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Posts Tagged ‘ITV’

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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Deep in The Avengers‘ second season we come across Man in the Mirror by Geoffrey Orme and Anthony Terpiloff, such a thin piece of work that it does seem to suggest a production team struggling to keep things together. Most of it isn’t that bad, I suppose, it’s just very slow and obvious.

After an opening which features a man being found dead at a funfair, there’s an extended sequence of Steed turning up to a briefing and chatting with various colleagues: which would be an interesting insight into the way his department operates, were it not for the suspicion that it’s really just filler. On this occasion he’s working for the first time with yet another superior, One-Six (Arthur Gover): Steed’s new boss is a stickler for procedure and is clearly not much taken with Steed’s more swashbuckling style, suggesting that a protracted stint of office work may be good for Steed’s attitude. The particular assignment is to investigate the recent apparent suicide of a man called Trevelyan, an expert in cryptography – if it really was a suicide, the department can relax and not worry about having to change all its codes. If not…

Venus takes Steed’s dog for a walk to the funfair where Trevelyan was found dead at the top of the episode and enjoys herself with the camera Steed has lent her (apparently he wants some pictures of the location where the body was found and has sent her here deliberately, which is just as well or this episode would be based on a completely preposterous coincidence). However, when the photos of the hall of mirrors are developed, one of them shows a man’s reflection – it seems to be Trevelyan! Could he still be alive?

You can probably work out the rest of this one for yourself, although your version may end up with more twists and a slightly more cohesive and rewarding climax than the episode they ended up making. Pretty mundane, ambling stuff, and the apparently obligatory musical interludes where Venus does a couple of numbers don’t really help much (she started off as some sort of jazz singer, but in this one she’s singing the folk song I Know Where I’m Going from the Powell and Pressburger film of the same name). Undistinguished and unmemorable.

Much the same is true of Conspiracy of Silence, from the typewriter of Roger Marshall, which is part of that subset of Avengers episodes concerned with circuses and killer clowns. (Possibly I am overestimating the frequency of this particular trope.) This is, as you might expect from a second season episode, towards the naturalistic end of the spectrum, and concerns an Italian circus performer, long established in England, finding himself unwillingly activated as an agent of the Mafia. Suffice to say that if he wasn’t before, he is now the crying-on-the-inside kind of clown. Quite why the Mafia have singled out the clown as their hitman of choice is not clear, as he seems both temperamentally and physically unsuited for the role. However, we shouldn’t be too upset as his assigned target is none other than Steed, who has been making a nuisance of himself breaking up the Mafia’s drug pushing activities.

The clown turns out to be about as much use as a contract killer as you might expect, missing Steed at short range while our hero is out walking his dog (Sheba not Freckles on this occasion). Even worse, he drops not only his gun, but his briefcase, which contains various helpful clues as to his identity. (What kind of a hitman, or indeed a circus clown, carries a briefcase around with them?) Steed wastes no time in inserting Mrs Gale into the circus in order to discover what’s really going on.

A little trouble in a big top.

The premise of the episode, not to mention the opening section, is so dubious that it really struggles to recover; there are some interesting characters, but also a few duds, and much of it is played as a melodrama (for example, many of the scenes between the clown and his wife). There is some interesting tension in the Steed-Gale relationship (a bit more than usual), but other than the circus setting there is little to elevate the episode or make it especially memorable.

The last of the Venus Smith episodes heaves into view in the form of A Chorus of Frogs, which is supposedly the best of the bunch. I can see how you might think this, but on the other hand it is one of those ‘exotic’ episodes which I don’t think the series ever handles especially well. A part-time agent (basically, a mercenary) turns up dead in the Med, apparently of the bends, having seemingly been dumped from the yacht of millionaire Archipelago Mason (Eric Pohlman). Steed, who is on holiday in the area and sporting what Mel and Sue used to call le fashion nautique, meets up with One-Six who packs him off to investigate what Mason is up to: the complication being that the dead man was part of a tight-knit crew of divers known as the Frogs, who are intent on doing a spot of avenging of their own…

