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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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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 6.6 – The Positive Negative Man

Sadly, our son just plain did not like this one very much. I’ve always liked it, and assumed that another unstoppable fantasy villain would go over well. He was restless all through the evening, and finally grumbled “This is really boring” while Ray McAnally’s character, the diabolical mastermind of the week, is revealing his plans to Mrs. Peel.

Maybe he’ll come around another day. Or maybe he’ll be like his mother, who also had a bit of a grumble when all the hokum about non-conductive oils, broadcast power, and aluminium charged particles started to make Dr. Science’s head hurt again. Style over substance, I guess, but this one’s got style to spare.

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The Avengers 6.5 – You Have Just Been Murdered

Not a great deal to blog about this afternoon. Like I hinted at last time, Philip Levene’s “You Have Just Been Murdered” is a fairly down-to-earth story about a gang of blackmailers. It’s done with style and wit and very good performances, and would probably have been equally entertaining had any other sixties adventure show tackled it. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing in the story is Simon Oates’ remarkably peroxide hair.

Overnight, I had a lengthy bout of insomnia, got impatient and rewatched a favorite, forthcoming adventure again. I hadn’t realized before that the team came back to this location about nine months later to shoot the Tara King “fields of armor” title sequence, and Linda Thorson runs across the same bridge where Diana Rigg, hiding in the water underneath it, emerged to beat up a couple of thugs in this story. I double-checked at Avengerland, where so many British TV filming locations are documented, and the area around the bridge was used in at least nineteen other Avengers stories, plus more than a dozen other films and TV series. Well, when you build a film studio just down the road from such a nice and attractive bridge, you expect that everybody will take advantage of it, don’t you?

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The Avengers 6.4 – Dead Man’s Treasure

In any fandom, there are myths and there is received wisdom, and it often turns out to be incorrect. An example that many of you might know comes from Doctor Who. The story, for years, went that the first episode of 1974’s “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” was mistakenly junked by the BBC because that episode was titled just “Invasion” and was confused with the 1968 story “The Invasion.” That isn’t true at all. It’s a fan myth, but everybody heard it from somewhere or other.

The strange finger of coincidence visited this blog last month. See, there’s a similar bit of received wisdom about these eight Mrs. Peel episodes. Four of them aren’t fantasy-oriented in any way. “Dead Man’s Treasure,” like “The £50,000 Breakfast” and the next one, “You Have Just Been Murdered,” could just as easily play as an episode of an ITC action show like The Saint or The Baron. The story went that ABC (the network) in America had asked ABC (the production company) in Britain to bring things back down to Earth and make the series a little more realistic. I remember hearing this in the eighties, either from some know-it-all at a convention or in one of the zines from the era (maybe something that John Peel wrote?), but when I glanced back at the claim years later, I couldn’t find any real evidence of it. Did ABC actually ask for the show to get more realistic, or did fans just assume that they did because that’s a safe explanation for why Steed and Mrs. Peel were suddenly investigating plots that either McGill or Simon Templar could have handled?

It’s not quite definitive, but just last month, blogger Mitchell Hadley posted some evidence that somebody in America actually was complaining about how fanciful and odd The Avengers could be. TV Guide‘s influential columnist Cleveland Amory devoted a story to moaning that the color episodes were not as “genuinely engrossing” as the black and white ones. I wouldn’t connect all the dots with permanent ink yet, but there might be a through-line here: in April 1967, America’s biggest TV critic argues the show needs to be more realistic, when the show resumes production in June and July, Associated British Corporation asks Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens to tone things down, and in September, Fennell and Clemens are taken off the show and an earlier producer, John Bryce, is reinstated.

But that’s getting ahead of things.

Well, it may not be Steed and Mrs. Peel’s wildest case, but Michael Winder’s “Dead Man’s Treasure” is certainly one of our son’s favorites. He absolutely loved this one, which should come as no surprise. All seven year-olds like fast-moving car racing stories, which is why Wacky Races will be popular with kids until the end of time. And this one even has a pair of cheaters a lot like Dick Dastardly. Familiar-to-us faces Neil McCarthy and Edwin Richfield appear as enemy agents, shown above. Arthur Lowe, Ivor Dean, and Valerie van Ost are also in this episode.

There’s not a lot of meat to this story about an auto rally with clues all around the countryside to bring the drivers to a hidden treasure. Our heroes get involved because a dying agent hid some important documents in the box before the race started. It’s just a madcap, fun, and very breezy little excuse to get some cars out on the roads around Hertfordshire and drive them past the camera really fast.

