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The Avengers 6.15 – Look – (stop me if you’ve heard this one) But There Were These Two Fellers…

The brilliance of The Avengers is that it is said to be a program where absolutely anything can happen. So here, the veteran writer Dennis Spooner, who had contributed to Doctor Who and several of the ITC adventure series, decides to test that hypothesis and pushes the show farther into weirdness and farce than it had ever been before. It still doesn’t break. Now having said that, you can probably see the boundary from here. This is a deeply, deeply silly and hilarious episode, but it honestly doesn’t need to get any sillier than this.

If you’ve never had the great pleasure, “Look – (stop me if you’ve heard this one) But There Were These Two Fellers…” concerns a gang of “resting” vaudevillians who are targeting the board of directors of the Caritol Land and Development Corporation, a big firm that has just landed an extremely important government contract. But among their holdings is a defunct chain of music halls and palladium theaters, and a crooked Punch and Judy man who knows more than he’s letting on seems to have convinced the gang that by wiping them out, they can open the curtains on their old shows again. Jimmy Jewel and Julian Chagrin play the lead killers, and familiar faces Robert James and Talfryn Thomas are among the other “resting” artistes.

Not one line of this is played straight. Getting to the hilarious final fight, we get to enjoy some of the all-time great television death scenes. Years ago, I watched this one with my older kids, and my boy just about stopped breathing with laughter when Jimmy Jewel introduces some puffed-up aristocrat to his magic carpet trick. John Cleese plays a civil servant tasked with painting the copyrighted faces of clowns onto eggs, and Bernard Cribbins plays a gag writer who comes up with far, far more duds than winners, and they both meet hysterically gruesome ends. Both actors just had me in stitches before they met their grisly deaths. Cleese, in particular, is a delight in the role of a put-upon government worker who desperately wants to avoid letting any member of the public into his office.

Of course our son loved it. He laughed like a hyena in places. This would be a terrible introduction to The Avengers, but I can’t imagine anybody in the world not liking this. For a hour about one sick-in-the-head murder after another, it’s just so darn joyous, which makes it even more amazing that this could very well have been the program’s final episode! I don’t believe that ABC had renewed the show when this was made in March 1968.

As I mentioned last month, in the US, The Avengers was running opposite Lost in Space, and NBC’s The Virginian, which was crushing both programs. CBS gave the ax to Space, and in the usual sort of Nielsen circumstances, there was really no reason to expect that ABC would ask for more Avengers. By the spring of 1968, the spy craze was ebbing, Diana Rigg had moved on, and the ratings were dropping. But ABC did order a full 26 episode season of the program anyway, because something was going to happen in the fall of 1968 that was totally unlike the usual sort of Nielsen circumstances… but more on that another day.

That’s all from The Avengers for now, but Steed and Tara King will be back in August for more adventures. Stay tuned!

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The Avengers 6.14 – Have Guns – Will Haggle

In previous entries, I’d mentioned that John Bryce had been given the reins of The Avengers, cast Linda Thorson, and worked on three episodes. The first of these was called “Invitation to a Killing,” written by Donald James and filmed in the fall of 1967. Interestingly, all the available information we have says that this was a ninety-minute episode. I’m not sure whether this means it had as much material as a two-part adventure, or if it was seventy-five minutes of story with room for ads.

The full version of “Invitation to a Killing” has never surfaced – in public, anyway – and is presumed to have been destroyed. Some of the material from the episode, most obviously the scenes featuring Tara with blonde hair and a garish pink coat, was repurposed for “Have Guns – Will Haggle,” with reshoots taking place about five months after the original story was made. It’s a little more complicated than just saying all the stuff with Tara as a blonde was shot first and all the scenes where she’s a brunette came later, but it is interesting that the only actors with speaking parts who appear with her as a brunette are Patrick Macnee and just one of the guest stars, Jonathan Burn. (We noted that some of the exteriors, where Linda Thorson is wearing that totally fab and mod plaid sixties minidress, were very clearly filmed in the winter. She must have been freezing!)

