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The New Avengers 1.10 – Gnaws

The first thing I was planning to say tonight was that, in the same way that it pleased me to introduce our son to Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) with him having absolutely no idea that one of the characters was a ghost, it pleased me hugely to show my family the most infamous episode of the Avengers franchise, wherein our heroes hunt a giant rat in the sewers. They may have been the only people to have seen this episode to have no idea what writer Dennis Spooner was going to throw at them.

The second thing I was planning to say tonight was that, in much the same way that Spooner bent the Avengers format farther than it had ever gone before with his masterpiece “Look – (stop me if you’ve heard this one) But There Were These Two Fellers…”, Spooner again took the format in a wild new direction with this story. Even with a familiar guest star like Jeremy Young at work here, this does not look or feel like The Avengers. There’s very little humor, and Steed doesn’t even don his bowler. This is a monster movie with three familiar characters in it.

And the third thing that I was planning to say tonight was that this is the episode where Purdey goes down in the sewers wearing the most hilariously unsuitable outfit for sewer-stalking that you’ve ever seen. Find yourself a woman who hunts giant rats in a Laura Ashley skirt, lads. She’ll never stop surprising you.

But then our son actually saw the story, or most of it anyway, and whatever I had to say stopped mattering so much. There’s a reason why everybody who saw this one as a kid remembers it. From the cold eyes of teenagerhood, this was “proof” that seventies Avengers was nowhere near as cool as sixties Avengers. From the colder eyes of adulthood, this was blah blah critical dissertation blah blah boring.

To a kid, this is the most terrifying hour of television ever made. Our son was scared out of his mind. Maybe when you’re an adult waiting for the rat, it’s just forty-five minutes of yeah, yeah, get on with it. When you don’t know what the heck the monster is – they tried to give the kids in the audience a billion clues, really, they did – then the director’s choices of reaction shots and screaming men about to get eaten are gobstompingly effective. At one point toward the end, Steed makes the decision between Purdey and a shotgun-wielding man he’s never seen before. Steed immediately sentences the man to death by throwing rat bait at him. By this point, our kid had already tried hiding in Mom’s lap, and behind the sofa, and leaving the room entirely. Knowing that guy’s fate was sealed was just about the living end for our son.

“That was NOT Godzilla-monster-scary, because that is a GOOD scary,” he told us. “That was a BAD-monster-scary. I will not watch ‘Gnaws’ again, not even for ten million dollars.” I assured him that none of the other sixteen episodes yet to come are anything even remotely as frightening as this. Marie sagely noted that even after he’s forgotten every other episode of this show, he will remember this one.

A few minutes later, safely tucked in for a good night’s sleep, a truck on the highway behind us let out a belching engine noise and our son rocketed out of bed and turned on every light in his room.

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Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) 1.5 – You Can Always Find a Fall Guy

Deeply weird coincidence alert: I broke disk 1 of this set the other night, and so we started the second disk tonight. That means that this morning and this evening we happened to watch two separate programs that were filmed on the grounds of Grim’s Dyke Hotel. It appears in several episodes of The Champions, including “The Mission,” and was also the villain’s stately manor in the Avengers episode “Game.” I kept thinking to myself “Man, this big house looks familiar.” Well, that’s because you just saw it ten hours ago, Holmes.

I deliberately don’t know a great deal about Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), but I’ve read many times that Jeff Randall gets clobbered more than your average TV hero. In Donald James’s “You Can Always Find a Fall Guy,” he gets one heck of a beatdown, not a simple club on the back of the head like Simon Templar often received. Amusingly, Jeremy Young plays a character who owns the houseboat where Randall gets the daylights thrashed out of him, but he’s an effete dandy who cowers against the wall when the real bad guy storms in to do the business. Since we’ve seen Young cast as a villain and give a good account of himself in so many other programs, usually with a sword in hand, I found that funny.

