Posts Tagged ‘Patrick Macnee’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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After well over a month of viral post-apocalyptic gloom, I find that I want to make it clear that not all genre TV from the 1970s was cut from the same depressing cloth. When I find myself in the mood for this sort of change of pace, more often than not I find myself reaching for an episode of either The Avengers or its bell-bottomed progeny The New Avengers, and so it proves this time too. The episode my gaze fell upon on this occasion was Sleeper, written (like most episodes of this show) by Brian Clemens.

A demonstration of a new knockout gas, S-95, is scheduled, and so a gathering of top scientific and intelligence boffins is in progress in London. Unfortunately, no sooner has one of these boffins arrived at London Heliport than he is bundled into a cupboard and beaten senseless with his own briefcase by this week’s villain, Brady (Keith Buckley). Brady goes on to observe the demonstration, along with Steed, Purdey, and Gambit, and they all (pay attention, this is a plot point) receive injections granting them temporary immunity to S-95.

One of the more notable revelations which Sleeper treats us to is the news that the British security services have sunk serious R&D money into – and there’s no other way of describing it – magic, because that’s what S-95 seems to be. It’s not a gas, because someone says it isn’t, being more a sort of cloud of magic dust. If you breathe in the magic dust you go to sleep for six hours, unless you’ve had the antidote of course. The dust doesn’t blow away or dissipate or anything like that; it remains just as potent (for, presumably, the six hours previously mentioned).

Oh, who am I kidding, it’s a preposterous plot device that works the way it does solely to enable the episode to function. Much the same is true of the way in which Brady manages not only to impersonate the boffin without anyone suspecting it, but also single-handedly steal a couple of cannisters of S-95 and a supply of the antidote, again without the alarm being raised. They should probably have spent less money on magic plot device secret weapons and more on padlocks and burglar alarms.

Anyway, Brady has assembled a rather suspect squad of ne’er-do-wells who have penetrated to the heart of London by the cunning ruse of pretending to be a coachload of tourists. Everyone on the coach is a bad guy, but they still go through the motions of listening to the guide’s spiel (the guide is a bad’un too), simply in order to preserve the surprise of their true identity for the viewer.

The plan, of course, is to dump a load of S-95 on central London just after dawn on a Sunday morning, putting the whole city to sleep and allowing Brady and his gang of ruffians to knock over every bank in the affected area. What they have not reckoned on is the fact that their operation has been infiltrated by an associate of Steed’s, not to mention that Steed, Purdey, and Gambit are still immune to the S-95 and will be up and about and able to throw a spanner in the slightly ridiculous works.

This is one of those episodes where it’s fairly clear that the main idea – the trio of protagonists contending with a much larger group of enemies in an effectively deserted London – came first, and the rest of the episode was written to facilitate it, no matter how absurd the necessary narrative gymnastics became. Most of the episode is a series of gently comic set-pieces as Steed and Gambit (who are paired up this week) and Purdey deal with various opposing parties.

The scenes with Steed and Gambit are fairly humdrum – the two of them exposit to each other a lot before deciding to go to the pub – but Purdey’s adventures are given an odd little twist by the fact she gets locked out of her flat and spends most of the episode in a fetching set of turquoise silk pyjamas. I first saw this episode early in 1991 on a late-night repeat (showing just before Mike Raven in Crucible of Terror, fact fans) and I have to say my teenaged self found many of Purdey’s scenes to have a subtle erotic charge to them (at one point she has to pretend to be a shop mannequin, and of course her pyjama bottoms start falling down). Nothing very much comes of this except a fairly absurd fight between Joanna Lumley and Prentis Hancock (ah, Prentis Hancock, one of the unsung heroes of 70s genre TV).

(Other before-they-were-famous members of Brady’s gang include David Schofield, who’s been in everything from An American Werewolf in London to a couple of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, and Gavin Campbell, who was briefly an actor but these days is best known as a presenter of That’s Life and a celebrity marathon runner. One of the pleasures of watching these old TV shows again is spotting these incongruous faces in the minor roles.)

