The Avengers: Series Three reviews

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Concerto

Series Three begins as it means to go on – a new, glossier title sequence with a big, bold new logo. Glossy and bold – just like the episode itself. There’s a new sense of self-assurance here, as the pieces all start to fall into place. Steed is much more to the fore than previously. Macnee positively sparkles in his scenes with Nigel Stock as the lugubrious foreign agent Zalenko – their verbal sparring is the shape of things to come. Zalenko’s description of him as ‘a man about town whose other activities are fairly obscure’ pretty much sums up Steed from here on in. The focus on Steed does tend to be at the expense of Cathy – here she’s tied up and subjected to a nasty game of one-sided Russian roulette – but even this is a taste of the future, when Mrs Peel tended to get tied to something most weeks. Nevertheless, Cathy and Steed’s relationship, whilst retaining a hint of the antagonism of the previous series, has mellowed. This is much more like it. Confident, fresh, sharp and witty, this is a smashing episode with more than a little playful self-awareness – such as Zalenko’s comment that he learned his fighting techniques from watching British TV! Splendid stuff.

Brief for Murder

Brian Clemen’s first extant episode is a masterpiece – it’s no wonder the man went on to be the show’s driving force as it went onto film. Perfectly balancing the real and the surreal, this is The Avengers fully formed. The Lakin brothers might be pretty small fry in the pantheon of diabolical masterminds, but they’re irresistibly played by John Laurie and Harold Scott. The plot is witty, and beautifully directed by Peter Hammond (in particular the flickering fireside scenes in the Lakins’ study). Steed’s visit to a yoga school – with the girls flexing as he quizzes them – is typical of how the procedural side of things is enlivened going forward. Steed is out of his modish costumes of Series Two and is adopting his familiar, Edwardian style. He and Cathy now come across as genuine partners in crime, with their antagonistic relationship of yesteryear now just a ploy to dupe the villains. In short, this is absolutely the template for this programme’s future. And it’s brilliant.

 

The Nutshell

Another great episode, and again one that plays on the relationship between Steed and Cathy to deliver much of its tension. The way that evidence seems to mount up against Steed as a double agent, and Cathy’s apparently reluctant siding against him are cleverly done. Add to this some lovely character moments – such as Steed’s peevishness when it seems Cathy knows more than he does, or Cathy pausing briefly mid-sentence to shoot a man before calmly continuing – plus the great, intricate set design of the Nutshell and you have a pacy and totally engaging episode.

 

The Golden Fleece

It’s certainly very good: beautifully directed and as confident and glossy as anything so far this series, with a tightly-constructed plot that unfolds with a steady rhythm. The villains’ motives are unusual, and the relationship between Cathy and Steed is beautifully done. Against this, Steed’s manipulation of Cathy seems slightly passe given recent episodes – there’s a sense he could have got a better result if he’d been up-front with her. Perhaps it’s just that this lacks the same sparkle as the last three episodes: it feels a bit more ordinary, and it lacks the memorable villains we’re starting to expect.

 

Death a la Carte

After a run of really strong episodes this is a bit flat. It looks cheaper – being mainly confined to two sets (a kitchen and a suite), and a small cast. The bigger problem, though, is that this reduced scope seems to also inhabit the script: the stakes seem low and Cathy’s role is much smaller than usual. Overall, it has the feel of a Series Two throwback with Steed undercover and an odd fluff in the last scene – less assured than what we’ve become used to, this is a mis-step.

 

Man With Two Shadows

Classic Avengers, of a type much imitated in subsequent seasons. Patrick Macnee enjoys playing Steed’s ruthless double – whose main problem is that he is nowhere near as ruthless as the real Steed, whose behaviour in the interrogation scene is very disturbing. ‘Am I the same Steed you knew a year ago?’ he asks Cathy – well, the answer is no. He’s equally tough, but the edges have been softened with an Edwardian veneer which only makes his rare brutality all the more shocking. The tag scene is lovely, neatly tying up the story in a novel fashion.

