Posts Tagged ‘The Avengers’

Philip Levene turns in his third script in a row with Escape in Time, which is possibly the most peculiar one yet. I remember being quite baffled by it the first time I saw it – not because the plot is particularly difficult to follow, but because it is just so preposterously far-fetched. It opens in the time-honoured style with one of Steed’s colleagues finding his way into a rather grandly appointed house. Poking around, he tumbles through a door and finds himself in a room appointed in the style of the 17th century, where he encounters Peter Bowles (his third Avengers-baddie engagement) in a spaniel wig, who shoots him with a flintlock pistol.

At least this time Steed knows what his colleague (whose corpse is fished out of the Thames a short while later) was working on – miscreants and evil-doers have been dropping out of sight, never to be seen again. Clearly some kind of escape route is in operation, but what? Luckily, someone else is on the case, gets himself mortally stabbed (Bowles again, in a different wig and facial hair), and staggers off to Steed’s new flat (he’s moved again since series 4), where he flops carefully onto his mark and gasps a few key expositional phrases to get Steed and Mrs Peel on the right track.

A fairly witty and deftly directed sequence follows, as Steed and Emma trail a fugitive South American dictator around a warren of jokily-named shops (the barber appears to be called Todd Sweeney, for instance). The man is replaced by a double while he’s out of their sight, while Mrs Peel’s attempt to follow one of the people he meets just leads to one of several filler action sequences, where she’s menaced by a guy on a scooter in hunting pink. Naturally, Steed decides to follow the escape route himself, and meets Waldo Thyssen (Bowles again, in modern dress), who claims to have invented a time machine which he’s using to allow wealthy fugitives to elude their pursuers…

As I say, even on first viewing I was saying to my fellow watcher (this was at my Avengers viewing party, as mentioned previously), ‘It can’t really be a time machine, can it?’ (This is the point at which one inevitably says: but it’s a Philip Levene script, so you never can tell.) Well, it’s not. The plot is basically this: Bowles is playing a lunatic who likes dressing up as his ancestors. He has somehow hit upon a way of convincing wealthy criminals that they are in the past, by putting smoke and lights in their faces and then wearing a selection of wigs. They then cough up their money, at which point he kills them and disposes of the bodies so they are never found (on the face of it, it looks like he just sticks the stiffs in boxes around his house). Why doesn’t he use his infallible disappearing-corpse technique on Steed’s associate from the start, rather than dumping him in a busy river like the Thames? Why are such financially-successful crooks so gullible? How is this operation remotely profitable? (There seem to be an awful lot of people on Thyssen’s payroll, to say nothing of all the properties he seems to have a stake in.)

Oh well. Fridge logic is the enemy of a lot of these episodes, and this one at least has a few funny moments and a nice set of performances from Bowles as Thyssen’s various personae. The general surrealness of the episode and its obsession with garish dressing up (various costume changes for all the characters) means that, for me, it is the first Avengers episode which seems to anticipate the style of The Prisoner (one of that series’ more whimsical episodes, anyway). The two series were obviously in production at the same time, although this episode was broadcast in early 1967, a good eight months or so before Patrick McGoohan’s magnum opus premiered. I expect it’s a general cultural trend from around this time, which we shall see more of as we progress through the colour episodes.

Yet another Levene script follows, in the form of The See-Through Man. This is that rarest of beasts, a near-sequel to a previous Avengers episode – or at least one featuring a returning guest-star, which is nearly as unusual. Rather like Escape in Time, it’s constructed around a very peculiar piece of narrative legerdemaine, which we shall come to in a moment.

An unseen individual breaks into a Ministry of Defence facility and steals some apparently trivial documents – not just unseen, but apparently unseeable (invisible, if you prefer), as Steed and Mrs Peel arrive mid-break-in and can’t see in anyone. It turns out that the missing papers were a proposal from a mad scientist named Quilby (Roy Kinnear, in the third of his four Avengers guest spots), concerning his new invisibility formula. Quilby admits selling the formula to a company which is a front for the Other Side for an eye-watering sum.

It turns out that a couple of top agents for the Other Side (literally: they are married) are in the country and making Ambassador Brodsky (Warren Mitchell reprising his role from Two’s a Crowd, in the last of his four guest spots) rather nervous. Could it be that the opposition have actually got their hands on the secret of invisibility and are using it to ensure the British authorities can’t get Quilby to replicate his discovery for them?

The tipping point that The Avengers seems to have passed during its transition to colour is this: in one of Levene’s scripts for the previous season, the twist would be that the opposition were aliens or psychics or killer robots. In these two scripts, the twist is that they’re not – the time machine was a hoax in Escape in Time, and the invisible man in this one is a fake too. (Though quite how they manage it is utterly perplexing – I am reminded of the Douglas Adams quote about actual invisibility, specifically that ‘the technology involved in making anything invisible is so infinitely complex that nine hundred and ninety-nine billion, nine hundred and ninety-nine million, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a trillion it is much simpler and more effective just to take the thing away and do without it’. It would almost seem to be easier to actually create an invisible agent than to attempt the kind of hoax depicted here (and, if one were to be awkward, one might point out the Other Side do just that in one of the Tara King episodes, which features killers who are genuinely invisible – from some angles anyway).

Apart from this much of the episode is broad farce written around big comic turns from Roy Kinnear and especially Warren Mitchell. I don’t find these to be quite as wearisome as some commentators do, but it does seem like Diana Rigg in particular gets a bit sidelined as a result – though she does get a good scene where she reveals that she’s rumbled the Other Side’s nefarious plan to bankrupt the UK by tricking it into investing millions in researching an impossible weapon (shades of the story about how Robert Heinlein and some American SF writers came up with the notion of ‘Star Wars’ weapon satellites in the 1980s after Reagan asked them to win the Cold War for him). Possibly also notable for an odd reference to the Beatles – Brodsky claims to have concert tickets, which is rather unlikely given they’d stopped gigging by the time this episode was made. But these two episodes and the previous pair are odd in all kinds of ways; a return to something closer to normality would almost be welcome at this point.

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Now, here’s a genuinely odd thing: having been watching an average of four or five episodes of The Avengers a week since April, I figured a little mini-break between series 4 and 5, coinciding with some time with my family, might not be a bad idea. So away I went, leaving all my DVDs at home. And it was all very relaxing, thanks, I have nothing at all to complain about. But, as I say, one genuinely weird thing did happen – at one point I stepped out of the room for a few moments, leaving my parents in command of the TV remote, and when I returned what should I find them watching? The first episode of series 5, which one of the high-numbers TV channel had decided to rerun with near-perfect timing. As I say, very strange.

The first episodes of series 5 were the ones I initially watched as a swivel-eyed devotee, anyway, so I know them quite well. The year was 1991 and a rerun of The New Avengers had recently concluded – this had woken up all my memories of the repeats of the original show I’d seen in the late 80s. I happened to know that the man who advised my parents on their insurance was into classic cult TV (it’s better not to ask, honestly), and on his next visit he lent me his tape of the first three episodes, which I duly had a friend copy for me. I was possibly the only teenager of my generation to organise an Avengers viewing party – one friend came along, mainly because he’d enjoyed the New Avengers repeats, I think. (Looking back on my youth sometimes, I’m almost astonished that I’m able to function in society as well as I am, these days.)

Anyway, series 5 begins with Philip Levene’s From Venus with Love, a script which was rejected for the previous year because it was ‘too bizarre’ (what, and Man-Eater of Surrey Green wasn’t?). An astronomer about his viewing is stricken by a sudden heatwave that causes his lucozade to erupt into froth. Moments later he falls dead, his hair bleached white, as a strange noise echoes about the place. The same thing happens again to another astromomer, which gives Steed and Mrs Peel something to do other than just discuss the state of the corpses – a pattern is emerging.

