Tuesday 3 December 2019

The Avengers - 5 episodes, 5 Avengers Girls

It’s fascinating to see the way The Avengers reinvented itself so completely so many times. It’s not just the succession of different Avengers Girls. The one constant element in the series was Steed but he wasn’t constant at all. He evolved in most intriguing ways. In fact there were five subtly different Steeds. Each of these Steed variants has a quite different relationship with his female partner. What I’m planning to do here is to look at five episode, one featuring each of the five Avengers Girls.

The first version was the season one Steed. It’s difficult to make judgments on that first season since only one complete episode survives but it’s obvious that Steed was a rather hardboiled and very cynical character with a streak of genuine nastiness. That original version of The Avengers was intended as a gritty, realistic and hard-edged spy series.

The second version is the Steed of the Cathy Gale era. He has now acquired definite charm but it’s a sly sort of charm that he turns on and off when it’s useful to him. He is still cynical and calculating, and at times breathtakingly ruthless. Cathy Gale is clearly, especially in the 1962 season, a part-time operative whom Steed has recruited and he tells her as little as he can get away with. Which she resents. He lies to her and he uses her. She’s not exactly an innocent victim though. She’s well aware of Steed’s deficiencies of character and she’s well aware that espionage is not a game for children. Being a part-time spy can be fun, but she has no illusions about it.

Propellant 23 is a remarkably fine example of the Steed-Cathy Gale dynamic. She agrees to help him on the case but she is plainly irritated, she is plainly annoyed because she feels he is concealing vital information from her and using her. It’s also clear that there are times when Steed’s combination of cynicism and ruthlessness repels her. So why does she bother getting mixed up in his cases? The best guess is that it amuses and excites her.

There’s a faint suggestion that Steed exerts a kind of psychological dominance over Cathy (and that this is probably true of his relationships with women in general). There’s also a faint suggestion that this might be something that excites Mrs Gale, that she might be the kind of woman who would be attracted to such a man. There’s that subtle hint of mild perversity in The Avengers of the Cathy Gale years that interestingly enough is largely absent from the Emma Peel and Tara King eras. That touch of perversity was certainly noticed at the time. Given Mrs Gale’s penchant for leather and boots and her skills in unarmed combat most people have assumed that if Steed and Cathy had had such tastes that she would have been the dominant party. In fact when you watch the series it seems more likely that it’s Steed who would have been the dominant partner.

Box of Tricks was the third Venus Smith episode of The Avengers and when it went to air in January 1963 it marked the debut of Venus Smith Mark II. Venus started life as  a sultry torch singer but when John Bryce took over from Leonard White as producer he decided to re-invent the character - to make her younger and more bubbly. So Julie Stevens found herself having to change her whole approach to the rôle.

Steed gets Venus a job singing at a club but he really wants her to keep an eye on the magician whose young lady assistant emerged from the disappearing box quite dead a couple of weeks earlier. We naturally assume this is the box of tricks referred to in the title but actually there’s a different box of tricks which is connected with the other main plot strand, involving a leakage on information from top-secret meetings chaired by General Sutherland.

The plot contains some good ideas but it doesn’t quite hang together. It also features an espionage conspiracy that is a little too dependent on the stupidity of the chosen victim.

On the other hand it is a very amusing episode. Steed’s cynicism is on full display as he gets information out of some of the girls at the club and then brushes them off in breathtakingly casual fashion. He gets some great lines out of it. His undercover stint as an eccentric hypochondriac millionaire is very funny.

Steed’s relationship with Venus is interesting. She is obviously aware that Steed works in counter-intelligence and is willing to help out although there is certainly a touch of manipulation to the arrangement. She needs all the singing work she can get and he gets her gigs in exchange for her help on certain cases. As is the case with Cathy Gale he tells her only what he thinks she needs to know, which is virtually nothing. She simply has to obey instructions. Like Mrs Gale Venus is to a considerable extent manipulated by Steed although in this episode he does seem quite fond of her, in his way. And in his defence one could point out that since she’s a complete amateur she’s probably safer not knowing too much and just obeying orders. On the whole she does a pretty fair job at carrying out his instructions. On the surface she’s an airhead and a chatterbox but she’s actually quite sensible (which of course is why Steed bothers to use her as an agent).

With the arrival of Mrs Peel we get Steed version three. The charm is now genuine. And the partnership with Mrs Peel is a genuine partnership. She’s also an amateur spy and her motivations are much the same as Mrs Gale’s - excitement and amusement. She does however obviously now have official status with the shadowy department that Steed works for. Steed does not attempt to manipulate her the way he manipulated Cathy Gale. There’s definite mutual respect and mutual affection, and while the mutual sexual attraction is obvious it’s more than just sexual attraction.

It has to be admitted that this third incarnation of Steed is quite inconsistent with the earlier versions, although I suppose one could try to argue that he’s a bit older, he may have mellowed a little, he may have been softened slightly by genuine emotional feelings toward Mrs Peel. Maybe he’s grown up.

