Posts Tagged ‘ITV’

Dwindling budgets and fragmenting audiences mean that terrestrial UK TV channels play it very safe when it comes to commissioning drama nowadays – prestige costume dramas aside (these are usually co-productions anyway) you’ll struggle to find anything which isn’t a thriller, a cop show, or some sort of relationship-based melodrama. (The BBC soldiers on with Dr Who, though one gets the impression this is more out of a reluctance to let a massive cash cow slip into dormancy than any definite sense of knowing what to do with it as a piece of fantasy drama.)

It was not ever thus, and in the outer reaches of the high-numbered TV channels you occasionally come across a reminder of this. Until it recently vanished from Freeview, Forces TV usually served up a diet of nearly-forgotten ITV and BBC sitcoms, together with marathon showings of CHiPs and Spenser: For Hire, but now and then something more interesting popped up – selected repeats from the original run of Dr Who, Blake’s 7 (honestly, who’s still watching that these days…?), and some genuinely off-the-wall ITV dramas from when the network wasn’t quite so risk averse: they showed the mystical yuppie psycho-fantasy The One Game, and (at least three times) Chimera (directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, perhaps best known for his work on the BBC’s long-running Ghost Story for Christmas strand).

This is a serial I took a particular interest in – possibly you’d call me an early adopter, not a phrase people usually send my way – after seeing the writer, Stephen Gallagher, at a local SF group meeting while the show was still in production (I also interviewed him for a fanzine shortly afterwards, but we’re absolutely not going to go into that in any detail). Due to this the whole family sat down to watch it when it was eventually broadcast in the summer of 1991, leading to a degree of trauma for those less desensitised to such things.

Gallagher is a writer whose career comfortably straddles numerous genres and media – he’s written both novels and TV scripts, ranging from police procedurals to horror and SF (he was involved in the development of what eventually became Farscape), with the occasional genre mash-up. This probably qualifies as one of the latter. It opens with a piece of moderately deft narrative sleight-of-hand, as we meet young nurse Tracy Pickford (Emer Gillespie), who trades in a hectic career in a London A&E department for what seems like a cushier number, working at the Jenner Clinic, a private facility in the Yorkshire Dales doing fertility treatments. This means leaving behind her sometime boyfriend Peter Carson (John Lynch), a fairly feckless individual who spends all his time writing about old movies (yes, I know).

The first episode has a leisurely pace, as we get to see Tracy packing up her life, moving up to Yorkshire, and getting to know her new colleagues. This turns out to be a slow burn, as slowly it becomes apparent that something’s going on at the clinic which Tracy is not privy to. One wing is full of chimps and other lab animals (an odd feature for a fertility clinic). There’s a crisis one night, which concludes with someone or something being dragged back to the clinic in the rear of a minibus and then hit with a cattle-prod; Jenner himself (David Calder, doing another of his smoothly ambiguous establishment figures) alludes to letting Tracy know what the real business of the place is.

And then what’s been a fairly mild mystery, with perhaps a touch of romantic melodrama to it, takes a sharp left turn: the clinic’s chimp keeper is ambushed by the former occupant of one of his cages, his throat slit on camera; the clinic is soon ablaze, Jenner, his staff, and a residential patient ruthlessly hacked down, and Tracy… well, Emer Gillespie discovers she’s not playing Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween but Janet Leigh in Psycho (something about Gillespie clearly made people want to cast her in this kind of role: she meets an equally tragic and arguably even nastier fate in an episode of Ultraviolet from 1998).

When ITV repeated Chimera a year or two later, they carved it down from four 60 minute episodes to a rather briefer duration (one source indicates this was a two-hour TV movie, I seem to remember it being slightly longer and being split across more than one episode). Either way, what’s notable about the repeat is that virtually all of the first episode was cut: it opens with the police and other authorities moving in to deal with the aftermath of the disaster at the clinic, and Carson’s attempts to discover what happened to Tracy and the others.

The slasher movie vibe that concluded episode one continues, modulated into more of a creature-feature feeling – it’s gradually made apparent that the killer is not entirely human, as a local farmer and his wife come across something nasty in their barn and pay a grisly price for the discovery. Mixed in with this is more of a police-procedural, as the cops try to make sense of what’s happened, and the beginnings of a conspiracy thriller: overseeing the authorities’ response is a shadowy figure named Hennessey (Kenneth Cranham), who is one of those sinister, all-powerful civil servants you often find in stories like this one. D-notices are in effect, the police have been taken off the case, and government special forces are monitoring the area, armed to the teeth. (I should say that Chimera isn’t quite the succession of genre-hops I’m probably making it sound like: tonally, everything melds together very agreeably.)

Carson, at least, has learned enough to commence his own investigation into whatever Jenner was up to, and – dodging the cops and more shadowy government operatives along the way – finds the trail leads to Liawski, a retired former scientist who was a victim of Jenner’s own ruthless ambition. Jenner was out to push back the boundaries of scientific knowledge, but not out of any reverence for knowledge – he just wanted to become vastly rich off the patents he could register. His objective was the creation of a transgenic hybrid primate, a mixture of human being and ape – the chimera of the title. (When the series was shown in the US, it was inelegantly retitled Monkey Boy.) A flashback shows Jenner casually referring to this as a product, suitable for mass-production; another character comments on how such a creature could be experimented on without there being ethical concerns – they could easily be put to work as an expendable work-force.

Watching the second half of the series again now, it very much feels like something in the shadow of Edge of Darkness – a paranoid conspiracy thriller, albeit with a much more explicit SF-horror edge to it. The investigation into Jenner and his work is very engaging, and it’s a shame this element wasn’t expanded a bit more – one thing about this series, which no doubt explains the decision to cut down the repeat showing, is that it does contain quite a bit of extraneous material.

In the best traditions of miserabilist British SF, everything resolves in a tragic, downbeat climax, followed by a suitably ominous epilogue (suffice to say that the mass-production of ape-men has quietly begun). It’s not so much a cautionary tale, really, as another riff on Frankenstein (complete with a partly-sympathetic ‘monster’), mixed up with some uncompromising criticism of the moral bankruptcy of governments and commercial scientific concerns (Gallagher returned to this theme in his novel Oktober, which he also adapted for TV in the 1990s).

The series has stood the test of time pretty well: perhaps it doesn’t look quite as lavish as it once did (the title sequence resembles someone shining a laser down a plughole, probably because this is what they filmed), but Gallagher’s knack for convincing, drolly humorous dialogue is still in evidence and even the make-up job on Chad the chimera still looks quite impressive (Dougie Mann gives quite an affecting performance as the man-beast). There’s a bit of an issue with one of the lead characters, Alison Wells (Christine Kavanagh) – a member of Jenner’s team, it’s unclear exactly how sympathetic or morally culpable she’s supposed to be – but on the whole the characters in this story are well-written and effectively played.

It also scores quite highly on the ‘hang on, is that…?’ front, for there are various familiar faces popping up in minor roles throughout the show. George Costigan, mainly remembered for sitcoms these days, plays a Yorkshire cop trying to make sense of what’s going on, David Neilson (a Corrie lifer for the last 27 years) plays a farmer who ends up as one of Chad’s victims, Sebastian Shaw (the original face of Anakin Skywalker) plays Liawski, Liza Tarbuck has a small role as a garrulous woman who helps Carson out, and – perhaps most startlingly – Paul O’Grady (credited as Paul Savage) appears as a sign-language interpreter called in to help interrogate the lab chimps.

