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Posts Tagged ‘thriller’

The line between episodic and serialised TV has become very blurred this century, but they used to be two quite distinct forms. It was in the late 90s that ongoing plot elements began to appear on a routine basis even in programmes which ostensibly did stories-of-the-week. Bearing all this in mind, the question of whether Ultraviolet is a serial or not becomes a somewhat moot one. It’s really in a sort of netherworld between the two – it does build towards a climax in the final episode, but on the other hand, the second episode (In Nomine Patris, written and directed like all the others by Joe Ahearne) feels very much like an exercise in establishing the format for an ongoing series.

It opens with a woman named Danni Ashford (Jane Slavin) visiting her mother, who is deeply in the grip of Alzheimers’, while an associate (Christopher Villiers) waits outside in an expensive car. It looks like she has a big decision to make, and her companion – a smooth, handsome type – makes a big deal about not pushing her into it. They drive off, and the heavily-tinted windows of the car give us a big clue as to what may be going on here. Sure enough, the car is involved in a road rage incident after the man nearly runs a couple of bikers off the road: furiously, one of them attacks the vehicle with a wrench, damaging the window and allowing sunlight into the interior. The man begins to combust as the sun’s rays strike him, and he desperately drives away, running over his attacker’s companion as he does so…

Meanwhile, Vaughan Rice has been completing Mike’s induction into the inquisition – Mike is less than amused when the computerised firing range presents an image of Kirsty as a possible target, but Vaughan makes the point that their enemies are ruthless when it comes to exploiting any weak spots or vulnerabilities. Mike is clearly conflicted about the idea of cutting all ties with her (perhaps a bit too obviously conflicted, this plot element is laid on with a trowel), but before they can resolve the issue they are off on a job: news of the driver of a blacked-out car spontaneously combusting is right up their street, after all.

The evidence suggests their quarry is Lester Hammond, playboy son of tycoon Gideon Hammond (Trevor Bowen). The senior Hammond has recently specialised in constructing unusual bits of architecture – bunkers and basements with no windows, ventilation or plumbing – which is also rather suggestive. Pearse’s directive is to follow the money and find out what the opposition is up to, and the trail leads to a clinic researching into various blood disorders (which it’s suggested the opposition view rather in the same way that humans regard things like fowl pest and foot-and-mouth disease: they contaminate the food supply).

As usual, the episode takes great pains to be downbeat and naturalistic – there’s a reasonable twist towards the end, about the real identity of the man they’re hunting, but most of it you could watch with the sound turned down and not suspect this was much more than a routine police procedural show. I really like the way Ultraviolet generally eschews the flashy and the camp, not least because it just gives extra oomph to those moments when they do arrive. The set-piece with Hammond beginning to burn up in the car is very neatly done, and there are a couple of other pleasingly grisly touches: Slavin’s character ends up with a nasty hand-shaped burn on her arm as a result of the same scene, while the crushed vertebrae of a paraplegic turned by the opposition are visible when they send her to take out Mike.

Almost in passing, lots of interesting and flavourful world-building is going on here: Mike’s friend Frances indicates the inquisition is officially operating as part of the anti-terrorism squad (which sort of makes sense, although it may be another cover). Pearse suggests the opposition were responsible for the Great Fire of London, apparently an attempt to stop the spread of the plague. It’s confirmed that the opposition don’t register on cameras or phones, which just leads me to wonder – what about motion sensors? Pressure pads? (Some interesting possibilities here.) One twist on the usual lore is that the opposition can’t regenerate damage or injuries leaving Hammond permanently disfigured and in constant agony. On the other hand, being turned restores a paralysed young woman’s ability to walk, which does suggest some kind of regenerative ability, and Angie has already indicated this is one of their powers (presumably it’s just UV exposure that does irreparable damage to them). It’s indicated again that the dissolution of one of the bad guys is basically like a small bomb going off (so get ready to run after staking one of them).

What one of the opposition looks like after forgetting his sun block.

Beyond all this, though, the episode does have a theme, and one which works well with the conceit of keeping the actual monsters off-screen and in the shadows most of the time. We see them more through their effect on the people around them – Gideon Hammond, though outwardly successful, has lived his whole life in the shadow of the thing which has dominated him, while Lester has clearly done a number of Danni Ashford. With (it’s implied) a family history of dementia, it’s entirely reasonable that she would look for a way to dodge the ageing process and its effects. Nevertheless, it’s made quite clear that there is nothing benevolent about the agenda or methods of the opposition – the question, of course, is whether this justifies the methods the inquisition adopt, or the cost to its members: they intimidate witnesses into silence, cover up mysterious deaths and other activity, and Rice indicates that none of them have any friends outside the unit – the risk to them is just too great. It’s a hard and cold life being a slayer, it would seem.

I think this is a strong episode, but I can see why Ultraviolet ended up as a cult gem rather than a mainstream hit: it’s mostly a detective thriller, but people who’d enjoyed something like Between the Lines would probably have issues with the whole concept of the show. On the other hand, its determination to keep things real and grounded may have meant it seemed rather dull to many members of the fantasy and horror fan tribe. It may be pitching to a small constituency, but it’s still a very effective piece of TV.

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My Wildest Dream is another Philip Levene script from early in season six; it was the first show from the full production block comprising the bulk of the Tara episodes. The US got it three months before the UK; the British transmission came over a year after production was completed. If any of this matters, it’s because this is another of those episodes which does feel somewhat like a fifth season script with Emma Peel’s name scratched out and Tara King’s written in to replace it.

Steed finds himself the recipient of a series of odd anonymous phone-calls, each one requesting him to be in a certain place at a certain time. Every time he and Tara follow the tip-off, they find themselves witnessing the immediate aftermath of a murder – but Steed has no acquaintance with any of the killers or the victims, so what’s going on?

The fact that everyone involved is a top businessman, many of them on the board of the same company, is certainly indicative, as is the fact that the desk diaries of several of the killers have disappeared. Steed and Tara’s investigations lead them to Jaeger (Peter Vaughan), a rather unorthodox psychiatrist – specialising in ‘aggresso-therapy’, his method is to unlock the violent impulses latent in everyone, and give them expression through cathartic dreams (often of murdering irritating colleagues). But it’s just therapy, Jaeger insists, it’s not like he has any reason for wanting his clients to kill. Steed is somewhat bemused, but can’t pin anything on the shrink – however, Jaeger’s receptionist does have an oddly familiar telephone manner…

After the exuberance of a lot of the sixth season episodes, this one feels a little bit staid and talky, but it’s a superior offering nevertheless – mainly because it does make a concerted, and rather successful attempt to hoodwink the viewer about who the actual bad guy is. There are a couple of other fairly decent twists, one of which (when it arrives) explains the presence of a number of slightly laborious comedy scenes involving Edward Fox as a frustrated suitor of Tara’s. Also in the cast is Philip Madoc, making his fifth and final appearance on the show. In the end, after some dodgy recent offerings, it’s nice to come across an episode which is so reminiscent of the glory days.

