Here are four episodes that received the coveted four-bowlers rating on the excellent The Avengers Forever website. Do they deserve those ratings? On the whole I think I do.
Who’s Who??? was written by Philip Levene. One of the most popular ideas in 1960s/1970s action/adventure spy series was the double idea - having someone impersonate the hero and impersonating him so perfectly that the double can’t be distinguished from the real hero. It’s an idea that I intensely dislike. I think it’s lazy writing. Who’s Who??? however manages to give the idea some genuinely clever spins. Instead of doubles we have the villains using a machine that can transfer the mind and the soul of one person into another person’s body. So in this case instead of having two Steeds and two Emmas we have enemy agents Basil (Freddie Jones) and Lola (Patricia Haines) who now inhabit the bodies of Steed and Mrs Peel while Steed and Mrs Peel inhabit the bodies of Basil and Lola.
And (in a very nice touch) we have Freddie Jones and Patricia Haines doing a very creditable job of capturing Steed and Emma’s personalities and mannerisms while Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg behave convincingly like Basil and Lola. They still look like Steed and Mrs Peel but they behave in a totally different manner. It also means we get to see Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg kissing frequently and Patrick Macnee patting Diana Rigg’s bottom but it’s OK because we know that they’re actually Basil and Lola.
The purpose of the mind-swap is to use Basil and Lola, posing as Steed and Emma, to break the British floral spy network - a spy network consisting of agents using flowers as code names. The headquarters of the floral network (with an enormous Union Jack covering an entire wall and half the ceiling) is another amusing touch, as is the pompous major in charge of the network.
The brain-swap idea was far from original but I don’t think its ever been done with more style and wit. Brilliant stuff.
The Hidden Tiger
The Hidden Tiger was also written by Philip Levene, one of the best of the writers of The Avengers. It begins with two men torn to pieces, apparently by big cats. Judging by the mayhem inflicted, most likely lions or tigers. So Steed turns to big game hunter Major Nesbit, the first of the many wildly and delightfully eccentric characters who populate this episode.
After several more unfortunates are gored to death the trail leads Steed to P.U.R.R.R., the Philanthropic Union for the Rescue, Relief and Recuperation of Cats. But they only rescue domestic cats and whatever killed those people had to be much much bigger. A domestic at couldn’t kill someone, could it? P.U.R.R.R. is run by a Mr Cheshire (played with some wonderfully odd mannerisms by legendary comic Ronnie Barker). Also working for P.U.R.R.R. are a Dr Manx and a young lady named Angora, played deliciously by a very feline Gabrielle Drake (of UFO fame).
One could fill pages with all the cat-themed double entendres in this episode. As Mrs Peel remarks at one stage, "Pussies galore!” Diana Rigg also does a remarkably sexy
This episode has exactly the right mix of wit and cleverness. The plot is outlandish and has the right touch of the surreal. It really is great stuff.
Murdersville was written by Brian Clemens. And it’s a bit of a mixed bag.
It starts superbly. Little-Storping-in-the-Swuff is the perfect, idyllic, picturesque little English village.It’s full of loveable eccentric rustics. It has a cosy pub. It’s the sort of place to which anyone would love to retire. And then, completely out of the blue, we witness a brutal murder. The villagers witness the murder, and take no notice whatsoever. Immediately we know that we’re in the bizarre surreal world of The Avengers. And all this happens within the first few minutes. It’s a brilliant start to the episode.
Little-Storping seems like such a wonderful place in which to spend one’s retirement that Mrs Peel’s childhood friend Paul has decided to do just that. Mrs Peel drives him to the village to help him settle in. And then we get another touch of the bizarre. Two of the loveable village rustics go on a destructive rampage, smashing all of Paul’s most treasured possessions.
Paul’s manservant Forbes disappears. Mrs Peel finds a body in the woods. And Paul disappears. Mrs Peel decides it’s time to call the police but it soon becomes obvious to her that there’s something very sinister going on and that she shouldn’t trust anyone in Little Storping.
This is where the plot starts to get a little wonky. What Mrs Peel should do is quite obvious - she should take off in her car to go and fetch the cavalry. But she doesn’t. The plot requires her to behave irrationally and to make things easy for the bad guys. Patrick Macnee only makes brief appearances in this episode so it may be that Brian Clemens had to find a way to keep Mrs Peel in the village on her own even though it makes no sense.
We also get to see her in a chastity belt, which we definitely haven’t seen before.
Her telephone call to Steed is a wonderful comedy moment. There’s some delicious dialogue. There’s a pie fight. The episode is a weird mix of light-hearted zaniness, genuine terror and deep emotion. And mostly the disparate elements do come together.
There’s an enormous amount to enjoy here if you can ignore some really glaring plot holes. A very good episode that just misses out on greatness due to the wonkiness of the plot.
Epic was written by Brian Clemens. Some people consider this to be one of the best-ever Avengers episodes and some consider it to be one of the worst.
Has-been silent era film director Z.Z. von Schnerk (Kenneth J. Warren) has decided to make a comeback. He still has his original stars from the silent era, Stewart Kirby (Peter Wyngarde) and Damita Syn (Isa Miranda) under contract but he needs a new face and he’d decided on Mrs Peel. He’s going to make her a star. Posthumously. The film will be The Destruction of Emma Peel and it will climax with a real-life death scene. He has Mrs Peel kidnapped and she finds that she’s in the middle of a movie but she hasn’t read the script. She gets shot a couple of times and when she discovers that the guns are loaded with blanks she treats the whole thing as a joke. Until she finds a real corpse on the set. Not all the guns in this are loaded with blanks.
This is the surrealism of The Avengers pushed to an extreme. It’s also an extreme exercise in metafiction. Z.Z. von Schnerk and his faded stars can no longer tell the difference between movies and reality. But of course there’s no reality here because this is The Avengers and it’s a TV series so it’s not reality either. And that’s how Diana Rigg plays it - as if she wants the audience to be aware that this is a TV show about a man making a movie, but the movie he is making is essentially a movie about movies, packed with references to other movies.
The metafictional touches continue into the very clever tag sequence. Are we watching Mrs Peel and Steed or are we watching Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg on the set of The Avengers?
This episode has been criticised for being soulless but that misses the point. Any genuine emotion would have spoilt the effect. Epic draws attention to its own artificiality. These are not real people. It’s all just make-believe. Mrs Peel mimicking the MGM lion is a joke within a joke. The fact that Mrs Peel makes no serious attempt to escape from the movie studio is not a weakness in the plot. It’s just another part of the joke. The fact that the plot of the episode is nonsensical is part of the joke.
I think I have to come down on the side of the people who love this episode. It revels in its own archness. At times it’s almost too clever for its own good but somehow it gets away with it because we’re supposed to notice the ostentatious cleverness. Kenneth J. Warren (very obviously channelling Erich von Stroheim) and Peter Wyngarde are outrageous and delightful. Epic is great fun.
All four episodes are in their own ways Avengers classics. Murdersville has its flaws but its strengths easily make up for them. Epic is an episode that will always divide fans but I adore it. Great stuff.