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The Avengers 5.2 – The Fear Merchants

A quarter of a century ago, when I was young and had stars in my eyes and wanted to be a television writer, I daydreamed of making a very off-key and off-kilter cop show called Department of Murder. I spent a lot of time devising characters and plots, and one thing I definitely wanted to do was bring back these villains: the Business Efficiency Bureau, a trio of psychologists and experts who can be hired to literally eliminate the competition. They do so by identifying phobias and driving business rivals out of their minds.

About the only thing you can say against Philip Levene’s “The Fear Merchants,” which introduced the baddies for what would sadly be their only appearance – The Avengers was rarely a show for return engagements – is that it needs one more bit of oomph to make their villainy work. When they learn one target has agoraphobia, they just dump him in Wembley Stadium and that’s it, he’s incapacitated permanently. The episode needed a fear gas or a some sort of mental programming to really push people over the edge once the villains work their efficiency magic to make the episode both a little more believable and sinister.

Otherwise, it’s just so fun! Our son needed a little help following this one, and he had no idea why I collapsed in laughter over one of the all-time great sight gags, where the camera is following somebody dressed like Steed, until Steed and Mrs. Peel come around a corner and it starts following them instead. He also didn’t understand that the Business Efficiency Bureau changes its business from a monthly retainer into a monthly blackmail payment. In his defense, not only is he still very young, but Levene’s script is delightfully subtle about how the hired firm suddenly becomes the dominant partner. But he absolutely loved the great fight that Steed has with Garfield Morgan, who’d later play DCI Haskins, Regan’s boss in The Sweeney. They brawl in a pit with a bulldozer teetering on the edge above them!

In the cast, Patrick Cargill, who we saw in last season’s “The Murder Market,” is the main villain, and the wonderful Brian Wilde is the businessman who bought a lot more trouble than he bargained for. In smaller parts as Wilde’s rivals, there are the familiar-to-us faces of Edward Burnham, Bernard Horsfall, and Andrew Keir, who would star in Quatermass and the Pit later the same year. Sadly, Annette Carell, who was a frequent guest star in British adventure shows of the period, passed away about nine months after this was shown.

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The Avengers 4.7 – The Murder Market

I did “The Murder Market” a great disservice many years ago. I wrote a pretty tepid review of the story, which was Tony Williamson’s first of nine scripts for the series, but it’s really entertaining. Before we hit play, though, we started with a quick discussion with our son about what a marriage bureau is, because of course he’s too young to have heard of match.com, much less the mostly defunct lonely hearts businesses of the pre-internet age.

In one of those weird coincidences this blog keeps running into, I paused last night’s episode of The Bionic Woman to explain what a will is. I also explained how there are thousands of cases in drama and detective fiction where villains conspire to eliminate somebody who is in the way of an inheritance. And here’s what the murder market of this episode does, under the masquerade of being a marriage bureau: it’s an organized version of what the characters in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train concoct, with supposed “partners” swapping murders while the office arranges a perfect alibi for the prime suspect, usually for somebody to get their hands on somebody else’s money.

But it’s unclear who, other than Steed’s mysterious department, would investigate these killings. As I mentioned last week, The Avengers is set in a fantasyland which, per Brian Clemens, doesn’t have any police in it. Mrs. Peel’s supposed murder is very, very strange. Steed pretends to have killed her for this organization, but then all the details of how her body got instantaneously to a funeral home are completely glossed over, and then a man she’s met exactly twice arranges for her immediate burial… and who are the mourners? This is the first episode of the show in this season to be so thunderously unreal, and yet it works here because this isn’t the real world and our rules don’t apply. It’s Avengerland.

It’s also the first episode of the show that we’ve seen to be so overtly kinky. We’d seen a little of this in the Honor Blackman years, but not nearly as much in the previous six episodes as here. This time, though, there are boots and riding crops and gazes that linger a little too long, a striking photo session with a long-legged model posing in only a shirt and tie, and Mrs. Peel looking for a husband with stamina. You can almost hear the other character in the scene ask himself “Did I hear her right?”

Anyway, the guest stars this week include the legendary comedy actor Patrick Cargill along with John Woodvine, who played a heck of a lot of cops in his career. Cargill plays the main villain (although not the actual head of the gang), and Woodvine’s role is a clever surprise. Diana Rigg has a fabulous fight with Canadian actress Suzanne Lloyd, who had been working in American TV, mostly Westerns, for most of the fifties and early sixties. In another odd coincidence, we skipped over her appearance on The Twilight Zone, which we otherwise might have watched literally two nights ago, in favor of the very next episode of Zone, which had Patrick Macnee in it. Anyway, she relocated to the UK in 1964 and played the babe of the week in The Saint six times before retiring.

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