Monday 26 May 2014

Mystery and Imagination - The Suicide Club

The Suicide Club was one of the later episodes of the excellent and unjustly rather forgotten British gothic horror anthology television series Mystery and Imagination. This episode was originally broadcast in 1970. It is a feature-length adaptation of three connected short stories by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Stevenson’s original idea was delightfully twisted and this adaptation captures that perverse quality extremely well. A bored Bohemian prince, Prince Florizel (Alan Dobie) wanders London at night in disguise, looking for the sorts of adventures that will appeal to his jaded tastes. Accompanied by his faithful Master of the Horse (Colonel Geraldyne, played by Eric Woofe) he finds an adventure that is too rich even for his blood.

The Suicide Club is a club for those who have grown weary of life and who lack even the energy to end their lives themselves. Each Friday night the cards are dealt at the club. Whoever draws the ace of spades is destined to be that week’s victim while the man who draws the ace of clubs will be his executioner. It’s the sort of Russian roulette that appeals to those who wish to end their existences in the most dissipated and decadent manner possible.

Prince Florizel has his suspicions that the Suicide Club may be even more sinister that it appears to be. The President of the club (Bernard Archard) and his beautiful, mysterious and creepily cold assistant (played by Hildegard Neil) may be playing a game of their own, a very profitable if very cold-blooded game.

In order to gain admittance to the club Prince Florizel had to sign the articles of membership. As a man of honour he will have to settle matters on his own account without any assistance from the police. The prince is a man of courage and of intelligence and he will be a formidable adversary, but the President of the club is also a very dangerous man.

The period detail is done well, as you expect from British television of this era. The club rooms of the Suicide Club are the right mixture of decadence and gothic excess.

Alan Dobie makes a fine hero and the role gives him the opportunity to indulge himself in some rather theatrical but very effective acting. Bernard Archard and Hildegard Neil play their roles to the hilt.

This is a fine adaptation of one of the perverse classics of gothic literature.

Unfortunately only a handful of episodes of this very fine series have survived. Those that have survived have been released by Network DVD in Region 2. Picture quality is good by the standards of British television of that age.

Highly recommended.

Sunday 18 May 2014

Mystery and Imagination - Frankenstein

Mystery and Imagination was a gothic horror anthology series broadcast on British television from 1966 to 1970. Each episode was based on a classic work of gothic fiction. Sadly only eight of the original twenty-four episodes survive and have now been released on DVD by Network DVD. One of the more interesting of the surviving episodes is the feature-length adaptation of Frankenstein.

The early episodes were made by ABC, which after their merger with Rediffusion became Thames Television. Thames Television went on to make six further episodes.

The intention was clearly to produce an adaptation of the novel that was closer to both the letter and the spirit of Mary Shelley’s novel. In this it succeeds reasonably well. This version makes use of one clever trick that had surprisingly not been tried in previous screen versions. I won’t reveal the trick as it does constitute a minor spoiler.

Ian Holm was always a fairly reliable actor and he does well in the title role. The supporting cast is solid with Richard Vernon being memorable as a crusty old professor of anatomy.

Obviously the producers didn’t have the kind of budget to play with that most film versions of the story have had but they still do a fine job of evoking the gothic atmosphere and the crucial bringing-the-monster-to-life scene works well. Frankenstein’s laboratory is less spectacular than in most Frankenstein movies but still looks reasonably impressive.

This television version puts more emphasis on Dr Frankenstein’s conscious efforts to emulate a God that he professes not to believe in, and in this respect it is probably closer to Mary Shelley’s intentions than are most of the movie versions. Mary Shelley’s father was a socialist agitator, her mother was an nearly feminist and her husband a strident and aggressive atheist. In spite of all this, or more probably because of these things, Mary Shelley was rather sceptical of our ability blithely to dispense with God.

This Frankenstein focuses to a large extent on Dr Frankenstein’s responsibility towards his creature, and the psychological horror of his guilt over his creation. This is in general a much more psychological approach than has been taken in any film version.

