Wednesday, July 05, 2006


Never Seen The Avengers? Time to Start!

Congratulations to the Doctor’s new companion, announced today and due to start next year – and don’t forget to tune in for the spectacular finale this Saturday, will you? It’s a tricky job, taking over from a much-loved star; to see it done brilliantly, on Thursday night BBC4 shows the Avengers episode that introduced Diana Rigg as Mrs Peel (7.10 tomorrow night / Midnight Friday). If you’ve never seen The Avengers, there’s no better place to see what the fuss is about: just make sure you tune in for the first seven minutes. Trust me on this. You’ll be hooked.

The Avengers – The Town of No Return
Steed finds a town full of ghosts – Emma gets into harness
After yesterday’s somewhat sombre declaration of my Americanism, today it’s time to cheer up with something that makes sheer joy out of Britishness. If you think the new Doctor Who is ostentatiously British – and it is – then wait until you see The Avengers, the show that turned playful fantasies of Britain into an art form (and I suspect the new Doctor Who has more than a hint of The Avengers in mind). The Town of No Return makes such a strikingly good start that I’m even – oh, I can hardly believe I’m typing this – recommending you watch it over the Doctor Who repeats showing at the same time on BBC3; you know, the 1950s one where Maureen Lipman plays the most deliciously diabolical mastermind of the year (yes, she even beats Tony Head, though I’m keen to see how Tracy-Ann Oberman’s glamorous Torchwood boss with a little ray of Servalan turns out on Saturday), and the far future scary one with the Ood. But you really should have seen those a few weeks ago, anyway. Perhaps confusingly, there’s a little Avengers documentary a little later on BBC4 tomorrow, at 8.30, but while that’s perfectly functional, make sure you see the proper episode first: ‘show’ is always better than ‘tell’.

Just Give It Seven Minutes…

All right, so what’s this business about seven minutes, other than me trying to sound like a Jesuit for the attention-span-deficient age? It’s simple enough. The Town of No Return is jolly good, but its opening few scenes are superb. Their playful perversity makes the best possible introduction for the story, and to the series: great title music, followed by ‘Something bizarre’, ‘Steed meets Emma’ and the train journey that connects the two, together make up the most perfect encapsulation of what our heroes do. It takes just seven minutes.

The Avengers had already been a hit for four years, but something happened when this first appeared in 1965. A new star, a wilder imagination and a strikingly bigger budget mean it all just comes together. Now, I’m a firm believer in the importance of music for a good show, particularly the opening theme, and while Doctor Who struck gold first time, The Avengers kicked off with a serviceable but disjointed piece of music that you almost certainly won’t remember. Tune in tomorrow and you’ll see the camera linger over glamorous photos of Steed and Mrs Peel as, on its first outing, you hear that fanfare herald the jaunty, instantly familiar theme that the series was known by for ever afterwards.

It’s straight from that perfect theme tune to a perfectly puzzling first scene, as a fisherman tends to his lobster pots on a Norfolk beach and the villain arrives to threateningly playful music, nonchalant as you please, asking to be directed to Little Bazeley. I won’t spoil how he arrives, though. You’ll just have to watch it and see. What’s that? No, look, telling you he’s the villain isn’t a spoiler. He’s impeccably dressed, impeccably spoken and you could cut cress with his jawline. What else could he be?

Next we see Steed’s arrival at Mrs Peel’s flat, in which she is, naturally, practising moves with an épeé. He’s in a perfectly tailored outfit with a bowler; she’s in black leather. Well, of course. There’s witty banter, there’s sexual tension, he attempts to enlist her in a nefarious trip to the seaside – for which he has, obviously, already bought the tickets – and, while she has him at swordpoint, he’s the one who wins.
“That was very, very dirty.”
“You’re quite right. But I didn’t promise to fight fair.”
It tells you pretty much what you need to know about their characters, really, including that unlike every other crime-fighting / spy-busting duo, they just do it for fun. Without a pause they’re on a train and en route to Little Bazeley-by-the-Sea, a sleepy little village that boasts rather more than its quota of dead secret agents (they’re just getting into the swing of things here; were it a later episode, you can be sure we’d have started by seeing the body in a variety of interesting deaths).