Yes, someone is killing off stargazers, a group who seem to get more and more eccentric as the episode goes on: there’s an aristocratic chimney-sweep, and an old soldier intent on recording his memoirs on tape, complete with sound effects. (This character, the Brigadier, is played by Jon Pertwee, a fact which invariably causes clanging cognitive dissonance in members of my former tribe. Pertwee is routinely described as the main guest star despite only being in the episode for a few minutes.) It all seems to revolve around the British Venusian Society, a club planning on launching a private space probe to the second planet – but have they inadvertently provoked the secretive Venusians into a pre-emptive strike against them?

This being a Levene script, you wouldn’t rule it out, but the actual revelation, when it comes, is possibly even weirder and certainly more convoluted: a disgruntled opthalmologist (Philip Locke, in the last of three appearances as an Avengers baddie), annoyed at the way funding for medical research has been redirected to pay for the BVS’s project, has bolted a laser gun onto the front of a sports car and is using this to kill off the society’s membership (everyone assumes the vehicle is a UFO, for some reason).

On the other hand, the credibility of the script is certainly matched by its scientific accuracy and its general coherence: at one point, Mrs Peel is telling Steed about the BVS for the first time, at which point the chimney-sweep is killed by the ‘UFO’. She promptly jumps into her Lotus and gives chase (apparently not giving much thought to why the UFO is using the public highway). We then have a series of scenes in which Steed locates, visits, and talks to members of the BVS (Barbara Shelley and Derek Newark turn up in decent roles). Then the action cuts back to Mrs Peel, who is still chasing the UFO. How long has she been doing this for? Common sense suggests it must have been hours.

Of course, we have departed the realm of common sense now: The Avengers, which was once a fairly straight detective show, and then became an off-beat adventure series, has now entered the realms of total fantasy, where the simple fact that things happen is much more important than how or why they happen. This is reflected in the increasingly formalistic and stylised nature of the show, with the ‘we’re needed’ and tag scenes bookending each story (Channel 4 cut these for the 1980s repeat run). One wonders how much of this was a natural development from the previous season, and how much a deliberate choice to court the American market which the producers now had half an eye on (the attentive viewer will note the opening title card announces ‘The Avengers in Color‘ – note the spelling).

Speaking of which, the switch to colour does encourage some spectacular, if not downright garish, decisions from the costuming and art departments: at one point we see Steed lounging about in what appears to be a maroon silk tuxedo with a mauve shirt, while a purple jumpsuit seems to have become Emma’s outfit of choice. (It’s not just them: in the next episode one of the villains is wearing magenta socks.) One is almost inclined to feel sorry for the retinas of our American cousins, given that this show wasn’t broadcast in colour on its original UK showing (colour TV didn’t start here until the end of the decade, and remained something of a minority pursuit until the mid-1970s).

Anyway, the script department was probably right: From Venus with Love is just too weird to work as a coherent episode. Nevertheless, Levene has another go with The Fear Merchants. This opens with a man in his pyjamas waking up in a sports stadium and promptly having a fit of the ab-dabs. It seems he is a leading figure in the UK ceramics industry, a number of whom have recently had complete psychological breakdowns in equally odd circumstances: turning up on mountain tops, in canoes out at sea, and so on. Evidence points towards one Jeremy Raven, an ambitious young businessman who seems intent on cornering the market by any means necessary…

Watching the episode again now, one’s first reaction is that something very odd seems to have been going on in the casting department: solid character actors like Andrew Keir, Bernard Horsfall and Edward Burnham are cast in one-scene parts (Burnham and Horsfall barely get any dialogue), while as the ambitious and ruthless young Raven they have secured the services of Brian Wilde (then 40), best known for playing the timorous screw Barraclough in Porridge and ex-army bore Foggy in Last of the Summer Wine. On the other hand, Patrick Cargill plays the villain (again) with his usual aplomb, while there’s a nicely underplayed turn as his henchman from Garfield Morgan (resembling a young Eric Morecambe somewhat).

In the end the plot makes a bit more sense than the previous week’s, but it’s a near thing. Cargill and his cronies have set up a management consultancy firm (the ‘Business Efficiency Bureau’) which functions by eradicating their client’s competitors. How do they do this? Psychological analysis identifies their underlying phobias, which are then ruthlessly exploited. Fair enough, it is a reasonable basis for the episode (much of it is a series of set-piece ‘phobia’ sequences) – but if you have hit upon a method of giving anyone a nervous breakdown, isn’t there an easier way of monetising this than going through all these shenanigans with management consultancy? The Business Efficiency Bureau is not, itself, the most efficient of cover operations: one wonders just how many small businessmen they have to drive into a stupor to pay for their office space. Still, Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg are clearly not taking it too seriously, which is sensible, and as a result it stays watchable and fun. One does sense that the edge of the best series 4 episodes has been dulled, though, perhaps permanently.


Anyone who’s been reading along with this cruise through The Avengers – an attempt to find some positivity in fairly dismal times – may recall that I started shortly after the death of Honor Blackman back in April. Since I wrote the above the news has broken of the passing of Dame Diana Rigg, giving these current pieces a resonance I could frankly have happily lived without. While it was The Avengers that brought Rigg to fame, it was really only a relatively small part of a tremendously distinguished and successful career, ranging from doing Chekhov on stage to being (briefly) the first Mrs James Bond. There was also a terrific performance in Theatre of Blood, and an award-winning one in the 1989 BBC drama Mother Love. However, one way or another I think it is for Emma Peel and The Avengers that Diana Rigg will be remembered, and remembered for a long time. An exceptional talent. RIP.

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The penultimate episode of The Avengers‘ fourth season is How to Succeed… At Murder, written by Brian Clemens. This is the fourth episode out of the last five to be written by Clemens; given how strongly he started this run he could be forgiven for flagging a little bit by this point, and a totally impartial observer might suggest this is indeed the case.

The story opens with a typical office scene: a hard-working businessman giving instructions over the intercom to his long-suffering secretary. She clearly feels she has suffered quite long enough as she proceeds to don a tin hat and blast him out of the window with high explosives! Very quickly it becomes clear that a secret society of murderous secretaries has been formed and is doing its best to advance the interests of the people who really do all the work in big business…

Of course, the deaths of eleven top businessmen by foul play is likely to be noticed and Steed and Mrs Peel are soon on the case, with Steed doing his best to come up with a motive for the string of deaths – nothing seems to connect them, nor those benefitting from them – while the whiff of a clue – the faintest trace of a perfume, left at the scene of one of the killings and captured in a tyre pump – sends Emma to the offices of the owner of the greatest nose in London, Mr J.J. Hooter (Christopher Benjamin).

Unfortunately, Hooter’s own secretary is part of the plot and bumps him off, which at least gives our heroes the inkling of a clue as to what’s going on: all the secretaries are introducing such fiendishly byzantine office management systems that, when the ostensible boss dies, the only person capable of taking over is them (diabolical scheme or not, I must confess that this was part of my own sacking-avoidance strategy in my last substantial office job). Soon enough Steed is advertising for his own secretarial assistance, while Emma is working hard to position herself as a potential recruit for the scheme…

It sounds like a set-up with potential, and there are some typical Avengers touches going on – the diabolical mastermind delivers their instructions to the group via a remote-controlled ventriloquist’s dummy, while Christopher Benjamin – a character actor quite at home giving a very big performance, given the right script – has fun with his small role as Hooter. But the villain’s real motivation, when it comes to light, drags the episode off into the realm of melodrama, which isn’t a place where the series feels particularly comfortable, and in places it all feels a little bit strained – trying too hard to be whimsical.

