The Champions 1.23 – The Night People

I swear it feels like Donald James wrote everything that we’ve watched for the last month! “The Night People” isn’t one of the best episodes of The Champions. In its favor, there’s some great location filming around the iconic Knebworth House, and Stuart Damon chose to play Craig as being an incredibly bad mood, short-tempered, worried about the missing Sharron, and snidely patronizing to everybody, including his friends and guest star Adrienne Corri, who plays a white witch in Cornwall. Thirty episodes of that would have been twenty-nine too many, but everybody’s due a bad day once in a while.

On the other hand, it feels too much like the far superior “Shadow of the Panther” from earlier in the season. It starts as a Sharron-centered adventure involving some fake magic hocus-pocus to cover up a more mundane crime, and the boys show up when Sharron goes missing. The problem is that Sharron was in command of the situation in “Panther,” and while she’s staying put and quietly learning about the situation while allowing herself to be imprisoned by guest star Terence Alexander, she is really sidelined and left out of all the physical stuff again. Watched after last night’s New Avengers, in which Purdey isn’t sidelined by anybody, it feels incredibly retrograde.

We’ll take a short break from The Champions to keep things fresh, but we’ll be back for the final seven episodes in about three weeks. Stay tuned!

The New Avengers 1.2 – House of Cards

Look there, people didn’t just forget the difference between your and you’re when the internet started. They didn’t know in 1976, either.

“House of Cards” shows us a little of what Steed’s been up to since we last saw him. He’s raising horses and lives in a nice house in the country. He’s started dating. Some time prior to this episode, he had taken his girlfriend, whose name is Joanna, played by Geraldine Moffat, on a date to some event where she briefly met another important character in this story. She makes what is apparently the first of what will be only two visits to Steed’s home in this story, where she learns that Steed keeps framed portraits of Cathy Gale, Emma Peel, and Tara King on a mantle. And on the second visit, she tries to kill Steed because she’s a sleeper agent who’s been in the UK since 1956.

We had to give our kid a quick lesson in what sleeper agents are, because this week’s villain, played by Peter Jeffrey, activates a network of them after he was embarrassed to have our heroes snatch a defector out from under him. This happens in a terrific pre-credits sequence where Gambit dresses as a pop star – very ahead of his time, as he has corporate logos on his clothes! – and Steed sends a dozen screaming teenage girls, and Purdey, after him to cause a massive distraction. “Remember girls, you’re screaming for Britain,” he coaches. Our kid enjoyed this scene most of all and waited patiently for anything as amusing to happen after it. There were good fights and chases, sure, but he liked the opening best.

Also in the show this week: Annette Andre, who was Marty Hopkirk’s widow in one of the other shows we’re watching right now, finds herself a widow in this episode, because her husband is also a sleeper agent. He can’t bring himself to kill Steed, so he breaks cover to warn him and Peter Jeffrey has to kill him. Jeffrey’s character, Ivan Perov, is a really great villain, and I love how the writer, Brian Clemens, uses some very, very subtle foreshadowing to let us know that the agent’s failure is all part of his plan. There’s lots to love about this one.

Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) 1.8 – It’s Supposed to be Thicker Than Water

Earlier this month, I had a little giggle over a red Renault going over a cliff in an episode of The Champions and wondered when we’d see the white Jaguar doing its famous tumble. Well, the footage, which was originally shot in 1965 for The Baron, made its way into this series with this episode. John Hallam is the unfortunate driver this time out.

I had wondered how many more times we’d run into this footage over the course of this blog, and the answer seems to be at least three more. The good people at Randall and Hopkirk (Declassified) have a page devoted to the four Jags used in the footage as well as the Renault. I made sure our son knows that anybody getting into a white Jag by himself in one of these shows is asking for trouble. Let’s see whether he remembers.

I have to say that this episode, written by Donald James, doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its thunderously good pre-credits sequence. A very old man in a horse-drawn carriage commissions Jeff to take an envelope to his nephew for a much-needed fee of £50 (that’s like $1100 today). Jeff accepts, and then the guy drops the surprise: his nephew is an escaped convict who jumped the wall six weeks previously.

So I was a little disappointed that Jeff finds the nephew almost instantly, and this quickly turns into the second “somebody’s killing all the relatives” inheritance story in three weeks. But I liked this more than “Who Killed Cock Robin?,” in part because Liz Fraser plays the unlikely suspect – slash – survivor who latches onto our hero, and she’s delightful. She plays the assistant to a stage magician, which is convenient when the plot makes its way to the usual scene of Jeff getting in trouble and Marty needing to get help. Marty just has to wait until she gets put into a hypnotic trance!

The Champions 1.22 – Get Me Out of Here!

A couple of months ago, I wrote about how I’d taped fourteen episodes of The Champions off-air from a UHF station in Atlanta. “Get Me Out of Here!” was the only one of the fourteen I didn’t like. I didn’t like it then and I still don’t like it.

