Posts Tagged ‘The Avengers’

I finally find myself in a position to address a nagging piece of unfinished business: to wit, the three outstanding episodes of the original 1960s version of The Avengers that we didn’t manage to look at last year, back when the pandemic and its effects still had the occasional shreds of a silver lining about them (should anyone be wondering, the prospect of doing something similar with The New Avengers is on my psychic radar, but I’ve no idea when it will happen). All of these come from the first season – now, when I was nobbut a lad, there was only one extant first season episode, which Channel 4 duly repeated back at the start of 1993. Since then, two more have turned up, which in the case of Girl on the Trapeze virtually qualifies as miraculous considering it was broadcast live back in February 1961 (this was only the sixth episode to be shown).

The episode opens in a sort of recognisable early Avengers vein with a young woman turning up at the dressing rooms of a touring state circus from one of those fictional countries on the Other Side, having been invited there by an old friend. However, she is set upon by a sinister clown (Kenneth J Warren, first of four).

From here we are transported into the social life of GP-with-a-sideline Dr David Keel (Ian Hendry), who is on his way to a reunion when he comes across an apparent attempted suicide: a young woman has hurled herself into the Thames. Keel springs into action and assists in fishing her out, but what we know that he doesn’t is that the woman who jumped into the river is not the same one who was pulled out. He’s pretty sure he recognises her from somewhere, though.

After a lengthy trawl through the day’s papers with his assistant Carol (Ingrid Hafner, a semi-regular at this point), Keel realises the girl was a trapeze artist with the touring Other Side circus, and whisks Carol off there to check the place out. They soon arouse the suspicion of a suave circus member (Edwin Richfield, in the first of his six villainous appearances on the show, one per season). It all turns out to be about a plan to kidnap the daughter of a defector in order to apply pressure to him, which involves getting rid of one of the circus artistes so the abducted girl can take her place and use the group visa.

Quirky borderline fantasy, this ain’t, but it’s early days, after all. This is, at least, a pretty brisk and coherent thriller (which you don’t always get in the videotaped episodes) – given that it was written by Dennis Spooner, one might have expected a few more gags, but you don’t get those either.

The absence of jokes is less striking than the fact that Patrick Macnee and Steed only appear in the opening credits: Macnee got the week off on this occasion. In his memoirs Macnee recalled that Hendry had a circus background, and came up with the idea for the episode himself – and omitting Steed from the story was done at Hendry’s behest. If nothing else it gives us a good chance to see how Hendry rolled in what at this point was the lead role of the series: and he carries the show rather well, even if it is clear that Keel is interestingly played, rather than an inherently interesting character. It’s also notable that even Carol the receptionist gets some agency and the chance to tackle a bad guy or two, although it would be pushing it to suggest she’s some kind of proto-Cathy Gale.

I was expecting this very early, Steed-free incarnation of The Avengers to be quite hard work; it actually rattles along quite nicely and certainly engages the attention. I’m not sure I’d have stuck around for twenty-six episodes in this same kind of vein, but considering its age it holds up quite well.

The next surviving fragment of the first series is The Frighteners, by Berkeley Mather, which now I reflect on it feels like the kind of Avengers script Graham Greene would have contributed, had he been up for it: lots of nasty, sweaty gangsters and class conflict. A wealthy tycoon, Sir Thomas Weller (Stratford Johns, first of two), pays a ‘massage contractor’ known as the Deacon (Willoughby Goddard, first of two) to have his daughter’s suitor beaten up. The Deacon duly despatches a couple of his boys (one of whom is Philip Locke, first of three) to deliver the requisite hard knocks – but somehow (the episode is necessarily very vague about this) Steed has got wind of the affair and is looking to shut the Deacon’s operation down.

Naturally, he brings Dr Keel along to assist, collecting him in a taxi. It is clear the two have a slightly wary relationship – ‘Good of you to come,’ says Steed; ‘Yes, I thought so’ replies Keel – and while there’s a suggestion that Steed is looking to use the doctor’s surgery for a few activities best not performed al fresco, it may just be that Keel is also convenient muscle. Anyway, Locke’s character is apprehended, along with the intended victim, Jeremy de Willoughby (Philip Gilbert, best known for voicing Tim the computer in The Tomorrow People) – but both men seem equally keen to avoid entanglements with the law…

Solid cops-and-robbers stuff, this, with an interesting wrinkle: the Deacon and Weller are obviously bad’uns, but so, it turns out, is de Willoughby himself – he’s a con man with a long history of swindles behind him. Is it not incumbent upon our heroes to do something about this before Weller’s innocent (and possibly a bit dim) daughter falls victim to his charms?

Well, needless to say, they do: Steed has the police in tow for part of the episode, but for the most part he and Keel do a very good impression of a couple of rogue agents, tricking, threatening, and bashing the opposition in the name of a good cause (even Keel admits what he gets up to is a bit melodramatic). Perhaps the most interesting bit of the episode comes at the very end, when they con Weller’s daughter into abandoning him by fooling her into thinking he is – gasp! – really a working class bloke named Briggs, with ideas above his station. She flees the room in tears. So much for social mobility in 1960s Britain.

Fifteen episodes in, and Patrick Macnee already seems to have Steed more-or-less nailed down: the charming slipperiness is there, the bowler is in place, the ruthless edge occasionally displays itself, and Macnee knows when to go slightly over-the-top when Steed is undercover (he has a couple of scenes here as a professional chaperone). Solidly engaging stuff, as well as obviously being of historical interest.

Oh well, we bring things full circle, finally and definitively (unless any more episodes resurface, of course) with John Kruse’s Tunnel of Fear, the twentieth episode. It opens with what looks like another classic Avengers hook, as a stuffy-looking gent gets on the ghost train at a Southsea fun fair only to mysteriously vanish into thin air. In a filmed episode he would turn out to be a colleague of Steed’s, but not this time. The plot proper gets going when a man bursts into Dr Keel’s surgery demanding first aid after a supposed hit-and-run, but Keel suspects there is more going on. It indeed transpires that the man, Harry Black (Anthony Bate, first of two) is an escaped convict who claims to have been framed for a robbery, and who mutters something about being made to do things in his sleep. Steed turns up quite by chance in the middle of all this and sees a possible connection to something he’s working on: secrets are being leaked to the Other Side out of Southsea, where Black used to co-own the ghost train at the fun fair.

For the first time we get to see Steed doing his usual thing of finagling his current partner into undertaking a potentially risky investigation on his behalf, which Keel goes along with surprisingly meekly. Down in Southsea, however, he encounters what seems to be a collision between The Manchurian Candidate and Play for Today, as there is one plotline about someone potentially being brainwashed while a prisoner during the Korean War, and another about Black’s strained relationship with his girlfriend (Black isn’t the only one who’s been banged up, as she has apparently had a child in his absence). Neither of these plotlines really gets fully developed, though.

