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The Avengers 7.26 – Bizarre

The final episode of The Avengers has more holes in its plot than there are getaway doors in Mr. Happychap’s cemetery, but our son didn’t mind a bit. He chuckled almost all the way through this, shouting “This IS bizarre” with the opening shot of a barefoot woman in a nightdress collapsing in a snowy field and cheering on the final fight at the end, but mostly laughing over Roy Kinnear’s great performance as Mr. Bagpipes Happychap.

Poor Mr. Happychap’s services are being misused by the show’s last diabolical mastermind, Fulton Mackay, who keeps sending Happychap the supposed corpses of rich financiers and then spiriting them away to his underground pleasure palace, stuffed with fruit, wine, and cute girls. Brian Clemens basically rewrote his Adam Adamant Lives! adventure “The Terribly Happy Embalmers” as farce, and had the bad guys actually playing fair with their clients. I’ve honestly never enjoyed this story much at all before this afternoon, but my son’s right. Kinnear really is hilarious. I had a good time watching this with him.

The most bizarre moment, however, actually comes at the end, when Mother breaks the fourth wall and makes the quite indefensible statement to the viewers at home that Steed and Tara would be back. “You can depend on it.” Back in August, shortly after we started watching this final run, I explained the strange circumstances behind ABC’s order of these last 26 episodes. The Avengers spent the 1968-69 season in the bottom five of the Nielsens, mainly because of its competition, but also because by the spring of 1969, the spy craze was dead. It’s why George Lazenby declined to make any more James Bond films after his first one. People often mock Lazenby for that “mistake,” but look around at 1969. Can you blame him? Dean Martin’s entertaining series of Matt Helm movies had ended, and NBC even cancelled Get Smart. Like all the other secret agent stuff of the sixties, this show was yesterday’s news. There’s no way ABC would have ordered more, and the show’s producers had to have known that.

Without ABC’s money, The Avengers couldn’t have continued at the same budget. But it’s just as well it ended when it did. The series was running on fumes and goodwill by the end, and everyone involved needed a nice long break. Seven years would pass before Patrick Macnee would don his bowler hat again for the thunderously good first series of The New Avengers.

We won’t make our readers wait quite seven years to see what would happen next, but we are going to keep The New Avengers on the shelf for a few months while we look at some other things. I think we’ll meet Purdey and Gambit in the summer. Stay tuned!

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The Avengers 7.3 – You’ll Catch Your Death

“You’ll Catch Your Death” is the first script for The Avengers from Jeremy Burnham, who would contribute a few more stories this season. I didn’t think this was great, but I enjoyed it more than I remembered it this time around, which gives me hope for some of Burnham’s other offerings! Notable guests this time: Sylvia Kay, Fulton Mackay, Valentine Dyall, perennial henchman and thug Dudley Sutton, and Roland Culver, who the episode tries tricking us into thinking is the villain. No, it’s not a bad story, really, with some particularly nice location filming, but when it was first screened in America in October of 1968, not many people were watching.

By the time the nineties rolled around, teevee fans had made some assumptions and set some myths in stone. There was a received wisdom about the occasional appearances of British programming on American network television, and a lot of fan myths had taken hold. Some of us were lamenting, for some oddball reason nobody can quite remember anymore, that Red Dwarf or Absolutely Fabulous couldn’t get a deal on a major American network. And we looked back, as best we could, about the history of British TV shows in the US, and we got a lot of things wrong. Like The Avengers being a hit.

The first British-made drama to get a prime-time network run seems to have been Danger Man, although a few other ITC-made shows like Ivanhoe might have made the rounds of first-run syndication before it. In the summer of 1965, CBS bought the first of the one-hour seasons of Danger Man, gave it the spiffy new title Secret Agent, and finally had something decent to program against – of all things – The Lawrence Welk Show on Saturday nights, which had been kicking CBS’s rear.

Secret Agent wasn’t a hit, but it stood its ground, attracted younger viewers, and – this is the key – cost less than anything that might have been made domestically. I wouldn’t say that it opened the floodgates, but the following season, ABC brought over The Baron and The Avengers to fill holes in its schedule in the last five months before the network moved to full color, and there were many other examples over the next few years. NBC networked The Saint after the black and white episodes had been successful in first-run syndication, and gave The Champions a three-month run. It wasn’t just the action-adventure shows, either. Some Marty Feldman material had a network home in America as specials, a chunk of Dean Martin’s variety show was made in the UK, and there was an infamous incident in the mid-seventies where ABC bought the fourth series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and ran the episodes in a late-night slot so severely edited that the Pythons went to court over it and won.

None of these examples came from American network executives wanting to run something prestigious or artistic for the love of brilliant television. They came from American network executives wanting to save a few bucks. In many cases, these runs came about when they looked at the schedule and saw something that they did believe in and wished would thrive getting thrashed by another network. None of these British shows were hits, not even The Avengers. It never ranked in the top 30 shows and it performed worse with every passing season.