What almost looks suspiciously like a semi-holiday episode (Patrick Macnee spends most of it on one set) comes along next, in the form of Brian Clemens’ Requiem. This was the first Tara episode I saw, and the first colour episode: the whole of season five slipped past me on its mid-80s re-run: I distinctly recall wondering who the new characters were, and thinking (despite what my father said) that Linda Thorson wasn’t as good as Diana Rigg.

The department is protecting Miranda (Angela Douglas, from various Carry On films), the key witness who is due to testify against Murder International (which proves to be a fearsomely large and well-resourced organisation). Steed whisks her off to protective custody at a location known only to Mother and him, which leads to the bad guys setting their sights on Tara – she is captured but escapes, though not before learning of a plan to booby-trap Steed’s flat. She rushes there, but not quite quickly enough…

She wakes up in hospital, her legs in plaster, and is told that the bomb which wrecked the flat killed Mother. (Her doctor is played by John Paul, who later starred in Doomwatch and played a somewhat similar character in several episodes of The New Avengers.) The need to find Steed and Miranda before the bad guys do is still pressing – so can she remember any details to help them locate Steed’s hide-out?

I suspect that once you know the twist (and it’s a relatively obvious one from the moment you learn Mother has supposedly been blown up), this episode loses a fair amount of its charm, but it does work hard to sell its main idea, as well as disguise the fact Macnee is on light duties (he gets some nice scenes with Douglas, who proceeds to trounce him at every game they play to pass the time – these are all whiffle, not to put too fine a point on it, but Macnee sells them magnificently). It does still rely on Tara conveniently fainting whenever the bad guys need her to, but there’s a strong cast and a clever resolution to the story (in which it’s Mother and Rhonda who deal with the villains, not Steed or Tara). I suspect I’m probably being a little too hard on it, for whatever reason. Hmmm.

Tara is pleased to find Mother is not dead after all. Understated work as ever from Patrick Newell.

Once more unto the unpredictable world of Terry Nation – I really am on the verge of turning into Sue Perryman – for his script Take-Over. This feels very much like something he had on the boil when he got the job as script editor and turned into an Avengers episode, rather than something written specifically for the series.

After a teaser which does nothing but introduce the episode’s gimmick – death by remote control – we learn that Steed is off for a weekend in the country visiting some old friends (Michael Gwynn, perhaps best known as Lord Melbury from Fawlty Towers, and Elizabeth Sellars). Could this be yet another semi-holiday episode? There have been so many of these things one is inclined to wonder if the show isn’t just routinely double-banking at this point; I wouldn’t be surprised.

Any chance of a nice weekend is spoilt when Steed’s friends the Bassetts (who for some reason have a vintage car in their front room) are descended upon by diabolical mastermind Grenville (Tom Adams, very smooth) and his henchmen (one of whom is Garfield Morgan, making his third appearance as a heavy and his second just this season – they stick a toupee on him to try and disguise this a bit). Grenville needs the house for an undisclosed nefarious scheme, but also needs the occupants alive, so rather than kill them he has them fitted with remote-control death implants by his loopy underling Circe (Hilary Pritchard). He has planned for every eventuality – except for Steed arriving unexpectedly…

The death-implants aside, this is a very straight thriller – I seem to recall an episode of the later Clemens series The Professionals with a very similar premise – and played as such by most of the actors. Tom Adams is in expansive Bond-villain mode, but you can imagine him playing the Commander himself on a different day. It’s reasonable stuff, I suppose, with an unusually hard edge for The Avengers – Steed actually gets shot and wounded, for the first time in what must be a couple of years. That’s the thing about it, really: like a lot of Nation’s stuff, it’s okay on its own terms, but he just doesn’t seem to have much feel for the tone and style of this series. Still, this was his final screened contribution – the handful of episodes left are written by either Brian Clemens or Philip Levene. Yes, we’ve nearly finished, at least as far as The Avengers itself is concerned…

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I believe that at some point near the start of this rather unusual, unexpected year, I talked about getting to the point where I’d seen all the classic SF and fantasy TV series of the 20th century (this was on the occasion of finally viewing the whole of Sapphire and Steel). Well, if nothing else, 2020 has given me the opportunity to learn that – for instance – there were in fact many episodes of The Avengers I hadn’t actually watched, and remember that there were quite a few other shows, some of them relatively obscure, around as well (Star Cops obviously leaps to mind).

Star Cops usually gets cited as the last proper BBC science-fiction show of the 20th century (this overlooks Invasion: Earth, from 1998), with ITV’s last effort of the century probably 1999’s The Last Train – but by the mid 80s, there was a fourth channel in town, the sensibly-named Channel 4. For me, Channel 4 will always be the place where I first saw repeats of Danger Man, The Avengers and The Prisoner, but by 1998 it was making its own cult dramas, specifically in the form of Joe Ahearne’s Ultraviolet.

The first episode, Habeas Corpus, opens in central London, with a shabby, nervous man sitting on a bridge watching the sun go down. A car pulls up nearby, sinisterly (at least, as sinisterly as a piece of parking can be). Meanwhile, detective Mike Colefield (Jack Davenport) – a slightly infelicitous choice of name, surely, it always puts me in mind of the Tubular Bells dude – is busy at the stag night for his partner, Jack (Stephen Moyer). He starts getting phone calls from the nervous man, demanding to meet – it seems he is an informant of Jack’s – and eventually agrees, just to get the man to shut up.

The informant has taken cover in an amusement arcade, but just before Mike arrives a man who emerged from the sinister car at sunset shoots and kills him. Mike gives chase, but loses his quarry when he heads into a tube station – our first inkling that this may be more than just a conventional cop thriller comes when Mike is unable to locate the killer using the station’s CCTV system: he simply doesn’t register on the screen, having previously not shown up in a mirror…

The next day, Jack’s wedding is thrown into chaos when the groom fails to appear, and a full investigation into his appearance uncovers evidence that he was actually on the take. Mike initially refuses to believe it, but soon realises that something very odd is going on – the informant was shot and killed at point blank range, but once again the security cameras show nobody near him at the time. The involvement in the case of two detectives supposedly from CIB (the anti-corruption unit), Angela March (Susannah Harker) and Vaughan Rice (Idris Elba), also doesn’t ring true somehow. Mike launches his own personal investigation and discovers that March and Rice are not police – she is a former academic, he is ex-army – and their ruthless methods and secretiveness make him suspicious. Jack himself reappears, insisting they are members of a death squad looking to kill him, asking for Mike’s help in learning more about them.

After witnessing Rice and his men in action, Mike acquires some of their gear – guns with weird sights firing wooden bullets, and gas grenades loaded with a garlic-derivative – and discovers they are based out of a church and led by a priest named Pearse (Philip Quast). But what could a Vatican-led team be doing using wooden projectiles and garlic against killers who avoid the sunlight and don’t show up in mirrors…?

The team check out the ‘prison’ where dormant Code Fives are kept in storage.