This is by no means the worst studio-bound Avengers episode set largely on a boat, but the bar in this area is set particularly low. It’s okay, I suppose: the tension between Steed’s activities, those of the Frogs, and those of Mason and his backers from the Other Side, creates an interesting dynamic even if the actual revelation of what’s going on is relatively pedestrian (tests on a new type of bathyscape which could revolutionise the production of midget submarines). Much of the fun of the episode comes from Steed having to stow away on Mason’s yacht, which requires him to hide out in Venus’ cabin, much to her chagrin (once again we have to accept the apparently monumental coincidence that she just happens to be singing in the vicinity of where Steed has an assignment in progress): she and Steed even butt heads in a very mild way, although her general uselessness as a sidekick is still much in evidence, as are the musical numbers (Julie Stevens sings straight to the camera some of the time, which is a bit jarring). One other odd quirk stems from the fact that there were apparently only about twelve people involved in making British TV in 1963: Frank Gatliff, who was in an earlier episode of season 2, reappears here as a different character. All in all this is a reasonably good episode; the best of an indifferent bunch.

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I know I have complained about the slight level of confusion that seems to pertain when it comes to the running order of the second season epsiodes of The Avengers, but I suppose this is somewhat understandable given the episodes were transmittedly well out of their production sequence: Warlock was only the fifth episode to be produced, but ended up being held back until late into the season, next to The Golden Eggs, which was broadcast less than a week after it was completed. This wouldn’t ordinarily be noticeable but for a very peculiar quirk of casting: Peter Arne plays the villain in both episodes (they are different characters). Arne is issued with glasses and a false moustache for Golden Eggs, and gives a very different performance, but even so. This sort of thing wouldn’t happen nowadays.

Other parts of the episode remain dismayingly topical. The house of an eminent research biologist is burglarised, but he insists nothing was taken. Steed is not so sure and sends Mrs Gale in to investigate, undercover as a reporter. It soon becomes apparent the scientist is covering something up. Meanwhile, the thief who carried out the robbery, on the orders of ruthless dealer-in-secrets Julius Redfern (Arne), is really not feeling at all well…

It turns up the thief has whipped a couple of golden eggs which were being used to culture a deadly new virus, Verity Prime, which causes respiratory failure in its victims. Needless to say it is up to Steed and Cathy to recover the eggs before something catastrophic happens. (Well, maybe: no internet or DVDs in 1963, when this episode was transmitted, which would have made lockdown an absolute ordeal, but on the other hand Alexander Boris Johnson was still years away from being born, so the government response to a lethal virus outbreak would probably have been more capable and perhaps its members even inclined to respect their own rules.)

Quite heavy stuff in places, or so it seems at the moment. The episode nevertheless isn’t afraid to play certain scenes with a light touch: after the hook scene, it opens with the suggestive image of Steed and Mrs Gale having breakfast together – it turns out her flat is being refurbished (again?) and Steed has agreed to put her up in return for her cooking for him. Later on there’s a scene where she is trying to glue a vase back together while some exposition goes back and forth, and of course the inevitable happens. Arne’s performance is also remarkably arch given the seriousness of the plot.

In the end, this is another solid but slightly atypical episode, a bit more Cathy-centric than usual (Steed is almost completely absent during the climax, vaguely suggesting he was somewhere in the area when Mrs Gale brings this up with him), and with a hard edge to it in places (three characters are killed and their bodies destroyed with thermite to stop the virus spreading). Not bad at all.

Venus Smith comes back for School for Traitors, in which Steed once again displays prophetic powers by inserting her into the locale of his next mission before he’s actually been assigned it (on this occasion his handler is One-Seven – I can only assume Douglas Muir, who plays One-Ten, was busy that week). A student at one of the great old universities of England (Oxford, Cambridge, Hull) commits suicide under slightly suspicious circumstances, especially when there were previously reports that the young man was being blackmailed. Have agents of the Other Side managed to infiltrate the British higher education system?

Well, of course they have, although as this episode aired only a couple of weeks after Kim Philby, one of the notorious Cambridge spies, fled to the Soviet Union, it’s not the most far-fetched of premises. To be honest, the whole episode is rather down-to-earth, maybe even mundane: the various bright young chaps of the university are suborned not through anything especially scandalous but by being persuaded to forge a signature on a cheque. Chief honeytrap is Melissa Stribling, a few years on from Dracula; her partner in crime is Reginald Marsh, who will probably be best remembered as playing Sir Dennis in many episodes of Terry and June. Various people get bumped off but the only memorable bit comes when Venus is sent some caustic face-cream and Steed sticks her head down the sink before she can explain she hasn’t used the stuff. Decent performances, though, I suppose. Venus Smith is obviously no-one’s idea of a classic Avengers girl, but I must confess I find Julie Stevens’ portrayal of her to be rather endearing, even if the musical numbers still drag somewhat.

