Last year for Christmas, our son got some Marvel superheroes wall art. One of the pieces is the cover of The Avengers # 70, drawn by Sal Buscema. Tonight at supper, I asked our son whether he knew who those four villains on the cover were. I explained that they were versions of Superman, Batman, the Flash and Green Lantern. That same winter, over in DC’s Justice League of America comic, that company’s heroes were locked in combat with pastiches of Thor, Scarlet Witch, and Ant-Man.
It’s how you do a crossover, or use a character, when the writers are enthusiastic about an idea but the people who actually own the rights to a character don’t allow it because they can’t agree about the money. In another example that our son enjoyed learning about, some Doctor Who fans started making their own independent films in the early nineties, hiring Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant to play “The Stranger and Miss Brown.” Another example that I adore is a short scene in one of Laurie King’s novels where somebody who’s clearly meant to be Lord Peter Wimsey makes a short appearance, talking piffle.
And then there’s this episode of The Hardy Boys, where Patrick Macnee plays, not John Steed, but an agent from the Ministry who doesn’t have a name, but knows how to wear a bowler and carry an umbrella. The very first shot of the episode is of a chess board, bowler, and an umbrella, pulling back to reveal the special guest star. Our son instantly beamed and shouted “Steed!” Thank heavens. The way his memory for faces runs, if we’d have waited another month, he may not have recognized him.
The rational part of me has known for years that this was bound to be a little underwhelming, and yet I’ve been saving it for a rainy day for such a long time. Patrick Macnee gets a couple of chances to twinkle and shine, but the nature of The Hardy Boys‘ family hour 7 pm time slot means that anybody expecting a proper Avengers brawl is bound to be disappointed. There’s one great example when Steed and Joe turn off the lights in Steed’s flat – he appears to be back in central London – in anticipation of two intruders, and the next thing we see is the police coming in to find the villains tied up.
Speaking of villains… there have been times watching The Hardy Boys when Universal did a pretty good job pretending their backlot and the neighboring hotels were other countries. This is not one of those times. At least the not even remotely British actors pretending to be British, including such resoundingly Yankee thespians as Pernell Roberts, Leon Ames, and Dana Andrews, speak in a reasonable facsimile of British terminology and slang. Roberts even manages a not-cringeworthy attempt at a RP accent. Ames doesn’t even bother trying. But the production department were way out of their league. “Leicester” and “Sceptre” are misspelled on props, the men of the Flying Squad wear tailored Savile Row suits and operate from cavernous offices with immaculate furniture, and the plainclothes police don’t show up at crime scenes in beat-up old Ford Consuls and Granadas, but in gray Jaguars with blue lights and POLICE written on the side. And nobody calls anybody “guv,” guv.
Put another way, the episode climaxes in the sewers underneath the Tower of London, and I was about ready for the giant rat from “Gnaws” to show up and eat somebody.
The episode ends with Steed spotting a “Mrs. —” in the airport and going to meet her to the tune of Laurie Johnson’s Avengers theme. You can even say that he hesitates when about to say “Peel,” not because Universal didn’t want to aggravate the trademark owners, but because “K is for Kill” establishes that Emma no longer goes by Mrs. Peel and he was stumbling trying to remember her name.
That was cute, but if I might indulge in a little speculation, Patrick Macnee wasn’t the only name from The New Avengers to show up in The Hardy Boys. At the end of this season, directors Sidney Hayers and Ray Austin, who between them shot more than half of the UK-based New Avengers, each helmed a Hardy installment. Glen A. Larson continued to use both directors on his hit series throughout the 1980s, and had Macnee in front of the cameras as often as he could. Macnee and Anne Lockhart, who we saw in the previous story, were doing voiceovers and recurring parts in Battlestar Galactica at the same time these episodes were made.
We know that CBS was interested in an American Avengers series. They’d hired Brian Clemens to write a script for Quinn Martin’s production company. As I mentioned earlier, this was called Escapade, a deliberate clone of The Avengers starring Granville Van Dusen and Morgan Fairchild. The pilot was shown in May 1978 and forgotten. CBS then added The New Avengers to their late-night lineup in September 1978, and then this aired on ABC in October.
What if Glen A. Larson, by bringing Macnee, Hayers, and Austin together, was making the case that he might be suited to produce the series in America? Clearly not, as this episode shows, an Avengers set in Britain, because they really couldn’t pull it off, but is it possible that Larson might have pitched an Avengers starring Macnee, set in Los Angeles or Washington with a couple of new characters? Could it have been any good? Could it at least have been better than the Canadian New Avengers? Fun to think about, isn’t it? I wonder who the new leads might have been in Larson’s hands…