Dr Keel suggests that Steed try a different hat in future – perhaps a bowler?

Keel does a lot of sneaking and occasionally charging about with Black in tow; all the fun stuff arises after Steed appears on the scene in the guise of the new and slightly dodgy barker for the funfair belly-dancing show, wearing a kaftan and a sparkly turban. Needless to say he hurls himself into the role, and Macnee has enormous fun with it. It doesn’t stop there: it turns out the gang of enemy agents running the fair includes a hypnotist, who tries to put the ‘fluence on Steed to get some information: either Steed puts them on, or turns out to be monumentally slippery and unhelpful even when hypnotised – when asked who he works for, the answer is ‘No one’ – a curious answer, unless he really is faking it. Finally, the episode concludes with some business about Steed bluffing the villains with an exploding cigarette.

Probably a better episode for Steed than Keel, then, but a reasonably good one if you overlook the fact that various plot ideas go nowhere – I would say not quite up to the same standard as The Frighteners, while it’s hard to fairly assess a Steed-free episode in comparison with the others. Maybe it’s just with the knowledge of how the show developed – and an instalment like Girl on the Trapeze has almost nothing in common with anything from the final season, apart from the title of the series – but you can see that Steed is the character with potential, and the tiny off-beat moments that are present even here are usually the ones that make the stories sing. First season Avengers only very occasionally resembles the show in its legendary incarnation, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth checking out.

(There will now follow a suspension in blogging activity, hopefully a brief one. See you on the other side.)

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Regular readers who’ve been following along with the final-season Avengers reviews have probably got used to my commenting rather drily on the sheer number of holiday and semi-holiday episodes enjoyed by Patrick Macnee and Linda Thorson in the course of this year. I honestly am starting to think I’ve misread this whole phenomenon: I know this series in particular was made under enormous pressure (US airdates were unforgiving beasts) and it may simply be that they had to double-bank many of the episodes (meaning they were effectively making two episodes at a time for much of the production block).

It perhaps also explains the sheer oddness of many of the episodes. Which brings us to Brian Clemens’ Pandora, another episode which is fairly functional but still hardly in the traditional Avengers style. Tara, in search of a particular clock, is lured to an antiques shop from which she is kidnapped by this week’s villains: the Lasindall brothers, played by Julian Glover (fourth appearance of four, and his second in a Tara episode – once again he has slightly different hair this time) and James Cossins (his only appearance on the show, but his tendency to play pompous or slightly dodgy establishment figures has been noted in these parts previously).

She wakes up in what seems to be a house in 1915, where the brothers and their maid insist on referring to her as Pandora. She is routinely drugged up to the ears, to the point at which she starts to wonder if she might not actually be Pandora after all (whoever that may be). Meanwhile, Steed is following the only clue – a note dropped by one of the brothers, suggesting a link to the First World War and a British agent known as the Fierce Rabbit…

As noted, it sort of hangs together in a Tales of the Unexpected melodrama way, complete with twist ending, but it all boils down to a plot by the brothers to con their very elderly relative into revealing the location of his secret treasure. A wildly convoluted and implausible plot, of course, but you sort of assume that. Tara spends most of the episode in a tranquilised stupor (insert your own joke here if you really, really must); Steed rattles around on the outside of the story until the very end; quite a lot of it concerns the guest cast, which also includes a fourth and final appearance by John Laurie. It almost feels like both regulars are on holiday, somehow – the production isn’t bad and the conclusion is acceptably clever, but it’s probably not what you’ve turned up for.

There’s much more chance you’ve turned up for a slightly formulaic Philip Levene script, built around an iffy sci-fi gimmick, maybe even one featuring yet another guest-villain appearance by Peter Bowles, and if so, Get-A-Way! will land squarely in your happy spot. (This was part of the initial group of Tara episodes, completed in February 1968, but not shown in the UK until May 1969, which may be why it feels so retro.) Much of the action is set in and around a supposedly maximum-security military prison (it is clearly nothing of the sort, but the plot makes its demands), run by Andrew Keir (second appearance of two, after a pretty thin cameo early in season five). The prison is disguised as a monastery (plenty of gun-toting monks are the warders) and it is currently playing host to three enemy assassins, led by Martin Ezdorf (Bowles), sent here to kill top British agents. One of them instantly escapes, apparently by disappearing into thin air.

Not entirely unsurprisingly, we find Steed playing host to a meeting of two of his very best friends (whom we have never heard of nor seen before, suspiciously enough). After this brazen bit of empty stakes-raising, one of his pals is ambushed and killed by the escaped assassin, who once again appears to materialise from nowhere…

Well, I’ve had some strange experiences with odd spirits, vodka amongst them, but the premise behind this episode – the enemy agents have been splashing their rear aspects with special vodka which allows them and their clothes to blend in with whatever they’re standing in front of – almost compels one to raise a eyebrow. This really isn’t Levene’s finest hour, but it rattles along fairly engagingly, helped by a decent performance by Peter Bowles, who’s trying hard to pull off the villain-as-dark-mirror-of-the-hero routine. He doesn’t quite manage it, but it feels a lot more like authentic Avengers than a lot of the later season six episodes.

And so the series ends, not quite as it began but fairly close, with a Brian Clemens script: namely, Bizarre, which one must assume is a rather differerent beast to Brought to Book, his first contribution to the series back in 1961 (now lost, along with the vast majority of the first season). It opens with a young woman with a Jean Seburg crop staggering across a snowy field (the location sequences have a wintry chill about them rather at odds with the general tone of the story) before collapsing.

For some reason an unconscious woman in a nightdress turning up in a field attracts the attention of Steed’s department (one can’t help but wonder why) and investigations reveal she fell off a train travelling along a nearby line. When asked about this, she remembers there being a coffin on the train, too, the occupant of which rose and attacked her. It turns out the body of her alleged assailant was that of disgraced financier Jonathan Jupp (John Sharp, third appearance of three), who has now been laid to rest in a high-class cemetery operated by Roy Kinnear (fourth of four), whose character is called Bagpipes Happychap for no remotely plausible reason.

It seems that Jupp’s body has disappeared – but also that the cemetery is full of disgraced tycoons and other dodgy-but-rich types who just happened to die before the authorities could take them to task for their activities. Could these things be connected? Of course they could. I have seen Bizarre get a rough ride in some reviews, mainly because the plotline is quite so far-fetched (also because some of the sets aren’t brilliant, and this may be a fair point) – it all boils down to another scheme to help crooks dodge justice, but this one involves a yogic expert known as the Master – Fulton Mackay (third of three, and second Tara episode) in a turban and blackface – and a subterranean luxury resort/disco underneath the cemetery itself. If it tried to take itself seriously, it would be absurd – but it never does, this is the show very definitely pitched as a comedy. Even as such, it’s still not the series at anything near its best, but there are some decent gags and enough laughs to make it worth watching even if you’re not aware it’s the very last episode of the series.

