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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.

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The Avengers 5.6 – The Winged Avenger

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that the Batman show had a huge impact on popular media. It wasn’t just the rush of television series about superheroes, most of which were doomed to fail pretty quickly as the craze faded, but the influence of a bigger-than-life and often deliberate, camp, approach to action and adventure. American shows like Lost in Space, The Man From UNCLE, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea made the move from black and white to color pretty smoothly, but within a year, they were all getting really ridiculous, with unbelievable villains, deathtraps, monsters, and outrageous acting.

The Avengers navigated the bombastic change with a lot more grace than the show’s American counterparts, but they still took the time during this larger-than-life period to parody Batman with this very silly and very fun story by writer Richard Harris about a comic book character – “superhero” doesn’t seem quite right – who has come to life. The Winged Avenger looks like Hawkman wearing a Captain Harlock costume and, while his creators squabble over whether it’s the writer or the artist who is the real genius, their creation stalks the night murdering ruthless businessmen.

“Comic books” like we know them in America didn’t really exist in the UK at the time. Frank Bellamy, who provided the Winged Avenger illustrations, was at the time best known for painting the Thunderbirds strip in TV Century 21, but he’d worked on other large-format anthology “papers” like the Eagle and Look and Learn for more than a decade. There’s a clue in how the script refers to the character as the star of a “picture strip,” which was the typical term in the UK at the time, but the prop comics shown in the episode are American-style, with the Winged Avenger the star of his own 32-page book instead of appearing weekly as a two-page story. Also, the studio setup, with the creators hiring costumed models to pose for the art, is a lot more like what Frank Hampson pioneered for Dan Dare in the Eagle than any shoestring-budget American funnybook company in the sixties.

(For what it’s worth, at this time the actual Batman comic was most commonly seen in the UK by way of hardback annuals that reprinted American issues, while the popular 1960s daily newspaper strip was reformatted and appeared weekly on two pages of Smash! throughout 1967-68.)

And all this silliness ends with a very fun pop art climax that sees Steed walloping the Winged Avenger with great big panel boards that read POW! SPLAT! and BAM! Our son enjoyed this episode, and was repeating the costumed menace’s trademark line “Eee-URP!” whenever possible, but in the same way he somehow didn’t connect Wallace and Gromit’s launch sequence as a parody of Thunderbirds, he took this at face value and didn’t see it as a wink at Batman at all, just a great fight scene on its own accord. It’s so fascinating how he processes these things.

Anyway, here’s Nigel Green with a falcon and a gun. It turns out to not be really relevant to the story, but he looks fantastic with them, doesn’t he? Other familiar faces in the episode include Neil Hallett, Colin Jeavons, and Donald Pickering. Part of the episode was filmed at the absolutely beautiful Stanmore Hall near Birmingham. Some exteriors for “From Venus With Love” were shot here as well. It’s a mammoth, majestic building with incredible stone work, and then the studio interiors are so flimsy that the fake staircase that the actors climb wobbles like it’s made of cardboard!

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