The Avengers 6.3 – The £50,000 Breakfast

Earlier, I’d mentioned how back in the eighties, when we were finding Avengers episodes wherever we could, that ideally meant swapping with other tape traders, but it also often meant either buying pirate videos or copying them from rental places. The Avengers Declassified has a page devoted to these pirate tapes, and looking back, the extraordinary thing is that these were all available in places like Blockbuster Video or Camelot Music or Record Bar. I mean, you would never, ever have found a copy of Great White Wonder or Live R Than You’ll Ever Be at Camelot Music, but bootleg Avengers videos were no problem!

Since there were several outfits churning these out, there was some cross-pollination, but each little line always seemed to have one or two episodes that you couldn’t find elsewhere. “Death of a Great Dane,” a second season episode that co-starred Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, was the only Blackman episode that we ever found back in the day, and subsequent research hasn’t turned up any others. I’ve occasionally wondered how that one 16mm print ended up in the bootleggers’ hands. Just that one and no others from the first three series.

Like three of the earlier color Diana Rigg stories, “The £50,000 Breakfast” is a remake of an Honor Blackman adventure. Roger Marshall had written “Great Dane” and his original story was given what I remember as a very light rewrite. (It has been many, many years since I’ve seen “Great Dane” and no longer have a copy, so I might be mistaken there!) But what’s interesting is that I didn’t see “The £50,000 Breakfast” for simply ages, probably not until the A&E network started screening them. So while the other three remakes I got to know via their second versions, it was the other way around this time, thanks to the video pirates.

One very low note from the rewrite, however, comes when Steed dismisses a steel band from Trinidad as playing “jungle music.” We certainly told our son that was completely inappropriate. Unlike our experience with the movie this morning, our son was much, much more attentive and curious, and didn’t interrupt the show at all. I paused it to give him a little explanation into diamond smuggling, and he was later able to give a quick and decent recap of the story to his mother when she joined us partway through.

It’s been too long for me to honestly compare the two, but “The £50,000 Breakfast” does have David Langton and Anneke Wills in small roles. Wills’ part here is just one small scene, and she made it between leaving Doctor Who and co-starring in ITC’s terrific Strange Report. “Great Dane” is no slouch on the guest star front either; it had John Laurie and Frederick Jaeger (him again!) in it. The original, of course, features great danes and the remake has Russian wolfhounds. Whichever you watch, it’s a good story, with a simple mystery around why an incredibly rich financier would need to resort to diamond smuggling. It’s far less fanciful than most of the color episodes, and much more down to earth. More on that subject another time.

The Avengers 5.13 – A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station

“Hard to follow, but fun to watch!” That’s our son’s verdict on this story, which I think is the only episode of The Avengers to go out under a pseudonym. Roger Marshall wrote the original story, Brian Clemens reworked it, and the final credit goes to “Brian Sheriff.” There aren’t too many familiar-to-me faces in the story. John Laurie plays a railroad enthusiast, and Isla Blair is one of the members of the criminal gang.

Since we have next to no experience with inter-city train travel in the southeast US, I’ve always been a little bit interested in stories that feature railway lines and timetables and disused stations. Sure, anybody reading Christie or Sayers’ novels where somebody’s alibi is established by the sound of the tunnel that the 4:50 from Walthamstow enters blowing the horn twice has a considerable advantage over me, but I make do. Of course, our son has even less experience than me. He’s taken the subway in Atlanta a few times, that’s about it. So we had to pause and explain a little more of this than usual. The concept that the ticket collector is punching out a special microdot from counterfeit tickets just sailed over his head.

He was also so confused by the name of the derelict station, Chase Halt, that it didn’t even sound like a place to him. I reminded him that there’s an episode of The Secret Service with a similarly-named station, and of course in his second series, Catweazle lived in an abandoned station called Duck Halt. It turns out that a “halt” is, or was, a very small station with limited service and few amenities, and most of the railways stopped using them in the 1950s, which is why they kept turning up as locations in 1960s and 1970s television. I always like it when we learn something together.

Unless I’m mistaken, “The Correct Way to Kill” was the first episode of The Avengers from its color era where somebody shows up at Steed’s apartment (# 3 Stable Mews) intending to murder him. At least Philip Madoc survived that encounter. Tonight’s might be the first time that the wannabe killer ends up dead himself. That’s going to start happening a lot more frequently!

The Avengers 4.20 – The Danger Makers

Here’s another fourth season Avengers with a pile of great character actors from the period. This one features Nigel Davenport, Moray Watson, and the awesome Douglas Wilmer. Unfortunately, there’s that law about using a high-profile actor like Wilmer working against the writer’s intention here. Roger Marshall had scripted a few of these already, and we’ve become used to the stock character of a specialist doctor, usually employed by Steed’s branch of the ministry, not having an enormous amount to do with the plot. But Wilmer doesn’t play those kinds of characters, and there are exactly two suspects available who could be the mysterious “Apollo,” the leader of the Danger Makers. It’s probably going to be Douglas Wilmer.

