Department S 1.22 – The Duplicated Man

Another very twisty spy story, again featuring Basil Dignam as the incredibly untrustworthy head of MI5. This time, the trail of a man played by guest star Robert Urquhart who bailed out of an airplane over the English Channel and started a brand new life that he set up for himself many years before turns up evidence that he’s a double agent. Department S learns he’s a double agent, the narrative shows he’s a double agent, there are three Russians looking for him, so why doesn’t MI5 believe that he’s a double agent?

Unlike Smith’s previous appearance, this is a very kid-friendly story, with nothing in the episode that’s too weird or underplayed. Plus, there’s a great little car chase where Annabelle is being followed by one of the Soviet agents through central London and loses him very imaginatively. Later on, she gets the predictable “you stay here” from Stewart, but she acquits herself really well in that scene, I thought.

The Champions 1.6 – Operation Deep-Freeze

Alexandra Bastedo is barely in this episode of The Champions, but a pile of recognizable character actors from the period are. Robert Urquhart is one of the good guys, and Patrick Wymark, Walter Gotell, and George Pastell all represent an enemy nation that’s testing small-yield atomic weapons in Antarctica. There’s also an amazing amount of stock footage. At one point, Gotell and his criminal associate have to shoot four men who are pursuing them, because that’s how many men are in the library footage.

“Operation Deep-Freeze” was one of fourteen episodes of The Champions that I taped off-air way back in 1987 from an Atlanta UHF station, channel 69. Launched as WVEU, and known today as Atlanta’s CW affiliate station WUPA, it began broadcasting in 1982 playing nothing but music videos. This was an odd little programming strategy that several metro areas saw at the time. In those days, a city would have a dozen or two dozen different cable companies, and many of them were really slow to pick up MTV, hence that station’s iconic “I Want My MTV” ad campaign. So investors would set up shop on a UHF channel and play all these wacky videos that Kids These Days wanted to watch.

By late 1985, however, just about everybody in America could see MTV, and these UHF channels were what you’d call surplus to requirements. WVEU scrambled for new, cheap, programming, and, in addition to the pollution-obsessed Japanese superhero show Spectreman, they started running several ITC programs from the late sixties and early seventies, including The Persuaders!, UFO, and, at 6 am Monday through Friday for at least a year, The Champions.

I remember that it was 6, because whatever it was that came next would start at 7 am on the dot. And you’re not going to believe this next part. WVEU didn’t employ the brightest bulbs in the television broadcasting universe. The Champions began their programming day, and I think Mr. Cletus Coaxial didn’t make it in to the station on time about six times a month. The Champions would sometimes start at 6:02 or 6:04, and if it was still running at 7:00, the broadcast would just end in the middle of a scene and at the 7:00 program would begin on time.

I was taping the show on any morning that I could shower and dress and make it into the den at six. I was sixteen years old and recording on SLP speed, using a block of super-fancy high-end Sony VHS tapes that my uncle had gifted me and which probably cost $10 apiece when I was usually buying blank JVCs for $5 each. Pausing to live-edit out the commercials, you could fit seven episodes on each tape. But because Mr. Cletus Coaxial would sometimes start the show late, I’d occasionally end up dragging myself out of bed, rush like mad to get ready for school, get the tape cued up, and have to abandon the recording because 6:03 would roll around and The Champions hadn’t started, and I knew WVEU would end the broadcast and start their 7 am show on time.

Eventually, I had fourteen episodes on two tapes, and over the course of the next five years, I think I copied two of those episodes in one swap. But videotape trading was a fun little hobby and sometimes you just needed to sit on things for a while. Over time, my trade list made its way to many other traders. And what I didn’t know was that The Champions was extraordinarily rare among many of the good traders. I also didn’t know that one of its three lead actors, Stuart Damon, had a large fan base in this country. In the late seventies, Damon found work in the UK drying up and he went back to California and landed the role of Dr. Allan Quartermaine on the daily soap opera General Hospital. He played Quartermaine for almost thirty years and when my trade list ended up in the hands of a VHS trader who collected Stuart Damon’s old shows, my old Sonys started getting quite a workout.

I was very clear to anybody who asked that the quality of the film prints that WVEU had used was pretty poor. These were beat-up, washed-out, color-faded 16mm prints. Worse, I’d recorded them on the dreaded SLP/EP speed because I was a dumb teen, but because I’d used those great high-end blanks my uncle Ronnie had gifted me, the copies were actually far better than they had any right to be. And I copied the hell out of them. I got trade lists in at least once a month inquiring about The Champions. Often, I couldn’t find anything on their lists I wanted, so I’d do a blanks-and-postage swap for TDK E-HGs, which was latterly my VHS tape of choice. I eventually added a limit to those, because one day I got a box on the doorstep with fourteen TDK E-HGs. To be honest, in the 1993-94 TV season, I was taping four shows off-air, so I needed the blanks, but doing seven tapes in a week was a real headache!