It’s a well-told tale, about something, and it’s genuinely fascinating to be reminded of a time when mainstream TV drama was permitted to include elements of horror – even slasher movies and creature-features. Watching it again, I was honestly expecting to find myself a bit embarrassed by my original enthusiasm for it, but it still hangs together and looks pretty good doing it. Worth checking out if it crosses your path and mainstream horror is your thing.

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The rather variable nature of late-third-season Avengers is once again apparent with the arrival of Build a Better Mousetrap, written by Brian Clemens. This is, I suppose, quite a high-profile episode, inasmuch as the publicity photos from it depicting Mrs Gale on a motorbike seem to have circulated quite widely.

The episode opens with Cathy indeed having joined a youth motorcycle gang. I would not be so ungallant as to say exactly how old Honor Blackman was when this episode was made, but let’s just say she makes for a fairly unlikely member of the gang. (Then again, the actor playing the leader of the gang is in his early thirties, so it’s not like she’s alone in this department.) The bikers have got permission to use a meadow for their various pursuits, which happens to be near an old mill, inhabited by two elderly sisters. The sisters do not respond well when the bikers stop by to ask for directions, and threaten to put a spell on the gang to ensure their peace is not disturbed.

Strange as it seems, it appears there may be an element of truth in this, as the local area has been plagued by mysterious cases of machines of all kinds inexplicably conking out. The locals are not happy, and blame is falling on the nearby atomic research centre. This has led Steed to get involved, planting Mrs Gale with the bikers, and generally nosing about the neighbourhood and flirting with the young ladies thereabout (the actress who gets to flirt with Patrick Macnee this week is Alison Seebohm, who is as telegenic as anyone else assigned this role). It turns out there genuinely does seem to be a mysterious force at work in the area, knocking out mechanisms and electronics – and it seems to be centred on the old mill where the sisters live…

The thing that makes a typical Clemens script distinctive, I’m starting to realise, is the fact that it is not particularly tightly-plotted or tense, but that it goes all-out when it comes to quirkiness in the characterisation and atmosphere. His late season three scripts really do feel like the advance guard for the direction the show would take when it went onto film – at the centre of this story is a borderline-SF maguffin, wrapped up in an improbable tale of eccentric old biddies, biker gangs, and various colourful locals some of whom are not what they appear to be.

And as such it is lots of fun: you can see Macnee having a whale of a time reacting to some of the big performances of the guest cast, plus he gets an uproarious scene where he talks his way into the old mill by passing himself off as an inspector from the ‘National Distrust’, which is apparently like the National Trust but rather more suspicious-natured. Honor Blackman seems to be enjoying herself too, and she seems to be a bit more indulgent of Steed than usual, too. This is possibly the most comedic episode so far, and certainly very enjoyable.

There’s a good gag at the start of The Outside-In Man, which opens with Steed turning up at a butcher’s shop in search of (but of course) some venison: he follows the head butcher into the meat locker at the back of the shop, which leads into a suite of offices. Yes, the butchers’ is a front for a secret government agency, and the butcher himself is Quilpie, Steed’s de facto boss for the week (played by Ronald Radd, whom we have seen before – seventeen actors).

The actual plot is rather more serious in tone. Some years earlier, a British agent named Sharp defected to an unfriendly foreign power and has risen to quite a position of importance in their government. Now he is returning to the UK, protected by diplomatic immunity, to negotiate an important arms deal. Steed is responsible for looking after him, which isn’t a particularly enjoyable assignment, but he is nothing if not pragmatic.

The situation is (inevitably) complicated by the reappearance in London of Charter (James Maxwell), one of the agents sent to assassinate Sharp around the time of his original defection. The mission failed and Charter has spent five years in an enemy prison – some of his colleagues were executed. Now he has either escaped or been released, which coincides rather suspiciously with the arrival of Sharp in London. After making a claim for five years of back pay, Charter sends an even more alarming message to Steed and Quilpie – he still intends to carry out the mission he was given and kill Sharp…

As you can see, this is a much less whimsical story than Mousetrap, and if you took out all the gags about the butchers’ shop it would work as a completely straight spy drama. But as such it is good stuff – there are a couple of strong guest performances from Radd and Maxwell, and the main thrust of the story – can they find Charter and stop him in time? should they? – is also effective. (Mrs Gale selling Charter a second-hand car proves to be significant to the plot.) In the end, of course, all turns out to be not quite as it first appears, but not improbably so. An episode in a very different mode to the preceding one, but nearly as engaging in it own way.

Another Brian Clemens rounds off this selection, in the shape of The Charmers. If you have been following along it will not come as a great surprise if I reveal that this is yet another one of Clemens’ videotape-era scripts which was touched up and remade for the first colour season of the show, when it was retitled The Correct Way to Kill.

Someone is bumping off agents of the Other Side. Steed assumes they’re having another one of their purges – but when an assassin turns up at his flat, it seems that he is a suspect, and the Other Side themselves are in the dark as to who is responsible and what their motive is. Steed goes along and meets the Other Side’s local chief, Keller (Warren Mitchell. giving a much more comedic performance than in The Golden Fleece, earlier this same season – seventeen actors! I’m sure of it!). Some very droll interplay follows, with Keller left very envious of the size of Steed’s expense account, and a prominent board with pictures of ‘Wanted Agents’ on it. The in-joke is that, apart from Steed, all the photos are of Avengers production team members, including Brian Clemens himself.

Do the ‘Mind if I smoke?’ gag if you really must.

Well, Steed and Keller do a deal where they will work together and investigate the murders: Steed volunteers Cathy without asking her, resulting in another very funny scene of her getting cross with him about taking her for granted. While Cathy indeed teams up with one of Keller’s men, the Other Side pull a fast one and just hire an actress (Fenella Fielding) to pretend to be a spy and escort Steed, telling her that he’s just an eccentric spy novelist who likes to live his stories before he writes them.

The trail leads to a dentists’, a gents’ outfitters, and ultimately to a sort of finishing school for anyone aspiring to become an English gentleman (needless to say, the principal is left awe-struck by Steed’s style and deportment). Not that the plot strictly matters, because, once again, Clemens is writing with his tongue firmly in his cheek – this is a spoof much more than a serious drama, but it’s a tremendously entertaining spoof. You can see why Clemens was essentially given the job of showrunner from the start of the next season onward.

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As we get closer to the end of The Avengers‘ third season, you can sometimes almost sense a battle in progress for the soul of the series: one week there’s a fairly ‘straight’ espionage episode like Death A La Carte or The Wringer (both of which are pepped up in different ways by unexpected elements, admittedly), the next there’s something much more whimsical and ironic. Shot on film, these latter episodes could easily have appeared in the following season. Watching The Avengers transform from a relatively gritty spy series into a fantasy and science-fiction show, by tiny, stealthy increments, is one of the most peculiar but enjoyable experiences available to the vintage TV watcher.