There are some quite well-mounted action sequences in the deserted city streets, especially a car chase with Purdey at the wheel of a commandeered mini, but on the whole it’s not nearly witty or entertaining enough to justify the sheer level of contrivance and preposterousness involved. Being knowingly silly is pretty much the sine qua non of Avengers and New Avengers episodes, but this one is a bit too silly and not nearly knowing enough. Still kind of memorable in that 70s New Avengers way, though.


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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Well, with NaNo out of the way well ahead of the deadline (I believe I may have mentioned it), I find myself at a bit of a loose end, writing-wise. So, obviously, the logical thing to do is to write about an episode of The New Avengers, a British fantasy series from the mid 70s which these days obviously struggles to maintain any kind of online profile given the onslaught of material related to another ‘new Avengers’ project.

I say that The New Avengers is fantasy, but to be honest that’s more a matter of tone than anything else. Rather like its progenitor series, (doh!) The Avengers, it wanders back and forth over the line between credible espionage drama and borderline SF and fantasy, although in general the concepts are a bit less way-out (the one with the giant rat obviously excepted). This time around I thought I would write about Target!, generally considered to be one of the best episodes, which was written by Dennis Spooner and directed by John Hough.


The main premise of Target! is the existence of an automated firing range populated by gun-toting androids, its function to provide a training facility for security agents – training being so much more realistic, after all, when the targets shoot back at you. It is essentially a very high-tech version of paintball, or so everybody thinks.

However, the range has been subverted by enemy agent Draker (Keith Barron), with the result that anyone running the android gauntlet usually winds up dropping dead hours or days later. Due to this delay, no-one has any idea what is causing the deaths of so many highly important operatives, which is naturally a source of concern to Steed (Patrick Macnee) and Gambit (Gareth Hunt). Purdey (Joanna Lumley), on the other hand, is a bit less worried, but that is mainly because she has some leave coming up. Once she’s completed her final competency check down at the firing range, anyway…

The majority of The New Avengers was written by either Spooner or series creator Brian Clemens, which may explain quite how formulaic many of the episodes are – but then again, wouldn’t the two of them have noticed quite how often they were repeating themselves? Most of the episodes feature one or other of a traitor working for Steed and company’s organisation, and a member of said organisation stumbling onto a nefarious scheme, getting himself mortally wounded, and then staggering off to Steed’s house to croak out just enough information to get the episode started before pegging out.

Both of these old favourites turn up in Target!, although perhaps this is a little forgivable given it was only the sixth episode into production. Also present is another classic Avengers plot beat, in the form of an eccentric character who’s there to provide an info-dump, in the course of which he gets murdered – in this case, an expert on life up the Amazon (don’t ask).

To be honest, the plot itself does not make a great deal of sense except in the most impressionistic way, with various threads left blowing in the breeze or not quite connecting up with each other. Your credulity will be somewhat stretched even if you accept the idea of the robot sharpshooters which are central to the storyline.

However, the episode works as well as it does simply because the idea of the robot gun-range is such a fun and interesting one. Outrageous though it is, some thought has gone into making it look and feel borderline-plausible: the range is disguised as a collection of buildings and streets, with fake graffiti and roadsigns, and a few ‘friendlies’ for test subjects to waste their ammunition on. (It also appears to give Spooner the opportunity for an in-joke about a previous job, as a police box is spectacularly detonated at one point – rumour suggests this is the actual TARDIS exterior from the Amicus Dalek movies.)


We don’t get to see Steed take on the machine, unfortunately (Patrick Macnee takes a bit of a back seat in this particular episode), but plenty of other characters do, and Hough’s direction of these sequences is smartly done, particularly the finale, in which Gambit has to run the gauntlet, knowing full well his opponents are effectively using live ammunition.

One of Patrick Macnee’s regular observations about The New Avengers is that he shouldn’t have been in the series at all: it would have been much better with just Gambit and Purdey as the two leads. No-one but Gareth Hunt’s bank manager would agree with that, I suspect, but it is true that the scripts often struggle to find stuff for all three regulars to do, and more often than not it’s Gambit who comes across as a bit of a spare wheel.

