Thursday, August 17, 2006


The Avengers – Dial a Deadly Number

Tonight’s Avengers on BBC4 (7.10, or an earlier than usual 11 o’clock tomorrow night) is particularly splendid. In a final proof that the ‘secret agent’ bit less important to our ‘agent’ heroes than just having fun, watch Steed trying to pull apart Emma’s cover story in front of the villain just because he enjoys the verbal fencing, then marvel at possibly the greatest duel ever seen on television – in wine-tasting. It also scores highly on ‘Ooh, it’s him’, with not just Peter Bowles but the vicar from To the Manor Born together for the first time. Don’t miss it.
Steed plays bulls and bears – Emma has no option
Update on August 24: a week later, I’ve finally had the chance to review this properly, so I hope you saw and enjoyed it in the meantime. With the Proms on BBC4 for a few weeks, there’s no regular Avengers at the moment (I trust they’ll be back), and even tomorrow night’s Death At Bargain Prices has already been shown in this run, so there’s no review especially for this week. Back on Dial a Deadly Number, however, I did of course watch it again and enjoy it immensely.

It’s a slightly old-fashioned story, sparkling with sex and snobbery, featuring the familiar Avengers theme of old versus new and a particularly striking script. The two leads are both particularly good, too, and given plenty to do, as Emma proves to be an expert in finance and medicine – oh, and Steed proves to be an expert on wine and women. Yes, the means of murder is obvious from the first scene, but there are lots of suspects, and while someone’s killed by his own weapon (rather an Avengers cliché), again there are enough villainous sorts not to have to give away who. It all centres on a terribly traditional bank finding an exciting new way to keep afloat; like the Avengers themselves, bankers Boardman and Harvey reflect both old-fashioned values and modernity, but here the team is rather less harmonious and the moderniser more than a little suspect. The plot turns on deadly dealings in the stock market – and who can’t believe that brokers and bankers are capable of sheer, murderous evil? – and on some diabolically advanced technology which – and I know you’ll find this hard to believe in such things – involves a device one can carry in one’s pocket and enable you to be reached by means of a phone call. I know, I know, it’s less plausible when they go off on these wild science fiction ideas, isn’t it?

It’s brimming with familiar guest stars: Jan Holden, Anthony Newlands, Gerald Sim (aka the vicar from To the Manor Born, the series later to give Peter Bowles the star part that broke him out of always playing villains), Michael Barrington, Clifford Evans, John Bailey, Norman Chappell… All of them cut a dash, from sniffy bankers to dowdily camp undertakers, but the two that always strike me are both actors who appear in several Avengers apiece, once previously even in another episode together (Second Sight), but who show exactly opposite ways to be a returning guest artist. I’m always surprised when I realise how many times I’ve seen John Carson in something; he’s something of a human chameleon, and almost unrecognisable from the reserved Dutch millionaire he was in his Honor Blackman Avengers (Gerald Sim, John Bailey and Norman Chappell all appear in quite a few unassuming little parts, too). Here, he plays an unusually grubby murderer with a seedily sexual edge who has stopped a clock for every victim since learning his trade as a Second World War partisan, and who leaves you feeling slightly unclean. After ‘Loveable Roy Kinnear’ in the previous episode, there is of course another of my half a dozen most outstanding Avengers guest stars that each appears at least four times and always steals the show, this time ‘Villainous Peter Bowles’ as the laughing John Harvey. Where Mr Carson submerges himself in a completely different part, Mr Bowles is an urbane and charismatic villain who’s instantly recognisable, as he will be in each Avengers episode where he makes an appearance. With so many villainous guest actors doing such good work in this episode alone, what surprises me here is how little he’s on screen, but though featured rather little he steals every scene he’s in. I vividly remembered the final fight with him in the wine cellar from the early ’80s repeat, and on seeing it again at last when the video was released in the mid-’90s I found I’d pictured the details so sharply that it was difficult to believe I’d really not seen it for half my life.