Malcolm Hulke returns for the next episode, writing alone, and the result is The White Dwarf, another early episode with distinct science fiction overtones – handled quite seriously, too. A distinguished astronomer is murdered while observing the movements of a star – this is the white dwarf of the title (the episode handles the astronomy quite decently). Steed fills Mrs Gale in on the background, which is more momentous than usual: the astronomer had predicted that the small, intensely heavy star would enter the solar system and collide with the sun, dragging the Earth with it. The question is when and if the news should be annnounced to the public and other governments (Britain is the only country aware of the possibility). It must be said that Cathy and Steed are both very matter-of-fact and unmoved by the possibility of impending armageddon, and seem quite happy to press on with investigating the scientist’s murder. (It’s tempting to draw parallels with the BBC’s enjoyably daft 2018 cop show Hard Sun, which had a vaguely similar premise.)

Mrs Gale is packed off to the observatory, where the death has been hushed up to avoid revealing the truth about the dwarf star, and finds the usual mixed bag of suspects, while Steed sticks around in London and works on figuring out who would stand to benefit from a delay in determining whether or not the world is doomed. (It turns out that Steed is so laid back because he’s quietly sure the world will not end, on the grounds that there is no precedent for this happening. Very uncharacteristic woolly thinking, I would say, and at least Mrs Gale does take him to task for his spurious logic.) His investigations eventually lead him to a bunch of tycoons aiming to take advantage of the disturbance in the global stock market that will ensue if the news of impending doom is announced and then rowed back upon…

Again, one is impressed by the composure involved in coming up with such a scheme when everyone (apart from Steed) seems to think there is at least an equal chance that the theory of the approaching death star is correct, but so it goes. You could argue that the episode is built on a slightly flawed premise – there is no tension involved in the question of whether or not the world is ending, because we the viewers know it won’t – but it’s still another episode with a unique flavour to it. Hulke’s left-wing politics are on display in the choice of villains, obviously, but he’s by no means the only writer to have bad guys solely motivated by greed. This one scores points for originality, for well-drawn characters, and for a climax which is – rather unusually – shot on film, on location (though, again, Steed seems a bit out of character as he turns up packing a handgun). Nevertheless, another step towards The-Avengers-as-we-know-and-love-it.

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Box of Tricks is written by Edward Rhodes and Peter Ling – Ling is possibly best-remembered for co-creating the, erm, well-remembered soap opera Crossroads, but don’t let that put you off. Well, not entirely. This is another Venus Smith episode, although since her last appearance she has had a pixie cut and possibly acquired some sort of recreational drug habit, to judge from the way her personality has changed: perky and effervescent don’t begin to cover it.

The episode opens with a magician’s assistant turning up murdered in mid-act (a tired variation on the old ‘vanishing woman’ gag, and the fact the script repeats it before the first ad break doesn’t help), which is bad news for the nightclub where the deed takes place. Luckily, they get Venus in as a replacement act (it seems that Steed has been acting as her agent and wangled this, although the line explaining why has either got lost or isn’t given enough emphasis). Steed’s current assignment is to work undercover in the house of a distinguished elderly general as his masseur, from where it has been established there is a security leak of some kind.

For quite a long time there seem to be two plots running in parallel, in the nightclub and the general’s house, and the connective tissue turns out to be a Dr Gallam (Edgar Wreford), a plausible-seeming faith healer. Gallam’s particular schtick is to insist his subjects carry around a sealed box containing curative substances, the revelation of which marks the point at which any half-awake viewer can figure out what’s really going on in this episode. Not especially distinguished, but watchable – one is inevitably curious about what the original version of the story would have been like, as it was intended to include Steed, Venus, and Cathy acting as a troika. As it is, you can see why Steed tends to work with more capable partners than Venus, who is rubbish in a fight: he has to take on all the villains himself, and while he approaches this in his usual nonchalant style – at one point lighting a fag in mid-scrap – he ends up having to rely on a guest character to help him win the day.

