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Posts Tagged ‘Diana Rigg’

Any film featuring the final performance of a talent as singular as that of someone like Diana Rigg instantly acquires a significance – and, perhaps, a set of expectations – it wouldn’t otherwise have. Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho doesn’t really do itself any favours by reminding everyone of this fact at the very beginning, featuring the dedication to the legendary actress and icon as virtually the first element of the film. It’s a brave step, but also a laudable one, and the film does not feel swamped by this unexpected (and unwanted) new element.

Wright is one of those directors who can be rather tricky to read: he bounces around across all kinds of genres, usually managing to make each his own in a rather quirky way – so far his CV includes a zombie rom com, a buddy action movie set in rural England, an offbeat comic book adaptation, an alien invasion movie, a diegetic musical car chase thriller, and a documentary about one of the world’s weirdest bands. (For a long time he was also attached to direct Ant-Man, but the whole ‘making it his own in a rather quirky way’ thing fell foul of the Marvel Studios method.)

The new movie is certainly creative, but largely tones down the overt oddness and games with genre. Thomasin McKenzie, who for a while has looked like one of those actresses one really good film away from significant stardom, plays Ellie, a young girl who has grown up in Cornwall with a head full of the sights and sounds of the swinging sixties. She is determined to go to London and make it as a fashion designer – what also rapidly becomes clear is that a suitcase full of old LPs is by no means the only baggage she is carrying with her: her mother took her own life, which has not stopped Ellie from seeing her about the place sometimes.

Despite some misgivings from her gran (Rita Tushingham), Ellie heads off to fashion designer university in the smoke anyway, and almost at once begins to find the reality does not match up to her dreams. Problem number one is the self-absorbed and callous room-mate she’s been assigned (Synnove Karlsen), which she manages to solve by renting a bedsit from a local resident (Rigg).

The fact that, after moving into the flat, Ellie starts to have some rather strange dreams does not initially appear to be a problem. She finds herself transported back to the half-mythical London of the swinging sixties (Thunderball is showing at the cinema, along with The Plague of the Zombies and Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, from which we can conclude that it is supposed to be early 1966 – even though the Amicus film came out six months earlier), experiencing the life of another hopeful young woman named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) – though in Sandie’s case, her disillusionment comes faster and harder and altogether darker. Ellie sees Sandie fall under the sway of Jack (Matt Smith), a shady and controlling character, and begins to fear for what eventually happened to her. But isn’t she just making it all up? As the boundary between her increasingly nightmarish visions and the waking world begins to splinter, it becomes difficult to tell…

Last Night in Soho might not be quite the genre-bender that some of Edgar Wright’s films have been, but it’s still a slightly tough film to pin down. Is it a psychological thriller, or a full-on horror movie? (I was amused to hear two very earnest patrons at the showing I attended intently persuading each other, as the final credits rolled, that – despite its legions of genuine alarming spectres and some rather gory revelations in the third act – this couldn’t possibly be a horror film as it dealt with some serious issues. Hey, money from genre snobs is as welcome as anyone else’s, I suppose.

I’m pretty sure this is a horror movie – it’s genuinely unsettling for long periods, deals with proper horror material, and Wright deploys a few classic horror gags along the way – but it is also a very modern piece dealing with the topics of mental health and misogynistic violence. The sense being alone in a new place, feeling isolated, and never quite fitting in no matter how hard you want to, is superbly created, as is the sickly reality of being a vulnerable single woman constantly having to deal with the calculating male gaze.

And that’s just some of the present day sequences: the stuff set in the late sixties is arguably much worse. It initially looks like this is going to be a love letter to the glamour of that period, the London of Carnaby Street and the Beatles and their peers – a young Cilla Black appears as a character – something only emphasised by the appearance in the cast of such iconic sixties faces as Diana Rigg, Terence Stamp, and Rita Tushingham. But the film is also a ruthless deconstruction of the notion of that kind of glamour and the reality it was built on, which was one of ruthless exploitation and abuse.

It’s a powerful thesis and one the film puts across highly persuasively – I was even slightly surprised that Wright was making a film which was quite so on-the-nose with its moral premise, although I should say the film also works exceptionally well as a piece of dark, hard-edged entertainment, with the director showing off his usual casual mastery of the craft.

