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Posts Tagged ‘thriller’

I finally find myself in a position to address a nagging piece of unfinished business: to wit, the three outstanding episodes of the original 1960s version of The Avengers that we didn’t manage to look at last year, back when the pandemic and its effects still had the occasional shreds of a silver lining about them (should anyone be wondering, the prospect of doing something similar with The New Avengers is on my psychic radar, but I’ve no idea when it will happen). All of these come from the first season – now, when I was nobbut a lad, there was only one extant first season episode, which Channel 4 duly repeated back at the start of 1993. Since then, two more have turned up, which in the case of Girl on the Trapeze virtually qualifies as miraculous considering it was broadcast live back in February 1961 (this was only the sixth episode to be shown).

The episode opens in a sort of recognisable early Avengers vein with a young woman turning up at the dressing rooms of a touring state circus from one of those fictional countries on the Other Side, having been invited there by an old friend. However, she is set upon by a sinister clown (Kenneth J Warren, first of four).

From here we are transported into the social life of GP-with-a-sideline Dr David Keel (Ian Hendry), who is on his way to a reunion when he comes across an apparent attempted suicide: a young woman has hurled herself into the Thames. Keel springs into action and assists in fishing her out, but what we know that he doesn’t is that the woman who jumped into the river is not the same one who was pulled out. He’s pretty sure he recognises her from somewhere, though.

After a lengthy trawl through the day’s papers with his assistant Carol (Ingrid Hafner, a semi-regular at this point), Keel realises the girl was a trapeze artist with the touring Other Side circus, and whisks Carol off there to check the place out. They soon arouse the suspicion of a suave circus member (Edwin Richfield, in the first of his six villainous appearances on the show, one per season). It all turns out to be about a plan to kidnap the daughter of a defector in order to apply pressure to him, which involves getting rid of one of the circus artistes so the abducted girl can take her place and use the group visa.

Quirky borderline fantasy, this ain’t, but it’s early days, after all. This is, at least, a pretty brisk and coherent thriller (which you don’t always get in the videotaped episodes) – given that it was written by Dennis Spooner, one might have expected a few more gags, but you don’t get those either.

The absence of jokes is less striking than the fact that Patrick Macnee and Steed only appear in the opening credits: Macnee got the week off on this occasion. In his memoirs Macnee recalled that Hendry had a circus background, and came up with the idea for the episode himself – and omitting Steed from the story was done at Hendry’s behest. If nothing else it gives us a good chance to see how Hendry rolled in what at this point was the lead role of the series: and he carries the show rather well, even if it is clear that Keel is interestingly played, rather than an inherently interesting character. It’s also notable that even Carol the receptionist gets some agency and the chance to tackle a bad guy or two, although it would be pushing it to suggest she’s some kind of proto-Cathy Gale.

I was expecting this very early, Steed-free incarnation of The Avengers to be quite hard work; it actually rattles along quite nicely and certainly engages the attention. I’m not sure I’d have stuck around for twenty-six episodes in this same kind of vein, but considering its age it holds up quite well.

The next surviving fragment of the first series is The Frighteners, by Berkeley Mather, which now I reflect on it feels like the kind of Avengers script Graham Greene would have contributed, had he been up for it: lots of nasty, sweaty gangsters and class conflict. A wealthy tycoon, Sir Thomas Weller (Stratford Johns, first of two), pays a ‘massage contractor’ known as the Deacon (Willoughby Goddard, first of two) to have his daughter’s suitor beaten up. The Deacon duly despatches a couple of his boys (one of whom is Philip Locke, first of three) to deliver the requisite hard knocks – but somehow (the episode is necessarily very vague about this) Steed has got wind of the affair and is looking to shut the Deacon’s operation down.

Naturally, he brings Dr Keel along to assist, collecting him in a taxi. It is clear the two have a slightly wary relationship – ‘Good of you to come,’ says Steed; ‘Yes, I thought so’ replies Keel – and while there’s a suggestion that Steed is looking to use the doctor’s surgery for a few activities best not performed al fresco, it may just be that Keel is also convenient muscle. Anyway, Locke’s character is apprehended, along with the intended victim, Jeremy de Willoughby (Philip Gilbert, best known for voicing Tim the computer in The Tomorrow People) – but both men seem equally keen to avoid entanglements with the law…

Solid cops-and-robbers stuff, this, with an interesting wrinkle: the Deacon and Weller are obviously bad’uns, but so, it turns out, is de Willoughby himself – he’s a con man with a long history of swindles behind him. Is it not incumbent upon our heroes to do something about this before Weller’s innocent (and possibly a bit dim) daughter falls victim to his charms?

Well, needless to say, they do: Steed has the police in tow for part of the episode, but for the most part he and Keel do a very good impression of a couple of rogue agents, tricking, threatening, and bashing the opposition in the name of a good cause (even Keel admits what he gets up to is a bit melodramatic). Perhaps the most interesting bit of the episode comes at the very end, when they con Weller’s daughter into abandoning him by fooling her into thinking he is – gasp! – really a working class bloke named Briggs, with ideas above his station. She flees the room in tears. So much for social mobility in 1960s Britain.

Fifteen episodes in, and Patrick Macnee already seems to have Steed more-or-less nailed down: the charming slipperiness is there, the bowler is in place, the ruthless edge occasionally displays itself, and Macnee knows when to go slightly over-the-top when Steed is undercover (he has a couple of scenes here as a professional chaperone). Solidly engaging stuff, as well as obviously being of historical interest.

Oh well, we bring things full circle, finally and definitively (unless any more episodes resurface, of course) with John Kruse’s Tunnel of Fear, the twentieth episode. It opens with what looks like another classic Avengers hook, as a stuffy-looking gent gets on the ghost train at a Southsea fun fair only to mysteriously vanish into thin air. In a filmed episode he would turn out to be a colleague of Steed’s, but not this time. The plot proper gets going when a man bursts into Dr Keel’s surgery demanding first aid after a supposed hit-and-run, but Keel suspects there is more going on. It indeed transpires that the man, Harry Black (Anthony Bate, first of two) is an escaped convict who claims to have been framed for a robbery, and who mutters something about being made to do things in his sleep. Steed turns up quite by chance in the middle of all this and sees a possible connection to something he’s working on: secrets are being leaked to the Other Side out of Southsea, where Black used to co-own the ghost train at the fun fair.

For the first time we get to see Steed doing his usual thing of finagling his current partner into undertaking a potentially risky investigation on his behalf, which Keel goes along with surprisingly meekly. Down in Southsea, however, he encounters what seems to be a collision between The Manchurian Candidate and Play for Today, as there is one plotline about someone potentially being brainwashed while a prisoner during the Korean War, and another about Black’s strained relationship with his girlfriend (Black isn’t the only one who’s been banged up, as she has apparently had a child in his absence). Neither of these plotlines really gets fully developed, though.

Dr Keel suggests that Steed try a different hat in future – perhaps a bowler?