Doreen Montgomery’s Warlock is a definite outlier as episodes of The Avengers go, pushing the series into areas you really don’t associate it with, but in a way this does add to its odd appeal. It also has a certain significance for being the episode originally intended to introduce Cathy Gale to the series, although it was eventually pushed back to much later in the running order and most of the duo’s scenes together refilmed – although not quite all of them, resulting in various odd little moments like Cathy calling him ‘Mr Steed’ at one point, which really does feel not quite right.

Given the title, it’s not entirely surprising that the episode opens at some kind of witches’ sabbat, although these seem to be syncretists rather than Satanists considering that their ritual includes voodoo drumming, hermetic symbols on the floor, and traditional Chinese iconography on the wall (given the famously primitive conditions under which these episodes were made, the hermetic symbols may just be the marks showing the actors where to stand so they’re in shot). The focus of their attention is a photo of a distinguished-looking older man.

It turns out this chap is a top missile boffin, whom Steed is supposed to be taking to an important meeting – but when when Steed turns up to collect him, he’s still in bed, seemingly frozen stiff and eyes frantically boggling. The doctor suggests there’s nothing actually wrong with him beyond some kind of psychological shock, and an odd plant found in the man’s hand, together with his extensive library of occult tomes, leads Steed to wonder if there isn’t some sort of occult connection.

Mrs Gale, of course, is an expert on the occult (add that to her lengthy list of areas of expertise) and Steed tracks her down to the Natural History Museum, where she’s helping out with the fossil collection (palaeontology, too) where she gives her opinion as forthrightly as ever: black magic really can have an influence over people who believe in it. One-Ten eventually meets up with Steed and reminds him of another important government scientist with an interest in the occult, who died in mysterious circumstances a few years earlier.

Our heroes’ investigations lead them to the occult bookshop of the resplendently-monickered Dr Cosmo Gallion (Peter Arne), whom we the viewers already know is the warlock leading the witch cult from the top of the episode. Gallion has hit upon a scheme to bolster his income from the bookshop by luring important government scientists into joining his coven, putting the ‘fluence on them, and then making them give their secrets away to the Other Side (what the supposedly materialistic leaders of the Other Side will make of their agents employing a magician is something the episode leaves to the imagination). Can Steed and Mrs Gale put a stop to Gallion’s rather bizarre scheme?

Peter Arne in the first of two back-to-back villainous appearances.

As I say, a definite outlier for the series, not least because it includes elements more normally associated with fantasy and horror. Never mind what Mrs Gale says about black magic ultimately being only a subjective, psychosomatic phenomenon, there are scenes here where Gallion uses his powers to great effect against people who clearly don’t believe in the supernatural – so the episode seems to be suggesting that magic is real, in Steed’s world at least! It’s fascinating to speculate how the series could have developed differently had the writers decided to follow up on this notion, rather than going with the more science-fictional elements that eventually became commonplace in the show.

All interesting stuff, and the episode opens strongly, but the episode unravels before the ending and the pacing is a bit iffy in places. Montgomery also seems to be struggling to quite get a handle on Steed’s character – he actually gets drunk at one point, which seems very out of character, and spends most of the next scene trying to get Cathy to go back to his place with him. I suppose it’s understandable, given Warlock was written when the character was still being developed, but given these scenes were mostly reshot, it’s a shame they couldn’t have been tweaked a bit too. Nevertheless, an episode with more than enough originality to make it very watchable.

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People sometimes give The New Avengers some stick for setting a handful of episodes in Canada, which is apparently an intrinsically un-Avengers-esque locale. Well, I might argue that Traitor in Zebra (written by John Gilbert) is equally suspect in this particular department, as it takes Steed and Cathy far from the glamour of the metropolis, or indeed the Home Counties, and sends them to… the North Wales coast.

This is not a normal place to find zebras, let alone ones containing a traitor, but the zebra of the title is HMS Zebra, a Royal Navy base. This particular base is being used to develop and test a brand new tracking system, but every time the assembled crew and boffins have been trying to test it, they find themselves jammed by the Other Side. A young officer is under suspicion of being the traitor (hence that title), but the evidence against him is not great.

