Sunday, 9 August 2015

The Avengers - the Tara King era, part 1

Having just bought Optimum’s wonderful series 6 boxed set of The Avengers I am naturally going to be talking quite a bit about the Tara King era of The Avengers. I’m intending to spread this out over several posts. Firstly because the Tara King era is criminally underrated but secondly because this final season saw several marked changes in direction and it falls naturally into two parts.

One of the reasons The Avengers had such a long run was that the series was radically reinvented at regular intervals, these reinventions being almost invariably associated with a change in producers. The first season (with Ian Hendry as the star) was a gritty realist spy drama. The next two seasons saw Steed playing opposite three different sidekicks before Honor Blackman established herself as his main partner. The series started moving in a more fantastic direction but a fair amount of the original gritty realism remained. A major change occurred in 1965 with the introduction of Diana Rigg. The series took on its most familiar form - surreal, tongue-in-cheek and utterly fantastic (in both senses of the word). The series also switched from videotape to film, the budgets were increased and production values were very much higher.

It was therefore no real surprise that the departure of Diana Rigg in 1967 would signal another change in direction. Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens were dumped and John Bryce, who had been responsible for most of the Cathy Gale episodes, was brought back as producer. Bryce wanted to return to the more realistic style of the Cathy Gale era.

The immediate problem was to find a replacement for Diana Rigg. The selection of Linda Thorson remans somewhat controversial among fans to this day. She was very young (just twenty) and frighteningly inexperienced. 

Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Bryce was a fine producer but he had no experience in doing a filmed series, which of course requires a very different approach compared with videotape. Shooting started to fall behind schedule. Linda Thorson was clearly nervous and uncertain. Worst of all, no-one liked the first few episodes made under the new regime. The American ABC network was particularly unhappy (and The Avengers was much too expensive a show to make without a guaranteed sale to a US network). It was obviously time to hit the panic button. Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens were hurriedly recalled to take over as producers and save the ship which seemed to be in imminent danger of foundering. Seven Tara King episodes had already been made and the US network, now reassured, gave the go-ahead for a further full season of twenty-six episodes.

If the Tara King era as a whole is underrated those seven original episodes are even more maligned. They do present a bewildering mixture of styles and approaches, the character of Tara King is all over the place and they are certainly uneven. Having said that, they do have their moments and they are worth seeing. 

One other very big change was that Tara King would be a very different sort of partner for Steed. Steed’s other partners had all been amateurs and had all been apparently recruited by Steed on his own initiative and on a semi-official basis. Tara on the other hand was a professional spy. This changes the dynamics between the two leads in interesting ways. The Steed-Mrs Gale and Steed-Mrs Peel pairings had been relationships between equals on a personal level, but on a professional level Mrs Gale and Mrs Peel were Steed’s assistants (albeit very competent ones). On the personal level there’s more of a teacher-pupil thing between Steed and Tara (he was the agent who trained her after all). She clearly sees him as just a bit of a father figure. Professionally though they both have a job to do, they both get paid for it and they get on with it. The dynamic between them would change again in the later episodes with the advent of Mother.

It’s not easy to make a judgment on the John Bryce-produced episodes. Invitation to a Killing was partly reshot, cut from its original 90 minutes to 50 and renamed Have Guns - Will Haggle. The Great Great Britain Crime was never aired and no longer exists although bits of it turned up later in Homicide and Old Lace. In fact the only one of his episodes that survived intact was Invasion of the Earthmen.

Invasion of the Earthmen is one of the most reviled of all episodes of The Avengers. Terry Nation’s script was certainly somewhat unorthodox for this series and there are times when it looks disturbingly like an episode of Star Trek. Or even Doctor Who. Not surprising really, given that Terry Nation had written several classic Doctor Who stories (and he invented the Daleks). The basic premise is pure science fiction. There are of course hints of science fiction in various episodes of The Avengers but this one takes that tendency much much farther.

