the formula for silent dust and is planning on employing it for nefarious purposes?

Well, yes, of course it could. The actual plot is fairly pedestrian stuff (or perhaps that should be equestrian, given the amount of riding going on), but the episode is memorable for the strange way it is pitched between very serious elements (ecological terrorism, Steed being shot and passing out from the pain) and equally whimsical ones (Steed has a bizarre wild west-style hallucination when Emma takes out the buckshot, while the whole climax is a uproarious hunting-themed sequence – Steed defeats one bad guy by belting him over the head with a ‘Stop the Violence’ placard taken from a hunt saboteur).  Nevertheless, the result is an episode with a rather distinct and not disagreeable flavour and some nice performances amongst the supporting cast.

Marshall also writes Room Without a View, which I am tempted to say is where I came in: back in around 1985, the newest commercial channel in the UK had hit upon the wheeze of building audiences by showing classic TV shows around tea-time – The Munsters, Danger Man, and – of course – The Avengers, a show which I was probably vaguely aware of at best. And this was the first episode I saw, although my memory of that first viewing is obviously somewhat confused (what I recall as being the hook scene actually comes about halfway through).

The actual hook has a young woman (Jeanne Roland, uncredited for some reason) hosting a dinner party – which is unexpectedly crashed by her husband, who disappeared over a year ago! It seems he is a top boffin, but he is in a terrible physical and mental state and cannot look at his (Asian) wife without being moved to violence. Assessment indicates he has spent the intervening time in a prison camp somewhere in communist China. Before Steed and Mrs Peel can get much more out of him, he disappears again, kidnapped – it would seem – by the local Chinese laundry.

More than one top scientist has disappeared recently and so Steed decides to keep an eye on another one due to be travelling abroad – by a weird coincidence, he’s staying in the same hotel as the one the brainwashed boffin checked into before he vanished! What are the chances? Sure enough, the man who checks out is not the one who checks in… but how does all of this connect with a brutal Chinese prison camp?

Well, I have to say that after a number of episodes dealing with gimmicks like killer alien plants and telepathy, it’s nice to be back in the realm of something traditional and down to earth like a Communist interrogation facility hidden inside a luxury hotel. (The episode pulls the same kind of psychogeographic stunt as The Ipcress File, the Colony Three episode of Danger Man, and, I suppose, virtually all of The Prisoner, suggesting that what really matters is the country you think you’re in.) The rest of the plotting isn’t quite as strong as the premise, but there are some lovely scenes as Steed infiltrates the hotel in the guise of a renowned epicurean. On the other hand, it’s really lacking a strong villain, and it’s not like it’s short of candidates – Philip Latham, Peter Jeffrey, Peter Arne, and Paul Whitsun-Jones all appear in supporting roles, but the actual bad guy is more comic than genuinely threatening. The vagaries of the production schedule tripped up the episode ever-so-slightly on first broadcast – one character states the year is 1965, when it was first shown at the beginning of January 1966. Nevertheless, a solid mid-table entry.

Read Full Post »

Roger Marshall delivers his second script in a row with Dial a Deadly Number, which manages to blow its main gimmick before the end of its hook scene (the title itself is a dead giveaway). A top company director, who, it is made very clear, has just started carrying a pocket pager (younger readers, ask your grandparents), is struck down in mid-board meeting. It turns out he is just the latest in a long line of suspicious deaths in the world of high finance, and all the dead men shared the same banker…

Yes, so we’re off into the world of banking and stockbroking this week (a world which seems to subsist entirely on sherry, biscuits and vintage wine), with Peter Bowles and John Carson coming back as villains (I really don’t mean to go on about this, but it isn’t just that Bowles and Carson previously appeared in the videotaped incarnation of the show – more than once, in Carson’s case – they were both in the same episode). The main gag of the episode – killer pagers – is hardly a mystery to the viewer, and so it gets its mileage from a convoluted plot (perhaps a bit too convoluted) with possibly the odd hole in it and perhaps a slightly harder edge than usual – Steel is at his steeliest, even apparently carrying a gun, and Carson is playing a genuinely nasty psychopath. This is also that very rare beast, a filmed Avengers episode with occasionally clumsy direction – for instance, a jarring moment where the line is crossed (film school jargon for a particular kind of lapse in visual continuity) during Steed and Emma’s first scene together.