Hence Steed’s decision to insert himself and Mrs Gale into the situation, once again working undercover: he has managed to wangle her a job as a lab assistant in the base, helping to create the special crystals which are apparently crucial to the new system (crystallography, ornithology, stamp collecting – is there no end to her talents?), while he turns up – driving a recognisably Steed-ish car for the first time – as Commander Steed, a psychiatrist from the Admiralty.

What ensues is mostly competent espionage-based capering taking place against this rather odd backdrop: as soon as one character starts carefully noting down what position the darts have been left in on the board at the local pub, you know the sort of thing you’re in for. Most of the actual details of the plot are not very memorable, but it does at least have a distinct identity of its own, and there are some well-known faces amongst the guest cast: Noel Coleman plays Zebra‘s captain, William Gaunt plays a young officer whose screws are perhaps wound a touch too tight, and John Sharp (later a Number Two in The Prisoner) is a suspicious local artist and dog-walker. Best guest performance probably comes from Richard Leech as the local newspaper editor, but the one who really shines in this episode is Patrick Macnee, looking very at home in naval uniform, getting some good scenes where he interrogates the suspected traitor, and a genuine hero moment when he has to persuade the real bad guy to defuse the bomb he’s planted to blow up the base. A mid-table episode, but there’s nothing much wrong with that.

Another odd foreshadowing of The New Avengers, and perhaps more generally than that, in The Big Thinker, written by Martin Woodhouse. Rather unusually, the story opens with Cathy arriving at the building housing (or perhaps embodying would be a better word) a highly advanced new supercomputer, Plato (shades of SCAPINA from the New Avengers episode Complex), hoping it can help with some analysis connected to her anthropological work (this woman has so many strings to her bow it’s practically a harp). She is given the standard tour, which is as good a way as any of introducing the guest cast, the best known of which are Tenniel Evans and Anthony Booth (later to become rather better known firstly as Alf Garnett’s son-in-law in Till Death Us Do Part and then as Tony Blair’s father-in-law in Till The Iraq War Do Us Part, a.k.a. real life). Booth is playing Dr Kearns, a mathematical prodigy and general pain in the neck, who is a rather obnoxious guy but too valuable to sack (but only just). Kearns’ bull-at-a-gate attempts to chat up Mrs Gale are halted when a dead body turns up at the heart of the computer complex (we saw him die at the top of the episode, but this is an unusual instance of Cathy finding the story, rather than Steed dragging her into it).

Steed spends most of the story trying to get off to the Middle East, where he has another assignment, but finds himself obliged to stick around as Plato is potentially of vital national importance – as the fastest computer in Britain, it could be used to handle missile interception and other vital tasks, hence the possibility the Other Side is trying to sabotage it. The weak link in the programme seems to be Kearns, who likes to drink and gamble a bit too much (his mathematical prowess gives him an edge when he plays poker, but not an unbeatable one), and Cathy ends up keeping an eye on him…

A decent episode with a good performance from Booth as the abrasive young boffin. To me this is significant as the first episode I’ve seen to even suggest the more science-fictional elements and themes which become a much more prevalent part of the series as time goes by, especially during the Emma Peel series. Here, though, the emphasis is much more on down-to-earth espionage. There’s what seems to be just a subplot (an unusually detailed one) about a cardsharp attempting to get leverage over Kearns, which includes most of the best scenes – at one point he tries to con Mrs Gale out of £500 and gets the shortest of short shrift from her. In the end, though, it could be a bit more tightly scripted than is actually the case. For those keeping track of Steed’s animal companions, he turns up here with another dog, named Sheba. One can’t help wondering why they all disappear over the next couple of series…

There seems to be some confusion over what the actual order of the second season episodes is, as the 50th anniversary DVD box set, Wikipedia, and The Avengers Forever website all list them differently. (This is the sort of thing that really annoys me.) Sticking with (I think) the order of broadcast, the next episode is Leonard Fincham’s Death Dispatch, another extremely generic spy story. Ironically, the sheer physical limitations of these old shows – they couldn’t do anything very convincingly – freed them up, which is why you find them attempting things most modern programmes would be wary of going near: in this case, a globe-trotting international espionage caper starting in the Caribbean (blatant stock footage), then travelling by jet plane (blatant stock footage) to South America (yet more blatant stock footage).

