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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 6.7 – Murdersville

I’ve never been completely on board with Brian Clemens’ “Murdersville,” despite its many charms. I think I’d just seen the trope of the Little Town With a Big Secret one time too many before finding this episode*. The only thing this one does that actually aggravates me is doing an equally tired trope of introducing a childhood friend of one of the main characters just in time to get killed. If you’ve known Mrs. Peel since she was just six or seven, you’re a dead man.

In its considerable defense, the location that they used for the delightful village of Little Storping-in-the-Swuff is incredibly charming. They’d driven through it just a couple of weeks previously, in “Dead Man’s Treasure”, actually! It’s got a few actors I enjoy in small roles, including Tony Caunter and Robert Cawdron. There’s also a great bit where a character played by Andrew Laurence – in a very, very small role – is all set to shoot a man in cold blood, until the village librarian reminds him that he shouldn’t make noise in a library.

Our son was pretty annoyed on Mrs. Peel’s behalf as she comes to realize that it’s not just one or two villagers who are up to no good. He became restless and I could see his lip curl as he figured out that the problem wasn’t just that nobody believed her, but that she didn’t have any help available. Things improved for him by the end, and while the concluding fight scene is deeply silly, even for this show, he enjoyed the mayhem. Villains and diabolical masterminds should know better than to leave a table of custard pies where a fight is likely to break out.

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The Avengers 5.15 – The Joker

“The Joker” is the third of the color Mrs. Peel adventures to be a rewrite of a Cathy Gale story. The original was really among my least favorite from those days, but the rewrite is an amazing change of pace. It’s a dark, grim, and very frightening Hitchcock-style thriller with Mrs. Peel being stalked in a creepy old house by an unpleasant face from her past. But who’s playing the baddie, Ronald Lacey or Peter Jeffrey? I think it’s brilliant, and Diana Rigg is on fire, but I’m glad the show was able to dip in and out of whimsy and not be as intense as this every week!

Our son didn’t enjoy it very much. We asked whether he liked it or if it was too weird. “A hundred thousand and eighty-eight percent too weird,” he said.

I did spot an odd little bit of synchronicity, though. By chance, I watched something else earlier this afternoon that was written by Brian Clemens, an episode of Thriller with John Carson and Joanna Dunham. Both stories have racks of knives hanging in the kitchens of the home where they’re set, and in both stories, dangerous people slowly walk past the knives and run their hands across them.

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The Avengers 5.13 – A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station

“Hard to follow, but fun to watch!” That’s our son’s verdict on this story, which I think is the only episode of The Avengers to go out under a pseudonym. Roger Marshall wrote the original story, Brian Clemens reworked it, and the final credit goes to “Brian Sheriff.” There aren’t too many familiar-to-me faces in the story. John Laurie plays a railroad enthusiast, and Isla Blair is one of the members of the criminal gang.

Since we have next to no experience with inter-city train travel in the southeast US, I’ve always been a little bit interested in stories that feature railway lines and timetables and disused stations. Sure, anybody reading Christie or Sayers’ novels where somebody’s alibi is established by the sound of the tunnel that the 4:50 from Walthamstow enters blowing the horn twice has a considerable advantage over me, but I make do. Of course, our son has even less experience than me. He’s taken the subway in Atlanta a few times, that’s about it. So we had to pause and explain a little more of this than usual. The concept that the ticket collector is punching out a special microdot from counterfeit tickets just sailed over his head.

He was also so confused by the name of the derelict station, Chase Halt, that it didn’t even sound like a place to him. I reminded him that there’s an episode of The Secret Service with a similarly-named station, and of course in his second series, Catweazle lived in an abandoned station called Duck Halt. It turns out that a “halt” is, or was, a very small station with limited service and few amenities, and most of the railways stopped using them in the 1950s, which is why they kept turning up as locations in 1960s and 1970s television. I always like it when we learn something together.

Unless I’m mistaken, “The Correct Way to Kill” was the first episode of The Avengers from its color era where somebody shows up at Steed’s apartment (# 3 Stable Mews) intending to murder him. At least Philip Madoc survived that encounter. Tonight’s might be the first time that the wannabe killer ends up dead himself. That’s going to start happening a lot more frequently!

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The Avengers 5.12 – The Superlative Seven

“The Superlative Seven” loses a little of its luster when the story turns into And Then There Were None on a mysterious island, because most of the seven in question act incredibly illogically. It’s still a very fun mystery, and everything getting to the island is fabulous. Seven experts in physical combat have all been invited to a fancy dress party on an airplane, only to learn that they’ve accepted invitations from different people. And then the plane takes off with nobody at the controls.