Joining Young this week are several other familiar faces, including Patrick Barr, Juliet Harmer, Garfield Morgan, and Tony Steedman. None of these actors took me out of the experience nearly as much as a throwaway sign on a grocery store window. The episode is packed with lovely location filming on the streets of London, and in one scene, finished back in the studio with rear-screen projection, Mike Pratt and Garfield Morgan are having a conversation in a parked car. There’s a sticker on the grocers’ window for Findus. I don’t know that Findus products were ever sold in North America; I only know them as the purveyors of fish fingers with a crumb-crisp coating. Takes me right out of the action when I’m replaying Orson Welles commercials in my head. At least I didn’t subject my family to my poor Welles impression.

It’s a great story with some really amusing ghost business. Our son really enjoyed the scene where Marty puts the frighteners on a pair of guard dogs, but I most loved the moment where Marty visits several hospitals in London looking for just the right surgical situation. I think this would be a fine little show even if one of the detectives wasn’t a ghost, but since he is, the writers are finding a lot of humor in the situation.

Numbering note: Not that I imagine anybody’s all that bothered, but we’re watching The Champions in broadcast order and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) in production order because I have no idea what The Champions’ production order is, and there’s a downright terrific R&H site that you should visit and bookmark that confirms the Network DVDs have the episodes in the sequence that they were made.

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Adam Adamant Lives! 1.6 – The Terribly Happy Embalmers

Last year, when we watched the terrific Avengers episode “A Touch of Brimstone”, I noted that Patrick Macnee had a terrific swordfight with Jeremy Young, and that I didn’t think that Young used a stunt double. Well, the villains in tonight’s Adam Adamant Lives! were played by John Le Mesurier and Jeremy Young, and I’m absolutely certain Young didn’t have a double. Young and Gerald Harper have an absolutely magnificent swordfight here, and under the unflattering eye of the BBC’s “taped-live” format, there wasn’t a chance for doubles to be used.

(It’s very unflattering this week, in fact. Shortly before the fight, an actress, Ilona Rodgers, has to dash off the set for a quick costume change and one of the cameras is unfortunately positioned to catch her running away.)

Anyway, “Brimstone” had also been written by Brian Clemens, and it was made about six months before this was. I wonder whether, when Clemens pitched this story to the team at the BBC, he said something like “And I think there could be a part for an expert fencer, just in case Jeremy Young’s free to play him…”

Actually, now that I look closely at things, you remember that Three Musketeers series that I mentioned last month, the one with BRIAN BLESSED as Porthos and Jeremy Brett as D’Artagnan? Jeremy Young played Athos. So yeah, the guy definitely knew how to use a sword. You can’t be a Musketeer without one!

(Note: I can play them, but I’m not presently able to get screencaps from Region 4 DVDs, so many of these entries will just have a photo of the set to illustrate it. Click the link to purchase it from Amazon UK.)

Photo credit: https://excusesandhalftruths.com

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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 5.10 – Never, Never Say Die

Back in the days of VHS tape trading, “Never, Never Say Die” was one that pretty much everybody had, in part because I made certain that everybody I ever ran across had a copy. “Oh, you’ve never seen The Avengers? Hang on, I’ll copy you a tape…”

This must have been a huge thrill for American audiences in 1967. All of the show’s television competitors – The Man From UNCLE, Mission: Impossible, errr… Amos Burke, I guess – could dig into our deep bench of great guest stars, but none of them were getting Christopher Lee.

This episode was made in February 1967 and shown about five weeks later. Lee was phenomenally busy then making movies for Hammer and Amicus and whoever it was that made the Fu Manchu films. And sure, Rasputin the Mad Monk wasn’t breaking box office records or anything, but the young audiences who were loving his Dracula, his Frankenstein’s Monster, his Rasputin, and I suppose his Fu Manchu definitely tuned in to The Avengers that week. The show was already the coolest thing on Friday nights; this fun homage to all of Lee’s famous film work just cemented it. When he came back to play a different character in 1969, they gave him a chance to stretch a little bit more than they did here!