A British courier is murdered in Jamaica, and the intelligence services are baffled, not least because – as far as they know, anyway – he wasn’t carrying any particularly valuable information (not that his killers managed to steal it). One-Ten gives Steed the assignment (once they’ve both finished ogling the bathing beauties in Jamaica) of replacing the dead man and finding out who wants the information and why. Backing him up will be Mrs Gale – this is clearly One-Ten’s decision, which kind of jibes with the general impression that Steed’s partners’ only contact is with him.

Another episode which feels like a holdover from very early on – written as Cathy’s second, apparently, which may be why it feels like the characters aren’t quite right – Mrs Gale is a lot less steely and no-nonsense with Steed on this occasion, while Steed is slightly more of a louche Bond clone (strange to think that this episode was completed several months before Dr No was even released). Certainly he’s at his most cold and ruthless in this episode, which resolves through a massive cop-out: the villain, who’s planning an assassination that will trigger a coup in (I think) Chile is only defeated when his innocent, slightly dim daughter blunders in as he’s about to have Steed and Mrs Gale shot (she plays no other substantive role in the plot). Steed ends up pointing a gun at the teenager’s head, forcing the mastermind to surrender.

The by-play between Macnee and Blackman just about keeps it watchable, and there’s a small but juicy role for Gerald Harper (later to play the title role in the BBC’s answer to The Avengers, Adam Adamant Lives!) as a member of the Foreign Service driven to distraction by Steed’s shenanigans – but this doesn’t really sparkle or give you what you’re hoping for from this series.

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Death of a Great Dane is the second episode co-written by Roger Marshall and Jeremy Scott (in, according to Marshall, an attempt to share the blame), but is a small landmark in the annals of The Avengers in that it is the first episode where Honor Blackman gets equal prominence with Patrick Macnee in the opening credits. It’s also one of the early episodes which was later remade on film and in colour, but in general it is mildly noteworthy rather than actually distinguished.

It opens with a funeral scene, the punchline to which is that it’s taking place at a pet cemetery. From here there’s what seems like a bit of a non sequitur, as we find Steed and Mrs Gale examining the results of a recent photographic expedition she’s been on. It turns out that Steed has an interesting photo, too: an X-ray of a travelling salesman and part-time conjuror who has recently been in a serious car accident and ended up in hospital. It seems the man has £50,000 worth of diamonds in his stomach. According to Steed, the last few weeks have seen vast sums of money flowing out of the country, possibly smuggled out like this, and he has been tasked with finding out what’s going on.

The trail leads to the financial empire of a tycoon named Litoff, who proves curiously difficult to track down: Steed finds himself doing most of his dealing with the executive who seems to be running the corporation on a day-to-day basis (Frederick Jaeger), and also the butler, a fellow bowler-lover (Leslie French) and his physician (John Laurie). They initially seem surprisingly unruffled by suggestions that the organisation is mixed up in diamond smuggling. Meanwhile, Cathy’s investigations reveal that Litoff was until recently noted for his many and generous philanthropic activities, but these have recently come to an absolute halt. What’s going on?

It may just be that this is one of those stories based on an idea which has been done to death over the years, but I found the central twist of the story rather easy to guess, and the main piece of Avengers quirkiness in the episode concerns exactly what has ended up buried in the pet cemetery. Not a bad episode as such, for there are some nice moments and the guest characters are uniformly well-characterised. One does wonder why they chose this particular story to remake a few years later, albeit minus the Great Dane (apparently one of the dogs appearing in this episode was Patrick Macnee’s own).

It’s still better than The Sell-Out, which is frankly a trudge and – a pattern possibly begins to develop – the second of the Dr King episodes. It opens with a slightly baffling scene in which Steed and King bump into each other in a hotel lobby, seemingly by chance, but affect not to know each other. Then a man is shot dead in the vicinity. It turns out that Steed’s current mission is to escort a senior French diplomat to an important meeting (tied up with, it is implied, the situation in Vietnam), but mission-critical people keep getting killed. The obvious conclusion is that someone in the organisation is a traitor – but who? Steed finds himself obliged to work with a new superior, One-Twelve (Arthur Hewlett), who seems to have his own suspicions about who the guilty party might be…

The One-Twelve character is probably the most interesting thing about the episode – more of an inscrutable mandarin, and much less avuncular than One-Ten (Steed’s usual contact up to this point). It sets the tone for a relatively straightforward espionage tale, although some elements of the story do lead one to wonder just what kind of agency Steed is an operative for: the whole series at this point is predicated on the notion that Steed recruits civilians to assist him with his missions, and in this episode he persuades a notably reluctant King to watch his back (given the mole seems to be a professional agent, King is more trustworthy). However, the episode also seems to suggest that most of Steed’s fellow agents seem to have part-time jobs (or at least very extensive cover identities): one of them appears to be a successful architect, while another runs a barber’s shop.