The style of Roger Marshall’s Mandrake (good title) is certainly more Peel than Keel; the episode opens with Steed attending the funeral of a former colleague who has passed away with somewhat suspicious abruptness, and been buried – for no very obvious reason – in a remote Cornish churchyard. What’s going on? Steed’s olfactory rodent detection system is fully operation, especially after an interview with the dead man’s son produces no very convincing answers as to why he ended up buried there.

Mrs Gale visits the same churchyard and comes away with the surprising news that a large number of wealthy businessmen and other people of significance have recently been interred there, most of them from well outside the parish. Even more suspiciously, all of them were ministered to in their last days by the same medic – one Dr Macombie (John Le Mesurier). What’s going on?

Possibly less than meets the eye, to be honest: it transpires that Macombie has set up in business with a cracker factory owner named Hopkins (Philip Locke, another semi-regular Avengers villain) and they are basically running a murder racket, to which the final resting place of the bodies is absolutely crucial. Is it all just a little bit contrived? Well, maybe. Are the scenes with the cracker factory just there so Patrick Macnee can flirt with the ever-telegenic Annette Andre? Yes, that too. But the performances and convolutions of the plot are easily good enough that you don’t really think about any of this while you’re watching it.

Discovered in a graveyard.

This is the episode in which the famous wrestler Jackie Pallo appears as a special guest heavy, and inevitably gets to take on Honor Blackman at the end of the second act. The ensuing fight sequence is perhaps not one of the series’ best, but is mainly notable for Blackman accidentally knocking Pallo unconscious for something like seven minutes (she was apparently very contrite). Amusingly, accounts as to exactly what happened differ – Honor Blackman recalled mistiming a move, so that rather pushing Pallo away with her foot, she ended up kicking him full-force in the face. Pallo, however, was adamant that he banged his head on the set when falling into a grave, insisting it was absolutely impossible he could ever be knocked out by a woman. Big strong men have fragile egos, maybe. Nevertheless, a strong episode.

Ludovic Peters’ The Secrets Broker is also pretty solid, but the essentially pedestrian nature of the story should be clear if I reveal it has nothing to do with finance or the stock market: that title is a definite single entendre. The best moment of the story comes near the start, where one of the attendees at a seance is told that there is a message for him from the other side – the gag, of course, is that they’re not talking about the spirit world but the Other Side politically.

There are fears that plans for a new gadget being developed for the navy are in danger of being pinched – this is a complete maguffin, by the way – and an agent checking on security for the lab where it is being worked on has turned up dead. It’s avengin’ time! Steed inserts Mrs Gale into the lab to see what she can turn up, and retraces the footsteps of the dead man, which leads him to a rather unusual wine merchants.

Well, some good stuff with Steed tasting wine ensues, as you might expect, but the business with the lab is very second-season-ish and a bit soapy: it turns out the chief boffin’s wife is having an affair with someone mixed up with the fake medium (the seances are run as a sort of second string by the traitorous family in charge of the wine merchants). Jack May has fun chewing the scenery as one of the chief villains; this is a big performance even by Avengers standards. May’s character smokes cigars and carries a sword-stick, which might lead you to expect Steed getting a proper sword fight come the climax: alas, this seems to have been beyond the means of the fight choreography budget. Shame: would have lifted a rather average episode.

Malcolm Hulke contributes the next episode, Trojan Horse, which opens with a hapless young posh chap being led to believe he’s an accessory to murder – the kind of plot device it feels like we’ve already seen at least once before, though this may not be the case. This is one of those stories where managing to get Steed and Cathy inserted into the plot seems to have been a bit tricky: most of the action takes place in and around a maximum security stable (no, really), and it initially seems that Steed is here to see to the wellbeing of a visiting dignitary’s favourite horse, and thus avoid a diplomatic incident. This sounds pretty spurious even for The Avengers, if you ask me, and later on there’s a suggestion it may be a cover for an investigation into a string of unsolved murders.

Well, it turns out the stable is mixed up in another assassination racket being overseen by a mathematical prodigy turned turf accountant named Heuston (T. P. McKenna): he and his chief henchman (Derek Newark) have been training the stable lads and jockeys to become assassins, using such unlikely gadgets as dart-firing binoculars. The hapless posh chap from the start is just the latest unwilling recruit to the operation.

It does have some interesting angles to it, and Patrick Macnee is again in his element talking about horses and gambling – he gets a nice scene where he flirts with one of the tote girls at the race course. Mrs Gale, meanwhile, gets to show off yet another facet of her astounding polymathic genius by doing all sorts of complicated gambling-related sums in her head and virtually running Heuston’s bookies for him for a while. (After a while you do get the sense that Cathy is really the brains of the outfit, and what Steed actually provides is an acceptable face, a little low cunning, and a ruthless streak as wide as the North Sea.) On the other hand, there is yet another scene where an assassin is gravely given a photo of his next target, which turns out to be – yes, you’ve guessed it – Steed. I forget how many times a version of this moment has played out in this season and the previous one. Either the show is running out of puff or I’m watching too many episodes in too short a period of time. Still, a bit better than The Secrets Broker, but nowhere near as good as Mandrake.

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Eric Paice’s The Little Wonders is a hard episode to dislike, which makes it just as well that there’s not much reason to. Well, maybe there’s the fact that the derivation of the title seems a little obscure, but that’s all. Things get underway with the arrival of an elderly bishop at the surgery of a distinguished consultant: apparently his lordship is in very poor health and may soon be gathered up to meet his employeer. The punchline of the tag scene comes when the doctor requests the Bishop take off his outer vestments, preparatory to an exam, and the clergyman removes a shoulder holster.

More evidence of clerics behaving badly at the airport, where one Reverend Harbottle has been detained, with various unseemly and unusual items discovered in his luggage. Apparently the reverend had a bit of a chequered past, which is why he was picked up. Steed suspects he was a member of a very old crime syndicate known as Bibliotek (operating mostly in the old Empire territories and the commonwealth) and that the organisation is gathering some of its senior members in London. Steed alludes vaguely to going away for a few days but packs Cathy off to investigate a doll which Harbottle had in his possession.

The doll plot feels a bit like filler and mainly serves to overcomplicate an otherwise fun episode: various bad boys from Bibliotek are indeed gathering, to sort out the succession what with the Bishop being in such poor health. The main gag is the mismatch between their ecclesiastical trappings and the cor-blimey-guv’nor demeanour most of them have: there’s Fingers the Frog, Vicar of Toowoomba, Big Sid, Dean of Rangoon, and several others. Joining their number, like you couldn’t have guessed, is Reverend Harbottle’s last minute replacement: Reverend Johnny ‘the Horse’ Steed!

Patrick Macnee is, as you might expect, utterly in his element in this absurd scenario, and is clearly having great fun. The premise is strong enough to overcome most of the plot issues and there are some fun supporting turns as well: apart from David Bauer as the Bishop and Kenneth J Warren as Fingers the Frog, Lois Maxwell plays a key role and honestly gets more to do in this one Avengers episode than in a dozen of the Bond films of which she was a long-time fixture. Her best scene comes when she appears unexpectedly with an enormous tommy-gun and wastes half a dozen of the supporting cast. All this plus a scene where Cathy has to masquerade as Johnny the Horse’s girlfriend, which means allowing him to take a few liberties not normally available to Steed. The twinkle in Macnee’s eye speaks volumes. A series which is in its groove and going well.

