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The New Avengers 1.13 – Three Handed Game

I’m in the minority – the very, very small minority – of viewers whose favorite Avengers co-star is Purdey. Sure, Mrs. Peel is an icon, but the reason I honestly like Purdey even more is that she’s so delightfully, effortlessly, weird. Her eccentricities never feel forced, because she’s quietly dancing to the beat of her own drummer, and Joanna Lumley plays her with a smile and a wink so believably that she doesn’t feel like a TV character at all. She’s just a quirky, very intelligent oddball who can kick the living daylights out of her opponents.

And she cooks marshmallow pie for dinner, and when she’s left backstage on guard duty while her charge performs his mind-reading act, she gets restless and gives herself some clown makeup, like all sensible undercover spies do when they want to avoid attention.

I learned something new about The Avengers today. There’s a recurring character in the first season of this run. I thought I’d paid attention to this show in the past, and I know who the actor John Paul is – he was Spencer Quist in the BBC’s terrifically fun SF drama Doomwatch – and I knew that he was in an episode of this show, but all these years and it never registered that he’s in two episodes, this one and “Target!” He’s credited as Dr. Kendrick in that episode and just Doctor in this one, but it’s probably the same man. How weird that never registered with me.

Anyway, “Three Handed Game” was co-written by Brian Clemens and Dennis Spooner and it’s a fun story about a brain-drain machine and three operatives with photographic memories who have each been entrusted with every third word of a very long and sensitive document. In our son’s favorite scene, Steed races his Jaguar against a March Formula One car to flag down the driver, and I’m not sure what mine was, because I like this whole episode a lot. Other than “Gnaws,” our son enjoyed this whole series. This was the first time I’d watched them as one batch (well, clearly, because two of them I’d never sat down to see before) and I think they work incredibly well. I also think that the next batch won’t, but we’ll see how that goes.

That’s all from The New Avengers for now, but we’ll watch the second season of thirteen starting in September. Stay tuned!

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The New Avengers 1.12 – Sleeper

Brian Clemens’ “Sleeper” is certainly an entertaining story, but I bet the story of how they pulled it off would be even more fun. In this one, our heroes are given the antidote for a demonstration of a “sleeping dust,” leaving them the only people awake in a huge part of London after criminals dust the city with the stuff in order to pull off a grand series of bank and jewelry store robberies at the break of dawn on a Sunday morning. So they mixed some “nobody’s moving” establishing shots with some first-light filming on residential streets, some later-light filming in deserted areas, and some backlot shooting behind a studio and it’s altogether seamless.

I don’t think it’s quite as plausible as it pretends to be, because surely more than one police car would have driven into the affected area at some point this morning. I also quibble that Purdey didn’t think things through like she should. After knocking two henchmen, played by familiar seventies faces Prentis Hancock and Mark Jones, out cold, I think she probably should have disarmed them, because they come to and then start shooting at Steed and Gambit.

You might also make the argument that the comedy bit where Steed and Gambit get their turn to clobber Hancock and Jones is a bit out of place in a story that otherwise looks and feels deadly serious, but they knew what they were doing. It’s a bit broad, but our son loved the scene, and guffawed as our heroes reveal that they aren’t sleeping at all. So I think it’s just a hair shy of perfect, but it’s so fun to look at the sleeping city in all its mid-seventies grime and glory, and enjoy guessing where the plot would go next. And I have always loved how the only thing that gives the unflappable John Steed a moment’s pause in this crisis is that Gambit breaks into a pub to get the two of them beers as they ponder their next move, and since he didn’t pilfer any glasses, Steed has to drink straight from the bottle.

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The New Avengers 1.11 – Dirtier By the Dozen

When interviewed in his later years, Patrick Macnee reflected that perhaps The New Avengers would have been more successful with less of him in it. He considered that he might have taken the role of Mother and left all the action stuff to his younger co-stars. Brian Clemens’ “Dirtier By the Dozen” shows what that might have looked like. Steed is only in the margins of this one; it’s Gambit and Purdey who tackle a British army regiment that’s been discreetly flying around the world acting as mercenaries. This is one of a handful of episodes I’d never seen before.

I quite liked it, and our son certainly did. It was filmed in a very wet autumn in 1976 and has lots of explosions at one point as the regiment uses a mortar cannon to kill one of their enemies, fleeing across a minefield. Not bad at all, but it needed more Steed in it, which suggests that Macnee might not have been correct.

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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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The New Avengers 1.9 – Faces

Okay, so we had Roy Marsden last time, Edward Petherbridge this time, and Patrick Malahide next time. If you were a fan of the detective shows that made their way to PBS’s Mystery! anthology about a decade later, you can call that a hat trick: Commander Dalgliesh, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Chief Inspector Alleyn. Reckon John Thaw was a bit busy in 1976 to appear, but it’s a shame they couldn’t find parts for some other future ’80s teevee detectives like Jeremy Brett or James Warwick in this run!