Still, the show is on such a roll at this point that even an episode which isn’t quite firing on all cylinders is still pretty good stuff, and there are still some very nice moments here – most of them set in and around the wine cellar which just happens to be underneath the bad guys’ merchant bank offices. Slightly fluffed but by no means spoiled, I think.

I’ve never quite been able to warm up to Man-Eater of Surrey Green, written by Philip Levene, simply because it’s an outlier in the way that no other episode really is (well, maybe Warlock sort of qualifies). Levene introduced full-blooded sci-fi to the Avengers formula in The Cybernauts, very successfully; perhaps this is an attempt to do something similar.

The episode opens with some young horticulturists in love, stealing moments in the greenhouse – but then she comes over all funny, clearly under a peculiar influence, and marches off to climb into a sinister passing Rolls. It turns out she is a friend of Mrs Peel’s, not that it matters much: Steed and Emma’s interest in her disappearance stems from the fact that all manner of horticultural boffins are droppig out of sight, and even the country’s leading expert in the field, Sir Lyle Peterson (Derek Farr), is keeping a low profile. Steed does the usual sniffing about and extracts from Peterson the confession that he has all the missing experts on his estate, working on a new ‘flowering shrub’. Hmmm.

Investigations lead Steel and Mrs Peel to an abandoned farm, where they discover a crashed spaceship (no, really), a failed product of the British space programme (one assumes), brought back down to earth after colliding with something in orbit. But what? It turns out to be a giant seed, like that of a dandelion. Emma suggests it may have originated amongst the belts of vegetation known to exist on the Moon and Mars. (Er… what?) They bring in their own botanist (Athene Seyler), who reveals that the plant a) has a brain and b) would be dependent on human flesh for sustenance, were it to germinate.

Yes, you’ve guessed it: there’s another seed, which Peterson and his team are working to get to sprout. Why would any sane person do such a thing? Well, the man-eating alien plant has psychic powers of mind control, to which only people wearing hearing-aids are immune. (Well, maybe you didn’t guess all of this.) It’s up to Steed and Emma to get their hands on some nice strong herbicide and save the human race!

I suppose you could argue that this is all intended as a spoof of B-movie sci-fi, but it’s not a particularly funny episode – in places it’s actually quite grim (fun trivia: this is apparently the only episode other than the very first one from 1961 in which a woman dies (eaten by the plant)) – could it be that this is a speculative attempt to see if The Avengers can work as even more of a sci-fi show, with alien invasions and psychic powers? I don’t know, but for me it doesn’t quite work. (Though the fact that a well-known BBC fantasy show did an eerily similar story about ten years later, and makes an unqualified success of it, may colour my thinking.)

I mean, it’s not flat-out bad in its execution, though the thrashing tentacles leave a bit to be desired, and the episode gives us a rare instance of Steed and his partner taking each other on in earnest (once again, this is less successful than it could be). The thing is, and I do realise this may just be my own prejudice, that the problem’s in the premise: alien invasions just aren’t the stuff of The Avengers.

Moving on, we find ourselves watching Two’s A Crowd, another Levene episode and one which likewise stretches the format, albeit not quite so jarringly. It opens with a gag where Russian Ambassador Brodny (Warren Mitchell’s third appearance in two seasons, essentially reprising his role as a senior Other Side figure from The Charmers) finds himself being dive-bombed – the punchline being that it’s a model plane dropping a message inside a very tiny bomb.

