The Avengers 7.19 – Who Was That Man I Saw You With?

As we get closer to the end of The Avengers, there’s a definite feeling of the wind leaving the sails. Jeremy Burnham’s “Who Was That Man I Saw You With?” isn’t really bad, but it’s just an ordinary espionage story that could have played on any other spy program. We’ve been here before, during the tail end of the Mrs. Peel years, but those adventures mostly still had that distinctive Avengers sparkle and wit, even if the villains weren’t grandiose or weird. This is just by-the-numbers, and a little dull. The very likable Alan MacNaughtan has a small role, but I found myself wishing he had played one of several other parts.

On the other hand, these villains absolutely infuriated our son. The plot this time is that some enemy agents are piling up circumstantial evidence to frame Tara as being in league with somebody from the other side. The more the evidence mounts, and the more Mother believes it, the angrier our son became, and as the bad guys gloated, he growled, furious and unhappy. Being reminded that Tara will get out of this didn’t quell the fury.

The Avengers 7.18 – Fog

Well, since we’ve been talking about sword sticks and people trapped in the wrong time, here’s an Avengers episode about a mysterious murderer from 1888 suddenly stalking the fog-bound streets of the East End. Our son enjoyed this one a lot, and thought that the “Black Museum” of torture devices and old weapons was incredibly creepy.

I’m always happy when he enjoys something more than I do. I think Jeremy Burnham’s “Fog” is a disaster. It’s not the worst Avengers – join us for that next week – but it’s a show that commits the cardinal sin of being boring. In its defense, it has Nigel Green in it, and he makes everything a little better. And I like the stupid, yet incredibly believable, name for a pub that Mother concocts as he and Steed extemporize the details of a previously unknown murder by the hideous Gaslight Ghoul. The pub is called “Saddle of Mutton.” Oh, and Paul Whitsun-Jones is in it, briefly, and I like him, too.

I’ve been bothered for years about why “Fog” fails so badly. A lot of it is plainly obvious: the episode begins with some comedy that bombs like a lead balloon, as a “Russian” who doesn’t speak any English – he doesn’t speak any Russian, either – blathers and bumbles for agonizingly long minutes. Never a good idea to lead with your worst material. The stars seem like they’re sleepwalking through the production, the music is a dirge, and the plot is hopelessly predictable. It’s just not fun.

But I think there’s more to it than that. “Fog” reminds me a little of one element of the Doctor Who serial “The Talons of Weng-Chiang.” It’s set in a London of old Victorian stereotypes: organ grinders, flower girls, cobblestone streets, a Jack the Ripper wannabe. It’s the London of fiction and memory, and not the real world, but it isn’t the London of The Avengers, either. There’s no sense of why they’re trying to tell a story about the murders of foreign diplomats while dressed with the trappings of some other show entirely.

It certainly doesn’t help that it’s all obviously made in the studio and so the entire environment feels fake, cheap, and phony, while the rest of the series luxuriates in being and feeling real, even at its most fanciful. It’s The Avengers doing a bad cover version of an inferior program. At least it isn’t a clip show.

The Avengers 7.15 – Love All

I’ve never much cared for this story by Jeremy Burnham. There’s perhaps the silliest computer this show ever had – it looks like a piano and writes romance novels – and a played-mostly-straight plot that uses super-subliminal microdots to influence whoever reads them. I think the most interesting thing about it is the complete transformation of Veronica Strong from an attractive young woman into a frumpy, chain-smoking cleaning lady who nobody would suspect as a femme fatale extracting secrets from her many admirers. That’s quite a good performance.

On the other hand, our son was on the edge of his seat during a moment where Tara is persuaded by Terence Alexander, playing the man she’s been subliminally hypnotized into loving, to jump out a window because life is no longer worth living without him. Steed arrives in the nick of time, but it’s touch and go for enough of a minute to keep our kid absolutely riveted with fear and concern.

The Avengers 7.5 – False Witness

I enjoyed Jeremy Burnham’s “False Witness” much, much more tonight than I had previously. This might be because it was fun watching our son figure out that there was something in the milk. I’ve always thought it had a few good points in its favor, including some gorgeous location filming, a fun appearance by John Bennett as one of the villains, one of Mother’s most amusing traveling offices – a double-decker bus with an ad for “Mother’s Day” on the side” – and a delicious scene where Steed drives a suspected traitor out into some forest, orders him to get out and follow him, and then turns and gives the fellow one of the most beautiful punches ever thrown on TV. Still, it somehow never became a favorite.

Our son, however, had a ball. This story is perfect for seven year-olds. He was racing to figure out the clues the show presented, which certainly wouldn’t trouble any grown-ups watching. He knew that something was going on with the milk delivered by Dreemykreem Dairies, but couldn’t decide whether the milk was conventional poison or if it was going to explode. Finally he realized “It makes you lie!” and that was the most fun thing ever. Maybe that’s the “problem” with the episode. We’re all too old to enjoy what a delightful idea that is.