The episode itself is simply quite dull, which makes it more of a shame that it makes unusually expansive use of film inserts and location filming for a second season episode. These really do help to open it out and give it slightly less claustrophobic feel than many of these early shows – but the effect is really wasted, given how drab and underwhelming the rest of it is. It feels like a holdover from an earlier phase of the show – which I suppose is what it is, after all.

Following this one at least means that Death on the Rocks feels a bit more lively than might be the case. It opens with an instance of death-by-facial-treatment, which is nicely unexpected but may mean that it peaks too soon in terms of quirky weirdness. The dead woman is the wife of a successful diamond merchant, which is what the title of the episode refers to. The London diamond-dealing establishment is contending with someone trying to sell illicit stones, which could potentially destabilise large sectors of the economy if it continues. Steed is on the case, but – rather oddly – nobody in the diamond business has been told anything about this, so he’s basically operating unsupported, apart from Cathy. He’s passing himself off as a wealthy chap looking to invest in a new business, and to complete his cover he needs someone to pose as his good lady wife. As Cathy is currently looking for temporary quarters (she has the builders in and needs somewhere to take her alarming collection of stuffed African wildlife), she lets herself get talked into this.

The best parts of the episode are the various scenes depicting Steed and Mrs Gale attempting to pass themselves off as a married couple – as usual, Steed seems to be enjoying this all rather too much, which only winds up Mrs Gale even more. One gets a strong sense that in this case at least, nothing is actually going on between these two, although Steed would probably wish it otherwise. Having said that, it turns out that Steed is fully aware that the criminal diamond dealers are targeting the families of the legitimate businessmen they want to trade with, and has neglected to mention this to Cathy. Needless to say, before the end of the episode she gets an offer of a free visit by a beautician…

Married couples do this, or so I’m told.

On the whole, a decent episode, with a strong performance as the villain by Gerald Cross making up for some rather soapy subplots (a young henchman has a bit of a thing for the daughter of Steed’s new business partner). Perhaps it doesn’t quite live up to the opening, but then this is a perennial Avengers problem. More of an issue is the fluff-riddled fight that makes up part of the conclusion (the story is oddly structured with Steed and Mrs Gale getting their own separate climactic confrontations). Still quite watchable, if only for the chemistry between Macnee and Blackman.

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We find ourselves back in the orbit of Venus for Roger Marshall and Jeremy Scott’s The Removal Men, which is a bit less pedestrian than it sounds. Marshall has said he was not initially interested in writing for what he believed to be a rotten programme, but agreed after he decided that sharing the credit would mean he only got half the blame. Once again this is a very uncharacteristic and occasionally quite slow episode, but one with some entertaining moments that go a long way to redeeming it.

We open in a nightclub where two men are apparently discussing a very important business deal – they finally agree on terms, but the twist is that they are actually working out the contract for an assassination (the ‘Removal Men’ of the title are actually hired killers). The scene then shifts to an apartment, where the lady of the house (alone in the place) is awoken by a burglar in the dead of night. This turns out to be a gun-toting Steed, who relieves her of her jewellry before locking her in the bathroom (she opts to take a bottle of wine in with her).

It turns out that Dragna (Reed de Rouen), the husband of Steed’s victim, is the leader of the assassination gang, and following reports around town (we are somewhere non-specific in the south of France this week, although naturally the episode is filmed almost entirely in the studio) of an Englishman – ‘dark, snazzy dresser, acts like life’s a big joke’ – trying to sell his wife’s jewels, the head man tracks him down to the nightclub run by his henchman Siegel (Edwin Richfield doing an interesting Australian accent). He is here visiting Venus, who is in the area quite by chance, it would seem. Steed claims to be on holiday too and contemplating retirement, and Venus actually buys this obvious load of old nonsense.