Steed collars the Bishop.

Martin Woodhouse’s The Wringer is up next, one of the episodes from the 1993 re-run that I actually ended up watching, albeit not until some years later (picked more or less at random from a stack of videotapes, I’m sure). Some interesting guest artistes in this one, both mainstream and niche: the episode opens with a man on a train having a troubled nap, during which he reveals he is carrying a photo of Steed (it looks very much like the kind of publicity shot Patrick Macnee’s agent would have done, but this is par for the course). The man in question is played by Peter Sallis (the early stretches of his career are much more interesting than his 37-year stint in 295 episodes of Last of the Summer Wine might lead one to expect).

Sallis is playing Hal Anderson, the only agent to come through the Corinthia Pipeline in Austria alive in the last couple of months. This vital piece of plumbing is about to be shut down, as it has clearly been compromised by enemy activity, but Steed’s boss (Paul Whitsun-Jones), who’s just called Charles – the old One-whatever system has apparently been retired – puts him in charge of finding Anderson in the hope this will reveal the truth and just how security has been breached.

This being the 1960s, a few words with Anderson’s tailor (Gerald Sim, one of those familiar faces who seemed to spend most of his career playing vicars and doctors) puts Steed on the trail, and he tracks Anderson down to a fire-watching tower somewhere in darkest Scotland (needless to say this is a studio set). Anderson recognises Steed, as he should, but admits to having a two month gap in his memory. That night, however, the memories resurface and he remembers who the traitor who’s sold the Corinthia Pipeline out to the Other Side is – it’s Steed!

Well, of course it isn’t, but the top brass don’t know that and Steed is packed off to be interrogated and then disposed of. Mrs Gale, quite properly, doesn’t buy it for a moment and practically blackmails her way in to see him. At the risk of spoiling the story, a very New Avengers-ish plot twist ensues: the Other Side have managed to infiltrate and suborn the interrogation centre, and so rather than extracting information, the beat-poet in charge – the eponymous Wringer, played by Terence Lodge – is brainwashing Steed to confess, just as he’s conditioned Anderson to believe Steed’s a bad guy.

Maybe it doesn’t all make absolute sense (and even if it did, it would still be a wildly tall tale), but this is still a solid story without some of the overplotting these episodes occasionally fall victim to. Perhaps it’s even a little ahead of its time with some of its psychedelic elements; it certainly seems to be anticipating The Ipcress File in some respects.

What makes it particularly interesting for those of us of a certain tribe is the presence of an actor named Barry Letts as the deputy of Steed’s boss. His performance is solid but not spectacular, and it’s what he would go on to do that makes this comparatively rare on-camera appearance so fascinating. Letts started off as an actor, but the demands of raising a family led to his going behind the camera, first as a director and then as a producer. It would not be an understatement to say that his work on the BBC’s most prominent fantasy series changed the course of TV history: together with Terrance Dicks (also lauded in this series of reviews) he took a weary-seeming series on the verge of cancellation and transformed it into the fixture of the schedules it remained for many years, making its style and storytelling much more sophisticated. His work on the BBC classic serial was also impeccable, too. A bit of an unsung hero, if you ask me – but it’s fascinating to see him at this earlier stage of his career. What you’d call value-added content for an episode which was pretty good to begin with.

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John Lucarotti, who seems to have been a writer in some demand in late 1963 and early 1964, pops up again to deliver Death A La Carte, another episode which feels a bit like a bit of a throwback to the second season, and not just because it has ‘Death’ in the title. It opens with someone breaking into a greenhouse and stealing some mushrooms, which is perhaps not the most arresting hook for an action-adventure series. We then find ourselves in a hotel suite (most of the episode unfolds in either the suite or the hotel kitchens), where Mrs Gale (having one of her non-standard hairstyle days) is apparently working in the hospitality department. The hotel is playing host to the Emir Abdulla Akaba, ruler of somewhere made-up, and she is in charge of looking after the old boy (if I reveal that the actor playing the Emir is called Henry Soskin, you may correctly deduce we are back in potentially problematic territory). But no expense is being spared in looking after him – no fewer than three top-class chefs have been installed to see to his every whim, Lucien, Umberto, and Sebastian Stonemartin.

The gag is that Sebastian Stonemartin looks suspiciously like Steed, who has decided to go undercover amongst the kitchen staff, for no very adequately explained reason. Still, it’s a good gag, and both Steed and Patrick Macnee are in their element discussing fine dining and the like. It’s the most entertaining part of what often feels like a dry and rather static episode. It turns out that the Emir is not a well man, and is in London for a medical check-up – Steed and Cathy are here to see to his safety, as an assassination could destabilise the Middle East, but it seems like their charge is virtually on the point of conking out anyway. Could be tricky!

As noted, the stuff with Steed as a chef does a lot to lift an episode which is slow and talky. The big set piece comes when Steed is locked up and has to scale the side of the hotel to escape, which is partly realised in the time-honoured fashion of turning the camera on its side and Macnee crawling across a set where the floor is made to look like a vertical wall. You show that sort of thing to kids raised on CGI, and they just laugh at you! I don’t know… An okay episode, but no more than that.

Another episode from Brian Clemens is next, in the form of Dressed to Kill – this one looks suspiciously like a classic, if not this time then maybe the next. Yes, this is another example of a script which Clemens ended up cannibalising and reusing for the first colour season, when it was called The Superlative Seven and featured Donald Sutherland as the bad guy and Brian Blessed as the world’s least Trappist monk. [Actually he’s an executioner. But he’s wearing a hood, either way. – A]

It opens with some suss goings-on on the grassy gnoll outside an early warning station (realised through a painfully tiny studio set). All this is happening around Christmas time (the episode aired in the last week of December 1963), and next we are at Steed’s flat, in the aftermath of an epic-looking party. Steed tells Mrs Gale he missed most of the shindig himself, due to an emergency: something triggered all but one of the nation’s early warning radars, coming very close to starting the Big One. It just so happens Steed has an option on some of the land outside the only station not affected by the fake signal. Cathy is open in her doubts that this is a coincidence.

But enough of all that! Steed has been invited to a New Year party on a train, in fancy dress to boot! He turns up dressed (it would appear) as Maverick, and encounters a few other fairly familiar faces in his carriage: Robin Hood (Leonard Rossiter), a Victorian policeman (Richard Leech), a Pussycat (Anneke Wills), a Sheriff (John Junkin), Napoleon (Alexander Davion), and Dick Turpin (Anthea Windham). A good time is had by all, until the train stops at a remote station out in the sticks and their carriage is uncoupled, leaving them there. Soon it becomes apparent that not only do they all have an important appointment in town the next day, but someone in the vicinity is quite intent on using deadly force to keep them from making it…

Crikey, but Anneke Wills was a good-looking young woman. No wonder Michael Gough tried to kill Steed the following year.

