Monday, 7 August 2017

The Avengers - Don’t Look Behind You (1963) and The Joker (1967)

Brian Clemens was never troubled by the idea of recycling script ideas that worked but there was one occasion in The Avengers when he not only recycled some ideas, he recycled an entire script. The script in question was Don’t Look Behind You, transmitted originally in 1963 as a Cathy Gale episode. Four years later it was remade, in colour, as the Emma Peel episode The Joker.

The remake is every bit as good as the original, some say it’s even slightly better, and that’s saying something since Don’t Look Behind You was an absolutely superb story.

It’s certainly worth watching these two episodes back-to-back.

Since Don’t Look Behind You was shot live on videotape and The Joker was shot on film there are naturally some major differences in the feel of the two episodes. There are also some changes to the script itself.

Don’t Look Behind You gets off to an extraordinarily creepy start as we see a man, an obviously somewhat deranged man, cutting up a photograph of Mrs Gale from a magazine. 

We know something twisted is on the way but the story then persuades us that everything is all quite innocent. Mrs Gale has written an article on medieval influences on fashion and design and as a result has been invited to the country house of a very eminent elderly medievalist. It’s a wonderfully spooky 16th century house and the set design is truly magnificent.

Of course being shot on videotape gives the episode a very stagey feel but this is one of the episodes in which that staginess works wonderfully well and adds to the menace, to the slowly building terror and the growing sense of weirdness.

The old medievalist’s ward, the deliciously crazy Ola (Janine Gray), seems to be the only one at home and when she is called away Cathy is left alone. Then an eccentric young man, who we assume has read far too much beat literature, appears on the scene. He seems like he could be quite dangerous but is he the one Cathy needs to worry about? She certainly needs to be worried about somebody. There is someone in the house who is stalking her but he appears to be intent on sending her mad first. And he’s succeeding.

Although it falters just a little towards the end this is a slow burning exercise in terror that works admirably. Honor Blackman admits that she had trouble making this episode as she was genuinely creeped out by the whole idea. Steed only appears sporadically in this story so Blackman has to carry things on her own most of the time, which she does to great effect.

Peter Hammond is regarded by many as the finest television director of his era and on the basis of this episode that reputation was well deserved. He uses an incredible number of mirror shots but they suit the feel of the story and genuinely enhance the atmosphere rather appearing gimmicky.

One recurring them in the 1963-64 era of The Avengers is that Mrs Gale does not entirely trust Steed, and she has good reason for her suspicion. The Steed of the early seasons of The Avengers is a much more ruthless and cynical character than the later Steed and he is quite prepared to use people, including Cathy, if it suits his purposes. His personality has a real edge to it (which Patrick Macnee conveys very effectively) that was softened considerably in the later years of the series.

The major change in The Joker is that we know from the start what is going on. That’s not entirely a bad thing. It does convince us that Mrs Peel is in very real danger, but on the other hand the subtle menace in Don’t Look Behind You is in some ways more effective - both the viewer and Mrs Gale are presented with a situation in which we know something twisted is going on but we have no idea what it is.

There are some slight but important differences in the performance. In Don’t Look Behind You the strange young man is more frightening because he really does seem totally out of control. And Janine Gray as Ola seems much more convincingly mad and thus more potentially dangerous than Sally Nisbett in The Joker. Peter Jeffreys in The Joker and Maurice good in Don’t Look Behind You are both excellent villains, terrifying but oddly sympathetic.

In The Joker Emma is invited to the home of a famous bridge player rather than a famous medievalist and the set design is more surreal compared to the Old Dark House of Don’t Look Behind You. Both episodes look terrific in their own ways. 

In The Joker Sidney Hayers throws in a couple of homages to the earlier episodes by using mirror shots, not quite as expertly as Hammond but they’re still effective.

It’s impossible to fault the performances of either Honor Blackman or Diana Rigg.

For my money Don’t Look Behind You is one of the great episodes of the series, probably in the all-time top five. The Joker is not quite as good but it’s still excellent. If you haven’t seen them watch both. If you’ve seen them then both are worth watching again. Both episodes are reminders of just how good The Avengers could be.

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