Posts Tagged ‘Legacy of Death’

(…and a Spooner goes to the music hall.)

The bafflingly inconsistent nature of series six of The Avengers continues to be evident in the next episode, Legacy of Death, which was the first contribution to the series by Terry Nation to be broadcast in the UK (‘Terry ****ing Nation’, if you enjoy the insights into cult TV provided by Sue Perryman). Nation is also billed as Script Editor for some of this series, which I find slightly surprising given the stories in circulation about his apparently less-than-adamantine work ethic – other script editors finding a couple of sides of A4 stuffed through their letterbox with ‘Finish it yourself’ scribbled at the bottom, while the sound of Nation’s sports car heading for the airport slowly receded, etc.

This is the kind of episode that turns the whimsicality dial to maximum, without a particular fantasy gimmick. It opens with a man named Farrer apparently committing suicide (he climbs into a perspex coffin in a scene which rather put me in mind of the first Dr Phibes film), but not before passing on an ornate Chinese dagger known as ‘the Falcon’ to Steed. In pursuit of the dagger are a wide selection of ne’er-do-wells and weirdos, most prominently Stratford Johns (second appearance of two) and Ronald Lacey (second of three), playing (and not underplaying) a couple of characters named Mr Green and Mr Street. (Can you spot the game we’re playing here?)

Well, various overacted grotesques in silly hats turn up at Steed’s apartment trying to get the knife off him, but he’s already given the dagger to Tara. Can the duo figure out who sent Steed the weapon, and their motive? What ensues is basically a spoof, and a farcical one, kept watchable by the comic performances and the strength of the guest cast – people like Ferdy Mayne (first of two), John Hollis (fourth of four), Peter Swanwick (the ‘Orange alert’ guy from The Prisoner), and so on. ‘It’s going to be one of those evenings,’ ponders Steed as the corpses start to pile up in his flat, while Tara extracts vital information from another villain by tickling his feet.

Terry Nation started off as a comedy writer for Tony Hancock before making a somewhat unlikely switch into science fiction and fantasy, but his background as a gagsmith clearly stands him in good stead. Most of the Nation scripts I’ve seen for other series are terribly serious, the best of them dealing with themes of authoritarianism and the collapse of civilisation, so it’s a little odd to come across such an odd little comic confection as this. If you can get on board with it basically being a comedy, and an absurd one, it’s just about acceptable, though the relentless knowing whimsicality can get a little wearing.

More from Nation in the next episode. Two men arrive on horseback at a disused railway station; it soon becomes clear they are both hired killers (the duo are played by T.P. McKenna (third of three) and Ray Brooks). They are on a very clear schedule: they are going to kill John Steed at noon. Cue the title card: Noon Doomsday. If you’re on the ball it is instantly obvious just what Terry Nation is up to here: it’s another classic movie pastiche. Nation does this much more elaborately than on the few occasions it’s been attempted in previous seasons, and the results are always distinctive – it’s just not very traditionally Avengers-ish.

Steed is in a facility for recuperating agents, having fallen off a wall and hurt his leg (off-screen). The facility is a big old farm in the country (owned, in real life, by writer-producer Brian Clemens), surrounded by a radar screen, an electric fence, a minefield, and so on. Tara comes to visit him on the fateful day, and quickly suspects that something is up – one of the staff has been suborned by the bad guys, the security system has been locked on, the radio destroyed, and the head of Murder International (recently escaped from prison) and his henchmen (the guys from the station) are on their way by helicopter.

There’s a fair bit of either build-up or padding (depending on your point of view) before the climax, which Tara spends trying to persuade the other agents at the facility to help her and Steed. One of them has lost his nerve, another is a politician who demurs as he can’t be seen to condone violence (he’s happy to try and feel Tara up, of course), a third is French and can’t risk himself unnecessarily, and so on. The only one prepared to help is so badly hurt he can barely move (this is the only instance I’m aware of where Anthony Ainley plays a good guy).

Naturally, given this is a High Noon pastiche, it all leads up to a big shootout with Tara taking on the three killers in and around the buildings of the farm. Luckily, the choreography and direction are rather good (although at one point Ray Brooks appears to throw a dagger around a corner, which is a neat trick), more than enough to make for an entertaining episode. Macnee spends most of it on the same set, which leads me to assume this was a holiday show for him. If so, I can officially state that I think the holiday shows in series six are a lot better than those in season five, and challenging season four quite strongly too.

Nation’s occasional collaborator, the great Dennis Spooner, turns up for the next episode, the extravagantly titled Look – (stop me if you’ve heard this one) But There Were These Two Fellers... The two fellers in question arrive by taxi at a tower block, change (with unfeasible speed) into clown costumes, and proceed to murder one of the directors of a construction company with one of those guns that sticks out a flag with ‘BANG!’ on it.

Said production company is involved in Project Cupid, the creation of a subterranean bunker for the British government, and so Steed and Tara find themselves investigating the death. Inevitably, more executives are killed in an unlikely fashion by the two clowns, and the evidence pointing in the direction of the entertainment business (elongated footprints, dropped clown noses) starts to build up…

John Cleese wonders what’s going on with Tara’s hair this week.

Dennis Spooner was quite capable of writing relatively ‘straight’ action-adventure scripts (everyone forgets that Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), which Spooner created, was actually quite naturalistic, the ghost element excepted), but one of the things he’s famous for is introducing humour into otherwise quite serious shows: he was responsible for a lot of the character stuff for which Thunderbirds is so well remembered. Given The Avengers is largely a comedy by this point anyway, the results are, not to put too fine a point on it, absolutely lunatic.

However, I mean this in a good way: it works as a thriller story, in a fairly basic and transactional way, but it’s also genuinely very funny. It almost resembles a Philip Levene script, with the string of gimmick killings, but the wit and inventiveness of the script stops it from being repetitive. The fact it has such a good cast helps, too: Jimmy Jewell plays one of the clowns, Bernard Cribbins plays a gag writer, and John Cleese – John Cleese! – has a small part as the top man at the clown registration office (this is another episode which always puts me in mind of early Python, not surprisingly). It bowls along so engagingly that you (and I mean me, apparently this is quite a polarising episode) simply accept its various absurdities (Tara appears to go for a fairly major haircut mid-episode, which nobody comments on), and it concludes with one of the series’ most entertaining fight sequences. Season six may be inconsistent, but for me this episode is worthy of mentioning in the same breath as any of the best Blackman or Rigg stories.

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