It nearly goes without saying that Ultraviolet is a product of its era, part of the boom in ‘quality’ genre entertainment which followed the massive success of The X Files (the same as Invasion: Earth, really). A lot of these programmes really weren’t terribly good, and I was slightly worried about revisiting this one – I remember Ultraviolet as being brilliant, but then at the time my life-long affection for Hammer horror movies had been joined by a fascination with Vampire: The Masquerade and its associated games and I was a sucker (no pun intended) for anything in this particular vein (ditto).

Happily, Ultraviolet is very nearly as classy and enjoyable as I remember it being at the time – it doesn’t look quite as slick and cinematic as I recalled, but the only thing which feels a little dated about this opening episode is the incidental music, which is just a bit too on-the-nose. The great thing about it is that it’s in no hurry whatsoever to get to its genre elements, or overplay them when they appear, and it steers clear of most of the classic trappings of the genre. The v-word itself is carefully never used on-screen – the latter-day inquisition’s targets are referred to by the euphemism ‘Code 5’, or possibly ‘Code V’ for those with a classical education – and the show takes a reasonably sceptical attitude to some of the lore. We don’t get to see the effect that daylight has on them this week, but a length of wood through the heart results in a spectacular dissolution. As far as the efficacy of holy symbols against them goes, Angie March suggests this may be psychosomatic – but on the other hand, Jack (who has been turned by the opposition) suggests that there are some places they can’t easily infiltrate (the implication may be that he’s talking about holy ground), while Mike finds himself incapable of entering a church while suffering from the after-effects of being bitten.

These days, possibly the main point of interest in this show is that it features one of the first lead performances from Idris Elba – much more famous these days, of course, for advertising the seasonal output of satellite TV networks – while Jack Davenport (well-known at the time for This Life) has also gone on to have a pretty decent Hollywood career too. Odd to see them both looking so young here, but that’s the eerie preservative effect of archive TV, I suppose. It’s clear from the start that this is kind of a high-concept show – as the Exposition Man, Philip Quast gets most of the best dialogue – and everyone at this point is still suggesting character in small ways rather than actually getting much to work with. The slowest element of the episode concerns Mike’s relationship with Jack’s fiancee (Colette Brown), whom he clearly has a bit of a thing for: it skirts the borders of soap-opera melodrama, and doesn’t add much to the episode. However, it does set up some of the continuing threads that will run through the series, and isn’t in itself enough to spoil what’s a notably confident and effective introduction to the series.

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One of the things which has genuinely surprised me about this trawl through The Avengers‘ sixth season – it turns out there are more than a few of these episodes I have no recollection of ever having seen before – is the degree to which it occasionally anticipates The New Avengers. The department-based format obviously helps with this, as does the shift back towards something vaguely realistic. Sometimes the resemblance is not just general, but specific: Complex (New Avengers) has a similar premise to Killer (Avengers), Sleeper has a similar atmosphere (and uses a similar plot device) to The Morning After, and Jeremy Burnham’s Who Was That Man I Saw You With? does have the same kind of plot as Hostage from the sequel show.

Tara has been given special duties, which are to try and breach security around the new Field Marshal defence system: this looks rather like a case of the government putting a super-computer in charge of everything, but it’s an acceptable plot device. As the security system was apparently designed by Steed (in the absence of Cathy or Emma he has apparently become not just the brains of the team, but a very clever chap all-round), she has not been having much luck.

What she doesn’t realise is that a grooming-obsessed diabolical mastermind named Gilpin (Alan Macnaughtan, second appearance of two) is using this exercise to bring about the dismantling of the Field Marshal system and thus leave the country wide open to enemy attack. How he does this is by framing Tara as a traitor, who has been trying to break security in earnest rather than as an exercise: this involves lots of people trailing each other in cars and surreptitious surveillance, and Steed and Mother looking very grave as they contemplate having to put Tara under arrest. It’s quite well-done but just a bit predictable and dour; the bad guys are decent enough, and there are some entertaining fight sequences. A good performance from Linda Thorson, too. I’m not sure that doing ‘serious’ Avengers episodes this late on doesn’t miss the point of the show, but this is certainly one of the better ones.

So it’s come to this: an Avengers clip show. Well, not quite, but the general sense of the sixth season occasionally being a production in complete chaos reaches its zenith (or perhaps nadir) with Homicide and Old Lace, ostensibly written by Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks (who were quite cross about the end results, if memory serves). Two apparently sweet old ladies appear to be cooking up a nasty surprise for Mother when he comes to visit them – but it turns out they are his aunties, and the antique pistols they are waving about are his birthday present.

Mother’s aunties have become big fans of the spy genre and want to hear a true story, so he ends up spinning them a yarn about an attempt by the Intercrime organisation to steal all the art treasures of Britain in one fell swoop. At least, it turns out to be that, once we’ve seen a couple of clips from The Bird Who Knew Too Much and Murdersville; later on, action sequences from The Fear Merchants and Never, Never Say Die are likewise reused, resulting in a bizarre Christopher Lee cameo.

Apparently what happened was this: an episode called The Great Great Britain Crime was on the shelf when John Bryce was sacked and Clemens and Fennell reinstated, but it was deemed unbroadcastable (I can’t believe it was worse than Invasion of the Earthmen) and cannibalised to make this, with the framing material with Mother and his aunties added to cover, or at least fill, the many resulting gaps in the narrative. To say the result is inconsistent is rather an understatement: it’s hard to judge if the original episode was really as bad as all that (the basic premise is actually quite a clever one), and it certainly has an interesting cast (Edward Brayshaw, who briefly appears, ended up making rather more of an impression in another Hulke-Dicks-scripted TV series later in 1969). The rather knowing running commentary from Mother’s aunties on the implausibility of the story is also mildly amusing. But it’s so obviously been slapped together to cover for some massive production slip-up that having the patience to even keep up with the plot becomes a bit of a challenge. Personally I don’t think it’s quite as bad as Invasion of the Earthmen, but it is a real mess.

Steed has just read the script; Rhonda is the only one who thinks the tag scene is funny.

Speaking of Terry Nation scripts, we’re back in his weirdly unpredictable world for the next episode, Thingumajig (which is practically another fridge title). A group of archaeologists are exploring the crypt of a Norman church when one of them comes across something rather mysterious – which promptly kills him with a flash of light and a crackle of electricity. Not obviously Steed and Tara’s wheelhouse, you might think – which Nation gets round by making the vicar of the church in question an old friend of Steed’s, who asks him for help.

Well, all the signs are that something is on the loose that kills people and feeds on electricity, and the story gets a lot of mileage out of the investigative angle of all this, with odd tracks, dead fish, and so on. Steed eventually turns up a mysterious black box, which he gives to Tara for safekeeping. What’s actually going on is that another diabolical mastermind (Iain Cuthbertson) has hit upon a scheme whereby the Other Side will pay him to cripple the UK by unleashing hundreds of homicidal electricity-eating black boxes (these are basically just very cheaply-realised robots), but he’s mislaid two of them…

Steed gets lots to do (this looks rather like a semi-holiday episode for Linda Thorson, as Tara spends most of it in her flat), but it somehow doesn’t feel very much like The Avengers – we’re very near the border between improbable techno-thriller and no-foolin’ sci-fi with this story – and despite the premise it’s all played rather straight. The scene in which Tara is menaced in her flat by a cardboard box that’s been sprayed black has the sort of kitsch grandeur to it you’d normally associate with very primitive sci-fi B-movies rather than a usually-class act like The Avengers, too. Apart from this, it’s a little hard to point to anything genuinely dreadful about it, but it’s still below-par even for season six.