A legendary and enigmatic operative for the Other Side, known only as Colonel Psev, is apparently in London and Steed and his people are understandably keen to find out about him. It seems Psev is in town to attempt to infiltrate an important top-secret conference, which Steed is naturally involved in the security for. It seems the Other Side may have an opening, as Brodny discovers a double of Steed while attending a fashion show – a rather dissolute male model. If they can manage to substitute their man for the real Steed, the conference will be at their mercy…

Not the first nor the last Avengers episode to deal with the topic of doubles, but certainly one of the most comedic: Patrick Macnee’s performance during the fashion show sequence alone is arch almost beyond description. On the other hand, this is quite broad comedy and doesn’t really distract from the fact that the twist ending of this particular plotline is the kind of thing you can see coming (the reveal of Psev’s true identity is slightly more surprising, but it doesn’t really feel like it matters much). If you like the show going pedal-to-the-metal with its comedy elements then you’ll probably enjoy this episode more than I did.

Read Full Post »

No other filmed episode, perhaps, comes quite as close to the feel of a Cathy Gale story as The Murder Market. If so, the reason is not surprising: it was the first one made by the new team, after the sacking of Beth Shepherd and the arrival of Diana Rigg. (Patrick Macnee recalls in one of his autobiographies learning of Shepherd’s departure while doing the location filming for this episode.)

I was watching Thunderball again not long ago and was mildly amused by the fact that so many of the supporting cast had Avengers credits to their name from around the same period: Paul Stassino is in there, Lois Maxwell of course, Philip Locke, and also Edward Underdown, one of those very solid character actors who appears (briefly) at the start of the episode: he plays a man who turns up for a blind date at an aquarium, only to be gunned down by his assignation when she arrives (bad news for the fish tanks).

It turns out this is only the latest in a string of unsolved murders, almost all of single men, and (spoiler alert) Steed and Mrs Peel are on the case. Their investigations eventually lead them to the Togetherness Marriage Bureau, run by a Mr Lovejoy (a fine performance by Patrick Cargill). Cue Steed going undercover as an upper-class layabout and some cherishable scenes as he is interviewed about his situation and preferences. Macnee looks rightly outraged when Lovejoy enquires what he does for a living. ‘Work?!? I worked at working for a while, but it didn’t work out,’ he responds. Emma, meanwhile, is of the opinion that any agency trying to find the ideal partner for Steed has their work cut out for them: ‘a cross between Lucrezia Borgia and Joan of Arc,’ is her suggestion as to who’d be qualified.

It all turns out to be yet another assassination racket, this one more or less along the lines of the one in Strangers on a Train (people swap murders with other, as orchestrated by the marriage bureau: fairly standard stuff, at this point, with the usual style and whimsy. What does make it stand out (and is maybe a bit of a giveaway) is the fact there is some genuine tension between Steed and Mrs Peel (she accuses him of callousness and seems sincerely angry with him), which would have been routine in a videotaped episode but is striking here.

On the other hand, there is much more comedy here than you would routinely find between Steed and Cathy: one of the standard scenes where they update each other on the case (basically just exposition) sees Steed practising golf chip shots around the flat, while Emma reclines elegantly on the sofa playing Wagner on the tuba (the golf ball inevitably ends up clogging her pipework). Later on she is obliged to hide out, supposedly dead, and we find her passing the time by swigging champagne and practising ballet poses.

Given this is essentially the first episode made by this team, there is something very nearly miraculous about how polished, stylish and entertaining it all is: there’s a long, silent sequence near the end (another mock funeral), but thanks to the skill of the director and Laurie Johnson’s music, it’s as much a joy to watch as the rest of it. This is The Avengers at or near its peak.

The name on the credits of A Surfeit of H2O is that of Colin Finbow but to the seasoned viewer it is hard not to suspect this is in fact another pseudonym for Brian Clemens, because the episode certainly feels like one of his: tongue-in-cheek to the point of feeling like a spoof, filled with ridiculously eccentric characters, and predicated on a very particular type of English whimsy: in this case, an obsession with the weather. (Apparently Finbow is a real person, but one with only a tiny handful of screenwriting credits to his name: he’s much better known for running the acclaimed Children’s Film Unit for decades.)

