I’m going to say something a little heretical. I’m honestly not a big fan of the videotaped Avengers. There are moments of greatness across those three years. “The Wringer” is incredible. “Brief For Murder” might be the very best episode of the show. Good scripts, good characters, fabulous actors, but I won’t linger on why I don’t love it like I do the filmed years. It’s best to just appreciate where it gets it all very right. “Tunnel of Fear,” which was recovered from a private collector in late 2016, is mostly very right.
It’s the 20th episode of the first series, and one of only three stories to survive in full from that year. The Avengers was designed and developed as a vehicle for Ian Hendry, who stars as Dr. David Keel, a man who we have retrofitted into being the first “talented amateur” that John Steed conscripts for his investigation into crime. All of the other episodes, sadly, were junked and are believed lost for good.
In the first series, the world of weird crime hadn’t yet developed, and Brian Clemens hadn’t arrived with his rules about the fantasy of the series. Keel and Steed were “two against the underworld,” and theirs was the London that anybody could visit, a London – or a Southend – populated by uniformed policemen and escaped convicts. John Kruse’s script for this story is remarkably ordinary and down-to-earth. The emotional core of the story – imagine an Avengers with an emotional core at all – is the convict on the lam desperate to clear his name learning that his girlfriend had a baby with another fellow while he was away. The convict is played by familiar face Anthony Bate, who guest starred in everything in the sixties.
Our son was remarkably attentive given the primitive and stagy world of the videotaped days of the show. He honestly didn’t enjoy it very much, and I didn’t expect him to, which is why I decided against watching series two and three with him. I appreciate his patience. This isn’t the Avengers we’ve watched; it’s two incarnations removed from what he knows. For an archaeological look back at classic TV, it was a good one-off for him.
For me, it was better than that. It does have the teeth-grinding limitations of black-and-white videotape, where the actors and the microphones are rarely in the same place twice and the pre-filmed 16mm material was done without a microphone at all, just Johnny Dankworth’s deeply dull lounge jazz, but this a pretty good story with some good actors, and it shows that Steed had that twinkle in his eye from the beginning. Ian Hendry is very entertaining in the role of a crimefighter who deeply cares about people and is willing to get in way over his head to help this guy. He just radiates charisma and a real passion for Dr. Keel’s work beneath his cool exterior. Hendry was a great actor. You can see why the show was built for him, even if they let Patrick Macnee come in and steal the program out from under him.
Studiocanal released “Tunnel of Fear” by itself on a Region 2 DVD last month along with a few bonus features and a fabulously thick booklet full of photographs and even a reprint of a comic strip from the 1962 TV Crimebusters Annual. Unfortunately, Studiocanal being Studiocanal, they managed to not include the advertised PDFs of the surviving season one scripts, but apparently they’ll email them to you if you buy the DVD. I’m glad I purchased this!
We’re going to take a short break from The Avengers now, but stick around! Steed and Mrs. Peel will return in a few weeks!