Although Ian Holm was nearly forty when the program was made his Dr Frankenstein seems in many ways to be a very young man. His arrogance comes across as being partly at least the arrogance of youth, which makes his actions perhaps slightly more forgivable.

On the downside this version is rather talky at times, which is perhaps inevitable in a television production that obviously cannot rely as heavily on visual images as a movie would. Ian Holm at times gives the impression that he’s giving a stage performance.

Network DVD's release is of reasonable quality given that the majority of British television programs of this era have not been particularly well preserved and are not in the best condition. We can be thankful that at least some of this series survives at all. 

This production has its interesting features and it's worth a look.

Thursday 15 May 2014

The Sandbaggers (season one, 1978)

The Sandbaggers is a British television espionage drama, originally broadcast between 1978 and 1980. It takes the gritty realist approach to spy dramas about as far as it can be taken, which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your point of view.

The series is concerned with an elite but entirely mythical unit within the Secret Intelligence Service (also known as MI6). This elite unit is known as the Sandbaggers. Their job is to carry out dangerous and/or politically sensitive covert operation.

The idea behind the series was to get as far away as possible from the popular glamourised “guns, girls and gadgets” conception of the world of espionage. The series was created by Ian Mackintosh, a former naval officer who had established a reputation as a television writer with the successful BBC series Warship. Mackintosh wrote the first two seasons and the early episodes of season three before his death in 1979. The mystery surrounding his death (his light aircraft with two other passengers aboard including his girlfriend) disappeared over the Gulf of Alaska, fueling speculation that he had been a real-life spy.

The series emphasises the political machinations behind espionage operations. In fact it emphasises this aspect so much that it ends up being to some extent a political drama series rather than a spy series. Given the focus on the political side it was probably inevitable that the series would be very talky. And it is very talky indeed. Ironically, given that the series was intended to be a reaction against the older style of TV spy series, this actually makes the series seem in some ways a little dated. It can also also make for deadly dull television if not done well.

The series seems to be at pains to show the British government in the worst possible light. Politicians are portrayed as cynical, corrupt, self-serving, short-sighted and stupid. All of which was probably true at the time, and is certainly even more true today. 

The Sandbaggers adopts a rather unusual technique for a spy show. We see very little indeed of any actual operations. What we see in the early episodes are people in the London headquarters of the Secret Intelligence Service planning operations, people in offices discussing operations, people in offices waiting for telephone calls telling them the results of operations, but to a large extent the actual operations take place off-stage so to speak. This technique was clearly adopted as part of a frantic attempt to distance the program from  any hint of a James Bond-type approach. In some circumstances it can be a very effective tension-enhancing dramatic technique to have crucial events take place off-stage. On the other hand  when you have a program that is already very talky such an approach can result in a program that is less than exciting. I’m inclined to think that the technique is overused here and that this series desperately needed to have a bit more action. In the later episodes of season one there’s rather more action so perhaps the producers came to the same conclusion

The surfeit of talk and the lack of action leaves very little scope for location shooting and as a consequence this series has, by the standards of the late 70s, a rather studio-bound feel to it that makes it seem somewhat old-fashioned.

While the series is aiming for a very realistic feel that there are one or two aspects that are perhaps less than convincing. I cannot believe that any British government would have the nerve even to contemplate political assassinations, and I certainly do not for one moment believe  that a British government would countenance the idea of killing a very senior British civil servant suspected of being about to defect. This is James Bond licence to kill stuff. It’s not that I don’t think a British government would be cynical enough to consider such courses of action but no western government at any time since the Second World War would have had the guts to take such actions.

The motivation for introducing far-fetched James Bond licence to kill elements was clearly not to make the series more exciting but to serve a political agenda, a political agenda that is unfortunately all too obvious and all too heavy-handed. In this series politicians and senior civil servants are all assumed to be members of the upper-class old boys’ network, a network that we are clearly expected to consider as corrupt and incompetent.

