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Posts Tagged ‘Angels of Death’

The value of this kind of intensive viewing exercise is once again proven as it turns out – rather to my surprise – that I’ve never properly watched Brian Clemens’ Dead Men are Dangerous before. (I’m sure I saw part of it during the mid-90s BBC 2 repeat, but most of it is completely new to me.) It opens with a flashback to (presumably) late 60s Germany, where Steed is on the way to deliver colleague and lifelong friend Mark Crayford to a dangerous mission behind the Iron Curtain. I would have said Steed spent that particular period of his life fighting ridiculous mad scientists in the home counties, not doing this kind of Len Deighton stuff, but the script is the script. (Crayford is played by Clive Revill, who’s a very capable actor – the original Palpatine in The Empire Strikes Back – but ten years younger than Patrick Macnee.) Some slightly on-the-nose dialogue reveals that Crayford has always felt second-best to Steed throughout their friendship, and this bubbles to the surface when Crayford reveals his plan to defect and make a new life for himself in service of the Other Side, supposedly out of Steed’s shadow. Steed obviously can’t permit this and puts a bullet in him (he really is quite out of character in this sequence), but the Other Side spirit him away for treatment.

Enemy medicine has its limits, however, and ten years later Crayford is informed the bullet in his chest will very shortly kill him. So he has himself declared dead and returns to Britain to extract a slow and sadistic revenge on his old friend, destroying his most cherished possessions, attempting to obliterate any record of his achievements, and eventually threatening the people Steed cares about…

Quite heavy and atypical stuff, then, and perhaps it could be read as an attempt to move the series onto a more dramatic footing after some of the sillier moments of the first season. (Such a move clearly doesn’t take, of course.) As something resembling a serious drama, it actually works really well: Macnee is at the heart of the story throughout and gives a strong performance, and in some ways the script is as good a naturalistic character study of Steed as one could wish for (although, given it’s long been established that Steed happily cheats whenever it suits his purposes, one wonders if perennial also-ran Crayford doesn’t have a reason to be so embittered about constantly losing to him).

It actually has a sort of emotional heft to it, which isn’t something you could often say about The New Avengers (or indeed the parent show), and while there’s still a degree of plot contrivance involved it doesn’t overpower the story. Gambit and Purdey both get their moments to shine as well (though that complete timeline is looking even weirder – Gambit is clearly living in a different flat to the first season’s, but claims he moved into the current one four years ago and just hasn’t bothered to unpack yet). Lots of people rate this as being amongst the very best episodes of the series, and I am not going to argue with them in the slightest.

Back to something a bit more traditional in the shape of Brian Clemens and Terence Feely’s Angels of Death – I would imagine Feely handled most of the intelligence tradecraft side of the story, while Clemens swooped in and added the material which feels like a tribute to the classic Philip Levene style of script from nearly a decade earlier. After some brief swanning around in Paris (making that French location shoot really pay for itself), this settles down to another story about an enemy operation to systematically eliminate key figures in the security establishment – but the only clue Steed has is that it somehow involves ‘angels of death’.

Certainly a great many top men have been dropping dead, but all of natural causes – well, they are in a very stressful line of work, after all. It’s up to Steed, Gambit and Purdey to keep working the case until the plot structure dictates they all simultaneously realise what’s going on and head to the enemy lair to put a stop to it.

I am being rather reductive, of course: the episode isn’t quite as obvious as that (though it is still quite obvious in some ways). Heft and drama comes from Steed seeing yet more of his very many close old friends mown down, and bemoaning the mindset required of the work they all do – we get a glimpse of his own formative years in flashback when he is finally put through the enemy wringer and recalls his own training (though the flashbacks are actually only to first-season episodes – gotta economise somehow if you want that French location shoot). Needless to say, the welcome trend of keeping Steed at the heart of the story continues.

The structure of the story should be very familiar to anyone who’s watched a lot of the filmed episodes of the original show: it’s basically a string of murders all using variations on the same gimmick. The premise here is that of a killer health farm, visitors to which (all important government types, of course), rather than being pampered, find themselves drugged, sent into a fake nightclub, and forced to disco-dance with Caroline Munro and Pamela Stephenson until they reach the point of death by exhaustion (as I say, I suspect this may have been part of Clemens’ contribution). Then they are forced to try and escape from an impossible maze, all of which creates such a massive set of stressful associations that merely seeing an image associated with the experience days or weeks later causes them to drop dead of shock. (One wonders sometimes if it wouldn’t be cheaper just to shoot them.)

And the cult-o-meter is off the charts…!

The episode misses a massive trick, if you ask me, by not showing us the moment at which Patrick Macnee struts his funky stuff in the disco, but Caroline Munro is effectively deployed, even if her inevitable fight with Joanna Lumley doesn’t quite live up to your expectations (then again, could it ever). And it is, on some level, another episode which mainly resolves through Gambit turning up with a gun. The only thing that really keeps this from being a story they could have made ten years earlier is the disco-dancing in the fake nightclub, but there’s something to be said for comforting familiarity sometimes.

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