Outside of all the production curiosities, this is far from the best Avengers episode. John Bryce and Donald James seem to have been fulfilling that apparent remit to produce a more conventional action-adventure series, and this is a fairly ordinary story of stolen rifles, mercenaries, and an auction among disgraced colonels and warlords hoping to use the guns to start coups d’état in trouble spots around the globe. It’s not bad, just ordinary, and doesn’t have that odd Avengers spark. Among the guests, Nicola Pagett plays the chief villain, and Timothy Bateson, who we’ll see again in a couple of nights, is an oddball ballistics expert.

I thought that the most interesting scene, by far, was the opening, in which the stuntmen playing the mercenaries use a trampoline to go over a barbed wire fence. Our son enjoyed both the climax and the tag scene. He got very excited and worried as the lit fuse to some ready-to-blast gelignite burns down, and loved the silly comedy of Steed and Tara receiving an unexpected and very hungry gift from the grateful president of an African nation.

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The Avengers 6.13 – Get-A-Way!

I was mentioning last time out how we got used to some pretty beat-up prints of the Tara King episodes, and were always glad when the A&E network showed one that was an upgrade. With that in mind, “Get-A-Way!” looks particularly sublime compared to the old print that they used. Since the story is actually kind of repetitive, it’s one that I shrugged about and didn’t revisit very much. It’s nice to see it with fresh eyes, and looking so excellent.

Our son really enjoyed this one, and was full of ideas about how the three prisoners, enemy agents being detained by the most incompetent guards in Britain, were vanishing. I was underwhelmed by Philip Levene using the hoary old plot of two of Steed’s oldest friends being targeted, but I enjoyed seeing the guest stars Peter Bowles, Neil Hallett, and Andrew Keir.

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The Avengers 6.12 – Split!

The six episodes that followed “The Forget-Me-Knot” were originally shown in the United States with this fun and silly title sequence with a cartoon crosshairs following our heroes around an orange room. They were later removed and replaced with the second Tara King sequence, the one with the suits of armor in a field. For some reason, they missed out on “Split!”, and it has the correct opening sequence. Sadly, the closing credits are the ones with the hands doing card tricks that should only be on the ends of the 26 suits of armor episodes. One of these days, somebody will get all these right on DVD.

Incidentally, there’s a third title sequence – well, third-ish – that is even more common to American viewers. Somebody cut the fifty second suits of armor sequence down to twenty-five seconds so that the ABC network could cram in one additional commercial. When A&E was running the Tara King episodes in the early nineties, we always sat up when we got the full version. We knew instantly that we were in for a better experience. Most of A&E’s copies of the Tara King stories were grotty, beat-up old 16mm prints, but there were a few that came from a fresh 35mm source and looked comparatively glorious. I remember that “Take-Over” was one of these. They all still had between one and three minutes of edits, but while they weren’t uncut, at least the full version of the credits let us know that it was going to look great.

As for tonight’s content, Brian Clemens’ “Split!” is a very entertaining story about a supposedly dead enemy agent who still seems to be active more than four years after Steed shot him through the heart. The cast includes familiar faces like Bernard Archard, Christopher Benjamin, Nigel Davenport, and Julian Glover, and the villains are so diabolical that our son got incredibly ticked off and outraged about their plans for Tara. He insists that he knows that she wasn’t in real trouble, just that these bad guys are much more cruel than he is used to seeing.

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The Avengers 6.11 – The Curious Case of the Countless Clues

Almost at the same time that the producers were making “The Forget-Me-Knot”, they were also working on Philip Levene’s “The Curious Case of the Countless Clues,” and I noticed that Linda Thorson is only in scenes that are set in Tara King’s apartment. It does seem a little odd that they’d sideline the new character so early in her tenure, and so I hypothesize, ahead of the facts, that they may have had one crew shooting Diana Rigg’s material on one set while a second was filming Thorson’s. Is that a reasonable deduction?

There’s a heck of a good cast in this story. Peter Jones, who would later be the immortal voice of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, plays a… well, Steed never actually gets around to telling us who Sir Arthur Doyle is, just that he likes to pretend to be Sherlock Holmes. Our villains are a gang of blackmailers named Erle, Stanley, and Gardner, played by the very familiar faces of Anthony Bate, Tony Selby, and Kenneth Cope. It looks like Cope began work on Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) about five months after making this episode.