However, Target! is constructed so it comes across as perfectly natural for Gambit to be the one saving the day in trigger-pumping style. When it comes to dialogue scenes and natural charisma, pairing Hunt with Macnee is like putting a cigarette lighter next to a blowtorch, but he always handles himself perfectly well in action sequences, especially ones as well-directed as those here.

Target! isn’t a really great piece of TV, but then The New Avengers isn’t a truly great series anyway: though it’s certainly a competent and fun one. But this is a solidly assembled, highly entertaining episode, with lots to enjoy going on, even if some of it is in the casting (sitcom favourite Barron is a surprisingly effective villain, while playing his sidekick is TV and film fantasy stalwart Deep Roy, making his screen debut). It’s been said that the only watchable sequence from the 1998 Avengers movie was based on this episode – which is, to be honest, too faint praise. This is the kind of thing nobody really does any more, which I think is rather a shame.


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To start with today, a rare glimpse behind the curtain to where the magic happens. As regular visitors may have noticed, I recently watched the complete Babylon 5 – 110 episodes of the main show, another 13 of the spin-off, plus seven TV movies of various flavours. This ended up taking eight months, and to say this was longer than expected is a bit of an understatement. Still, I enjoyed it, and it filled some of the gap in my life which was left at the conclusion of my Diploma course (as well as arguably being a slightly more worthwhile undertaking, but that’s just the state of my career for you).

And I find I am missing it – not the watching of the DVDs, but the thinking about the episodes and the writing of the blog. I suppose the logical thing to do is just to write more full Doctor Who reviews, but I’m sort of half-way through a project in that department at the moment and I do like to mix things up a bit.

On the other hand, I don’t want to launch into something quite so time-consuming and comprehensive quite so soon (which is not to say that doing the same thing for the original Survivors, in particular, doesn’t appeal), which sort of limits me to doing odd episodes here or there. I suppose the issue I’m grappling with is whether or not to write about every old TV show I watch on DVD, and if not, how to decide? Just the really good ones, or the really unusual ones, or the terrible ones, or what?

Oh well. For the time being I am just going to wait for the spirit to move me, which didn’t happen with the last few episodes of Hammer House of Horror, but did happen with a 1969 episode of The Avengers entitled Love All. This is from the final season of the show, which – so far as I am aware – is somewhat divisive amongst those who really like it. Everyone agrees that the two Diana Rigg seasons are brilliant, iconic TV: the question is whether the final Linda Thorson season is, in places, even better, or just rather disappointing on the whole.

Certainly season 6 is a different animal from any of its predecessors. The format has undergone a bit of a tweak, in that suave superspy Steed is no longer working with an amateur partner, but a fellow professional agent – specifically, Linda Thorson as Tara King (my dad actually prefers Linda Thorson to Diana Rigg, which given her general resemblance to Maggie Gyllenhaal and occasional penchant for thigh-flashing I can sort of understand). Also new on the scene is Steed’s boss, Mother, an obese, wheelchair-bound mastermind plated by Patrick Newell.

The general tone and look of the stories have also changed – the Rigg seasons’ regular excursions into full-on SF seem to have been curtailed, but the imagery of the series has become much more deliberately whimsical and surreal. On some levels the programme is marginally more down to Earth, but in others it’s weirder than ever.

As a result some of the Thorson episodes just come across as silly, thinly-plotted nonsense, but when they’re good, they’re really impressive. Love All is an episode full of interestingly strange ideas and good gags. It also makes more diligent use of that old ‘plain woman takes off glasses and lets down hair and is suddenly stunning’ trope than anything else in the history of the world.