Keel does a lot of sneaking and occasionally charging about with Black in tow; all the fun stuff arises after Steed appears on the scene in the guise of the new and slightly dodgy barker for the funfair belly-dancing show, wearing a kaftan and a sparkly turban. Needless to say he hurls himself into the role, and Macnee has enormous fun with it. It doesn’t stop there: it turns out the gang of enemy agents running the fair includes a hypnotist, who tries to put the ‘fluence on Steed to get some information: either Steed puts them on, or turns out to be monumentally slippery and unhelpful even when hypnotised – when asked who he works for, the answer is ‘No one’ – a curious answer, unless he really is faking it. Finally, the episode concludes with some business about Steed bluffing the villains with an exploding cigarette.

Probably a better episode for Steed than Keel, then, but a reasonably good one if you overlook the fact that various plot ideas go nowhere – I would say not quite up to the same standard as The Frighteners, while it’s hard to fairly assess a Steed-free episode in comparison with the others. Maybe it’s just with the knowledge of how the show developed – and an instalment like Girl on the Trapeze has almost nothing in common with anything from the final season, apart from the title of the series – but you can see that Steed is the character with potential, and the tiny off-beat moments that are present even here are usually the ones that make the stories sing. First season Avengers only very occasionally resembles the show in its legendary incarnation, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth checking out.

(There will now follow a suspension in blogging activity, hopefully a brief one. See you on the other side.)

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For someone who is overwhelmingly best-remembered as a singer, Frank Sinatra had a pretty good career in non-musical films: he won an Oscar for From Here to Eternity, directed None But the Brave (the first American-Japanese co-production), and at one point was in the frame to play the lead in both Dirty Harry and Die Hard (admittedly, the latter offer was a contractual obligation on the part of the producers). On the other hand, he did reject the idea of making a movie of A Clockwork Orange, thinking the idea had no potential, but nobody’s perfect.

Sinatra himself felt the zenith of his acting career came in 1962 with his role in John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate, one of those films which regularly shows up on lists of classics. (There was a fun pub quiz question a few years back – who is the only actor to appear in three of the movies on the AFI’s 100 Best of All Time list? I’ll give you a clue: they were also in Night of the Lepus, which is probably something they’re less proud of.) Certainly this is a formidably accomplished and intelligent film – it would be wrong to say that it hasn’t dated at all, but this hasn’t affected its ability to engage and entertain.

Sinatra plays Ben Marco, who at the start of the film is serving in the Korean War (that least romanticised of the USA’s 20th century conflicts). He is the leader of a patrol, assisted by his sergeant, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) – but things do not as planned when their native guide betrays them and they are captured by communist forces.

Three days later the patrol makes it back to their own lines, having lost only a couple of its members – Shaw’s incredible bravery has ensured their survival, and all the other survivors agree on his decency and general wonderfulness, even if they’re not convinced they actually like him all that much. Needless to say, Shaw gets the Medal of Honour for his deeds, which is eagerly seized upon by his calculating mother (Angela Lansbury), who sees it as a great publicity tool for Shaw’s stepfather, a senator of somewhat extreme views.

But Marco is troubled by nightmares, remembering the patrol being held prisoner by the Red Chinese and subjected to intensive conditioning and psychological programming: Shaw in particular being transformed into a mindless, remorseless killer. It is just a nightmare, though, isn’t it? But then he learns of other survivors of the patrol who are having the same dreams…

Yes, the whole story about Shaw’s stupendous bravery is just a cover-up for the abduction and processing of the patrol, as well as providing a convenient method of establishing Shaw as an unimpeachably heroic figure. Someone with knowledge of the right triggers – certain phrases and objects – can direct Shaw against any target they choose…

Stephen King has suggested that the political assassin – the proverbial lone gunman – was, for a while at least, one of the great bogeymen of American culture, and The Manchurian Candidate can’t have done anything to dispel this. Perhaps it’s fitting that this most famous of paranoid thrillers is surrounded by real-world conspiracy theories, but it’s certainly a striking coincidence that this is the second Sinatra-starring movie to revolve around a plan to effect change at the top of American society via a political assassination, the first being 1954’s Suddenly. Sinatra allegedly wanted both films withdrawn from circulation when it was suggested they had played a role in inspiring Lee Harvey Oswald’s successful assassination of John F Kennedy – rumour had it for a while that Sinatra bought the negatives to Suddenly and had the film destroyed. The assassin of Robert Kennedy, meanwhile, made various allegations concerning amnesia, brainwashing, and clandestine government activity, all of which are themes this movie touches upon.

Nevertheless, for a political thriller, this is a film which is notably difficult to read in terms of its own politics: one can perhaps detect a note of sympathy towards liberalism, but in general it is fiercely cynical when it comes to ideology of all flavours: quite which party the climactic convention is being held by is left open, while the particular agenda of the villains of the film is also quite obscure – they aspire to a level of social control which will ‘make martial law seem like anarchy’, but this feels more like a kind of authoritarian megalomania than a particular political position. They certainly don’t feel like committed communists – Lansbury vows to topple the communist powers which have assisted her. Then again, even the ideological commitment of the communists seems to be somewhat lacking: one Soviet agent is pleased to report that one of their front operations actually turns a modest profit, while another looks forward to spending an afternoon visiting a high-class department store. In all cases, it seems to be about the exercise of control in pursuit of enlightened (or not so enlightened) self-interest.

The film is quite open about this, opting not to present the story as a mystery – the explanation as to what has happened to Shaw and the rest of the patrol is presented very early in the film, before Marco or anyone has really figured it out. The real driver of the plot is what Shaw’s controllers have in mind for him to do, which is indeed held back until the final act of the movie. In the meantime the movie is powered by the intricacies of the plot and the strength of the performances.

The acting is uniformly good, although Harvey’s tendency to declaim his dialogue in a rather sub-Olivier manner is an unusual choice. Sinatra gives a fine, subtle performance – although the scene where he engages hand-to-hand combat with a Korean communist agent inevitably brings to mind Peter Sellers fighting Burt Kwouk – and he has some engaging scenes with Janet Leigh (who is our pub quiz answer: her other two films from the top 100 are Psycho and Touch of Evil). The film’s star turn, however, is Angela Lansbury, who creates a quite extraordinary monster in Shaw’s mother, Mrs Iselin – it’s been suggested that Richard Condon’s original novel was partly plagiarised from I, Claudius, in which case it makes perfect sense that Mrs Iselin should be a modern-day equivalent of Livia Drusilla. (Seeing as we were recently talking about unlikely parent-child age-gaps in cinema, it’s worth mentioning that Harvey and Lansbury are completely convincing despite there being only three years between them.)

As I’ve said, some stylistic elements of The Manchurian Candidate have dated a little, but the film’s cynicism and intelligence are as engaging as ever. Perhaps in its own way it also acknowledges the fragility of human beings, and the invisible damage that soldiers can carry home with them, a notion which perhaps feels much more modern than one might expect. It’s the mixture of intelligence, cynicism and humanity which makes the film such an impressive and successful piece of entertainment.

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There’s a game you can play, if you get really bored and someone is prepared to do the research: it’s called Oscar or Not? and you play it like this. Someone says the name of an actor and everyone else has to say whether or not they ever won an Oscar. Easy peasy, right, but as ever, there may be a few surprises.

