Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘The Eagle’s Nest’

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

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

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

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

returncybernauts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

eagle

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

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

Read Full Post »