There’s also something not-quite-right about the whole main thrust of the episode, which concerns put-upon secretaries rising up in an act of rebellion. You could argue that this is Clemens actually being a bit prescient about the rise of the women’s liberation movement, given that some accounts indicate it didn’t really establish itself in the UK until 1968 (this episode was first shown in 1966), but – quite apart from the fact that the feminists are the bad guys – it doesn’t really present the women killers as particularly bright or effective: they are basically stooges for someone whose motivation isn’t as it first appears, and haven’t been bright enough to figure this out for themselves. When Steed finds himself attacked by two of them, he ends up sitting on the first, with the second over his knee as he tickles the information he needs out of her. Other than (as ever) Mrs Peel, this is hardly the most stirring depiction of emancipated womanhood. I mean, it’s not awful, but there are other much better episodes this season.

(Also perhaps worthy of mention is a prop noticeboard which bears a curious resemblance to one from Quick-Quick Slow Death: at least some of the names – the non-plot-relevant ones – are the same. Whether this is just an example of the producers being thrifty (some other props get re-used across the series) or if there’s an in-joke going on here I don’t know.)

Yet another Clemens script closes out the season – which, for anyone keeping score, means that practically the last fifth of it is all the work of the same writer (which to me suggests at least a minor crisis in the script department). This final episode is entitled Honey for the Prince and opens with Clemens deploying a device he would later work practically to death on The New Avengers.

Two agents enter a room filled with cod-Arabian decor and objects; there is inevitably a small oil lamp, which one of them rubs. Poof! An assassin with a submachinegun appears in a cloud of smoke and opens up at them both. After the title card we are into a charming scene (virtually the only one on location in the episode) with Steed and Mrs Peel practically skipping home together from a party, clearly having a wonderful time in each other’s company. This changes when they get to Steed’s flat, of course, where they find an about-to-expire agent waiting for them. Naturally he can only utter a couple of suggestive words – ‘genie’ and ‘honey’ – before pegging out.

A quick trip to the apartment of the other dead agent – he is the kind of man who keeps a framed photo of himself on his desk, just so the audience know whose room this is – reveals about forty jars of honey in the cupboard, and all this after a suspicious character is stumbled upon burning key papers (he gets away). The honey is from the shop of the first of this episode’s eccentrics, a Mr B. Bumble, while a fortuitous phone-call to one of the dead men, intercepted by Steed, suggests a connection to a company called QQF.

It seems that QQF – run by another eccentric, this one played by Ron Moody – specialises in making people’s fantasies a reality (being a cowboy, winning the battle of Waterloo, and so on). The owner’s suggestion to Steed is that he leaves reality behind by trying the life of a glamorous secret agent for a bit, which Steed treats with a straight bat. It turns out that someone has been using QQF’s services to live out their fantasy of ‘assassinating the Prince of Barabia’ (one of those obscure but important countries that often turn up in these episodes), which is of course a wonderful way of planning to do it for real.

Not-bad stuff so far, but the episode takes a bit of a left turn in the closing stages, most of which take place within the Barabian Embassy. The Prince himself is played by Zia Mohyeddin, and is a cricket-loving Anglophile, who can’t stand honey but whose wives – of which there are a very great number – love the stuff, forcing him to buy it in bulk. As the assassination is set to be carried out within the Prince’s harem, this presents Steed with a bit of an issue, as only eunuchs and the Prince himself are allowed inside…

Cue what I believe the kids call ‘fan service’, as Mrs Peel is pressed into service as a belly dancer to grab the Prince’s attention and join his collection of wives. It’s fairly amusing stuff, though I kept finding myself thinking of Carry On Up the Khyber – not that there’s anything wrong with this classic film, of course, but it’s a very different viewing experience from the traditional Avengers episode. Probably there are a few too many traditional Arabian stereotypes on display for comfort, too, although the script isn’t afraid to be inappropriate in other ways too. ‘I counted only six veils,’ says a slightly disappointed Prince following Emma’s dance routine. ‘Very poorly educated,’ replies Steed – but the gag is then soured when (to try and dissuade the amorous nobleman) he suggests that Mrs Peel is also ‘retarded’, which any way you slice it is a bum note by modern standards. Not the best way of ending a run which has, by any rational standard, been a slice of TV heaven, but back before the advent of the ‘season finale’ this sort of thing used to happen fairly regularly, and it’s only because the series at its best has been so exceptional that the occasional slightly wobbly instalment stands out.

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Brian Clemens writes his third episode in a row with The House that Jack Built, and the impression one can’t help but have is of someone with enviable versatility: A Touch of Brimstone is a knowing black comedy, What the Butler Saw much more of a knockabout farce, and The House that Jack Built is something else again and much more serious.

It opens with, we are invited to assume, an escaped convict on the run – the man manages to overpower one of his pursuers and take his gun, then breaks into a lonely old country house. The place seems musty and deserted, until he opens a door and finds himself facing a charging lion…

Meanwhile, Steed is developing some holiday snaps when Emma visits him with the news she’s just inherited a house – from an uncle she never even knew existed! (And no alarm bells whatsoever seem to ring…) She’s been posted the key by the solicitor involved and is off to check the place out. It’s only after she’s gone that Steed notices the rather unusual effect the key has had on his photographic plates. He suggests to a colleague that the key has some sort of electronic property, but it looks more like that it’s rather radioactive. But anyway. Smelling a rat, he takes steps to ensure Mrs Peel’s safety before setting off after her.

Pausing only to pick up a rather sinister boy scout, Mrs Peel arrives at her new property (which, hardly surprisingly, is the same old house from the top of the episode). All seems reasonably normal at first, until she finds herself trapped in what seems to be an impossible maze of repeating rooms and corridors. After her explorations indicate she has somehow stumbled into a realm where logic just doesn’t apply, she actually seems on the verge of losing it – but manages to keep things together. In a curious device (well-suited to a rather experimental episode) we are given the privilege of hearing Mrs Peel’s interior monologue as she attempts to figure out just what has happened to her.

I am tempted to say that what has happened is that Patrick Macnee was due a week’s holiday and this is the solo-Emma counterpart to The Girl from Auntie (Steed is absent from much of the episode, and many of Macnee’s contributions are on location). What has happened in terms of the story is that an aggrieved former employee of Knight Industries (a corporation which Emma apparently runs, or used to run before she joined the series) has decided to exact his revenge: the man is, or was, an expert in automation (no doubt he moved in the same circles as Dr Armstrong from The Cybernauts) and has converted the house into a sort of cybernetic death-trap for Emma’s benefit. The nasty twist is that the house doesn’t actually kill you, it just drives you insane, to the point where you make use of the ‘suicide booth’ its creator has thoughtfully provided…

It’s a very different episode from other recent offerings, much less of an obvious comedy, and in parts almost a single-hander for Diana Rigg as she explores the labyrinth inside the house. (Could it be the producers had decided that an episode could include fantastical plot elements, or be made in an off-beat, comic style, but not both at the same time?) The robot house instantly puts one in mind of one of the more overtly science-fictional episodes, but it does seem to me that (if you discard the SF element) this is just as much a remake of Don’t Look Behind You as season five’s The Joker – in all three, Steed’s partner is lured to a remote country house by an obsessive figure from their past; Steed has a much reduced role and – apart from a few peripheral eccentrics – the female lead basically carries the episode.

Possibly it’s also worth noting that, for all his obvious versatility, Clemens seems to have handled these ‘solo’ episodes very differently depending on who’s the lead. Steed gets put into spoof-Christie scenarios, with large groups of eccentric strangers being picked off one-by-one (I’m thinking of Dressed to Kill and The Superlative Seven) – Cathy and Emma are lured off to old dark houses for a spot of implied fem jeop. (See also some of the exploitation movie scripts written by Clemens.) Oh well – the characters are emancipated even if the scripts sometimes aren’t. This episode is a bit of a curiosity, let down by a weak climax, but a good showcase for Diana Rigg’s monumental talent.

