Posts Tagged ‘Honor Blackman’

You know, if you’re going to watch one nearly 59-year-old episode of The Avengers, you may as well watch another, and so I proceeded to episode two of the second series, Propellant 23, written by Jon Manchip White, originally shown in October 1962. This is fairly representative of the TV spy genre of the period, as far as I am familiar with it, but rather atypical as Avengers episodes go. It does, at least, contain a couple of TV faces early in their careers.

Things get underway aboard a jet plane from Tripoli to somewhere in France. A middle-aged man named Meyer bursts into the cockpit demanding to see the captain, as a radio message he’s just received has led him to believe he’s about to be murdered. Already the sharp-eyed will have spotted Nick Courtney as the captain of the plane, Justine Lord (later to play the title role in the Girl Who Was Death episode of The Prisoner) as the stewardess, and Geoffrey Palmer as another passenger.

It turns out that Meyer is so upset because the message is from Steed, who’s supposed to be meeting him at the airport – he is carrying a very important package, the loss of which could bring down governments, rock civilisation on its heels, etc. What could possibly be so important, wonders Cathy, whom Steed has roped in to help get Meyer and the package to safety. ‘No idea, I just have a vague sense about these things,’ twinkles Patrick Macnee, and Honor Blackman’s gritted-teeth response is cherishable.

Unfortunately, Meyer is in a bad way when his plane lands, and carks it actually in the arrivals lounge, before he has a chance to tell Steed where the vital package is. Having arranged to have messages from his superiors sent via the women’s lingerie department of a local department store (‘Is this standard procedure?’ asks Cathy – ‘Whenever I can possibly manage it,’ says Steed), Steed is instructed to stick around and find it. Thus the stage is set for a comfortingly familiar race to identify and locate the missing Maguffin before the enemy agents who have murdered Meyer do. I say ‘comfortingly familiar’ because while there is a degree of suspense in the story, and at least one quite surprising plot development, you can sort of anticipate the plot quite cheerfully, especially once you know that the secret rocket fuel of the title is what Meyer is couriering – you know that this character is going to turn out to be an enemy agent, that another character is going to inadvertantly wander off with the sample of fuel, and so on. It’s exactly the same kind of story The Saint or Danger Man would be doing at around the same time, although they would perhaps have a slightly bigger budget.

What it doesn’t much resemble is a classic Avengers episode: you expect the characters to be swanning about the Home Counties or London’s Metroland, not hanging around an airport in a non-specific part of France. Nevertheless, there were a few of these foreign-set episodes in the early years (Season One’s The Far Distant Dead takes place in Mexico, while my research indicates Mission to Montreal may also be set abroad – I haven’t managed to work out where yet). Still, the episode also includes a couple of notable firsts – after the first ad break, Steed is in his bowler for the first time this season, while it also sees Cathy getting her first fight, easily overpowering John Dearth when he attempts to stab her. Nevertheless, Cathy goes for a gun in the climax, which she – ahem – keeps up her skirt. (The inelegance involved in retrieving this was apparently one reason why Mrs Gale switched to wearing a leather trouser-suit and doing martial arts.) You can tell this is still some distance from being The Avengers as it is popularly remembered, but it’s still fairly smart, pacy stuff.

Something genuinely weird comes along in the next episode, Eric Paice’s The Decapod, a mixture of cynical realpolitik and low-end sports entertainment. It opens in what may have been a rather racy scene for 1962, in which a rather lovely blonde emerges from her shower, makes a clearly-significant phone call, and is then murdered by a man dressed as a masked wrestler. It turns out all this is going on in the embassy of the ‘Balkan Republic’, and the dead woman was the President’s (hem-hem) ‘private secretary’. Steed, who is in charge of ensuring President Borb (Paul Stassino, probably best known for Thunderball) isn’t killed on British soil, is a bit suspicious, but both Borb and the ambassador (Philip Madoc, made up to look vaguely like Stassino, with very shiny hair) assure him he is quite safe, surrounded by highly-trained bodyguards (though there is a vacancy on the staff for a ‘private secretary’).

Bearing this in mind, Steed gets onto his acquaintance Venus Smith (Julie Stevens), a jazz singer in a nightclub, and basically cons her into approaching Borb, spinning a ridiculous line that he is a promoter who can get her a tour of the Balkans. He completely neglects to mention that Borb may have a somewhat different relationship in mind. The impression one gets from these early episodes is that Steed habitually goes around cultivating potentially-useful contacts like Venus and the first season’s David Keel, and seems to have no worries about coldly manipulating them – an aspect of the character that disappeared as the series progressed.

