Monday, July 24, 2006

 

The Avengers This Week

The Avengers is on tonight at 7.10, BBC4. Yes, I know it isn’t Thursday; for this week only, it appears, they’re on Monday to Thursday with four different episodes – Death at Bargain Prices, Castle De’Ath, The Master Minds and The Murder Market (the last is repeated Friday at 11.30pm). So, this week I’m reviewing them all in a bundle: none are quite top-notch, but tonight’s Death at Bargain Prices is the most entertaining, and if you must miss one, Wednesday’s The Master Minds is a bit flat. Start tonight, then, with merry quips and something nasty behind Yogi Bear.

The Avengers – Death at Bargain Prices
Steed fights in Ladies’ Underwear – Emma tries ‘feinting’
An agent’s mysterious death, not unusually, leads Steed and Mrs Peel to strange goings-on in a department store. Soon she’s a shop assistant (selling Daleks and ladies’ underwear, one of which gets Steed strangely excited), serving under such guest villains as Andre Morell, TP McKenna and Allan Cuthbertson, who you may remember twitching in Fawlty Towers. Morell’s embittered old business tycoon steals not just the scenes he’s in but an atomic bomb specialist (that’s not good news). Mrs Peel has one of her most memorable fight scenes, choreographed to the music, no less, but really this is Steed’s story. Patrick Macnee gets to display a remarkable variety to his character: petulant child complaining of a bruise (“I think baby’s too big,” Mrs Peel remarks of him as he examines a pram); keen-eyed agent drawing out the diabolical mastermind; fop who ends a dirty fight distressed he’s broken his umbrella; and of course something of a charmer, his sly suggestions met with disdain by Mrs Peel and considerable interest from the woman in the food hall. I wouldn’t try cooking the recipe for steak, stilton and burgundy that he comes up with, though. Bit of a grey mess when I tried it… Ahem.

It’s not entirely perfect; with not quite enough plot to fill out what’s pretty much an episode in one location, it feels a bit like one of the Cathy Gale stories with the plot reduced and set-pieces boosted, so of the early Mrs Peels it’s the one with the most transitional feel. The old-fashioned nature isn’t helped by the sinister nature of a store receipt from a Sunday; yes, imagine! And if they thought department stores were scary and depersonalised, I wonder what they’d make of Internet shopping? Directed by Ealing stalwart Charles Crichton, his light touch makes a real treat of some cracking dialogue between Steed and Mrs Peel, though – look out for how she gets out of calling him “Ostentatious” or his innuendo in seeking her out on the shop floor – and we even get to see our heroes as puppets, as well as enjoying a few remarkably sinister sequences. One of my first Avengers memories is the death of a character in the jungle (yes, in the middle of the store), and the episode begins and ends with particularly deadly lifts…

The Avengers – Castle De’Ath
Steed becomes a strapping Jock – Emma lays a ghost
Many aspects of Britain appear in the rosy mirror of Avengerland, and though most of them end up looking curiously like the Hertfordshire countryside, this time it’s Scotland. Oh, boy, is it Scotland. From the opening montage of windy moors, daunting castle and a bizarre death to keening bagpipes, it’s clear this is going to be as much a picture-postcard Scottishness as Doctor Who’s Terror of the Zygons: kilted historian Jock McSteed – not necessarily his real name, eagle-eyed viewer – intends to write a book about the massacre of Glen De’Ath and Black Jamie, Thirteenth Laird and now alleged ghost; modern consultant Mrs Peel wants to market the place. She’s from ABORCASHATA –
“It’s the Advisory Bureau On Refurbishing Castles And Stately Homes As a Tourist Attraction”
– and you get the feeling it’s the result of a bet with Steed to see whose comedy cover story could be the more outrageous. They are, in fact, very entertaining, and a friend of mine still can’t hear it mentioned without screeching “Mr McSteed!” and “Mistress Peel!” in the most appalling cod accent and wanting to have fun with swords and crossbows. Gordon Jackson’s severe laird gives the whole thing a bit of gravity and really sets off the ‘porridge’ scene, though it’s slightly disappointing that the initial mystery (a frogman being four inches taller dead than alive) gives way to such a banal plot, less red herring than simply fish. Arguably there’s a bit of a wannabe Bond villain’s secret base, too, but then there’s also a car that Bond uses later, so that’s about even.

If, incidentally, you’d rather eye up Patrick Macnee than Diana Rigg, this is the nearest my favourite celebrity naturist gets to a nude scene. Not only do you get to see his legs in that kilt, but he’s even topless at one stage. He makes a fine contrast with the villain; I shan’t say who it is, but you can spot he’s a bad sort because he – oh, I can hardly bring myself to say it – quite clearly wears something under his kilt in one scene. I know, call himself a Scotsman. I’m sure you’re aware that proper answers to “What’s worn under a kilt?” can include “Nothing is worn, it’s all in perfect working order,” “My boots” or “Good girls / boys don’t ask, and bad ones find out for themselves,” but never “white undies”.