Apart from its other flaws at times Mackintosh is guilty at times of plain old-fashioned bad writing, of plot twists that are clumsy and predictable and, worse still, of manipulating the viewer.

The head of operations and the man in charge of the Sandbaggers is Neil Burnside (Roy Marsden). I don’t know this for certain but I’m fairly confident that a real-life spy holding such a position would spend more time getting on with the job and less time complaining and behaving like a spoilt petulant child.

I honestly can’t imagine any organisation run the way Burnside’s section is run surviving for any length of time. No organisation can survive unless it makes at least a token effort to look after its own. Again my feeling is that the desire to push an agenda has overruled genuine realism.

I can see why a certain type of British television critic would have gone into raptures over this series. The sort of critic who dislikes television that is entertaining. The Sandbaggers is slow, talky, anti-British, very political, it takes itself very seriously and at times it’s dull. So, for that type of critic, it ticks all the necessary boxes. And as the icing on the cake for those critics, it manages to be even more anti-American than it is anti-British.

The Sandbaggers does certainly have its virtues. It does quite rightly recognise that espionage has political dimensions and that these can make life almost intolerable for those who are simply trying to get on with the job. The focus on the planning side of operations as well as the actual field work is a strength and adds to the feeling of verisimilitude. 

Ray Lonnen as Willie Caine, the senior sandbagger, is an interestingly different kind of television secret agent. For one thing he has a horror of guns!

I have to be honest and say that the approach adopted by this series is not on the whole one that appeals to me very strongly. It’s not quite to my personal taste, but those with different tastes may well enjoy the series very much. It’s well-made and well-acted and (except when agendas seem to intrude to an excessive degree) generally well-written.  

The cynical approach to television espionage series was pioneered by Callan in the late 60s and early 70s. For my money Callan did it better, with subtler characterisations and without too much of an obvious agenda. By the late 1970s the dark and edgy approach was becoming de rigueur in British television and in my personal opinion it quickly became overdone. While it initially offered the advantage of less predictable outcomes, without the inevitable triumph of the good guys and their equally inevitable escapes from seemingly impossible situations, it has its own perils. When taken to excess it can, paradoxically, be just as predictable as the earlier approach. Inevitable downbeat endings can quickly become just as conventional as inevitable upbeat endings. At times The Sandbaggers seems to me to fall into this trap with its outrageously high body count.

If you’re the type of person who loves the ultra-cynical British style of political drama then you’ll find a great deal to enjoy here. If that sort of thing doesn’t float your boat then you may find the series to be heavy going.

Saturday 10 May 2014

Sapphire and Steel, Assignments One to Four

Sapphire and Steel is one of the oddest but most interesting of British science fiction series of its era. It was produced by ATV and was broadcast, rather sporadically, from 1979 to 1982.

The series was created by P. J. Hammond who has had an interesting career as a television writer, his credits including episodes of police procedural series such as Z Cars and The Sweeney and science fiction series like Ace of Wands. More recently he has written for Midsomer Murders and Torchwood. Hammond’s original idea was for a children’s series, which probably explains the format - each story was broadcast as a series of from four to six half-hour episodes, in the manner of Doctor Who. At some stage the decision was made to do Sapphire and Steel as a fully fledged science fiction series for an adult audience with a distinctly darker tone.

The two leads were both major television stars, David McCallum having achieved fame with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. in the 60s and Joanna Lumley having starred in The New Avengers in the mid-70s.

The two central characters, Sapphire (Lumley) and Steel (McCallum), are space-time trouble-shooters, their job being to locate and neutralise time anomalies. Time is conceived of as being somewhat unstable, and the instabilities are highly dangerous. Sapphire and Steel look human but are in fact aliens. They can be thought of as being vaguely similar to the Doctor Who concept of Time Lords but with some important differences. Their primary job is to safeguard time and to prevent the past from breaking through into the present. Saving any humans who are threatened by time anomalies is a secondary consideration. They do try to save humans in such cases but it’s clear that neutralising problems in time is a far more important consideration, such problems having the potential to do so much harm that the survival of a few humans is of rather lesser importance.