Dragna and Siegel turn up and they prove to be just as credulous as Venus, as Steed professes to have heard of their operation and has been actively trying to attract their attention so he can apply to join them. Once Steed arranges for a vacancy to open up, they take him on for their next job – a young film starlet (a 19-year-old Edina Ronay, exceedingly well-cast as the Bardot type) has been making some unwise political interventions and is now to depart the scene – and Steed is to arrange her final exit…

(Why Edina Ronay never became a much bigger star mystifies me (if you will forgive a brief digression). Could it just have been down to the slightly dodgy roles she ended up taking? Oh. Well – British film and TV’s loss was knitwear’s gain, I suppose.)

So, a slightly mixed bag, but much more positive than negative in the end. The plot is rather reliant on multiple coincidences to function, while the episode also contains some very obvious filler scenes: there are not one but three musical interludes, one of which is an instrumental, and the director eventually resorts to just pointing the camera at Julie Stevens’ shimmying midriff to pass the time. This isn’t a dreadful episode for Venus, I suppose, but her role in the show basically seems to be Steed’s stooge – he occasionally wanders into her life and creates complete havoc, for which he smoothly evades any responsibility: the final scene depicts Steed, relaxing on a studio-set beach in his bermuda shorts, while Venus (suitcases in hand) complains that she can’t get home as Steed shot her boss before she got paid. It’s amusing, but a bit cruel.

Patrick Macnee is in his element as Steed goes undercover with the assassins, and gets another particularly droll scene where he meets up with his boss One-Ten, once again on the beach. Both men are in their swimsuits and all the procedural exposition is mixed up with Steed being asked to put sun-tan lotion on One-Ten’s back – the follow-up to this comes at the end, where One-Ten is looking after Ronay’s character in the same location, and possibly enjoying himself just a bit too much. This is an uneven episode, but still probably the best non-Cathy episode of the season so far.

Something much more like ‘classic’ Avengers comes along next, in the shape of The Mauritius Penny, the first contribution to the series by writers Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks (both of whom are far better remembered for their work on a different Sydney Newman-created fantasy series). This was in fact Dicks’ first TV writing credit, and the beginning of an immensely distinguished career that was only brought to an end by his recent death (like many of my generation, I feel I owe Terrance Dicks an enormous debt as both a reader and a writer, and I make no apologies for being so fulsome in my praise of him).

The episode is set in the unexpectedly cut-throat world of stamp collecting, and opens with a stamp dealer being interrupted in the middle of a phone call and shot dead by his own assistant (you can’t get the staff any more), the subject of the call being the apparent discovery of a Mauritius Penny, an immensely rare and valuable stamp. As it happens, the victim had a tangential connection to a recent murder on the continent, which is why Steed happens to be having his phone tapped. Rather surprisingly, it turns out that philately is one of Mrs Gale’s areas of expertise, but she finds the reference to the rare stamp in this context baffling.

Well, Steed goes to a stamp auction where the sound of someone being shot is masked by the bang of the gavel, Mrs Gale gets a job working in the shop, it turns out that the stamp collecting world has been heavily infiltrated by a neo-Fascist group looking to stage a coup, there’s a bit with two evil female dentists, and it’s all rather ridiculous and delightful. Honor Blackman gets to have a fight with Alfred Burke (this was still a few years before Public Eye got going), we see Freckles the dalmatian again, and there’s a very witty scene where Steed, after being knocked out, wakes up on the floor of his flat to find his cleaning lady hoovering around him.

In short, there’s not much wrong with this at all, as it is smartly scripted, giving both Steed and Cathy some great moments, and well-directed too. Of particular interest to some viewers may be a sequence where Mrs Gale infiltrates a rally of the neo-Fascists, where various rousing speeches are being made in what’s basically a function room – but she is rumbled and taken captive: an almost identical scene features in another Terrance Dicks script from the mid-1970s, and the similarity was apparently a great surprise to the writer when it was pointed out to him many years later. But as the great man said, to be a successful writer you just need a good strong original idea, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be yours. In this case it turns out he was stealing from himself, and I’m sure that would have amused him. A great episode from two great writers.

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