The episode is best known for its amazing cast, which includes Charlotte Rampling, BRIAN BLESSED, and Donald Sutherland. Sutherland had been doing a lot of work in the UK in the mid-sixties before he became a big-name film star. In another one of those odd coincidences, Marie and I saw him in the last episode of The Saint that we watched together, just last week. Sutherland and John Hollis play the two villains behind the cat-and-mouse game.

Our son really got into this one, and he was completely convinced that Charlotte Rampling’s character was the mystery killer. He enjoyed it tremendously, and was a little disappointed that he was mistaken. In fairness, however, the villains did cheat.

Oh, one last note: our son didn’t know what the word superlative meant. I told him that it meant magnificent.

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The Avengers 5.11 – Epic

No program’s perfect. I’ve never enjoyed “Epic,” because it feels like everybody’s in on a joke that they’re hell-bent on running into the ground. Peter Wyngarde’s in it, and he seems to be having fun, at least.

Our son enjoyed it more than I did, although he was a little confused by some of it. He was very excited and worried by the conveyor belt-sawblade climax – an old deathtrap of silent movies that had infuriated him in a Batman episode that had been shown about a year before this – and went upstairs humming Laurie Johnson’s Avengers theme.

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The Avengers 5.9 – The Correct Way to Kill

In the early days of color TV, producers would often remake black and white episodes. It showed a little bit of foresight – in time, many channels would stop running black and white TV – but it sometimes felt like a cheat. I think that Bewitched and Gunsmoke may hold the booby prize for most color remakes. With The Avengers, it made a little sense. The three videotaped seasons were not shown in America for many years, so the audience never had the chance to see “The Charmers,” which had used a largely similar script as this a few years before.

“The Charmers” is witty, but “The Correct Way to Kill,” Brian Clemens’ rewrite, is completely hilarious. It’s one of my all-time favorites, just full of sight gags and double entendres. Steed’s partner for much of the episode is Comrade Olga Volowski, played by Anna Quayle, while Mrs. Peel is briefly teamed with another agent from “the other side” played by Philip Madoc.

The plot is hilariously, or perhaps uncomfortably, topical. Some third party, their agents dressed as London “city gents,” is murdering foreign agents on British soil. Steed is outraged, in his unflappable way. Surely “the other side” would have the decency to recall their agents and kill them at home instead of doing it in Britain! Maybe in the sixties, Comrade Steed. These days, agents from “the other side” drop dead in London every month or so.

Anyway, Clemens just has a hoot with Olga’s dialogue as she tries to understand Steed’s decadent, subtle ways, while Mrs. Peel learns the hard way that a little cheating in espionage, even when there’s meant to be a truce, is to be expected. The episode’s full of great familiar faces like Terence Alexander, Peter Barkworth, Michael Gough, and Joanna Jones, and it climaxes with a downright amazing swordfight. It’s a great, great episode, and if you’ve never seen it, you should check it out.

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The Avengers 5.7 – The Living Dead

It’s not much of a downside, I’ll grant you, but one downside to planning ahead a couple of weeks for this blog is that I start overthinking about certain episodes, or I get the title stuck in my head, which will often get a song with the same name stuck in my head. So I’ve had Suede’s “The Living Dead” playing in my brain for weeks. There are worse fates, I guess. Still, I’ll be glad now that we’ve moved on, and hopefully the song’s been exorcised.

Well, our son really enjoyed this one. “The Living Dead” is a Brian Clemens script from a story by Anthony Marriott. This is the second time this season that somebody who’d worked with Gerry Anderson’s team got an idea going and Clemens finished it. Marriott was at the time working on the hugely successful detective series Public Eye for the Associated British Corporation. It does have a very off-kilter climax, though. He loved the tension as Steed stoically faces a firing squad while Mrs. Peel is beating the daylights out of three different people and rushing to the rescue. Then she mows nine people down with a machine gun! You certainly didn’t see very many women on TV in the sixties doing that!

“The Living Dead” is a good story, but not one of my favorites. There’s not quite enough wit and fun in it for my liking, but the only real flaw in the production is the same one that stood out in “The Hour That Never Was”. We’re shown a photo of a man who’s been dead for five years, and it’s a photo of actor Edward Underdown. If you guess that the character isn’t actually dead, you’re right! Other famous faces in the story include Pamela Ann Davy, Julian Glover, and Howard Marion-Crawford.

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