However, what definitely came as a real surprise was the conclusion of the film, in which Wright and his co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns opt for something rather more unexpected and nuanced. To be honest, it does feel like the film is reaching a bit, mainly because some kind of twist ending is what the form calls for, and while the ending is still strong and effective it is a little bit contrived.

Nevertheless, this is up there with the very best of Wright’s other films, taking you on a journey into another world (more than one, in this case). It does a good job of suggesting how foundational the pop culture of the sixties remain in the modern world, making full use of the music of that period (along with a few interlopers: the most recent song I recognised was Happy House, released in 1980 by Siouxsie and the Banshees), but is more than just a casual piece of nostalgia. That said, Stamp, Tushingham and Rigg all get meaty roles that allow them to show their quality, and there is something rather marvellous and touching about seeing Diana Rigg command the screen so effortlessly one final time, far removed though she is from her iconic persona of so many decades ago. But nearly everyone involved in this production emerges with credit. Last Night in Soho is a terrific film, one of the best of the year so far, and a worthy valediction for a great star and a great actress.

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Basil Dearden’s 1969 film The Assassination Bureau (with the additional word Limited added in some territories) opens with a jolly music-hall-style tune and a montage of attempted Edwardian-era killings going wrong in various amusing ways. Contract killing, it is suggested, was always rather more miss than hit, at least until the closing years of the nineteenth century, at which point a new and rather more efficient organisation of assassins appeared on the scene – the titular bureau, various of whose more creative exploits (lifts with the floor sawn out, etc) are illustrated throughout the opening titles.

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Despite all this mayhem, it seems like the only person onto the existence of the Bureau is feisty young reporter Sonia Winter (Diana Rigg), who promises to bring the details of the organisation to a major newspaper if it will oblige her by furthering the course of female emancipation by giving her a job. The proprietor, Lord Bostwick (Telly Savalas) agrees to sponsor her investigations.

Miss Winter has already figured out how to contact the Assassination Bureau and arranges an interview with its chairman (this entails various unlikely security arrangements). The leader of the gang is one Ivan Dragomiloff (Oliver Reed) – who, despite his name, has been raised as a very proper English gentleman – who enquires as to who it is that Miss Winter would like bumped off. It turns out the gentleman she has in mind to be killed is Dragomiloff himself. He initially laughs it off, saying she couldn’t afford the fee, but the money provided by Bostwick gives him pause, and he accepts the contract on himself.

Why on earth would he do this? Convening a meeting of the senior assassins, Ivan reveals his reasons: the Bureau was founded with moral notions at its core, the idea being that they would never assassinate someone who did not, on some level, really deserve to die. However, Ivan has come to suspect his associates have lost their moral compass somewhat and are simply killing people for money, which is abhorrent in his eyes. By orchestrating this conflict between them and him, Ivan will be able to purge the Assassination Bureau of its unworthy members, dealing with them one-by-one as they move against him. (Yes, this doesn’t make a great deal of sense, but it’s the notion that the whole movie is predicated on, so you just have to go with it.)

So Ivan sets out across Europe, Miss Winters reluctantly in tow, engaging and despatching his colleagues in France, Switzerland, and other well-known and photogenic locations. What Miss Winters doesn’t know is that Lord Bostwick is a member of the Bureau and set to take over if Ivan is killed, and what Ivan doesn’t know is Bostwick’s plan to use the Bureau as an instrument to incite a major war and redraw the map of Europe…

The Assassination Bureau is one of those movies which probably looked good on paper (it was based on a story by Jack London): the premise has a certain appeal, Basil Dearden is a notable name in the annals of British cinema, and it has an impressive cast – apart from Rigg, Reed, and Savalas, the supporting players include Curt Jurgens (or however you want to spell his name), Warren Mitchell, and many other familiar faces from British films and TV. It’s almost remarkable, in fact, that a film with so much talent attached to it should end up so extremely undistinguished.

