Thursday, August 10, 2006


The Avengers – The Hour That Never Was

Tonight’s Avengers on BBC4 (7.10, or 11.30 tomorrow night) features eerie goings-on at a deserted airfield, and is often raved about. It’s certainly atmospheric, but I tend to find it a little slow; for half of it, Steed and Mrs Peel are the only characters on screen, and while it’s all terribly well-shot there’s not a lot of dialogue to make it sparkle. If it was made today rather than 41 years ago, it would probably be called ‘ambient television’. When other actors finally appear, look out for scene-stealing Roy Kinnear and Gerald Harper, star of BBC-answer-to-The-Avengers Adam Adamant Lives.
Steed has to face the music – Emma disappears
This is definitely one of those sinister stories where you wonder what’s going on, always a good question to be teased with, though the question is probably more satisfying than the answer. It’s very evocative, with a keen sense of nostalgia for a Britain that’s passing, but also for the Second World War – perhaps it’s nostalgia for less complicated enemies, with the villain here (while a jolly performance) rather greedy and underhand. Apparently inspired by location visits to abandoned airfields for the rather more diverting The Town of No Return, it seems to have done particularly well for anecdotes. Dave Rogers’ The Ultimate Avengers, for example, suggests they wanted We’ll Meet Again for the scenes wandering around the deserted base, while Cornelltoppingday’s less authoritative but much more amusing The Avengers Dossier suggests that Roy Kinnear’s part of Hickey (whose name they get wrong) was written for Harold Pinter. Both note that the studio wanted to drop the comedy speeded-up end scene, too.

Anyway, it’s suggested that Steed – usually an army man – flew out of RAF Station 472 Hamelin frequently in the war, probably to be dropped on some intelligence mission rather than doing the flying himself. Two decades later, the base is closing down and Steed’s been invited to the party, trying to get Mrs Peel interested with lots of those ‘You’ll really like this bit…’ conversations that never go that well. However, something odd is going on, and after crashing his car by a rather pretty lake in the opening scene (a dog runs in front of him, which links rather well to the plot) they wake up to find the base deserted. It takes a keen eye and the new-fangled ‘pause button’ to see if Mrs Peel is actually in the car before it crashes, which is rather a clever touch; when, nearly two-thirds of the way through the episode, Steed wakes up a second time to find his car still crashed but no Mrs Peel, it’s some time before the viewer is given any evidence as to whether or not the bulk of the episode is a dream.

Hallucination or not, I’ve always loved the image of Emma sauntering across the top of a peculiarly memorable bridge (it turns up a lot in The Avengers, even making it to the Tara King titles; I’ve always rather wanted to visit) and the way our heroes stride purposefully around the airfield in cool hand-held camerawork after they find the officers’ mess deserted.
“I don’t hear a plane.”
“Takes a bit of coaxing to get it started. So will you when you’re that age.”
The twenty minutes or so of them on their own does start to make you wonder when something’s going to happen, though; it really makes me appreciate the scripting of Doctor Who: The Ark in Space, which also starts with pretty much a two-handed episode but never feels sparse. It’s only after a mysterious vibration causes Steed to lurch into the fall-out shelter (as he tumbles, we actually see his immaculate suit covered in grass, if briefly) that he’s separated from Mrs Peel and then, dead-on half-way through, meets another living soul at last. It’s one Benedict Napoleon Hickey, and this bit part is of course played by one of the half a dozen most outstanding Avengers guest stars, each appearing at least four times and always stealing the show – give a big hand to ‘Loveable Roy Kinnear’, playing a tramp who collects string but absolutely not stamps, and always scavenges at air bases.
“Oh, yes, sir, serpently. None of that army or navy rubbish for me. I’m loyal, I am, loyal to the air force – always have been. Best dustbins in the business.”
It’s almost as if, with hardly any dialogue in the episode, his is overwritten to compensate, but who could complain when he’s so fantastic? Patrick Macnee, too, gives a great performance as his usual urbanity becomes harsher through his worry for Emma. Before long he’s unconscious again, back at the car, and when he staggers back to the base he looks more wrecked than we ever see him. Why, his tie’s even askew and his top button’s undone.

Of course, this time the base is full of people and the time appears to have jumped back an hour, so perhaps it was all a dream. Hmm, I wonder. He’s greeted by Gerald Harper as his old friend Squadron-Leader Ridsdale, who seems slightly sinister, and the jolly camp dentist, filling in for the MO. Ooh, which of them could be the villain? I have to admit, having spent so long building up the tension, it’s all finished off in a bit of a rush – no sooner do we have the dastardly and slightly improbable plan explained than there’s a fight and, oh, it’s over (still, they were right and the studio was wrong – their exit with milk float is funny). It slightly gives the feel of an old Doctor Who structure with the middle cut out; the series tended to have intriguing first episodes made up largely of unanswered questions, then follow with various complications of plot and character building up to the eventual climax. This contrasts with the new series which, usually giving the story all in one go at an Avengers sort of length of 50 minutes as opposed to the old four or so 25-minute episodes, tends to skip most of the atmospheric buildup so as to fit in enough ‘meat’. Back in the ’70s, there was a two-part story called The Sontaran Experiment which has a very similar feel to this; an eerie, atmospheric outdoor first half, then spends the second half falling over itself to try and get it all wrapped up in time because not enough happened except moodiness in the earlier part, as if the vital middle bit’s just missing and consequently much-missed. That was initially impressive but not terribly satisfying in the end, too…

Next week’s episode of The Avengers, on the other hand, is magnificent.

Labels: , , ,

Comments: Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?