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.

Children of the Stones 1.7 – Full Circle

Regular readers may recall that last spring, I raved about a terrific book called Scarred for Life, which looks at the frightening and odd pop culture of the 1970s. The book hasn’t found a permanent home on any of our shelves because I’m still dipping in and out of the wonderful thing, and reading chapters I had set aside for rainy days. Since Acorn’s DVD of Children of the Stones has been sitting here waiting for my son to get old enough to watch it since we started this blog, I skipped that essay, coming back to it tonight after episode seven blew my mind.

The funny thing about hyperbole – and I say this as somebody prone to going way overboard myself, and often – is that if you read something that gets a breathless recommendation with any kind of skepticism in your eye, you’re bound to question it. I’d have questioned the love that the writers give to Stones if I hadn’t seen it, because they really shovel on the praise. But it’s earned! This is great television. It never talks down to the audience and it never gives simple answers to this very, very complicated problem.

Also, I love how the heroes apply real-world science in a sensible way, even when confronted with a problem whose background is one of ley line mumbo-jumbo. I like to see heroes who can disassemble a situation and look for the right way out of Hendrick’s trap. Adam and Matthew have been great characters to watch and cheer for.

And I love how they can’t win. The painting gives the clue of two people escaping from the circle, but first there’s the downright horrifying fate of the villagers, also foretold in the painting. Then there’s a twist which they learn the following morning. What happens at night is jawdropping. What happens in the morning is tragic.

I enjoyed the devil out of this. I shouldn’t have waited twenty-eight years to see the blasted thing since reading about it. We’ve got another of these spooky seventies British kids’ serials on the agenda to watch late next month – not, sadly, another Third Eye presentation – and if it’s a tenth as good as Children of the Stones, I’ll be pleased.

Children of the Stones 1.6 – Squaring the Circle

Our son says that he’s enjoying this story, and I’ve no reason to doubt him. He’s not shy about telling us when he doesn’t! During our recent three days off due to what was allegedly snow somewhere up a nearby mountain, I put on The Shape of Things to Come for a second spin, and he was pretty emphatic he never wants to see it again. Me neither, in fact.

But he is oddly incurious. During parts five and six, we finally see Iain Cuthbertson acting more like a traditional villain, some actual person that our heroes oppose instead of a chain of supernatural events. We still don’t know the specifics, but he’s the baddie, and so we can pose more direct questions: do you think Matthew and Adam will stop him? Can they rescue Sandra? He’s not all that concerned. This is a story in which to get swept up and carried away, and we’ll see how it ends next time.

One thing he did note was “Hey, I saw a funny green and black flash there.” As some of these screencaps suggest, the presentation on Acorn Media’s Region 1 DVD hasn’t really been reconstructed or restored. I’m not sure that HTV had the greatest technical facilities when this was first made in the fall of 1976. The master tapes definitely show their age. They don’t look as bad as many of the 1970s Sid and Marty Krofft videotape programs look, but it’s kind of a humbling thought just how close we’re getting to losing a lot of the television from this period entirely. Most American drama from the 1970s was made on 35mm film, and the more successful and demanded shows have been restored already. But the lousy quality of this, and the Krofft series, makes me wonder about the videotape comedy shows that didn’t succeed and were quickly canceled. Has anybody in any archive anywhere checked on The Waverly Wonders or On the Rocks or Hot l Baltimore lately to see whether the tapes even play?

Children of the Stones 1.5 – Charmed Circle

Hey, John Woodnutt shows up in this one! He plays Iain Cuthbertson’s character’s butler.

There’s a television trope that I have always hated, where the hero goes to fetch authorities after the discovery of a body, and when they get back, the body has vanished. It aggravated me particularly this time, because Adam goes to get help… and the other characters who could have stayed behind, where Dai’s body was, went back to the museum. About which, I was incorrect last time. Dai wasn’t crushed; Adam believes that he had a heart attack.

But there’s still something going on with time. That clay amulet that Dai had been using, and which had shattered, has only three shards remaining. The other three shards were unearthed years before, along with the skeleton of the man who had been crushed and killed centuries ago.

And we finally have a better understanding of what’s turning all of the villagers into the “happy day” zombies. Everyone who dines with Hendrick, as Margaret and Sandra do this time, get to experience a white light from space coming into his house at a precise second… this is so creepy and so entertaining, and whatever Hendrick is up to, I love the way that Iain Cuthbertson plays him so formally and makes him seem so ordinary. He’s a great villain.

Children of the Stones 1.4 – Narrowing Circle

Well, I am just incredibly pleased with this story. It’s magnificently creepy and cerebral, and, sadly, a little above our son’s head. Because we don’t know what is destroying the identities of the villagers, because we can’t say “It’s Azal, last of the Dæmons, turning everybody into ‘Happy Day’ zombies,” I think that he’s not sure that there’s a threat, just a series of weird occurrences. He says that this is weird, and then realization that this really is menacing comes after we go over the episode with him.