Naturally, it all ties in to the business at the start with the early warning network, and naturally, Steed has smelled a rat and arranged for Cathy to be in the vicinity to back him up. This is certainly a strong episode, with a classic Avengers feel to it (then again, with Clemens reusing his own scripts so much, perhaps this effect is just achieved through repetition more than anything else). The supporting performances are also strong even if the plot doesn’t entirely hold together. (It still makes a bit more sense than the one in The Superlative Seven, though, if memory serves.)

We find ourselves in the titular snack as John Lucarotti turns in his second script in three weeks: the show blasts into 1964 with The White Elephant. Actually, it’s not quite as dynamic as that probably sounds, to be honest. A small albino elephant goes missing under mysterious circumstances from what’s sort of like a zoo, except it isn’t: it’s an animal collection centre, from where captured beasts are sent to zoos and circuses (hmmm, problematic territory again, I suppose). Based to some extent on her background as a genuine hunter and safari guide in Kenya (or Keenya, as Honor Blackman pronounces it), Steed wangles Cathy a job at the place. She quite rightly wonders exactly what Steed’s interest in a missing elephant may be, and this turns out to be a rather spurious hook into a story about the centre being used as a front for ivory smuggling (shades of Lucarotti’s second season script, about smuggling ambergris).

My ‘seventeen actor’ theory gets more evidence as no fewer than seven (out of eight!) guest cast members also show up in other Avengers episodes (multiple episodes in some cases). Godfrey Quigley gets a chunky part as the centre’s director, while Edwin Richfield does another stint as the villain of the week. In the end, the episode never quite lives up to expectations, not least because despite the promise of the title, and Snowy the albino elephant being so central to the plot, they obviously couldn’t afford an actual elephant for the recordings. Still, any shortfalls in the script are kind of made up for by a cracking final scene where Cathy – who’s spent much of the climax locked in a cage with a big cat – rounds on Steed in deadly earnest, taking him to task for his manipulative ways, and accusing him of always using her expertise to make up for his own indolence. A strong end to a fairly undistinguished episode.

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I sort of get the impression that if The Golden Fleece was a statue, a crowd might be gathering to tear it down (you may in turn be getting an impression of just how long the delay is between these pieces being drafted and then actually posted to the blog). Written by Roger Marshall and Phyllis Norman, it opens with three decent-looking military chaps convening the meeting of what seems to be some social club or charitable concern – the hook being that the kitty for their society contains an immense sum of money, far more than one might reasonably expect (inflation since 1963 means this plot element hasn’t lasted especially well – what sounded like a vast fortune then would probably struggle to buy you a decent house now).

Our scene then shifts to a Chinese restaurant, where a slighty enigmatic older Chinese man arrives for some meetings – one positive thing you can say about the episode is that he and the restaurant owner at least are both played by actual Chinese performers. Also on the scene are Steed and Mrs Gale, who have been enjoying a lovely meal. Cathy can’t help but suspect that whenever Steed takes her somewhere nice, it’s always the prelude to some alarming escapade. Well, twinkles Steed, you know what they say: if something is inescapable, you may as well lie back and enjoy it (the crowd mutters angrily and drifts forward, waving their hammers). Oh, dear, Steed.

Well, as if by chance, Steed happens to take the wrong coat home from the restaurant cloakroom, and it turns out to have a cheque for £5000 in the pocket, drawn on the bank of Taiwan! Cathy immediately smells a rat, and Steed admits that the restaurant is a known haunt of the notorious gold smuggler Lo (the Chinese chap from the start), whom he is hoping to apprehend (he’s basically a sort of policeman this week). Cathy gets very, very cross with him for not being more up front with her about this sort of thing, always insisting on his ridiculous smoke-and-mirrors act instead.

The owner of the cheque appears and turns out to be a Captain Peter Jason (Warren Mitchell), one of the soldiers from the start (though arriving in mufti). There’s another good scene where Steed asks Mrs Gale to check Jason out, only to be told she’s busy – she’s been offered a job cataloguing a museum, and her rent won’t pay itself. ‘I did suggest another arrangement,’ Steed murmurs. He’s also rather scathing, suggesting they ask the underworld to knock off for a few days until Cathy’s free again. This turns out to be outrageously uncalled for, as Mrs Gale soon discovers that her new job is the regimental museum of the unit of which Jason is a member – Steed has set her up again! You do wonder about Steed’s seemingly pathological need to manipulate his partners and never entirely come clean with them – it’s one of the most interesting aspects of the character, but also one which – if memory serves – fades as he becomes more avuncular, replaced by a sort of general-purpose wiliness.

It turns out that British soldiers serving in the UK and Hong Kong have got mixed up in gold smuggling (the actual method used is very inventive), but someone has been creaming off more than his fair share and needs to be disposed of before the end of the hour. This occasions the dodgiest scene of the episode, when Steed meets the dead man’s widow. She is indicated to be a native Hong Konger, but played by Lisa Peake in make-up designed to make her look Chinese. Or, to put it another way, yellow-face (the crowd surges forward, growling). To be honest, the poor performance bothers me more than the out-of-ethnicity casting, but I know that’s not a very acceptable attitude these days. As I keep saying: we don’t do this stuff any more, and that’s good. But pretending we never did it – I don’t really see who that benefits. (And if the mob ever comes to my door demanding my Talons of Weng-Chiang DVDs… I may come over all Charlton Heston.)

Oh dear.

The rest of the episode is a decent one, anyway: some great Steed and Cathy scenes, as I’ve suggested, and some strong guest turns too – aside from Mitchell (always underused as a straight actor, I feel), Tenniel Evans plays another of the club and Michael Hawkins is the traitor. It also features a rare instance of a borderline-sympathetic set of villains, especially striking coming right after The Grandeur That Was Rome‘s batty megalomaniac. The soldiers aren’t in the smuggling line for personal gain, but to support soldiers who’ve had to leave the army and are struggling in civvy street. It would be stretching a point to suggest this is more than a grace note – there’s no sense of Steed or even Cathy feeling much in the way of a moral dilemma – but it does add more distinctiveness to a strong and memorable story, with many more positives than negatives.

I sort of feel like I’ve seen Don’t Look Behind You before, mainly because this is perhaps the most obvious example of an episode which was later remade for one of the filmed seasons – in this case, as The Joker. The hook shows someone cutting a picture of Mrs Gale from a glossy magazine (it is a very generously-sized pic, considering it just seems to be a contributor photo, but then Honor Blackman is a beautiful woman) and then proceeding to mutilate it with a pair of scissors. Brrr!

It takes a while for the episode to enter this sort of psycho-thriller territory in earnest, though. Cathy has been invited to spend the weekend with a famous historian at his country house, and Steed is happy to drive her down in his ‘new’ car (this looks very much like the first of the vintage vehicles he drives throughout the rest of the series). It soon becomes apparent she has been lured there under false pretences by someone who is much more frighteningly unhinged than the typical Avengers bad guy…

But, as I say, the revelations come late in a rather oddly-paced episode – the first ad break on the DVD release doesn’t arrive until into the second half of the episode – much of which is taken up by Steed and Cathy contending with slightly eccentric characters they meet at the spooky country house. The Avengers always has a slight tendency to use wacky eccentrics as filler, especially when Brian Clemens is at the wheel (he wrote this script, naturally), and it’s only the quality of the performances that keeps this from becoming a bit wearisome. Peter Hammond’s borderline-psychedelic direction also keeps things perky, but while the episode is an interesting change-of-pace, I’m not sure I’d call it a complete success.