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There’s a danger that the general comprehensive grimness of much of this year will end up eclipsing the fact that there have been positive glimmerings of different kinds, as well. But neither should we let the disaster of the pandemic obscure other regrettable events that we might ordinarily have paid more attention to. Of course, our culture operating in the way that it does, we are approaching the time of year where tributes to some of the people we have lost make convenient and popular material to fill airtime. They showed Brian De Palma’s 1987 film The Untouchables the other night, primarily as a tribute to Sean Connery, but of course it works just as well as a reminder of the gifts of Ennio Morricone.

This is one of those movies I originally ended up watching quite without meaning to. The film got its UK TV premiere back in 1991, when my sister – I hope she will forgive me for revealing this – had a bit of an adolescent crush on Kevin Costner. You can be silly when you’re young, and the fact that she wanted to tape The Untouchables (despite being a few years too young to watch it, strictly speaking) was enough to put me off the idea of seeing it. And yet, for whatever reason, I ended up watching the very beginning of the film, fully intending to switch off.

I learned a couple of important lessons that night: the most obvious one, that it’s possible for people you may have differences of opinion with to still like great movies, but also about the power of a great film soundtrack. Something about the main theme, with its drivingly urgent percussion and strings, hooked me instantly, and gave me the strongest impression that this was a movie made by people who really knew their craft.

Thankfully, the rest of the movie did nothing to dispel this impression. The story takes place in 1930, and concerns itself with the consequences of prohibition: specifically the rise of immensely wealthy and powerful gangsters, and the rise in violent crime accompanying this. One of these men, Al Capone (Robert De Niro) has reached the point where he has essentially become the unelected mayor of Chicago. However, Capone’s organisation is responsible for one atrocity too many and the government appoints Eliot Ness (Costner), an earnest and idealistic young agent of the Treasury, to bring the bootleggers to justice.

However, Ness’ initial operations end farcically, and it soon becomes apparent that the Chicago police department is as corrupt and compromised as the rest of the city’s establishment – well, almost. A disconsolate Ness encounters veteran beat cop Malone (Connery), who does seem – to coin a cliche – like the one honest policeman in the city. Against his better judgment, Malone helps Ness assemble a team including sharpshooting young cop George Stone (Andy Garcia) and accountancy expert Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), and they set about finding a way to bring Capone down…

This is, of course, the film that Sean Connery won an Oscar for. Some would say ‘finally’, although this rather depends on whether you’re of the school of thought that Academy Awards should genuinely reward the best pieces of film acting in a given year, or go to people with lengthy careers and impressive bodies of work as movie stars. I’ve often been quite lukewarm about Connery and his acting – there’s a good deal of potboiling dross on the Connery CV, alongside the undeniable classics – and the baffling accent he deploys as the supposedly Irish-American cop Malone is distracting, to say the least. In theory Connery is doing the same kind of thing as in Highlander a year or two earlier: he’s the wise old mentor, imparting his wisdom to a slightly dull and callow lead before obligingly letting himself be killed off in the second act, in order to allow the hero to have the spotlight to himself for the climax to the film. In Highlander it’s just a big character turn, with Connery at his twinkliest – but here, he manages to bring the film heft and depth, as well as humour. This is certainly one of Connery’s best films outside of the early Bonds, and it’s largely as good as it is because of his performance.

Nevertheless, a classic movie is rarely a one-man-show, and even before Connery appears and after he departs, the rest of the movie is slick and effective: it’s true that Costner initially comes across as a rather bland and insipid hero, but that’s almost the point – the journey here is of a man being blooded, only achieving success at the cost of losing some of his innocence. This finds its apotheosis in the moment when Ness finds Capone’s chief enforcer, the man who has killed many innocents and two of Ness’ friends, and has him at his mercy. The camera does an enormous zoom into mega-close-up on Costner’s eyes, and you can see the conflict in them as he contemplates simply killing the man out of hand: one of Costner’s finest moments, I would say.

Of course, the zoom and the mega-close-up are very obvious directorial effects, but then this is a Brian De Palma film and a degree of show-offishness comes with the territory: this is one of Tarantino’s favourite film-makers, after all. De Palma has lots of fun with long fancy shots and other tricks in the course of the film, but this never becomes downright irritating. He also manages to pull off the bravura sequence with the gunfight on the train-station steps and the lengthy build-up to it: it would almost seem pretentious to drop such an obvious homage to Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin into what is, after all, a studio gangster movie, were it not that De Palma manages to make it work so well.

Understated restraint isn’t really De Palma’s thing, and the way the film ping-pongs between bloody violence and some quite sentimental scenes would usually be tricky to pull off. However, he has Morricone in his corner, and the composer supplies a score which draws the viewer in and manages to smooth the various transitions, as well as being lush and beautiful to listen to. It’s not quite the case that the soundtrack makes the movie, but once again it makes a significant contribution to it.

Film-making is a collaborative exercise, in the end, and the quality of this film is another reminder of that. On paper, it doesn’t sound like anything particularly special – maybe even a bit hackneyed and predictable. But the contributions of De Palma, Morricone, writer David Mamet, Connery, Costner, and the rest of the cast crew result in something which is entertaining, powerful, and even oddly poetic and beautiful in places. This is the kind of film anyone would be happy to be remembered for.

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Jeremy Burnham’s Love All is one of the handful of episodes I looked at prior to this epic trek through the entirety of The Avengers and as is not unusual I find I don’t have much to add to my original review – except that, obviously, some aspects of the story can’t help but feeling a little bit problematic. The central gag (successful civil servants fall madly in love with fag-puffing drab) is what I’m referring to; on the other hand, the denouement really does give Patrick Macnee an opportunity to shine. Good supporting cast, too.

Tony Williamson’s Stay Tuned has something of a fridge title and initially looks rather like yet another holiday episode: Steed is off on leave, his cases are packed, his phone has been redirected, and so on. Then someone calls at his flat and knocks him unconscious with one punch (this only happens when the plot is predicated on it being possible). From this we go straight back into what initially looks like the same scene, with Macnee going through the same actions and dialogue as he prepares for his break – until Tara arrives and reveals that it’s three weeks later and Steed’s due back at work.