This is the episode with the nailbiting scene where Mrs. Peel gets initiated into a society of thrillseeking military men by way of electrified poles and see-saws. It’s impossible to watch without holding your breath. The whole thing is hugely entertaining, but it required some more explanations than usual for our kid. We didn’t bother with one of the villains’ hobby of phrenology; we were already behind with explaining chicken runs and Russian roulette. We chose to emphasize that nobody really plays that, but he’s going to see an awful lot of it in movies and TV. At least I hope nobody really plays it.

The Avengers 4.17 – The Girl From Auntie

If the previous episode of The Avengers was heavy and dated, then this delightful comedy was just what we needed. Our son was very taken with it, which is encouraging, because it’s almost like the official template for the color series: lots and lots of dead bodies of unusually-named men in unusual circumstances, silly organizations formalizing a hobby led by a silly eccentric, grandiose crime, and great guest stars. It’s breezy and very, very fun.

Tackling the cast first, the big name here is the much-loved Bernard Cribbins as a fellow obsessed with knitting. His oddball knitting circle has the office next door to the baddies. Comedy star Liz Fraser plays Steed’s impromptu partner Georgie Price-Jones. She’s been hired to impersonate Mrs. Peel, who’s been kidnapped, and Steed brings her along to get to the bottom of it. There’s also the delightful Sylvia Coleridge, who we saw in an Ace of Wands installment, as a daffy old lady, and David Bauer, one of ITC’s deep bench of American actors, here playing an enemy agent from the eastern bloc. They never actually say Russian, of course. All part of the fantasy. Going back to the previous post about The Avengers and its unreality, even when Bauer’s character ends up in a jail cell, we never actually see a policeman on screen!

I really love the villainous enterprise this time. It’s called Art Incorporated and is led by Gregorio Auntie, played by Alfred Burke. Their shtick is they obtain the unobtainable for extremely exclusive clients and leave behind reproductions. Burke, who is best remembered for playing PI Frank Marker in the long running Thames drama Public Eye, is a really entertaining villain and he has a great scene opposite Macnee.

This template gets tweaked a little in the color series before it becomes pretty standard and, eventually, we have to admit, a little rusty. One positive change they’d make is letting the audience briefly meet the various oddballs with silly names before Steed and his partner find their bodies. Still, even though we have only the briefest acquaintance with John, Paul, George, and Fred Jacques (“the Starr Brothers”) in this outing, they’ll always be remembered.

The Avengers 4.15 – Room Without a View

Tonight we returned The Avengers to our lineup with yet another episode that required a pause to explain a bit of culture lost to time: Chinese laundries. We thought we did a good job explaining what these were in general, but we skimmed over the nuts and bolts. At the end of the episode, our son was baffled why a character who was murdered was transported in a wicker box.

Roger Marshall’s “Room Without a View” features an interesting villain played by Paul Whitsun-Jones, who we saw recently in the Doctor Who adventure “The Mutants.” Happily, when I asked whether our son remembered him, he said “Oh, yeah! That’s so neat, it’s the same guy!” He’s learning!

Whitsun-Jones’s character, Max Chessman, has been building a chain of luxury hotels with secret, bonus floors that can be used for nefarious ends. Chessman has a cute affectation: he’s a gourmand who suffers from thin blood and has gained enough weight that his doctors have ordered him onto an insanely strict diet, so he takes pleasure watching other people eat in front of him. Philip Latham plays one of his henchmen, and Peter Jeffrey, in his first of four appearances as different characters in The Avengers, plays one of Steed’s ministry associates. While this character is played for laughs initially, he turns out to be a pretty resourceful agent. Usually when characters like this one show up, they end up dead before the second commercial break.

Plotwise, this isn’t one of the strongest episodes of season four, but the acting is a joy and Steed’s undercover operation at the hotel is a treat. I don’t mind “spoiling” the revelation that a bonus hotel floor with a fake room 621 is at play, because it’s incredibly obvious – for grownup viewers – that physicists are not really being spirited away to a Manchurian prison camp and somehow escaping all the way back to the UK. But for our six year-old son, this was something new and unfamiliar, and kept him guessing. I just realized that he’ll see something very similar in the eleventh season of Doctor Who, which we’ll watch later this month. I must remember to point that out if he doesn’t make the connection!