This is perhaps the definitive Avengers scene. It’s simply gorgeous. Without a restaurant car on the train, you’ll be amazed at how Steed manages to “rough it” –
“Are you sure you won’t have a marzipan delight?”
– and at just how high Mrs Peel’s standards are for him still not quite to match them. The Avengers was unique in the way it played with gender roles, and one of the things I love about Steed is they way he can be playful, or fey, or downright dangerous, but never feels the need to be macho. He’s absolutely deadly, but he’d rather let the women get on with the fighting while he enjoys himself, perhaps supplying a word of encouragement from the sidelines. In this brilliantly intercut discussion of tea and death, though it’s Steed who’s whisked Emma away on a job, he’s fussing about with the confectionery while she tries manfully to get down to business (in a white suit with a rather smashing target-motif beret). Next week, incidentally, you’ll find tea on a train of a very different sort, but then, I reckon this season of The Avengers is the most consistently impressive of the lot – the first on film, the last in black and white, the first of Mrs Peel, the most perfectly balanced between suspense and silliness – and I suspect I may be writing more than one rave review.

A Postcard from Avengerland

Anyway, if you watch those opening scenes, you’re very likely to want to stay for the rest. It’s a fun little episode, though it reaches its height at the beginning and peters away slightly towards the end – there are bigger fights, wackier plots and more diabolical masterminds in stories to come, but there’s still much to treasure here. Listen out for the theme in a minor key with extra ‘mysterious’ touches as they arrive at Little Bazeley; from now on, you’ll hear it about twice a week. Enjoy the pub that doesn’t like strangers, save for its jolly landlord, and see just how sinister the local church can look, despite having such a mild-mannered vicar (who gets a beautifully delivered line about make-believe). Laugh as guest star Terence Alexander has great fun playing a character playing Leslie Phillips, along with a ginormous ’tache. Then look out for just what Steed does to that ’tache. It’s a strikingly good episode for Patrick Macnee all over, as he constantly turns on a sixpence from ‘fey Steed’ to ‘scary Steed’, going from playing on the swings straight to a harder edge than you’d think possible, particularly with such a classy umbrella.

If you think you’ve seen this before, well, elements have turned up in a remarkable number of things that might have hit your screen. While it borrows from the likes of Hitchcock and The Third Man, it’s also virtually a template for the rest of the series – one of the colour episodes repeated last year, for example, was all but a remake. Those favourite Avengers plot devices, something nasty underground and the ‘dead man’ who isn’t dead / ‘living man’ who’s no longer alive, both turn up (I’ll leave you to spot how), and it’s the start of their nostalgic echoes of the war years as airfields are left to the weeds and only Steed’s left to care about old veterans. The biggest echo, though, might be in the mixed bag of an Avengers movie (1998), which plunders this story shamelessly. It even remakes each of the opening scenes I outlined, and to be fair, it manages to pull one of the three off jolly well (a more expensive version of the bizarre first scene). The trouble is, that tells you what the movie did wrong more sharply than what it got right…

“Peel, Mrs Emma Peel”

Like Doctor Who, The Avengers retained the same hero throughout, accompanied by a number of different characters – though The Avengers was more consistent in making the female lead more than a ‘sidekick’. Steed’s first woman partner seized the public imagination and made the show a huge success in its second year: Honor Blackman’s Cathy Gale was intelligent, capable, confident, experienced and physically tough a decade before the mainstream rise of feminism, and no woman had ever been like her on the screen before. But just as the style and invention of the videotaped early seasons was suddenly surpassed when they started making every episode from tomorrow’s on like a film, Mrs Peel somehow managed to be an even bigger success in her own right. You can see the chemistry between Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee burst into life, Steed more arch than before, Emma more knowing, and perfect together from the early verbal and literal fencing, through a beautifully executed double-twirl to her doing the driving while he rides side-saddle.

The movie’s really not the best of introductions to the series, and the second-biggest mistake it made was to saddle some poor actress with the thankless task of playing Diana Rigg’s Mrs Peel, rather than just creating a new character as the series had always done. The biggest mistake was picking an actress who was great on posters but not once she started moving (notably, the moment she moved her lips). In part, other Avengers women had been successful because Steed and his partner each fulfil strong but different roles, not least in the series’ fantasy of Britain – Steed has always personified the best of the old-fashioned values, and the female Avengers the best of modernity. Ironically, I’d thought that if The Avengers was to be brought back they might pick a black actress for modern Britain rather than the backward-looking attempt to recreate Mrs Peel, and the movie had a far more successful female ‘sidekick’ than ‘Emma’ on hand in the form of Mother’s assistant, who’d have been much less wooden as the lead (and, as it happens, was black).

