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Posts Tagged ‘The Undertakers’

The third season of The Avengers begins with the appearance of a name which was notably absent throughout the credits of the second: that of Brian Clemens, undoubtedly the most significant behind-the-camera contributor to the series (not to mention The New Avengers, for which he wrote over half the scripts). Clemens wrote a couple of episodes of the first series (though not, as is sometimes stated, the very first), but this marks the beginning of his regular association with the show, as we will hopefully see.

This adds to the sense the opening episodes of the series give: that The Avengers has suddenly become much slicker, quirkier, and more confident. (I understand some behind-the-scenes changes in terms of how the episodes were actually recorded – no longer quite as-live – may have had something to do with this.) Clemens’ first contribution of the season is Brief for Murder, which is lots of fun even if it doesn’t entirely seem to hold together.

A man is on trial as a noted traitor to his country, but the prosecution is failing, mainly due to a brilliant defence exploiting every legal loophole in the annals of British justice. Key is the prosecution’s failure to produce the man’s alleged contact – the mysterious ‘Johnno’, a well-dressed, well-spoken man-about-town in a position of trust. (Switched-on viewers may be able to anticipate what this is leading up to.)

Well, the man is acquitted, to the chagrin of all right-minded folk, especially Mrs Gale. Steed, however, seems to be great pals with the traitor, who – you guessed it – calls him ‘Johnno’. Mrs Gale expresses her disgust to Steed and goes so far as to suggest Steed himself is a traitor and working for the Other Side. Steed is outraged, and threatens to start proceedings against her.

He ends up going to the same solicitors who handled the treason trial, Jasper and Miles Lakin (played with possibly a bit too much relish by John Laurie and Harold Scott), who are as a corrupt a pair of crooks as you could imagine: in return for a substantial fee, they help would-be criminals to plan and execute whatever nefarious scheme they have in mind, all with an eye to their being able to present an impenetrable defence when and if it comes to court. This suits Steed, who has it in mind to kill Mrs Gale…

Two diabolical masterminds, yesterday.

Yes, it’s all a scheme to get evidence on the crooked solicitors, but well-told. The problem is that it goes on for most of the episode, which leads to a rather busy and possibly slightly confusing final act. There’s also the slight problem that – so far as I can see – we’re never told who the real Johnno is, or why Steed initially came to befriend a traitor and a blackguard. Are there two Johnnos? If not, why are the defence making such a big deal of it? As I say, a fun episode, but probably best to enjoy the details rather than worrying about the plot.

The same is really true of Malcolm Hulke’s The Undertakers, which opens with a very Avengers-y sequence where a bunch of undertakers carrying a coffin arrive at an office, shoot the man working there, and carry him away in said receptacle (possibly it’s a bit Prisoner-y, too). A classic Avengers hook, I would say.

The episode proceeds with Steed looking forward to a tour of the USA, looking after a prominent scientist who is due to have a series of important meetings.  ‘I’ll send you a postcard!’ Steed promises as he takes his leave of Mrs Gale. ‘Remember to put a stamp on it this time,’ is Cathy’s deadpan response. However, Steed doesn’t get his trip, as the man he is due to accompany has apparently gone into retreat, at a very exclusive retirement home, where visitors are not allowed without an invitation. Luckily it turns out that the place is looking for a new assistant manageress…

It all turns out to be something to do with inheritance tax (that old stand-by of escapist action-adventure stories). If nothing else, watching The Undertakers will give you a better understanding of early-60s tax law, always assuming Hulke bothered to do his research properly (I have great respect for the writer so I expect this is the case). Apparently the inheritance tax rate was at something around 80% at this time, which if you are the partner or child of a rich bod is far from ideal. One way of dodging this would be for the money to be handed over prior to death as a gift, with the crucial caveat that the original owner had to continue to breathe for another five years after making this act of generosity. Can you see where this is going?

Yes, all the secluded folk in the retirement home have actually been killed by the undertakers, but the illusion that they are still alive is being preserved so the death duties can be dodged when their passing is eventually announced. I think. Once again, it does all get a little bit confusing, and much of the execution doesn’t quite have the kind of lightness-of-touch one might hope for given this is The Avengers. However, there are some other fun, quirky touches: there’s an early instance of Steed displaying his mastery of brolly-fu when he gets a fight in a room full of coffins, for instance.

Also of interest is the climax, which is a lengthy gunfight in the grounds of the retirement home, with both Steed and Mrs Gale taking on the two main villains. This is shot on location, on film, in broad daylight, and possibly constitutes another first for the series (although filmed sequences become increasingly common and lavish across season two): it feels much more like a season four moment than something from season 2. It provides a big lift to the climax of the episode, which is probably just as well given the nature of much of the plot. Not surprisingly, tax law is not a topic one readily associates with The Avengers.

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