The end is nigh.

So, having been through every surviving episode from the second season onward over the course of the last eight or nine months, what conclusions can one draw about The Avengers? Well, firstly, it’s a bit reductive to treat this as just one series – any TV show which runs for more than three or four years is going to shift its style and approach very appreciably. The Avengers is no exception, and honestly feels like at least three or four different programmes across its five surviving seasons. It almost goes without saying that the two series with Diana Rigg as Emma Peel are the high-point of the run, and indeed quite possibly one of the high-points of British TV in general (certainly the fourth season). But there are lots of Honor Blackman episodes which stand up very well, and even a few from the final year which are outstanding.

In the end, though, how could one regret taking the time to watch such an inventive, witty, strange, and entertaining series? (If nothing else, the exercise revealed there were still a few Rigg and Thorson episodes I’d never actually seen.) Very little on TV these days is such consistently good fun, and virtually no drama. It’s a treacherous path to start down, but maybe things really were better in the past.

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My Wildest Dream is another Philip Levene script from early in season six; it was the first show from the full production block comprising the bulk of the Tara episodes. The US got it three months before the UK; the British transmission came over a year after production was completed. If any of this matters, it’s because this is another of those episodes which does feel somewhat like a fifth season script with Emma Peel’s name scratched out and Tara King’s written in to replace it.

Steed finds himself the recipient of a series of odd anonymous phone-calls, each one requesting him to be in a certain place at a certain time. Every time he and Tara follow the tip-off, they find themselves witnessing the immediate aftermath of a murder – but Steed has no acquaintance with any of the killers or the victims, so what’s going on?

The fact that everyone involved is a top businessman, many of them on the board of the same company, is certainly indicative, as is the fact that the desk diaries of several of the killers have disappeared. Steed and Tara’s investigations lead them to Jaeger (Peter Vaughan), a rather unorthodox psychiatrist – specialising in ‘aggresso-therapy’, his method is to unlock the violent impulses latent in everyone, and give them expression through cathartic dreams (often of murdering irritating colleagues). But it’s just therapy, Jaeger insists, it’s not like he has any reason for wanting his clients to kill. Steed is somewhat bemused, but can’t pin anything on the shrink – however, Jaeger’s receptionist does have an oddly familiar telephone manner…

After the exuberance of a lot of the sixth season episodes, this one feels a little bit staid and talky, but it’s a superior offering nevertheless – mainly because it does make a concerted, and rather successful attempt to hoodwink the viewer about who the actual bad guy is. There are a couple of other fairly decent twists, one of which (when it arrives) explains the presence of a number of slightly laborious comedy scenes involving Edward Fox as a frustrated suitor of Tara’s. Also in the cast is Philip Madoc, making his fifth and final appearance on the show. In the end, after some dodgy recent offerings, it’s nice to come across an episode which is so reminiscent of the glory days.

What almost looks suspiciously like a semi-holiday episode (Patrick Macnee spends most of it on one set) comes along next, in the form of Brian Clemens’ Requiem. This was the first Tara episode I saw, and the first colour episode: the whole of season five slipped past me on its mid-80s re-run: I distinctly recall wondering who the new characters were, and thinking (despite what my father said) that Linda Thorson wasn’t as good as Diana Rigg.

The department is protecting Miranda (Angela Douglas, from various Carry On films), the key witness who is due to testify against Murder International (which proves to be a fearsomely large and well-resourced organisation). Steed whisks her off to protective custody at a location known only to Mother and him, which leads to the bad guys setting their sights on Tara – she is captured but escapes, though not before learning of a plan to booby-trap Steed’s flat. She rushes there, but not quite quickly enough…

She wakes up in hospital, her legs in plaster, and is told that the bomb which wrecked the flat killed Mother. (Her doctor is played by John Paul, who later starred in Doomwatch and played a somewhat similar character in several episodes of The New Avengers.) The need to find Steed and Miranda before the bad guys do is still pressing – so can she remember any details to help them locate Steed’s hide-out?

I suspect that once you know the twist (and it’s a relatively obvious one from the moment you learn Mother has supposedly been blown up), this episode loses a fair amount of its charm, but it does work hard to sell its main idea, as well as disguise the fact Macnee is on light duties (he gets some nice scenes with Douglas, who proceeds to trounce him at every game they play to pass the time – these are all whiffle, not to put too fine a point on it, but Macnee sells them magnificently). It does still rely on Tara conveniently fainting whenever the bad guys need her to, but there’s a strong cast and a clever resolution to the story (in which it’s Mother and Rhonda who deal with the villains, not Steed or Tara). I suspect I’m probably being a little too hard on it, for whatever reason. Hmmm.

Tara is pleased to find Mother is not dead after all. Understated work as ever from Patrick Newell.

Once more unto the unpredictable world of Terry Nation – I really am on the verge of turning into Sue Perryman – for his script Take-Over. This feels very much like something he had on the boil when he got the job as script editor and turned into an Avengers episode, rather than something written specifically for the series.

After a teaser which does nothing but introduce the episode’s gimmick – death by remote control – we learn that Steed is off for a weekend in the country visiting some old friends (Michael Gwynn, perhaps best known as Lord Melbury from Fawlty Towers, and Elizabeth Sellars). Could this be yet another semi-holiday episode? There have been so many of these things one is inclined to wonder if the show isn’t just routinely double-banking at this point; I wouldn’t be surprised.

Any chance of a nice weekend is spoilt when Steed’s friends the Bassetts (who for some reason have a vintage car in their front room) are descended upon by diabolical mastermind Grenville (Tom Adams, very smooth) and his henchmen (one of whom is Garfield Morgan, making his third appearance as a heavy and his second just this season – they stick a toupee on him to try and disguise this a bit). Grenville needs the house for an undisclosed nefarious scheme, but also needs the occupants alive, so rather than kill them he has them fitted with remote-control death implants by his loopy underling Circe (Hilary Pritchard). He has planned for every eventuality – except for Steed arriving unexpectedly…

The death-implants aside, this is a very straight thriller – I seem to recall an episode of the later Clemens series The Professionals with a very similar premise – and played as such by most of the actors. Tom Adams is in expansive Bond-villain mode, but you can imagine him playing the Commander himself on a different day. It’s reasonable stuff, I suppose, with an unusually hard edge for The Avengers – Steed actually gets shot and wounded, for the first time in what must be a couple of years. That’s the thing about it, really: like a lot of Nation’s stuff, it’s okay on its own terms, but he just doesn’t seem to have much feel for the tone and style of this series. Still, this was his final screened contribution – the handful of episodes left are written by either Brian Clemens or Philip Levene. Yes, we’ve nearly finished, at least as far as The Avengers itself is concerned…

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One of the things which has genuinely surprised me about this trawl through The Avengers‘ sixth season – it turns out there are more than a few of these episodes I have no recollection of ever having seen before – is the degree to which it occasionally anticipates The New Avengers. The department-based format obviously helps with this, as does the shift back towards something vaguely realistic. Sometimes the resemblance is not just general, but specific: Complex (New Avengers) has a similar premise to Killer (Avengers), Sleeper has a similar atmosphere (and uses a similar plot device) to The Morning After, and Jeremy Burnham’s Who Was That Man I Saw You With? does have the same kind of plot as Hostage from the sequel show.

