I’ve been a little concerned about this episode. Once upon a time, it had a reputation as one of the most clever and imaginative installments. I think it was in those American Files Magazines of the ’80s where the author singled it out as one of his ten favorite Avengers episodes, asking how anyone could resist the charms of a story doing “the natives are restless” in Darkest Hartfordshire.
Thirty more years on, and it’s actually quite easy to resist any story that does “the natives are restless.” It is an old and very dated trope.
It’s also one that our son has absolutely no experience with. I figure by the time I was eight, I’d seen dozens of Tarzan movies and the like on afternoon TV, plus all those mid-period Godzilla movies set on Pacific islands, and knew all about “ooga-booga” natives. The only ones he’s seen, however, are the ones we’ve showed him in old movies like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He had a lot of trouble following this episode; he missed many of the socio-cultural clues that older audiences might know, things like the skull in the tree, the war drums, the “darkest Africa 23 miles from London” marker, and told me that he didn’t like it.
In point of fact, and this is a horrible thing to admit, but I remember when I was a child being surprised to learn that people from “Africa” didn’t all dress like movie witch doctors. “Africa,” then, was a place that stretched from the end of the desert all the way down and then across Asia. That’s where the nation of Kalaya is in this story. It might be on the African continent, and it might be in the south Pacific. About the only thing this episode gets right is having the discretion to not specifically nail it down.
And it’s because of film and television like “Small Game for Big Hunters” that I got that stereotype. There are actors of color in this story. All but one of them play immigrants from the nation of Kalaya who live in a mock “jungle” in Bill Fraser’s character’s gigantic greenhouse. In other hands, Fraser might have been an interesting Avengers eccentric; he’s another ex-colonial officer holding on to old glories, oblivious that he’s been used by the real villain, played by James Villiers, to engineer a lethal strain of tsetse fly in tropical conditions.
The one actor of color who isn’t an ooga-booga native in war paint sleeping on the ground is a Kalayan secret agent played by Paul Danquah. And he’s undercover as… an ooga-booga native in war paint sleeping on the ground.
This could have been avoided. There’s a scene where Steed visits a clothier to get information on the jungle outfit one nearly-dead man was wearing. It would have been so much better if they instead cast an actor of color to play the Kalayan ambassador who is phoned by Mrs. Peel and gave him a scene. Take off the war paint from the extras and you’d have an hour that isn’t nearly so tone-deaf. But then again, cultural norms and outrages are always evolving. Who’s to say what people thirty years from now will find insensitive and unflattering?
In point of fact, there’s something incredibly insensitive about Brian Clemens’ view of The Avengers as an escapist fantasy. It’s kind of the elephant in the room:
“No woman should be killed, no extras should populate the streets. We admitted to only one class and that was the upper. As a fantasy, we would not show a uniformed policeman or a coloured man. And you would not see anything as common as blood in The Avengers.” (This quote appears without citation in several places; I’m unsure of the original quote, but Clemens made similar expressions in many, many interviews.)
On the one hand, I get it: British television drama in the mid-sixties was often addressing social realism, and The Avengers is set in a world that is defiantly unrealistic. I can get behind that much.
But saying that a world that doesn’t show actors of color is a fantasy leads you to question exactly whose fantasy this is, or why anybody would fantasize about something so wretched.