Thursday, July 13, 2006


The Avengers – The Gravediggers

Tonight’s Avengers on BBC4 (7.10, or 11.30 tomorrow night) is a particularly fine one, though feeling a little bittersweet today. After those remarkable titles and theme, it kicks straight into high gear with one of the most memorably bizarre ‘teaser’ scenes, as funereal and then eerie music accompanies something very strange happening at a grave. Watch out in particular for an outstanding way to take tea on a train with eccentric philanthropist Sir Horace Winslip, part of an extended exploration of his country house (much of it to that ‘mysterious’ music again). Oh, and Mrs Peel’s dressed as a nurse, if you like that kind of thing.
Steed drives a train – Emma is tied to the tracks
Hospitals, funerals and trains all come together in this distillation of high technology, nostalgia and strange little English villages with names like Pringby. It’s pretty much textbook Avengers, with a mystery centring on the series’ favourite standby, a ‘dead man’ who isn’t dead… Steed’s improbable ‘cover’ this week is to represent the ‘Footplateman’s Friendly Society’, but Mrs Peel isn’t the only one in a nurse’s uniform, and neither is she the only one who may not have her patients’ health first in her mind (particularly when one of the patients is a young and thuggish Steven Berkoff). You’ll also see stern and scary Caroline Blakiston as the sister (known to a generation as leader of the Rebel Alliance), as well as one of my favourite glamorous ‘60s actresses, Wanda Ventham. I’ve always thought she has a terrific and reassuringly un-twig-like screen presence, and after meeting her at a signing a couple of years ago, she’s also genuinely nice to talk to. Another strong guest actor is Ronald Fraser as Sir Horace, whose reaction to Mrs Peel’s silent movie peril at the climax never fails to crack me up. His requiem for the post-Beeching railway system now seems less quaint nostalgia than foresighted opposition to decades of the government getting it wrong on transport, though perhaps his way of reacting to it is not entirely wise…

Other memorable moments include undertakers running out like firemen and a remarkably odd operation (“Forceps… Scalpel… Blowtorch”) in a cracking script from Malcolm Hulke. Growing up, he was one of my favourite authors, with a set of beautifully characterised Doctor Who books that are among those I’ve read the most. A little older, I was able to see tapes of the TV stories they were based on, and found them frequently disappointing; his scripts often lacked the pacing of his books and seemed much too long. If that’s the case, he benefits enormously from being given a taut 50-minute episode to write here, rather than delivering plots drawn out to three times the length. On the other hand, by a long way his two best Doctor Who stories are his longest, which are absolutely cracking at total lengths of three and four hours respectively. So what do I know?

I’d drafted this last week, but was loath to publish it when it came to it, because I’m just about to leave for the funeral of someone who was a lovely Liberal and almost as glamorous as Mrs Peel (not to mention just as fond of champagne). Today the black humour seems rather blacker. But, then, inappropriate levity has always been one of the ways to deal with death, and I’ll always remember her at her funniest, so if I’m back in time I’ll watch The Avengers. I hope you do, too.

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God, was she Mon Mothma? I never knew. It's Brass I remember her from.
As you know, young Will ;-)

She was indeed Mon Mothma, and she's fab as Lady Hardacre too. There's another Avengers appearance, too, as a very strait-laced civil servant with a lot of leg and just a hint of naughtiness (Steed's favourite kind) in The Postive Negative Man.
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