Clearly, completely losing his memory of three full weeks is a concern for Steed and his superiors at the department (Mother is on leave as well, and in temporary command is Father (Iris Russell, in the third of three appearances). All the evidence suggests that Steed really has been on the continent for three weeks, but he finds himself unable to accept this, with the fragments of memory he recovers leading him repeatedly to a townhouse in London – but every time he gets close to uncovering the truth, he finds himself back in his apartment, preparing to go on holiday…

This goes most of the way towards being one of the best episodes of the season, with an intriguing premise, supported by one of Patrick Macnee’s strongest and most serious performances from the colour series. It’s an atypically serious episode all round – Mother is usually an outrageous caricature, but Russell plays Father absolutely straight and makes enough of an impression for you to wish they’d brought the character back (and no, the movie doesn’t count). Then again, her presence in the episode at all is just to facilitate the plot, so I suppose it was really necessary for this character to make an impression.

Further down the cast we have an appearance from a young Kate O’Mara, who is in largely-decorative cahoots with Roger Delgado, playing an evil hypnotist with a penchant for flamboyant weaponry (obviously anticipating the role for which Delgado will go down in the annals of popular culture). Sadly, neither of them really get much to do, and neither does Duncan Lamont – the role of chief baddie goes to Gary Bond (possibly best known for Wake in Fright), who is acceptably creepy.

Roger Delgado spent an appreciable chunk of his career in this sort of pose.

What lets it down is simply a rushed climax, which doesn’t really hold up on any level. It looks like we’re heading for one of those rare occasions where Steed and his partner take each other on in earnest, but either there wasn’t time for this or some other problem, and the episode essentially just fizzles out with virtually nothing in the way of actual explanation as to why. A shame, as if the ending were up to the standard of the rest of it, this would be a terrific episode.

Terry Nation returns with the slightly gimmicky episode Take Me To Your Leader, which revolves around the disposition of a mysterious red leather case. The Other Side are using this to make a delivery to a traitor somewhere in England, using a series of couriers. The case itself gives instructions on where to take it for the next step of the trip, once the correct key is inserted into the lock (the case will explode if it is interfered with). So, naturally, it’s up to Steed and Tara to take the case to its ultimate recipient, dealing with all the various couriers along the way.

A bit of a mixed bag, this one, I would say (no pun intended), though as this is a Nation script that shouldn’t really be a surprise. Some of the little interludes with the different couriers are effective and very funny – Steed’s encounter with an avaricious small girl is a particular highlight – and none of them are actually bad. There’s even a scene where Linda Thorson engages in hand-to-hand combat with Penelope Keith (making her third and final appearance on the show), or at least their stunt doubles do – the presence of the stunt doubles seems particularly obvious this week. On the other hand, there’s also some slightly strained whimsy going on, not to mention Patrick Macnee effectively going missing for most of the first act. The identity of the traitor is also a bit flippin’ obvious, for all of Nation’s efforts to obfuscate this. A decent episode in the end, I would say.

Jeremy Burnham turns in another above-average script in the form of Fog, slightly atypical though it is. Members of the World Disarmament Committee are arriving in London for one of their regular get-togethers, arriving in a city where the streets are choked with fog (it’s never been like this before in The Avengers, not least because it looks like most of this episode was shot in the studio). Soon enough one of the group has wandered off and got himself murdered by a mysterious figure in a top hat and a cape, carrying a swordstick. The killer departs to the sound of the clattering hooves of a hansom cab…

Steed and Tara’s investigations take in theatrical costumers and hansom cab hire companies before (naturally) leading them to the Gaslight Ghoul Club, an association of gentlemen united by their fascination with the criminal activities of the Gaslight Ghoul, a serial killer active in London in late 1888. With the killer continuing to stalk the members of the disarmament committee, could it be that one of the club members has chosen to emulate the killer? But why these particular victims?

My issue with any kind of piece of escapist entertainment riffing off the legend of Jack the Ripper – which includes a number of things I’m really quite fond of – is that they tend to encourage people to forget that the Ripper was a real historical figure who brutally and misogynistically murdered at least five women. This episode is as guilty of that as anything else in the canon, I guess, but it’s no more interested in fem jeop than most other Avengers episodes, and the studio-bound, Victoriana-informed look of the thing certainly makes it distinctive. Decent guest performances from the likes of Nigel Green (second of two) and Guy Rolfe, too.

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By some quirk of the scheduling process, one Linda Thorson holiday episode is followed by… another Linda Thorson holiday episode, Brian Clemens’ The Morning After. Steed’s partner for this story is, effectively, Jimmy Merlin (played by Peter Barkworth in his fourth and final appearance on the show). Merlin is a quadruple-agent and generally shifty character (with, it’s suggested, conjuring skills that border on the actually supernatural) who opens the episode by stealing some new top-secret sleeping gas capsules. Steed and Tara have set up a fake meeting where they can apprehend him – Steed is sufficiently wary of Merlin’s abilities to carry a gun – and while it initially goes to plan, Merlin uses the sleeping gas to try and escape and all three fall asleep for twenty-four hours.

Steed wakes up to find the streets around the office where the meeting took place completely deserted – everyone seems to have literally vanished overnight. Leaving Tara to continue to sleep it off (which she does, for almost the entirety of the episode), he handcuffs himself to Merlin and sets off to deliver his prisoner to the proper authorities. But the whole town seems silent and empty – until Steed and Merlin come across a patrol of soldiers, whom they witness shooting a man in cold blood as a looter…

It’s an effective gimmick for an episode, and one that Clemens had used before and would return to again in The New Avengers. The revelation of the mystery as to what’s going on – and what’s really going on – obviously has a lot riding on it, and it’s here that these stories do fall down a bit. The twist here is clever enough – Joss Ackland plays a disgruntled army officer looking to hold the country to ransom in a piece of nuclear blackmail, with Brian Blessed (second of two) in a thin (but typically fortissimo) role as one of the mercenaries under his command – but it’s the early part of the episode which is most effective. The teaming of Steed and Merlin is a rather effective one – Barkworth is easily good enough to hold his own against Patrick Macnee, and Merlin – resourceful, clever, charming, but completely self-interested – is such an interesting character you wish they’d bring him back (they never do). Probably a bit above average, in the end.

The scheduling process seems to have been as quirky as hell, as the next episode looks suspiciously like yet another Thorson holiday episode, which makes it three in a row, in terms of the UK broadcast order at least. Production of The Avengers‘ sixth season being the chaotic extravaganza that it was, this was actually one of the first episodes to be made, as the shrewd viewer may in fact be able to guess: Steed is in his green Bentley, not an ugly cream Rolls, while the script is credited to Philip Levene – arguably the main writer of seasons four and five, but not really making his presence felt this year. My research indicates that John Bryce was fired and Clemens and Fennell reinstated while this episode was actually in production, which may or may not have a bearing on all this.

This kind of detailed detective work (all right, I just googled it) would seem entirely appropriate for an episode entitled The Curious Case of the Countless Clues, in which we initially meet a duo who appear to be detectives, played by Anthony Bate and Kenneth Cope (second of two). The gag is that they turn out to be murderers, whose ‘detective work’ involves framing a wealthy man for a murder he did not commit and then blackmailing him. Several of their targets are friends of Steed’s, although he is drawn into the case by a deerstalker-wearing detective named Sir Arthur Doyle (boom boom), played by Peter Jones (second of two). The Sherlockian gag is obvious but doesn’t really inform the story; more subtle but equally superficial is the fact that the three villains are called Earle, Stanley and Gardiner.