As the story opens, something is afoot in the Missile Defence Department: secrets are being leaked! (Stolen secrets and high-level sleepers and double agents are very standard in The Avengers, so no-one seems inordinately bothered apart from Mother.) It quickly becomes apparent that top department bigwig Sir Rodney is to blame, as he is inadvertantly telling them to his girlfriend (Veronica Strong), who happens to be the department’s cleaning lady. The image of him passionately wooing a very plain woman in an apron with a fag hanging out of the corner of her mouth is funny, and plays to all sorts of cultural stereotypes about posh Englishmen and their fondness for women who clean.

Unfortunately, Sir Rodney is overheard by a security man, and at his girlfriend’s urging shoots him dead, eventually going on the run after a brief interview with Steed. Sir Rodney goes round to the cleaning lady’s house where he meets a stunning dolly-bird claiming to be her niece. Later, the cleaning lady herself emerges and the two drive off together – but she puts a bullet in the hapless civil servant. A remarkable transformation takes place (not all of it on-camera) as a quick tousle of the hair, some make-up and a change of stockings reveals that cleaner and dolly-bird are one and the same person.  Strong really does look very glam in her dolled-up persona; kudos to her for throwing herself into the dismal old drab side of the part as well.

Anyway, a slightly spurious trail of clues lead Steed and Tara to the offices of Casanova Ink, a small publishing house specialising in romantic fiction. Here the show seems to be satirising both Mills and Boon, publisher of thousands of this sort of title, and Barbara Cartland, the notorious romantic novelist who wrote a staggering number of books of this type (over 700, including 23 in one year – she left 160 unpublished manuscripts when she died, the sort of workrate which makes Michael Moorcock look like JD Salinger and me feel like giving up ‘serious’ writing entirely). Running the place is Patsy Rowlands, veteran of several Carry On films, which tonally we’re not a million miles away from here. The gag is that all the romance books are written by a computer, explaining the authors’ astounding productivity (shades of Roald Dahl’s The Great Automatic Grammatizator, published some years prior to this episode being written).

Well, needless to say, it turns out that the genius behind the novel-writing computer (Terence Alexander, playing his third Avengers bad guy in as many seasons) has come up with a way of using ‘microdots’ embedded in books to send subliminal messages that cause the reader to fall helplessly in love with the next person they see. Said microdots are in heavy circulation at the department, and all the top men there are madly in love with the cleaner, allowing him to extract various juicy secrets and sell them to foreign powers.


Another gritty and demanding Avengers storyline, I think you’ll agree. Well, it gets a bit dicey near the end as the villain manages to make Tara fall in love with him and nearly persuades her to die for love (apparently Patrick Macnee cracked a rib in the scene where he saves her from jumping out of a window). However, once the obligatory poorly-doubled fisticuffs are out of the way, Steed hits upon a cunning ruse – availing himself of about two dozen of the ‘microdots’ (which actually look like watch batteries), he sticks them all over his waistcoat. All the villains promptly fall for him, allowing him to round them up and take them off to the authorities with the greatest of ease.

Well, okay, it’s not deep and it’s not remotely sensible, but it’s a proper story and not just a series of lifts from other places and quirkily stylised set pieces. It hangs together pretty well as a plot (given the standard Avengers conventions), it says some witty things about English culture and society, and in places it’s properly funny. The – er – cognitive dissonance between Veronica Strong’s drab and glam incarnations really is striking: unless you’re in on the gag it’s almost impossible to tell it’s the same person.

But the best performance award probably goes to Patrick Macnee, of course: given a scene where he’s confronted with a gang of beautiful women, all of whom are in love with him, he’s absolutely in his element and soars as only he can. Thorson is pretty good, of course, but it’s Macnee who’s basically carrying the series at this point.  A strong episode all round, then, but is this as good as the best of the Rigg episodes? I’m reluctant to say, not having watched a lot of Rigg recently: I shall have to refresh my memory. Watch this space – or, to choose a more apposite phrase, stay tuned.

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Let us continue our consideration of the career of Peter Cushing with a look at two more guest appearances the great man made on British TV in the 1960s and 1970s. Both of these are in The Avengers, mainly because these are the DVDs I happen to have knocking about the garret (well, one of them is technically in The New Avengers, but let’s not quibble).