It’s easy to see the film’s place in the lineage of zany and tongue-in-cheek comedies of the 1960s – it often plays very much like an Edwardian-dress version of one of the Bond pastiches that were ubiquitous at the time – but, as ever, the main problem is that it just isn’t very funny, and this is probably due to the tonal uncertainty of the film. As you might expect from the title and the subject matter, this is a film with a very significant body-count – there are various shootings, stabbings, poisonings and a lot of deaths by bombing – and the film neither treats these seriously enough to work as a proper thriller, nor floats them past the camera archly enough for it all to work on a tongue-in-cheek level. Much of it is so cartoony that when a character sticks his fork into a bomb disguised as a German sausage and the screen fills with the flash of an explosion, you expect them to emerge with ragged clothes and a blackened face. But they don’t. They just die. It’s almost like a Tom and Jerry cartoon where a horribly mutilated cat has to be taken to the vet at the end.

The murderousness of the script also sits oddly with the various scenes where Rigg and Reed debate the morality of murder and especially of paying someone to kill. This isn’t really done in earnest, but is a pretext for the romance which inevitably develops between the duo. I think both Oliver Reed and Diana Rigg are tremendous actors, neither of whom had the big-screen career their talents deserved, and so I can only assume the lack of chemistry between them is down to the script: Rigg is almost playing a slightly more vulnerable variation on her Mrs Peel character, while Reed is stuck with the dashing male lead, the kind of role which doesn’t require the intensity and suggestion of inner darkness which were his real strengths. (It has to be said that by the end of the film Diana Rigg is very much playing a subordinate role to Reed, in plot terms.)

Of course, if we’re going to talk about 1969 films about suave, saturnine assassins taking on an international conspiracy, with Diana Rigg as the love interest and Telly Savalas as the villain, then the temptation is almost to look at The Assassination Bureau in order to get an idea of what a certain other film might have looked like if Eon had made better casting choices and George Lazenby had remained a vanishingly obscure figure in cultural history. I sort of hope this is misguided, because it’s not a great movie by any chalk – the actors do their best, but the script is poor, the direction not especially impressive, and some of the special effects are absolutely awful.

One is tempted to say that films like The Assassination Bureau illustrate why the British film industry went into such a steep decline, but that might be excessively harsh on the movie. Perhaps if Reed and Rigg had gone on to have the kinds of film careers their talent deserved, this film would just be a curious historical oddity and a reminder that even a film that sounds promising can turn out to be a bit duff. As things stand, though, it gives what’s honestly a slightly poor film a really melancholy edge.

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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.

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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.

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My usual position when it comes to Theatre of Blood (1973) is that it shows that everyone has at least one great film in them – but only one in some cases. The script is wonderful, the direction is capable, and the music is fantastic – and yet none of the people responsible for these things have a noteworthy career beyond this film. The one who came closest was Douglas Hickox, the director, who had a longish career, much of it as the AD on fifties potboilers: I’ve heard of some of the films he made (Behemoth the Sea Monster and Zulu Dawn, for example), but would struggle to describe them especially distinguished. Nevertheless, every year BIFA gives out the Douglas Hickox Award for the best new director, which probably isn’t anything to do with Theatre of Blood – but I can’t help feeling it should be.

The movie is set in the present day and opens with pompous theatre critic and grandee of London society George Maxwell (Michael Hordern) being summoned by the police to move a gang of homeless people on from a property he is involved with. Maxwell wades in fearlessly – ‘We’ll have no trouble here!’ he cries, unwittingly spawning a catchphrase for a future age. However, the mob of homeless people clearly would like there to be some trouble, and set upon Maxwell, bloodily stabbing and hacking him to death, all in sight of an oddly detached policeman and a poster advertising a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Maxwell’s fellow critics are upset, which rapidly turns to alarm when a second of their number (Dennis Price) is run through with a spear and his corpse tied to a horse’s tail, thus reproducing the death of Hector from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. A third (Arthur Lowe) has his head sawn off in his sleep (this one comes from Cymbeline). Someone is clearly staging a season reviving some of Shakespeare’s most spectacular murders, with the members of the Critics’ Circle in the central role each time. But who, and how?

The surviving critics are uneasily reminded of the actor Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price), who would only ever appear in Shakespearean roles and whom they were all routinely very cruel to: in the end, their mockery, and the fact they refused to give him their award for best actor, drove Lionheart to apparently commit suicide by diving off the balcony of leading critic Devlin (Ian Hendry), into the Thames. But his body was never found – could he have survived somehow? Devlin approaches his daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg), but she is hostile and uncooperative.