 

Don’t Look Behind You

Following two episodes that have given Macnee a bigger piece of the action, this one is almost wholly carried by Honor Blackman. She is obviously magnificent, especially as here we get a glimpse of the Cathy we rarely see. While the previous episode showed that for all his civilised, Edwardian front Steed is a ruthless professional, this one strips away Cathy’s tough exterior to show how vulnerable and caring she really is. Filmed like a horror movie, this looks amazing – but it only matches the script, which is psychologically relentless and filled with disturbing moments. The villain goes way beyond diabolical mastermind to terrifying psychopath. On top of this, we get one of the hallmarks of the show – Steed’s vintage car – introduced for the first time in some sunny location filming that only makes the crepuscular claustrophobia of the studio scenes all the more unsettling. Overall, this is clearly a masterpiece, albeit one that presages some re-makes down the line (e.g. The Joker, The House that Jack Built, Pandora) that lose this episode’s depth and replace it with more obvious woman-in-peril motifs.

 

The Grandeur that was Rome

A bit of a fleabitten episode that has some classic elements – a grandiose villain with a madcap plan, impressive sets, and a Roman theme that’s thoroughly-explored in the way this show is famous for – balanced against some awful dialogue even Honor Blackman can’t deliver well, and an absurd ending which sees the heroes karate chop a couple of senators while an army of centurions runs away. For all the strengths – and Hugh Burden’s mad Roman Emperor is one of them – there’s the unmistakeable sense that the writer and director haven’t thought this through properly, which makes this potential epic a deeply disappointing misfire.

 

The Undertakers

Another episode that points the way to The Avengers to come. The plot is clever and quirky, and the guest actors – especially Lally Bowers as the deceptively batty Mrs Renter – respond with a set of typically offbeat performances. Against this, Steed and Cathy’s relationship seems at rock bottom – he’s out with another woman, she’s more interested in her gun, which sets the tone for an episode full of tense interactions between men and women. The unusual amount of location filming is another hint of things to come, with the infilitration of the retirement home and the climactic chase and shoot out in a maze clearly pointing the way forward. Summery and charming.

 

Death of a Batman

Roger Marshall’s scripts often feature twisted financial shenanigans, and this episode – set in the world of banking and share dealing – could almost be played straight, as a throwback to Series Two. That it’s not shows both that Marshall spotted the possibilities of this show before most other writers, and that the format has evolved since the previous year. The most obvious quirk is the character of Lady Cynthia, a truly braying toff whose flirtatious circling with Steed first in a florist then in his flat is marvellous. This is in stark contrast to the grittier lifestyle of Mrs Wrightson, whose mournful exchanges with Cathy ground the story in the real world despite its excursions into the horsey set. The show’s short-lived ability to keep one foot in reality and one in the emerging Avengersland is very much on display. The Avengers lost something when it left real Britain behind entirely for a cartoonish Home Counties world populated only by eccentrics and diabolical masterminds. Death of a Batman is a reminder of how things might have been.

 

Build a Better Mousetrap

An episode that on paper has everything going for it – Peter Hammond directing, Brian Clemens writing, Cathy joining a leather-clad motorcycle gang – that finally doesn’t quite come together. Individual elements are fantastic, and the melding of rural witchcraft and biker culture became the entire plot of the movie Psychomania, however a lot of time is spent on some mawkish subplot about love rivalry in the gang, and the closing gag is weak. Cathy is also sidelined in favour of Steed’s (admittedly charming) assimilation into the local pub culture. Some people have claimed this is the first true Avengers episode – that is, the first to be set in Brian Clemens’ Avengersland – but that’s demonstrably not the case despite the villain’s scathing comments about English eccentricity. Fun but flawed.

 

November Five    

A modern day Guy Fawkes episode that fits right in with the satire boom of the early 1960s, November Five takes a cynical and grounded view of politics and the arms race, and as such feels less dated than some later episodes. It’s interesting that while the programme’s “Britishness” was its selling point to American audiences, this episode – which focuses on a British institution, incorporates twittering old women, a brash Northern woman and a Tory Wet – is far more authentically British than what the series later became. Highlights are Cathy’s full leather fighting suit – and leather skirt, Mrs Dove (who gets handy with her handbag in the final fight), and Cathy’s brusque dismissal of Mr Dove’s overtures. Magnificent.

 

Second Sight

I had to watch the final Act of this episode twice to try to understand what it was getting at, but to no avail. A confusing misfire, Second Sight might generously be called a triumph of form reflecting content – its central character’s blindness, physical and metaphorical, reflected in an impenetrable plot. But it’s really just a mess, which plays like a throwback to the second series and lacks even director Peter Hammond’s usual sureness. Some interesting set designs don’t even begin to paper over the cracks.