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That well-known TV face Peter Bowles makes the first of his annual Avengers guest-villain appearances in Martin Woodhouse’s Second Sight, which ultimately turns out to be a bit less weird and interesting than it first appears. An experimental transplant operation is about to take place, with living corneal tissue being harvested from a donor at a Swiss clinic and brought to the UK, where it will be grafted into a blind millionaire named Halvarssen (John Carson). Steed is overseeing the project on behalf of the government, which at least provides him and Cathy with a route into the story, even if one inevitably wonders why this affair falls within the (admittedly vague) remit of Steed’s department.

Various things about the project just don’t add up: why all the rigmarole about transporting the corneas from Switzerland to the UK? Why doesn’t he just go there himself? And, given that these are living corneas, it follows that the donor will be sacrificing their own sight to give Halvarssen the possibility of regaining it (apparently there’s a 30% chance per eye of the transplant taking, though the person saying this turns out to be low moral character and probably should not be trusted). Isn’t there something very ethically dubious going on here?

Well, as you can probably guess, all turns out to be not quite as it first appears, and – as noted – perhaps less interesting. The actual reason for the tissue transport turns out to be the first one you might think of (the plot device involved has turned up in other places since), and the series is back on slightly shaky ground with a trip off to Switzerland for much of the episode (the kind of foreign excursion which was routine in series two but has been much less common this year): rather to Cathy’s annoyance, Steed manages to insert her into the situation in the guise of being some sort of medical and biological expert: something she complains is beyond even her awesome polymathic abilities.

Still, the episode is redeemed by being pacy, with a well-told story for most of its running time (there is perhaps the odd wobble near the end). Some good performances, too: Peter Bowles makes a smooth and plausible main villain, and there’s a well-scripted scene between Steed and Halvarssen, which, amongst other things, sets up another high-quality final ruck, this week featuring a gun battle where one of the participants is blind. Not a truly great episode, but probably above average.

On to The Medicine Men, written by Malcolm Hulke and initially transmitted on the 23rd of November 1963 (I mention this only because most books and articles on vintage TV give the impression that only one programme worth mentioning was shown on this date). Despite the title, this one doesn’t have a doctor in it, but it does concern the pharmaceutical industry, and touches on some reasonably contemporary concerns.

A Chinese woman dies in suspicious circumstances at a Turkish bath in London (what I personally find rather mysterious is why she goes into a steam cabinet wearing such heavy mascara, but that’s by the by). It turns out she was investigating counterfeit medicines being sold in what we would now call the developing world: the packaging and branding of respectable, legitimate companies is being duplicated (or almost duplicated) and the markets flooded with substandard knock-offs. Once again, it initially seems like slightly small potatoes for Steed and Mrs Gale to get involved in, but then again I suppose there is that murder to consider.

Well, it all turns out to involve adulterous shenanigans at the company the episode primarily features, a disreputable ‘action’ painter, Mrs Gale going undercover at the Turkish baths (one carelessly framed shot of Cathy in the shower has Honor Blackman briefly sharing more with the audience than she probably intended), Steed going undercover as an utterly preposterous Icelandic art dealer, complete with fur hat and thick accent, and much more beside. The story does turn out to have some stakes, in a slightly contrived way: the villains’ plan becomes one to create anti-British sentiment in the former colonies by releasing deadly fake medicine in identical packaging to that of British companies. There’s also a lovely moment where Steed finds himself held at gunpoint by a rather over-confident villain. ‘I’m sorry, I couldn’t find one with a silencer,’ smirks the bad guy. ‘That’s all right, I could!’ beams Steed. Pop!

‘That hat’s not a patch on your bowler, Steed.’ (Here all week.)

In the end this is another episode which probably gets a bit too unravelled in the final act, but is redeemed by some of the incidental pleasures I’ve outlined above. We’re at the point now where the by-play between Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman is usually enough of a pleasure to make up for whatever weaknesses the rest of the plot may have: the running joke in this one is about them practising their putting and chip shots while discussing the case, and of course the final punchline to the episode is that Cathy’s handicap is half Steed’s, much to his obvious shock. Lots of fun, regardless of the plot.

Next, Rex Edwards (who I believe is a new name to us) contributes The Grandeur That Was Rome, an episode which apparently led to Honor Blackman receiving a fan letter written entirely in Latin – when Patrick Macnee passed it on to his old Latin tutor (but of course…), it proved to be outrageously pornographic, to the point where they couldn’t contemplate actually showing her the translation. The episode itself perhaps doesn’t live up to the quality of this anecdote, but it’s another one you could certainly imagine appearing (perhaps in somewhat modified form) in season four or five.

Strange crop failures and livestock diseases are afflicting Europe (shades of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves) which leads Steed to the offices of a leading feedstock company – but who could be attempting to bring about widespread famine and the associated social upheaval? The trail eventually leads them to Sir Bruno Luca (Hugh Burden), a millionaire scientist and businessman with a fixation on ancient Rome and who is, as you might be able to guess, as mad as a muskrat. Luca wants to reinstitute the Roman Empire (with himself as Caesar, naturally), and is looking to do so by causing plagues and funding an autocratic political movement.

Well, any episode which concludes with a togate and gladius-wielding Steed taking on the bad guys obviously has things going for it, even if the technical limitations of the video-taped episodes mean this doesn’t have quite the panache or scope of some of the episodes that will come to follow it in the filmed seasons. Hugh Burden is unafraid to be, ahem, expansive in his performance, but much of the plot is relatively down to earth (it feels like there’s a lot of poking about in the offices of feedstock suppliers). Still, the way this episode eschews entirely a conventional espionage or crime-related story in favour of a lunatic mastermind seeking world conquest does mean it feels very much like a harbinger of the more outrageous episodes of the Emma Peel years, and it’s nice to have just a taste of things to come.

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Roger Marshall’s Death of a Batman has a title likely to confuse and mislead the kids of today, not that many of them are likely to want to watch it in the first place: the name refers to the nickname given to a soldier assigned to be the valet of an officer (the etymology gets a bit involved here and isn’t really worth going into).

The episode opens with an old boy of obviously quite limited means conking out, with his family gathered around him; the camera crosses the room to reveal a photo of a young Steed in army uniform: it turns out the recently-deceased was Steed’s batman at the end of the Second World War (less than twenty years before the episode was made, so this isn’t quite as incongruous as it might sound).

Naturally, Steed goes to the funeral, and is flattered to be remembered in the dead man’s will – he gets back ten quid he lent the man in 1945, which he had quite forgotten about. The chap who the deceased looked after in the previous war (Andre Morell) also gets a small bequest. Gob-smacking for everyone, however, is the fact that a man who was on a wage of twenty pounds a week (this was pre-decimal and pre-inflation, of course) has somehow managed to leave an estate worth somewhere in the region of £180,000. Has someone been up to something they shouldn’t?

The answer turns out to have something to do with insider trading and the stock market, but much more than that I find it quite difficult to go into detail about: I only watched it the other day, but the details of the plot are so impenetrable that it seems my brain found it impossible to retain most of them. This in itself probably says something about the episode.

