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The Avengers 4.14 – Silent Dust

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!


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The Avengers 4.13 – Too Many Christmas Trees

I think we dodged a bullet with this one! We hope our son still has one and possibly two more Christmases believing in Santa Claus. So when Mrs. Peel gives a line about still believing in Father Christmas, we winced. We needn’t have. He doesn’t equate Santa and Father Christmas as the same character! (Incidentally, we decided long ago that Santa Claus brings one or two small gifts; all the rest are clearly from Mom and Dad. Hope to cushion the blow.)

Anyway, this story is about a gang of telepathic criminals waging a psychic assault on Steed during a Dickens-themed Christmas party at a big country house. Mediums, parlor tricks, ESP, hands around a table, all the old standbys. Alex Scott, who was in everything ITC did and quite a few Hammer films, is the chief villain, and Edwin Richfield, who we saw just a little over a week ago in “The Sea Devils,” is here and apparently up to no good. It’s an absolutely terrific episode, a heavy story lightened with witty banter and Mrs. Peel’s genuine concern for Steed as he seems incapacitated. It seems like one of the less expensive episodes, with just a few sets and not much location work, but they certainly got the most out of it.

Our son asked us to pause it because he was confused by a guillotine cigar cutter, which led to a discussion of what guillotines are. This led to me pausing it a few minutes later as Steed suffers another nightmare, in which he’s Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities being led to his execution. We paused again to explain a room set up to resemble Miss Havisham’s ruined and web-covered dining room from Great Expectations. Who says this TV’s an idiot box? He’s getting an introduction to literature here!

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The Avengers 4.12 – Two’s a Crowd

“Two’s a Crowd” opens with a delightful scene that subverts our expectations. There’s aerial footage of London, and an obviously model airplane about to drop an obviously miniature bomb on the head of a man on a balcony. It’s shot as though this is a real plane, however, and the viewer expects that this is a real plane and a real bomb, but, television being television, the program makers just didn’t have the budget to cover it. But the joke is on us: the plane is a remote-controlled toy, and the bomb is about the size of your thumb. It splashes into a punch bowl in front of actor Warren Mitchell, and that’s about the only joke in the episode that our son understood.

I’m afraid that this whole story by Philip Levene was a bomb for him; I thought it was extremely witty and fun, but it didn’t do to simply pause the episode to explain the subtle jokes about the Soviet ambassador preferring English gin to Russian vodka, or explain what embassies are. The lovely core of “Two’s a Crowd” is that Warren Mitchell’s character, one of the very, very few in the series who will make a second appearance, just wants to put his feet up, do as little work as possible, keep his head down, and enjoy as much of British society and its pleasures as he possibly can on the Russian taxpayers’ ruble. When the mysterious masterspy Colonel Psev arrives with his four associates, our poor ambassador sees his little world crumble, and he doesn’t want to do any dangerous “cloak and dagger” work. He’s just a simple diplomat, and besides, his good friend Steed has a nice liquor cabinet!

Anyway, in the photo above, that’s Warren Mitchell as Brodny. Mitchell would later find mammoth fame as Alf Garnett in the sitcom Till Death Us Do Part and its sequels; Mitchell played the character for twenty-seven years, but I liked him best as that Italian cab driver in a few early episodes of The Saint. Julian Glover, of course, was in everything: Star Wars, Hammer, Doctor Who, Indiana Jones, Game of Thrones, ITC stuff… the dude’s known to all fandoms!

I’m reminded that “Two’s a Crowd” was, for quite some time, one of the handful of black-and-white episodes of The Avengers that my circle of friends and traders had to share, thirty years ago. Before A&E began airing the series, and certainly before they released those nicely-designed official VHS and DVD editions, there were two sets of bootleg VHSes, usually crammed into bins at Camelot Music or Record Bar at $9.97 an episode. Sometimes you’d find them for five bucks. It was usually the color episodes, and they were sourced from ghastly 16mm prints that looked like they’d been dragged through gravel.

It is kind of funny in retrospect how, in our youth and naivete, we called bootlegs bad, but spent money on those dumb things and thought they were legit. It was the eighties, lots of properties showed up on crappy tapes, and we all assumed that somebody, somewhere must have approved them. The world of Japanese cartoons dubbed into English and dumped on thirty-minute tapes for some insane reason is incredibly weird. Thirty whole minutes a tape! Surely nobody was getting rich with those “Robo-Formers” tapes that recycled old Jim Terry dubs of Getta Robo G, were they?

We found “Two’s a Crowd,” “The Girl From Auntie,” and two other season four stories in generic yellow boxes on the shelf of a Blockbuster Video on Powers Ferry Road in Marietta. One of our friends, who lived in Chamblee, got a membership, checked out the four tapes for a week, made a half-dozen copies of them for our TV club, drove ’em back to Marietta and cancelled her membership after confirming there was nothing else there anybody needed.

That’s what we “had” to do in the eighties: visit every single video store you drove past, especially the old-looking ones, because they just might have had those scarce Embassy releases of Krofft shows, or that weird two-tape omnibus edition of Quatermass and the Pit, or “three completely uncut TV episodes of Captain Harlock,” never mind all the weird video nasties and Eurosleaze and giallos and Jess Franco movies that people were scouring shelves for. It was a weird time. Earlier this year, I bought a DVD of The Devil’s Wedding Night for four bucks that looked like it was mastered using a thirty year-old VHS copy of a fifteen year-old 16mm print. I squinted, smiled, and remembered more complicated times.

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The Avengers 4.11 – Man-Eater of Surrey Green

I love The Avengers because it could so easily bend its format way past the point where lesser series would snap in two. At its core, regardless of the frequent trappings of espionage and spy business, this is a show about weird crimes. This time, it’s effortlessly an homage to the first two Quatermass serials, and there isn’t a diabolical mastermind. There’s a telepathic alien plant. It’s played totally straight and if you stuck this plot in just about any other, similar series, it would be an eye-rolling mess. The Saint did something similar once. It didn’t work.

So Philip Levene’s “Man-Eater of Surrey Green” is The Avengers played as sci-fi horror, and it’s unbelievably effective. Our son is typically more still and attentive with this series than anything else we watch; he really does enjoy it and works hard to understand the grown-up concepts. As with previous installments, he was patiently working through the new information and assembling it, and when it hit home that there’s a giant plant monster at work, it chilled him to the bone. He went behind the sofa with his security blanket and into our bedroom. Then the plant takes control of Mrs. Peel, and Steed has to fight her. This episode just downright betrayed him and stabbed him in the back. He choked back tears as he told us how much he didn’t like this one.

That said, even allowing for this show’s embrace of fancy, in a story about a mind-controlling plant the size of a country house, my suspension of belief still stumbled when Mrs. Peel explains that there’s thought to be vegetable life on Mars and the moon, and that “recent photographs show whole areas of vegetation” up there. You have to force yourself to remember that Avengerland looks a lot like our Earth, but it really isn’t. That’s the only way such a silly announcement can work!

Casting note: this is probably the first episode of the fourth season to boast only one face in the cast that I recognized. Joby Blanshard later played Colin Bradley, one of the Doomwatch team, in the early seventies. Everybody else was mostly unknown to me, although a couple of them, like Derek Farr, turned up again later in Avengerland in other small roles.

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The Avengers 4.10 – Dial a Deadly Number

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!

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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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