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Posts Tagged ‘The Decapod’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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