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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 4.18 – The Thirteenth Hole

Time and technology has dated many of the highwire villainous plots on The Avengers, but this one’s in a class by itself. I wonder how this must have felt in 1966. It hinges on using a satellite with a Russian-sounding name being overhead at precisely a certain time so that a traitor can broadcast a television signal to some enemy agents and technicians at some distant location. If turncoat scientists want to do this today, they probably just use Facetime. It must make intelligence work so much more difficult.

This scientist, played by Peter Jones, is under surveillance, and so the whole setup, studio and all, is moved to a golf course where he can slip away without being noticed. This is in part because – and I can’t help but think this was a big error on the producers’ part – there are absolutely no extras in the roles of all the golf club’s many members on a tournament weekend! This really does feel like one of the cheapies of the season. They did some location work at a real course, but also lots of mockups and rear-screen projection in the studio.

Grandiose and silly plots are part of the magic of The Avengers. Even though this looks and feels like writer Tony Williamson was told “we have the use of a golf course for two days, write something with six or seven speaking parts,” there’s enough fun and frivolity as Mrs. Peel helps Steed cheat a cheater, and wins a very entertaining fight with a character played by Francis Matthews, to make sure you overlook just how goofy this scheme is.

Our son was unfortunately completely lost, but he really enjoyed the bits that he could follow. He loved the fights and the escalating cheating on the course, and he’s having such a ball with the fourth season shtick of our heroes riding away on a different vehicle every week that he said “I bet I know what they’re riding on,” and was pleased as could be when we saw that they were drinking champagne on the three-wheeled golf cart that we’d seen earlier.

Also, he couldn’t place Francis Matthews’ voice, and I’m not sure that my “hint” helped him very much. I told him that he’d heard that actor many times but never seen him, before telling him that he was the voice of Captain Scarlet. In another weird coincidence, my wife and I have been watching the third season of The Saint, and Ed Bishop, who would voice Captain Blue, was in the last two episodes that we watched, back-to-back, playing different characters. I had to wonder whether anybody in November of ’64 complained “Hey! That actor was in the show just last week!”

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What We’re Not Watching: Paul Temple

We’re not watching Paul Temple with our son because he’s six and wouldn’t have a clue what’s going on in it, but since this series was so closely linked around the production of Doctor Who in 1969-71, swiping its producers and sharing all sorts of talent, that I thought it would be a fun little counterpart. Unfortunately, Marie didn’t enjoy the first three available episodes, so I’ll have to find time to watch the remaining thirteen installments in Acorn’s collection some other time.

The character of Paul Temple was created in 1938 by Francis Durbridge for a BBC radio series, and he’s appeared in novels and comic strips. Mostly forgotten today, Paul Temple was a novelist who specialized in writing detective fiction who became an amateur detective himself. Accompanied by his beautiful wife Steve Trent – her real name is Louise and Steve her pen name – Temple crisscrosses Europe, always on research holidays where corpses can be found, and then he assists police with their inquiries, as Golden Age detectives did. The series is set in the present day and it’s ultra-fashionable, with ascots and go-go boots and totally glam early ’70s clothes. I honestly don’t believe the character ever had any crossover success in America, but he was really well known in Germany.

The BBC made four series of Paul Temple, each with 13 episodes, and then, in that damnable BBC way, they went and wiped all but sixteen of them. To visualize just how closely this was wrapped around the initial color years of Who, the first series of Temple began in November 1969 and finished during the transmission of “The Silurians.” Series two began just seven weeks later, while “The Ambassadors of Death” was running. The third series began alongside “Terror of the Autons,” and the last one began a couple of weeks into “The Daemons.” And if you’ve paid any attention to Who‘s end credits during this period, you’ll see a pile of familiar names working on Temple, including A.A. Englander, Ron Grainer, Dudley Simpson, Trevor Ray, Michael Ferguson, Douglas Camfield, Christopher Barry, David Whitaker, and of course the producers Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin.

And in front of the cameras, there’s a similar “rep company” feel. The show starred Francis Matthews – Captain Scarlet himself – as Paul Temple, with Ros Drinkwater as Steve. Their approach to crimefighting is basically to dive into any villainous plots head-first and see what happens. Their guest casts are absolutely packed with recognizable faces. Now, if you enjoy older British television, you will certainly love the really entertaining Cult TV Blog. I agree with John on lots of things, but not his position on familiar faces. For him, recognizing an actor takes him out of the experience, but I absolutely love that. We were watching the second episode available and I was racking my brain to figure who that was playing the villain under the big Jason King mustache – it was Edward de Souza – when suddenly Peter Miles, who we saw in “The Silurians” literally one week previously, came in the room. You’re also sure to recognize George Baker, Frederick Jaeger, Emrys James, Moray Watson, Catherine Schell, and George Sewell, among others.

Now, about the missing episodes situation… Paul Temple is in a really unique place because, after the first series, a West German company called Taurus Films became the co-producer with the BBC. The Beeb wiped 36 of the 52 episodes. They deleted everything from series one, and all but one episode from series two. They deleted six of the next 13, and five of the last 13. Of the eight remaining from series four, five are only in black and white. These sixteen survivors are available in a six-disk Region 2 set from Acorn Media. (Buy it from Amazon UK.)

But then last year, something surprising happened. A German company, Alive, released all 39 episodes from series two, three, and four… dubbed into German. So the visuals for these all exist, just not the original English audio. Sadly, the DVDs do not have English subtitles either, and they are numbered series one, two, and three. Then their series “three” (the British series “four”) came out with a real surprise. Not only were all the episodes in color, but there was one additional installment, “A Family Affair,” with an English dialogue option. So 39 of 52 exist in German, and 17 of these in English. (Buy this set of 13 from Amazon Germany.)

A special note for fans of Douglas Camfield: only one of the seven Temple episodes that Camfield directed is available in English, and that one in black-and-white. If you get the German sets, you can get four of the seven in color. Unfortunately, the first three that he shot were in the first series – he probably went straight from these onto the Who serial “Inferno” without a break – and seem to be lost forever.

Anyway, I’ve enjoyed the Paul Temple episodes we’ve seen and think it’s a shame Marie didn’t find it as engaging. I don’t quite enjoy it enough to fork out another $30 for that German set and just one more English-language episode, but that’s mainly because our disposable income is kind of tight right now. It is the sort of silly thing that tempts completists like me. But honestly, if you enjoy seasons seven and eight of Doctor Who in a sort of big picture “this is what the BBC was doing” way and enjoy the production as much as the fiction, then this is an absolutely super companion. For real fun, add the available episodes of Doomwatch into your rotation of all things 1970 and see just how busy some of these actors and directors really were back then!

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