Modern audiences may just associate The Avengers with Joss Whedon, a load of Marvel characters, and ten-digit box office returns, but for those of us of a certain age and disposition, that title goes first and foremost to a very peculiar TV thriller series, which started in 1960 as a straightforward detective show before transforming into one of the most stylish and off-the-wall fantasy series ever made – not entirely unlike the Batman TV show of the same period, but with much better performances and a massively higher level of sophistication. Patrick Macnee plays Steed, an adventurer and agent of an unspecified government agency, whose remit is conveniently vague; in the show’s mid-60s heyday his partner is an amateur investigator named Mrs Emma Peel (played, of course, by Diana Rigg). One of the subtle brilliancies of this show is the inversion of the way you’d expect the leads to be characterised: Mrs Peel usually takes things very seriously, while the professional agent Steed appears to be doing this for fun.

Anyway, the episode under consideration is Return of the Cybernauts from 1967, written by Philip Levene and directed by Robert Day. As it opens, the case that Steed and Mrs Peel are supposedly working on is the disappearance of a number of top scientists, but, characteristically, they are not letting this get in the way of a properly refined social life and are in fact enjoying drinks at the house of their friend Paul Beresford (Cushing). Beresford, not to put too fine a point on it, is coming on to Mrs Peel like nobody’s business, which she seems to find quite flattering, even though he is close to being twice her age. Steed appears a bit nonplussed by it all.

The disappearance of another scientist drags the duo away, at which point it is revealed that Beresford is behind the kidnappings, using a hulking robotic proxy (one of the Cybernauts referred to in the title). Soon enough he sits all his abductees down and shows them a tape of the previous season’s episode The Cybernauts, particularly the bit where Steed and Mrs Peel are responsible for the villain’s death – a villain who was secretly, in fact, Beresford’s brother! Now he has assembled this collection of boffins to cook up a suitably diabolical revenge – ‘a rhapsody of suffering’ is what he’s in the market for. However, Steed and Emma are no fools and have already figured out that someone has reactivated the Cybernauts, and they’re closing in on the culprit – taking frequent breaks to enjoy whiskey, claret, and other fine things in life, naturally…


Well, what follows is a well-directed collection of decent set-pieces strung together by some slightly dubious pretexts – The Avengers regularly makes big asks of its audience, and this episode is no exception. In addition to the idea that a seven foot steel robot in a fedora and sunglasses could wander around the Home Counties karate-chopping everything in its path without being noticed, the episode makes use of a wide variety of fantastical gadgets, from weapons that home in on a person’s ‘unique heartbeat’ to wristwatches that ‘paralyse the will’.

We are well across the border into science fantasy here, but despite what you may be thinking, the Cybernauts do not seem to me to be overtly ripping off the Cybermen of Doctor Who. For one thing, they look and behave quite differently, with the Cybernauts clearly being presented as totally mute robots. Most importantly, the Cybernauts beat the Cybermen to the screen by nearly a year. If anything, I’d say the influence was flowing the other way – not only did The Avengers and other filmed adventure series heavily influence the format of Doctor Who‘s seventh season, but the Autons, on their debut appearance in 1970, strikingly resemble the Cybernauts in a number of ways.

But I digress. This is a fairly atypical Avengers episode in all sorts of ways – this is a series which never really did recurring adversaries, and only rarely had stories specifically about the two leads being threatened. And, on the whole, it’s a fairly ‘straight’ story, with little of the quirkiness or humour you really expect from this show. Perhaps its this which makes some of the more dubious permutations of the plot a little difficult to swallow – and here I’m not even talking about the scene where Beresford has Mrs Peel in his clutches, her free will neutralised, and he proceeds to… help her off with her coat. Is the man not human? Hmm, I’m digressing again.

Nevertheless, it works as a piece of entertainment, not least because it’s Peter Cushing playing the bad guy. He gets some fairly choice dialogue to deliver – the ‘rhapsody of suffering’ line being just one example – but this never really impinges on the air of suave menace he effortlessly projects. This episode is about the villain more than most (he’s a nutcase, but an intelligent nutcase with a very specific agenda) and it’s easy to see why they recruited an actor of Cushing’s calibre for the part.