Being one of the very very early Tara King episodes, Tara has not yet been fully established as a character and more importantly the Steed-Tara relationship was still rather sketchy. Linda Thorson’s inexperience shows at times. On the whole though her performance is reasonably satisfying. Thorson and Patrick Macnee would quickly develop the right chemistry between the two lead characters and already the signs are promising.

Have Guns - Will Haggle had a particularly turbulent history. John Bryce had intended to introduce Tara in a special 90-minute story, Invitation To a Killing. After his departure Fennel and Clemens gave Ray Austin the job of turning it into a normal 50-minute running time through drastic editing and some reshoots. As a result there are some glaring continuity errors. What really counts against this one in the eyes of many fans though is that it doesn’t really feel like an Avengers story - it seems more like a straightforward action adventure spy story. It does however provide an interesting change of pace and it has a lot of action scenes and they’re very well done. It’s perhaps not a great episode but it’s intriguing and it has some very good moments. Along with Invasion of the Earthmen it offers a tantalising hint that John Bryce might well have taken The Avengers in an interesting direction had he been given the chance.

Two days after shooting commenced on The Curious Case of the Countless Clues John Bryce received his marching orders so this is very much a transitional episode. The plot is clever and well-constructed but it has the underlying realistic basis that Bryce hoped to restore to the series. It’s the kind of story that could quite easily have come from the Cathy Gale era. On the other hand there are some whimsical touches that indicated the direction in which Fennell and Clemens intended to take the series. Philip Levene’s script is a playful spoof of the detective stories of the golden age, with a detective named Sir Arthur Doyle (complete with deerstalker and magnifying glass) and three villains named Earle, Stanley and Gardiner (Erle Stanley Gardner was of course the author of the Perry Mason mysteries). This one has Tara in a wheelchair after a skiing accident but she still gets to play a very active role in the case. It boasts a clever plot - a series of murders with way too many clues, in fact so many clues that no-one could possibly miss them. Despite being incapacitated Tara proves herself to be more than capable of looking after herself and she gets an exceptionally good fight scene. Since John Bryce was still the producer when the cameras started rolling this was obviously one of the episodes he commissioned and it’s yet another indication that perhaps he really did know what he was doing.

Get-a-Way! has a wildly implausible premise that is a bit too obvious but it has some major pluses - the monastery prison is very cool, Andrew Keir is excellent and most of all it has Peter Bowles giving one of his best Avengers guest starring performances. Split! had been written as an Emma Peel episode. It’s credited to Brian Clemens although apparently the original version had been by Dennis Spooner. The re-writing might account for the slightly disjointed feel (and it’s rumoured that some scenes had actually been shot a year earlier). 

Look - (stop me if you've heard this one before) But There Were These Two Fellers... is perhaps the most controversial episode in the entire history of The Avengers. Many fans hate it; many adore it. I adore it. It has more inspired silliness than any other episode but the point that is often missed is that Dennis Spooner’s script has a dark edge to it. This is a story about clowns but they’re clowns who are ruthless killers. There’s always something slightly sinister and tragic about clowns and it brings this out extremely well. It’s a story that could have become maudlin (a rest home for washed-up vaudeville artists could have been desperately sad) but Spooner avoids this pitfall. This episode is often laugh-out-loud funny and in general the tone is light and breezy but there’s always just that slight hint of darkness. It’s also the episode in which Linda Thorson shows that she really does have what it takes to be an Avengers Girl - her comic timing is impeccable. It’s also an important episode in that the Steed-Tara dynamic starts to work, and work well. It’s close to being my favourite episode from any period of The Avengers.

These first seven episodes (including The Forget-Me-Knot which I’ve written about elsewhere) form an odd kind of mini-series. They are not so much uneven in quality as uneven in tone. That can be disconcerting but on the whole they provided a by no means disastrous beginning to the Tara King era. In fact it’s clear that the series was a long way from running out of steam and it was equally clear that Linda Thorson had a great deal of potential. All seven are worth watching and a couple are bona fide classics.

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