Things get more complicated when, at a wrestling event, one of Borb’s bodyguards is killed in the ring by a masked wrestler known as ‘the Decapod’ (apparently the Butcher of Islington couldn’t make it and so Borb, a keen wrestling fan, volunteered his employee to fill in). The Decapod’s wife is adamant that her husband (real name Harry Ramsden – possibly he has a sideline in fish and chip shops) wouldn’t just kill someone, but the Decapod is on the run. Was Borb the real target? If not, why kill the people around him like this?

Well, the solution, when it is revealed, is just about as daft as the rest of it, involving embezzlement and a Japanese martial-arts teacher plainly not of the right ethnicity, and pausing twice so Julie Stevens can deliver one of her songs. The presence of Venus Smith isn’t the weirdest thing about The Decapod, but it is the most obvious sign that the series is still finding its feet. The problem, such as it is, is that Venus isn’t as strong a character as Mrs Gale or her successors, being much more of the traditional glamorous damsel-in-distress. Stevens’ performance isn’t bad per se, but it doesn’t have the sharpness or wit that Honor Blackman was already bringing to her episodes. The nature of her relationship with Steed is also quite different – she seems alarmingly gullible, which just brings his ruthless, manipulative side to the fore. At the end she seems genuinely distressed by the events of the episode, realising that she’s been duped all along, and she can do is make Steed promise he won’t do it again, which of course he does (and Venus is probably the only one who believes it).

Quite apart from the rest of the plot, you can see why the producers of the series would have compared The Decapod with the first Cathy Gale episodes and realised one of these new characters had massively more potential than the other. Which is not to say this episode doesn’t have a certain goofy charm to it, for all that it doesn’t quite hold together.

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With the way things currently are, I have no excuse not to write something to mark the occasion of the passing of Honor Blackman, who is assured of big-screen immortality as the steeliest of Bond girls, and small-screen immortality as one of TV’s genuine innovators. I speak, of course, of her role in the TV series The Avengers, for which I have a great fondness. (I still feel mildly guilty for not writing anything when Patrick Macnee passed away nearly five years ago.)

Ask the kids these days about The Avengers and they’ll just start going on about magic stones and post-credits teasers, so I hope you will forgive a degree of background text: I speak of a TV series which ran between 1961 and 1969, starting off as a fairly down-to-earth crime-fighting show but gradually developing into one of the medium’s most outrageously tongue-in-cheek fantasies (the first episode features the protagonist’s fiancee being gunned down in the street by heroin dealers; later series revolved around plot devices like killer robots, shrink-rays, and invisibility potions).

The programme was initially developed as a vehicle for Ian Hendry, but at the end of a strike-curtailed first season Hendry left (or was fired, depending on who you talk to) and the lead shifted to his character’s associate Steed, played by Macnee. A number of new characters were brought in for the first part of the second season. One of them was Honor Blackman, playing widowed anthropologist Catherine Gale, and she debuted in the first episode of the new run, Mr Teddy Bear written by Martin Woodhouse.

The episode opens with a writer and commentator preparing to appear on a live TV interview programme (the host is Tim Brinton, a real-life newsreader later to spend much of his time perpetrating cons on the British public – benignly, as main presenter of Alternative Three, less so as a member of UKIP). However, the man drops dead, seemingly of a heart attack, on live TV.

It turns out he was on Steed’s list of people to keep track of, and – not entirely unexpectedly – Steed seems overjoyed when he’s told the man was murdered. ‘You’ve made my day!’ he says with delight. Based on the elaborateness of the murder method (the victim’s pills were all replaced with tiny clockwork poison-releasing devices, to ensure he died at exactly the time the cameras would be on him), Steed’s boss One-Ten (Douglas Muir) has already concluded a deadly international assassin known only as Mr Teddy Bear is responsible, and tasks Steed with apprehending the man.

Steed decides that the best approach is to try and hire Mr Teddy Bear to take out an appropriately challenging target – namely Steed himself. To make the approach he brings in Mrs Gale (it’s one of the conventions for most of the series that professional operative Steed routinely partners up with an amateur, so best not to question it) – but are their quick wits and resourcefulness a match for those of the assassin?

