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The Champions 1.4 – The Experiment

Tony Williamson’s “The Experiment” is one of the few episodes of The Champions to pit our three heroes against worthy adversaries. This was kind of the way of things in the sixties and seventies. Regular readers will recall that I would occasionally bemoan how most episodes of, say, The Six Million Dollar Man and the like would concern themselves more with counterfeiters in turtlenecks instead of having proper robot enemies and Bigfoot more often. So it is with The Champions, typically. These are good and entertaining spy stories, but the characters’ superhuman abilities just give them an occasional edge, and some very satisfying stunts, rather than a focus for the plot.

But in “The Experiment,” they run up against a quartet of characters whose reaction speed and fighting techniques have been artificially augmented. Remarkably, the villains in charge of the operation have been reading between the lines of the various secret agency secret reports and have figured out that Richard, Craig, and Sharron have superhuman skills and lure Sharron into their scheme under the guise of an experiment so they can study her speed and reaction first-hand. Their own boss never figures that out. So it builds to an exciting climax and a very good final fight scene that had our son hopping. It’s a really entertaining episode, probably my favorite of the fourteen that I originally had back in the tape trading days. More on that in a later post.

I’ve always thought that a great guest cast can elevate a good story, and this one’s just full of familiar faces. One of ITC’s regular Americans-at-Elstree, David Bauer, is the main villain, and he also has Robert James and Allan Cuthbertson in his employ. Jonathan Burn and none-more-posh Caroline Blakiston are two of the rival superhumans, and Nicholas Courtney has a small role as a doctor. There’s also a very familiar setting. Marie often says that she doesn’t recognize actors the way that I do, but she has an eye for places, and when Richard and Craig drive through the small village of Aldbury, she immediately spotted it as the location of a pair of Avengers episodes. Aldbury, Schmaldbury, everybody knows that town is Little Storping In-The-Swuff!

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The Avengers 6.15 – Look – (stop me if you’ve heard this one) But There Were These Two Fellers…

The brilliance of The Avengers is that it is said to be a program where absolutely anything can happen. So here, the veteran writer Dennis Spooner, who had contributed to Doctor Who and several of the ITC adventure series, decides to test that hypothesis and pushes the show farther into weirdness and farce than it had ever been before. It still doesn’t break. Now having said that, you can probably see the boundary from here. This is a deeply, deeply silly and hilarious episode, but it honestly doesn’t need to get any sillier than this.

If you’ve never had the great pleasure, “Look – (stop me if you’ve heard this one) But There Were These Two Fellers…” concerns a gang of “resting” vaudevillians who are targeting the board of directors of the Caritol Land and Development Corporation, a big firm that has just landed an extremely important government contract. But among their holdings is a defunct chain of music halls and palladium theaters, and a crooked Punch and Judy man who knows more than he’s letting on seems to have convinced the gang that by wiping them out, they can open the curtains on their old shows again. Jimmy Jewel and Julian Chagrin play the lead killers, and familiar faces Robert James and Talfryn Thomas are among the other “resting” artistes.

Not one line of this is played straight. Getting to the hilarious final fight, we get to enjoy some of the all-time great television death scenes. Years ago, I watched this one with my older kids, and my boy just about stopped breathing with laughter when Jimmy Jewel introduces some puffed-up aristocrat to his magic carpet trick. John Cleese plays a civil servant tasked with painting the copyrighted faces of clowns onto eggs, and Bernard Cribbins plays a gag writer who comes up with far, far more duds than winners, and they both meet hysterically gruesome ends. Both actors just had me in stitches before they met their grisly deaths. Cleese, in particular, is a delight in the role of a put-upon government worker who desperately wants to avoid letting any member of the public into his office.

Of course our son loved it. He laughed like a hyena in places. This would be a terrible introduction to The Avengers, but I can’t imagine anybody in the world not liking this. For a hour about one sick-in-the-head murder after another, it’s just so darn joyous, which makes it even more amazing that this could very well have been the program’s final episode! I don’t believe that ABC had renewed the show when this was made in March 1968.

As I mentioned last month, in the US, The Avengers was running opposite Lost in Space, and NBC’s The Virginian, which was crushing both programs. CBS gave the ax to Space, and in the usual sort of Nielsen circumstances, there was really no reason to expect that ABC would ask for more Avengers. By the spring of 1968, the spy craze was ebbing, Diana Rigg had moved on, and the ratings were dropping. But ABC did order a full 26 episode season of the program anyway, because something was going to happen in the fall of 1968 that was totally unlike the usual sort of Nielsen circumstances… but more on that another day.

That’s all from The Avengers for now, but Steed and Tara King will be back in August for more adventures. Stay tuned!

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