Death’s Door shows the Steed-Mrs Peel dynamic in operation. They work effectively together because they trust each other. It’s a clever little Brian Clemens-scripted episode. There’s a vital international conference taking place but the British representative gets to the doorway leading to the conference room and refuses to enter. He’s had a dream and is now convinced he will die if he goes through that door. His dream comes true in every respect. And it seems that the same thing is destined to happen to every British representative. Steed and Mrs Peel do everything they can think of to convince Lord Melford that there’s no danger, but to no avail. Obviously someone is trying to wreck the conference but how can dreams be made to come true with such uncanny accuracy? The solution is well thought-out and manages to be both outlandish and convincing.

The dream sequences are quite impressive with an atmosphere that is surreal without resorting to silliness and genuinely unsettling. We also get to see how a man can be shot without a gun in a nicely executed little action set-piece.

The fourth Steed, the one of the Tara King era, is a subtle and perfectly plausible evolution from the previous version. The main difference is that his relationship with Tara is rather different. There’s a faint suggestion that she sees him as just a bit of a father figure, and that he sees himself in this light. Given that Tara is a professional spy and Steed trained her this of course makes perfect sense. There’s also definite sexual flirtation (if not more) between them.

Bizarre is one of the more notorious Tara King episodes. It was the very last episode of The Avengers (if you don’t count The New Avengers) which may be one of the reasons it has such a poor reputation. It seems to bring out all the bitterness of fans with the ending of the series.

Bizarre starts with a young woman discovered lying unconscious in a field, in her night dress. It doesn’t take long to figure out that she must have fallen from (or been pushed from) the night express which passed by about an hour before she was found. But how to explain her strange story about the dead man in the coffin who wasn’t dead?

There was a coffin on the train, bound for Happy Meadows. So Steed heads for the Happy Meadows cemetery to have a talk with Mr Happychap (Roy Kinnear), the man who runs the place and who believes that death can be fun. The case seems to involve a number of dead people but it is not clear exactly how dead they are, or how permanently dead they are. They are obviously very dead and very genuinely dead but they don’t stay that way. There’s also a travel agency that can arrange holidays in paradise, an agency run by the self-proclaimed charlatan the Master (Futon Mackay).

Mother gets quite a bit to do in this episode, which is fun by me since I always enjoy Patrick Newell’s performances. Roy Kinnear and Fulton Mackay dominate proceedings which is what you expect when you have two such fine comic actors and you let them loose. While the other supporting players naturally get overshadowed they’re actually uniformly good.

The final Steed, in The New Avengers, is a middle-aged version of the fourth Steed. The slight father-daughter vibe that existed with Tara is certainly there with Purdey. Most of the flirting is between Purdey and Gambit although the very strong emotional bond between Steed and Purdey suggests a past romantic involvement.

The Midas Touch is from the first season of The New Avengers and it’s top-notch stuff. For starters there’s a clever script from Brian Clemens. There’s a mad scientist, a Dr Turner, but instead of the usual mad scientist motivations this one is driven purely by a lust for gold. It’s a nicely bizarre slightly perverse touch. His brainchild is Midas, a young man who is a carrier of every disease known to science but he is immune to them all. He is in perfect health. Anyone he touches dies an agonising death. The mad scientist offers the services of Midas to a crazed power-hungry foreign politician.

The mad scientist is genuinely creepy and is played with gusto by David Swift. He’s a classic Avengers diabolical criminal mastermind. Ed Devereaux chews every piece of scenery he can get his hands on as the evil politician. His performance is a major highlight and again it’s classic Avengers stuff. Dr Turner’s gold collection, including plenty of naked golden ladies, provides the necessary  weird setting.

But this is The New Avengers so that means lots of action and violence doesn’t it? It certainly does. The violence is actually quite restrained but it has plenty of macabre and perverse overtones. The action sequences are not only terrific, they’re done with style and wit. Purdey and Gambit arguing over who directed The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in the middle of a thrilling high-octane car chase is a lovely touch. Purdey gets to demonstrate her prowess with the high kicks in a fine fight scene and it makes sense since it’s the only way she can fight this particular opponent.

There’s plenty of amusing dialogue with Purdey and Gambit indulging in some good-natured banter. Gambit is a character who has slowly grown on me. He’s more likeable than usual in this episode and he gets some good lines which Gareth Hunt delivers pretty effectively.

The New Avengers established Joanna Lumley as a major sex symbol and this episode shows why. And of course the sexiness is combined with definite hints of perversity - Purdey tied up and drooled over one of the mad scientist’s flunkeys being a case in point. And of course there’s Purdey climbing the gate and managing to give the audience a good long look at her panties. Very un-PC and I’m surprised they got away with it but I doubt that any male viewer would have been complaining. Joanna Lumley is in fine form in The Midas Touch. She gets lots to do and does it all well.

This is an episode that has enough of the flavour and stylistic dash and quirkiness of the original series combined with excellent 70s action sequences, and that’s the right combination for The New Avengers.

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