I have to be honest: I’ve seen all the Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson episodes of The Avengers, multiple times in many cases, starting from when Channel 4 re-ran them in the mid-eighties. The latter seasons are slick and stylish and still stand up immensely well even today, but the Honor Blackman years are more challenging to the modern viewer: made on videotape, on a much-lower budget – for all that Blackman has become an icon, the episodes themselves have been somewhat supplanted in the popular conception of what The Avengers is all about. I bought the complete set of DVDs nearly ten years ago but have only really scratched the surface of the second and third seasons.

So watching this episode was a curious experience, with a strange mixture of familiar and surprising elements. Steed has acquired most of the elements of his Ralph Richardson-inspired rig, but is not quite the outrageous eccentric he would later become, and there are some surprisingly down-to-earth moments for the character: he has a Dalmatian, apparently called Freckles, for one thing, while there’s also a scene where – almost unthinkably – we get to see him in his underpants. He seems to be working for a relatively credible branch of the intelligence services – One-Ten is a world away from a character like Mother, who fills the same role four seasons later.

This greater sense of realism extends to Steed’s relationship with Mrs Gale. Steed and Emma Peel often come across as a pair of champagne-swilling thrill-seekers rather than actual government agents, having a whale of a time and greeting every new threat with a discreetly-arched eyebrow. But there’s a genuine spark and suggestion of competitiveness and conflict between Steed and Cathy Gale – she seem genuinely fond of him, but often challenges his methods (this is a more ruthless Steed, who happily proposes kneecapping a prisoner just to be on the safe side). It’s also quite clear that Steed really winds her up, too!

However, there is something very recognisably Avengers-ish about some elements of this episode, particularly the assassin who prefers to operate through murderous gadgets. When Cathy arrives for her first meeting with the assassin, she finds herself being interviewed by an actual teddy bear – an animatronic proxy standing in for the real killer – which is another very distinctive moment. Elsewhere, though, the programme is operating on a much more modest scale – there’s only a few seconds of location film in the whole story, and silent at that, while the elaborate chases and fight sequences are also absent. (We don’t get to see Honor Blackman unleash her fabled judo skills on the bad guys in this episode, and it’s only towards the end she reveals her fondness for black leather clothing – initially, she’s very demurely and conventionally dressed.)

Nevertheless, it must be said that the episode does stand up surprisingly well, considering it was first broadcast in September 1962: the plot rattles along, fairly coherently for the most part, and while much of it is what my father would call a bit corny, the climactic battle of wits between Steed, Cathy, and Mr Teddy Bear is very engaging. I’m glad I finally watched it; I just wish the circumstances had been different. One thing that will almost certainly be lost on modern audiences is the sheer impact of a female action-adventure character like Cathy Gale in 1962: apparently, when Hendry was replaced, they didn’t bother changing the dialogue in scripts already written for him, resulting in an unusually strong female partner for Steed. It’s not just Diana Rigg and the other succeeding Avengers women who owe Honor Blackman and her performance a debt, but everyone influenced by them in turn. Anyone who enjoys and appreciates strong female characters, especially in fantasy TV, should take a moment to pay their respects.

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Well, here’s some housekeeping news for regular readers: it appears that the good people at my DVD rental company are not sending me the complete works of Woody Allen consecutively, nor are they actually reading this blog (at least, if they are, they decided not to send me Tiptoes as I requested last week). No, what turned up instead was – and I’m slightly ashamed to own up to even asking for this one, having now seen it – Cockneys Vs Zombies, directed by Matthias Hoene.


It’s tempting to say that a film called Cockneys Vs Zombies was always going to turn out to be rubbish – the currently-flourishing Vs-genre revival is practically based on the understanding that most of these films are rubbish, and are therefore only to be enjoyed via the adoption of the dreaded Ironic Sensibility. The fact the film is called Cockneys Vs Zombies is a bit of a giveaway, after all. Nevertheless, is it possible to make a film called Cockneys Vs Zombies that is genuinely good? It is a moot point, unfortunately, because this film certainly doesn’t qualify and I don’t foresee a rush to recycle the title.

Building work in the east end of London comes to an unexpected halt when workmen make a surprising discovery (this is how the plot of Quatermass and the Pit starts – Reign of Fire, too, come to that – but don’t get your hopes up). It is a 17th century plague pit, sealed by royal command, and containing – well, zombies. There’s a whole implied thing about the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London being zombie-related here, which never really gets explored. The transition from zombies-being-discovered to full-blown city-wide zombie apocalypse is handled rather briskly and economically, which would normally be a plus.