I thought it was a shame that the budget didn’t extend to a few more speaking parts so we could see more of the competitors instead of promptly paring the field down to three teams, but that’s quibbling. “Dead Man’s Treasure” is just plain fun, even if it might have been made with John Mannering and Cordelia instead of Steed and Mrs. Peel!

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The Avengers 6.3 – The £50,000 Breakfast

Earlier, I’d mentioned how back in the eighties, when we were finding Avengers episodes wherever we could, that ideally meant swapping with other tape traders, but it also often meant either buying pirate videos or copying them from rental places. The Avengers Declassified has a page devoted to these pirate tapes, and looking back, the extraordinary thing is that these were all available in places like Blockbuster Video or Camelot Music or Record Bar. I mean, you would never, ever have found a copy of Great White Wonder or Live R Than You’ll Ever Be at Camelot Music, but bootleg Avengers videos were no problem!

Since there were several outfits churning these out, there was some cross-pollination, but each little line always seemed to have one or two episodes that you couldn’t find elsewhere. “Death of a Great Dane,” a second season episode that co-starred Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, was the only Blackman episode that we ever found back in the day, and subsequent research hasn’t turned up any others. I’ve occasionally wondered how that one 16mm print ended up in the bootleggers’ hands. Just that one and no others from the first three series.

Like three of the earlier color Diana Rigg stories, “The £50,000 Breakfast” is a remake of an Honor Blackman adventure. Roger Marshall had written “Great Dane” and his original story was given what I remember as a very light rewrite. (It has been many, many years since I’ve seen “Great Dane” and no longer have a copy, so I might be mistaken there!) But what’s interesting is that I didn’t see “The £50,000 Breakfast” for simply ages, probably not until the A&E network started screening them. So while the other three remakes I got to know via their second versions, it was the other way around this time, thanks to the video pirates.

One very low note from the rewrite, however, comes when Steed dismisses a steel band from Trinidad as playing “jungle music.” We certainly told our son that was completely inappropriate. Unlike our experience with the movie this morning, our son was much, much more attentive and curious, and didn’t interrupt the show at all. I paused it to give him a little explanation into diamond smuggling, and he was later able to give a quick and decent recap of the story to his mother when she joined us partway through.

It’s been too long for me to honestly compare the two, but “The £50,000 Breakfast” does have David Langton and Anneke Wills in small roles. Wills’ part here is just one small scene, and she made it between leaving Doctor Who and co-starring in ITC’s terrific Strange Report. “Great Dane” is no slouch on the guest star front either; it had John Laurie and Frederick Jaeger (him again!) in it. The original, of course, features great danes and the remake has Russian wolfhounds. Whichever you watch, it’s a good story, with a simple mystery around why an incredibly rich financier would need to resort to diamond smuggling. It’s far less fanciful than most of the color episodes, and much more down to earth. More on that subject another time.

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The Avengers 6.2 – Death’s Door

For the third year running, ABC brought The Avengers in to bat for a show that they axed in December. This time out, it was a western called Custer which ran for 17 weeks opposite Lost in Space on CBS and the mighty The Virginian on NBC. I would say that The Virginian‘s 90-minute format has worked against it in the long term. It wasn’t shown nearly as often in syndicated repeats in the 1970s and 1980s as other westerns and so is largely unknown today by under-fifties, but it was really freaking popular at the time. Neither The Avengers nor Space got particularly great ratings in this slot, and indeed CBS didn’t renew Space after it finished its run.

Weirdly, Lost in Space cruised to its cancellation despite leading in to two of the most popular sitcoms of the day, The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres. The Avengers, meanwhile, was the lead-in to one of the most unusual of the sixties, which, coming from the decade that brought you sitcoms about witches, genies, cavemen, talking horses, talking cars, identical cousins, and families of Addams and Munster, really is saying something. The Second Hundred Years starred Monte Markham as a 33 year-old prospector who was frozen in a glacier in 1900 and thawed out 67 years later, only to find his infant son is now a 67 year-old man. I’ve looked at some bootleg bits of this show on YouTube and it really is an oddly entertaining artifact, but I’m not sure whether ABC was really trying all that hard on Wednesdays with a lineup of The Avengers, this deeply weird sitcom, and a movie of the week.

The American run of Diana Rigg’s last episodes actually began with one produced and shown last in the UK, “Mission… Highly Improbable,” which we’ll get to in June. “Death’s Door” was the second one shown in Britain and the fourth one here. It’s a mess, which is why I’m just sticking with the British transmission order for these! It was written by Philip Levene, and the guest stars include Allan Cuthbertson and a fellow named William Lucas, who often played tough guy parts in the sixties. Not at all a bad episode, although I think our son was a little disappointed that the tag scene this time wasn’t as funny as the last one.

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