It could have been a good adventure. It guest stars Frances Cuka as a scientist who’s not been allowed to leave after a mission of mercy to her home country, a Nosuchlandia in the Caribbean which is a bit like Cuba. But the unflattering cultural stereotyping is rampant, and Philip Madoc, who I normally like so much, is unrecognizable in his brownface, his eye for the ladies and his Speedy Gonzales voice. And for a story with the main guest role given to a woman, it’s unforgivable that both she and Sharron are completely sidelined, reaching its nadir in the final fight scene. I think we were meant to see it as Sharron getting the professor to safety, but it’s really staged like she’s running away from the fight now that Richard and Craig have arrived and they can throw all the punches. The kid liked it, but I sure didn’t.

The New Avengers 1.1 – The Eagle’s Nest

These days, when they make a new season of Will & Grace or Murphy Brown, they don’t need to stick “The New” in front of it. But in the 1970s, there was this expectation that TV viewers were stupid and didn’t know a repeat from an original program, so you had Return of the Saint or Halloween with the New Addams Family or, instead of just another series of The Avengers after a seven year break, it needed to be called “The New.”

It’s 1976, and joining Patrick Macnee for two more seasons of diabolical masterminds and bizarre science, it’s Gareth Hunt as Mike Gambit and Joanna Lumley as the deliciously weird Purdey. She takes that TV standard of women doing the action stuff in inappropriate heels and clothes and ramps it up to eleven. She goes out to a remote island in a wetsuit, and underneath, well, there are no words to explain what she’s wearing:

Gambit’s a more traditional meat-n-potatoes action hero, sort of the superspy version of Willie Caine in The Sandbaggers. He mentions in Brian Clemens’ opening installment of this series that he had taken three bullets getting over the Berlin Wall the previous year, which isn’t the sort of thing you could imagine happening in the Avengers of the sixties. The shift in the world around the Avengers is what’s caused this show to always have a detractor or two. The original Avengers was set in a fantasy neverland that looked like England in the sixties. The New Avengers is set in 1976. The plots are as outrageous as ever (Remember how I mentioned cryogenics the other night? Well, the frozen corpse in this one is Adolf Hitler.) but this looks, feels, and practically smells like the year it was made.

And for a long, stupid time, I held that against The New Avengers. When I was a teen, I thought that the sixties were some idealized dream time (I read Rolling Stone magazine then, and it certainly didn’t dissuade me), but the mid-seventies were just the rotten days of grime and gas shortages and inflation and ugly cars. Weirdly, all sorts of fans and critics have echoed that nebulous feeling, that this show has too much of an anchor in a real world that they’d rather not remember. For a long time, I was missing out. I only had three (edited) episodes of the show on VHS for a very long time, and they were not at all the best three episodes, but as I picked up more installments into the mid-nineties, this show’s considerable charms became more and more apparent.

There’s lots and lots more to say about the series’ background, and the underwhelming copies released in North America by A&E from which these underwhelming screencaps come, in later installments, but before this runs too long, I’ll just say that this episode was written by Brian Clemens, features guest stars Peter Cushing – not playing a villain! – and Frank Gatliff, and entertained the almighty heck out of our son. He loved the fights and the surprises and the mystery, and was very pleased to see that Steed now carries a two-way radio in his bowler hat. And see, that’s the sort of dopey Roger Moore Bond gadget that I’d have once found cringeworthy, but I just checked, and our son absolutely wants a hat with a radio in it now.

Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) 1.7 – The Smile Behind the Veil

Last time, I mentioned how pleased I was to recognize a familiar location in an episode of this show. Tonight, Jeff’s been beat up again and the bad guys drive him out to throw him in the river, and before I could say anything, Marie exclaimed “It’s that bridge again!” For they had taken him to the very same bridge that Mrs. Peel had hid underneath in the Avengers story “You Have Just Been Murdered,” and which Tara had run across in the second title sequence of her series. I recognized Alex Scott, the story’s villain, immediately as well, but suddenly it’s not as amusing as spotting locations. I wonder whether there are people blogging about Doom Patrol and The Walking Dead and The Vampire Diaries and Stranger Things and noticing the same hotels and bridges and buildings popping up in each of them. (But they shouldn’t be too iconic. If you stick the Krog Street Tunnel in your TV show and try to tell me it ain’t Atlanta, I’m going to laugh at you.)

Speaking of laughing, our son’s favorite scene came about halfway through. Jeff, who’s recovered from his first attempted drowning (in a river) and is about twenty real-time minutes from his second attempted drowning (in a well), is rifling through the desk drawers of the bad guy’s big country house when he hears someone coming and so he hides in the big closet. It’s the old maid, who’s figured out this guy’s up to no good and is ready to rifle through the desk drawers as well. Then she hears someone coming and hides in the same big closet. This show’s a lot funnier than I was expecting!