That’s one of the most interesting elements of the series - Sapphire and Steel are not the caring sharing Doctor Who type of aliens. They regard humans with a certain detachment, and at times even as something of a hindrance. This is particularly true of Steel who is a long way from the traditional science fiction hero. He is, for the most part, cold and emotionless. Sapphire has more empathy for humans but for her as well the job comes first. They are distinctly ambiguous and not always entirely sympathetic heroes. 

P. J. Hammond wrote five of the six stories in the series. These are stories involving time that are far more complex and disturbing than those to be found in series like The Time Tunnel. The dangerous time anomalies often result from situations in which people have inadvertently created temporal confusion. In Assignment One the problems arise in a house that is filled with too many elements from the past, and elements from too many time periods. The house was built 250 years ago on the foundations of buildings of an earlier era and the couple who inhabit the house with their two children have filled it with old objects such as furniture and (most dangerously) clocks. Even worse the wife has a great enthusiasm for old nursery rhymes many of which have associations with historical events. Time is a kind of corridor inhabited by creatures (which appear to people as ghosts) that are trying to break out of the corridor into the present. These creatures can use old paintings, old books or old nursery rhymes as triggers to break out of the time corridor.

A recurrent theme is that it is extremely hazardous to mix different time periods. For example a house built in the 17th century containing pictures painted in the 18th century, furniture built in the 19th century and various everyday objects from various decades of the 20th century would be a kind of (quite literal) time bomb. It would contain a multitude of triggers any one of which could cause potentially catastrophic space-time disruptions.

The idea of ghosts as reflections of time is intriguing. Hammond’s initial inspiration came from spending a night in a supposedly haunted house and he has managed to take the traditional English ghost story and give it a clever science fictional twist whilst still retaining the essential atmosphere of the ghost story. 

Assignment Two further amplifies Hammond’s conception of the nature of ghosts and ghostly hauntings. It also emphasises the alienness of the agenda of Sapphire and Steel - they are guardians of time, not of the human race. Compassion cannot be allowed to prejudice the success of their task.

Assignment Two makes wonderfully effective use of its setting, an abandoned railway station. With just a handful of sets it achieves an extraordinary sense of claustrophobia, melancholy and at times stark terror. It is an exceptionally clever and unconventional ghost story, of ghosts who have been cheated.

After the brilliance of the first two stories Assignment Three comes as a major disappointment. Since it deals with the present and the future rather than the past it lacks the spooky uncanny feel of the past haunting the present. It also lacks the essential elements of tragedy and melancholy that made the first two stories so effective, and it resorts to some rather silly, sentimental emotionally manipulative ideas. While the low budgets were no problem in the first two stories this story unfortunately looks cheap and crude.

Assignment Four is a vast improvement. A ghost in this series can be a kind of echo from the past, or it can be a person (alive or dead) from another time. It can even be a figure from a photograph that is brought, not exactly to life, but to a kind of shadowy existence. This idea is explored in depth in Assignment Four. Photographs can act as a species of portal, and one of the most interesting ideas is that every photograph is a photograph of infinity. It contains not just those people and objects visible in the photograph, but everything within the frame of the picture - the people  who were behind a wall, or inside a house, or in the street behind a house in the image. There really is more to a photograph than meets the eye.

In this story an amateur photographer playing around with photographs, mixing images from different photographs into one photograph, has unknowingly opened a portal and something has entered. His big mistake was to mix images from photographs taken at different times, thus creating an extremely powerful potential time anomaly. Now figures from century-old photographs are inhabiting the present day. They are ghosts, but ghosts of living people rather than dead people.

McCallum and Lumley resist the temptation to play their characters in a traditional heroic manner. Both give nicely ambiguous performances with Lumley in particular adding some wry humour.

One of the series’ great strengths is that it doesn’t try to give tidy explanations. It’s content to leave the viewer slightly mystified, with the sense that some answers have been given but further questions have been raised that remain unanswered.

