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Posts Tagged ‘The Wringer’

Eric Paice’s The Little Wonders is a hard episode to dislike, which makes it just as well that there’s not much reason to. Well, maybe there’s the fact that the derivation of the title seems a little obscure, but that’s all. Things get underway with the arrival of an elderly bishop at the surgery of a distinguished consultant: apparently his lordship is in very poor health and may soon be gathered up to meet his employeer. The punchline of the tag scene comes when the doctor requests the Bishop take off his outer vestments, preparatory to an exam, and the clergyman removes a shoulder holster.

More evidence of clerics behaving badly at the airport, where one Reverend Harbottle has been detained, with various unseemly and unusual items discovered in his luggage. Apparently the reverend had a bit of a chequered past, which is why he was picked up. Steed suspects he was a member of a very old crime syndicate known as Bibliotek (operating mostly in the old Empire territories and the commonwealth) and that the organisation is gathering some of its senior members in London. Steed alludes vaguely to going away for a few days but packs Cathy off to investigate a doll which Harbottle had in his possession.

The doll plot feels a bit like filler and mainly serves to overcomplicate an otherwise fun episode: various bad boys from Bibliotek are indeed gathering, to sort out the succession what with the Bishop being in such poor health. The main gag is the mismatch between their ecclesiastical trappings and the cor-blimey-guv’nor demeanour most of them have: there’s Fingers the Frog, Vicar of Toowoomba, Big Sid, Dean of Rangoon, and several others. Joining their number, like you couldn’t have guessed, is Reverend Harbottle’s last minute replacement: Reverend Johnny ‘the Horse’ Steed!

Patrick Macnee is, as you might expect, utterly in his element in this absurd scenario, and is clearly having great fun. The premise is strong enough to overcome most of the plot issues and there are some fun supporting turns as well: apart from David Bauer as the Bishop and Kenneth J Warren as Fingers the Frog, Lois Maxwell plays a key role and honestly gets more to do in this one Avengers episode than in a dozen of the Bond films of which she was a long-time fixture. Her best scene comes when she appears unexpectedly with an enormous tommy-gun and wastes half a dozen of the supporting cast. All this plus a scene where Cathy has to masquerade as Johnny the Horse’s girlfriend, which means allowing him to take a few liberties not normally available to Steed. The twinkle in Macnee’s eye speaks volumes. A series which is in its groove and going well.

Steed collars the Bishop.

Martin Woodhouse’s The Wringer is up next, one of the episodes from the 1993 re-run that I actually ended up watching, albeit not until some years later (picked more or less at random from a stack of videotapes, I’m sure). Some interesting guest artistes in this one, both mainstream and niche: the episode opens with a man on a train having a troubled nap, during which he reveals he is carrying a photo of Steed (it looks very much like the kind of publicity shot Patrick Macnee’s agent would have done, but this is par for the course). The man in question is played by Peter Sallis (the early stretches of his career are much more interesting than his 37-year stint in 295 episodes of Last of the Summer Wine might lead one to expect).

Sallis is playing Hal Anderson, the only agent to come through the Corinthia Pipeline in Austria alive in the last couple of months. This vital piece of plumbing is about to be shut down, as it has clearly been compromised by enemy activity, but Steed’s boss (Paul Whitsun-Jones), who’s just called Charles – the old One-whatever system has apparently been retired – puts him in charge of finding Anderson in the hope this will reveal the truth and just how security has been breached.

This being the 1960s, a few words with Anderson’s tailor (Gerald Sim, one of those familiar faces who seemed to spend most of his career playing vicars and doctors) puts Steed on the trail, and he tracks Anderson down to a fire-watching tower somewhere in darkest Scotland (needless to say this is a studio set). Anderson recognises Steed, as he should, but admits to having a two month gap in his memory. That night, however, the memories resurface and he remembers who the traitor who’s sold the Corinthia Pipeline out to the Other Side is – it’s Steed!

Well, of course it isn’t, but the top brass don’t know that and Steed is packed off to be interrogated and then disposed of. Mrs Gale, quite properly, doesn’t buy it for a moment and practically blackmails her way in to see him. At the risk of spoiling the story, a very New Avengers-ish plot twist ensues: the Other Side have managed to infiltrate and suborn the interrogation centre, and so rather than extracting information, the beat-poet in charge – the eponymous Wringer, played by Terence Lodge – is brainwashing Steed to confess, just as he’s conditioned Anderson to believe Steed’s a bad guy.

Maybe it doesn’t all make absolute sense (and even if it did, it would still be a wildly tall tale), but this is still a solid story without some of the overplotting these episodes occasionally fall victim to. Perhaps it’s even a little ahead of its time with some of its psychedelic elements; it certainly seems to be anticipating The Ipcress File in some respects.

What makes it particularly interesting for those of us of a certain tribe is the presence of an actor named Barry Letts as the deputy of Steed’s boss. His performance is solid but not spectacular, and it’s what he would go on to do that makes this comparatively rare on-camera appearance so fascinating. Letts started off as an actor, but the demands of raising a family led to his going behind the camera, first as a director and then as a producer. It would not be an understatement to say that his work on the BBC’s most prominent fantasy series changed the course of TV history: together with Terrance Dicks (also lauded in this series of reviews) he took a weary-seeming series on the verge of cancellation and transformed it into the fixture of the schedules it remained for many years, making its style and storytelling much more sophisticated. His work on the BBC classic serial was also impeccable, too. A bit of an unsung hero, if you ask me – but it’s fascinating to see him at this earlier stage of his career. What you’d call value-added content for an episode which was pretty good to begin with.

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