So – Woody Harrelson: Oscar or not? Not. Jason Robards? Oscar (two back to back, in fact). Jim Broadbent? Oscar. Peter O’Toole? Not (eight times). Brad Pitt? Oscar (two, but only one for acting). As you can see, there are literally seconds of fun to be had. Go on then, one more: Harrison Ford: Oscar or not?

If you don’t know the answer, it’s a tricky one, n’est-ce pas? Harrison Ford’s the kind of person who must have won an Oscar, surely? A few years back, someone did the sums and worked out that Ford’s movies, collectively, had made more money than anyone else’s collated filmography, and that kind of box office clout is not the sort of thing the Academy usually overlooks. (Then again, someone may have snuck past Ford in the intervening period, mostly likely to be either Christopher Lee or Samuel L Jackson, and neither of them have picked up a little gold homunculus.) On the other hand, as we have noted hereabouts in the past, Harrison Ford has stuck pretty strictly to his only-one-movie-a-year regimen for the last forty years, and for the last couple of decades his projects either haven’t been particularly high profile (I give you Crossing Over, Morning Glory and Paranoia, just for starters), or have been calculated franchise extensions mainly noted for being considered inferior to other Ford films from the 1980s.

Well, fear not, I shall put you out of your misery. Not by bringing this piece to an end (ha, ha) but by going to the point and revealing that, no, Harrison Ford has never won an Oscar (and if you ask me, he’s leaving it a bit late if he’s serious about getting one). The closest he came was in 1986 when he was nominated for Witness (this was a fairly noteworthy occurrence, as the film was actually released prior to the previous year’s Oscars rather than in the traditional awards period).

The film was Peter Weir’s first US project. It opens with the wide open spaces and swirling grassland which form the backdrop of most of the movie, as the people of a old-fashioned rural community come together for a funeral. The young widow, Rachel (Kelly McGillis), struggles through bravely; one of her neighbours (Alexander Godunov) is clearly looking to press his suit, but circumstances dictate he bide his time. Not long after, Rachel and her son Samuel (Lukas Haas), set off to stay with relatives – which involves passing through another world.

For they and their community are Amish, devout Anabaptists who eschew most contacts with the modern world. This makes travelling through Philadelphia a bit of an adventure, for Samuel at least, but things take a darker turn when he witnesses a brutal murder in the railway station restroom. Soon on the scene is detective John Book (Ford), who reveals that the victim was an undercover cop. Despite Rachel’s desire to get away from this sordid world, Samuel’s testimony will be vital – especially when it looks like the killer (Danny Glover) is himself part of the police department.

However, Book shares his suspicions with the wrong person, for his captain (Josef Sommer) is part of the plot as well. Book takes Rachel and Samuel home, trusting to the insularity of the Amish world to protect both them and himself – for an attempt on his life has left him wounded. But can a big city cop fit in here well enough to hide from the men who are hunting him?

This is essentially the first act of the film, which handles the requirements of its thriller element briskly and with clarity. There’s a sense in which this is a rather calculated piece of work – you can tell that director Peter Weir isn’t really that interested in a thriller about being on the run from dirty cops, but at the same time no major studio is going to put money about a clash of cultures mostly taking place amongst the Amish of Pennsylvania (‘we don’t make rural movies,’ insisted one big-name studio when offered the chance to finance the film).

The thriller plot is very straightforward and mainly there to make the film appealing to a wider audience; the latter is also really true of the presence of Ford himself, who at this time was overwhelmingly known for his various films with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. All of those were big, flashy, often noisy movies, with Ford’s main duty arguably to bring a little humanity and self-deprecating humour to great machines which could easily have becoming grating and soulless. You can see why the actor would jump at the chance to appear in a much quieter film with only the most cursory genre elements – and he makes the most of the opportunity, still retaining his movie star charisma but giving a performance of great warmth, subtlety and wit.

Witness is often acclaimed for its success as a romance, but while this is ostensibly a relationship between Ford and McGillis, there’s a sense in which she represents the totality of the rural experience and the environment in which Book finds himself – something totally new to him, for there is a sense of community here which seems to be lacking in the big city. The most famous set-piece of the film (if set-piece is the right way to describe a sequence in which a group of people build a barn) depicts the community coming together, and the long middle section of the film portrays Book slowly assimilating amongst the Amish, and becoming accepted by them.

The dictates of the plot, however, require that this be a less than total assimilation: Book isn’t capable of passively accepting the crass behaviour of tourists, thus standing out in the community, and in the end he leaves and returns to his old life. That this somehow feels an acceptable and logical ending for the film – Book really has little to return to, as we have already seen – suggests that Weir never quite stops presenting the Amish something as other and somehow strange, literally otherworldly. Nevertheless, the film is striking for its openness toward stillness, silence and simplicity: this is what marks it out as something unusual amongst studio thrillers, and perhaps what has given it its reputation for artiness. But this is also what makes it such an impressive and satisfying film, one of the best in Ford’s filmography.

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Just for the sake of completeness, and because I’d never got around to actually watching it before, let’s conclude our look at Ultraviolet with the unaired (and unsold) pilot episode for the American version of the show, which was made in 2000. There’s a sense in which a circle is being closed here, as one of the producers on the US version was Howard Gordon, who’d previously worked extensively on The X Files (and as we have previously discussed, it’s very unlikely the British version would have been made had The X Files not inaugurated the great mid-to-late 90s horror-fantasy boom). Gordon’s verdict on the American pilot was ‘we screwed it up and it just didn’t come out that well,’ which certainly inclines one to fear the worst with regard to it. The pilot was directed by Mark Piznarski and written by Chip Johannessen.

As the story opens we find ourselves at the stag party of former undercover cop Viggo (Spence Decker), who after a slightly chequered past is finally marrying the lovely, if slightly idiosyncratically named, Nealy (Madchen Amick). Keeping an eye on him is his former handler, NYPD lieutenant John Cahill (Eric Thal). (The IMDb listing for this show gets many of the character names wrong, usually defaulting to the UK equivalent – in this case, Jack, Kirsty and Mike, respectively.)

Anyway, the party seems to go reasonably well, but Viggo refuses Cahill’s offer of a lift home. Instead, on the way to his apartment he is approached by a mysterious stranger whom he clearly knows. As will not come as a surprise to anyone who’s been following along, Viggo does not make his wedding the next day, while evidence relating to an investigation into a prominent money-launderer he was involved in has been stolen. It does not look good for him, but Cahill refuses to believe his friend is as corrupt as he appears.

Viggo, meanwhile, is travelling through the city with the stranger, in a car with blacked-out windows. They get caught up in traffic and involved in a contretemps with a biker (slightly discombobulatingly, this is clearly derived from the opening sequence of episode two of the British show, almost on a shot-for-shot level). The car is attacked, sunlight pours through a crack in the window, the stranger partially combusts before pulling away in the vehicle.