This series was made on a very small budget, a circumstance that becomes an asset rather than a liability. Being shot entirely in the studio on a very small number of sets contributes to the sense of all-pervasive unease. The lack of money for elaborate special effects necessitates attention being given to atmosphere rather than spectacle. And it achieves the right atmosphere extremely well.

Anyone who enjoys ghost stories with a science fictional twist should certainly check out this fascinating series. It’s available on DVD in Britain, Australia and the United States.

Monday 5 May 2014

The Caesars (1968)

The Caesars is a six-episode British historical drama series set in ancient Rome, made by Granada in 1968. It covers more or less the same time period and the same events as the BBC’s much better-known 1976 I, Claudius series, but deals with these events in a somewhat different way.

The Caesars was written and produced by Philip Mackie, a television writer who had a very distinguished career from the late 1950s up to his death in 1985.

The Caesars has been overshadowed by I, Claudius because it had the misfortune to be the last large-scale historical drama series filmed in black-and-white. As a result it has fallen into obscurity although it is in fact an exceptionally interesting and subtle series.

The most notable difference as compared to I, Claudius is that The Caesars takes a very much less sensationalistic approach. I, Claudius was based on two novels by Robert Graves and while Graves was a very great writer of historical fiction it does need to be remembered that it really was historical fiction that he wrote, with as much emphasis on the fiction as the history. Graves certainly knew his history but he had his own hobby-horses his own agendas to pursue and his approach to history, although brilliant, was more than a little eccentric. 

Graves was also a writer who delighted in historical scandal. Of course he was in good company, given that many (if not most) of the great Roman historians who are our main sources for the period also loved a good juicy scandal. Suetonius, who wrote in the early second century AD, was particularly addicted to scandalous gossip. Basing a work of historical fiction largely on his work makes for splendid entertainment but it’s a bit like basing a history of modern Britain on the tabloid newspapers.

Philip Mackie took a more conservative approach. That does not mean that The Caesars is dull. Far from it. It just isn’t possible to make a dull television series about ancient Rome.  

Like I, Claudius this earlier series also benefits from superb performances from some very fine actors, most notably André Morell as Tiberius, Ralph Bates as Caligula and the criminally underrated Freddie Jones as Claudius. Viewers approaching this series for the first time will inevitably be comparing Freddie Jones’ interpretation of the role to Sir Derek Jacobi’s iconic performance in I, Claudius. The comparison is by no means unfavourable to Jones.

Having been made in 1968 this series is, unsurprisingly, rather studio-bound and has the characteristic shot-on-videotape look of 1960s British television.  In some ways this is a plus rather than a minus. It means the focus has to be on the writing and on the characters and their very complicated relationships, and in these areas the series scores very highly indeed. Don’t go into this series anticipating spectacle. There are no epic battle scenes. This is intelligent and subtle psychological and political drama and the claustrophobic feel of studio-bound shot-on-videotape 1960s television enhances the tension. This is a drama about people trapped by their destinies, people who have in many cases been dealt a very bad hand by fate and whose very survival depends on their ability to play that hand for all it’s worth.

The drama of Mackie’s writing comes not just from the characters, but from the way various key characters understand, or fail to understand, one another’s motives. Mackie is confident that his audience will pick up the subtleties in these understandings and misunderstandings. One of the key moments in the first episode comes from a simple question Augustus asks of his grandson Agrippa Postumus. Agrippa’s answer to what he takes as a harmless question will have momentous consequences for Agrippa and for Rome. Tiberius’s assessment of the character and the likely behaviour of his nephew Germanicus (his most credible rival as Augustus’s successor), and Germanicus’s reading of Tiberius’s character and likely actions, are absolutely crucial and again Mackie trusts the viewer to follow both men’s reasoning and to comprehend their subsequent actions.

