Super-hypnosis was a standard of action-adventure shows from the sixties and seventies, and we’ve certainly seen some silly examples from ITC already, but this one’s got an amusing little twist. The criminals who are using super-hypnosis, including Geraldine Moffat, to arrange the theft of a very old book run into a fun obstacle: the owner of the very old book is planning on running a con of his own to double-cross them. Naturally, Jason gets caught in the middle. Clive Revill plays the book’s shifty owner, Anne Sharp, Charles Lloyd-Pack, and Richard Hurndall have small roles. Our son enjoyed this one a lot; it’s a fanciful story with an outlandish premise and lots of complications.
One Tuesday in January 1972, ABC showed The Night Stalker, which broke all the ratings records and launched a franchise. Four days later, ABC showed Madame Sin, which was a big flop and didn’t lead to anything. Oh, but if it did…
In the early seventies, instead of just making twenty-six episode series and hoping that American networks would bite, ITC started making some movies of the week – slash – pilots instead. There was Mister Jerico, with Patrick Macnee, and The Firechasers, with Chad Everett, and Baffled!, with Leonard Nimoy and Susan Hampshire. That last one gets a little stick for a silly name and a silly premise, but it’s actually a pretty fun film and might have made a good series had another network not already commissioned and canceled the very similar The Sixth Sense.
And then there’s Madame Sin, which is a pretty good movie. It’s not great but it’s not bad. But you know how pilots are; they’re often rough around the edges and the resulting TV series is a lot better. Had ABC ordered twenty-six episodes of Madame Sin for September 1972, we’d still be talking about them. This could have been the greatest and most fun TV show ever.
In 1996, there was a one-hour special produced by Lee Goldberg called The Greatest Shows You Never Saw, a showcase of failed pilots, both promising and ridiculous. The clips from Madame Sin demanded further investigation. This was back in my VHS tape trading days and I put out the call immediately and had a copy within a couple of months. It starred Bette Davis as Dr. Fu Manchu, basically. Madame Sin is an impossibly wealthy supervillain who employs an army of scientists to develop the newest technology. In the pilot, she’s based on an island in the north of Scotland, and is using ultrasonics to create holograms and brainwash people. She’s been commissioned to steal a Polaris submarine, and she’s got a new accomplice in a disgraced American intelligence agent played by Robert Wagner.
Interestingly, Wagner’s face was blurred out in the clips that were used in the 1996 special, so perhaps he declined permission. When he filmed this in 1971, the actor was probably best known for the hit series It Takes a Thief and is credited as one of the producers. I think that he wouldn’t have continued on had the movie been picked up (see below), and not because he’s too busy marveling at the price of a plane ticket from London to New York in 1971. No, he wouldn’t have continued because Madame Sin would have turned the convention of a hero fighting a new villain each week on its head. Each episode would have had the supervillain match wits with a new secret agent.
I’ve occasionally let my mind wander and think about who might have shown up in this series to battle the evil Madame Sin. Her cohorts include Denholm Elliott, Dudley Sutton, Catherine Schell, Pik-Sen Lim, Charles Lloyd-Pack, and Burt Kwouk, some of whom may or may not have appeared in the series, and guesting in the pilot, you’ve got Gordon Jackson and Roy Kinnear along with two of ITC’s stock Americans, Paul Maxwell and David Healy. Could you have asked for a better supporting cast for a British movie in 1971? But who could have played the various CIA and MI-6 operatives who would attempt to foil her plans each week? Or would all the guest heroes be agents of the same super-agency, an UNCLE or a Nemesis? Could you imagine Robert Vaughn one week, George Lazenby the next, and Stuart Damon the week after? This could have been more fun than Columbo!
Our kid didn’t like it very much. There’s one fight scene, but it’s very talky, with only one small explosion. He didn’t like Robert Wagner’s character having to betray his friend, and he was surprised and disappointed that the hero character actually gets killed in the end, while Madame Sin and Denholm Elliot wonder whether they can kick the royals out of Windsor Castle. I’m with you, Madame Sin. Incidentally, the movie is 86 minutes long, but it ran in a 90-minute slot on American television that Saturday night in January, suggesting it was cut down to about 75 minutes. Maybe Wagner’s death scene wasn’t shown in the US and he might have been back for a rematch in the series?
Incidentally, I’m stupidly proud of myself for a bit of prop spotting. Madame Sin’s sonic rifle, being tested by Charles Lloyd-Pack above, later turned up in a couple of Doctor Who serials, including 1974’s “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” shown below. I’m not the first to have made this observation – Google tells me that Jon Preddle, who knows everything, spotted it years ago – but it tickled me all the same.
The gun later made it to a silly 1975 Tomorrow People serial which guest starred Peter Davison. I wonder where else it might have been used?
I’m afraid I was working on another project and had to rush, so I watched tonight’s episode out of the corner of my eye. What I saw was completely wonderful. This is a splendid and very funny adventure where Marty gets targeted by a clairvoyant criminal played by Charles Lloyd Pack. He needs to make sure that no ghosts get in his way, so he and his associate, Alexandra Bastedo under a very unfortunate hairdo, pick up Marty’s widow as a client in order to exorcise Marty! There are some good fights and great surprises, and it features Ivor Dean as a police inspector who is really sick of Jeff.
In our son’s favorite scene, Jeff consults a doctor in Harley Street to discuss all of his ailing friend’s symptoms. The quack deduces that Jeff’s friend must be pregnant, and our kid howled with laughter. This is definitely one to come back to another day!
Roger Marshall’s “Silent Dust” is certainly the weakest episode of The Avengers that we’ve watched so far, but in its favor, it has a lengthy chase and fight in the climax that kept our son very entertained. The problem seems to be that the writer was given a brief to do a story that ends with a big fox hunt, and there isn’t a lot of plot to get there. The villainous threat-of-the-week is about an experimental fertilizer that has the reverse effect and kills topsoil and livestock, but it might as well be a threat about anything. All that matters is getting the heroes and villains to don red coats and ride around with hounds at the end.
Amusingly, I’d forgotten that the last of the baddies gets his comeuppance when Steed picks up a “Down with Blood Sports” sign that a protester has discarded and uses it as a polo mallet on him. I realized that our son has no experience with fox hunting. So I paused it to give him a quick rundown, more of the iconography than the actual history, and mentioned that in the last several decades, this sort of hunting has become very controversial, and was finally banned in the UK about twelve years ago. Then I said something dopey: “When this was made, it was probably around the last time that hunts were organized without public protests.” Of course, the very next scene had four or six people milling around the toffs with protest signs. Had I looked at it before opening my big mouth, I’d have known that the RSPCA had been trying to put a stop to “cultural amusements” like this since the 1820s.
But other than the hunt, there’s not a lot of interest in this story. The villains are identified way too early, using the unusual approach of “every suspect is in on it,” and even though there are some recognizable faces like Charles Lloyd Pack, Norman Bird, Isobel Black, and William Franklyn, it’s really not one of the most engaging episodes.
Weirdo trivia: Oddly, this episode was among those not purchased by ABC for the American run, and it picked up an alternate name. American fans way back then who were curious about the unseen installments of the show inquired about it among 16mm film traders in the sixties and seventies and a bootleg copy was apparently doing the rounds under a working title: “Strictly For the Worms.” It was so well known by that name that you used to see this listed in guidebooks and tape trader lists as: “Silent Dust (Strictly For the Worms).”
We’ll take a few weeks’ break from The Avengers now, but stay tuned! Steed and Mrs. Peel will be back in December!