Meanwhile the murders continue, restaging scenes from Richard III, Othello and The Merchant of Venice (a radical reinterpretation where Antonio does get his heart cut out – ‘Only Lionheart would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare,’ says a shocked Devlin, who seems to be more aghast at this than the death of his colleague). Can the police track Lionheart down before there’s no-one left in England to write theatre reviews…?

Quite why this particular group of people wound up making a film as distinctive as Theatre of Blood remains a mystery, but the lineage of the film itself is rather less obscure: it’s obviously a successor to the two Dr Phibes films Price made for American International in the preceding couple of years, but one which greatly refines and enhances the same formula. The basic plot, of a vengeful madman committing a series of extravagant murders, is retained, but the slightly laborious, almost steampunkish whimsy of the Phibes films is dispensed with along with the period setting.

Perhaps most significantly, the weird decision to make Phibes horribly scarred and functionally mute, thus seriously impacting on Vincent Price’s ability to give a performance in the role, is no longer a consideration. As a result this is one of the actor’s greatest films, as he gets to play not just Lionheart, but Lionheart performing many of Shakespeare’s greatest roles. One of the reasons why many horror films from the fifties, sixties and seventies are so memorable is because they feature some of the finest actors of their generations, never quite getting the respect they deserve: you could argue that Theatre of Blood is on some level an oblique commentary on this whole phenomenon. But let’s not overthink this – it’s Vincent Price and Diana Rigg performing a range of characters (policemen, masseurs, rather camp hairdressers called Butch), causing mayhem and performing Shakespeare: how can it not be brilliant?

The film’s other stroke of genius, or possible good fortune, comes in the casting of Price’s victims, for Theatre of Blood has possibly the most distinguished ensemble of any British horror movie (even if most of them are only in extended cameos): quite apart from Price, Rigg, and Hendry, the cast includes Hordern, Price, Lowe, Robert Morley, Jack Hawkins, Harry Andrews, Coral Browne, and Diana Dors. (Milo O’Shea and Eric Sykes play the detectives.)

I suppose some people might say that Theatre of Blood isn’t really a horror film because it’s not actually scary – and it is true that it functions as a knowing, grand guignol comedy more than anything else. But even here the film has a few surprises to offer: in places it actually becomes genuinely moving to watch. You believe in the relationship between Lionheart and his daughter completely, and the critics do seem unspeakably cruel as they mock and scorn Lionheart just before his ‘suicide’. The film has an unexpectedly bittersweet, melancholic tone to it, almost as if it is suggesting that there is no place for someone like Lionheart in the modern world – that, rather than taking his revenge on the critics, his plan is simply a doomed parting shot from an earlier age of sincerity (even if it is rather hammy sincerity).

Because, apparently, even as late as the 1970s, it was apparently unacceptable for a film to conclude with Vincent Price getting away with it. Perhaps this was the result of moral concerns, or perhaps because one of the things that lifts the film is that fact that Lionheart is somehow a doomed, tragic figure from the start. The manner in which his plan comes undone is one of the few weak links in the script, but it does lead to an appropriately spectacular and operatic finale. This was apparently one of Vincent Price’s favourites from amongst his own films; Diana Rigg feels it is one of her best, as well. I can’t argue with that. This is one of the great obscure treasures of the British horror tradition.

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I can’t let the passing of the great Brian Clemens go without some kind of comment, or indeed a bit of a tribute. Throughout the 60s and 70s, and arguably beyond, Clemens was one of the hidden masters of British TV drama, writing dozens of episodes for many different series, many of which he created himself. As late as the launch of Bugs in 1995, other distinguished writers were attracted to projects simply by the opportunity to work with Clemens. He also did some good work in the cinema, too, writing a couple of fun late-period Hammer horrors (Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde and Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter, the latter of which he directed himself), although the less said about his involvement with Highlander 2: The Quickening the better.