Philip Mackie is particularly interested in the psychology of power. The first two episodes are entirely devoted to the events immediately preceding and immediately following the death of Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. They are dominated by the personality of Tiberius. Tiberius was a strange and complicated man. He was the natural successor to Augustus but he was by no means the only possible successor. Tiberius made a great show of being extremely reluctant to take on the duties of emperor and claimed to be anxious to restore the republican constitution which had been in practice (although not in theory) swept away by Augustus after a century of almost continuous political violence and civil war. 

What makes Tiberius interesting is that in some ways he was quite sincere in his stated beliefs on these subjects. At the same time he was certainly never lacking in ambition, and he was very much aware that democracy had proved to be a catastrophic failure. He was therefore a man who was quite capable of holding perfectly sincere opinions that were utterly contradictory, and at the same time intelligent enough to recognise the contradictions. He was in other words very much an enigma. Mackie’s intelligent script and Morell’s subtle performance combine to turn the enigma of Tiberius into riveting drama. Tiberius’s nephew Claudius sums him up rather neatly when he says that Tiberius moves so slowly that he appears to be standing still until you suddenly realise that he has somehow contrived to be miles ahead of you.

This is of course a drama about power, a subject that has been dealt with many times but Mackie approaches it with intelligence and subtlety. Augustus created a state in which immense power was concentrated in the hands of one man. That is a situation that is sustainable only in exceptional circumstances, when that power is in the hands of a man with not only the skill and the judgment to exercise that power, but also the personality to do so. There is an old Chinese proverb that states that the problem with riding a tiger is that it is impossible to dismount. This is the situation faced by Tiberius, a situation made more bitter by the fact that he only mounted the tiger against his will. Tiberius is a shrewd and conscientious ruler who finds that governing well does not ensure popularity. He tries to deal with his unpopularity by retiring to his villa on the island of Capri but even there he cannot escape. He must continue to exercise power, even if he does so indirectly. And if he does so indirectly he may not only become more unpopular but also become fatally isolated, making his situation both more dangerous and more unpleasant. Absolute power can become a prison.

Mackie uses the reign of Caligula to illustrate other dangers of power. In order to exercise absolute power you have to have someone to enforce that power. In order for them to exercise that power on your behalf you must give them a great deal of power. As a result your power is no longer absolute. Caligula has his Praetorian Guards to enforce his power but it does not occur to him that their power has now become potentially greater than his own. Caligula also discovers, too late, that you cannot oppress everybody. If you want to tyrannise the poor you need to maintain the favour of the rich, and if you want to tyrannise the rich you had better make sure not to offend the poor. Tyrannise everybody and you will find yourself with no support base at all, and even the most absolute power will not help you then.

Ralph Bates gives an extraordinarily chilling performance as Caligula. It is not Caligula’s madness or his savagery that is truly terrifying; it is his capriciousness, his horrifying unpredictability. It is possible to endure even the most extreme tyranny as long as it is predictable, but Caligula’s unpredictability makes it unendurable. The terrors of living under unpredictable tyranny are conveyed with remarkable effectiveness. Bates does not resort to ranting; it is the cheerfulness of his viciousness that chills us. Other fine actors have attempted the role, with some success, but I don’t think anyone has surpassed Bates’ performance. 

While this series is somewhat less sensationalistic than I, Claudius it does not back away from the more lurid aspects of the era of the first emperors. In fact it must have pushed the edge of the envelope very far indeed by the standards of 1968. There is a great deal of violence, some of it quite horrific (although the horrific nature of the violence often comes more from the implications than from what we actually see). And there is plenty of perversity, sexual and otherwise.

Network DVD have released the complete six-episode series in a two-DVD boxed set. Tragically the source materials are not in very good shape, the picture being at times very grainy and occasionally just a little muddy. Despite the problems The Caesars is so good (and makes such a fascinating companion piece to the BBC’s I, Claudius) that it is an essential purchase for any serious fan of television historical drama at its best. Highly recommended.