Tara has been given special duties, which are to try and breach security around the new Field Marshal defence system: this looks rather like a case of the government putting a super-computer in charge of everything, but it’s an acceptable plot device. As the security system was apparently designed by Steed (in the absence of Cathy or Emma he has apparently become not just the brains of the team, but a very clever chap all-round), she has not been having much luck.

What she doesn’t realise is that a grooming-obsessed diabolical mastermind named Gilpin (Alan Macnaughtan, second appearance of two) is using this exercise to bring about the dismantling of the Field Marshal system and thus leave the country wide open to enemy attack. How he does this is by framing Tara as a traitor, who has been trying to break security in earnest rather than as an exercise: this involves lots of people trailing each other in cars and surreptitious surveillance, and Steed and Mother looking very grave as they contemplate having to put Tara under arrest. It’s quite well-done but just a bit predictable and dour; the bad guys are decent enough, and there are some entertaining fight sequences. A good performance from Linda Thorson, too. I’m not sure that doing ‘serious’ Avengers episodes this late on doesn’t miss the point of the show, but this is certainly one of the better ones.

So it’s come to this: an Avengers clip show. Well, not quite, but the general sense of the sixth season occasionally being a production in complete chaos reaches its zenith (or perhaps nadir) with Homicide and Old Lace, ostensibly written by Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks (who were quite cross about the end results, if memory serves). Two apparently sweet old ladies appear to be cooking up a nasty surprise for Mother when he comes to visit them – but it turns out they are his aunties, and the antique pistols they are waving about are his birthday present.

Mother’s aunties have become big fans of the spy genre and want to hear a true story, so he ends up spinning them a yarn about an attempt by the Intercrime organisation to steal all the art treasures of Britain in one fell swoop. At least, it turns out to be that, once we’ve seen a couple of clips from The Bird Who Knew Too Much and Murdersville; later on, action sequences from The Fear Merchants and Never, Never Say Die are likewise reused, resulting in a bizarre Christopher Lee cameo.

Apparently what happened was this: an episode called The Great Great Britain Crime was on the shelf when John Bryce was sacked and Clemens and Fennell reinstated, but it was deemed unbroadcastable (I can’t believe it was worse than Invasion of the Earthmen) and cannibalised to make this, with the framing material with Mother and his aunties added to cover, or at least fill, the many resulting gaps in the narrative. To say the result is inconsistent is rather an understatement: it’s hard to judge if the original episode was really as bad as all that (the basic premise is actually quite a clever one), and it certainly has an interesting cast (Edward Brayshaw, who briefly appears, ended up making rather more of an impression in another Hulke-Dicks-scripted TV series later in 1969). The rather knowing running commentary from Mother’s aunties on the implausibility of the story is also mildly amusing. But it’s so obviously been slapped together to cover for some massive production slip-up that having the patience to even keep up with the plot becomes a bit of a challenge. Personally I don’t think it’s quite as bad as Invasion of the Earthmen, but it is a real mess.

Steed has just read the script; Rhonda is the only one who thinks the tag scene is funny.

Speaking of Terry Nation scripts, we’re back in his weirdly unpredictable world for the next episode, Thingumajig (which is practically another fridge title). A group of archaeologists are exploring the crypt of a Norman church when one of them comes across something rather mysterious – which promptly kills him with a flash of light and a crackle of electricity. Not obviously Steed and Tara’s wheelhouse, you might think – which Nation gets round by making the vicar of the church in question an old friend of Steed’s, who asks him for help.

Well, all the signs are that something is on the loose that kills people and feeds on electricity, and the story gets a lot of mileage out of the investigative angle of all this, with odd tracks, dead fish, and so on. Steed eventually turns up a mysterious black box, which he gives to Tara for safekeeping. What’s actually going on is that another diabolical mastermind (Iain Cuthbertson) has hit upon a scheme whereby the Other Side will pay him to cripple the UK by unleashing hundreds of homicidal electricity-eating black boxes (these are basically just very cheaply-realised robots), but he’s mislaid two of them…

Steed gets lots to do (this looks rather like a semi-holiday episode for Linda Thorson, as Tara spends most of it in her flat), but it somehow doesn’t feel very much like The Avengers – we’re very near the border between improbable techno-thriller and no-foolin’ sci-fi with this story – and despite the premise it’s all played rather straight. The scene in which Tara is menaced in her flat by a cardboard box that’s been sprayed black has the sort of kitsch grandeur to it you’d normally associate with very primitive sci-fi B-movies rather than a usually-class act like The Avengers, too. Apart from this, it’s a little hard to point to anything genuinely dreadful about it, but it’s still below-par even for season six.

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Jeremy Burnham’s Love All is one of the handful of episodes I looked at prior to this epic trek through the entirety of The Avengers and as is not unusual I find I don’t have much to add to my original review – except that, obviously, some aspects of the story can’t help but feeling a little bit problematic. The central gag (successful civil servants fall madly in love with fag-puffing drab) is what I’m referring to; on the other hand, the denouement really does give Patrick Macnee an opportunity to shine. Good supporting cast, too.

Tony Williamson’s Stay Tuned has something of a fridge title and initially looks rather like yet another holiday episode: Steed is off on leave, his cases are packed, his phone has been redirected, and so on. Then someone calls at his flat and knocks him unconscious with one punch (this only happens when the plot is predicated on it being possible). From this we go straight back into what initially looks like the same scene, with Macnee going through the same actions and dialogue as he prepares for his break – until Tara arrives and reveals that it’s three weeks later and Steed’s due back at work.

Clearly, completely losing his memory of three full weeks is a concern for Steed and his superiors at the department (Mother is on leave as well, and in temporary command is Father (Iris Russell, in the third of three appearances). All the evidence suggests that Steed really has been on the continent for three weeks, but he finds himself unable to accept this, with the fragments of memory he recovers leading him repeatedly to a townhouse in London – but every time he gets close to uncovering the truth, he finds himself back in his apartment, preparing to go on holiday…

This goes most of the way towards being one of the best episodes of the season, with an intriguing premise, supported by one of Patrick Macnee’s strongest and most serious performances from the colour series. It’s an atypically serious episode all round – Mother is usually an outrageous caricature, but Russell plays Father absolutely straight and makes enough of an impression for you to wish they’d brought the character back (and no, the movie doesn’t count). Then again, her presence in the episode at all is just to facilitate the plot, so I suppose it was really necessary for this character to make an impression.