I’m the not the greatest scholar when it come to the production of The Avengers (not compared to some other shows, anyway), but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Martin Woodhouse’s A Sense of History was an unproduced script from season three (maybe even season two) given a light polish and then pressed into service to fill a gap in the schedule here (even Brian Clemens may have demurred at writing four scripts in a row, although the annals of TV history do record heroic figures who have achieved far greater feats – Terry Nation wrote the first fourteen Blake’s 7s, while Joe Straczynski wrote fifty-seven episodes of Babylon 5 in a row (and seventy of the last seventy-one). It certainly feels like a video-taped episode in some ways: limited in scope, with subplots amongst the guest characters, while Steed seems to have reverted to being a much harder and more ruthless man than he’s been in a while (cheerfully talking about breaking someone’s arm to make a point) – Emma is written much ‘straighter’ than usual, too.

The episode opens with a distinguished economist, noted for his plan to create a modern-day utopia by combining all the economies of Europe for the good of all (strange to realise it was once possible to suggest such notions in the UK without being denounced as a traitor or a fantasist), being ambushed by a group of students apparently intent on a rag week prank – but the prank turns deadly and the man is left with an arrow in him.

Steed and Mrs Peel are soon on the case, accompanied by the victim’s assistant, Richard Carlyon (the name is a fairly obvious pun, tying in with the episode’s Robin Hood motif) – Carlyon is played by Nigel Stock, a capable character actor perhaps best known for his association with various Sherlock Holmes adaptations, but also the gentleman recruited to fill in as protagonist of The Prisoner when Patrick McGoohan was unavailable for one episode. The only clue is that the dead man was on his way to one of the grand old universities, where he was due to meet with someone holding entirely different opinions, who had good reason not to wish him well.

So it’s off to St. Stock Footage University for most of the rest of the episode (the name of the institution differs depends on whether it’s written or spoken, presumably because after they filmed the episode they found out there really was a St Bede’s, forcing a hasty overdub as St. Bode’s in post-production). Emma is a visiting lecturer, Steed is a former graduate doing some research into newts (naturally), the faculty are musty and eccentric and the students are revolting (most prominent amongst them are Patrick Mower – latterly an Emmerdale stalwart, but previously a decent juvenile lead and purveyor of various hard-man types in shows like Target – and Jacqueline Pearce, still playing the kind of fragile-victim role she always seemed stuck with until she cut her hair and became Supreme Commander of the universe in Blake’s 7).

A lot of the episodes from this series are beginning to acquire a sort of swinging-sixties vibe, but this one feels more like the fifties, mainly due to the depiction of the students – ties and gowns and very coffee-bar radical. Most of the plot revolves around trying to find out who wrote a rather concerning political thesis found amongst the victim’s effects, which doesn’t make for the most fully-developed episode, although the identity of this week’s diabolical mastermind is unusually difficult to guess – Steed and Mrs Peel have three goes before finally bagging the right person. Most of the episode isn’t especially memorable, though, but it does score strongly for the final act, set during a Robin Hood-themed fancy dress party (various gags about Steed’s droopy sword, while Mrs Peel looks devastating in her costume, maybe even more so than in the famous one from A Touch of Brimstone). Some consolations here, but slightly below-standard in many ways.

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As I have mentioned before, as we get towards the close of The Avengers‘ fourth season, there is perhaps the faintest sense of things becoming a tiny bit formulaic – but with a formula as good as this one, where’s the problem? Roger Marshall’s The Danger Makers opens with a lone motorcyclist doing dangerous high-speed runs across a rural junction (apparently this was known as ‘chicken-running’). Soon enough the inevitable happens, and he bounces his bike off the side of a lorry, bringing his biker career to a permanent halt. But rather than someone young and foolish, the dead rider turns out to be a distinguished, white-haired army general, wearing a black rose on his uniform…

And not the first senior military figure to die or be seriously injured in unusual circumstances recently – or so Steed tells Mrs Peel. There seems to have been quite a crop of them doing insanely hazardous things – chicken-running, climbing St Paul’s Cathedral, crossing the Atlantic in a canoe, and so on. What on earth is going on? Steed’s investigations take him to the most recent victim’s posting, where he meets his colleague Major Robertson (Nigel Davenport), who speaks in glowing terms of the dead man. So do the junior officers, but they also report the general was prone to doing odd things – swimming the local reservoir in full battle-dress, for instance.

We the audience are already aware that Robertson has some odd personal habits – playing Russian roulette by himself, likewise playing chicken with live grenades – so it is not really a surprise when he receives orders (unofficially) to silence one of the few survivors of these acts of military eccentricity. This he does – leaving the four white feathers of cowardice on the body…

Steed receives a clue from a soon-to-be-killed minor character (there’s that formula again) that leads him to Manton House, a military museum (run by a sort of low-key version of the crazed innocent stock character, played by Fabia Drake this week) and home to the Danger Makers, a society of black-rose-wearing military types longing to place themselves in mortal jeopardy (they are quite disgusted by the push-button nature of modern warfare), all with Roman and Greek-type codenames (Mercury, Pegasus, Apollo, etc). On infiltrating the group Steed assigns himself the nickname Bacchus (presumably from his aspect as god of wine rather than religious ecstasy). ‘I might have guessed,’ says Emma, on hearing of this. But who is the mastermind behind the Danger Makers and what’s he up to?

Nothing especially distinguished about the first half, but the home straight of the episode is filled with cracking scenes – Emma tries to join the club, and has to play a version of one of those wire loop games, but on a massive scale, and with lethal voltage running through the wires. There’s another big sword fight between our heroes and the club members – everyone grabbing weapons off the walls, and of course Steed ends up with a feather duster. Best of all is what I think is one of the definitive Steed scenes, in which he starts off hand-cuffed to the wall and awaiting his executioner. Just how he persuades Robertson to uncuff him and hand over his gun I will not reveal (go and watch the episode), but it is brillantly written and performed by Macnee and Davenport and very, very funny. The revelation of the identity of this week’s diabolical mastermind is hardly a surprise (there’s only really one candidate) but this hardly spoils another very entertaining episode.

Next up is Brian Clemens’ A Touch of Brimstone, which I find I have already reviewed at length, upon the occasion of its writer’s passing in 2015. Like The Danger Makers, it features a secret society, someone taking a fancy to Mrs Peel, and a rousing climax with Steed getting a great character moment and a big sword-fight: but the overall impression is quite different, mainly due to the highly kinky atmosphere the episode generates. Looking back I see that past-me was pretty much on the ball, although he didn’t clock the unusually dominant role given to the villain, who comes across almost a malevolent anti-Steed. Nevertheless an iconic and justly famous episode.

Clemens turns in two on the trot with What the Butler Saw, which makes up for the lack of mystery in the previous episode by having a diabolical mastermind whose identity is almost impossible to guess (largely because it doesn’t make a great deal of sense). After a hook scene with said (unseen) mastermind listening to a complaint from an unhappy underling, then summoning his own butler (who brings a gun to dispose of the malcontent), the episode opens with Steed getting a tip-off that someone is selling secrets to the Other Side – naturally, his source is bumped off seconds later.

The three possible candidates are an admiral, a brigadier and a group-captain, which is the cue for one of the most absurd sequences in the whole of The Avengers, as Steed adopts a different identity to check up on each one. It’s largely the same scene played out three times, except for variation’s in Steed’s cover, as he visits the admiral (Steed is Commander Red, with an impressive beard, arriving by motor launch), the brigadier (Major White, pencil moustache, arriving by armoured car) and the group-captain (Squadron-Leader Blue, handlebar moustache, arriving by helicopter). It seems the admiral likes to gamble, the brigadier likes to drink, and the group-captain likes girls. I leave it to the attentive reader to guess which of the suspects he asks Mrs Peel to get closer to.