Thursday 1 May 2014

The New Avengers (1976-77)

I know that The New Avengers has its detractors but I’ve always been fond of this series. I’ve been slowly working my way through the series again and I’m finding that it holds up rather well.

I think a lot of people underestimate the difficulties the producers faced in resurrecting this show. By the mid-70s, after series like Special Branch (at least in its last two seasons), Callan and The Sweeney,  British TV audiences had become accustomed to a lot more realism and a lot more violence in their action/spy series and if The New Avengers was not to look incredibly dated there was simply no alternative - they had to ratchet up the violence. The problem was how to do this while still retaining the essential Avengers flavour. I think the results worked better than anyone could have expected. 

And in 1976, with Patrick Macnee eight years older and quite a few pounds heavier and with the requirement for more violence and more action, there was no real choice other than to introduce a second male character who would be an action hero type. Many fans of the original dislike Gambit (Gareth Hunt) intensely but I found that he does eventually grow on you.

The revamped series did have two major assets. The first was a generous budget which allowed for lots of location shooting and some quite impressive sets. Brian Clemens has said he wanted the look of The New Avengers to be feature film quality. Watching the show on DVD it’s clear he went pretty close to achieving this objective.

The second big asset was of course Purdey. For my money Joanna Lumley is very nearly as good as Diana Rigg, if not just as good. She handles the comedy very adroitly and she’s superb in the action sequences (she was an athlete at school and trained as a dancer so she knows how to move). And she trades witticisms with both Steed and Gambit quite delightfully. If the scripts had been able to maintain the level of wittiness of the original I think she’d be recognised as the best of the Avengers girls. 

The producers were certainly not unaware of her sex appeal. Within the first three episodes we see her in bed, ripping off her skirts for a fight scene and romping about in her underwear. 

The show hit the ground running with the first episode, The Eagle's Nest (an episode I’d never seen prior to this), getting great value from a wonderful guest star in the person of Peter Cushing. It’s obvious that the producers wanted this opening episode to look impressive and spent lot of money on it. It pays dividends.

The Midas Touch is pure Avengers with mad scientists and a diabolical criminal mastermind. House of Cards is more a pure Cold War thriller, reminiscent of the Cathy Gale era but with a lot more action. The scene where Purdey flattens the Russian spy with a single punch to the jaw is particularly memorable and Joanna Lumley makes it look utterly convincing.

Episodes such as Cat Among the Pigeons, House of Cards, Tale of the Big Why and Target! (scripted by Dennis Spooner) compare favourably to anything done in the original series. The climax on the shooting range in Target! is a wonderful action set-piece.

The one real weakness of this series was its reliance on too few writers. This was probably due to the chromic financing problems that beset the series throughout its run. At one point   Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens were paying the entire cast and crew out of their own pockets and thirty years later both were still owed money by the financiers. So financially there was probably little choice other than to have Brian Clemens write most of the episodes himself. 

The series ran into production problems halfway through with its French and Canadian backers causing difficulties. The general consensus is that the first thirteen episodes were pretty good while the later episodes (some of which were filmed in Canada) saw a major falling off in quality. There’s some truth to this although some of the later episodes are actually quite decent, and a few (such as Angels of Death) are excellent. 

It has to be admitted that there are certainly a few real clunkers in this series, like Trap and Gnaws

The unevenness of the scripts is a problem, but a bigger problem is that there’s not quite enough of the wit that characterised the original series. That’s a pity because when the three stars do get a good script to work with there’s plenty of chemistry there. Gareth Hunt and Joanna Lumley play off each other quite well, when the scripts give them something to work with. Patrick Macnee doesn’t always seem entirely comfortable and he had mixed feelings about the series. 

On the whole the good episodes do outnumber the bad and some are very good indeed. If nothing else the series is worth watching for the fact that it launched Joanna Lumley’s career, and Purdey remains one of her most memorable roles.

The Region 2 boxed set boasts extremely good transfers which highlight another of the series’ strengths, the generally high production values. The New Avengers is considerably better than its reputation suggests and is worth a look. Recommended.