The episode opens with some unclement conditions: such torrential rain, in fact, that it drowns a man caught outside in it. Not much there to justify calling in someone like Steed, but apparently someone in the neighbourhood has been writing letters to the Times warning of a looming flood and building his own ark as a precautionary measure.

Steed and Mrs Peel are soon on the case (Steed appears to be dressing as Beau Brummel this week, an outrageous affection even by his standards). Clues, not the least of them a raincloud which seems to be permanently in the same position in the area, lead Steed to suspect that for all their rustic earnestness, the yokels worrying about a flood may have a point, and it may be connected with the local wine factory. Adopting the guise of a wine merchant from the unlikely firm of Steed, Steed, Steed, Steed & Jacques, he starts noseying about there, discovering a surprising amount of wet-weather gear in stock. Meanwhile, Mrs Peel finds that the field where the man drowned has an impossibly high humidity level…

Well, it all turns out to be about another mad scientist who is developing weather control technology for military application (and has some relatively sensible ideas about how important this could be), but the pleasure of the episode is, as ever, in the incidental bits and pieces: Steed enjoying himself hugely as a wine merchant, Emma’s typical sang-froid when the villain puts her in a hydraulic wine press to try and squeeze information out of her (‘You diabolical mastermind, you,’ is her deadpan response). Geoffrey Palmer plays an assistant villain and gets rather less to do than in his Honor Blackman episode, back near the start of season 2, but you can’t have it all. A fun episode well up to the series’ high standards at this point.

The origins of Roger Marshall’s The Hour That Never Was are a little unusual but fairly well-known: during the scouting for Town of No Return, Marshall and Brian Clemens were so taken with the location for the abandoned airfield that they came up with the premise and plot for a whole other episode set entirely there – and this is it. (Apparently it seems that the series’ paymasters may have required them to film it somewhere else, though: it’s a funny old world sometimes.)

The episode itself is somewhat unorthodox, as it sees Steed and Mrs Peel stumble into a hostile operation in progress quite by accident. An airfield where Steed was posted for part of his increasingly baffling service during the Second World War is due to be decommissioned and the duo have been invited down for the closing shindig (even though he’s technically off duty, Steed is still in full  Ralph Richardson rig). However, less than a mile from the base, they’re involved in a minor road accident and have to walk the rest of the way.

They find the base itself all set for the party, but in all other respects almost completely deserted. About half the episode is the two of them wandering around, exploring the place, occasionally finding a mysterious clue, with Steed keeping up his usual patter. In the end Mrs Peel vanishes and Steed gets bopped on the head, only to wake up back at the car, as if everything since the accident has not happened – only now, the personnel  of the base have reappeared, but Mrs Peel is still missing…

It’s a memorable episode, certainly, with some familiar faces amongst the guest cast (Gerald Harper and Roy Kinnear make their first appearances in the filmed show). However, I think the fact that the concept came first really shows, and I’m not sure the plot entirely holds together. However, points are recouped for the concluding fight, which features (amongst other pleasures) a tussle in a room full of laughing gas. Not quite top bracket but still fun.

Read Full Post »

Chris Boucher’s return as writer for Little Green Men and Other Martians at least means the series gets a sort-of-worthy final episode, although the behind-the-scenes ructions which had blighted the production of the show did not relent – apparently, Erick Ray Evans went down with chicken pox and couldn’t appear in the episode at all, leading to David Calder and Trevor Cooper going through the script themselves and divvying up his lines between them. It has to be said that the absence of David Theroux does not leave a glaring hole in the team: Evans has a certain kind of presence, but Theroux is less strong a character than Kenzy, Devis, or even perhaps Anna Shoun.

Anyway, the episode lives up to the promise of its title by taking us to Mars, which is initially realised through some impressive model footage of a Martian rover travelling through a dust storm. However, this is followed by a much less than impressive scene shot on a visibly tiny studio set. One of the Martian surveyors discovers something absolutely astonishing, that promises to bring him vast fame and fortune, buried under the Martian surface – but what?