The midpoint of the story, for the original commercial break, is downright chilling, with Freddie Jones’ tramp character, Dai, huddled before a fire, clutching his clay amulet, terrified of something. And this leads into the revelation that there’s apparently a time travel component to the story as well. Centuries ago, one of the stones fell over and crushed a man, who was buried underneath it for the many, many years it took to unearth his skeleton. It’s now part of the village museum. Dai realizes, before any of the others do, that Kevin Lyle and his father – the 50th and 51st residents of the village – have been taken over. His amulet cracks and he flees.

The kids catch sight of Dai on a hill, but when they get to the top, they see only another giant stone on the plain below them. Sandra’s mother assures them there can’t be a stone there, and when they all go to look again, there’s only Dai’s crushed and dead body. Did a stone travel through time to repeat the events of centuries before?

I’ll tell you what’s got me worried: Sandra and her mother make 53 inhabitants, and there are 53 stones. Adam and Matthew make 55… and that strange painting shows only two people making it out of whatever’s happening. This doesn’t look like it’s going to end well.

We will leave it there for a couple of days and give our son a little break to watch something that may be more exciting, possibly with a helicopter chase or something. You might be surprised what’s coming up tomorrow night.

Children of the Stones 1.3 – Serpent in the Circle

This is really entertaining, although just a little bit above our son’s six year-old head. We’re having to recap a little of the action to make sure it’s all sinking in. This time, the four newest kids to the village of Milbury, the four who haven’t become all smiley math wizards saying “Happy day,” become three. One of them suddenly understands the incredibly complex math class and the episode ends with the little malcontent joining the village Morris dancers with a vacant grin on his face.

In between, Adam gets confirmation from America that the stone circle is aligned with a black hole. It’s more “folk science fiction” than “folk horror,” and while it’s not completely appealing to our son, it’s the sort of thing that kids in the fifth or sixth grade certainly would have gobbled up once upon a time.

Children of the Stones was shown in the US as one-fifth of a daily anthology program called The Third Eye which ran on Nickelodeon for about 16 months or so in 1983-84, around the same time that The Tomorrow People began its lengthy American run. There were 68 People installments and exactly half as many Third Eye episodes; maybe that’s why they axed it first. You could see them all in just over a month. It would seem that Children of the Stones was shown here at least a dozen times.

The series within The Third Eye all dealt with paranormal experiences or psychic phenomena or witchcraft and folklore, and they all had young protagonists, making them perfect purchases for Nickelodeon. The other components of the anthology were an eight-part serial from New Zealand called Under the Mountain and three other British shows: The Haunting of Cassie Palmer, The Witches and the Grinnygog, and just the first series of Into the Labyrinth. There were another 14 episodes of Labyrinth that they could have bought, but didn’t, for some reason.

Stones, Mountain, and Labyrinth (all of it) have been released on DVD, and there’s even a feature film version of Mountain starring Sam Neill. Unfortunately, and this will blow your mind, The Haunting of Cassie Palmer and Grinnygog are only known to exist on home-taped copies. These two shows were made by one of Britain’s commercial networks, TVS, which closed down in 1992. In between all the various media companies that have since licensed or purchased their archive, many of TVS’s master tapes were destroyed. All that remains of these two serials are very poor quality VHS copies.

This was in the 1990s, people. A TV show that was made in 1982 was completely wiped about a decade later. That’s insane.

Even more weirdly, TVS was the original home of The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, which ran from 1987-2000. All the TVS episodes from series one through six at least exist, but are not available for syndication or sale. It’s only series seven through twelve that anyone can distribute today.

Anyway, we didn’t get Nickelodeon at my house. When we had cable installed in 1981 or so, the guy was short a converter box and asked my dad to swing by and pick one up, and Dad never did, because he only wanted “cable” for HBO, which we could get on channel 7 on the VHF dial. Five years later, when I used a giant second-hand top-loading Panasonic VCR that weighed seventy-seven pounds to tune in to Nick and MTV and other channels, Dad blew his top because the cable company was going to find out and start charging us. Nobody ever talked about The Third Eye at my school, so I didn’t know I was missing anything.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I heard of The Third Eye, and that blasted Roger Fulton book I mentioned a couple of chapters ago didn’t have listings for three of the five shows. I’ve always been a little fascinated by The Third Eye because it’s something that some of my friends got to absorb and love that I missed completely, even though it’s taken me another – hell! – twenty-eight years to get around to watching one of them.

We might do Into the Labyrinth for the blog; I haven’t decided. Kind of going back and forth between ordering that and The Ghosts of Motley Hall. It’s just a damn idiotic shame that Grinnygog and Cassie Palmer were wiped.