Before Cahill becomes aware of this, though, he must contend with a new player: a mysterious federal agency has become involved, represented by taciturn hard-man Vaughan Shepherd (Idris Elba, basically reprising his performance as Vaughan Rice from the UK show) and CDC haematologist Lise Matthews (Joanna Going). Shepherd wears a rather prominent crucifix and Matthews is forever waving UV lamps about. Cahill’s investigation into what’s really going on is going nowhere – Viggo reappears and makes various vague claims of being in danger – until the biker, who was paralysed when the car hit him while departing, is now walking again and has checked himself out of hospital.

Cahill goes in pursuit of the man, and finds him indeed back on his feet. He flees into the New York subway system, occasioning a retread of a sequence from the first episode of the UK show: Cahill’s ability to track his quarry is severely hampered by the fact he doesn’t show up in mirrors or on video cameras. Someone who does show up is Shepherd, however, who promptly puts a bullet into the biker, causing him to explode into burning dust…

Apologies for slightly grainy screen-grab from this untransmitted piece of TV ephemera: that really is Idris Elba in the middle, by the way. Most of it is about as interesting as this to look at.

Well, Cahill tracks Shepherd and Matthews to their base, but remains sceptical about what they claim to be hunting even after watching an apparently paralysed man walk around and then explode. Matthews explains that, post-AIDS, the creatures they are pursuing have grown wary and are seeking to secure their food supply, which will require large amounts of cash (hence their involvement with the money-launderer). The question is one of whether Viggo is simply an ally, or has actually completely joined their cause…

As you can see, in a lot of ways this closely resembles the UK show in terms of its narrative. The first big difference is the absence of a character corresponding to Pearse in the US version; maybe he was being held back for subsequent episodes, or possibly the network were wary of including a priest (or ex-priest) in this kind of show. I wonder how much of the impact of Pearse is due to Philip Quast’s performance, though: he would certainly have been a tough act to follow.

The other big alteration is that Viggo is more of a central character than Jack in the British show, and doesn’t actually join the opposition until near to the climax of the episode (he survives to the end as well). He also gets a number of scenes interacting with his new friends – and here there seems to be a concerted effort to develop them and depict them as fully-rounded and even somewhat sympathetic individuals. The contrast with the UK version, where the undead are off-screen the vast majority of the time, and their agenda and motivation remains mysterious, is marked, and the main effect of this is to heighten the ambiguity in the way the hunters are depicted: we see Vaughan Shepherd blowing away an unarmed man, and they seem cold and hard and untroubled by softer feelings, whereas the creatures they are pursuing get big scenes talking about how much they love one another.

The result is that this really feels like less of a show in the mystery-investigation genre and more a kind of morality play, with much more parity between the two sides – it seems to be building up to be about that old question of whom the real monsters truly are. This isn’t a dreadful premise for a show, but it is a very different one from Joe Ahearne’s conception of the series. It’s equally understated, although in this case perhaps that isn’t completely a positive thing – British Ultraviolet did a good job of looking like any number of other TV shows made in the UK, but American Ultraviolet seems unusually grey and dour for an American TV show, especially a fantasy. It’s not the most inviting or engaging visual palette, and the plot is somehow less immediately gripping. Maybe this is just because the American networks never seem to have had the same kind of prejudice against fantasy and horror that UK ones have routinely shown. I can think of half a dozen American shows featuring vampirism that predated this pilot – in the UK, all the immediately springs to mind are various adaptations of Dracula.

I don’t think US Ultraviolet is quite a bad as Howard Gordon suggests it is – it’s not as immediately accomplished as its immediate progenitor, and the look of the thing could certainly do with improvement, while somehow none of the characters pop this time around. On the other other hand, there are signs of potential here – this could possibly, and I stress the adverb, possibly have turned into a very interesting, morally ambiguous show about not knowing who to trust, and the thin line between good and evil. But it would most likely have just been fairly dull and quickly been cancelled: on the basis of what we see here, it’s hard to feel terribly robbed by the fact that Ultraviolet US never went to a full series.

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After about eight months watching not-quite-all of The Avengers, it’s a shock to get through all of Ultraviolet in less than a week, but here we are: the final episode, Persona Non Grata. This follows on directly from the previous one – the inquisition is holding a member of the opposition prisoner, while Kirsty is being manipulated by the bad guys for reasons which as yet remain slightly obcure.

Pearse is refusing to take his medication until this case is resolved, and decides their priority is to identify their prisoner – as he can’t be photographed or even fingerprinted, this is a little bit tricky. Their only lead is a scar he has retained from his mortal days, suggesting cancer treatment in his past. Nevertheless Pearse puts Mike and Vaughan on the job, and Mike promptly ditches Vaughan on the grounds they can cover more ground individually – he’s intent on his own parallel investigation into Jacob, the recently-turned journalist the opposition are using to handle Kirsty. Almost at once he runs into Vaughan, though: it seems Jacob was also recently investigating hospital cancer wards.

Meanwhile, Philip Quast and Corin Redgrave are getting some cracking scenes together, as the former priest and the former human being debate morality and philosophy – it’s implied that the experience which brought Pearse to his faith was an encounter with the undead, which, their captive suggests, rather suggests they are instruments of the divine will, rather than the abominations Pearse’s general shoot-on-sight principles suggest he thinks they are. ‘We are the source of all religion. We are the afterlife,’ whispers Redgrave; a compellingly creepy performance.

Off in yet another plot thread, Kirsty is essentially being kept in protective custody by Jacob, and being sold a line about Mike being part of the same death squad that killed Jack in episode one (which is basically correct). Inevitably, she discovers the truth of exactly what Jacob has become, before too long, but is clearly susceptible enough to buy his line about how the opposition are victims of propaganda from the Church and other sections of the establishment.

The team is clearly on the point of falling apart: Angie is tormented by the possibility she made a terrible mistake in destroying her husband and daughter, Pearse appears to be very aware of his own mortality and is perhaps even contemplating switching sides (which Vaughan predictably responds to with great hostility), and the enemy are exploiting Mike’s own misgivings and his feelings for Kirsty: she will be released, but only as part of a trade. There is someone in the inquisition’s headquarters whom the opposition would like sprung, very badly.

This isn’t quite the epic conclusion one might be hoping for, but it raises the stakes (sorry) very effectively and includes a lot of things assiduous viewers have probably been hoping for: Frances finds out just what Mike does for a living, for instance. The opposition also get some proper screen-time too, for a change. I’ve seen it suggested that Joe Ahearne initially considered doing a show where some of the main characters were undead, but realised that the budget wouldn’t permit it to be made exclusively at night – hence the existing format, where in the first few episodes the bad guys are mostly off-screen. Here, they get some proper scenes and meaty dialogue, as I’ve suggested.

In the end it largely boils down to the arcs of the four main characters, though (five if you include Kirsty), and this is quite satisfyingly done, without feeling particularly contrived. The plots of the previous episodes are also revealed to be connected to an overall plan to seize control of the world by instigating a nuclear winter and blacking out the sun for months – at least, this is what Pearse surmises, based on what they eventually learn about Redgrave’s character. The actual climax of the series isn’t its strongest or most convincing moment, but it ties nearly everything up quite neatly – there is a loose thread, but it’s not an egregious one.