In any case, it is of course The Avengers for which Clemens will be remembered above all else. He wrote the very first [Er – no he didn’t. Stupid past-me. Very second, maybe – A]  and very last episodes of the original run, overseeing its transformation from a gritty crime drama to something utterly eccentric and distinctive in the process, and went on to write many of the episodes of The New Avengers, which brought proceedings back down to earth somewhat. (I suppose one should also mention The Professionals, which on reflection takes The New Avengers format back into realms of slightly absurd grittiness.) Where does one start, faced with such a multitude of riches?

Well, you have to go to mid-period Avengers, of course, with one of the Diana Rigg episodes, and of these perhaps the most notorious, and almost certainly the most influential, is A Touch of Brimstone, originally broadcast in February 1966.

The story opens with, we are assured, the British government thrown into turmoil by a series of bizarre and sinister practical jokes – Russian diplomats are given exploding cigars live on TV, whoopee cushions are snuck into the House of Lords, and so on. (The Avengers quite often resembles a slightly kinky version of the 60s Batman TV show, and never more than here.) On the case are knight-errant-cum-intelligence-hard-man John Steed (Patrick Macnee, of course) and his amateur partner Mrs Peel (Diana Rigg).

As luck would have it, Steed and Mrs Peel don’t have to do a lot of that tedious investigating in order to uncover who’s behind these various outrages, as the first suspect Steed suggests – based on the fact he’s been seen hanging around all the various crime scenes – turns out to be guilty as sin, and perhaps quite literally so. He is John Cleverly Cartney (Peter Wyngarde), an aristocrat with a taste for anarchy, and one of the founders of a revived Hellfire Club. Having only really stirred things up prior to this point, Cartney and his cronies are intent on a much more spectacular coup – once again, perhaps literally so…

Brian Clemens himself would gleefully tell the tale of how A Touch of Brimstone was omitted from the series’ original run in the States, due to the rather pronounced sado-masochistic overtones and cheerfully dwelt-upon debauchery in the latter sections of the episode. (He would also mention that the same US network chiefs who banned the episode on moral grounds organised a private viewing for themselves.) By modern standards the episode is pretty tame stuff, but even to this day one can’t deny a certain frisson when Mrs Peel makes her spiked-heeled-and-collared, corseted appearance as the Queen of Sin (Dame Diana apparently designed this, dare I say it, iconic ensemble herself), and in any case it’s hard to shake the impression that this sort of big set-piece moment is the episode’s raison d’etre – the rest of the plot is frankly pretty thin and spurious.

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Sorry, this picture is really obligatory when you write about this particular episode.

 

But then again, classic Avengers is all about big set pieces, rather than tight and innovative plotting, not to mention servicing its two leads with some properly beefy material. While it may be Diana Rigg as Mrs Peel who lingers in the memory, most likely for her climactic battles with a man in tights and a whip-cracking Wyngarde, but Steed gets a full-blooded sword-fight and lots of other good stuff too – it hardly needs saying that Macnee takes to dressing and acting like an 18th-century rake like a mallard to a particularly placid pond. Both benefit from James Hill’s direction – Hill knows exactly what this episode’s about, and takes great care to give both his stars reaction beats they can utterly nail.

In short, it doesn’t take itself remotely seriously – the tone of it all is a slightly detached, slightly tongue-in-cheek sardonicism – and while it features none of the full-on SF elements that had started to appear in Avengers scripts by this point, it’s quite clearly not set in the world as we recognise it. And it is supremely entertaining.

And, as I say, influential: somehow this little black-and-white TV episode ended up inspiring an X-Men comics storyline and a bunch of characters who went on to be popular in their own right. I’ve no idea if Brian Clemens ever knew about this, but I expect he did, and I suspect he was highly amused. We shall not see his like again, I suspect. I’ve no idea what happens to us when it’s all over, but if there is anything waiting, I hope he gets the good stuff he deserves. RIP.

 

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So, then, other than a potential continuity headache regarding the Silurians, what has The Crimson Horror brought into our lives? What have we learned? What feelings has it summoned forth?

Well, firstly, a mild sense of surprise, although quite at whom it should be directed I’m not entirely certain. Ben Kingsley has taken a considerable amount of stick in the past over his supposed insistence upon being called, and credited as, Sir Ben (I don’t seem to recall this happening on Iron Man 3, for what it’s worth), and yet here we have the show’s major guest star listed as Dame Diana Rigg, and hardly anyone seems to have raised an eyebrow. I’m not sure I would have recognised her were it not for the attendant publicity, but then the image of Diana Rigg I store in my head is of her in about 1967, and the passage of time does make grotesques of us all. Not that she wasn’t predictably brilliant, of course.