All of this is just whimsical set-dressing on what’s actually a fairly dull and mundane tale of blackmailers with an unusually elaborate and preposterous M.O., nothing like the best of Levene’s work on the show. All of Thorson’s scenes are filmed on the same set with a bit of laborious fem jeop at the end as the villains arrive to frame Steed for her murder (needless to say the crime is averted). It’s competently done and there are flashes of the colder, less avuncular Steed we haven’t really seen in earnest since the black and white shows, and it’s at least less dull and incompetent than the other Bryce episodes – but at this point I genuinely start running out of nice things to say about it.

And, would you believe it, yet another holiday episode follows, in the form of Tony Williamson’s Wish You Were Here – although this is a slightly different beast than the three preceding it, not least in that it’s Tara who gets the break, not Linda Thorson (in other words, this is a holiday episode for Patrick Macnee).

Tara is contacted by an employee of her Uncle Charles (Liam Redmond, second of two) who has gone on holiday and not returned – his postcards indicate he is happy enough, but he can’t be reached by phone and in his absence one of his associates is taking over the company. She decides to take some leave and make sure he’s okay, leaving Steed and Mother to work on a gobbledegook case back at HQ.

She finds her uncle at the Elizabethan Hotel deep in the countryside – he is outwardly pleased to see her, but discreetly warns her that she has made a terrible mistake and will not be allowed to leave – despite the pleasant atmosphere of the place, all attempts to check out of the hotel are foiled. She laughs the idea off, until her own attempts at departure are met by a relentless string of car breakdowns, window-cleaner-related accidents, laundry malfunctions, and so on. Just who can they trust if they’re going to get out of the hotel alive?

Another immensely whimsical story, but quite well done with decent comic turns from all the main cast (there are a lot of people who’ve appeared in previous episodes in and around the hotel). I often see this episode described as a parody or spoof of The Prisoner, with the hotel standing in for the Village, but I’m not sure I would spot the connection left to my own devices – the main premise of an outwardly beautiful resort being a paranoia-inducing inescapable prison is the same, but The Prisoner, with the odd exception, generally takes itself very seriously indeed, while this is definitely playing the same idea for laughs. Wish You Were Here doesn’t seem to be specifically making jokes about The Prisoner itself – I mean, there’s a scene with a beach ball, but that’s really pushing it. If they’d been serious about doing a send-up of McGoohan’s magnum opus, it would have been quite easy to make it more obvious – The Prisoner is pretty distinctive, after all – so I’m inclined to suggest that while the other show may have inspired this episode, that’s about the limit of their connection. It looks more like Fawlty Towers to me, anyway. A fun episode, if nothing else.

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‘We saw this film and thought of you. We figured you’d appreciate it,’ said a friend of mine, perhaps conscious of the fact that it’s been tricky to track down and watch interesting movies recently. This, of course, is the sort of moment which reveals all sorts of profound things: what someone’s assessment of you is like, as well as what their true character is (perhaps). It’s probably just as well that he took pains to explain just how he came across such a deservedly obscure oddity as Burgess Meredith’s The Yin and the Yang of Mr Go (he’s been reading Meredith’s autobiography), and probably equally fortunate that he didn’t go into too much detail as to why it put them in mind of your correspondent.

The background to this movie is probably more interesting (and certainly more coherent) than the story itself, but let’s get the plot synopsis out of the way first, as it should give you a flavour of just how weird this movie is. It opens with Burgess Meredith performing acupuncture on James Mason, while the two of them spout cod-thriller dialogue at each other (apparently someone has paid Meredith to conspire in Mason’s murder, and now he wants Mason to pay him even more not to, or something). After a few minutes you realise that both of them are actually supposed to be Chinese, not that either of them is doing much more than wearing Chinese-style clothing (either that or the dreadful film quality doesn’t show the yellowface make-up).

With this out of the way, we get the opening credits and a prefatory voice-over delivered (and here a degree of self-bracing would be advisable) by Buddha. Yes, that Buddha. Apparently every fifty years the Buddha likes to amuse himself by using the power of his third eye to reverse the essential character of a human being (which means we must be due another one of these, and let’s face it – we’re not short of promising subjects at the moment).

For the time being, though, James Mason’s Mr Yin Yang Go is just another Asiatic supervillain – although the script does make it clear that he is actually Chinese-Mexican, which Mason subtly indicates by playing him with the same British accent he brought to pretty much every film he ever made. Based in Hong Kong, Mr Go is trying to get the plans for a new missile system out of captured American scientist Bannister (Peter Lind Hayes), and when just bribing him doesn’t work, he is forced to find a new approach.

This involves recruiting American draft-dodger and aspiring writer Nero Finnegan (Jeff Bridges), and paying him a large sum of money to engage in some rather surprising and intimate activities on film with Bannister, so Bannister can be blackmailed by Go. But CIA agent Leo Zimmerman (Jack MacGowran) is looking for Bannister and Mr Go as well, and – pretending to be a publisher with a James Joyce fixation – takes Finnegan out on the town in the hope of finding some clues. Things proceed in this vein – Zimmerman chasing Go, with Finnegan and his girlfriend (Irene Tsu) caught in the middle – for quite some time, until Go and Finnegan find themselves fleeing the CIA in a helicopter.

At this point the Buddha unleashes the power of his third eye on Mr Go (I am honestly not making this up), and rather than a callous power-broker, Go becomes a philanthropist, determined to help the world. He fakes his own death, puts on a ridiculous disguise, and sets about becoming a force for good…

As noted, the background to this movie is pertinent and, to say the least, curious: a product of the fag-end of the sixties, it was filmed on location in Hong Kong, directed by Burgess Meredith from a script he wrote himself. If nothing else Meredith proved himself to be an astute spotter of talent, or at least very lucky, by casting a young Bridges (credited as ‘Jeffrey Bridges’) in one of his earliest roles. They, together with nominal star James Mason, apparently had a (literally) high old time while making the film, partaking liberally of the local herbal tobacco, especially during the lengthy breaks in filming occasioned whenever the budget ran out.

Eventually – if you believe some of the folklore surrounding this film, anyway – the producer literally stole the footage of the incomplete film and decamped to America, leaving a disconsolate Meredith to pay everybody’s hotel and bar bills. According to Jeff Bridges, at least, most of the participants assumed the film was lost, until Bridges came across it listed in a directory of films available to hire fifteen or twenty years later: the producer had shot some linking footage with Broderick Crawford – who, in the time-honoured fashion, does not share the screen with any of the main actors – and cobbled something together out of the rushes. Bridges and Burgess apparently watched the resultant monstrosity together with a mixture of disbelief and hilarity.