Anyway, “Faces” is incredibly fun, but it’s very, very TV-stupid. It’s another doubles story, this time co-written by Brian Clemens and Dennis Spooner, and everybody gets to play other characters. It doesn’t do nearly enough with its neat premise, however. We learn this time that one of Steed’s Ministry superiors, played by Richard Leech, was killed by a lookalike who stepped into his shoes and built himself into a secrets broker. This happened five years previously. This show’s diabolical mastermind created that position for himself in 1971. They could have ran with that premise and built a much more interesting story than anything with doubles. There’s also a very rare onscreen confirmation of the class difference between Steed and Gambit, something this show never really addressed much.

Certainly the scene where Gareth Hunt and Joanna Lumley are – wait for it – playing Gambit and Purdey pretending to be Walter and Lolita pretending to be Gambit and Purdey while each thinks that the other is an imposter is hilariously entertaining. Lolita is really funny as well, knowwharrImean? And it’s always nice to see the awesome Petherbridge at work, and I love how his character murders people with a bow and arrow. But it’s dragged down by too many action TV cliches, like all of the doubles showing up to kill their targets while dressed identically, and Steed losing his oldest and best friend like he hasn’t lost his two oldest and best friends already. I’m not sure this oldest and best friend will be the last, either.

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The New Avengers 1.8 – The Tale of the Big Why

Proof that times have changed for the Avengers: tonight’s episode is a treasure hunt story, with our heroes competing against two villains to track down a Macguffin that’s worth a lot to somebody. But these villains are just so characterless. They’re resourceful, violent, unpleasant, but they’re so disagreeably anonymous. They’re certainly no Street and Green. They’re not even the gentlemen chappies from “The Rotters.” They’re just seventies thugs.

I didn’t care for them, but “The Tale of the Big Why,” written by Brian Clemens and directed by Robert Fuest, is otherwise a pretty good chase story. There are several interested parties whose paths intersect with the Macguffin – one of them is played by Roy Marsden – and lots of great location filming. I loved Fuest’s decision to show the passing of time by letting the camera land on a glass of beer as different characters drive past a village pub. There’s also a hostage exchange which goes terribly wrong for the outclassed bad guys and is enormously fun.

Our son was rather less pleased than me. There are a few “back to square one” moments in the story, which just left him confused. Was this show over or not? By the time they revealed what the Macguffin is and why it’s important, the law of conservation of TV speaking parts has told the audience whose career is going to be ended by it. (Hint: surprisingly, it isn’t Geoffrey Toone, who’s playing some minister or other. He sensibly stays back at Whitehall, where the finger of suspicion stops pointing.) I suppose that’s why they quickly wrapped up the plot along with a last bit of violence in the final ninety seconds, which didn’t help an overtired kid up a little past his bedtime finally understand what all the fuss was about.

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The New Avengers 1.7 – To Catch a Rat

A couple of real blasts from the past in tonight’s episode of The New Avengers. This one, famously, features the return of actor Ian Hendry, who had been the original star of the program back in 1961. Hendry isn’t playing his original character, Dr. Keel, but instead is playing an old sleeper spy who’s come in from the cold to finish a score with some old adversaries, one of whom is played by Barry Jackson, who had betrayed him in East Germany. The other person returning to the show after fifteen years is writer Terence Feely, who had last contributed scripts back when Hendry was playing Dr. Keel in the original season!

This is just me moaning, but there’s a part of me that sees a missed opportunity here. As great as it is to see Ian Hendry, who was an excellent actor, I kind of wish that they’d cast somebody who played a spy in some sixties show – Edward Woodward or Patrick McGoohan – as Gunner in this story, and asked Hendry to come back in a different story as Dr. Keel. Hendry and Patrick Macnee barely even get any screen time together, just one scene right at the end, with Hendry’s character losing consciousness and hardly in any shape to banter.

Despite the moan, this one’s a really entertaining traditional spy thriller, with no fantastic elements at all, and I was pleased that it kept our son completely hooked. He was playing really close attention and enjoyed this one a lot. Sure, his favorite scene was Purdey finding a weird and wonderful distraction to get out of a potentially embarrassing situation with two church ladies arranging flowers, but he enjoyed the whole show.

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The New Avengers 1.6 – Target!

If you’re as much a fan of familiar actors from the seventies as I am, then Dennis Spooner’s “Target!” is an absolute pleasure. You’ve got Keith Barron and Deep Roy as the villains, and Frederick Jaeger, John Paul, and Bruce Purchase in supporting roles. There’s a hint of the old Avengers spirit at play when Deep Roy disguises himself as a little kid on a tricycle, hiding a lethal hypodermic behind a bunch of balloons.

Our kid doesn’t care about actors, but there was plenty for him to enjoy in this one. The diabolical masterminds this week have rigged a shooting gallery survival course with darts filled with poisonous curare. Since The Avengers is very rarely about gunplay, or kill-or-be-killed shootouts, this is a pretty atypical story, not least in the sound department. It takes our heroes an eternity to figure out the link between all these apparently random agents, but the visuals of the survival course make for a hugely fun story to watch, and our son was on the edge of his seat.

My favorite moments were when Gambit kills two of the bad guys. He murders their inside man entirely by accident, thinking he’s just playing a cruel prank, but Deep Roy later gets one of the all-time great Avengers death scenes, and he totally had it coming.

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