No, not doing a sarcastic caption. It's Diana Rigg and she's awesome.

No, not doing a sarcastic caption. It’s Diana Rigg and she’s awesome.

This was a good episode all round for the guest cast, though – when I was first watching it, I found myself thinking ‘is some sneaky double-banking going on here?’ because the actual regulars felt like they were in it rather less than usual. You notice this less than would be the case with most other episodes due to the raft of recurring characters brought in to cover the hole. Now, I’m not in the habit of frequenting Doctor Who message boards as I am generally wary of Doctor Who fans en masse (except when they’re queueing up to buy Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories, available now from ATB Publishing, of course) but recently I was quite surprised to discover that in some ways my opinion is not that far removed from the superfan consensus.

Now, I like the Paternoster Street Gang, broadly speaking. I’m a bit wary of the way they seem to have been designed to appeal to the in-jokey cutesy meme-loving element of fandom – and if this wasn’t intentional, they’ve certainly been adopted by said element – but on the whole I like the characters, especially Vastra. At the same time, though, I’m very sympathetic to the suggestion that the characterisation of Strax in particular is a bit problematic if you like the Sontarans as a proper antagonistic returning race: we’ve gone some way beyond the basic idea of an honour-bound warrior forced to go against his instincts and natural proclivities, and into the realms of comedy so broad it inevitably kicks you out of the story. I’m thinking particularly of the satnav joke, which was… well… jaw-droppingly stupid.

And this was a shame, because I have to confess that overall I enjoyed The Crimson Horror much more than most of the other episodes in the last year, its only real rival being The Snowmen (another Paternoster Street Gang story, funnily enough). I’ve been trying to think why this should be – I don’t think it’s just down to my appreciation of the performances involved. In the case of The Crimson Horror I think it was just because this was a rattling good yarn where the basic plot came first, didn’t feel over-squashed by other considerations, and didn’t seem to exist mainly to articulate some sort of hackneyed and overwrought emotional story. Not that it was wholly bereft of this sort of thing: but the revelation of the truth of the relationship between Diana Rigg and Rachael Stirling didn’t swamp the story and didn’t feel particularly contrived or irrelevant.

As I say, some of the humour was too broad for my taste, and some of the plot developments whizzed by a bit too fast for comfort – brilliant scientist by the standards of her day she may have been, but where exactly in 1893 did Mrs Gillyflower get the funds and expertise to build what’s essentially an ICBM? No doubt collusion with Torchwood will be proposed by someone, sooner or later. And quite how did standing in a cupboard with the sonic screwdriver enable the Doctor to miraculously cure himself of the odd affliction he’d acquired? (I’ve been watching this show too long: I guessed pretty much straight off the bat the identity of the monster in the locked cell.)

But now I think I’m starting to nitpick. It occurs to me I’ve slowly turned into one of those people who claims to be a Doctor Who fan but really does nothing but whinge and pick holes in the current version of the programme. This is quite a recent phenomenon – certainly, even during David Tennant’s final full season I remember walking away from each episode shaking my head in delighted amazement at the consistent inventiveness and surefootedness of the show in balancing its various constituents, and my memories of Matt Smith’s first year are overwhelmingly positive too. These days, though – I don’t know. Most of the time gimmicks and cleverness for its own sake seem to be the guiding principles involved in commissioning episodes, sentimentality feels crowbarred in, and the show’s beginning to feel relentlessly pleased with itself. Even Matt Smith’s performance is starting to feel less nuanced than it used to.

The Crimson Horror was not what I’d describe as a genuinely great Doctor Who story by any means. But there were still enough of what I’d describe as the classic Doctor Who virtues in it for it to qualify as a superior example of the modern show. I’m hoping for more of the same over the next fortnight; not, admittedly, with much expectation of them actually appearing. I think I am almost at the point of hunkering down and waiting for Moffat and Smith to finish their work and move on, although where the series will go then is surely anybody’s guess. I’m betting the answers will not be too long in coming, though.

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