Thursday, August 03, 2006

 

The Avengers – A Surfeit of H2O

Tonight’s Avengers on BBC4 (7.10, or 11.30 tomorrow night) is one of the first I saw on starting to collect the videos in the mid-’90s, and the first that disappointed me. I know a lot of fans think of it very highly, but somehow I’ve never found it very engaging. It has three main problems: an insufficiently witty script, an overly obvious plot and a lack of endearing characters in the guest cast. On the up side, Patrick Macnee is amusingly fey when Steed goes undercover as a wine merchant, and this week’s ‘bizarre death’ is a strikingly memorable image…
Steed plans a boat trip – Emma gets very wet
After Inferno last week during the hot spell, this story’s all about sudden torrential rain; it was only a shower when I got up this morning, but give it time. Steed and Mrs Peel are called to Lower Storpington after someone drowns in the middle of a field, leaving a water-filled hole in the shape of a man. It’s an image you won’t forget in a hurry, and the most striking thing in the episode. However, perhaps I just don’t like the idea of drowning, but the mysterious deaths here seem unpleasant rather than sinister or amusingly surreal, especially when the nearest there is to a sympathetic guest character goes out that way. We also get rather a lot of these drownings, which undercuts their effectiveness (‘Yes, we’ve seen that man-shaped hole in the field twice already, thank you’).

Our heroes have been attracted by the local religious maniac, Jonah Barnard, who’s written to The Times ten times in a month to announce that the great flood is coming. Will is excited by his acolyte Talfryn Thomas, London-based TV’s stock shifty Welshman of the ’60s and ’70s and with enormous teeth, but it’s difficult to ignore Noel Purcell as Jonah himself. He appears to be acting in a different production to everyone else; possibly a stage production for which he must project his voice sufficiently to reach every individual home. Still, even if he’s almost the definition of ‘trying too hard’, I feel for him when he’s found preaching to just a child and a dog – I’ve been a speaker at ‘public meetings’ like that. Despite all the water, though, there’s not much in the way of red herrings, as within minutes of arrival we’ve spotted the everlasting (stock footage) cloud above Grannie Gregson’s Glorious Grogs Incorporated, run by vaguely sinister but underused Geoffrey Palmer and Germanic scientist Dr Sturm. Bit of a giveaway, there. A mad scientist out to use weather as a weapon is also, of course, the plot of the ill-fated Avengers movie, and it’s a testament to how lacklustre this original is that Sean Connery threatens the world with rather more style (all right, Richard prompts me to admit I quite enjoyed the villain’s side of the movie).

The performances leave this all feeling subtly wrong. In most Avengers stories, you’d be fond of the local eccentrics and love to hate the larger-than-life villains, but here the locals aren’t part of an eccentric world but temperance-shoving, ark-building religious fundamentalists who no one takes seriously for a moment, even on their own terms, making it difficult to side with them (and it doesn’t help that Purcell in particular has taken ‘overacted’ as a synonym for ‘eccentric’). The villains are all just rather flat by contrast, with Sturm not even particularly hissable when about to flatten Emma. She’s given very little in the way of witty lines with which to shine against him: exclaiming “You diabolical mastermind, you!” from a giant wine press ought to be something the episode builds towards, but it’s telling that it works much better when, inevitably, used in clip shows. There’s a point where Steed and Emma rather blow their individual covers by investigating together in the middle of the field and are spotted by the villain – who then forgets about it. Says it all, really.

Thank heavens, then, for Steed playing it light and single-handedly rescuing the whole thing. Striding about the mythically British countryside of Avengerland in a rather marvellously old-fashioned outfit – I’m told it’s Edwardian, with cravat and taller hat; I’ll have to ask a friend who knows about antique fashions – or being given flowers by Emma, he simply looks the part and makes it fun to watch, but he completely steals the show when he appears at the grog factory to sample honeyed blarberry wine on behalf of Steed, Steed, Steed and Jacques Limited. Running rampant over the villain’s HQ, he delivers a paean to fine wine and fruit “gathered by barefoot peasant girls” before turning his nose up at the variety of unappetising vegetable concoctions put before him: sampling ‘Old Bark,’ he mutters, “Must have put the dog in it.” And there’s a priceless innuendo on ‘Old Buttercup’. So, watch it for Steed, the opening death and a very wet fight at the end, but don’t expect much more from tonight’s as a whole than TV that’s just… average. Which, for The Avengers, is a long way below standard.

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