Friday 28 February 2014

The Avengers - the David Keel era

After contractual problems caused the demise of a short-lived  series called Police Surgeon Britain’s ABC Television found themselves with a promising star in Ian Hendry but nothing in which to star him. Police Surgeon’s producer Leonard White was instructed by ABC’s Director of Drama, Sydney Newman, to come up with a new series as quickly as possible. Within a few weeks he’d come up with a crime drama that was to be called The Avengers. By the end of 1960 it was in production.

Hendry would star as Dr David Keel, a man who turns amateur crime-fighter when his wife is murdered. In his hunt for the killer he would find an ally in a rather shadowy character named John Steed, to be played by Patrick Macnee. Whether Steed had any official status with any law enforcement or intelligence agency was left rather obscure, although he clearly had at least an unofficial connection with some such agency. After finding the murderer of his wife Dr Keel agrees to assist Steed in an unofficial capacity in future cases.

Since only two out of the twenty-six episodes of this first season of The Avengers have survived, and since only one of these surviving episodes features Steed, it’s difficult to be sure precisely how the partnership between Keel and Steed actually functioned. Dr Keel’s nurse Carol Wilson (Ingrid Hafner) was also a regular character and seems to have played  an active role in some cases.

It’s also impossible to make any kind of fair judgment on this season, although both the surviving episodes are very good. Based on these episodes and plot summaries of the remainder it seems to have been reasonably close to the formula used in the second season, with some fairly straightforward crime stories and some stories dealing with crimes that have diplomatic or national security ramifications, and the stories would appear to have been fairly serious in tone but with some tongue-in-cheek elements.

In the first of the surviving episodes, Girl on the Trapeze, Dr Keel witnesses an apparent suicide. There is more than a little doubt about the identity of the victim, and the postmortem reveals that the girl died of a barbiturate overdose. But if she had consumed a fatal dose of barbiturates how could she have jumped off a bridge? And yet Dr Keel saw her do just that. He and his nurse Carol do a bit of amateur sleuthing and the trail leads them to a circus. The problem is that the circus is from a country behind the Iron Curtain so any official police investigation will be hampered by the fear of creating a diplomatic incident. Dr Keel and Carol aren’t constrained by any such fears and they soon discover that nothing in this case is as it appears to be. 

Dennis Spooner’s script is clever and suspenseful and I’m not going to ruin things by revealing any spoilers. Suffice to say there’s an enjoyably intricate plot and plenty of action, with Carol playing a very active role. The absence of Steed does not prove to be a problem as Ian Hendry and Ingrid Hafner make a very effective partnership.

The second surviving episode, The Frighteners, is just as good. It was written by Berkeley Mather, who had apparently been a real-life intelligence officer. The story has some neat twists and the characters are not only colourful but several also turn out to be either less villainous or more villainous than they appeared to be.

Steed is on the trail of a gang who specialise in “massage therapy” - this being their euphemism for violence and intimidation. The gang has been employed to persuade a young man named Jeremy de Willoughby to break off his engagement to a wealthy young heiress. The method of persuasion adopted in this case involves knuckle-dusters and razors. Steed calls on Dr Keel’s assistance and while their main task is to bring the strong-arm gang to justice they discover that Jeremy de Willoughby is not quite the innocent victim after all.

Steed’s solution to the Jeremy de Willoughby problem is typically devious while Dr Keel proves himself to be pretty adept at intimidation himself. His bluffing of the gang leader with a hypodermic full of hydrochloric acid is a nice touch.

Steed has many of the characteristics that would become trademarks as the series progressed. He’s a snappy dresser, he’s clearly upper-class and he can turn on the charm when required. He does seem to be a harder-edged character than the later Steed though, and with a bit of a sadistic steak, taking obvious delight in threatening to torture a suspect. He also has some machiavellian ways of manipulating people into doing his bidding. That machiavellian touch can still be seen in seasons two and three where he has no compunction about manipulating Cathy Gale. On the whole the Steed of season one seems to have been tougher and more ruthless than the later Steed but since we only have one episode to go on it might be dangerous to draw too many conclusions from it.

Apart from Girl on the Trapeze and The Frighteners all that remains of this first season is the opening act of the first episode, Hot Snow, and Steed did not make his appearance in that one until the second act.

The series was originally conceived as a starring vehicle for Ian Hendry, with Patrick Macnee being an important but essentially subsidiary character. Dr Keel would be the hero, with Steed being the man pulling the strings. Steed turned out to be popular with viewers so it’s possible that his role was beefed up as the season progressed.

The first season of The Avengers proved to be a modest success, certainly doing well enough to ensure that a second season would follow, although without Ian Hendry. Interestingly enough, according to producer Leonard White Ian Hendry never actually left the series. There was a long-running actors’ strike which delayed the production of the second season and by the time production of the series was ready to recommence Hendry had accepted some film roles and thus was no longer available. The original intention though was that Hendry would star in the second season and Hendry had been perfectly willing to do so. 

The first of Optimum’s Avengers boxed sets includes the whole of the second season plus all that remains of the first season, the two surviving episodes and the opening act of Hot Snow. What little we have suggests that the loss of most of this first season is a very considerable loss indeed.

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