Meanwhile, Steed has noticed that two of the possible traitors have butlers who came from the same place – a school for butlers and gentlemens’ gentlemen (motto: ‘They also serve who also stand and wait’), mostly run by Thorley Walters (a fine and very watchable actor, not much remembered these days) – an odd coincidence is that as well as Walters (who played one of Dracula’s thralls in Dracula: Prince of Darkness), the cast also contains Ewan Hooper (who played Dracula’s thrall in Dracula Has Risen From The Grave). It’s a small (or possibly thrall) world sometimes.

There is indeed a sliver of plot buried here somewhere about secrets being stolen and sold on, but this is the most blatant Maguffin: the episode is almost a pure comedy, and not a particularly black one, either. From Steed’s facial hair and silly disguises, we move on to Mrs Peel’s unorthodox manner of attracting her target’s attention, and the highlight of the episode follows, as she has to contend with the over-amorous gentleman (a fun performance by Denis Quilley) with Steed in the vicinity as his new butler. This is before we even get to the scene depicting security arrangements for the three suspects’ secret meetings (they climb into a plastic sack together) or Steed battling (or possibly butling) with an enemy domestic played by John le Mesurier. All the jokes land, but the action sequences are decent too, and the results are almost wholly joyous.

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The Thirteenth Hole is one of the episodes I have particularly strong memories of from the mid-80s Channel 4 repeat, which I think is probably because it has a very distinctive setting with some strong gags arising out of it. Watching it now, there is a deeply ironic subtext to the whole thing, too, which just adds to the fun of the piece. And I don’t even like golf. (Tony Williamson is the writer who deserves plaudits.)

It opens with slab-faced alpha-male Patrick Allen out and about on the golf-course with his caddy, brusquely calling for clubs as he needs them. When he spies someone poking about on one of the greens, he stops asking for three and four irons and calls for a three-oh-three – rifle, that is, which the caddy promptly whips out of his golf bag. The interloper is duly plugged, within putting distance of the thirteenth hole (cue title card).

It inevitably turns out that the dead man was a colleague of Steed’s, working on routine security issues. The only oddities amongst his personal effects is a receipt for a lot of recently-purchased golf gear and some course cards – although it seems like he never played past the twelfth hole…

In a naturalistic series, Steed and Mrs Peel’s biggest challenge would probably be being allowed to join the golf club, but here of course they get membership off-screen with no trouble at all. In the clubhouse, they meet the predictable array of eccentrics – the president, the captain, the pro (Francis Matthews, a year or two before he became Captain Scarlet) – and also note that Allen’s character, Reed, is hanging around with noted boffin Dr Adams (Peter Jones). Reed and Adams are demons for teeing off exactly on schedule, but mysteriously disappear between the twelfth and fourteenth fairways (can you tell I’m working hard to avoid repeating the episode title too many times?). Lots of peculiar things are going on, and when the pro makes his own investigation, he gets shot in the head with a supersonic golf ball (ouch).

In the middle of the episode there’s a great sequence where, in order to keep to his schedule, Reed must defeat Steed on the greens, which leads to a bravura display of cheating from both participants, not to mention a chance to see Steed’s magnificent tee routine (which involves a small portable weather station and a sextant). When the bad guys are forced to take desperate measures, it’s only Steed’s lucky chain-mail-lined golf hat which saves the day.

It all turns out to be about an attempt to transmit secrets to the Other Side via a new communications satellite which occasionally passes over the UK (hence the precision scheduling), with the villains operating from their own bunker – which, in a terrible pun that’s presented with wholly commendable verve, is hidden in a bunker. As I say, it seems to me that there is the implicit gag that, of all the English institutions likely to be harbouring communist sympathisers, the average golf club would be absolutely bottom of the list (the joke when General Pinochet was held under house arrest near London for a while back in the 1990s was that he wasn’t allowed to join the local club due to his unacceptably liberal attitudes). This works as a spy story, but is also a preposterous and very funny comedy. One of my favourites, I think.

Virtually the only thing I can remember of my original encounter with Robert Banks Stewart’s Quick-Quick Slow Death is a sliver of the climactic sequence and the line ‘You’re dancing with garlic sausage,’ which is pretty outre even by Avengers standards. It opens with a chap pushing a pram down a busy high street – various members of the public appear, a bit unusual for a filmed Avengers sequence – before there is an accident: he is injured, and the contents of the pram go flying: it seems he has been nursemaiding a corpse in full evening dress.

The injured man turns out to be an agent for the Other Side, specialising in establishing new agents when they first arrive in England. But who is the corpse? There is perhaps just a little bit too much faffing about with false addresses, banks, suit hire agencies and tattooists before the trail leads to a ballroom dancing school, run by Eunice Gayson, who I think wins the prize for being ‘First Person Mentioned in an Avengers Review Who I’ve Actually Met’. Thirty-seven or so years after this episode was made, I met Ms Gayson at one of those big memorabilia events, where she was doing a solid trade based on her undisputed status as First Bond Girl Ever (not to mention first Bond girl to do two movies). Playing Sylvia Trench in Dr No and From Russia With Love was fairly thin stuff, but she gives a fine and entirely correctly-pitched performance as one of the main villains here.

This is another episode with a cherishably absurd premise: the Other Side are sneaking agents into the UK and substituting them for British citizens – not British citizens who might have positions which could be useful in the great game of international espionage, just single men who are bad dancers. Needless to say Mrs Peel joins the school as a dance instructor and Steed rocks up as a just-back-in-the-country gentleman looking to brush up on his terpsichorean technique: he was married, he claims, but his beloved was eaten by a crocodile on a trip up the Amazon. Naturally, Steed finds himself on the list to be substituted…

All highly enjoyable stuff, with wonderfully understated physical comedy from the two leads, especially in the climax. Diana Rigg in particular is on top form, inserting throwaway little looks and bits of business every chance she gets. This is, obviously, one of those episodes which brings a new meaning to the notion of fight choreography (the tussle between Diana Rigg and Eunice Gayson is a little on the brief side), but it’s another inventive episode from what we have to conclude is The Avengers‘ imperial phase – even if the usual tag with the duo departing via some unlikely mode of transport is replaced by them dancing off together. But this too seems entirely appropriate.

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Philip Levene’s Small Game for Big Hunters has the feeling of being the product of a finely-tuned machine operating at peak efficiency, even if assiduous viewers may be at the point where they can sort of anticipate the various story beats as they come. This one manages to incorporate all the Avengers silliness one might hope for, while also sort-of addressing some topical sixties concerns (this also leads to this being another of those episodes which could be perceived as a touch problematic for a modern audience).

It opens with a man in ragged tropical kit staggering through swamps and undergrowth, clearly on the edge of exhaustion: drums pound ominously as he stumbles past trees decorated with human skulls. Just as it seems he has made his escape, an arrow takes him in the back… and the camera pans off his prone body to a road marker with the legend ‘London – 23 Miles’. It’s the kind of studied piece of weird juxtaposition that the show is making regular use of at this point.

Well, cut to Emma arriving at a house in the countryside, where Steed and the local doctor are tending to the wounded man. Something is up with him: he has lapsed into a kind of coma or deep sleep, from which he cannot be roused. Apparently a group of local men have all vanished recently, and this is the only one to reappear. A local expert named Professor Swain (Liam Redmond) is called in, who diagnoses that the man is under the influence of a kind of magic similar to voodoo, native to the African nation of Kalaya (which has declared independence from the British Empire fairly recently). Clearly not realising she is in a Philip Levene script, where just about anything could happen, Mrs Peel is a bit dubious about this.