Which brings us to the question – should we celebrate Ultraviolet as a superbly-effected miniature, or complain about the fact they only made six episodes? (Seven if you count the US pilot, which is supposedly awful.) Given the series was relatively well-reviewed, how come they didn’t do any more?

I seem to recall that in interviews around the turn of the century, Joe Ahearne indicated that the problem was that Ultraviolet was a show with a mainstream budget but only a cult audience (the same old story, sadly). However, more recently he’s said that it was all to do with how the series came together – other people were initially supposed to be writing and directing episodes, but it ended up with him doing the whole series, almost as an auteur. This meant he was fully occupied with filming and editing episodes at the time when the early work on a second series would normally have been done. Ahearne has said he always assumed there would only be six, and that it was a relatively high-concept show that would have struggled to come up with new plots anyway; the production company apparently did invite pitches from other writers on how a continuation might possibly be done, but most of these were very radically different takes on the series (which isn’t to say that Ahearne was unimpressed by them).

It is kind of a shame, because my feeling is that it’s usually in the second season that a TV show really hits its creative peak, and the prospect of another set of Ultraviolet episodes even better than the first would have been a mouth-watering prospect. (Perhaps they might even have managed to turn Mike into a more engaging character: Jack Davenport was one of the show’s big names at the time, but he’s playing such a hopeless individual that he doesn’t get much to do – the other regulars are all much more interesting characters.) But then again, I suppose one really shouldn’t be greedy about these things. All of the episodes are good, at the very least; some of them are exceptional. Is this the best British horror series of all time? It’s such a tiny genre that the answer wouldn’t mean much either way, especially when you consider that most of these shows are anthologies. Let’s just say that this really is an overlooked gem that transcends its origins as a sort-of knock-off of The X Files and becomes a great show in its own right.

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Were you aware they’d done a remake of Point Break? I’m guessing it’s really not a very good movie, seeing as it’s so obscure. When I first became aware of it the other day, my immediate thought was ‘that’s a pretty new movie to be getting a remake’ – but then, of course, I thought about it and realised that Point Break – the Kathryn Bigelow version, that is – is thirty years old this year. Thirty! I can scarcely believe it.

On the other hand, while all great movies have a timeless quality, that doesn’t preclude them from also being essentially of the time they were made, either, and there is something quintessentially early-90s about Point Break: it’s not brash and excessive like an 80s movie, but neither does it have that slightly chilly slickness you get in a lot of films from the following decade. The sense of a changing of the guard is only emphasised by the presence of iconic 80s heart-throb Patrick Swayze (in a very questionable but also authentic hair-style) and also Keanu Reeves, a man for whom the 90s were a defining decade.

The film opens with scenes of Swayze hanging ten and catching waves (etc), and looking majestic doing so, while Reeves struts his stuff on the FBI academy firing range. Keanu is playing football-star-turned-rookie-FBI-agent Johnny (made-up name) Utah, whose first assignment sees him join the bank robbery section in Los Angeles. Utah is a bit buttoned-down, but not yet a fully-fledged pen-pusher like his boss. He is partnered with a world-weary veteran named Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey) who has become a laughing-stock around the office: charged with catching an elite gang of robbers nicknamed the Dead Presidents, Pappas has become convinced that they are surfers, based on their schedule (they’re only active in summer, California’s surf season) and a few shreds of forensic evidence. Someone needs to go undercover on the beach and see what’s going down…

Well, it’s obviously not going to be Busey, so Keanu buys a board and is soon getting surfing lessons from a nice young woman named Tyler (Lori Petty). Through her he has his doors of perception well and truly opened up when he meets top surfer, free spirit, and near-as-dammit spiritual guru Bodhi (Swayze) and his gang of followers. Not only that, his buttons are loosened, his screws are undone and he takes to wandering about inside the FBI building carrying his board. He even turns up late for a raid after some night-surfing (and a spot of the old whoa-ho with Petty) takes the place of the recommended early night. But could Bodhi and his pals be getting up to more than some extreme sports?

It sounds rather generic when you write it down that way, and indeed one of the things that makes Point Break such an intriguing movie is the fact that it has almost exactly the same basic plot trajectory as the original The Fast and the Furious film while still feeling like a stylish and classy film for grown-ups, right down to the central character dynamic. One plot summary I’ve seen of this movie suggests that Keanu finds his mission complicated when he falls in love with Swayze’s ex-girlfriend. The film itself is rather more ambiguous on whom the exact object of Keanu’s affection is, something which Hot Fuzz recognised with typically forensic accuracy when one character summarised a key sequence: ‘Patrick Swayze has just robbed this bank, and Keanu Reeves is chasin’ him through peoples’ gardens, and then he goes to shoot Swayze but he can’t because he loves him so much and he’s firin’ his gun up in the air and he’s like ‘ahhh!” It’s all very subtextual, naturally, but Swayze is very sinewy and macho and Keanu is still at that point where he’s often sort of blankly bovine and – there’s not really another mot juste in this case – pretty.

Nevertheless, Keanu is showing signs of improvement, and this is surely the first film to establish his potential as a genuine action movie star: he runs and fights and chucks himself about with great aplomb. And he always has that same Reevesian charisma – he is a still point of total calm on the screen, which you somehow cannot help but fill with your affection for the lad. At one point in Point Break, the film (which has hitherto been relatively restrained and naturalistic) requires Keanu to hurl himself out of a plane in flight, without a parachute, and apprehend his quarry in free-fall. Even at the height of Bondian absurdity, Roger Moore was excused this sort of thing, but Keanu – well, he doesn’t exactly sell the bit outright, but he makes you indulge the film in it.

Of course, if we’re talking about pretty – and yes, this is a fairly shallow and spurious bit of linking – then we should also mention that Lori Petty is in this movie too. She always struck me as someone extremely smart and watchable, but – on the face of things, at least – the failure of Tank Girl dealt her career as someone who could lead a movie a mortal blow. Here, you just wish she was given a bit more to do than be a plot device: as noted, the central relationship in the movie is between Reeves and Swayze, so she ends up sidelined and barely appears in the third act of the movie.

Most of this is chasing and shooting, which Bigelow handles with her characteristic muscular efficiency: she’s had a distinguished career, but one where good films just haven’t had the success which they deserved, with some quite substantial gaps in her filmography as a result. On one level Point Break feels like it occupies some peculiar narrative space between The Lost Boys and The Fast and the Furious – Patrick Swayze (who surely gives the best performance of his career here) as the somewhat unlikely missing link between Kiefer Sutherland and Vin Diesel – but at the same time the film has a class and a quality which elevates it above the level of simply being a popcorn genre movie. I’m not sure it has any genuine depth to it, but it certainly gives that impression. A great thriller, deserving of its cult status.

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The episodic nature which has characterised the first four instalments of Ultraviolet begins to disappear with Terra Incognita – although as there are only six programmes in total (this is a perfectly-formed miniature, really), it could really qualify as the first of a two-part series finale.