This is a shame, as on paper the episode does not look unpromising: Morell is capable performer, and playing the dead batman’s son is David Burke, probably best remembered for a very decent turn as Dr Watson in the first couple of series of the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes adaptations. Adding weight to my theory that there were only about seventeen actors working in the whole of TV in 1963 is the fact that Morell’s business partner is played by Philip Madoc, notching up his third appearance as a suspicious type in an Avengers episode in little more than a season. I suppose the episode is made a little more distinctive by the fact the villains rationalise their various crimes as being done in the name of supporting the British electronics industry (hmm, tell me another one) and there’s a scene where Honor Blackman has to contend with a set door that just won’t do as it’s told which is memorable for all the wrong reasons, but on the whole, until I watch this again (maybe in another 25 years) I am inclined to peg it as a dud.

Something much more fun comes along in the form of Eric Paice’s November Five (originally shown on November 2nd 1963, ha ha), although apparently this is an episode more likely than most to confuzzle non-British viewers, rooted as it is in the arcane details of our parliamentary system. It opens with the result of a by-election being announced, but the winner has possibly the shortest career as an MP in history as a second and a half later he is shot by a sniper (this sequence is not very well mounted, viewed from a modern perspective).

The official story is that this was an accident, but the dead man had been campaigning on the promise of exposing a major scandal – so was he just silenced? This is what Steed is wondering. He already knows what the scandal in question was – an atom bomb has been stolen – and this has been covered up by all the main parties. Can he track down the killers, and will they lead him to the missing A-bomb? Naturally, this involves Mrs Gale running for parliament in the by-election taking place to find another MP to replace the dead man. Cathy is not keen, even as Steed tries his hardest to persuade her: ‘I’ll pay your deposit! I’ll even kiss some babies for you!’

The clue to where the bomb eventually turns up is in the title of the episode, but this is fun, pacy stuff, if rather far-fetched (highlights include a fight on an indoor dry ski slope, and that’s before we even get to a gun battle inside the studio recreation of the palace of Westminster). It doesn’t really have any serious points to make about politics in general or the British system in particular, but it rattles along cheerfully and gets the balance between credibility and fantasy just about spot on. A strong episode.

Steed and Mrs Gale enter Parliament. Her intentions at least are honest.

Which leads us to The Gilded Cage, written by Roger Marshall. This was the first Cathy Gale episode I ever saw, when it was repeated in 1992 as part of the TV Heaven thread. (I am slightly sickened by the realisation that the episode was 29 years old at the time, which was 28 years ago. Tempus very much fugit, obviously.) Back then I was only passingly acquainted with even the filmed episodes – the only ones I was properly familiar with were those of The New Avengers, which had recently been repeated – and the lack of slickness and fantasy elements were a genuine disappointment, I must confess. Watching it again now, though, it seems to me to be a very impressive outing for the series.

Mrs Gale has apparently got a job at a secure storage facility for gold bullion, which she shows Steed around. Badinage between the two quickly makes it clear that she is planning to knock the place over and pinch the gold – what can be going on? Needless to say, it is part of a plan to entrap a senior (in every sense of the word) criminal named J. P. Spagge, a Moriarty-like figure who facilitates criminal activity for a slice of the takings. Adding further credence to my seventeen actor theory, Spagge is played by Patrick Magee, last seen only eight episodes earlier as the last villain of season two.

However, the plan seems to go horribly wrong when the police turn up and arrest Cathy for the murder of Spagge, her (missing) purse having been found by his body. The next thing she knows, she’s waking up on death row, having been convicted of the killing and sentenced to hang in only a few days… (Lest you be wondering, the last hangings in Britain took place the following year, though the last execution of a woman was in 1955. Critical insight and social history, and all for free. No need to thank me.)

A very lively and involving episode, this one, with some great characters: apart from Spagge himself, there’s his butler, who’s essentially a psychopathic snob much given to rhapsodising over Steed’s taste in clothes, and the leader of the gold robbers, a sculptor played by Edric Connor (apparently a noted calypsoist when not acting). Some good set pieces, too, although it’s shame that Connor’s character doesn’t get a more memorable send-off and there’s some very wobbly scenery during the final fight scene.

Watching The Gilded Cage now, one is inevitably struck by the irony of Honor Blackman overseeing the robbery of a gold bullion repository, especially one using knock-out gas to incapacitate the guards. I think we are still so early in season three that the striking resemblance to the plot of Blackman’s most famous big-screen appearance must be a coincidence – but it’s an amusing one nevertheless. Either way, the episode stands up extremely well on its own terms, one of the best to date.

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James Mitchell’s Man with Two Shadows is an episode with a number of elements suggesting he hasn’t quite got the hang of The Avengers house style yet: the hook scene mostly concerns the actor Daniel Moynihan taking his trousers off and putting them back on again. This happens more often than you would have thought possible, given it’s such a short scene. The episode is largely set in a British holiday camp (another element which, to the modern viewer at least, hardly screams glamorous escapism) and the hook sees Moynihan (playing a character named Gordon) in his chalet. He takes his trousers off. He opens his wardrobe – only to find another Gordon in there with a gun, waiting for him! The second Gordon shoots the original and then sets about taking the dead man’s place. Fake Gordon takes his own trousers off. After a moment’s thought, Fake Gordon then puts Original Gordon’s trousers on. Cue the title card. Let’s just say it could all be a bit slicker.

Steed is dragged into proceedings by a meeting with a former double agent named Borowski (Terence Lodge), who has been caught by the Other Side and subjected to odd procedures which have left him with an interesting range of multiple personalities – quite how and why are not gone into, as they are not pertinent to the plot – they’re just there to make Borowski a more interesting character and add some character to what would otherwise be quite a dry pipe-laying scene. Borowski raves on about plans to replace key individuals in the British establishment with identical doubles, suggesting that a scientist and a top spy are amongst the targets.

Clues lead Steed to the holiday camp in question, and he brings Mrs Gale along to back him up (Honor Blackman has a very different hairstyle to her usual one in this story, almost enough to distract one from her various swimsuit scenes). The mangled body of the original Gordon has turned up, so Steed also gets the man’s doctor and dentist to come with him, for a full examination (a spurious reason for this is come up with). But could this all be a trap? It turns out a duplicate Steed is already standing by… The possibility has certainly occurred to Steed’s superiors, one of whom is also taking an interest. If it ever looks like Steed has been replaced, Mrs Gale is to terminate the duplicate.

Not, perhaps, the most original of premises for a story, and one they revisited (rather less plausibly) in the New Avengers episode Faces, in which London’s homeless population apparently contains a double for every single member of the security establishment. This one works a bit harder to seem sensible, stressing the amount of time and effort it takes to create one of the duplicates (Steed’s double complains it’s taken five years of hard work.)