Edward de Souza, who was in just about everything in the sixties and seventies, is one of the blackmailers’ victims, and his sister is a former – slash – occasional girlfriend of Steed’s, played by Tracey Reed, who had so memorably played General Turgidson’s secretary, as well as “Miss Foreign Affairs,” in Dr. Strangelove. Incidentally, rather driving home the point that British adventure film and TV was so much a man’s world in the sixties, other than the sidelined Thorson, Tracey Reed is the only actress in both this episode and in Strangelove.

But having said that, while Tara looks to be so incredibly sidelined that she appears helpless with a broken ankle in this episode, and this is emphasized by the decision to spend time with her desperately trying to lock the doors of her apartment, I like how she’s more than able to defend herself in the end. She fights off and apparently kills one of the villains. Steed rushes to rescue her, but he isn’t needed. Good choice! It was fine for he and Mrs. Peel to rescue each other regularly, but the audience still has to see Tara as competent on her own at this stage.

Our son was pleased with this one. It is a straightforward adventure with a clear scheme, hissable villains, and a few good fights. Certainly not as pleasing to him as those other, lesser Avengers, but I’m glad he enjoyed it all the same.

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The Avengers 6.10 – Invasion of the Earthmen

Recap: If you’ve missed earlier posts and are baffled by the numbering, in a break with the accepted style of talking about The Avengers, I consider the program’s sixth season to be those fifteen episodes shown in America from January through May 1968. I bet at least three people get aggravated about this.

Further recap: John Bryce had briefly taken over production duties for the program, and asked adventure teevee veteran Terry Nation to contribute. “Invasion of the Earthmen” was the second of three that Bryce worked on. It was made while Linda Thorson’s hair had been bleached blonde for the role. Since cooler heads decided that her natural color would be just fine, this required Thorson to wear a brown wig, pretending that’s her real hair, in some new scenes added in which she decides to wear a blonde wig, which is actually her real hair, for this mission.

Brian Clemens had more than just a curiosity about the hair to deal with. This story is a complete turkey. It looks just fine, and our heroes engage in a couple of impressive fights, but there’s barely a plot to this adventure, and what plot we get is not necessarily a villainous one. Steed and Miss King are investigating Alpha Academy because one of their colleagues, a Mr. Grant, has gone missing while investigating the school. But we’re never told why he was looking into them. There’s a weird sense that we’re supposed to be alarmed or appalled that the villain is training young astronaut soldiers, but… is that a problem? Is that illegal? Mr. Grant gets killed by a hilariously fake boa constrictor, and they cover it up, but they never tell us why they’ve covered it up.

I guess we’re meant to be worried by the menace of the little fascists-in-training, and impressed by Nation’s reuse of some go-to plot elements from his sixties episodes of Doctor Who and The Saint, but there’s no meat in this story at all. Our son liked the fights and the creepy tunnel, and thought it was pretty exciting. As long as you don’t look closely, sure.

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The Avengers 6.9 – The Forget-Me-Knot

Let’s recap the story so far. The producers of The Avengers had signed Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg up to make 26 color episodes of the show, but the American network ordered just sixteen one year, followed by fifteen more the next. Diana Rigg declined to sign on for five more episodes, so the role of Mrs. Peel would need to be recast.

And then the production company didn’t like the eight episodes – the ones that some of us call season six – that Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens had produced in the summer of 1967. They elected to replace Fennell and Clemens with a veteran named John Bryce, and somebody decided that they might as well cast the new actress while they were changing. So while Rigg technically owed them two more installments, she was thanked for her time, and Bryce cast Canadian actress Linda Thorson as Tara King. We meet Tara in this episode, although John Bryce did not end up producing it.

A pause before continuing: it’s never, ever been fair to Thorson that Tara was introduced in the wake of one of television’s all-time greatest characters. She’s always suffered by comparison, and it’s undeniably true that a novice and inexperienced agent is a definite retrograde step. It’s also true that she got to appear in far too many complete clunkers, where she’s the best thing about the hour. However, Linda Thorson is a very, very good actress, there are some downright fantastic Avengers stories ahead of us as well as those few turkeys, and her character improves massively over time, with several standout moments. Mind you, it’s not an absolutely straight line of trajectory, and Brian Clemens’ work in the 1970s on Thriller, with one damn woman in jeopardy after another after another every week, suggests more that Mrs. Peel was a lucky break instead of the work of a keen eye for strong female characters.

