Earlier today, we showed our son The Maltese Falcon and watched in sympathy as he squirmed and struggled to make sense of it. Tonight, we showed him Terry Nation’s “Legacy of Death” and he got it. It took him a minute, but when two of the delightfully absurd number of villains introduce themselves as Sydney Street and Humbert Green, he shouted “Wait a minute! Like Greenstreet!” I was pleased as it all fell into place.
So back in late 1967, during John Bryce’s aborted turn producing a few episodes of The Avengers, he’d reached out to Terry Nation to contribute “Invasion of the Earthmen”. Nation was a hot property then; he’d written so many great episodes of The Saint that, decades later, Roger Moore was still singing Nation’s praises on the commentary tracks he did for the DVDs. So Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell, once they got back in charge, put Nation on the payroll as the script editor for the batch they were making. Nation wrote five additional episodes while wearing this hat. “Legacy of Death” was the second of these five, and they all suggest that while Nation was perfectly content to edit stories in the Avengers template about baffling murders committed by diabolical masterminds, he wasn’t interested in actually writing any of them himself. (“Noon Doomsday,” the next episode [in the order these were first shown in the UK], was the first of Nation’s five 1968 scripts to be filmed, and we’ll look at it Thursday night.)
I find “Legacy of Death” only mildly frustrating for what Nation didn’t do. The story is completely delightful despite my one reservation. Steed accepts a bizarre bequest of a curious dagger, only to have an endless stream of desperate, gun-toting fortune hunters start pestering him for it. And there lies the story’s only flaw. There isn’t a femme fatale among them. Now, Stratford Johns and Ronald Lacey are absolutely hilarious in their broad caricatures of Greenstreet and Lorre, and anybody who doesn’t lose a lung laughing when the Baron von Orlak and Winkler introduce themselves must have a problem with their funny bone. But the episode would be even better if some gorgeous woman kickstarted the adventure in the Mary Astor part. It wasn’t like England wasn’t swimming in beautiful actresses in 1968. They had Valerie Leon on set a couple of episodes previously behind a surgical mask – that’s right, the nincompoops hid Valerie Leon behind a mask – and somebody should have asked her to come back to knock on Steed’s door instead of bringing in Tutte Lemkow as Old Gorky.
Oh, and speaking of the episode where you could barely see Valerie Leon, that one – “Poor George / XR40” – featured Stratford Johns’ co-star from Softly Softly, Frank Windsor, as one of the villains. I wonder whether the press people in the UK thought to point this out, that both of the stars of the country’s top cop show were appearing in The Avengers in the same month. Anyway, joining Johns and Ronald Lacey, there’s the usual gang of great and recognizable faces, including Richard Hurndall, John Hollis, and the awesome Ferdy Mayne as the Baron von Orlak.
The end result, well, it would be even better with a treacherous woman somewhere in it, but it remains my favorite episode of this series because it’s so ridiculously fun and over the top. Not the best episode by any means, but my favorite by miles. I can’t watch the disheveled and bedraggled Stratford Johns sweating buckets as he recites his giant paragraphs of dialogue without guffawing, and I completely lose it every time that “inferior sort of assassin” tries to leap at Steed and Tara and faceplants on the cement instead. Most comedies just don’t have this kind of staying power and repeat value, but “Legacy of Death” is absolute, unadulterated fun from start to finish.