The first American batch ran in the dead zone of Monday night at 10. It certainly got some buzz, and a strong cult audience of teens and twentysomethings, enough to justify making a second order as a midseason replacement for the following year. This run – the first 16 color Mrs. Peel stories – ran Friday nights, and placed a distant second or third to the top 20 CBS Friday Night Movies. The third order got completely creamed by The Virginian and, in any other universe, would have been the end of the road for this series, but then something downright weird happened.

CBS’s Gunsmoke had been a big hit for more than a decade. In early 1968, NBC threw a goofy midseason comedy-variety show at it and watched the Nielsen numbers start to skyrocket. Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In became the most talked-about show on TV, the “water cooler” program of its day, and by the end of its three-month run, it was in the top ten as well. This almost never happened in American television. If a show’s in the top ten, then its time slot competition isn’t. It’s extraordinarily rare for competing shows to end up in the top ten together. Laugh-In came back in the fall to huge, anxious audiences and the numbers didn’t slump for years. It finished the 1968-69 season the highest-rated show on TV, and Gunsmoke ranked sixth.

When something like this happens, of course, that means that whatever’s on the other channels opposite these juggernauts is about as far from the top ten as a program can get. ABC’s options against the Scylla of Gunsmoke and the Charybdis of Laugh-In were to either air the least expensive program they could find or go dark and give the time back to its affiliates. And that is the only reason why they ordered 26 more episodes of The Avengers: because buying it from London was a lot cheaper than making 26 episodes of something else in Hollywood.

To the producers’ credit, they never gave up. The show was only being made at all because ABC was paying most of the production cost, but they kept working on delivering a quality product for all the other territories that were buying it. As I’m sure we’ll see, this last year certainly will have some fumbles, but also a few examples of stretching the format, trying new things, and getting away from the regular situation of oddball deaths at the hands of diabolical masterminds. Of course, that’s really all that this particular episode is, but there are some very off-kilter stories ahead.

Postscript: As I was writing this, after watching an episode about lethal common cold germs, our son had such a sneezing fit that his security blanket had to go straight into the wash. First I ever heard of catching a cold from watching a TV show about catching a cold.

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The Avengers 6.1 – Return of the Cybernauts

A quickish word before beginning: the DVDs, along with the books written about The Avengers in the 1980s, and the websites of today, all call the color Diana Rigg stories “season five” and the Linda Thorson stories “season six.” For a while in the 1990s, the pendulum of accurate research pointed the right way: the 24 Rigg stories were produced and transmitted in two separate batches, thus making seven seasons. The Thorson stories were produced in two separate batches and transmitted that way in the US, but shown as one long season in the UK.

Season five is the batch of 16 color episodes that we’ve already seen. These were made between September 1966 and April 1967, and shown between January and May 1967 in both the UK and the US.

Season six is made of the final eight Rigg episodes and the first seven Thorson episodes. These were made between June 1967 and March 1968, with a considerable… let’s call it a hiccup in production during about the last seven weeks of ’67, which we’ll discuss later. In the UK, the first eight of these were shown as the sixth season, from September to November 1967. All fifteen went out as one season in America from January to May 1968. I number them using their first broadcast date, whether in the US or the UK.

Season seven is made of the other 26 Thorson adventures. These were made over the course of a year, from the spring of 1968 to March 1969. The US and UK broadcasts of these both went from September 1968 to May 1969, with the US finishing first and the UK broadcasts including the seven previous Thorson stories dropped in at what seems like random intervals.

Yes, I know you don’t agree, so you don’t have to waste time trying to tell me.

Anyway, so September 1967 came around and The Avengers were back on British television with a big season premiere guest starring Peter Cushing and featuring, like the title says, the return of the Cybernauts, one of the very, very few antagonists to come back for a second engagement in this show. Really, it’s just them, Ambassador Brodny, and a group called Intercrime that nobody remembers.

Cushing plays Paul Beresford, the brother of Michael Gough’s Professor Armstrong from the first Cybernaut story, and he is just brilliant, smooth and debonair in every scene. Watch how Macnee and Rigg afford him the space to be the star villain. They share several scenes together because their characters don’t initially know he’s one of their diabolical masterminds, and they play off him. They’re the guests on The Paul Beresford Show. It’s amazingly good and generous acting to let Cushing lead his scenes.

The story, written by Philip Levene, is huge fun. It’s got lots of great location filming, and the Cybernaut – it’s just the one this time – gets to rampage through several scenes and break lots of people’s necks. Everybody gets great dialogue, and the villain’s deeply sadistic plan had our son extraordinarily worried for Mrs. Peel. He denied it, of course, but he hid his face and curled up in his mom’s lap when things look bleak and Peter Cushing is being incredibly evil at the end. But as much as he enjoyed the Cybernaut’s killer karate chops and the big climactic fight, his absolute favorite moment came in the tag scene, when Steed wires a toaster the wrong way and blasts two slices through Mrs. Peel’s ceiling. Kid laughed like a hyena.

Some other very good actors are in this story as well. Above, that’s the great Fulton Mackay along with Charles Tingwell, who we remember from the first series of Catweazle, as kidnapped scientists. Noel Coleman and Aimi MacDonald also have small roles. In yet another weird blog acting coincidence, we saw Michael Gough just last night in Young Indiana Jones, and he’s briefly in this story as well with some archive footage as Dr. Armstrong. That villain’s henchman, Benson, returned in this episode. He’s played by Frederick Jaeger, and we’ll see him tomorrow night in Doctor Who.