There are times when the episode seems a little uneven, as it lurches from exceedingly talky lectures on the stock market to a number of thrillingly unconventional ‘duels’, but when the good bits are so good I can forgive it almost anything. See a ‘bullfight’ with a motorbike! Gasp as Steed’s verbal fencing with Emma tries to blow her cover for the sheer fun of it! And swoon not at Steed’s pistol-shooting but his wine-tasting skill in one of the most breathlessly tense duels ever filmed! It’s an absolutely stunning scene, as Steed and Boardman pace to opposite ends of the wine cellar to shoot tastings at each other, played deadly seriously; it’s Boardman’s own cellar, of course, and as in any rigged duel, it’s impossible for Steed to score a hit. Naturally, he does.
“1908 would… not be the year. 1909. From the northern end of the vineyard,”
finishes Steed, making Boardman’s monocle pop like a splash of blood. The climax takes place in the wine cellar, too, with a grim and gritty gunfight leavened by banter about bribery and, of course, the popping of corks (“A very adaptable wine”) that all combined to make it supremely memorable.

One of the unique aspects of The Avengers is that even when hard at work, our heroes are still treating it as a game. Could any other series have the ‘secret agent’ bit less important to the agents than just having fun? You may remember Emma telling ‘Jock McSteed’ “You don’t have a Scots accent” in Castle De’Ath as she tried to sink his cover story for the sheer hell of it; here he gets his own back when told
“Mrs Peel is another client of ours; from Barbados.”
“She arrived last week.”
“You surprise me.”
“Why’s that?”
“So little tan.”
“Ah – the rainy season.”
“Of course.”
While in any other ‘spy series’ the fellow agent would chip in with a defensive factoid to divert the villain’s suspicions, here it’s villainous Mr Harvey who has to come to Mrs Peel’s rescue, pointing out the “Annual average 36 inches. Half of which falls between September and November.” That trying to catch each other out for fun is more important than trying to catch the crooks is one of the most delightful definitions for me of why I love The Avengers. The Bill, it isn’t.

There’s rather more sex than usual, too, with Fitch a seedy voyeur (and very fourth wall, as he watches scenes we’ve just seen again on film) and Steed and Emma both flirting with other villains.
“May I come in?” asks Mrs Boardman at the door of Steed’s flat.
“Please do.”
“It’s much as I’d imagined it.”
“The fact that you imagined it at all intrigues me.”
She’s well-played and has some good lines, but the attitude to sex is very old-fashioned for this series; there’s the implication that a woman who’s having an affair is irredeemably wicked, and probably anybody’s. To cap it all, she’s not even the main villain and doesn’t get a proper comeuppance (she’s apparently divorced ‘off’). Still, she’s impressive on screen, and Steed gets a terrifically caddish moment with her. Psychotic engineer Fitch has built Steed a replica watch with a bomb in it that Ruth Boardman plants on him – yes, that old deadly watch / pen trick beloved of The Cybernauts and many other Avengers tales, though in fairness this does both pen and watch and was the first example of it to be filmed – and Steed exposes her complicity by carelessly whirling it in front of her. She cracks and tips him off about Mr Fitch, enabling Steed to play the same trick again, making Fitch jump as Steed taps his watch on the table. It’s a great mix of tension and a visual gag, as is Steed’s early scene in stockbroker Yuill’s office. Mr Yuill has several stuffed fish on his wall to accompany Steed’s fishing for information, and as he hooks the broker over a dead company chairman the camera cuts in rapidly to the pike on “It was quite a killing.”

If there’s something that seems a little strange and un-Avengers early in the episode, it’s that, despite the penthouse, its feet often seem on the ground; there are shots of London that could be seen in any series, rather than being set in some mythologised Britain, and when Steed’s being lectured on put options by a broker he seems just to be in The City. Steed carrying a gun and using it to shoot a biker assassin seems, well, rather as if it’s a scene from a different series altogether – it may be a tense little action scene, but it seems rather real-world violent for The Avengers. It’s a relief when they end up in the wine cellar for several scenes of Peter Bowles being urbanely sinister, and it becomes hyperreal rather than realistic. A slow starter, then, but once it gets going… It’s magnificent.

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