A couple of years ago when The Avengers was released in DVD box sets rather than the piecemeal releases they’d had previously, I started a watch-through, making notes on each episode with the vague idea that I might do some Twitter or blog reviews. I never got round to typing up the initial thoughts, but here are my ‘raw’ notes…
Surviving episodes of Series One
Hard to judge based on the small section that still exists, but a nice slice of TV history to have back in the archive. This feels like the set up for a pretty sombre, straightforward hero versus the underworld programme.
Girl on a Trapeze
Interesting circus setting, witty plot and a fine performance from Hendry. This Macnee-free episode is very good indeed.
Pretty brutal stuff. An effective thriller, with one or two quirky scenes (the actress-mother).
Mission to Montreal
Dr King is a pretty bland replacement for Keel, and never makes much impression. At this stage, the sidelining of Steed is a mistake.
Dead on Course
Casually mocking the Oirish, nevertheless the convent setting, sinister nuns and community of oddballs point the way to the eccentricity to come. The best Rollason episode.
Eminently disposable, this is just dull.
Cathy Gale blows fresh air into the show. There are no leather catsuits but the Spanish maid costume is kinky enough. The story is pretty straightforward but the performances lift it another level.
The French setting is strange in retrospect, given the “Englishness” of the show. It’s good fun though and Steed and Cathy’s relationship – and his casual disregard for her humanitarian concerns – is superb.
Mr Teddy Bear
The first great episode of the show. The eccentricity of the talking teddy bear, and the creativity of the villain and his assassinations is inspired. And hello, leather fighting suit!
The first Venus Smith episode. Julie Stevens is pretty good, though no Honor Blackman, but Venus gets horribly manipulated by Steed. And the pro-wrestling plot, though quirky, is just a bit tiresome.
Again, the plot is fairly straightforward. However, there are enough imaginative touches – the shooting range killing, the riverboat HQ, Steed’s delight at making £6,000 – to make this something special.
The Removal Men
This is fairly forgettable. Venus sings lots of songs – seriously, bloody minutes go by as she warbles away, and there are some ‘Allo ‘Allo accents on display. Against this, the villain’s motive is interesting – if straightforwardly political – but ultimately it just plods along to its conclusion, lacking the energy and edge that Cathy seems to bring to proceedings.
The Mauritius Penny
This is like the familiar Avengers in embryonic form – the stamp-collecting backdrop, the fascistic secret society and genteel master criminal are all developed much further later on. There are overtones of later Hulke and Dicks stuff here too, with the climactic scenes coming across like something out of Doctor Who: Robot. However, here it doesn’t quite hang together properly and, perhaps as a result, the ending is incoherent.
Death of a Great Dane
The opening scene is classic Avengers, and sets the tone for a prototypical episode. It’s not that difficult to guess the main twist, however the butler villain, John Laurie and Freddie Jaeger are all superb, and it’s pacy enough to grab attention throughout. Marvellous: no wonder they later re-made it In Color!
Death on the Rocks
They’re getting really good at the teaser scenes – this one’s another mini classic. Steed and Cathy posing as a married couple is good fun, and there’s another clever plot – one that’s oddly prescient of Licence to Kill. The villains are too straight for this to be a genuine trailblazer, but it’s very enjoyable nonetheless.
Traitor in Zebra
Does for the Welsh what Dead on Course did for the Irish. A very straightforward espionage plot makes for a plodding episode, doggy go-between notwithstanding. Cathy’s stripy jumper/corset thing is hideous but perhaps justifies the episode’s title. Ho-hum.
The Big Thinker
Honor Blackman gets lots to do, which should be great – except Steed’s even more of an arse to Cathy than usual. Their domestic squabbling is quite fun, and adds to this series’ sense of a growing relationship between the two. Overall, though, it drags a bit and the supercomputer – which could have been interesting – ends up just being a bit naff.
Putting Cathy at the centre of the episode and giving her a German female prisoner nemesis is inspired. There are some good moments – like the scene where Cathy’s cover is blown because she’s too humane to do in a treacherous baddie (as if Steed would have thought about it twice!) – but this isn’t the most memorable story.
The Act One cliffhanger is a mess, and the first victim acts so bizarrely that it’s difficult to tell when he’s under the ‘fluence and when not. Steed’s casual reaction to a supposed stroke is funny. Ultimately, this is the kind of story that in later series would have been milked for all its witchy weirdness, but here is treated with serious consideration and tends to be a bit puzzling as a result.
Adds to Series Two’s disturbing Steed nudity quotient with another scene set in a sauna. Aside from a neat teaser, this is dull. Mrs Gale’s hat collection expands and the gay chef from Fawlty Towers plays the villain – small distractions from an episode that’s like Corrie with added pottery.
Box of Tricks
Venus returns – and to be fair, she’s much spikier. Must be the new hairdo. This time there’s dancing too, and Venus sings directly to camera. Steed disguised as a masseur is fun, although points off for another excuse to put saggy old moobs on screen. De-lightful, de-licious, de-lovely? Erm, no.