Further down the cast we have an appearance from a young Kate O’Mara, who is in largely-decorative cahoots with Roger Delgado, playing an evil hypnotist with a penchant for flamboyant weaponry (obviously anticipating the role for which Delgado will go down in the annals of popular culture). Sadly, neither of them really get much to do, and neither does Duncan Lamont – the role of chief baddie goes to Gary Bond (possibly best known for Wake in Fright), who is acceptably creepy.

Roger Delgado spent an appreciable chunk of his career in this sort of pose.

What lets it down is simply a rushed climax, which doesn’t really hold up on any level. It looks like we’re heading for one of those rare occasions where Steed and his partner take each other on in earnest, but either there wasn’t time for this or some other problem, and the episode essentially just fizzles out with virtually nothing in the way of actual explanation as to why. A shame, as if the ending were up to the standard of the rest of it, this would be a terrific episode.

Terry Nation returns with the slightly gimmicky episode Take Me To Your Leader, which revolves around the disposition of a mysterious red leather case. The Other Side are using this to make a delivery to a traitor somewhere in England, using a series of couriers. The case itself gives instructions on where to take it for the next step of the trip, once the correct key is inserted into the lock (the case will explode if it is interfered with). So, naturally, it’s up to Steed and Tara to take the case to its ultimate recipient, dealing with all the various couriers along the way.

A bit of a mixed bag, this one, I would say (no pun intended), though as this is a Nation script that shouldn’t really be a surprise. Some of the little interludes with the different couriers are effective and very funny – Steed’s encounter with an avaricious small girl is a particular highlight – and none of them are actually bad. There’s even a scene where Linda Thorson engages in hand-to-hand combat with Penelope Keith (making her third and final appearance on the show), or at least their stunt doubles do – the presence of the stunt doubles seems particularly obvious this week. On the other hand, there’s also some slightly strained whimsy going on, not to mention Patrick Macnee effectively going missing for most of the first act. The identity of the traitor is also a bit flippin’ obvious, for all of Nation’s efforts to obfuscate this. A decent episode in the end, I would say.

Jeremy Burnham turns in another above-average script in the form of Fog, slightly atypical though it is. Members of the World Disarmament Committee are arriving in London for one of their regular get-togethers, arriving in a city where the streets are choked with fog (it’s never been like this before in The Avengers, not least because it looks like most of this episode was shot in the studio). Soon enough one of the group has wandered off and got himself murdered by a mysterious figure in a top hat and a cape, carrying a swordstick. The killer departs to the sound of the clattering hooves of a hansom cab…

Steed and Tara’s investigations take in theatrical costumers and hansom cab hire companies before (naturally) leading them to the Gaslight Ghoul Club, an association of gentlemen united by their fascination with the criminal activities of the Gaslight Ghoul, a serial killer active in London in late 1888. With the killer continuing to stalk the members of the disarmament committee, could it be that one of the club members has chosen to emulate the killer? But why these particular victims?

My issue with any kind of piece of escapist entertainment riffing off the legend of Jack the Ripper – which includes a number of things I’m really quite fond of – is that they tend to encourage people to forget that the Ripper was a real historical figure who brutally and misogynistically murdered at least five women. This episode is as guilty of that as anything else in the canon, I guess, but it’s no more interested in fem jeop than most other Avengers episodes, and the studio-bound, Victoriana-informed look of the thing certainly makes it distinctive. Decent guest performances from the likes of Nigel Green (second of two) and Guy Rolfe, too.

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By some quirk of the scheduling process, one Linda Thorson holiday episode is followed by… another Linda Thorson holiday episode, Brian Clemens’ The Morning After. Steed’s partner for this story is, effectively, Jimmy Merlin (played by Peter Barkworth in his fourth and final appearance on the show). Merlin is a quadruple-agent and generally shifty character (with, it’s suggested, conjuring skills that border on the actually supernatural) who opens the episode by stealing some new top-secret sleeping gas capsules. Steed and Tara have set up a fake meeting where they can apprehend him – Steed is sufficiently wary of Merlin’s abilities to carry a gun – and while it initially goes to plan, Merlin uses the sleeping gas to try and escape and all three fall asleep for twenty-four hours.

Steed wakes up to find the streets around the office where the meeting took place completely deserted – everyone seems to have literally vanished overnight. Leaving Tara to continue to sleep it off (which she does, for almost the entirety of the episode), he handcuffs himself to Merlin and sets off to deliver his prisoner to the proper authorities. But the whole town seems silent and empty – until Steed and Merlin come across a patrol of soldiers, whom they witness shooting a man in cold blood as a looter…

It’s an effective gimmick for an episode, and one that Clemens had used before and would return to again in The New Avengers. The revelation of the mystery as to what’s going on – and what’s really going on – obviously has a lot riding on it, and it’s here that these stories do fall down a bit. The twist here is clever enough – Joss Ackland plays a disgruntled army officer looking to hold the country to ransom in a piece of nuclear blackmail, with Brian Blessed (second of two) in a thin (but typically fortissimo) role as one of the mercenaries under his command – but it’s the early part of the episode which is most effective. The teaming of Steed and Merlin is a rather effective one – Barkworth is easily good enough to hold his own against Patrick Macnee, and Merlin – resourceful, clever, charming, but completely self-interested – is such an interesting character you wish they’d bring him back (they never do). Probably a bit above average, in the end.

The scheduling process seems to have been as quirky as hell, as the next episode looks suspiciously like yet another Thorson holiday episode, which makes it three in a row, in terms of the UK broadcast order at least. Production of The Avengers‘ sixth season being the chaotic extravaganza that it was, this was actually one of the first episodes to be made, as the shrewd viewer may in fact be able to guess: Steed is in his green Bentley, not an ugly cream Rolls, while the script is credited to Philip Levene – arguably the main writer of seasons four and five, but not really making his presence felt this year. My research indicates that John Bryce was fired and Clemens and Fennell reinstated while this episode was actually in production, which may or may not have a bearing on all this.

This kind of detailed detective work (all right, I just googled it) would seem entirely appropriate for an episode entitled The Curious Case of the Countless Clues, in which we initially meet a duo who appear to be detectives, played by Anthony Bate and Kenneth Cope (second of two). The gag is that they turn out to be murderers, whose ‘detective work’ involves framing a wealthy man for a murder he did not commit and then blackmailing him. Several of their targets are friends of Steed’s, although he is drawn into the case by a deerstalker-wearing detective named Sir Arthur Doyle (boom boom), played by Peter Jones (second of two). The Sherlockian gag is obvious but doesn’t really inform the story; more subtle but equally superficial is the fact that the three villains are called Earle, Stanley and Gardiner.