The Avengers – The Master Minds
Steed becomes a genius – Emma loses her mind
A junior minister is caught red-handed in a treasonous theft, dressed as a horseguard, but doesn’t remember a thing about it… Unfortunately, of all the stories this week this is the one you’re least likely to remember, too. It’s not that it’s bad, exactly, but there’s really very little spark to it, and Steed wears a nasty cardigan (same in the next one, but here there’s less fun to distract me from it). Still, rather a jaunty piece of music as he turns up to investigate, and guest Bernard Archard’s impressive nose and eyebrows get the attention. The plot’s to do with the evil reality behind MENSA, sorry, Ransack, the organisation of geniuses being subjected to mass hypnosis in the gym (I always knew going to the gym was bad for you). Steed has Emma cheat for him to gain entry and enjoys himself with some good visual jokes in the girls’ school the group’s hired for the holidays, but it’s all a bit thin. You might enjoy watching the big bizarre fight, though, or of course Mrs Peel on a trampoline.

This episode is, incidentally, by Robert Banks Stewart, who went on to write Doctor Who’s Terror of the Zygons (and Castle De’Ath isn’t the only Avengers episode of this period from which he later borrows).

The Avengers – The Murder Market
Steed seeks a wife – Emma gets buried
The first one filmed with Diana Rigg, and it’s in at the deep end; Steed suggests the widow Peel should remarry. Don’t panic – this one’s dastardly deaths revolve around the Togetherness Marriage Agency (isn’t there one in Carry On Regardless, too?). It’s light and frothy and lots of fun, which is just as well, seeing as how many people meet their grisly ends; top marks for the woman shooting her victim by an aquarium, with water pouring out of bullet holes behind him as he slides to the floor. You’ll recognise inspiration from a certain Hitchcock film, though this one makes an organised business of exchanging murders (there you go; Gaydar seems quite innocent after all). Emma wants “stamina” from her ideal partner, and also suggests one for Steed:
“A mixture of Lucretia Borgia and Joan of Arc.”
“Sounds like every girl I ever knew.”
Guest stars include arch comic actor Patrick Cargill, a chap called Edward Underdown, about whom Mad About the Boy was apparently written (not that you’d notice), an early appearance by the splendidly sinister John Woodvine (given little to do) and a very early appearance by blushing bride Penelope Keith (don’t blink). Just for a change, the men are all camp and harmless, so there’s a nasty fight between the principal women at the close. There’s an unusual twist on the plot favourite of ‘A dead man who isn’t dead,’ too, as Mrs Peel is killed by Steed. Again, I don’t feel I’m spoiling things too much to say you needn’t panic, and that the main effect of this is for her to try and fail not to get too tipsy dancing round her own coffin.

I’ll probably be back to writing reams about each episode next week, but just in case you’re the reader who feels I’m skimping this time, you might like to try The Avengers Forever site, which is packed with all sorts of goodies, including reviews and – gasp – photos. These modern things; they’ll never catch on… Except on Millennium’s Diary, which Richard tells me Millennium plans more stunning special effects for later. You heard it here first.

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Comments:
I shall look forward to Castle De'Ath as it is the first Avengers I can remember seeing, back when they were on Channel 4.
 
Which - I should have added - was written by John Lucarotti of Doctor Who fame.
 
I hope you enjoyed it as much this time, Will – I did.

I always seem to pick up new little details… I’d forgotten how much fun it is when a heavy is unable to explain a piece of machinery to Steed: “Your guess is as good as mine.” “I should think very slightly better,” says our hero lightly.

Richard, of course, noticed some extra innuendo between Steed and Mrs Peel (there’s so much even I can’t spot it all), and, less positively, had a good cackle at Emma’s mysteriously different hair and figure on location. All right, that and the fight scenes make this an early example of another Avengers standard, the stunt ‘doubles’ that wouldn't fool a five-year-old (not to be confused with ‘back projection that wouldn't fool a five-year-old’, about which there’s a pretty good visual joke in tonight’s episode).
 
And indeed it was John Lucarotti, who wrote several meticulously researched early Who scripts set in other countries long ago in history, including The Aztecs, a gorgeous story which I’d still put well within my top ten.

He wrote four earlier Avengers scripts, too, usually touching on other countries but with rather less in the way of meticulous detail (his answer to a potential coup in an Arab state: Steed becomes a chef!), including, trivia fans, the only episode of The Avengers without Steed in it.
 
It was rather nice to view the 'Castle De'ath' and 'Master Minds' repeats on BBC Four last Friday night. Top Notch
 
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