Also starring this time, there’s Jeremy Young in a nice, meaty part as Professor Frank N. Stone’s assistant, along with Christopher Benjamin and John Junkin in small roles. The script is by Philip Levene, and while there are certainly better and funnier episodes of the show, I found that this was a very good starter episode for newcomers. It hooked several of my friends in the eighties.

The episode also gave me a chance to introduce our son to the brain teaser about what’s on television in all the fictional worlds of television shows. Seinfeld once did a series about a potential TV series “about nothing” for the character of Jerry to play, but that still didn’t answer the question of what NBC would have been showing Thursdays at 9 if Jerry, George, and Elaine tuned in one evening. Doctor Who fandom used to have a long-running gag about the BBC of the Doctor’s world having a Saturday evening serial called either Professor X or Colonel X, following the successful Nightshade stories of the 1950s. But because Steed and Mrs. Peel play by their own rules, the show that occupies The Avengers‘ timeslot in their world is… The Avengers! How else to explain Mrs. Peel starting the story by sitting back in her living room to watch “The Cybernauts” from season four?

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The Avengers 4.21 – A Touch of Brimstone

Yes, I know, you were expecting a picture of Mrs. Peel in her Queen of Sin getup. Instead, here’s a picture of every man in Christendom upon seeing Mrs. Peel in her Queen of Sin getup. Enjoy!

The story goes that ABC declined to show this episode because of the Queen of Sin’s costume, along with the climactic fight with Peter Wyngarde, in which he starts lashing at her with a whip. I’ve contended all along that this episode wasn’t going to get shown on national American television before we got that far. There’s a scene with Wyngarde and Carol Cleveland pawing each other in bed, for starters, in an era when 99% of married couples on American TV had separate, single beds. (Gomez and Morticia Addams were the only exception I can think of, and while they were television’s most passionate couple, you may recall that they only ever kissed while standing up!)

Then we get to the “do what thou wilt being the whole of the law” ethos of the Hellfire Club and their incredibly bawdy parties, with drinking and “wenching.” They worship evil and women exist only as vessels for (sexual) pleasure. Writer Brian Clemens was pushing an envelope here.

There simply weren’t enough weeks in the calendar for ABC to show all 26 episodes from season four before they went all-color in the first week of September of 1966, so some of them weren’t going to be shown. “A Touch of Brimstone” was allegedly rejected on content grounds, and, that content spoken of in whispers, it immediately made the rounds of bootleg film prints. Some independent stations around the country bought the black and white package for local broadcasts, and some are said to have edited out most of the whipping scene. In short order, this episode became quite notorious. When I was a video trader in the mid-to-late eighties, you would occasionally see this one in lists and catalogs with notations like RARE AND UNCUT!!

At some point in the seventies, comic writer Chris Claremont landed a copy. He loved peppering his scripts with in-jokes from British film and TV, and, in 1980, reintroduced the Hellfire Club as characters in The Uncanny X-Men. One of the members looks like Peter Wyngarde as his later character, Jason King, and the evil women in their order wear variations on the Queen of Sin costume. In their 18th Century formal wear and their lingerie, they’ve been pestering the heroes of the Marvel Universe ever since, and were seen as the baddies in the 2011 film X-Men: First Class. (Though perhaps my favorite Claremont in-joke was using the Hobbs End tube station from the movie version of Quatermass and the Pit as a location for an issue of an X-Men spinoff comic.)

Our son didn’t understand this much at all, mercifully. It started with the great promise of bad guys who use exploding cigars, sneezing powder, whoopie cushions, and collapsing chairs, and then deteriorated into a lot of dumb men yelling and spilling their ale while smooching women in old-fashioned clothes. At least we can agree that Patrick Macnee, Jeremy Young, and their stunt doubles had a completely amazing swordfight. I’m not sure that Young even had a double. Colin Jeavons and Robert Cawdron are also in this one. Along with Wyngarde and Cleveland, it’s a great cast for a terrific episode: ABC’s audience in 1966 may or may not have been scandalized, but they definitely missed out.

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