A man arrives at Heathrow on a flight from Brazil, but is stopped at immigration on medical grounds – he is bleeding from the ears. A full examination reveals an open bite wound on his neck, and suggests he is suffering from some form of haemorrhagic fever. More startlingly, the man’s sister, Maria (Ellen Thomas) indicates they have come here to get help from a doctor in London who is an expert on his condition, whom the man’s specialists in Brazil suggested could cure him – someone called Dr March…

All of this naturally raises an enormous red flag for the inquisition, and both siblings are brought in for examination and interview. Vaughan and Mike interview the crew of the flight they came in on, and discover it was carrying medical equipment – the cause of a last-minute flight delay. The equipment turns out to take the form of large, hermetically-sealed, time-locked casings, one of which Vaughan and Mike manage to secure.

It turns out the bleeding man has a history of sickle-cell anaemia, which appears to have mysteriously vanished – but an examination reveals that the opposition have been nibbling on him in a most peculiar way, almost as if they have been sampling his blood. Maria tells the team she has come here not to see Angie March, but her husband Robert – the man whom she staked years before – as apparently only he has the knowledge to save her brother. Angie realises it could make a certain kind of sense – the opposition could be trying to perfect synthetic blood, something which would free them from their dependence on human beings as a food source. Judging from the man’s condition, they’re not quite there yet – but Robert March was a brilliant haematologist who could conceivably crack the problem. Angie points out to Pearse that the breakthrough would not only remove the casus belli between the inquisition and their enemy, but also help in the treatment of conditions such as non-Hodgkins’ lymphoma.

However, their top priority is finding the other casings, as they assume each contains a member of the opposition – the time lock is set to open just after the sun sets. But the enemy has been cunning, and sold the team a dummy – and Vaughan is captured, knocked unconscious, and wakes up in a locked room with four of the casings, each set to open in only a few minutes…

There’s a slightly schlocky element to this, basically to enable its resolution – whichever Renfield has locked Vaughan in there has been gallant (or dumb) enough to leave him with his gun and pen-knife – but it’s still really the dramatic peak of the episode. Vaughan is difficult to read, as usual, but seems almost on the verge of terminal despair – we also get a glimpse of the man behind the tough-guy front, as he rings Angie with only moments to go. Idris Elba doesn’t get a great deal to do acting-wise in many of these episodes – he’s basically there as the team hard man – but he makes the most of this opportunity to do a little more with it, and it works well.

But apart from this, the episode doesn’t have same focus as the previous ones. The initial mystery sort of gets forgotten about in the aftermath of Vaughan’s ordeal, overtaken by other concerns – mainly the arrival in the team’s base of the occupant of the container they captured. It’s almost implied this is part of the opposition’s plan – insert one of their number into the heart of the inquisition’s operation, to sow dissent and misinformation. Emerging from the quasi-coffin is a quietly impressive individual played (as well as you might reasonably ask) by the actor Corin Redgrave. (Thirty years earlier Redgrave had turned in a fine performance as Jonathan Harker in an ITV adaptation of Bram Stoker’s most famous novel, although I’m not sure that’s enough for this to count as stunt casting.)

Corin Redgrave prepares to be interviewed.

Redgrave has the presence and technique to hold his own against the regular cast, and believably puts the team on the back foot, making Angie once again question their ethos and methods. The plotline is left unresolved, as events are clearly building towards some kind of climax: Mike has succumbed to his feelings for Kirsty and arranged to see her again, even if he does turn up armed and prepared to potentially put a wooden dum-dum in her chest if she turns out to have been turned by the opposition (the question of whether Kirsty is still human or not is left open, reasonably skilfully, until after she’s seen Mike getting ready to take her out – at which point there’s yet another homage to the Citizen Kane hall-of-mirrors shot, though here for a reason on this occasion).

This is an odd, all-over-the-place kind of episode, without the strong central plot of most of the others and containing a few convenient plot devices, and some odd digressions. At one point Vaughan and Maria have a discussion of Candomblé (a syncretic Afro-Brazilian religion), which is sort of interesting but doesn’t really go anywhere except in that it links into the episode’s theme, which I think is faith (and the loss of faith). Maria is a believer, and has faith in Robert March’s ability to cure her brother (though this ultimately profits her little); Vaughan nearly loses all hope during his moment of crisis; Mike is clearly having severe doubts about having joined the inquisition; and so is Angie – though it’s been clear all along she’s never quite recovered from destroying her own husband and child.

In the end, though, it still works – it’s clearly doing things to set up the final episode, and there are lots of good individual set pieces, even if they don’t really link up with one another – Vaughan’s crisis with the coffins, Redgrave’s first appearance, and Mike’s confrontation with Kirsty. More than enough good stuff here for it to pass muster, anyway.

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There are some films which have a particular significance in my memory – not necessarily because they are especially good, or poor, or interesting, but just because they came along at a particular time in my life and burned their way into my memory. For instance, there was once a time when I did not – mutatis mutandis – go to the cinema once or twice a week. I went along now and then, when there was a film that looked particularly interesting, but I didn’t actively seek out things to go and watch. (I suppose this is how normal people approach going to the cinema.)  This didn’t change overnight, but there were a number of times when I recall it dawning on me that going to see a film I didn’t know much about could actually be a really great and rewarding trip out.

I feel obliged to make clear that Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible is not such a film. Well, not exactly. Here’s what was happening: it was the summer of 1996, and relations between your correspondent and the people he was living with were at a bit of a nadir. I had taken to going out of the house very early and staying out all day, simply to avoid them, until the university term ended and they all left. Friday, the day before the great departure, finally rolled around, and unable to face another marathon stint in the library or the bar I went to into town and decided to go to the cinema. I’d always enjoyed the legerdemaine in the plotting of the old Mission: Impossible TV show, and I expect I would have seen it eventually, but as it happened it had just opened that day: seeing a film on its day of release was a new experience for me then, but one which seemed rather agreeable.

De Palma’s film opens with a deliberately misleading set of titles, evoking the style of the TV show very nicely (needless to say, Lalo Schifrin’s immortal theme blasts out too). We encounter Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), head of the CIA’s Impossible Mission clever-tricks squad, receiving an exploding cassette on a plane. It seems that a rogue CIA agent is about to steal a very important Maguffin from the US embassy in Prague, and Phelps and his team are to nab the miscreant in the act.

Phelps’ team includes his wife Claire (Emmanuelle Beart), technical bod Jack (an uncredited Emilio Estevez), posh Brit Sarah (Kristin Scott Thomas), a slightly nondescript character played by Ingeborg Dapkunaite, and (in the old Martin Landau master-of-disguise role) Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). There is a lot of sneaking into the embassy, wearing of rubber masks, the deployment of clever gadgets, and – rather subtly – establishing the rapport between the various members of team.

This is significant, because after a smooth start, the mission begins to go pear-shaped in a very terminal way: one by one, the Impossible Missionaries are crushed, shot, stabbed and blown up. The important Maguffin is nicked, and the only survivors of the carnage, it would seem, are Hunt and Claire Phelps. It transpires the whole mission was part of a bigger, more devious scheme: CIA director Kittridge (Henry Czerny) believes there is a traitor in the IMF, and all that has gone before has been an attempt to flush out the mole. As Hunt seems to be the last man standing, he looks somewhat compromised.