I didn’t keep track, but by the time I called it quits on tape trading in the late nineties, I bet I’d copied some of my Champions in at least thirty trades. They netted me all kinds of great treasures, everything from Frankie Howerd comedies to episodes of The New Avengers that didn’t come from The CBS Late Movie and have five minutes hacked out of each hour. I remember, with no great fondness, some of the pests that you’d run into on the VHS tape trading circuit, the bad traders, the snobs, the ones with the crazy rules, the people who didn’t know what they were doing and would send you garbage you didn’t want on BASF T-160s on the wrong speed. None of those memories are attached to anybody I traded The Champions with, because Stuart Damon’s fans are all better than that.

The Avengers 7.14 – Wish You Were Here

We resumed The Avengers tonight with a look at its celebrated pastiche of the ITC series The Prisoner. The notion of the earlier show so overpowered the actuality of the latter that our son immediately wanted to know more. The plot of tonight’s episode, “Wish You Were Here” by Tony Williamson, is that diabolical masterminds are running a hotel so remarkably charming that nobody can quite believe that it’s actually a prison for some of its guests, and they can’t leave without some accident waylaying them and returning them to the hotel in a stretcher. Really the only disappointment in the hour is the incredibly obvious and inevitable betrayal by a character that Tara shouldn’t have trusted, but Tara is capable enough to right things very quickly.

So I explained what The Prisoner was about, and how it had a guard balloon that the beach ball shown in the photo above was meant to evoke, and our son wanted to know more and more right now. I don’t actually enjoy The Prisoner all that much – that surprises a lot of people, I’ve found – but I do love the feem toon, so I showed our kid that much on YouTube. If he wants to see more, that show isn’t going anywhere.

The familiar faces this time out include a whole gang of actors who’d appeared in earlier episodes of the show. Dudley Foster is awesome as the impeccably mannered hotel desk clerk who sadly keeps delivering unfortunate news to his guests, and Derek Newark is his main muscle. Robert Urquhart is a fellow prisoner, and Louise Pajo’s a bit wasted in too small a role. I’d have liked this more, and it might have been a hair less obvious, if Pajo and Urquhart had switched characters.

A note on numbering: People don’t so much argue about how many seasons of The Avengers there are as choose a position and wish to be left alone. Earlier today on Twitter, Graeme Wood ( @woodg31 ) showed off an illustration that I enjoy, a TV listing from September 1967 that promoted “Return of the Cybernauts” as the first of a “new series.” That is, it’s the first episode of the new series six, and not the seventeenth episode of series five.

With that in mind, the format at this blog is that the first sixteen color episodes, with Diana Rigg, are the fifth series, the next fifteen episodes, first with Rigg and then with Linda Thorson, are the sixth, and the final 26 episodes are the seventh. This matches the American broadcast grouping, if not strictly the actual order of installments within them, because I contradict myself and contain multitudes.

The Avengers 4.5 – Castle De’ath

I think that one theme that we’ll come back to in watching The Avengers is one I’ll go into in more detail later on, that the fantasy of the series isn’t merely the fantasy that comes from telling stories with robots and invisible men and a couple of monsters, it’s the fantasy of its setting. The Avengers is deliberately set in what Brian Clemens called a fantasyland, a tourist Britain that’s utterly removed from the real thing. So here we are in Scotland, ye ken, where we have bagpipes and phantoms and lairds and tartans and Robbie Burns and Bonnie Prince Charlie and castles and moats and villainous ancestors called “Black” and fishing in the loch. And popular Scottish actors like Gordon Jackson and Robert Urquhart as the feuding cousins of the De’ath clan.

And we don’t have anything in Scotland other than these things.

In fact, of the two things my son enjoyed most about this story, one was the knee-high argyle socks that the men wear with their traditional formal Highland garb. “Those are some big socks!” he exclaimed. The other, happily, was the rather magnificent sword fight that Patrick Macnee and Urquhart have on the big table in the dining hall, so he’s not just watching old TV to chuckle at the silly clothes people used to wear, like a “comedian” on one of those awful Things Sure Were Different Back Then! nostalgia programs.

I don’t think it’s right to completely dismiss dramatic choices like this as merely lazy cultural stereotyping. It isn’t lazy; it’s carefully crafted in the same way that the director, James Hill, opened the story with a series of long, hand-held tracking shots through the elaborate castle set. The Avengers slowly reveals its unreality as the show progresses through the sixties, which is sometimes jarring because television viewers tend to watch every program as though it is set in “our world,” and The Avengers quite firmly isn’t. That’s not to say that it’s always a good or an admirable choice – some elements of this fantasyland Britain are crafted with the walls of exclusion – but the use of stereotype here isn’t halfhearted. In Avengerland, England can have some variety of people, places, and things, but all of Scotland is exactly like this.