Well, Steed has gone to the maker of the man’s tropical gear and learns that it was sent to Kalaya – but in 1929 (exemplary record-keepers, these tropical-kit makers). It also turns out that all the missing men are ex-servicemen who spent part of their careers in Kalaya, and the club for veterans of colonial service in Kalaya is just at the far end of the garden. Add an attempt to swipe Steed’s files on the subject by what looks like a native tribesman and it looks like a pattern is beginning to develop.

Following the previous week’s communist-prison-camp-inside-a-London-hotel, the discovery of a Kalayan officer’s club and plantation on the outskirts of the city barely raises an eyebrow, and neither does the presence of this week’s exponent of the ‘crazed innocent’ stock character – in this case, a veteran soldier played by Bill Kerr, who still thinks he’s in Africa. It turns out a lot of the Kalayan old hands feel they were unfairly driven out of the country following independence, and are planning to return and reassert their old authority, with the help of specially-bred tsetse flies spreading a new strain of sleeping sickness…

One of the odder expressions of Britain’s post-imperial angst, yes, but on its own merits this is another fairly typical episode for this period (which is to say it’s consistently enjoyable) – plus the climax features Mrs Peel in a sarong. There’s also a cheeky parody of Dr No at one point – ‘That’s a Mauser single-barrel, and you’ve had your five,’ declares Steed, contending with a villain who’s been blazing away at him. (Connery has a virtually identical line in the Bond film.) Naturally, the weapon goes off again: ‘Oh, my arithmetic is shocking!’ beams Steed. (There’s a fairly excruciating Tarzan gag, too, complete with ‘Me Steed!’ ‘Me Emma!’)

On the other hand, of course, there is inevitably something a bit awkward about all the jungle-drumming  and the use of spear-carrying ‘native tribesmen’ as henchmen. Even the fact that this is one of those rare Avengers episodes to give a significant role to a non-European performer (Paul Danquah plays a member of the Kalayan intelligence service, working the case from the other end) is unlikely to assuage anyone who gets nervous about this sort of thing. In the end, it is what it is: the imperialists and colonialists are the bad guys, and there’s never the faintest suggestion to the contrary. Everything else I can live with, personally.

Roger Marshall’s The Girl from Auntie (opinion seems to be split as to whether the last word should be capitalised; I see no reason why it should) sounds like a spoof of a certain other light-hearted sixties spy series (maybe even two) but it isn’t, really. Given the cast list you might be forgiven for expecting something particularly light-hearted, and you might be satisfied (although the episode does feature a fairly spectacular body-count).

It opens with Mrs Peel leaving a fancy dress ball (her outfit is memorable, to say the least) and coming to the aid of a sweet little old lady who takes a tumble off her bike; she is understandably surprised when the old dear drugs her into unconsciousness. Cut to Steed coming back off holiday and taking a taxi from the airport; Lord knows what his luggage allowance is like as the cab is stuffed to overflowing with canoe paddles, butterfly nets, golf clubs, and so on… the running gag is that the taxi driver basically has to chauffeur Steed around for most of the episode, and passes the time by playing with his luggage. What’s Steed so preoccupied with? Well, he arrives at Mrs Peel’s flat, only to find Emma is not herself: she is, in fact, a different woman entirely now (played by Liz Fraser, a semi-regular in the early Carry On films, with her usual comic skill). The impostor is an actress named Georgie Price-Jones, who’s been hired to give the impression Mrs Peel has not, in fact, vanished.

Steed tries to get to the bottom of this, but finds only a pile of corpses, all impaled with knitting needles (half a dozen of them, in fact – ‘Six bodies in an hour and twenty minutes. What do you call that?’ says Steed. ‘A good first act,’ replies Georgie, rather knowingly). The trail leads to Arkwright’s Knitting Circle, where a sort of crazed innocent (played by Bernard Cribbins, another Carry On semi-regular around this time) has become a yarn-based lifestyle guru. Just down the hall is a very exclusive and discreet agency, run by one Gregorie Auntie (Alfred Burke), which specialises in acquiring beautiful and unique objects, no questions asked, as long as the price is right…

Yes, Auntie has bagged Mrs Peel and is keeping her in a giant birdcage ahead of her being auctioned off (the keen interest in her is due to her massive intellect and knowledge of cyphers, apparently – friends, elevate your thinking). As you can see, the episode really doesn’t have much to do with The Man from UNCLE and is basically just a rather broad and preposterous comedy, obviously structured to give Diana Rigg some time off mid-season (she only really appears at the very beginning and end, and briefly at that). You would have thought the episode might flounder a bit without the presence of the future dame, but it has a good cast and many engagingly daft scenes: Steed goes undercover as one ‘Wayne Pennyfeather-ffinch’ to infiltrate Auntie’s operation, persuading the National Gallery to lend him a priceless masterpiece for verisimilitude’s sake, while there’s a ludicrous sequence in which Georgie fends off Auntie’s geriatric assassin, referring to one of Emma’s self-defence manuals throughout the fight. To cap it all, it’s strongly implied that Steed busts the actual Mona Lisa over Auntie’s head during the obligatory final tussling. Very entertaining throughout, and a good example of how to do one of these ‘regular cast member on leave’ episodes.

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Tony Williamson’s Too Many Christmas Trees is another very popular episode (or so I understand) which once again feels like it’s pushing the format of the series. It was The Avengers‘ Christmas episode for December 1965, which may explain the Dickensian elements deftly inserted into the script, as well as the titular arboreal growths.

Steed is troubled by restless nights (and little wonder, you might think) – recurring nightmares featuring a malevolent Father Christmas and the death of a long-standing colleague. When he tells Mrs Peel about this, she suggests the explanation is quite simple (she is an expert in psychoanalysis this week) – the colleague is under suspicion for leaking secrets and Steed has been tasked with ending the leak. Subconsciously he wishes the man were dead so he will be spared this disagreeable task. Steed is somewhat reassured, until he learns his colleague really has pegged it – are his nightmares precognitive on top of everything else?

Well, to take his mind off things, Emma drags Steed along to a Christmas houseparty at the home of a renowned Dickens-loving eccentric (Mervyn Johns). Unfortunately, both of them are unwittingly being manipulated, by a cabal of psychics who are controlling Steed’s dreams (and somewhat influencing his waking moments too). Can Mrs Peel figure out what’s happening before Steed’s sanity goes completely to bits?

All this, and an in-joke about Goldfinger, too (Steed gets a post-card from Mrs Gale, posted from Fort Knox). Apparently this was a favourite of Patrick Macnee’s, as well, which doesn’t really surprise me given the actor’s keenness to include more paranormal and supernatural elements in the series. I suppose that pitting our heroes against no-two-ways-about-it actual telepaths isn’t quite as out there as man-eating alien plants, but it still feels like a step over some sort of line; I just wish I knew what that line was.

Nevertheless, a fun and solid episode with some nicely-realised dream sequences and some lovely dialogue between our heroes, not to mention the stirring sight of Diana Rigg in her Oliver Twist costume. The episode’s Christmassiness is basically limited to the Dickensian elements – though I suppose the story has a sort of seasonal spookiness to it, as well. (It occurs to me that even a show like Bergerac did a full-on ghost story at Christmas one year, and I didn’t have a problem with that, so why do I have an issue with The Avengers occasionally doing genuine sci-fi or paranormal fantasy? Hmmm.) Apparently there’s a lift from The Lady from Shanghai in there somewhere too. A rich blend here, whichever way you look at it.

