When ABC first showed the Austria episode, written by Frank Darabont, in September of 1992, I was most impressed by the casting of Christopher Lee as a conniving diplomat in the Viennese court. Today, I remain incredibly happy to watch Lee be magisterial and perfect, but the real star here is Joss Ackland as “The Prussian,” an evil, silent official in the secret police. He’s almost like a proto-Toht, if you remember Ronald Lacey’s character in Raiders. The Prussian is menacing and Ackland commands every shot he’s in without a line of dialogue. It’s a shame Indy’s spying activities didn’t take him back to Austria for a rematch. Amusingly, we saw both Lee and Ackland in different episodes of The Avengers earlier this month.
Our son got a little lost with the court intrigue this time. The story involves getting a letter from Emperor Karl I of Austria out of the country, but the letter that the emperor’s foreign minister (Lee) prepares doesn’t quite offer the concessions necessary for a separate peace with that nation. So after some mostly lighthearted chase scenes, the talk of diplomacy went straight over our seven year-old’s head.
Things picked up in the final act, when the chase scenes take on a much more serious edge. I think the cinematographer had a ball creating all the shots with looming shadows and long dark alleyways. It ends with a terrific scramble across the border into Switzerland, a good episode that probably could have been written a little more evenly and with at least one more big set piece in the first half, but entertaining all the same.
Other actors of note this time include a couple of faces that I recognize from ’80s Doctor Who: Elizabeth Spriggs as the mysterious Frau Schultz, and Patrick Ryecart as Karl I. Ryecart’s probably very familiar to fans of contemporary TV. He has recurring roles in both Poldark and The Crown.
Linda Thorson’s vacation continued into the production of Brian Clemens’ terrific “The Morning After.” She seems to have only been present for a single day’s filming, leaving Steed to carry the story in the company of his prisoner, a quadruple-agent called Merlin. Our heroes and Merlin slept for twenty-four hours after a grenade of sleeping gas went off in their faces. The next day, Tara is still out cold, and Steed and Merlin find the streets of this “middle English town” completely deserted, except for angry troops who instantly convene firing squads to execute any “looters” on sight.
I think this is one of the most interesting episodes of the series. It’s a huge departure from the sort of stories that The Avengers usually tells, but it’s played straight instead of going for spoofs and parodies like, say, “Legacy of Death.” This isn’t a by-the-numbers adventure at all, there are lots of surprises and twists as the story unfolds. It’s shot beautifully. Lots of it is on a backlot, of course, but they did a huge amount of location filming in the town of St. Albans in Hertfordshire, whose residents happily cooperated for a couple of days and left their roads vacant to play the abandoned city. The scenes with Steed and Merlin walking the silent streets are downright eerie. Merlin’s a great character, by the way. It’s a shame he only made this one appearance.
“The Morning After” sports one of the show’s best guest casts. There are three big names that just about everybody in the UK would have recognized when this story first aired in 1968. Merlin is played by Peter Barkworth, who had been one of the stars of the hit drama The Power Game. The brigadier in charge of the evacuation is the legendary Joss Ackland, and a particularly bloodthirsty sergeant is none other than BRIAN BLESSED, who had left the cop show Z Cars after a hundred-some installments a couple of years before and had played Porthos in a couple of Three Musketeers series for the BBC in 1966-67. We’d seen BLESSED in the season five episode “The Superlative Seven,” which had been made between the two Musketeers series. Interestingly, Ackland took over the role of D’Artagnan in the second series from Jeremy Brett. Plus there’s Penelope Horner, who was never a big star, but she made guest appearances in everything in those days.
Our son loved it. The fights and the action and the real sense of danger and mystery kept him intrigued and excited. I’m glad that he enjoyed it so much, so I felt kind of bad telling him we’re going to take a short break from The Avengers and rotate a couple more shows in to keep things fresh. We’ll be back for more at the end of the month, so stay tuned!