Category Archives: avengers

The Avengers 4.9 – The Hour That Never Was

I don’t know whether modern TV audiences would have the patience for “The Hour That Never Was.” Half the episode is just the two leads wandering around a deserted airbase on the day before its formal closure trying to figure out where all the people are. And it’s amazing. It’s Roger Marshall’s first story for the film years of The Avengers – he’d written seven episodes during the videotape days – and I love it. It’s an exercise in atmosphere, contrasting the bizarre mystery of where everyone has gone with the leads’ wonderful chemistry and very witty banter. It doesn’t even matter that the villainous plot is a little far-fetched, even for The Avengers. Getting to the climax is just so fun that it doesn’t matter.

Speaking of atmosphere, our son really found this story and its mystery compelling. He said this was “weird and creepy” early on, and repeated that at the end, concluding that this was great, and his favorite episode of the show. That might possibly be because the plot was a little easier for him to follow, without the undercover disguises and loads of extra characters, but we’ll take the win.

Notable guest stars this time out include Roy Kinnear as an ill-fated tramp who lives on the airbase, and Gerald Harper as the squadron leader. I love how we’re introduced to the missing squadron leader by way of a photograph of Gerald Harper, as opposed to some anonymous model or member of the production team, unwittingly confirming to anybody in the audience who might recognize the actor that the squadron leader is alive and we’ll be meeting him soon! I was reminded of a color episode of The Saint, where there’s a painting of a recently deceased family member, and it’s clearly actor Francis De Wolff, which sort of spoiled the revelation that the guy wasn’t really dead.

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The Avengers 4.8 – A Surfeit of H2O

“A Surfeit of H2O” isn’t just writer Colin Finbow’s only Avengers credit; it’s his only credit, period, for any ongoing TV series, according to IMDB. He’d previously written an ITV play of the week, and would later write and direct some other obscure films, including the all-but-forgotten British adaptation of Something Wicked This Way Comes in 1972.

To prep our son for this episode, I first let him know what surfeit means, and then what H2O is. Starting from scratch this time. I also reminded him that The Avengers is full of eccentrics. Noel Purcell plays one this time out who’s getting ready for the next Great Flood, building an ark, shouting “Hallelujah” in every scene, and writing letters to the Times. We also get another great only-in-Avengerland business, a winery called Grannie Gregson’s Glorious Grogs, which is a front for villainy.

Unfortunately, all the prep in the world didn’t keep him from getting downright angry with this story. The villain, blessed with the comic book name of Dr. Sturm, has built a weather machine and can create torrential rains over a desired location instantly. We don’t learn this plan until nearly the end, when he’s got Mrs. Peel captive in a massive hydraulic vegetable press, which was too cruel a trap for his liking. He never did learn to love the over-the-top cliffhanger traps of Batman, you may recall. The climactic fight scene, in the rain-lashed courtyard, went some way toward saving a little bit of happiness, but honestly, the fight’s a little spoiled by Purcell bellowing “Hallelujah!” every three seconds.

Apart from Purcell, there are a few notable guest stars in this one, including Talfryn Thomas and Geoffrey Palmer, each of whom we’ve seen briefly in small roles in season seven of Doctor Who. We’ll see them both again in Who before the end of the year. Sue Lloyd, who seems to have made it into most of ITC’s action-adventure shows of the day (and was a regular in one, The Baron), plays the villains’ receptionist. Even diabolical masterminds like Dr. Sturm must maintain the illusion of being a respectable businessman.

Incidentally, this was one of five episodes that were not shown on ABC in the original US purchase of the series. I think that only 21 were shown because ABC dropped all their black and white programming at the end of August 1966, but I wonder who made the decision which five wouldn’t make the cut. “A Touch of Brimstone,” famously, never aired on the network for content reasons, but somebody must have made similar decisions about the other four. For whatever reason, this story apparently wasn’t shown in America until it was offered in a package for syndication in the seventies.

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The Avengers 4.7 – The Murder Market

I did “The Murder Market” a great disservice many years ago. I wrote a pretty tepid review of the story, which was Tony Williamson’s first of nine scripts for the series, but it’s really entertaining. Before we hit play, though, we started with a quick discussion with our son about what a marriage bureau is, because of course he’s too young to have heard of match.com, much less the mostly defunct lonely hearts businesses of the pre-internet age.

In one of those weird coincidences this blog keeps running into, I paused last night’s episode of The Bionic Woman to explain what a will is. I also explained how there are thousands of cases in drama and detective fiction where villains conspire to eliminate somebody who is in the way of an inheritance. And here’s what the murder market of this episode does, under the masquerade of being a marriage bureau: it’s an organized version of what the characters in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train concoct, with supposed “partners” swapping murders while the office arranges a perfect alibi for the prime suspect, usually for somebody to get their hands on somebody else’s money.