All of this is just whimsical set-dressing on what’s actually a fairly dull and mundane tale of blackmailers with an unusually elaborate and preposterous M.O., nothing like the best of Levene’s work on the show. All of Thorson’s scenes are filmed on the same set with a bit of laborious fem jeop at the end as the villains arrive to frame Steed for her murder (needless to say the crime is averted). It’s competently done and there are flashes of the colder, less avuncular Steed we haven’t really seen in earnest since the black and white shows, and it’s at least less dull and incompetent than the other Bryce episodes – but at this point I genuinely start running out of nice things to say about it.

And, would you believe it, yet another holiday episode follows, in the form of Tony Williamson’s Wish You Were Here – although this is a slightly different beast than the three preceding it, not least in that it’s Tara who gets the break, not Linda Thorson (in other words, this is a holiday episode for Patrick Macnee).

Tara is contacted by an employee of her Uncle Charles (Liam Redmond, second of two) who has gone on holiday and not returned – his postcards indicate he is happy enough, but he can’t be reached by phone and in his absence one of his associates is taking over the company. She decides to take some leave and make sure he’s okay, leaving Steed and Mother to work on a gobbledegook case back at HQ.

She finds her uncle at the Elizabethan Hotel deep in the countryside – he is outwardly pleased to see her, but discreetly warns her that she has made a terrible mistake and will not be allowed to leave – despite the pleasant atmosphere of the place, all attempts to check out of the hotel are foiled. She laughs the idea off, until her own attempts at departure are met by a relentless string of car breakdowns, window-cleaner-related accidents, laundry malfunctions, and so on. Just who can they trust if they’re going to get out of the hotel alive?

Another immensely whimsical story, but quite well done with decent comic turns from all the main cast (there are a lot of people who’ve appeared in previous episodes in and around the hotel). I often see this episode described as a parody or spoof of The Prisoner, with the hotel standing in for the Village, but I’m not sure I would spot the connection left to my own devices – the main premise of an outwardly beautiful resort being a paranoia-inducing inescapable prison is the same, but The Prisoner, with the odd exception, generally takes itself very seriously indeed, while this is definitely playing the same idea for laughs. Wish You Were Here doesn’t seem to be specifically making jokes about The Prisoner itself – I mean, there’s a scene with a beach ball, but that’s really pushing it. If they’d been serious about doing a send-up of McGoohan’s magnum opus, it would have been quite easy to make it more obvious – The Prisoner is pretty distinctive, after all – so I’m inclined to suggest that while the other show may have inspired this episode, that’s about the limit of their connection. It looks more like Fawlty Towers to me, anyway. A fun episode, if nothing else.

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At the time in The Avengers‘ sixth season that Dave Freeman’s The Rotters was originally broadcast (early 1969), Philip Levene’s name no longer appears on the credits – his role as story consultant seems to have been taken by Terry Nation, as script editor. Nevertheless, The Rotters is one of those season six episodes which does seem to closely follow the pattern and style of a Levene script, certainly one from season five.

It opens with a senior government scientist fleeing from pursuit, and taking refuge behind a reassuringly solid wooden door. However, things aren’t always what they seem, and through the magic of film editing the door vanishes in a split second, allowing the killers in. They are a very upper-class pair of hitmen played by Gerald Sim and Jerome Willis, much given to calling people ‘old grapefruit’ and other unlikely terms of endearment. Well, it goes without saying that Steed and Tara are soon on the case – the dead man had apparently stumbled onto something, resulting in his death, and the only clue is an old photo of him and some fellow boffins from years ago, all involved in timber research.

Dry rot isn’t the most promising of premises for an action-adventure story, but the gimmick here – a new strain of rot which reduces wood to dust in the twinkle of an eye – allows for some good gags and inventive murders. It’s saved from being just another string-of-murders-involving-wood-going-instantly-rotten by the inclusion of more engaging supporting characters than the story strictly requires – Frank Middlemass gets a nice part as a timber scientist turned fabricator of faked antiques (‘Nice to see the old crafts haven’t died out,’ says Steed). The whole thing has a nicely judged tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, too: ‘Steed! He’s got a plan to destroy the world with dry rot!’ cries Tara, helpfully summarising the villain’s plan. ‘Haven’t we all?’ asks Steed, always unflappable. The plot is heavily dependent on fridge logic and gradually gets sillier and sillier as it goes on, but in the end it’s just a bit above average in every department, which is enough to make it one of the better episodes of this particular year.

This is not something you can say about Invasion of the Earthmen, which was presumably Terry Nation’s first script for the series. I honestly don’t know what to make of a writer whose work ranges from the brilliant (the first episode of Survivors), to the solidly entertaining (much of his work on Blake’s 7, for instance), to thin and lazy hackery. Invasion of the Earthmen is from the absolute bottom of the Nation barrel: produced during the interregnum when Clemens and Fennell had been fired, my understanding is that on their return their first instinct was to scrap the episode completely, on the grounds it wasn’t something they could actually show the public – but contractual obligations meant they were obliged to do something with it, and so they did their best to smuggle it out mid-season.

Another of Steed’s colleagues is sneaking around an unconvincing studio set of a forest when he comes across various young actors in mustard sweaters (amongst them are a very fresh-faced Warren Clarke and Lucy Fleming). He gets his foot stuck in a man trap and is set upon by a boa constrictor (which quite possibly doubles up as the bad guys’ draught excluder). When Steed and Tara investigate his disappearance, the trail of clues (well, trail of clue, to be more accurate) leads them to the mysterious Alpha Academy, run by the mustard-sweatered Brigadier Brett (William Lucas). Various oddities lead them to decide to sneak back in after dark (Tara, back in blonde wig mode, decides to do so dressed as the principal boy of a pantomime, for some reason).

Sewed his own epaulettes, I’m guessing.

It transpires that Brett is the forward-thinking type of lunatic who is planning to invade outer space with his elite army of mustard-sweatered astro-soldiers, whom he is putting into cryogenic suspension once they finish their training (as invading outer space won’t be possible for a few years yet). This is a stupid plan. On the other hand, this is a stupid episode, clearly written by someone only vaguely familiar with the series (Steed calls Tara ‘Miss King’, and there’s a suggestion she’s not a professional agent, but an adventurer like Emma or Cathy). The production values are well down to the standard of the script, with stuffed snakes, rubber spiders and scorpions, weird costumes and the ugliest sets of any TV show I can recall: Brett’s control room incorporates four or five different styles of decor, all of which are hideous and clash with one another. Even most of the Honor Blackman taped shows were less primitive than this: this is dismal, appalling stuff. I’m not surprised producer John Bryce was fired; the real shock is that Terry Nation was ever hired to write for the show again, to say nothing of being allowed to script edit it.

We are back in the realm of The Avengers as sort of situationist pop-art with Killer, written by Tony Williamson. It shares one key feature with his earlier script for this year, Whoever Shot…(etc)?, although in this case that forms the basis of a twist (though one that is rather easily guessable). Steed and the department are concerned by the appearance on the scene of an enemy operative named Remak, whose identity is a closely-guarded secret. Anyone who gets a lead on where to find Remak turns up dumped in a graveyard, suffering from multiple causes of death (shot with arrows, stabbed, crushed, drowned, with burst eardrums, etc). What’s going on?

