“Two’s a Crowd” opens with a delightful scene that subverts our expectations. There’s aerial footage of London, and an obviously model airplane about to drop an obviously miniature bomb on the head of a man on a balcony. It’s shot as though this is a real plane, however, and the viewer expects that this is a real plane and a real bomb, but, television being television, the program makers just didn’t have the budget to cover it. But the joke is on us: the plane is a remote-controlled toy, and the bomb is about the size of your thumb. It splashes into a punch bowl in front of actor Warren Mitchell, and that’s about the only joke in the episode that our son understood.
I’m afraid that this whole story by Philip Levene was a bomb for him; I thought it was extremely witty and fun, but it didn’t do to simply pause the episode to explain the subtle jokes about the Soviet ambassador preferring English gin to Russian vodka, or explain what embassies are. The lovely core of “Two’s a Crowd” is that Warren Mitchell’s character, one of the very, very few in the series who will make a second appearance, just wants to put his feet up, do as little work as possible, keep his head down, and enjoy as much of British society and its pleasures as he possibly can on the Russian taxpayers’ ruble. When the mysterious masterspy Colonel Psev arrives with his four associates, our poor ambassador sees his little world crumble, and he doesn’t want to do any dangerous “cloak and dagger” work. He’s just a simple diplomat, and besides, his good friend Steed has a nice liquor cabinet!
Anyway, in the photo above, that’s Warren Mitchell as Brodny. Mitchell would later find mammoth fame as Alf Garnett in the sitcom Till Death Us Do Part and its sequels; Mitchell played the character for twenty-seven years, but I liked him best as that Italian cab driver in a few early episodes of The Saint. Julian Glover, of course, was in everything: Star Wars, Hammer, Doctor Who, Indiana Jones, Game of Thrones, ITC stuff… the dude’s known to all fandoms!
I’m reminded that “Two’s a Crowd” was, for quite some time, one of the handful of black-and-white episodes of The Avengers that my circle of friends and traders had to share, thirty years ago. Before A&E began airing the series, and certainly before they released those nicely-designed official VHS and DVD editions, there were two sets of bootleg VHSes, usually crammed into bins at Camelot Music or Record Bar at $9.97 an episode. Sometimes you’d find them for five bucks. It was usually the color episodes, and they were sourced from ghastly 16mm prints that looked like they’d been dragged through gravel.
It is kind of funny in retrospect how, in our youth and naivete, we called bootlegs bad, but spent money on those dumb things and thought they were legit. It was the eighties, lots of properties showed up on crappy tapes, and we all assumed that somebody, somewhere must have approved them. The world of Japanese cartoons dubbed into English and dumped on thirty-minute tapes for some insane reason is incredibly weird. Thirty whole minutes a tape! Surely nobody was getting rich with those “Robo-Formers” tapes that recycled old Jim Terry dubs of Getta Robo G, were they?
We found “Two’s a Crowd,” “The Girl From Auntie,” and two other season four stories in generic yellow boxes on the shelf of a Blockbuster Video on Powers Ferry Road in Marietta. One of our friends, who lived in Chamblee, got a membership, checked out the four tapes for a week, made a half-dozen copies of them for our TV club, drove ’em back to Marietta and cancelled her membership after confirming there was nothing else there anybody needed.
That’s what we “had” to do in the eighties: visit every single video store you drove past, especially the old-looking ones, because they just might have had those scarce Embassy releases of Krofft shows, or that weird two-tape omnibus edition of Quatermass and the Pit, or “three completely uncut TV episodes of Captain Harlock,” never mind all the weird video nasties and Eurosleaze and giallos and Jess Franco movies that people were scouring shelves for. It was a weird time. Earlier this year, I bought a DVD of The Devil’s Wedding Night for four bucks that looked like it was mastered using a thirty year-old VHS copy of a fifteen year-old 16mm print. I squinted, smiled, and remembered more complicated times.
Photo credit: The Avengers Declassified