But it’s unclear who, other than Steed’s mysterious department, would investigate these killings. As I mentioned last week, The Avengers is set in a fantasyland which, per Brian Clemens, doesn’t have any police in it. Mrs. Peel’s supposed murder is very, very strange. Steed pretends to have killed her for this organization, but then all the details of how her body got instantaneously to a funeral home are completely glossed over, and then a man she’s met exactly twice arranges for her immediate burial… and who are the mourners? This is the first episode of the show in this season to be so thunderously unreal, and yet it works here because this isn’t the real world and our rules don’t apply. It’s Avengerland.

It’s also the first episode of the show that we’ve seen to be so overtly kinky. We’d seen a little of this in the Honor Blackman years, but not nearly as much in the previous six episodes as here. This time, though, there are boots and riding crops and gazes that linger a little too long, a striking photo session with a long-legged model posing in only a shirt and tie, and Mrs. Peel looking for a husband with stamina. You can almost hear the other character in the scene ask himself “Did I hear her right?”

Anyway, the guest stars this week include the legendary comedy actor Patrick Cargill along with John Woodvine, who played a heck of a lot of cops in his career. Cargill plays the main villain (although not the actual head of the gang), and Woodvine’s role is a clever surprise. Diana Rigg has a fabulous fight with Canadian actress Suzanne Lloyd, who had been working in American TV, mostly Westerns, for most of the fifties and early sixties. In another odd coincidence, we skipped over her appearance on The Twilight Zone, which we otherwise might have watched literally two nights ago, in favor of the very next episode of Zone, which had Patrick Macnee in it. Anyway, she relocated to the UK in 1964 and played the babe of the week in The Saint six times before retiring.

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The Avengers 4.6 – The Master Minds

I always get this episode confused with “The Danger Makers” for some reason. This is the one where geniuses are being hypnotized into devising impossible crimes. It’s another extremely well paced mystery, and while grownups are probably going to figure it out without much strain, it’s certain to tax the brains of six year-olds. Fortunately there’s enough going on to keep the story fascinating for him, and he followed along, with a little help, quite well!

Of note, there’s one of the rare scenes in the series where Steed gets incredibly angry with someone. A character played by future Monty Python’s Flying Circus producer Ian McNaughton kills someone while under post-hypnotic suggestion and it looks like Steed’s going to make sure he’s next. Other parts in this story by Robert Banks Stewart are played by Bernard Archard and Patricia Haines, who we’ll see in a very memorable role in the first color series down the line.

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The Avengers 4.5 – Castle De’ath

I think that one theme that we’ll come back to in watching The Avengers is one I’ll go into in more detail later on, that the fantasy of the series isn’t merely the fantasy that comes from telling stories with robots and invisible men and a couple of monsters, it’s the fantasy of its setting. The Avengers is deliberately set in what Brian Clemens called a fantasyland, a tourist Britain that’s utterly removed from the real thing. So here we are in Scotland, ye ken, where we have bagpipes and phantoms and lairds and tartans and Robbie Burns and Bonnie Prince Charlie and castles and moats and villainous ancestors called “Black” and fishing in the loch. And popular Scottish actors like Gordon Jackson and Robert Urquhart as the feuding cousins of the De’ath clan.

And we don’t have anything in Scotland other than these things.

In fact, of the two things my son enjoyed most about this story, one was the knee-high argyle socks that the men wear with their traditional formal Highland garb. “Those are some big socks!” he exclaimed. The other, happily, was the rather magnificent sword fight that Patrick Macnee and Urquhart have on the big table in the dining hall, so he’s not just watching old TV to chuckle at the silly clothes people used to wear, like a “comedian” on one of those awful Things Sure Were Different Back Then! nostalgia programs.

I don’t think it’s right to completely dismiss dramatic choices like this as merely lazy cultural stereotyping. It isn’t lazy; it’s carefully crafted in the same way that the director, James Hill, opened the story with a series of long, hand-held tracking shots through the elaborate castle set. The Avengers slowly reveals its unreality as the show progresses through the sixties, which is sometimes jarring because television viewers tend to watch every program as though it is set in “our world,” and The Avengers quite firmly isn’t. That’s not to say that it’s always a good or an admirable choice – some elements of this fantasyland Britain are crafted with the walls of exclusion – but the use of stereotype here isn’t halfhearted. In Avengerland, England can have some variety of people, places, and things, but all of Scotland is exactly like this.