 

The Secrets Broker

Hmm, we seem to have hit mid-season doldrums. This episode is frustratingly uneven: plus points include lots of offbeat Avengers weirdness – the secret room in a wine barrel, the use of a medium to conceal the villainous plans, and some great performances all round. Design-wise, the contrast between the hi-tech laboratories and the gloomy wine cellars is pleasing, and the champagne-sipping tag scene’s delightful. However against all of this, the story is plodding with the love affair angle and some of the sub-plots being particularly laborious.

 

The Gilded Cage

This is more like it: playful and pacey right from the teaser – which suggests Cathy and at Steed are about to become bullion thieves – through to the hectic climax. Each Act sees the story twist in some way, and the overall sense is of writer Roger Marshall keen to avoid cliches and toy with his audience. It’s pleasing to see that even when we guess the twist, Marshall is one step ahead of us: Cathy’s arrest for murder and incarceration in Holloway’s condemned cell is quickly revealed as a test, and her subsequent adoption into “Abe Lincoln’s” gang is smartly handled. The cast are brilliant, with Honor Blackman giving us a Cathy as vulnerable as ever but still asking the right questions, and Macnee a Steed who’s for once absolutely wrong-footed and desperate to clear her name. The gang exudes a genuine cameraderie, and Cathy seems to enjoy being a member, and the climactic vault raid is excitingly directed. This is great.

 

The Medicine Men

Well it’s not quite as iconic as it sets out to be, but The Medicine Men comes damn close. The opening scene, with Steed knocking golf balls into Cathy’s lap, pretty much sums up the show’s alternative title Bowler Hat and Leather Boots. Elsewhere, despite a high fluff rate, an odd performance from Peter Barkworth and some dodgy audio in the Turkish bath, this is as kinky and assured as it gets, with the camera positively slavering over a showering Cathy, and some neat directorial flourishes such as Harold Innocent’s toadlike artist splashing paint across the camera lens. This episode can be summed up by the fact that it makes stomach powders impossibly glamorous. Only The Avengers…

 

The White Elephant

A typically thoughtful script from John Lucarotti is realised rather more ponderously than of late. The zoo setting and plot, which features a stolen elephant, ivory smuggling, high-class weapons and a real leopard, is quirky. However, there are no eccentrics on display – the characters are all realistic and react believably as the situation unfolds. As such, this is a much straighter crime drama than most in Series Three, and – thanks to a number of fluffs – less assured than its immediate predecessors.

 

Dressed to Kill 

This is a fun, festive episode originally broadcast between Christmas and New Year. It bears many Brian Clemens hallmarks, not least of which is Steed’s 18th Century fancy dress and the railway setting (and isn’t Badger’s Mount an archetypal Avengers place name?). The plot is typically convoluted as well – somehow managing to link stranding a party of champagne-sipping socialites somewhere in the English countryside to a plot to trigger World War Three. Throw in a some kinkiness thanks to Anneke Will’s pussy and Honor Blackman puffing on a cigar, a very brutal fight and Napoleon as the villain and this, much more than Build a Better Mousetrap, stands as the template for the Emma Peel years. All this, plus Leonard Rossiter. Classic.

 

The Wringer

An episode that in some ways feels like a re-tread of The Nutshell, albeit the 1960s have clearly kicked in in the interim as the astounding visuals here attest. This is quite grim and serious at points, with a first act that’s more like Callan than The Avengers, and Steed unable to mask his emotions with a smile and a quip. There is, however, a diabolical mastermind – the Wringer, a horrid beatnik played by Terence Lodge whose hip dialogue is entirely incongruous in the surrounds of a government facility. His attempts to break down Steed’s sense of time and place to brainwash him reflect the emergence of a very 1960s theme, and one that coincidentally reappears in Lodge’s first Doctor Who episode, The Macra Terror. The only thing that stands in the way of this being an all-out classic is that the villains have to keep stopping to explain the plot to each other, as if the producers aren’t (yet) confident that the audience “get it”.

 

The Little Wonders

This series is now getting more and more like the popular memory of The Avengers with every episode. This instalment features a murderous criminal conspiracy using the Church as a front (these days that’d be the other way round…) With a misguided bishop in charge, plus Cockney villians as archdeacons and deans, and a gun-toting nurse using a collection plate to gather weapons the “theme” is explored just as thoroughly as in any later farce. Add the sinister toyshop as a cover for smuggling and Steed in a dog collar and this is starting to look a lot like Series Four. Only the slightly awkward clinch with Mrs Gale feels misplaced, although Honor Blackman plays Cathy’s reaction perfectly. Has ever such an exasperated kiss been committed to film?