Oh, did I mention Clemens? Well, they got him back pretty quickly. Bryce and his team were responsible for three stories in various stages of completion before the company realized the show was in serious trouble and was better left in Fennell and Clemens’ hands, especially since they had about two months to get the first of the episodes with Thorson to America to finish their order of fifteen. One of the first things they did was recall Diana Rigg, who was still under contract for another couple of weeks, and do a story bridging the two characters, who briefly meet at the end of this episode, “The Forget-Me-Knot.”

Clemens wrote this story in an amazing hurry and they still had to cast it and build sets, and it’s a wonder that it works as well as it does. Really, it’s just here to introduce Tara and give Mrs. Peel one last sendoff, and one last opportunity to kick a thug square in the face and send him head over heels across a sofa. We get a new boss for Steed – at least his third, although we’ll see this one again – played by Patrick Newell, and the reliable Jeremy Young is back as the villain.

I wish that the episode had been more about Mrs. Peel, and that our heroes shared more screen time together, but Diana Rigg’s farewell scene makes up for it. Their simple and quiet goodbye has always just broken my heart completely.

Mrs. Peel and Miss King get to meet very, very, briefly, criminally briefly, on the stairs, the only time that any of Steed’s partners get to share any screen time together. And they act like strangers. Shouldn’t they have met, without the audience present, during the cleanup of the villains at the Glass House? Well, Clemens did have to write this one in less than a week. It probably didn’t have many drafts. But Mrs. Peel gives Tara a valuable piece of advice and a smile, and rides off into history.

So it’s the end of a fantastic era, but, ra-boom-di-ay, Tara is here, so there’s no time to be sad.

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The Avengers 6.8 – Mission… Highly Improbable

Who can resist a shrink ray episode, particularly one with a guest cast as wonderful as this one? Philip Levene’s “Mission… Highly Improbable” is a fun little break from the Avengers norm, because the villain is pretty far from a diabolical mastermind. He’s a scientist who’s improvising the whole time. Since the old fellow in charge of his department has developed a shrink ray, using government money that he shouldn’t have, the baddie is looking to sell it, and since he’s just as corrupt as an intelligence officer from “the other side,” they seem to have some big plans to discuss.

You know, I just realized this episode might have been even more fun if they had brought back Warren Mitchell’s character of Ambassador Brodny instead of this fellow. Never mind, it’s delightful all the same. Our son had an early case of squirminess, but he settled down very quickly once he realized what was happening in this story and really enjoyed the terrific sets, the wonderful reaction shots from actors spotting the shrunken characters, the fights, and the great little comeuppance for the scheming villains.

Making this an even more entertaining episode than the usual high standard for this series, darn near every one of the players is a very recognizable face from the period. Anybody who enjoys British television from the sixties and seventies will enjoy seeing Nicholas Courtney, Richard Leech, Francis Matthews, Jane Merrow, Ronald Radd, and Kevin Stoney, among others, in this one. Courtney gets one of the most delightfully gruesome deaths of anybody in The Avengers, which is saying something.

Jane Merrow, curiously enough, would apparently be back at the Associated British Corporation’s offices very soon after this was filmed to audition for the role of Mrs. Peel’s replacement. Nailing down precise dates has always been a little more difficult for The Avengers than the meticulously-documented Doctor Who, but it appears that “Mission… Highly Improbable” was completed in September 1967, and Linda Thorson’s first episode as Tara King was completed two months later, and I’m not sure how many actresses that John Bryce screen tested and auditioned before choosing Thorson, but time wasn’t on his side. More on that next time.

“Mission… Highly Improbable” was the last of eight episodes screened as The Avengers’ sixth season in Britain, but it was the first one to air in the batch of fifteen that ABC started showing in January 1968. Next time out, as we’ll see in a couple of days, everything would change.

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