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The Avengers 4.4 – Death at Bargain Prices

Wow, I’d forgotten just how good “Death at Bargain Prices” is. It has a great reputation, and many fans say it’s one of the best episodes of the show, with good reason. It’s a terrific script by Brian Clemens, one of the great ones where we don’t know what the villains’ plans are at all and figure it all out along with our heroes. We know that the criminal scheme is based around a fancy department store, where Mrs. Peel is soon working undercover, but don’t quite know who among the staff are the real baddies or what they’re doing, or who can be trusted. The house detective could very easily turn out to be a villain, and we’re left wondering whether he will betray Mrs. Peel for a few minutes.

It all turns out to be agreeably grandiose, and climaxes with a dynamite fight scene that entertained our son almost as much as it did me. He really hooted when Steed deflects a dagger with a cricket bat into a dartboard, leading me to explain what a cricket bat is! Everything about this hour is incredibly impressive, especially the sets for the department store. The whole thing is about as flawless as it can be.

And there’s another batch of splendid guest stars! Maybe there’s not as many as last time, but heck, six is awfully hard to top. This week, Andre Morell, T.P. McKenna, and Allan Cuthberson, who’s practically typecast at this point in his career as a stuffy snob with a carnation in his buttonhole, all turn out to be villains, although I’m embarrassed to say that I somehow couldn’t place Morell, despite knowing him from at least six other films and TV episodes I could mention. This won’t be the only time that an actor who played Professor Quatermass appears in The Avengers, either; Andrew Keir is in a couple of the color episodes.

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The Avengers 4.3 – The Cybernauts

Fifty-two years later, the talk of transistors in “The Cybernauts” is incredibly dated. And the slow, slow revelation that the silent, powerful assassin is a karate-chopping robot, well, that’s the sort of thing contemporary TV establishes before the opening credits without blinking. You have to make allowances for older television; for many viewers then, this was an extraordinarily strange concept.

But if you can put your mind back to 1965, “The Cybernauts” is downright amazing. There’s a reason why ABC chose this episode to launch the program’s run in America. The story by Philip Levene is stylish and witty and has an incredibly palpable sense of danger and suspense. The investigation is straightforward and the characters are believably in the dark. This is a complicated and outre plan for 1965, and Steed and Mrs. Peel are written in a way that television protagonists typically aren’t anymore. They don’t have access to any additional information; they have to dig it all up, with the audience coming along for the ride. And sure, modern audiences will figure out that it’s a robot earlier than our heroes. I don’t think that most people in 1965-66 would.

Macnee and Rigg are helped this week by one of the most amazing guest casts of any British program of the period. Check out the names: Michael Gough and Frederick Jaeger as the villains, John Hollis as a karate dojo, and Bernard Horsfall, Ronald Leigh-Hunt, and Bert Kwouk as industrialists involved with the evil plot. Gough’s Dr. Armstrong is one of the all-time great Avengers villains, and that’s with a lot of competition to come.

Our son, meanwhile, claims that he hated it. He absolutely insists that he hated it. It was far too scary, he complains, and he never wants to see it again.

Then he went upstairs and started karate-chopping his pillow with big sound effects.

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The Avengers 4.2 – The Gravediggers

This morning, I enjoyed explaining to our son that The Avengers features quite a few very eccentric old fellows with very odd hobbies. I also enjoyed explaining what the word eccentric meant; he’d never heard it before. The Avengers is set in a world where dozens of old military men and industrialists trapped in the memory of a glorious past of Empire have retired with buckets of money to indulge their peculiar whims. Often, they’re either exploited or killed by the villains-of-the-week, who frequently use the cover of the eccentrics’ hobby to hide in plain sight.

So this week, we meet Sir Horace Winslip, the first of the eccentric old oddballs in the film series. He’s played by Ronald Fraser and he’s obsessed with old railway lines and hates motor cars. He lives in a railway-themed house with an imitation dining car with sound effects and scrolling scenery, and has his own private mini-train, which our son adored almost as much as Patrick Macnee, who got to ride it. He’s been manipulated by the baddies into funding a jamming system. But Sir Horace thinks its meant to jam the engines of automobiles, when it’s actually jamming early-warning radar installations, just like in “The Deadly Missiles,” an episode of The Bionic Woman that we watched last month.

This episode was written by Malcolm Hulke and it features Wanda Ventham in a small role. It memorably climaxes with Mrs. Peel tied to the lines of the miniature railway with old-fashioned player piano music like an old “Perils of Pauline” chapter. This really did frighten our son a little, but the very fun fight between Steed and a couple of hoodlums on the runaway train kept him riveted. I told him that they used to have a mini-train like that at Zoo Atlanta that I enjoyed riding. Sadly, they replaced it with a boring old full-size train ten or more years ago.

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