Happily, for the benefit of regular readers wondering whether our son was going to enjoy this show again, the kid liked this one much more than many of the previous episodes, and that’s even with us pausing a few times to discuss the racism and the unflattering stereotypes in this tale written by Robert Banks Stewart and set in Hong Kong. While on a layover, Jason finds a weird error in the local version of the syndicated Mark Caine comic strip, and learns that it is being used to send messages to a local hit squad to ferret out foreign agents.
There’s really nothing wrong with the script, but the production is very, very much of its time, which means that Wyngarde gets to haul out a number-one-son accent a couple of times. Also, sadly, while some familiar faces from the period like Bert Kwouk make up the ranks of the gunmen and the lieutenants, the major roles are played by British actors like Clifford Evans in yellowface. So yes, we had a lot to talk about. Allan Cuthbertson also appears as a British intelligence agent.
As part of my decluttering, I’ve been giving my set of Titan Books’ reprints of James Bond newspaper strips one final flip-through and moving them on. Honestly, I paid $13-14 apiece for these things, read them once, and forgot what happened in every one of them. I’m so stupid sometimes. Anyway, the strip carried on long after they’d run out of Ian Fleming novels and short stories to adapt, with writer Jim Lawrence and artist Yaroslav Horak coming up with all sorts of outlandish plots and reasons for people to take off their clothes. So these were fresh in my mind as we looked at the episode and its talk of international newspaper syndication, with Jason acknowledging that he does not write the strip, but approves what happens in it and is familiar enough to recognize problems or replacements.
However, I’m sorry, but the images that make it onto the screen do not look even remotely professional, and nothing at all like a strip that would have ever seen print in any newspaper anywhere. At least when The Avengers did something a little bit similar, they had the good sense to hire Frank Bellamy to do the comic strip illustrations. Honestly, ITC, couldn’t you have phoned Yaroslav Horak?
Today’s story, written by Donald “wrote for everything back then” James, is the perhaps inevitable story where the heroes run up against Nazis, but it is done with a heck of a lot of flair and several really good twists. That’s Clifford Evans along with co-star Alexandra Bastedo in the picture above as a colonel from the Wehrmacht who was buried alive along with sixty men and several decades worth of supplies in a long-disused iron mine in Austria.
It’s a very good story, and we all enjoyed seeing it unfold, but I’m not sure that it’s a very good Champions story. There’s a huge disadvantage to the way that many programs were made back in the sixties, and that’s the lack of a central core of writers working in tandem to move the stories forward and maintain internal consistency. In the previous episodes, including one scripted by this same writer, we’ve seen that our heroes have several powers, but the one that they use most often is telepathy to communicate over long distances. They don’t use their telepathy even once in this episode, although there is a single “intuition” moment where Sharron “feels” an explosion near Craig and Richard. It would have changed the structure of this adventure considerably if they were less in the dark than they are throughout.
Another story by Roger Marshall, “Dial a Deadly Number” was almost impenetrable for our son, even after several pauses to broadly sketch what all this talk of shares and investments is all about. It’s definitely television from another world, as the murders are committed using these incredibly novel and modern “bleeps” that gentlemen carry in their breast pocket. You might remember such things as being called “pagers.”
Still, he says that he enjoyed it, and of course he isn’t shy in telling us when he doesn’t. It does end with a great fight and it features fun guest appearances by Peter Bowles, Clifford Evans, Anthony Newlands, and Gerald Sim, all of whom would return in later Avengers episodes. I didn’t realize that Bowles is still working. He’s the Duke of Wellington in the current Victoria series. When this was made, he still looked like a baby.
Strangely, my clearest memory of this episode is watching it on A&E, when that channel bought The Avengers in the early nineties and gave the videotape episodes their first American airing. For some insane reason, A&E just ignored the clear fade-to-black ad breaks in the episodes and just dropped commercials in whenever they felt like it. There’s a wonderful moment in a wine tasting contest where Steed identifies a Château Lafitte-Rothschild with hilarious specificity – “from the northern end of the vineyard” – and his opponent’s monocle pops out of his eye. There – there! – is where A&E decided to insert a commercial!