The Avengers 4.14 – Silent Dust

Roger Marshall’s “Silent Dust” is certainly the weakest episode of The Avengers that we’ve watched so far, but in its favor, it has a lengthy chase and fight in the climax that kept our son very entertained. The problem seems to be that the writer was given a brief to do a story that ends with a big fox hunt, and there isn’t a lot of plot to get there. The villainous threat-of-the-week is about an experimental fertilizer that has the reverse effect and kills topsoil and livestock, but it might as well be a threat about anything. All that matters is getting the heroes and villains to don red coats and ride around with hounds at the end.

Amusingly, I’d forgotten that the last of the baddies gets his comeuppance when Steed picks up a “Down with Blood Sports” sign that a protester has discarded and uses it as a polo mallet on him. I realized that our son has no experience with fox hunting. So I paused it to give him a quick rundown, more of the iconography than the actual history, and mentioned that in the last several decades, this sort of hunting has become very controversial, and was finally banned in the UK about twelve years ago. Then I said something dopey: “When this was made, it was probably around the last time that hunts were organized without public protests.” Of course, the very next scene had four or six people milling around the toffs with protest signs. Had I looked at it before opening my big mouth, I’d have known that the RSPCA had been trying to put a stop to “cultural amusements” like this since the 1820s.

But other than the hunt, there’s not a lot of interest in this story. The villains are identified way too early, using the unusual approach of “every suspect is in on it,” and even though there are some recognizable faces like Charles Lloyd Pack, Norman Bird, Isobel Black, and William Franklyn, it’s really not one of the most engaging episodes.

Weirdo trivia: Oddly, this episode was among those not purchased by ABC for the American run, and it picked up an alternate name. American fans way back then who were curious about the unseen installments of the show inquired about it among 16mm film traders in the sixties and seventies and a bootleg copy was apparently doing the rounds under a working title: “Strictly For the Worms.” It was so well known by that name that you used to see this listed in guidebooks and tape trader lists as: “Silent Dust (Strictly For the Worms).”

We’ll take a few weeks’ break from The Avengers now, but stay tuned! Steed and Mrs. Peel will be back in December!

The Avengers 4.10 – Dial a Deadly Number

Another story by Roger Marshall, “Dial a Deadly Number” was almost impenetrable for our son, even after several pauses to broadly sketch what all this talk of shares and investments is all about. It’s definitely television from another world, as the murders are committed using these incredibly novel and modern “bleeps” that gentlemen carry in their breast pocket. You might remember such things as being called “pagers.”

Still, he says that he enjoyed it, and of course he isn’t shy in telling us when he doesn’t. It does end with a great fight and it features fun guest appearances by Peter Bowles, Clifford Evans, Anthony Newlands, and Gerald Sim, all of whom would return in later Avengers episodes. I didn’t realize that Bowles is still working. He’s the Duke of Wellington in the current Victoria series. When this was made, he still looked like a baby.

Strangely, my clearest memory of this episode is watching it on A&E, when that channel bought The Avengers in the early nineties and gave the videotape episodes their first American airing. For some insane reason, A&E just ignored the clear fade-to-black ad breaks in the episodes and just dropped commercials in whenever they felt like it. There’s a wonderful moment in a wine tasting contest where Steed identifies a Château Lafitte-Rothschild with hilarious specificity – “from the northern end of the vineyard” – and his opponent’s monocle pops out of his eye. There – there! – is where A&E decided to insert a commercial!

The Avengers 4.9 – The Hour That Never Was

I don’t know whether modern TV audiences would have the patience for “The Hour That Never Was.” Half the episode is just the two leads wandering around a deserted airbase on the day before its formal closure trying to figure out where all the people are. And it’s amazing. It’s Roger Marshall’s first story for the film years of The Avengers – he’d written seven episodes during the videotape days – and I love it. It’s an exercise in atmosphere, contrasting the bizarre mystery of where everyone has gone with the leads’ wonderful chemistry and very witty banter. It doesn’t even matter that the villainous plot is a little far-fetched, even for The Avengers. Getting to the climax is just so fun that it doesn’t matter.

Speaking of atmosphere, our son really found this story and its mystery compelling. He said this was “weird and creepy” early on, and repeated that at the end, concluding that this was great, and his favorite episode of the show. That might possibly be because the plot was a little easier for him to follow, without the undercover disguises and loads of extra characters, but we’ll take the win.

Notable guest stars this time out include Roy Kinnear as an ill-fated tramp who lives on the airbase, and Gerald Harper as the squadron leader. I love how we’re introduced to the missing squadron leader by way of a photograph of Gerald Harper, as opposed to some anonymous model or member of the production team, unwittingly confirming to anybody in the audience who might recognize the actor that the squadron leader is alive and we’ll be meeting him soon! I was reminded of a color episode of The Saint, where there’s a painting of a recently deceased family member, and it’s clearly actor Francis De Wolff, which sort of spoiled the revelation that the guy wasn’t really dead.