Roger Marshall’s Silent Dust is a very odd mixture of the deadly serious and the highly whimsical – the opening sequence shows the English countryside at its loveliest, an idyll which is abruptly punctured when the birds literally start dropping dead out of the sky. (Which, if nothing else, shows that the similarity of the episode title to that of Rachel Carson’s epochal ecological book Silent Spring is entirely intentional.) Steed and Mrs Peel appear on the scene (by punt, naturally), to investigate the sudden disappearance of our feathered friends. You would have thought this might be rather out of Steed’s line, but for the fact that something very similar has happened before.

Steed visits the site, a whole area rendered a barren wasteland by a fertiliser which went horribly wrong – a substance codenamed ‘silent dust’. Could it be that someone has got their hands on the formula for silent dust and is planning on employing it for nefarious purposes?

Well, yes, of course it could. The actual plot is fairly pedestrian stuff (or perhaps that should be equestrian, given the amount of riding going on), but the episode is memorable for the strange way it is pitched between very serious elements (ecological terrorism, Steed being shot and passing out from the pain) and equally whimsical ones (Steed has a bizarre wild west-style hallucination when Emma takes out the buckshot, while the whole climax is a uproarious hunting-themed sequence – Steed defeats one bad guy by belting him over the head with a ‘Stop the Violence’ placard taken from a hunt saboteur).  Nevertheless, the result is an episode with a rather distinct and not disagreeable flavour and some nice performances amongst the supporting cast.

Marshall also writes Room Without a View, which I am tempted to say is where I came in: back in around 1985, the newest commercial channel in the UK had hit upon the wheeze of building audiences by showing classic TV shows around tea-time – The Munsters, Danger Man, and – of course – The Avengers, a show which I was probably vaguely aware of at best. And this was the first episode I saw, although my memory of that first viewing is obviously somewhat confused (what I recall as being the hook scene actually comes about halfway through).

The actual hook has a young woman (Jeanne Roland, uncredited for some reason) hosting a dinner party – which is unexpectedly crashed by her husband, who disappeared over a year ago! It seems he is a top boffin, but he is in a terrible physical and mental state and cannot look at his (Asian) wife without being moved to violence. Assessment indicates he has spent the intervening time in a prison camp somewhere in communist China. Before Steed and Mrs Peel can get much more out of him, he disappears again, kidnapped – it would seem – by the local Chinese laundry.

More than one top scientist has disappeared recently and so Steed decides to keep an eye on another one due to be travelling abroad – by a weird coincidence, he’s staying in the same hotel as the one the brainwashed boffin checked into before he vanished! What are the chances? Sure enough, the man who checks out is not the one who checks in… but how does all of this connect with a brutal Chinese prison camp?

Well, I have to say that after a number of episodes dealing with gimmicks like killer alien plants and telepathy, it’s nice to be back in the realm of something traditional and down to earth like a Communist interrogation facility hidden inside a luxury hotel. (The episode pulls the same kind of psychogeographic stunt as The Ipcress File, the Colony Three episode of Danger Man, and, I suppose, virtually all of The Prisoner, suggesting that what really matters is the country you think you’re in.) The rest of the plotting isn’t quite as strong as the premise, but there are some lovely scenes as Steed infiltrates the hotel in the guise of a renowned epicurean. On the other hand, it’s really lacking a strong villain, and it’s not like it’s short of candidates – Philip Latham, Peter Jeffrey, Peter Arne, and Paul Whitsun-Jones all appear in supporting roles, but the actual bad guy is more comic than genuinely threatening. The vagaries of the production schedule tripped up the episode ever-so-slightly on first broadcast – one character states the year is 1965, when it was first shown at the beginning of January 1966. Nevertheless, a solid mid-table entry.

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Roger Marshall delivers his second script in a row with Dial a Deadly Number, which manages to blow its main gimmick before the end of its hook scene (the title itself is a dead giveaway). A top company director, who, it is made very clear, has just started carrying a pocket pager (younger readers, ask your grandparents), is struck down in mid-board meeting. It turns out he is just the latest in a long line of suspicious deaths in the world of high finance, and all the dead men shared the same banker…

Yes, so we’re off into the world of banking and stockbroking this week (a world which seems to subsist entirely on sherry, biscuits and vintage wine), with Peter Bowles and John Carson coming back as villains (I really don’t mean to go on about this, but it isn’t just that Bowles and Carson previously appeared in the videotaped incarnation of the show – more than once, in Carson’s case – they were both in the same episode). The main gag of the episode – killer pagers – is hardly a mystery to the viewer, and so it gets its mileage from a convoluted plot (perhaps a bit too convoluted) with possibly the odd hole in it and perhaps a slightly harder edge than usual – Steel is at his steeliest, even apparently carrying a gun, and Carson is playing a genuinely nasty psychopath. This is also that very rare beast, a filmed Avengers episode with occasionally clumsy direction – for instance, a jarring moment where the line is crossed (film school jargon for a particular kind of lapse in visual continuity) during Steed and Emma’s first scene together.

Still, the show is on such a roll at this point that even an episode which isn’t quite firing on all cylinders is still pretty good stuff, and there are still some very nice moments here – most of them set in and around the wine cellar which just happens to be underneath the bad guys’ merchant bank offices. Slightly fluffed but by no means spoiled, I think.

I’ve never quite been able to warm up to Man-Eater of Surrey Green, written by Philip Levene, simply because it’s an outlier in the way that no other episode really is (well, maybe Warlock sort of qualifies). Levene introduced full-blooded sci-fi to the Avengers formula in The Cybernauts, very successfully; perhaps this is an attempt to do something similar.

The episode opens with some young horticulturists in love, stealing moments in the greenhouse – but then she comes over all funny, clearly under a peculiar influence, and marches off to climb into a sinister passing Rolls. It turns out she is a friend of Mrs Peel’s, not that it matters much: Steed and Emma’s interest in her disappearance stems from the fact that all manner of horticultural boffins are droppig out of sight, and even the country’s leading expert in the field, Sir Lyle Peterson (Derek Farr), is keeping a low profile. Steed does the usual sniffing about and extracts from Peterson the confession that he has all the missing experts on his estate, working on a new ‘flowering shrub’. Hmmm.

Investigations lead Steel and Mrs Peel to an abandoned farm, where they discover a crashed spaceship (no, really), a failed product of the British space programme (one assumes), brought back down to earth after colliding with something in orbit. But what? It turns out to be a giant seed, like that of a dandelion. Emma suggests it may have originated amongst the belts of vegetation known to exist on the Moon and Mars. (Er… what?) They bring in their own botanist (Athene Seyler), who reveals that the plant a) has a brain and b) would be dependent on human flesh for sustenance, were it to germinate.

Yes, you’ve guessed it: there’s another seed, which Peterson and his team are working to get to sprout. Why would any sane person do such a thing? Well, the man-eating alien plant has psychic powers of mind control, to which only people wearing hearing-aids are immune. (Well, maybe you didn’t guess all of this.) It’s up to Steed and Emma to get their hands on some nice strong herbicide and save the human race!

I suppose you could argue that this is all intended as a spoof of B-movie sci-fi, but it’s not a particularly funny episode – in places it’s actually quite grim (fun trivia: this is apparently the only episode other than the very first one from 1961 in which a woman dies (eaten by the plant)) – could it be that this is a speculative attempt to see if The Avengers can work as even more of a sci-fi show, with alien invasions and psychic powers? I don’t know, but for me it doesn’t quite work. (Though the fact that a well-known BBC fantasy show did an eerily similar story about ten years later, and makes an unqualified success of it, may colour my thinking.)

I mean, it’s not flat-out bad in its execution, though the thrashing tentacles leave a bit to be desired, and the episode gives us a rare instance of Steed and his partner taking each other on in earnest (once again, this is less successful than it could be). The thing is, and I do realise this may just be my own prejudice, that the problem’s in the premise: alien invasions just aren’t the stuff of The Avengers.