Knowing all of the foregoing does not make The Yin and the Yang of Mr Go any more coherent or less exasperating to watch, but I can promise you that all of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans clearly inform what ended up on screen. The film’s poster (which, by the way, actually manages to get the name of it wrong) promises that it ‘will make you think of Dr No‘. I can reveal that it did not make me think of Dr No. It did, however, give me a very good idea of what it must be like to accidentally take mind-altering drugs while in the mid of a flu-induced fever dream. The rambling, disconnected narrative – what look like important scenes of exposition play out with the actors muted and sub-Bacharach easy listening tunes blasting out, presumably because someone lost the actual soundtrack – is coupled to the most primitive production values imaginable: on some level this is technically an exploitation film (there’s enough gratuitous nudity from the female extras), but the utter shoddiness of the filming and sound make the experience of watching this feel rather like watching (or so I would imagine) pornography with all the sex edited out.

I know I am on record as actually quite liking weird and obscure old films, especially one which may be a bit questionable by conventional critical standards. But the thing about most of these odd old films is that they are at least marginally functional in a couple of departments – they have competent cameramen and sound recordists, and the plot makes a vague sort of sense. None of this is true of The Yin and the Yang of Mr Go. People on YouTube make more competent films than this nowadays using a phone. It has a certain gobsmack value – every time you think it can’t get any stranger, it reliably does – but beyond that it’s really hard work. (And I realise I haven’t even mentioned the fact that Meredith and Mason are both playing Chinese characters. This film has much more serious problems than that, believe it or not.)

I have long enjoyed Burgess Meredith’s work as an actor, in Batman and The Twilight Zone, Rocky and Torture Garden, and in many other venues. He is never less than very watchable in any of them. But as a writer and director, on this evidence he almost makes Madonna look like Leni Riefenstahl. Watching it was an eye-opening and possibly mind-expanding experience, but not exactly pleasurable in the sense it is generally understood. Feel free to check it out for yourself (it’s available to view for free in at least two dark nooks of the internet) but bear in mind that no-one will give you a medal for watching it, no matter how much you may feel you deserve one.

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At the time in The Avengers‘ sixth season that Dave Freeman’s The Rotters was originally broadcast (early 1969), Philip Levene’s name no longer appears on the credits – his role as story consultant seems to have been taken by Terry Nation, as script editor. Nevertheless, The Rotters is one of those season six episodes which does seem to closely follow the pattern and style of a Levene script, certainly one from season five.

It opens with a senior government scientist fleeing from pursuit, and taking refuge behind a reassuringly solid wooden door. However, things aren’t always what they seem, and through the magic of film editing the door vanishes in a split second, allowing the killers in. They are a very upper-class pair of hitmen played by Gerald Sim and Jerome Willis, much given to calling people ‘old grapefruit’ and other unlikely terms of endearment. Well, it goes without saying that Steed and Tara are soon on the case – the dead man had apparently stumbled onto something, resulting in his death, and the only clue is an old photo of him and some fellow boffins from years ago, all involved in timber research.

Dry rot isn’t the most promising of premises for an action-adventure story, but the gimmick here – a new strain of rot which reduces wood to dust in the twinkle of an eye – allows for some good gags and inventive murders. It’s saved from being just another string-of-murders-involving-wood-going-instantly-rotten by the inclusion of more engaging supporting characters than the story strictly requires – Frank Middlemass gets a nice part as a timber scientist turned fabricator of faked antiques (‘Nice to see the old crafts haven’t died out,’ says Steed). The whole thing has a nicely judged tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, too: ‘Steed! He’s got a plan to destroy the world with dry rot!’ cries Tara, helpfully summarising the villain’s plan. ‘Haven’t we all?’ asks Steed, always unflappable. The plot is heavily dependent on fridge logic and gradually gets sillier and sillier as it goes on, but in the end it’s just a bit above average in every department, which is enough to make it one of the better episodes of this particular year.

This is not something you can say about Invasion of the Earthmen, which was presumably Terry Nation’s first script for the series. I honestly don’t know what to make of a writer whose work ranges from the brilliant (the first episode of Survivors), to the solidly entertaining (much of his work on Blake’s 7, for instance), to thin and lazy hackery. Invasion of the Earthmen is from the absolute bottom of the Nation barrel: produced during the interregnum when Clemens and Fennell had been fired, my understanding is that on their return their first instinct was to scrap the episode completely, on the grounds it wasn’t something they could actually show the public – but contractual obligations meant they were obliged to do something with it, and so they did their best to smuggle it out mid-season.

Another of Steed’s colleagues is sneaking around an unconvincing studio set of a forest when he comes across various young actors in mustard sweaters (amongst them are a very fresh-faced Warren Clarke and Lucy Fleming). He gets his foot stuck in a man trap and is set upon by a boa constrictor (which quite possibly doubles up as the bad guys’ draught excluder). When Steed and Tara investigate his disappearance, the trail of clues (well, trail of clue, to be more accurate) leads them to the mysterious Alpha Academy, run by the mustard-sweatered Brigadier Brett (William Lucas). Various oddities lead them to decide to sneak back in after dark (Tara, back in blonde wig mode, decides to do so dressed as the principal boy of a pantomime, for some reason).

Sewed his own epaulettes, I’m guessing.

It transpires that Brett is the forward-thinking type of lunatic who is planning to invade outer space with his elite army of mustard-sweatered astro-soldiers, whom he is putting into cryogenic suspension once they finish their training (as invading outer space won’t be possible for a few years yet). This is a stupid plan. On the other hand, this is a stupid episode, clearly written by someone only vaguely familiar with the series (Steed calls Tara ‘Miss King’, and there’s a suggestion she’s not a professional agent, but an adventurer like Emma or Cathy). The production values are well down to the standard of the script, with stuffed snakes, rubber spiders and scorpions, weird costumes and the ugliest sets of any TV show I can recall: Brett’s control room incorporates four or five different styles of decor, all of which are hideous and clash with one another. Even most of the Honor Blackman taped shows were less primitive than this: this is dismal, appalling stuff. I’m not surprised producer John Bryce was fired; the real shock is that Terry Nation was ever hired to write for the show again, to say nothing of being allowed to script edit it.

We are back in the realm of The Avengers as sort of situationist pop-art with Killer, written by Tony Williamson. It shares one key feature with his earlier script for this year, Whoever Shot…(etc)?, although in this case that forms the basis of a twist (though one that is rather easily guessable). Steed and the department are concerned by the appearance on the scene of an enemy operative named Remak, whose identity is a closely-guarded secret. Anyone who gets a lead on where to find Remak turns up dumped in a graveyard, suffering from multiple causes of death (shot with arrows, stabbed, crushed, drowned, with burst eardrums, etc). What’s going on?

In a way this is almost like a Philip Levene script elevated to the level of meaningless absurdity, as variations on the same few scenes – an agent gets a lead on Remak, we see them entering his lair,  there is a sudden blast of light and burst of noise, then the neatly-wrapped body being discovered – repeat themselves over and over again, albeit with a different victim each time. If it’s not some kind of comment on the formulaic nature of action-adventure TV then it’s just rather repetitive scripting; the twist (such as it is) is predictable, as noted. You’re waiting for the moment when it’s Steed’s turn to run the gauntlet (Macnee looks in need of a diet and a haircut this week, to be honest), but it’s not nearly inventive or surprising enough if it comes.

