“You’ll Catch Your Death” is the first script for The Avengers from Jeremy Burnham, who would contribute a few more stories this season. I didn’t think this was great, but I enjoyed it more than I remembered it this time around, which gives me hope for some of Burnham’s other offerings! Notable guests this time: Sylvia Kay, Fulton Mackay, Valentine Dyall, perennial henchman and thug Dudley Sutton, and Roland Culver, who the episode tries tricking us into thinking is the villain. No, it’s not a bad story, really, with some particularly nice location filming, but when it was first screened in America in October of 1968, not many people were watching.
By the time the nineties rolled around, teevee fans had made some assumptions and set some myths in stone. There was a received wisdom about the occasional appearances of British programming on American network television, and a lot of fan myths had taken hold. Some of us were lamenting, for some oddball reason nobody can quite remember anymore, that Red Dwarf or Absolutely Fabulous couldn’t get a deal on a major American network. And we looked back, as best we could, about the history of British TV shows in the US, and we got a lot of things wrong. Like The Avengers being a hit.
The first British-made drama to get a prime-time network run seems to have been Danger Man, although a few other ITC-made shows like Ivanhoe might have made the rounds of first-run syndication before it. In the summer of 1965, CBS bought the first of the one-hour seasons of Danger Man, gave it the spiffy new title Secret Agent, and finally had something decent to program against – of all things – The Lawrence Welk Show on Saturday nights, which had been kicking CBS’s rear.
Secret Agent wasn’t a hit, but it stood its ground, attracted younger viewers, and – this is the key – cost less than anything that might have been made domestically. I wouldn’t say that it opened the floodgates, but the following season, ABC brought over The Baron and The Avengers to fill holes in its schedule in the last five months before the network moved to full color, and there were many other examples over the next few years. NBC networked The Saint after the black and white episodes had been successful in first-run syndication, and gave The Champions a three-month run. It wasn’t just the action-adventure shows, either. Some Marty Feldman material had a network home in America as specials, a chunk of Dean Martin’s variety show was made in the UK, and there was an infamous incident in the mid-seventies where ABC bought the fourth series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and ran the episodes in a late-night slot so severely edited that the Pythons went to court over it and won.
None of these examples came from American network executives wanting to run something prestigious or artistic for the love of brilliant television. They came from American network executives wanting to save a few bucks. In many cases, these runs came about when they looked at the schedule and saw something that they did believe in and wished would thrive getting thrashed by another network. None of these British shows were hits, not even The Avengers. It never ranked in the top 30 shows and it performed worse with every passing season.
The first American batch ran in the dead zone of Monday night at 10. It certainly got some buzz, and a strong cult audience of teens and twentysomethings, enough to justify making a second order as a midseason replacement for the following year. This run – the first 16 color Mrs. Peel stories – ran Friday nights, and placed a distant second or third to the top 20 CBS Friday Night Movies. The third order got completely creamed by The Virginian and, in any other universe, would have been the end of the road for this series, but then something downright weird happened.
CBS’s Gunsmoke had been a big hit for more than a decade. In early 1968, NBC threw a goofy midseason comedy-variety show at it and watched the Nielsen numbers start to skyrocket. Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In became the most talked-about show on TV, the “water cooler” program of its day, and by the end of its three-month run, it was in the top ten as well. This almost never happened in American television. If a show’s in the top ten, then its time slot competition isn’t. It’s extraordinarily rare for competing shows to end up in the top ten together. Laugh-In came back in the fall to huge, anxious audiences and the numbers didn’t slump for years. It finished the 1968-69 season the highest-rated show on TV, and Gunsmoke ranked sixth.
When something like this happens, of course, that means that whatever’s on the other channels opposite these juggernauts is about as far from the top ten as a program can get. ABC’s options against the Scylla of Gunsmoke and the Charybdis of Laugh-In were to either air the least expensive program they could find or go dark and give the time back to its affiliates. And that is the only reason why they ordered 26 more episodes of The Avengers: because buying it from London was a lot cheaper than making 26 episodes of something else in Hollywood.
To the producers’ credit, they never gave up. The show was only being made at all because ABC was paying most of the production cost, but they kept working on delivering a quality product for all the other territories that were buying it. As I’m sure we’ll see, this last year certainly will have some fumbles, but also a few examples of stretching the format, trying new things, and getting away from the regular situation of oddball deaths at the hands of diabolical masterminds. Of course, that’s really all that this particular episode is, but there are some very off-kilter stories ahead.
Postscript: As I was writing this, after watching an episode about lethal common cold germs, our son had such a sneezing fit that his security blanket had to go straight into the wash. First I ever heard of catching a cold from watching a TV show about catching a cold.