One gets the sense he was cast in The New Avengers simply because he was a famous film star, however: his episode, The Eagle’s Nest, was the series premiere and they presumably thought Cushing’s presence would help with the publicity. He gets the main guest role, but this story is mainly about establishing the characters, format, and tone.

Made in 1976, Patrick Macnee reprises his role as a slightly more avuncular Steed, while assisting him now are Joanna Lumley as ex-ballerina Purdey and Gareth Hunt as ex-mercenary Mike Gambit. Purdey isn’t really in Mrs Peel’s league, but Lumley makes the best of what she’s given, while Steed still appears to be an eccentric fop but is really a very hard man. Gambit, on the other hand, appears to be a very hard man but is really a bit of a gimp. Hey ho.

Many episodes of The New Avengers open with one of our heroes’ colleagues stumbling upon the evil plan of the villains, getting themselves mortally wounded, and then staggering off (usually to Steed’s house) to conk out after whispering a few cryptic words that will kick off the plot. The Eagle’s Nest doesn’t quite go down this route, but it’s a near thing.

We open with an Englishman being chased across a desolate Scottish landscape by a bunch of the locals: this is not Nigel Farage making another ill-advised trip to canvass north of the border, but an agent whose fishing trip has led to his discovering… aha, that would be telling. In a typical New Avengers gimmick, the bad guys’ weapons are fishing rods whose hooks are coated with jellyfish extract. It is quickly established that the local monks are baddies and the angling spy is soon toast.

However, an impostor passing himself off as the dead man turns up in London at a scientific meeting attended by the eminent scientist Doctor von Claus (Cushing, finally), who’s an expert on cryogenic suspension (not that they used terms like that in mainstream entertainment in 1976). Having resuscitated a frog to wild applause (those wacky scientists), von Claus is kidnapped by the impostor and dragged off to the remote Scottish island where the monks hold sway.

Sure enough, a succession of clues point Steed and his friends in that direction, so off they go – but why have the monks nabbed the doctor in the first place? Well, it transpires that in 1945 one of the last planes out of Berlin before the Russians took the city crashed upon the island, and it has been controlled by these fanatical Nazis and their offspring ever since (not that anyone looks particularly Aryan, if we’re honest). Also on the plane was – yes, you’ve guessed it! – Hitler, who’s been in a coma ever since, and the Nazis would quite like Peter Cushing to revive him just in time for his birthday party. What the plan after that is remains unclear: presumably the hope is that Hitler will lead an all-conquering army carrying fishing rods and jellyfish extract from this remote north Atlantic rock.


We are well into the dubious realm of Nazi kitsch here – there’s a very funny scene where all the monks whip off their habits to reveal SS uniforms underneath – but, some obvious padding aside, the story hangs together pretty well. It’s clear from the start, though, that having three regulars in an Avengers episode is probably a mistake, as it’s quite difficult to split the story three ways. Gambit doesn’t really get much to do. Purdey, on the other hand, frogmans her way onto the island, reveals a very nice chiffon number under her wetsuit (complete with high-heeled boots), and then gets a couple of mildly kinky scenes where the fishhooks of the villains shred her top layer, forcing her to spend the rest of the episode in a low-cut green wool catsuit (and, to judge from some of the camera angles, not much else).

As I said, Peter Cushing does not perhaps get the material he deserves, as many of his scenes are simply just padding. However, as you might expect, he gives it everything he’s got – it’s so interesting to see how many of the same tics and mannerisms Cushing employs when playing a villain can be subtly tweaked to transform him into a very sympathetic character. Nevertheless, he’s not playing the hero or the villain, and so this episode is always fundamentally about other people. It is silly, it is in questionable taste, and it never quite gets the balance right between comic relief and drama: but then again, it is The New Avengers, so you’d be unwise to expect anything else.

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