The rest of the episode is set on Moonbase, pretty much, although people do talk about Mars a lot – not least because Nathan is about to go out there, possibly for an extended period of time, to set up the Martian branch of the ISPF. He seems to be genuinely reluctant to go, and this seems to be more than just concerns about the extended period in zero-gravity (as usual, the series skips over just how long it takes to travel anywhere). The whole episode has a rather touching tone of elegiac resignation to it, as though all concerned realised that this would be the end for Star Cops.

Before his departure, however, he has other other things to worry about: an investigative journalist (Roy Holder) who Kenzy once knew has arrived, in pursuit of some kind of story, but what? Could it have anything to do with the presence of a curator from one of Earth’s wealthiest museums, apparently here to make a sale of some kind? How does this tie in with rumours of something utterly incredible having been found on Mars? Surely the death of a freelance shuttle pilot in a crash and the presence of drug dealers on the Moon can’t have anything to do with it?

Well, naturally, all these things do in fact tie up with one another, resulting in possibly the series’ most fiendishly convoluted plotline, and one which the episode really struggles to contain and do justice to. You really have to keep your head on straight and your mind focused to keep track of all the ins and outs, but in the end it proves to be rather clever.

My recollection of the episode – I think I may have seen it just the once before, properly, back in 1987 – was that it concerned an actual attempt to fake evidence of an extinct Martian civilisation. But the memory cheats, naturally, and what the story is actually about is a conspiracy to suggest contact between ancient Earth civilisations and some kind of intelligence on Mars, all in the cause of swindling people out of massive amounts of money, naturally. That’s a bit more plausible, though I wonder how long the deception would have held for.

As noted, perhaps it’s as well that Erick Ray Evans was off sick, as the episode does have a lot going on already – perhaps too much. A subplot about a designer drug operation on the Moon feels particularly short-changed, with a few key events happening off-camera. It seems a little odd that Boucher chose not to include these but did insert a subplot concerning an American news anchor visiting in connection with the Martian discovery (in one of those amusing resonances, the actress involved, Lachele Carl, would later acquire a certain type of fame for playing a virtually identical character across many episodes of another BBC genre franchise).

In the end, though, this is a solid conclusion to the series and a return to form after the weaker non-Boucher episodes. Whatever the issues with the over-ambitiousness of the plot, the characterisation is as strong as ever and you do get a sense of the various individuals genuinely having become a team – the others seem genuinely upset when it appears that Nathan has been killed, while a sincere affection does seem to have developed between Nathan and Kenzy.

In this respect, as with may others, it’s a shame that Star Cops never got a second set of episodes, but it’s a little difficult to see how the proposed idea of incorporating Martian Star Cops and ISPF officers on the deep-space outposts could have been integrated into the format that had developed. (I know that Big Finish have produced a well-received set of audio dramas continuing the story – slightly ironic, given Boucher originally conceived of Star Cops as a radio show – but, things being as they are, I doubt I’ll be listening to them.)

Star Cops remains a fairly obscure cult series even in the realms of TV science fiction, notable, perhaps, as being the BBC’s last attempt to initiate proper full-blooded SF for an adult audience for many years – there was Invasion: Earth in 1998, and then virtually nothing series-wise until the revival of Survivors in 2008 and then Outcasts in 2011. Could things have been different? I’m not sure: Star Cops got a reasonable push at the time (a Radio Times cover, even), but it was unsympathetically scheduled and very little about the series screamed that it was a prestige production. One has to ask the question: even with the biggest budget and the best scheduling, and (if we’re speculating) Chris Boucher being allowed to write all the episodes and even produce the thing himself, did and does an audience even exist for this kind of realistic hard SF show?

I am tempted to say no, even though I would love to be proved wrong. So I suppose we should just be glad that such a marginal series got made at all. For all its flaws and technical shortcomings, Star Cops always has good performances at its heart, and the best moments of the Boucher scripts include some of the most intelligent and witty writing I’ve ever seen in BBC science fiction. No-one would argue, I think, that this series isn’t seriously flawed, but it’s also a definite gem.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »