Friday, 23 January 2015

The Avengers - the Venus Smith episodes

The Avengers had originally been conceived as a vehicle for Ian Hendry. He would play Dr David Keel, a man who gets involved somewhat reluctantly in the counter-espionage business. The David Keel era lasted for one season of 26 episodes. His offsider would be the rather shadowy and cynical John Steed (Patrick Macnee). 

Production on the first season was curtailed due to an actors’ strike and by the time the cameras were ready to roll again Ian Hendry had departed. As a stop-gap Jon Rollason was brought into the show for three episodes as Dr Martin King, mainly to use up several scrips that had already been written for Ian Hendry. The intention was that Steed would become the central character in season two and he would have two glamorous female side-kicks who would appear in alternate episodes. Mrs Cathy Gale would be played by Honor Blackman while Venus Smith would be played by Julie Stevens.

Venus Smith was to be a night-club singer, and like Dr Keel she would be a somewhat unwitting accomplice for Steed. In fact both Mrs Gale and Venus Smith are to some extent manipulated by Steed who very rarely lets them know all of the facts of a case. In many cases he tells them virtually nothing at all. The personality of Steed was softened a little compared to the first season but he’s still a harder-edged and more cynical character than the more familiar Steed of the Emma Peel years.

The plan for alternating side-kicks did not quite work out. It quickly became clear that Mrs Gale was not only the more popular of the two, she was also a far more versatile character. That’s not to say that there was anything particularly wrong with Julie Stevens as an actress, but a leather-clad lady martial arts expert like Mrs Gale had more to offer the series than a very feminine jazz singer.

Venus Smith ended up featuring in just six episodes, of varying quality.

The Decapod, written by Eric Paice, marked Venus Smith’s debut. The president of a Balkan republic, Yakob Borb (Paul Stassino)  is in Britain to arrange a loan, in exchange for the use of naval bases in his country. Both his visit and the negotiations are causing concern for his own ambassador, Stepan (Philip Madoc), as well as for the British security services. No-one is quite sure how far they can trust Borb or whether he has his own agenda. Since Borb unquestionably has an eye for attractive young ladies Steed decides to use his friend, jazz singer Venus Smith, to keep an eye on the president. He doesn’t consider it necessary to tell her what’s going on. This early incarnation of Steed is rather an amoral character and he is quite happy to use people in order to achieve his objectives.

Yakob Borb is actually a bit of a charmer and Venus finds herself in danger of being swept off her feet. Meanwhile Borb’s bodyguards seem to be dying at an alarming rate. Steed (and his superiors) are not too concerned by the internal affairs of Borb’s country but they definitely do not want him to be assassinated while he is Britain. Keeping him alive may be quite a task, given that nobody knows what he is up to, or what his ambassador is up to.

Julie Stevens had almost no acting experience at this stage but she handles her role quite well. Since Venus is a singer she naturally has to sing, which she does competently enough. This episode’s biggest pluses are the performances of Paul Stassino and the always reliable Philip Madoc, both playing nicely ambiguous characters. The whole episode has a murky (and at times quite sleazy) feel which captures the world of international intrigue and espionage quite well. Everyone is prepared to double-cross everyone else, except for poor Venus who has no idea what is happening. This early version of Steed may be a good deal less likeable than the later versions but he is intriguingly duplicitous.

The biggest surprise is the opening nude scene, very daring for British television in 1962!

On the whole The Decapod is not vintage Avengers but it’s reasonably entertaining.

The second Venus Smith episode, The Removal Men (written by Roger Marshall and Jeremy Scott), starts with another nude scene! Producer Leonard White seems to have been determined to give the series a reputation for naughtiness. It’s an OK episode but Venus Smith really does not play an essential role. The episode is interesting in that Steed not only carries a gun but uses it, something he was to do rather less often in the later years of the series. This is not merely a rather amoral Steed but one who displays no hesitation whatsoever in resorting to violence when it’s necessary.

These 1962 episodes were also notable for the occasional presence of characters who act as Steed’s controllers, notably One-Ten (Douglas Muir). This idea of a controller would be revived (more successfully) in the person of Mother in the 1968 series. One-Ten does however add some humour to The Removal Men.

By the time Venus made her third appearance in Box of Tricks (written by Peter Ling and Edward Rhodes) the show had a new producer, John Bryce. He decided to give Venus a complete makeover - she now sports short hair, is noticeably more bubbly and definitely more in tune with the Swinging 60s. The original intention was that Box of Tricks would feature both Venus Smith and Cathy Gale.

The trouble with Box of Tricks is that it runs out of plot twists very quickly and after that it’s too obvious what is going on. Steed does get some witty lines however and his performance as a hypochondriac millionaire is great fun. Generally I enjoy stories involving stage magic but this script needed a bit more thought. It's still a pretty good episode.

School for Traitors involves a spy ring recruiting undergraduates at Oxford. Given that the great British universities produced more Russian spies than the KGB it’s a very believable story, which is what you’d expect from a script by James Mitchell who went on to create CallanAlthough he throws in a good twist at the end Mitchell is more interested in the atmosphere of betrayal in the world of espionage than in clever plot twists. This story benefits from some interesting supporting characters, and some fine performances from the supporting cast. Anthony Nicholls as the dean and John Standing as the rather carefree but charming undergraduate East are very impressive while Melissa Stribling is a wonderful evil spider woman. Venus Smith gets to make a real contribution to the plot development. Venus and Steed seemed to be settling into a fairly affectionate relationship by this time. He still doesn’t see fit to tell her too much but in both this episode and Box of Tricks he is starting to trust her to play her part in his plans, and he is genuinely distressed when she finds herself in real danger. Overall School for Traitors works extremely well.

The Man in the Mirror by Geoffrey Orme and Anthony Terpiloff has its moments but it’s let down by sluggish pacing, and by a script that offers few surprises. This is an episode that nicely illustrates both the drawbacks and the advantages of shooting entirely in the studio. The sets are cheap and makeshift and everything is dull and grimy, but then the setting is a very rundown and very tawdry amusement hall. It all looks terrible, and yet in a way it works. The world of spies and traitors is a world as tawdry and seedy as the amusement hall, where everything is fake and shonky. It becomes very claustrophobic and even has hints of the surreal quality that ultra-cheap sets could occasionally produce in 1960s television (an example being the memorable Doctor Who episode The Mind Robber which would have failed entirely had the BBC given the producers the money for lavish sets and location shooting). We get the impression that Steed and Venus are trapped in a very cheap and very limited television set desperately trying to pretend it’s a real amusement hall and in a strange way it produces just the right atmosphere.

While Venus’s tendency to do silly things and get herself into unnecessary tight spots might exasperate modern viewers used to super-capable kickass action heroines it has to be remembered that she is very young (one remark of Steed’s suggests that the character is supposed to be only twenty) and a complete amateur. The mistakes she makes are exactly the mistakes that such a person really would make. So why does Steed use her on his cases? The obvious answer is that she is useful because she is the last person anyone would suspect of working (albeit unofficially) for the security services. And why does Venus allow herself to be used in this way? The obvious answer to that is that she’s young and it’s all terribly exciting and it’s flattering to have an older man who is obviously some kind of secret government agent wanting her help. The relationship between Steed and Venus, which seems to puzzle some fans, makes perfect sense to me. Of course it is rather cynical of Steed to use her like this but the 1962 version of Steed is arrogant enough to assume that he’ll always be able to get her out of the dangers he places her in.

The Man in the Mirror could have worked quite well with a bit more energy and if the surreal element had been pushed a little further.

We know move on to Venus’s final story, A Chorus of Frogs, almost universally regarded as being not only the best Venus Smith episode but also one of the best episodes of the entire season. And it is. It has a pretty reasonable plot and it has some of the gadgetry that would become a feature of the series in later years - a kind of mad scientist’s laboratory on board a yacht, secret experiments and a midget submarine. It has superb sets, courtesy of designer James Goddard. Martin Woodhouse’s script provides some fine dialogue. It has great performances by the guest stars, with Eric Pohlmann being especially good. It has a sinister villainess. There’s not just one but two competing diabolical criminal masterminds. Julie Stevens as starting to flesh out Venus’s character a bit more and there’s some amusing banter between her and Steed. It’s well-paced and it has more action than usual for this period. Everything comes together perfectly.

One thing you have to remember is that in 1962 British television programs such as this were done more or less live in the studio, using multiple cameras, on videotape. And in 1962 editing of videotape was too expensive and too time-consuming even to be considered. So retakes were unheard of and an entire one-hour episode was shot in an hour in one go. If an actor fluffed a line or a boom mike appeared in a shot or if any of the other countless things that could go wrong did go wrong there was nothing anyone could do about it. Those mistakes ended up on the tape and that’s how it got transmitted. Making television in that way required immense professionalism and nerve. Everything was rehearsed but once the cameras started rolling that was it - you had one chance to get it right.

Sadly for Julie Stevens the immense popularity of Cathy Gale spelt the end of the line for Venus Smith. In strictly commercial terms the producers made the right decision to drop her and the series went from strength to strength during the Cathy Gale era

The six Venus Smith episode are included in the Region season two boxed set and they are also available in the old A&E Region 1 sets. The six episodes might be a mixed bag but overall they’re not at all bad. A Chorus of Frogs and School for Traitors are excellent, The Decapod is very good and the other three all have their moments. All are worth a look. 

1 comment:

  1. I've only just seen a couple of Venus Smith episodes for the first time within the past few months. (Though I've been an Avengers fan long enough to have watch some of the Emma Peel and Tara King episodes when they first aired in the US!) She comes across as perfectly charming and an interesting foil for Steed. It's much more like the relationship of the Doctor to a companion, something more akin to the fond banter of Pertwee and Manning than the verbal sparring of equals more familiar with Steed and his unofficial partners. This post just makes me more eager to watch all her remaining appearances.

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