However, this is not the kind of thing Hunt is wont to take lying down, and – for the first time, but absolutely not the last – he goes on the run from his own people in an attempt to identify who the traitor who killed his friends is. Some slightly knotty exposition ensues (well-handled by the script and direction), with the following results: he does a deal with arms dealer Max (Vanessa Redgrave), whereby she will manufacture a meeting with the mole, in exchange for him breaking into CIA headquarters and stealing another copy of the same Maguffin as earlier.

This all enables a rather pleasing structure to the film, which is essentially built around three big set-pieces done in the style of the original TV show – the initial shenanigans at the embassy, the raid on the CIA, and finally some fairly unlikely goings-on in and around the Channel Tunnel as Hunt finally confronts the bad guys. The second of these provides the film’s most iconic image – after scrambling through the (surprisingly capacious) air vents at the CIA with Jean Reno, Cruise ends up operating a computer workstation while dangling on a wire from the ceiling – while the third sends the film for the first time off into more generic Hollywood action movie territory – Reno ends up flying a helicopter down the (equally surprisingly capacious) Channel Tunnel, with Cruise hanging off one of the skids.

I think it gets the balance between being like the TV show and being cinematic just about spot-on, although others had a different opinion: amongst them Peter Graves and the other original members of the TV show cast, who were invited back (to get killed off). I suppose I can understand the source of their chagrin – in the end, it’s hardly reverent towards the characterisation of the source material, even if it gets the substance pretty much right.

Yet it also felt very contemporary back in 1996. Nowadays, it’s not exactly dated, but the film’s near-fixation with computer hacking and the internet does feel very much of its time. It also serves fairly well as a snapshot of actors who had recently made an impression in other successful films – Reno was fresh off Leon, Scott Thomas had recently done Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Ving Rhames (who’s gone on to appear opposite Cruise in all the subsequent films in the franchise) had played a key role in Pulp Fiction.

In the end I think this is an extremely efficient and polished movie, rather than a truly great one: it has that slickness one often finds in Tom Cruise projects, and Brian De Palma seems relatively restrained: there are hardly any of the bravura touches or outrageous bits of showing-off that sometimes characterises his work. And yet I remain extremely fond of it – I saw it twice more that summer, and remember listening to the soundtrack endlessly, as well. I suppose I remember it so warmly because it marked a point, more or less, at which things lightened up for me – and also because, immediately afterwards, I was in such a good mood I hung around in town and saw Wayne Wang’s Smoke, one of my first real art-house experiences (or so I recall, anyway). Another time, another life – but still pleasant to recall.

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The third episode of Ultraviolet is entitled Sub Judice, which is essentially a fridge title only serving to maintain the gimmick of Latin episode names: sometimes these sort-of allude to the plot, but this one doesn’t. I mention this at the start as it is one of the few complaints I can make about it.

It opens with a solicitor in her thirties (Emer Gillespie) entering an underground car park and being attacked by a couple of low-lives; not entirely surprisingly, she faints. Entirely surprisingly, though, her two assailants are set upon and brutally murdered – by an immensely strong and swift killer who somehow isn’t picked up by the car park’s CCTV system. Who you gonna call?

The inquisition are soon on the case (although not before Pearse can confide to Angie March that he’s not been feeling 100% recently, a plot point which the show will return to), with their objective being to discover the connection between the solicitor, Marion, and the opposition: why would they want to save her? Is she working on an important case they have an interest in? Nothing seems particularly significant. What about her background?

It seems that Marion’s husband committed suicide some years earlier, apparently unable to accept the fact the couple could not have children. A colleague who showed signs of romantic interest in her eighteen months later was killed in a hit-and-run, and the driver never found. It all seems rather sad, but not in any way sinister – until, at the end of an interview with Pearse (the fact he is implied to be a priest may be significant) she faints again. A search of her home and a medical exam reveals that she is pregnant – but the embryo does not register on the ultrasound scanner.

The ‘pregnancy’, if that’s what it is, is apparently the product of sperm which Marion’s husband had frozen before his death. The team check out the IVF clinic involved – no doubt wondering if the ‘V’ stands for something different on this occasion – and initially find nothing to raise the alarm. Examining the late husband’s frozen semen, however, reveals something very unusual: the sperm show up on video, indicating they are normal, but spontaneously combust when exposed to sunlight. No wonder Marion seems to be having such a difficult pregnancy: it appears that she’s carrying more than she bargained for (the technical term is dhampyr). Thus ensues a cracking scene where Pearse and Angie discuss their options, including the possibility of a termination (the irony of a Catholic priest ordering one is not lost on Angie). ‘It’s not human,’ Pearse says. ‘It’s half human,’ Angie replies. ‘I believe that’s what I said,’ comes the response. Philip Quast is consistently impressive in this series, bringing a kind of understated gravitas to what could have been just a stock part; the fact he gets most of the best lines helps, too.

That said, this episode is really Susannah Harker’s chance to shine, and she really grabs it. (A fun connection: one of her ancestors was a Joseph Harker, a friend of Bram Stoker, and thus presumably the person that Jonathan Harker is named after in that well-known novel by Stoker.) All the ongoing plot threads concerning Mike and his relationships with Kirsty and Frances are got out of the way nice and early on, with Mike himself sort of shoved into the background along with Vaughan: rather subtly, the episode focuses primarily on Angie and her history, and her relationship with Marion.

As noted, this is all done with tremendous, and very creditable subtlety: Harker underplays it very effectively. But the subtext is still there if you look for it: the episode is about motherhood, in all sorts of different ways – the fierce desire for a child which Marion feels, Angie’s own residual guilt for destroying one of her own children after she was turned by the opposition, but above all the conflict between Angie’s empathy for Marion and her duties as a member of the inquisition. This is only exacerbated by the lack of emotional intelligence shown by any of the male leads – Rice and Colefield are basically just crass young blokes and Pearse has his higher calling. Vaughan Rice seems very sure that the opposition are completely devoid of normal emotions and sympathies, and that the experiment in progress is a means to some further end – but the episode actually seems to suggest otherwise, with Marion’s late husband, when he finally appears, showing signs of genuine distress at her situation. I don’t remember the show giving many other hints that the inquisition’s insistence that the opposition is purely and simply malevolent is anything but justified, but they’re certainly present here.

This initially looks like another police procedural episode, but rapidly takes a sharp turn into the realms of obstetric horror: the big question in this genre always being, what’s cooking? There’s almost a touch of Rosemary’s Baby to Marion’s situation, with her clinic, her opposition-sponsored midwife, the inquisition, and a well-meaning abortion clinic volunteer all attempting to manipulate her, and Emer Gillespie does a fine job of making her sympathetic but not too passive – but as a guest character, she inevitably doesn’t have quite the same prominence as Angie. Nevertheless, the conclusion of the episode has a genuine touch of tragedy to it, and Gillespie plays a key part in creating that feel. As obstetric horror stories go, this one is admirably underplayed and lacking in both tackiness and schlock. It doesn’t seem to have a particular axe to grind – it would be weird for it to come down unequivocally on either side of the fence, given the subject matter – except to suggest that women should have the right to choose for themselves. It’s a slightly simplistic message, but put across well and subtly.