 

Mandrake

A pretty marvellous episode all round, with notable guest appearances from John Le Mesurier and Philip Locke, plus an early role for Annette Andre. The plot is another clever Roger Marshall contribution, with a typically solid set of motivations and quirky characters. But this episode is most notable for Honor Blackman’s astonishing fight with Jackie Pallo’s sexton: for once, this looks and plays for real, with Cathy screaming with effort as she knocks him for six. Elsewhere, Cathy gets to be cordially waspish to Steed (who is being a bit of an arse), and amused by a scatty vicar. The direction by Bill Bain is effective, with the opening coming across as pure horror, and a macabre mix from a wreath to a skull. The overall sense is one of a supremely confident series that is breaking barriers on all fronts, and has no rival.

 

The Trojan Horse

A surprisingly boring episode from Malcolm Hulke, set in the “exciting” (if you’re a Dick Francis fan) world of horseracing. Cathy is under-used, and despite a predictably watchable turn from TP McKenna this is all very po-faced and straightforward. The good news is, this is the last of the Series Two throwbacks. From here on in, there will be nothing quite this mundane ever again.

 

The Outside-In Man     

A pretty untypical episode dripping with Cold War overtones and telling the story of a spy who came in from the cold – with an unfinished mission of assassination. This is the kind of stuff that is the meat and potatoes of The New Avengers, but against a backdrop of a series becoming more offbeat, it stands out as an effective if straight thriller. Steed is steelier than we’ve seen him for a while as he plays a dangerous game of cat and mouse, while Cathy seems happier working for Steed’s organisation than normal. With some smashing performances, this is very decent.

 

The Charmers

After tentatively moving in this direction all series, The Charmers sees the emergence of The Avengers’ mature style. Tongue in cheek, deceptively breezy and featuring a trademark hook – assassins trained at a gentlemen’s charm school – only the videotape and the muffled audio disguise the fact that there’s nothing here that would be out of place in a later series. Indeed, the whole exudes the sense of a show so confident in its own abilities that it can send up its own icons – bowler hats and umbrellas as the weapons of undercover agents, the old school tie taken quite literally, the Cold War as a schoolyard game and the real enemies being diabolical masterminds opposed to any political faction. In that context, Fenella Fielding as a comedy version of Mrs Gale makes perfect sense, and is the icing on the cake of this witty, neat episode.

 

Esprit de Corps

The story of a modern-day Jacobite rising is beautifully directed, including a lot of location filming, and replete with beautiful comic moments, the finest of which feature Roy Kinnear as the pragmatic batsman to the villainous John Thaw. Steed visits a launderette, rather wonderfully, while Cathy – fittingly – is crowned Queen Anne II. Her relationship with Steed is far easier than at the start of this series, as she appears amused at his schemes rather than annoyed by them. The only thing that lets down this splendid episode is its rather cursory climax.

 

Lobster Quadrille

A serious and grim opening leads into a surprisingly leaden episode which has a fitting funereal atmosphere. Grief and loss hang over the story like black clouds, and this sudden lapse back into solemnity does add some gravitas to the possibility that Mrs Gale’s final case might end with her in one of the body bags that litter the episode. There are some grand Avengers set designs – the Alice in Wonderland cafe and the recurrent chessboard motifs most notably – and Steed gets to dally with Jennie Linden. But all is overshadowed by Cathy’s departure. At the time, the viewers had no idea if she would live or die, and watched in that spirit this is not ineffective. It’s just a shame that she gets so little to do before she pussy-foots off to the Bahamas. As such, this is a relatively weak conclusion to a series that establishes every fundamental of the show’s later success. Series Three bridges the divide between the straight thrillers of Series Two and the eccentricity of the filmed episodes. Diabolical masterminds start to crop up. Set designs become more outlandish. Steed and his companion become genuine partners in crime. By the time we get to The Charmers and Esprit de Corps the only difference is that this is on videotape. Patrick Macnee said that Honor Blackman was the best Avengers “girl”, and these videotaped episodes were the height of the show. While the black and white film episodes add the polish to what’s presented here and embed The Avengers style, it’s could be argued that from here on in they’re only variations on a theme.

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