Moving on, we find ourselves watching Two’s A Crowd, another Levene episode and one which likewise stretches the format, albeit not quite so jarringly. It opens with a gag where Russian Ambassador Brodny (Warren Mitchell’s third appearance in two seasons, essentially reprising his role as a senior Other Side figure from The Charmers) finds himself being dive-bombed – the punchline being that it’s a model plane dropping a message inside a very tiny bomb.

A legendary and enigmatic operative for the Other Side, known only as Colonel Psev, is apparently in London and Steed and his people are understandably keen to find out about him. It seems Psev is in town to attempt to infiltrate an important top-secret conference, which Steed is naturally involved in the security for. It seems the Other Side may have an opening, as Brodny discovers a double of Steed while attending a fashion show – a rather dissolute male model. If they can manage to substitute their man for the real Steed, the conference will be at their mercy…

Not the first nor the last Avengers episode to deal with the topic of doubles, but certainly one of the most comedic: Patrick Macnee’s performance during the fashion show sequence alone is arch almost beyond description. On the other hand, this is quite broad comedy and doesn’t really distract from the fact that the twist ending of this particular plotline is the kind of thing you can see coming (the reveal of Psev’s true identity is slightly more surprising, but it doesn’t really feel like it matters much). If you like the show going pedal-to-the-metal with its comedy elements then you’ll probably enjoy this episode more than I did.

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No other filmed episode, perhaps, comes quite as close to the feel of a Cathy Gale story as The Murder Market. If so, the reason is not surprising: it was the first one made by the new team, after the sacking of Beth Shepherd and the arrival of Diana Rigg. (Patrick Macnee recalls in one of his autobiographies learning of Shepherd’s departure while doing the location filming for this episode.)

I was watching Thunderball again not long ago and was mildly amused by the fact that so many of the supporting cast had Avengers credits to their name from around the same period: Paul Stassino is in there, Lois Maxwell of course, Philip Locke, and also Edward Underdown, one of those very solid character actors who appears (briefly) at the start of the episode: he plays a man who turns up for a blind date at an aquarium, only to be gunned down by his assignation when she arrives (bad news for the fish tanks).

It turns out this is only the latest in a string of unsolved murders, almost all of single men, and (spoiler alert) Steed and Mrs Peel are on the case. Their investigations eventually lead them to the Togetherness Marriage Bureau, run by a Mr Lovejoy (a fine performance by Patrick Cargill). Cue Steed going undercover as an upper-class layabout and some cherishable scenes as he is interviewed about his situation and preferences. Macnee looks rightly outraged when Lovejoy enquires what he does for a living. ‘Work?!? I worked at working for a while, but it didn’t work out,’ he responds. Emma, meanwhile, is of the opinion that any agency trying to find the ideal partner for Steed has their work cut out for them: ‘a cross between Lucrezia Borgia and Joan of Arc,’ is her suggestion as to who’d be qualified.

It all turns out to be yet another assassination racket, this one more or less along the lines of the one in Strangers on a Train (people swap murders with other, as orchestrated by the marriage bureau: fairly standard stuff, at this point, with the usual style and whimsy. What does make it stand out (and is maybe a bit of a giveaway) is the fact there is some genuine tension between Steed and Mrs Peel (she accuses him of callousness and seems sincerely angry with him), which would have been routine in a videotaped episode but is striking here.

On the other hand, there is much more comedy here than you would routinely find between Steed and Cathy: one of the standard scenes where they update each other on the case (basically just exposition) sees Steed practising golf chip shots around the flat, while Emma reclines elegantly on the sofa playing Wagner on the tuba (the golf ball inevitably ends up clogging her pipework). Later on she is obliged to hide out, supposedly dead, and we find her passing the time by swigging champagne and practising ballet poses.

Given this is essentially the first episode made by this team, there is something very nearly miraculous about how polished, stylish and entertaining it all is: there’s a long, silent sequence near the end (another mock funeral), but thanks to the skill of the director and Laurie Johnson’s music, it’s as much a joy to watch as the rest of it. This is The Avengers at or near its peak.

The name on the credits of A Surfeit of H2O is that of Colin Finbow but to the seasoned viewer it is hard not to suspect this is in fact another pseudonym for Brian Clemens, because the episode certainly feels like one of his: tongue-in-cheek to the point of feeling like a spoof, filled with ridiculously eccentric characters, and predicated on a very particular type of English whimsy: in this case, an obsession with the weather. (Apparently Finbow is a real person, but one with only a tiny handful of screenwriting credits to his name: he’s much better known for running the acclaimed Children’s Film Unit for decades.)

The episode opens with some unclement conditions: such torrential rain, in fact, that it drowns a man caught outside in it. Not much there to justify calling in someone like Steed, but apparently someone in the neighbourhood has been writing letters to the Times warning of a looming flood and building his own ark as a precautionary measure.

Steed and Mrs Peel are soon on the case (Steed appears to be dressing as Beau Brummel this week, an outrageous affection even by his standards). Clues, not the least of them a raincloud which seems to be permanently in the same position in the area, lead Steed to suspect that for all their rustic earnestness, the yokels worrying about a flood may have a point, and it may be connected with the local wine factory. Adopting the guise of a wine merchant from the unlikely firm of Steed, Steed, Steed, Steed & Jacques, he starts noseying about there, discovering a surprising amount of wet-weather gear in stock. Meanwhile, Mrs Peel finds that the field where the man drowned has an impossibly high humidity level…

Well, it all turns out to be about another mad scientist who is developing weather control technology for military application (and has some relatively sensible ideas about how important this could be), but the pleasure of the episode is, as ever, in the incidental bits and pieces: Steed enjoying himself hugely as a wine merchant, Emma’s typical sang-froid when the villain puts her in a hydraulic wine press to try and squeeze information out of her (‘You diabolical mastermind, you,’ is her deadpan response). Geoffrey Palmer plays an assistant villain and gets rather less to do than in his Honor Blackman episode, back near the start of season 2, but you can’t have it all. A fun episode well up to the series’ high standards at this point.

The origins of Roger Marshall’s The Hour That Never Was are a little unusual but fairly well-known: during the scouting for Town of No Return, Marshall and Brian Clemens were so taken with the location for the abandoned airfield that they came up with the premise and plot for a whole other episode set entirely there – and this is it. (Apparently it seems that the series’ paymasters may have required them to film it somewhere else, though: it’s a funny old world sometimes.)

The episode itself is somewhat unorthodox, as it sees Steed and Mrs Peel stumble into a hostile operation in progress quite by accident. An airfield where Steed was posted for part of his increasingly baffling service during the Second World War is due to be decommissioned and the duo have been invited down for the closing shindig (even though he’s technically off duty, Steed is still in full  Ralph Richardson rig). However, less than a mile from the base, they’re involved in a minor road accident and have to walk the rest of the way.

They find the base itself all set for the party, but in all other respects almost completely deserted. About half the episode is the two of them wandering around, exploring the place, occasionally finding a mysterious clue, with Steed keeping up his usual patter. In the end Mrs Peel vanishes and Steed gets bopped on the head, only to wake up back at the car, as if everything since the accident has not happened – only now, the personnel  of the base have reappeared, but Mrs Peel is still missing…

It’s a memorable episode, certainly, with some familiar faces amongst the guest cast (Gerald Harper and Roy Kinnear make their first appearances in the filmed show). However, I think the fact that the concept came first really shows, and I’m not sure the plot entirely holds together. However, points are recouped for the concluding fight, which features (amongst other pleasures) a tussle in a room full of laughing gas. Not quite top bracket but still fun.

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