The Golden Eggs
The set design and direction is stunning, with the prison cell at the end built, lit and shot superbly. Featuring a joyously flirtatious relationship for Steed and Cathy, a genuine eccentric scientist (who looks like Dr Who!) and a diabolical mastermind, this is three quarters of the way to being The Avengers everyone remembers. Against this, the plot is very serious – almost grim – and like all the VT episodes you have to work at it, partly because the audio is so muffled and partly because the pictures are less sharp. Overall though, this is special.
School for Traitors
Towards the end of Series Two the Venus and Cathy episodes start to alternate, which tends to highlight the drawbacks of the former and the strengths of the latter. This one is inoffensive enough, but the need to have Venus sing two or three songs – to camera – in each of her episodes just slows down the action and unbalances the flow of the story. Despite this, there’s plenty of stuff to entertain – Melissa “Dracula” Stribling in particular is great value as the villainess, and Reginald Marsh makes a good pompous baddie. But for every baby crocodile or tub of acid face cream there’s Venus singing in an affected Jamaican accent or a pyjama party. As a result, this feels like a bit of fluffy filler.
The White Dwarf
Rather grimly apocalyptic for The Avengers, this is an interesting episode that makes some intelligent observations about the behaviour of individuals and the markets in the face of impending doom. Cathy’s infiltration of the observatory staff, and her off-the-cuff blagging in the face of an unexpected Indian visitor, are great, however this is Steed’s story with his cynical view of human nature proved correct, and his deductions concerning the nature of the villain’s plot nearly spot on.
Man in the Mirror
Utterly boring. By now, Venus is simply a liability, with episodes having to be built round her limitations – her gaucheness, her innocence of Steed’s machinations and her bloody singing. Aside from one decent scene between Steed and one of his superiors and a vaguely interesting sequence of Venus trapped in a ghost house, this is a complete waste of time.
Conspiracy of Silence
The location filming of Steed walking the dog is cute. This, the funny little professor and a brilliant performance from Honor Blackman are the saving graces in an otherwise dull episode. Even the reliable Peter Hammond’s pacy direction can’t enliven it much. Like many of the Series Two stories this has a premise (killer clown) and setting (circus) that, in later years, would have been better (or at least more prominently) utilised. However, this human interest melodrama is way too dour to be likeable.
A Chorus of Frogs
Well thank goodness that’s over. The last Venus episode is one of her better ones, although it’s still stymied by dismal musical interludes. The difference is the way Venus is written: far gutsier then before, though still a bit useless. Her confrontation with Steed, and apparent reluctance to get dragged into another of his operations, at least suggests there’s something to her. The plot is nothing special, but shows a willingness to go to unusual locales – one of the few strengths of Series Two over the standard English countryside backdrops of later years. Venus doesn’t get a goodbye scene, so we can imagine her sailing into the sunset as Mason’s concubine.
Six Hands Across a Table
So, as we head into the unbroken run of Cathy Gale episodes we get this oddity. It’s a Cathy-in-love story, with a minimal role for Steed. And as a character piece it’s ok – if a bit plodding. But it all boils back down to a boardroom power struggle in the “exciting” world of shipping, making this feel more like one of those 1960s mogul shows like The Troubleshooters than a bona fide Avengers episode. As such, despite a strong role for Cathy – and a typically thoughtful performance from Honor Blackman – this is just a bit parp.
Series Two concludes with an episode that’s typical of what’s gone before, with an unusual backdrop – in this case a boxing club that’s the front for a perfume smuggling (!) operation – masking a very basic plot. Despite the quirky premise, the villains are by no means diabolical masterminds, and their motives are pretty mundane. Going forward, the series started to get more confident about matching style and substance, so that the weirdness of the settings was equalled by the eccentricity of the characters. Not so this year, or in this episode. What we have, then, is a competently made and reasonably interesting thriller that’s principally noteworthy for the strong central role it accords to Honor Blackman. Series Two – and The Avengers – owes its biggest debt to her, because without Cathy Gale there’s almost nothing to make this anything special. Macnee’s marvellous, of course, but even at this point he’s the rogueish enabler – the professional who draws the amateurs (Keel, Venus, Cathy) into his shadowy world. It’s surprising in retrospect just how mysterious and manipulative (much to the chagrin of his assistants) he still is at this stage, and how much the series really focuses on Cathy rather than him. Still, despite the reservations, there was clearly enough here to hook the viewers. Lessons also seem to have been learned. Series Three focuses exclusively on Steed and Cathy – there was no room for anyone else – and, based on the example of Mr Teddy Bear (this year’s best) villains became grander, the plots more expansive, and Steed more likeable. Series Two, then, collects the basic ingredients together, but rarely mixes them into a satisfying – and recognisably Avengers-ish – meal.