The Champions 1.21 – The Body Snatchers

This afternoon, it occurred to me that Terry Nation was apparently writing episodes of The Champions about a year before he took the job of story editing for the Tara King days of The Avengers. Anyway, this is a story that deals with one of the regular obsessions of adventure TV from the sixties and seventies, cryogenics. It’s such a regular obsession that we’ll be seeing it again very, very soon, aggravatingly enough. Nation’s first Avengers script, as a freelancer before he joined the production team, was “Invasion of the Earthmen.” I’ve described that story before as a mishmash of all of Nation’s tropes and traits, and darned if it wasn’t the second script he wrote in 1967 around cryogenics.

Our son protested that the title, “The Body Snatchers,” wasn’t a very appropriate one, and he’s right. Only one body gets snatched. The villain, played by Bernard Lee, has stolen the body of a recently deceased American general who knows where all the missiles are and taken the corpse to a research establishment in northern Wales. In that fanciful way of teevee that glosses over how any of this could medically work, he plans to store the corpse on ice and to sell it to the highest bidder. But if you ignore Dr. Science’s objections, this is a fine action hour with great brawls and stunts, and Bernard Lee is a terrific, bloodthirsty villain. That’s Philip Locke in the photo above as one of the scientists pressganged into helping Lee and his thugs.

Talking of adventure TV from the sixties and seventies, it was the law that anything set in Wales during those decades, even if it was filmed in Elstree, needed to find a part for Talfryn Thomas, no matter how small, and here he is, in just about the smallest part in the thing. As soon as somebody on TV mentions a place like Porthgerwyn or Llanfairfach, you just wait for him to show up.

Into the Labyrinth 1.7 – Minotaur

I’ve got to hand it to this show. Whatever its limitations, it really succeeded in capturing our son’s imagination. Before we got started with the final part of the first serial, he had lots of questions about the time bomb that was used in part six. He remembered it much more clearly than I did; my focus had been on how the production team had redressed their cave set, and on the guest star John Abineri, growling with that sad-eyed expression of his. But our son had spent the last several days fascinated by how a character had used a small candle on the minute hand of a clock to start a fuse. I was trying to hurriedly finish my breakfast to start the story and could hardly eat for all the questions about clocks and gunpowder and when I thought the first time bomb was made.

The final part of the story was written by Anthony Read, and as the title suggests, it’s set in the original labyrinth of Knossos. A few years earlier, Read had written a pair of Doctor Who serials, “Underworld” and “The Horns of Nimon,” that also got to reflect his interest in classical myths. This minotaur was an amusing surprise. Instead of the usual half-man, half-bull, it’s an altar of a huge, blue, bull’s head that houses the Nidus between its eyes and is protected by a force field. I don’t think that the Greek myths will capture his imagination in the same way as that clock bomb – he’s more of a STEM kid than a humanities kid – but overall this story kept him thinking and guessing and ready for the next serial, later this summer.

Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) 1.6 – Who Killed Cock Robin?

I’m always impressed by viewers and fans who can spot reused props and costumes and locations. Just last night, I got a great laugh when Lex Lamb pointed out on Twitter that a key piece of the Swine Trek set from The Muppet Show‘s “Pigs in Space” started life as part of the mad scientist’s control room in the Doctor Who adventure “Invasion of the Dinosaurs.” I will never be that good with the details, but tonight I could point out that the big country house in this evening’s Randall and Hopkirk adventure doubled as the hotel in the Avengers story “Wish You Were Here,” which was filmed the same summer.

Tonight’s story was written by Tony Williamson, and Cyril Luckham plays a lawyer who hires Randall to keep several dozen birds alive, because some greedy relatives won’t inherit anything until the last bird is dead. Jane Merrow plays one of the relatives; she had auditioned for the role of Tara King in The Avengers, and so in another world, it would have been her stuck in that hotel in “Wish You Were Here” instead of Linda Thorson.

I figured there’d be a story where Marty goes for help by finding somebody playing with a Ouija board, and this was it. That scene’s pretty funny, but the one that we loved the most had Marty saving the day. One of the greedy relatives decides to pour gas all over the aviary and kill all the birds in a fire. But it’s awfully hard for a match to stay lit when there’s a ghost standing next to you! Honestly, this was the least of the three episodes that we’ve watched so far, but it was still very entertaining.

The Champions 1.20 – The Silent Enemy

Here’s the submarine set again, making its third appearance in The Champions. This time it’s another Donald James script that has an absolutely smashing opening: a submarine, not heard from for days, turns up with the entire crew dead. Paul Maxwell, an ITC regular who had also done a fair amount of voiceover work for Gerry Anderson, plays the captain of the replacement crew. I’d say the story doesn’t quite live up to the pre-credits sequence, but any hour that introduces a previously uncharted island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, discovered by agents of Nosuchlandia and used by their evil scientists for chemical experiments can’t be all bad.

Craig gets to ladle out the violence at the end of the story and throws two guards all over the place, and there’s a great bit where one of the enemy agents, fighting for the one available gas mask, throws the main evil scientist into a room filled with gas and locks him in it. That ruthless dude had the makings of a great recurring villain, if these old shows ever went in for that sort of thing so late in the run.