However, the time we are not spending watching the zombie apocalypse get started is instead spent in the company of the movies’ protagonists, played by Harry Treadaway and Rasmus Hardiker, who are massively implausible idiots (the characters, I mean, not the actors). The movie buys wholeheartedly into the stereotype that all Cockneys are lovable, ethically-flexible, clannish rogues, and the two lads have been upset by the news that their grandfather’s home for the elderly is due to be closed. To help the old geezer (Alan Ford), they have hit upon the idea of robbing a bank in order to provide for his material needs, assisted by their cousin (Michelle Ryan) and a couple of ridiculous comedy caricatures. The robbery, predictably, does not go quite as planned, but luckily the zombie apocalypse distracts the police in the nick of time.

Unfortunately, the zombies are also besieging their grandad’s old folks home, trapping him inside with all his friends (played by a bunch of well-known faces). Clearly the lads have to do the right thing by their kin, and rescue the pensioners from the putrescent horde…

One has to wonder quite how long the current zombie apocalypse boom – rolling now for about a decade – has got left to run. Certainly it feels like there have been dozens of zombie films recently, of rather variable quality. Let me put it this way: this is a London-set comedy zombie film, and one’s instant reaction is not ‘that’s an off-the-wall premise for a film’, but ‘oh, another one’. Cockneys Vs Zombies does nothing especially new or interesting on the zombie front.

And as a comedy film goes, it’s not actually what you’d call funny, either – there are two or three good sight gags, but that’s all. This is mainly because the general tone of the thing is that of a knockabout cartoon, with ridiculously thin characters – there’s not enough reality in the story to make you care or make you laugh. The film also comes equipped with a berserk Chas and Dave pastiche as its closing music, which is colossally annoying and irksomely catchy all at the same time.

I don’t think it’d be unfair to say this is a fairly immature movie on virtually every level. The stuff about the old folks home is easily the best element of the film, but the tedious nonsense about the robbery and its aftermath keeps getting in the way. Also – and I’m aware how this will make me sound – the movie seems to think that punctuating most of the dialogue with either fahk or fahkin’ will somehow make it sound cool and hard and mature. The effect is more like listening to schoolchildren for whom swearing is still an exciting novelty.

In fact, possibly the best way to approach this movie is to be pleasantly surprised by the number of elements in it which aren’t bad to the point of being slightly depressing and/or embarrassing. Georgia King is really surprisingly good as a slightly dippy hostage from the bank raid who ends up joining forces with her captors, but that’s all you can really say about the young cast. All that really makes Cockneys Vs Zombies at all watchable are the performances of the old folks home residents. Appearing here are Honor Blackman, Dudley Sutton, Richard Briers, and Tony Selby (an actor I’ve liked for ages – it’s a long story, followed by a much shorter story the next year). These people have the charisma and talent to rise above the indifferent material they’re served with, and all the best bits of the film concern them – it is admittedly a bit weird for Richard Briers’ final performance to revolve quite so much around him mowing down zombies with an uzi, but also somehow charming.

I’m really surprised that this film has been as well-reviewed elsewhere as it has, as I found much of it actively annoying – it has no real ideas or depth of its own, and is frequently thinly-written and poorly performed. It’s nice to see the veteran members of the cast doing a movie, but it’s a shame the movie in question doesn’t have anything else to commend it. Sad to say, but Cockneys Vs Zombies is a bit Fearne.

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Crikey, here we are at the end of May – only five months to go until the release of Skyfall, by which point I hope to have finished looking at all the other Bond movies (well, apart from the original version of Casino Royale, and as for Never Say Never Again… mm-mm, we’ll see). Better get on with it then. Let us proceed with one of the (surely) indisputable masterpieces of the form, Guy Hamilton’s 1964 adaptation of Goldfinger.