Nevertheless, a solid episode: you can tell the programme-makers are taking advantage of the fact they’re not making the episodes as-live any more, as this one would have been almost impossible to achieve under those limitations. Mrs Gale gets a cracker of a fight scene with one of the henchmen come the climax, tussling away in the camp ballroom as a waltz tinkles away in the background, and it finishes on a great character moment – Steed decides to leave the fake Gordon in place, as he’s a very useful channel for supplying the Other Side with credible misinformation. But what about his fiancee? Shouldn’t she be told? Steed is at his most amoral; Mrs Gale is morally outraged, naturally. As I say, solid stuff.

Up next, The Nutshell is the first of two episodes from the obscure writer Philip Chambers, and it enjoys a very positive reputation, amongst the writers of at least one major Avengers website anyway. It opens with a very striking young woman in a wetsuit engaged upon some sort of covet mission; it’s Edina Ronay, again, getting a bit more to do than in her previous appearance in the series. (Perhaps my head is getting too easily turned by a set of cheekbones and a fringe, but I’m wondering if Ronay wouldn’t have made a terrific Avengers girl herself.)

(I make no apologies…)

Steed, meanwhile, is having tea with Mrs Gale, and revealing he is a believer in the MAD doctrine which shaped a lot of strategy during the Cold War. Let us be charitable and assume this is a sign of Steed’s innate pragmatism and cynicism, rather than outright foolishness. The phone goes, summoning him urgently to a meeting – what’s more startling is that Cathy was warned ahead of him this would be happening, and is under orders to go along as well.

They are off to the Nutshell, a top-secret nuclear bunker (‘the nutshell’ is one of those laborious acronyms you often find in spy-fi stories; this episode is full of them). Here they are placed under the command of top man Disco (John Cater) – this is another acronym – and told that Big Ben – yet another acronym – has been stolen. Big Ben is one of those lists of undercover agents which are always prone to being nicked (see the first Mission: Impossible film and Skyfall) and it has to be retrieved – but who would know about the security at the bunker?

Steed would, it seems: he goes straight off to see Ronay, who is playing Elin Strindberg, a Swedish escapologist and contortionist (excuse me a moment – >sigh<). It looks like Steed himself has orchestrated the break-in and is intent on passing the secret list to somebody from the Other Side. Can he possibly have gone bad?

Well, of course he can’t, it’s Steed, but that doesn’t stop this from being a particularly involving and tense episode (even if Edina Ronay isn’t in it quite enough). For once Steed seems to be operating entirely independently, and Cathy has no idea what he’s up to, and the audience is also kept well and truly in the dark until the closing minutes of the story. Is this, as some have suggested, the single best episode of the videotaped incarnation of The Avengers? Well, I think I’m going to keep my counsel on that for the time being, but it is certainly in the top bracket of the series up until this point.

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The third season of The Avengers begins with the appearance of a name which was notably absent throughout the credits of the second: that of Brian Clemens, undoubtedly the most significant behind-the-camera contributor to the series (not to mention The New Avengers, for which he wrote over half the scripts). Clemens wrote a couple of episodes of the first series (though not, as is sometimes stated, the very first), but this marks the beginning of his regular association with the show, as we will hopefully see.

This adds to the sense the opening episodes of the series give: that The Avengers has suddenly become much slicker, quirkier, and more confident. (I understand some behind-the-scenes changes in terms of how the episodes were actually recorded – no longer quite as-live – may have had something to do with this.) Clemens’ first contribution of the season is Brief for Murder, which is lots of fun even if it doesn’t entirely seem to hold together.

A man is on trial as a noted traitor to his country, but the prosecution is failing, mainly due to a brilliant defence exploiting every legal loophole in the annals of British justice. Key is the prosecution’s failure to produce the man’s alleged contact – the mysterious ‘Johnno’, a well-dressed, well-spoken man-about-town in a position of trust. (Switched-on viewers may be able to anticipate what this is leading up to.)

Well, the man is acquitted, to the chagrin of all right-minded folk, especially Mrs Gale. Steed, however, seems to be great pals with the traitor, who – you guessed it – calls him ‘Johnno’. Mrs Gale expresses her disgust to Steed and goes so far as to suggest Steed himself is a traitor and working for the Other Side. Steed is outraged, and threatens to start proceedings against her.

He ends up going to the same solicitors who handled the treason trial, Jasper and Miles Lakin (played with possibly a bit too much relish by John Laurie and Harold Scott), who are as a corrupt a pair of crooks as you could imagine: in return for a substantial fee, they help would-be criminals to plan and execute whatever nefarious scheme they have in mind, all with an eye to their being able to present an impenetrable defence when and if it comes to court. This suits Steed, who has it in mind to kill Mrs Gale…

Two diabolical masterminds, yesterday.

Yes, it’s all a scheme to get evidence on the crooked solicitors, but well-told. The problem is that it goes on for most of the episode, which leads to a rather busy and possibly slightly confusing final act. There’s also the slight problem that – so far as I can see – we’re never told who the real Johnno is, or why Steed initially came to befriend a traitor and a blackguard. Are there two Johnnos? If not, why are the defence making such a big deal of it? As I say, a fun episode, but probably best to enjoy the details rather than worrying about the plot.

The same is really true of Malcolm Hulke’s The Undertakers, which opens with a very Avengers-y sequence where a bunch of undertakers carrying a coffin arrive at an office, shoot the man working there, and carry him away in said receptacle (possibly it’s a bit Prisoner-y, too). A classic Avengers hook, I would say.

The episode proceeds with Steed looking forward to a tour of the USA, looking after a prominent scientist who is due to have a series of important meetings.  ‘I’ll send you a postcard!’ Steed promises as he takes his leave of Mrs Gale. ‘Remember to put a stamp on it this time,’ is Cathy’s deadpan response. However, Steed doesn’t get his trip, as the man he is due to accompany has apparently gone into retreat, at a very exclusive retirement home, where visitors are not allowed without an invitation. Luckily it turns out that the place is looking for a new assistant manageress…

It all turns out to be something to do with inheritance tax (that old stand-by of escapist action-adventure stories). If nothing else, watching The Undertakers will give you a better understanding of early-60s tax law, always assuming Hulke bothered to do his research properly (I have great respect for the writer so I expect this is the case). Apparently the inheritance tax rate was at something around 80% at this time, which if you are the partner or child of a rich bod is far from ideal. One way of dodging this would be for the money to be handed over prior to death as a gift, with the crucial caveat that the original owner had to continue to breathe for another five years after making this act of generosity. Can you see where this is going?

Yes, all the secluded folk in the retirement home have actually been killed by the undertakers, but the illusion that they are still alive is being preserved so the death duties can be dodged when their passing is eventually announced. I think. Once again, it does all get a little bit confusing, and much of the execution doesn’t quite have the kind of lightness-of-touch one might hope for given this is The Avengers. However, there are some other fun, quirky touches: there’s an early instance of Steed displaying his mastery of brolly-fu when he gets a fight in a room full of coffins, for instance.

Also of interest is the climax, which is a lengthy gunfight in the grounds of the retirement home, with both Steed and Mrs Gale taking on the two main villains. This is shot on location, on film, in broad daylight, and possibly constitutes another first for the series (although filmed sequences become increasingly common and lavish across season two): it feels much more like a season four moment than something from season 2. It provides a big lift to the climax of the episode, which is probably just as well given the nature of much of the plot. Not surprisingly, tax law is not a topic one readily associates with The Avengers.

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