I was thinking about all the post-X Files genre TV shows which came along in the mid to late 90s, specifically the British ones (the American and Canadian lists are even more extensive): apart from Ultraviolet, I’ve already mentioned Invasion: Earth and The Last Train (though that’s really the product of a different tradition). I suppose you could also mention the ITV adaptation of Oktober and the serial The Uninvited, plus The Vanishing Man, too. Apart from most of The Last Train, I don’t honestly remember most of the others as being much cop – but this episode of Ultraviolet is a top-class piece of intelligent and effective horror, with a serious subtext to it. Better than I remembered, and I remembered it being really, really good.

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Regular readers who’ve been following along with the final-season Avengers reviews have probably got used to my commenting rather drily on the sheer number of holiday and semi-holiday episodes enjoyed by Patrick Macnee and Linda Thorson in the course of this year. I honestly am starting to think I’ve misread this whole phenomenon: I know this series in particular was made under enormous pressure (US airdates were unforgiving beasts) and it may simply be that they had to double-bank many of the episodes (meaning they were effectively making two episodes at a time for much of the production block).

It perhaps also explains the sheer oddness of many of the episodes. Which brings us to Brian Clemens’ Pandora, another episode which is fairly functional but still hardly in the traditional Avengers style. Tara, in search of a particular clock, is lured to an antiques shop from which she is kidnapped by this week’s villains: the Lasindall brothers, played by Julian Glover (fourth appearance of four, and his second in a Tara episode – once again he has slightly different hair this time) and James Cossins (his only appearance on the show, but his tendency to play pompous or slightly dodgy establishment figures has been noted in these parts previously).

She wakes up in what seems to be a house in 1915, where the brothers and their maid insist on referring to her as Pandora. She is routinely drugged up to the ears, to the point at which she starts to wonder if she might not actually be Pandora after all (whoever that may be). Meanwhile, Steed is following the only clue – a note dropped by one of the brothers, suggesting a link to the First World War and a British agent known as the Fierce Rabbit…

As noted, it sort of hangs together in a Tales of the Unexpected melodrama way, complete with twist ending, but it all boils down to a plot by the brothers to con their very elderly relative into revealing the location of his secret treasure. A wildly convoluted and implausible plot, of course, but you sort of assume that. Tara spends most of the episode in a tranquilised stupor (insert your own joke here if you really, really must); Steed rattles around on the outside of the story until the very end; quite a lot of it concerns the guest cast, which also includes a fourth and final appearance by John Laurie. It almost feels like both regulars are on holiday, somehow – the production isn’t bad and the conclusion is acceptably clever, but it’s probably not what you’ve turned up for.

There’s much more chance you’ve turned up for a slightly formulaic Philip Levene script, built around an iffy sci-fi gimmick, maybe even one featuring yet another guest-villain appearance by Peter Bowles, and if so, Get-A-Way! will land squarely in your happy spot. (This was part of the initial group of Tara episodes, completed in February 1968, but not shown in the UK until May 1969, which may be why it feels so retro.) Much of the action is set in and around a supposedly maximum-security military prison (it is clearly nothing of the sort, but the plot makes its demands), run by Andrew Keir (second appearance of two, after a pretty thin cameo early in season five). The prison is disguised as a monastery (plenty of gun-toting monks are the warders) and it is currently playing host to three enemy assassins, led by Martin Ezdorf (Bowles), sent here to kill top British agents. One of them instantly escapes, apparently by disappearing into thin air.

Not entirely unsurprisingly, we find Steed playing host to a meeting of two of his very best friends (whom we have never heard of nor seen before, suspiciously enough). After this brazen bit of empty stakes-raising, one of his pals is ambushed and killed by the escaped assassin, who once again appears to materialise from nowhere…

Well, I’ve had some strange experiences with odd spirits, vodka amongst them, but the premise behind this episode – the enemy agents have been splashing their rear aspects with special vodka which allows them and their clothes to blend in with whatever they’re standing in front of – almost compels one to raise a eyebrow. This really isn’t Levene’s finest hour, but it rattles along fairly engagingly, helped by a decent performance by Peter Bowles, who’s trying hard to pull off the villain-as-dark-mirror-of-the-hero routine. He doesn’t quite manage it, but it feels a lot more like authentic Avengers than a lot of the later season six episodes.

And so the series ends, not quite as it began but fairly close, with a Brian Clemens script: namely, Bizarre, which one must assume is a rather differerent beast to Brought to Book, his first contribution to the series back in 1961 (now lost, along with the vast majority of the first season). It opens with a young woman with a Jean Seburg crop staggering across a snowy field (the location sequences have a wintry chill about them rather at odds with the general tone of the story) before collapsing.

For some reason an unconscious woman in a nightdress turning up in a field attracts the attention of Steed’s department (one can’t help but wonder why) and investigations reveal she fell off a train travelling along a nearby line. When asked about this, she remembers there being a coffin on the train, too, the occupant of which rose and attacked her. It turns out the body of her alleged assailant was that of disgraced financier Jonathan Jupp (John Sharp, third appearance of three), who has now been laid to rest in a high-class cemetery operated by Roy Kinnear (fourth of four), whose character is called Bagpipes Happychap for no remotely plausible reason.

It seems that Jupp’s body has disappeared – but also that the cemetery is full of disgraced tycoons and other dodgy-but-rich types who just happened to die before the authorities could take them to task for their activities. Could these things be connected? Of course they could. I have seen Bizarre get a rough ride in some reviews, mainly because the plotline is quite so far-fetched (also because some of the sets aren’t brilliant, and this may be a fair point) – it all boils down to another scheme to help crooks dodge justice, but this one involves a yogic expert known as the Master – Fulton Mackay (third of three, and second Tara episode) in a turban and blackface – and a subterranean luxury resort/disco underneath the cemetery itself. If it tried to take itself seriously, it would be absurd – but it never does, this is the show very definitely pitched as a comedy. Even as such, it’s still not the series at anything near its best, but there are some decent gags and enough laughs to make it worth watching even if you’re not aware it’s the very last episode of the series.

The end is nigh.

So, having been through every surviving episode from the second season onward over the course of the last eight or nine months, what conclusions can one draw about The Avengers? Well, firstly, it’s a bit reductive to treat this as just one series – any TV show which runs for more than three or four years is going to shift its style and approach very appreciably. The Avengers is no exception, and honestly feels like at least three or four different programmes across its five surviving seasons. It almost goes without saying that the two series with Diana Rigg as Emma Peel are the high-point of the run, and indeed quite possibly one of the high-points of British TV in general (certainly the fourth season). But there are lots of Honor Blackman episodes which stand up very well, and even a few from the final year which are outstanding.

In the end, though, how could one regret taking the time to watch such an inventive, witty, strange, and entertaining series? (If nothing else, the exercise revealed there were still a few Rigg and Thorson episodes I’d never actually seen.) Very little on TV these days is such consistently good fun, and virtually no drama. It’s a treacherous path to start down, but maybe things really were better in the past.

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