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Doctor Who and the Silurians (part three)

I wouldn’t be doing my job as a blogger if I didn’t note what an unpleasantly noisy story this is. The reptile-people – we’re still not on a species-name basis with them – gave Dr. Quinn a communications device last time. It’s the sound I’m going to hear when the world ends. It’s not only that it’s mixed so blasted loud that people on the moor can hear the thing from miles away, it’s so loud and aggravating that you can safely turn the sound down to about 1 and not miss a thing.

You certainly won’t miss the music. It’s the first of three serials scored by a musician named Carey Blyton. They’re all soundtracks of the damned, but this cacaphony is played with archaic instruments like crumhorns and ophicleides that all sound like womp-womp music from an old Fleischer cartoon.

Interestingly, Dr. Quinn is shaping up to be an interesting character, a sympathetic character who’s in way over his head, and then he goes and turns into a villain. He decides to hold the reptile-person that he’s rescued from the UNIT searchers as hostage until he shares some ancient technology. For this, the reptile-person kills him. The Doctor finds Quinn’s body at the cliffhanger, and, in a great moment that had our son hiding in terror, turns just as the reptile-person comes into the room behind him.

These three episodes were Fulton Mackay’s only involvement in Doctor Who, but the actor stayed incredibly busy and popular for many years. He starred in the very successful sitcom Porridge, and took the “Doc” part in the British version of Fraggle Rock. (The series had different human-interaction segments in different countries. In the UK, Gobo went to Mackay’s character’s lighthouse to collect postcards from his uncle Matt.) But Mackay leaving this story’s narrative leaves room for another big sitcom star of the seventies to take his place in the story…

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Doctor Who and the Silurians (part two)

This morning, I asked my son what he thought might be going on with the power losses in the base, and he had it all figured out. He decided that the dinosaur we saw in part one was chewing the power cables! So he was a little surprised to learn there are two adversaries in the caves: the big mean dinosaur and a race of intelligent reptile-people. This is just as well; I doubt even Doctor Who‘s producers could have padded my son’s idea of a plot out for seven weeks.

The director, Timothy Combe, made the celebrated decision to keep the reptile-people out of focus for as long as possible, and it really works incredibly well. Our son was fascinated by the heavy-breathing POV shots – “It has three eyes!” he shouted – and he was really frightened when the cornered creature attacks a farmer in his hay barn. It’s very effective.

This episode introduces the third captain for the Brig. We’d met Turner in “The Invasion” and Munro in “Spearhead.” His second-in-command this time is Hawkins, played by Paul Darrow. He’s best known for his role as Avon in Blake’s 7 and still commands a legion of fans in the UK and America. Hawkins doesn’t actually do much in this episode, but I really wish he’d have become the regular second banana in season eight.

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Doctor Who and the Silurians (part one)

Yesterday morning, we took our six year-old son to his first cave, a very, very safe and gentle experience called Fairyland Caverns at a local tourist attraction called Rock City. It’s atop Lookout Mountain, and, in that dopey-dad way, I said “Boy, I hope there aren’t any Sleestak in here,” and then hung back and, later, started hissing. “I know that’s you, Dad,” our son bellowed.

Fourteen years ago, our son’s older brother was also six and I took him to Rock City’s sister attraction, Ruby Falls, which is far, far below Rock City at the bottom of the mountain. In that dopey-dad way, I said to him “Boy, I hope there aren’t any Silurians in here,” and the kid started crying. I didn’t even need to shake my head around and growl “This is our planet! We were here before man!” Tears just flowed immediately.

Ruby Falls is on the calendar for a little later than age six for this boy, just in case that deep cave is too frightening. When the time comes, I still intend to hope aloud that there aren’t any Silurians in it.

Anyway, with Derrick Sherwin rushed off Doctor Who to help shore up Paul Temple, Barry Letts was moved over to become this show’s new producer. Everything was in chaos; even the format of the serial’s title “Doctor Who and…” was evidence that Letts, whose only previous Who experience had been directing “The Enemy of the World” two years before, had to hit the ground running. They promptly decided to use the 21 remaining episodes of the season to tell three large seven-part stories to save money on set and costume design.

Guest stars for the story include Peter Miles and Fulton Mackay, both of whom can safely be called much-loved character actors with credits as long as your arm. This is the first of three seventies Who serials for Miles, who made a career out of playing disagreeably intense but fascinating men with wolf-like smiles. And then there’s Norman Jones, who here plays a mostly-incompetent soldier working security at this research station. He’d been in the show before, in the largely-missing “Abominable Snowmen” in 1967, and would return as a really great villain in Tom Baker’s time.

We don’t know yet from part one what a Silurian is or what it looks like, but there’s definitely a really large dinosaur-like reptile in the caves beneath the research center. This didn’t frighten our son, but it certainly surprised him, and prompted much debate about what kind of dinosaur it might be.

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