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?

Catweazle 1.11 – The Flying Broomsticks

In another weird coincidence here at Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon Time, we saw John Junkin this morning in Wombling Free and again tonight in the eleventh episode of Catweazle.

This time, I noticed that our son didn’t actually grasp the comedy of misunderstanding that this show does so well, so I paused the action to explain it, and we watched a deliciously funny exchange between Charles Tingwell and Neil McCarthy a second time so he could appreciate it better. The new police sergeant, a city snob played by Junkin who’s convinced all these “country people” are into pagan black magic, is investigating the theft of dozens of brooms, some of which have been returned somewhat burned. By chance, the farmhand has just accidentally burned the end of one himself, making him the sergeant’s prime suspect for running a coven. Sam thinks that he’s actually after him for an expired tag on his car. So he sadly confesses to one minor crime to his boss while giving him the idea that he’s actually a modern witch.

Of course, as soon as Carrot hears that somebody seems to be practicing magic, he knows who’s really stolen the brooms. The sergeant was onto more than he realized! Catweazle was trying some other ridiculous spell to jump through a “time fire.” At least he was good enough to try and return the brooms that he ruined in the attempt, I guess.

Wombling Free (1977)

In my favorite part of Neil Jordan’s 2005 film Breakfast on Pluto, the character played by Cillian Murphy gets a job at a family fun park based on the BBC’s Wombles. It’s set in the mid-seventies, when the Wombles were pop culture juggernauts. The park seems to be an invention of the movie and not a real place, but you could imagine it happening. To put their dominance into perspective, in 1974, the Wombles, with their kid-friendly songs by Mike Batt, managed more weeks on the UK Singles chart than any other pop music act.

So, in that grand tradition of striking while the iron is hot, it took three more years for a Wombles feature film to be released. It is ninety minutes long, and it feels like nine hundred and ninety.

The film stars David Tomlinson and Frances de la Tour as the parents of a young teenager played by Bonnie Langford whose lives become intertwined with the rubbish-collecting residents of Wimbledon Common. The charming stop-motion puppetry and hilarious narration by Bernard Cribbins that made the TV show so engaging and cute were discarded in favor of full-size mascot costumes and voices by David Jason and Jon Pertwee. That’s kind of all you need to know about why this film isn’t going to appeal to anybody over the age of eight, and that’s pushing it. You watch the five-minute Wombles TV episodes for the delightful puppetry and silliness from Cribbins. You watch the ninety-minute Wombles movie because you have watched everything else that’s ever been made already.

I believe that this was Langford’s film debut, and it was made between the two series of Just William, where, as the spoiled rotten Violet Elizabeth Bott, she became one of the television characters that people hated above all others. Since she was unknown to American audiences, I was baffled by the hatred that Doctor Who fans expressed when she joined the show in 1986. I didn’t like her character, Mel, when I was a teenager, but I was wrong. She’s also probably the best thing about this movie, somehow. Tomlinson and de la Tour just phoned in their performances and are completely unbelievable as actual human beings in every last scene, while their young co-star is actually making the effort.

For the under-eights, this might – might – work. I won’t pretend that our experience would be repeated in your own home, but our son, six, did enjoy the musical numbers a lot, and surprised the heck out of me with a huge and happy hug when David Tomlinson finally sees and acknowledges the Wombles. Up to then, he’d been passing by them without a second glance. In the next scene, Tomlinson is doing a choreographed dance routine with the Wombles set to the tune of their popular song “Exercise Is Good For You (Laziness Is Not),” which is not something I ever expected to see.

Chris Spedding played guitar on that song. Imagine that.

I grouse, but this can actually be looked at from another angle, and that’s how downright weird the script is. What might have been major plot points in another movie are introduced and then completely abandoned. Early on, it looks like the movie’s going to be about the Wombles getting the human family to notice them so they can stop a freeway construction across their home of Wimbledon Common. Not ten minutes later, John Junkin calls off the excavators; they intended to build at Wandsworth Common. Then there’s some business with a miracle plant formula called Womgrow. If it mixes with polluted air, it could wreak havoc, and Bungo Womble is taking it to the humans, uncapped, as a gift. Disaster looms, right? But the Womgrow doesn’t even make it to the humans and is forgotten. It’s so odd!

But while the script is built to baffle, where it’s certain to offend is with the “Japanese” neighbors. Holy anna. I thought that I was used to watching dated stereotypes in films and TV from the sixties and seventies, but this surprised even me. Bernard Spear plays “the Jap chap,” and Yasuko Nagazumi is his wife, who does not speak English and dresses in full geisha costume and makeup for a dinner party. Spear can’t pronounce his Ls, talks about kamikazes, and freaking Pink Lady and Jeff was more culturally sensitive.

In short, this is certainly one of the lousiest films we’ve watched for this blog. Fugitive Alien might have been a little worse. But you know what? I kind of liked that big hug I got when Tomlinson goes to shake Great Uncle Bulgaria’s paw. I could suffer through ninety minutes for a hug that nice from a kid so happy.