A further comment on the nature of this kind of entertainment, whether intentional or not, comes from the fact that this is actually a holiday show – Linda Thorson appears at the beginning and end, but that’s all. Rather than structure the script around her absence, they just give all her scenes to a new character, Lady Diana Forbes-Blakeney (played by Jennifer Croxton), which makes virtually no substantial difference to the story. Croxton is much more in the Rigg mode than Thorson, and acquits herself rather well, though not to the point where you’re wishing she’d been cast instead (your mileage may differ, of course). In the end this isn’t as good as The Rotters but (obviously) an improvement on Terry Nation at his most Terrynational.

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Season 6 Avengers, wildly inconsistent, troubled production, blah. Maybe you know this already; maybe you don’t. Maybe you don’t and would appreciate the short version of what happened, in which case: with the departure of Diana Rigg at the end of the fifth season, the company that made the series decided on a change of approach, returning to a more ‘realistic’ style. This involved sacking producers Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens and re-hiring Blackman-era producer John Bryce to oversee the new format. Suffice to say that three episodes later, Fennell and Clemens were rehired and the Bryce episodes were scrapped (in their original form, at least), although the casting of Linda Thorson was something the new (old) producers were stuck with (various scurrilous rumours concerning how this came about have circulated ever since, occasioning – forgive me, but ho ho – the pulping of the first print run of the programme guide co-written by Paul Cornell).

Donald James’ Have Guns – Will Haggle started off as the first of the Bryce episodes, under the title Invitation to a Killing and with a 90-minute duration – Clemens and Fennell changed the title and hacked back the running time to the usual 50 minutes. I am almost tempted to suggest that the hacking back was not nearly severe enough, as losing another hour or so would have greatly improved this episode, or at least allowed us to spend fifty minutes doing something more fulfilling than watching it.

The episode opens with robbers with a trampoline (or possibly gymnasts with kleptomaniac tendencies) breaking into a military installation and stealing many crates full of a brand-new high-powered rifle. Steed and Tara are on the case, with the former suspecting the arrival in the country of ambitious would-be despot Colonel Nsonga is not a coincidence (Nsonga is played by Lamine ‘Johnny’ Sekka, possibly best known to the cult TV tribes for playing one of the Babylon 5 characters who never made it past the pilot movie). The stolen rifles are being auctioned off by the robbers (who are led by a young Nicola Pagett), and so Steed naturally turns up posing as a bidder. In the meantime, however, Tara has been captured and the robbers have hit upon the scheme of using her as target practice.

Well, it just about hangs together, although there’s no real explanation given for why Tara spends half the episode in a blonde wig and a truly hideous pink outfit. The problem is that it’s simply very generic: you could probably have filed some of the names off and rewritten this as an episode of The Saint or The Baron or some other ITC action-adventure show. No wit, no bounce, no good jokes or clever ideas. The fact that it features prominent black characters (as well as Sekka, Roy Stewart also appears) obviously makes it an oddity as Avengers episodes goes (I wonder if Brian Clemens ever regretted listing his ‘rules’ of the series? – no extras, no killing women, no ethnic minorities, etc), but it’s also literally the only interesting thing about it.

Possibly the only marginally interesting thing about They Keep Killing Steed is that it is the only The Avengers episode to have its title parodied or copied by a Torchwood episode (2006’s They Keep Killing Suzie). Well, perhaps that’s a bit harsh. The episode is credited to Brian Clemens, and I wonder if this wasn’t another case of him going in to fix a troubled script, because the shape of it is really lumpy and weird.

A mad scientist working for the Other Side named Arcos (Ray McAnally, second of two) has invented a process of ‘instant plastic surgery’ and intends to use it to introduce a fake Steed into a peace conference so he can sabotage it. For this they need the real Steed as a template, and so he is lured to a spot where he can be kidnapped (rather too easily, if you ask me). However, Steed proves to be a troublesome prisoner and manages to arrange things so that, rather than one, a whole batch of Steed impostors are sent into action. Meanwhile, Tara – who for some reason has teamed up with a millionaire German aristocrat played by Ian Ogilvy in a blond dye-job – is on an emotional rollercoaster as Steed keeps turning up dead…

The basic idea of the multiple Steeds is a decent one, but the plotting involved to get this point is so convoluted that it takes up a big chunk of the episode – and even then, the episode shies away from having more than one Patrick Macnee in-camera at the same time, and doesn’t really find a way to make the concept sing. I can imagine a kind of black farce developing with the various Steeds all trying to prove their identity and win Tara over, but it never really gets close, devoting time instead to the subplot about Tara and the Baron (Ogilvy even gets his own big fight sequence, dueling with the bad guys during the climax). I suppose he gives Tara someone to talk to. Their scenes are better than the ones between Tara and Mother, in which Linda Thorson and Patrick Newell are never both in shot at the same time – usually a dead giveaway that they were filming on different days. Like I say, I get a sense that not all was well behind the scenes at this point. It’s a just about passable episode, but the title is probably the best thing about it; you can see why someone pinched it.

The Interrogators has a very nondescript title, but the premise shows glimmers of promise. Any expectations the viewer may have are raised by the cast, mainly because the main guest star is Christopher Lee (second of two). Lee is this week’s villain (perhaps this almost goes without saying): his character, Colonel Mannering (possessor of impressive facial hair), is commanding what looks like a pretty brutal interrogation centre, partly staffed by Red Chinese soldiers. However, the interrogatees seem to take it all in a very good spirit and the atmosphere of the place is weirdly jovial – interrogations keep stopping for tea breaks, and so on.

Meanwhile, a string of contacts with implausible jobs (archers, one-man-bands, football coachers, balloon sellers – these are basically all just here to up the whimsy quotient) start turning up dead, leading Mother and Steed to conclude their handlers have either been turned or broken by the Other Side. But the handlers seem to be completely innocent, although oddly vague about their recent whereabouts.

It turns out that Lee is passing himself off as the head of an ultra-secret division within the department, responsible for testing agents’ ability to resist interrogation and teach them new anti-interrogation techniques. This gives him the chance to interrogate anyone he likes to his heart’s content, and if they don’t crack then there’s always the chance they’ll let a few secrets slip over a jar in the facility bar. Soon enough the time comes to introduce Tara to the interrogation chamber…

Yes, it’s wildly implausible in terms of both premise and plot – the resolution depends on Mannering staying in touch with his former ‘trainees’ via carrier pigeon, one of which Steed duly tails back to his base in a helicopter – but the actual execution is surprisingly mundane and even just a little bit dull (though not without moments of outright silliness). It’s still watchable, however, mainly due to Lee’s performance. He gets a few scenes with Linda Thorson, but sadly almost none with Patrick Macnee. Oh well – still a class act, even in a fairly ordinary episode like this one.

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