In a way this is almost like a Philip Levene script elevated to the level of meaningless absurdity, as variations on the same few scenes – an agent gets a lead on Remak, we see them entering his lair,  there is a sudden blast of light and burst of noise, then the neatly-wrapped body being discovered – repeat themselves over and over again, albeit with a different victim each time. If it’s not some kind of comment on the formulaic nature of action-adventure TV then it’s just rather repetitive scripting; the twist (such as it is) is predictable, as noted. You’re waiting for the moment when it’s Steed’s turn to run the gauntlet (Macnee looks in need of a diet and a haircut this week, to be honest), but it’s not nearly inventive or surprising enough if it comes.

A further comment on the nature of this kind of entertainment, whether intentional or not, comes from the fact that this is actually a holiday show – Linda Thorson appears at the beginning and end, but that’s all. Rather than structure the script around her absence, they just give all her scenes to a new character, Lady Diana Forbes-Blakeney (played by Jennifer Croxton), which makes virtually no substantial difference to the story. Croxton is much more in the Rigg mode than Thorson, and acquits herself rather well, though not to the point where you’re wishing she’d been cast instead (your mileage may differ, of course). In the end this isn’t as good as The Rotters but (obviously) an improvement on Terry Nation at his most Terrynational.

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Season 6 Avengers, wildly inconsistent, troubled production, blah. Maybe you know this already; maybe you don’t. Maybe you don’t and would appreciate the short version of what happened, in which case: with the departure of Diana Rigg at the end of the fifth season, the company that made the series decided on a change of approach, returning to a more ‘realistic’ style. This involved sacking producers Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens and re-hiring Blackman-era producer John Bryce to oversee the new format. Suffice to say that three episodes later, Fennell and Clemens were rehired and the Bryce episodes were scrapped (in their original form, at least), although the casting of Linda Thorson was something the new (old) producers were stuck with (various scurrilous rumours concerning how this came about have circulated ever since, occasioning – forgive me, but ho ho – the pulping of the first print run of the programme guide co-written by Paul Cornell).

Donald James’ Have Guns – Will Haggle started off as the first of the Bryce episodes, under the title Invitation to a Killing and with a 90-minute duration – Clemens and Fennell changed the title and hacked back the running time to the usual 50 minutes. I am almost tempted to suggest that the hacking back was not nearly severe enough, as losing another hour or so would have greatly improved this episode, or at least allowed us to spend fifty minutes doing something more fulfilling than watching it.

The episode opens with robbers with a trampoline (or possibly gymnasts with kleptomaniac tendencies) breaking into a military installation and stealing many crates full of a brand-new high-powered rifle. Steed and Tara are on the case, with the former suspecting the arrival in the country of ambitious would-be despot Colonel Nsonga is not a coincidence (Nsonga is played by Lamine ‘Johnny’ Sekka, possibly best known to the cult TV tribes for playing one of the Babylon 5 characters who never made it past the pilot movie). The stolen rifles are being auctioned off by the robbers (who are led by a young Nicola Pagett), and so Steed naturally turns up posing as a bidder. In the meantime, however, Tara has been captured and the robbers have hit upon the scheme of using her as target practice.

Well, it just about hangs together, although there’s no real explanation given for why Tara spends half the episode in a blonde wig and a truly hideous pink outfit. The problem is that it’s simply very generic: you could probably have filed some of the names off and rewritten this as an episode of The Saint or The Baron or some other ITC action-adventure show. No wit, no bounce, no good jokes or clever ideas. The fact that it features prominent black characters (as well as Sekka, Roy Stewart also appears) obviously makes it an oddity as Avengers episodes goes (I wonder if Brian Clemens ever regretted listing his ‘rules’ of the series? – no extras, no killing women, no ethnic minorities, etc), but it’s also literally the only interesting thing about it.

Possibly the only marginally interesting thing about They Keep Killing Steed is that it is the only The Avengers episode to have its title parodied or copied by a Torchwood episode (2006’s They Keep Killing Suzie). Well, perhaps that’s a bit harsh. The episode is credited to Brian Clemens, and I wonder if this wasn’t another case of him going in to fix a troubled script, because the shape of it is really lumpy and weird.

A mad scientist working for the Other Side named Arcos (Ray McAnally, second of two) has invented a process of ‘instant plastic surgery’ and intends to use it to introduce a fake Steed into a peace conference so he can sabotage it. For this they need the real Steed as a template, and so he is lured to a spot where he can be kidnapped (rather too easily, if you ask me). However, Steed proves to be a troublesome prisoner and manages to arrange things so that, rather than one, a whole batch of Steed impostors are sent into action. Meanwhile, Tara – who for some reason has teamed up with a millionaire German aristocrat played by Ian Ogilvy in a blond dye-job – is on an emotional rollercoaster as Steed keeps turning up dead…

The basic idea of the multiple Steeds is a decent one, but the plotting involved to get this point is so convoluted that it takes up a big chunk of the episode – and even then, the episode shies away from having more than one Patrick Macnee in-camera at the same time, and doesn’t really find a way to make the concept sing. I can imagine a kind of black farce developing with the various Steeds all trying to prove their identity and win Tara over, but it never really gets close, devoting time instead to the subplot about Tara and the Baron (Ogilvy even gets his own big fight sequence, dueling with the bad guys during the climax). I suppose he gives Tara someone to talk to. Their scenes are better than the ones between Tara and Mother, in which Linda Thorson and Patrick Newell are never both in shot at the same time – usually a dead giveaway that they were filming on different days. Like I say, I get a sense that not all was well behind the scenes at this point. It’s a just about passable episode, but the title is probably the best thing about it; you can see why someone pinched it.

The Interrogators has a very nondescript title, but the premise shows glimmers of promise. Any expectations the viewer may have are raised by the cast, mainly because the main guest star is Christopher Lee (second of two). Lee is this week’s villain (perhaps this almost goes without saying): his character, Colonel Mannering (possessor of impressive facial hair), is commanding what looks like a pretty brutal interrogation centre, partly staffed by Red Chinese soldiers. However, the interrogatees seem to take it all in a very good spirit and the atmosphere of the place is weirdly jovial – interrogations keep stopping for tea breaks, and so on.

Meanwhile, a string of contacts with implausible jobs (archers, one-man-bands, football coachers, balloon sellers – these are basically all just here to up the whimsy quotient) start turning up dead, leading Mother and Steed to conclude their handlers have either been turned or broken by the Other Side. But the handlers seem to be completely innocent, although oddly vague about their recent whereabouts.