Now Doctor Who has a new female lead, and I wish her the sort of success Diana Rigg had in the ‘impossible’ task of replacing Honor Blackman. Though he’s had a black companion in the comic strip, another particularly fine companion who was black travelling with him in the books before she died in battle (an event so traumatic it gave him a hearts attack), and of course the splendid Mickey Smith, Martha Jones will be the Doctor’s first full-time TV companion who’s black. With a relationship these days much more like that between Avengers than between the ‘traditional’ Doctor and companion, it seems almost a double step forward. Look out, incidentally, for prim glasses-wearing schoolteacher Mrs Peel in this story; a couple of months ago the Doctor chose exactly the same ‘cover’ – specs and all – in School Reunion, and all I could think of was that he was playing Diana Rigg (and a lot better than Uma Thurman did)…

A Fantasy of Britain

Steed and Mrs Peel’s respective roles helped make the series not just a ‘knowing’ picture of Britain, but gave an impression of hopeful social commentary, showing new and old Britain hand in hand, which I imagine was particularly reassuring in the 1960s. Unsurprisingly, villains in The Avengers were frequently reactions to this; either ultra-traditionalists trying to turn the clock back, ultra-modernists trying to rush us into becoming robots, or foreign agents trying to take over the country. The home-grown villains tended to get shorter shrift, with foreign countries almost never named and Steed chummier with rivals than the British bad eggs. Quite right, too, as the programme’s breezy, positive confidence was much better-suited to satire and fun than to any hint of jingoism.

Tune in regularly, and you’ll find the season beginning tomorrow has a particularly fine set of enemies of progress or its manic adherents set amid both Steed’s ‘picture postcard’ countryside and Emma’s ‘swinging London’, a reimagined Britain with all the bits that weren’t fun taken out. Steed may look dashing dressed for the hunt, for example, yet even four decades ago if ever you saw someone out hunting with hounds in the series, they were bound to be a baddie; as you’ll see tomorrow, why hunt foxes, they inevitably think, when you can hunt people? And with the series so much a myth of Britain, a postcard from an idealised country that never really was, it starts here appropriately with alternately playful and dark references to what’s still today our heroic national legend of choice, the Second World War. For my money, though, it’s always John Steed, British “by birth, nature and inclination,” who’s playing on the swings at the heart of Avengerland and defining the series.

So, why have so many agents been lost in The Town of No Return?
Could it be that some of the villagers are really impostors?
Who is the unexpected singer in the church choir?
Is Jimmy Smallwood too innocent to be true?
Why is ‘Piggy’ Warren so curiously slim?
What’s so sinister about tins?
And – are all the villages in Norfolk secretly like this?

Tune in tomorrow and find out.

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I love The Town of No Return. You know when you have such a fond memory of seeing something that you really, really could unpick the two (the event and the thing)? I'd caught little references to the show in DWM, and then one Friday evening when I was about 13 I pestered my Mum to borrow that first video from the library. I was on my own with it, it was dark outside, and you're right - from opening scene via opening titles through scene after scene it's just perfectly dark, bizarre, cool and funny. Just when I thought it was getting slow - a fight scene! The first time I ever enjoyed a fight scene! It was simply more delightful than a young man's body can stand. Thank you for reminding me!
Awwhh, you're very welcome! It was simply more delightful than a young man's body can stand sounds terrific, and it's lovely to hear I've summoned it up for you. Great review of the new Who season on your main blog (link in sidebar here) too, by the way.

Off the top of my head, my favourite fond memory associated with 'it was dark outside' (aside from countless pleasurable childhood terrors) was listening to The Keeper of Traken on headphones one Halloween while walking through a dark, windy park, and when the storm broke as leaves whirled about me it quite gave me the shivers.

With The Avengers, I remember being curled up in the sofa bed with Richard about 1995; one of us was ill, probably me, so been sleeping in the living room and we'd popped on Too Many Christmas Trees and The Joker, which were on a video together. I was completely hooked.

I got my first Avengers videos (including that) from one of our local libraries, too, but still have them - they chucked them out, and my Dad spotted them and brought them home.

I'd resisted buying any up to that point, as I'd loved the few repeats I'd seen in the '80s and feared that if I saw some really good ones on video, I'd fall completely in love with the series and have to spend much more money than I could afford simply buying the lot.

I did, of course.
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