Preening Scots-Swiss poseur and sex maniac James Bond (Connery, natch), who in his scarce free time does a little light duty as a civil servant, is put on the trail of Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe), an industrial magnate suspected of being a major-league gold smuggler. (There’s nominative determinism in action for you and no mistake.) Bond is quite pleased about this as a previous encounter resulted in Bond getting bopped on the head and his then-girlfriend being painted to death (inventive stuff, this). Following one of the very few exciting games of golf in the history of the world, Bond ends up trailing Goldfinger to Switzerland, where the villain straps him to a table, points a laser gun up his trouser leg and threatens to cut off his benefits. Quick thinking on Bond’s part saves both his life and his social life, and finds himself whisked off to the States where Finger has bigger goldfish to fry. Oh, hang on a minute…

I’m being more than usually facetious about the plot of Goldfinger, but if any film can take it it’s this one – if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, this is surely the most sincerely flattered film in history: of the twenty Bond movies to date which have followed it, all of them owe it a huge stylistic debt, and most of them cheerfully reinterpret key sequences. (To say nothing of the legion of Bond knock-offs down the decades.) Obviously this is not the first Bond film, nor perhaps the best (I think From Russia With Love still pips it, but only just), but it marks the point at which the Bond movies went from being a well-received and lucrative series of films to the iconic, world-conquering phenomenon they have remained for most of the intervening time.

So what’s different about Goldfinger, what made this the tipping point – or, if you prefer, the critical mass – for Bond? I think all the answers you need are in the first five minutes or so of the film. After the white circle/gun barrel routine, we see Bond emerge from the briny deep with a stuffed duck upon his head, sneak into the base of some politically-motivated heroin smugglers, blow lots of stuff up, remove his wetsuit to reveal an impeccable tuxedo, and attempt to kill some time by getting down to it with a nightclub dancer (but end up having to kill an assassin instead). At which point the greatest Bond title sequence of the lot slams in and Dame Shirley starts belting out the theme tune. In other words, we get daft sight gags, silly gadgets, carnage, a little bit of sex, an implausible violent death, a bad pun and just enough plot to keep everything else coherent: if that isn’t the classic Bond formula boiled down to its essentials I don’t know what is.

It is, of course, utterly ridiculous as the stuff of a serious thriller – although apparently the tuxedo-under-the-wetsuit gag was inspired by a real mission during the Second World War – but, crucially, the film is entirely aware of this and lets you know it, mostly through Connery’s very tongue-in-cheek performance. The whole of the film operates on this level – silly, but knowingly and fashionably silly, and the results are winning.

One of the interesting things about this film, watching it today, is how difficult it is at times to actually engage with Bond as the central character. My father, when watching this film, is wont to exclaim ‘How smug!’ at the end of many of Goldfinger’s big scenes – but he’s no more smug than Bond, most of the time. Bond himself is not just smug but a terrible snob – he declares the Beatles are unlistenable (I wonder if anyone told Paul McCartney that when he was working on Live and Let Die?) – and relentlessly patronising towards all the female characters. The most striking difference between Bond and Goldfinger, who are both bon viveurs of the highest order, is that the hero is young, saturnine and athletic, while the villain is middle-aged, pale and fat: we are perhaps getting uncomfortably close to the underlying politics of the Bond series here.

This is a James Bond film, of course, so James Bond is obviously going to be the hero. But even so… A friend of mine has been watching a Bond film most Sundays of late, and sharing his reactions with the world, and his response to Goldfinger was that it has very dodgy sexual politics, most obviously in the scene in which Bond forces his attentions on Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) – she initially resists, but her struggling rapidly changes to passionate enthusiasm.

One could automatically respond that this is a Bond movie, and so of course the sexual politics are going to be very dodgy – but even so, this is still a slightly troubling moment, made worse by the fact that it’s crucial to the plot – there’s no other reason given for Pussy’s change of allegiance, which is the sole reason Goldfinger’s schemes fail, but Bond’s magic shagging powers. It would have been easy to enough to make her oblivious of the lethal element of Goldfinger’s plan until informed of this by Bond, at which point her better nature would lead her to renege – but I suppose the magic shagging was easier to script.

I can’t find it in my heart to be too hard on a script as tight and well-thought-through as this, which in a couple of places indeed improves on the novel. There’s still the awkward requirement for a sequence in which Goldfinger explains his plan at great length to a group of people who he’s planning to kill minutes later, which is not the most elegant plotting, but the rest of it is fairly exemplary.

So exemplary, in fact, that Eon have spent some of the time since Goldfinger was made trying to figure out a different and better way of telling the story of a Bond movie. They have met with only limited success, which means that the rest of the time – the majority of the time – they have essentially been remaking Goldfinger over and over again with superficially different characters, settings and plot vouchers. Possibly not the best of the series, but very, very near the top of the pile, and arguably one of the essential movies of all time.

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