It turns out that Lee is passing himself off as the head of an ultra-secret division within the department, responsible for testing agents’ ability to resist interrogation and teach them new anti-interrogation techniques. This gives him the chance to interrogate anyone he likes to his heart’s content, and if they don’t crack then there’s always the chance they’ll let a few secrets slip over a jar in the facility bar. Soon enough the time comes to introduce Tara to the interrogation chamber…

Yes, it’s wildly implausible in terms of both premise and plot – the resolution depends on Mannering staying in touch with his former ‘trainees’ via carrier pigeon, one of which Steed duly tails back to his base in a helicopter – but the actual execution is surprisingly mundane and even just a little bit dull (though not without moments of outright silliness). It’s still watchable, however, mainly due to Lee’s performance. He gets a few scenes with Linda Thorson, but sadly almost none with Patrick Macnee. Oh well – still a class act, even in a fairly ordinary episode like this one.

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(…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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Just when season six of The Avengers was showing signs of settling down, along comes what I can only really describe as a bit of a dud: Tony Williamson’s Whoever Shot Poor George Oblique Stroke XR40? (which is apparently the second longest episode title in the series’ history). It opens at a top-secret government computer and cybernetics installation, where the technicians are concerned – George, one of their best brains, is showing signs of distress. While they are worrying about this, a bad guy (dressed, for no especially convincing reason, as a gamekeeper) sneaks into the place and puts both barrels of his shotgun into his target. It looks like poor George is doomed – but, ha ha, the twist is that George is a computer! But why would someone want to ‘kill’ a machine? Could it have something to do with its funny turn?

Well, needless to say Steed and Tara are soon on the scene (Tara was on her way to a fancy dress party, which is why she spends the start of the episode in a Catwoman outfit) and trying work out what’s happened. The damaged computer is spitting out messages suggesting it was on the verge of identifying a traitor in the department, based on information in the last set of equations fed into it. Suspicion falls upon its creator (Clifford Evans, third appearance of three), who is acting very strangely and drinking heavily, but how to introduce an agent into his household without arousing counter-suspicion? It just happens to be the case that he has a young niece in her twenties whom he hasn’t seen in absolutely ages…

This one has a rather good cast (Dennis Price plays yet another quirky Avengers butler, while the magnificent Valerie Leon is almost unnoticeable in a bottom-of-the-bill part) but it’s essentially a fairly dull story about a VIP being held hostage in his house by agents of the Other Side, given obligatory whimsicality by the subplot about Tara impersonating the niece, and – more gratingly – a conceit where ‘George’ the computer is treated like a human being: apart from the name, it requires an operation, which is done by a ‘cybernetic surgeon’ wearing a surgical mask, etc etc. If it’s aiming for off-beat, it just ends up hitting ‘twee’. Half-a-point added back on for a scene where Steed intimidates a petrol-soaked bad guy into surrendering by threatening him with a cigarette lighter, but this is still quite hard work.

Things improve a bit in Jeremy Burnham’s False Witness, which opens with a couple of agents carrying out a spot of breaking-and-entering: one goes in, while the other keeps watch. A bad guy approaches, but the look-out assures his colleague that the coast is still clear. Sure enough, the other man is shot and wounded, but (trope time) manages to stagger off across London to Steed’s flat to get the plot under way.

It turns out that the two agents were involved in trying to get evidence on Lord Edgefield (William Job, second of two), a Milverton-like blackmailer and general cad. In the absence of the evidence they were looking for, the department will have to rely on a witness’ testimony – but when they take him to the office of the prosecuting lawyer (Tony Steedman, second of two), he abruptly reverses his position. Is Edgefield leaning on everyone? Or is something else responsible for this surge in deceitfulness and general lack of integrity?

Well, obviously, the answer is ‘evil milkmen’. This is one of a number of episodes about unlikely psychedelic drugs (the show is a product of the late 60s, after all), in this case one which causes people to say the exact opposite of what they mean: a sort of anti-truth drug. This seems biochemically improbable, to say the least, to say nothing of what happens if the target doesn’t drink milk, but so it goes. John Bennett (second of two) plays the head of the dairy, and he at least has the ability to give lines like ‘Special delivery: two pints, immediately,’ and ‘Put her in the butter machine’ an unlikely air of silky menace.

I still don’t think it entirely makes sense (the episode is inconsistent about whether people affected by the drug are aware of what they’re saying and doing) and there’s another sort of tonal mismatch between the blackmailing plot and the gimmick with the drug (to say nothing of Tara getting encased in a giant block of butter), but there are quite a few redeeming features and some good gags. (Mother’s HQ is on the top deck of a bus (one wonders how he gets up the stairs), which just put me in mind of Monty Python – the two shows do occasionally resemble each other to a surprising degree.) There’s another glimpse of old-style Steed when he suspects a colleague has betrayed him: he cooly marches the suspect off into the woods and slugs him without warning, before pinning him up against a tree and demanding answers. A pretty entertaining episode all told.

The upward trend definitely continues with All Done With Mirrors, the sole contribution to the show by Leigh Vance (a not especially well-known writer and producer, mostly of US shows: the usual reference websites can’t even decide on what sex Vance was, but he was apparently married to Eunice Gayson in the fifties, which is a bit of a giveaway). The episode opens with an agent discovering secrets being leaked to the Other Side – apparently by an invisible man – before he is shot.

Said secrets are from the Carmadoc solar energy research centre, which Steed recently visited (off-screen). As a result he is a suspect, and Mother is forced to put him under close arrest. This involves he and Mother being ensconced in and around a swimming pool with a bevy of swim-suited beauties and a bar. ‘I’m innocent!’ Steed declares when Tara learns of his situation. Yes, but probably not for much longer, Tara says. In the circumstances, Tara has to investigate Carmadoc herself, assisted by another agent, the keen but not very sharp Watney (Dinsdale Landen).

Yes, it’s another holiday episode for Patrick Macnee, but in some ways a definite cut above most of the Blackman and Rigg holiday shows – it’s not about the female lead being lured off somewhere to be menaced by a lunatic, but about Tara basically having her own solo adventure, investigating and cracking the case herself. And it’s a clever episode with a good gimmick, and a few less-well-known Avengers tropes being dusted off – as well as the research centre under threat, we have yet another instance of people being replaced by impostors working for the other side. (Playing yet another villain in his sixth and final appearance on the show is Edwin Richfield.)

Perhaps the absence of Steed except for a few bookending scenes (he doesn’t turn up to save the day, which is refreshing) means it doesn’t really feel like a genuine Avengers episode, but his absence really does allow Linda Thorson to shine: she carries the episode really well, and gets some belting fight scenes before everything is resolved. I almost can’t believe I’m going to say this, but – on this occasion at least – Thorson sells these better than Diana Rigg usually did. A really strong, if somewhat atypical episode, which almost feels like the backdoor pilot for The Adventures of Tara King – a show which, on the strength of this, I would certainly have watched.

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