Thursday, October 19, 2006

 

The Avengers – Two’s a Crowd

It’s almost time for tonight’s episode of The Avengers – an absolutely outstanding one, on BBC4 at 7.10 (or tomorrow, 11.30) – and they’re showing the groovy little documentary The Avengers Revisited tonight at 10, so it’s about time I got round to reviewing last week’s. Unusually for the series, it was grounded in the time’s ‘spy reality’, though nobody was so gauche as to name the foreign embassy around which the plot revolves. Steed’s out to catch a notorious Ru… (cough) spymaster, but the ‘double’ plot that ensues is much funnier if considerably less credible than John le Carré…
Steed is single-minded – Emma sees double
Almost every series with a touch of fantasy about it has done a ‘doubles’ episode, and The Avengers did at least four, all really rather good. Two’s a Crowd came after the Honor Blackman episode Man With Two Shadows, a rather sinister slice of the Cold War with a very dark wit, but before Linda Thorson’s bizarre They Keep Killing Steed or The New Avengers’ rather splendid Faces, in which not just Patrick Macnee (as in all the others) but everyone gets a chance to play someone playing themselves. Mr Macnee’s vulgar playing of ‘Gordon Webster’ here is huge fun to watch, but what really sets this apart from the other stories in which our heroes face impersonation is that the ‘double’ plot is just the twist in the main story rather than the whole thing.

There’s actually another gimmick that a lesser episode might also have hung its entire story on - though this is far from perfect, it’s certainly inventive. The opening scene is a series of overhead shots of London, as a plane makes its way across the sky towards a grand house of the sort used for important embassies. You’re encouraged to discount that the plane looks like a dodgy model, because so many TV shows of the time used unconvincing modelwork and expected the audience to believe it that, when it drops a bomb that falls screaming into… Warren Mitchell’s punchbowl, with a small plop, it’s a refreshing surprise to realise that the model is meant to be a model. Mr Mitchell is playing Ru – ahem, foreign Ambassador Brodny, and the ‘bomb’ carries a message that mysterious spymaster Colonel Psev is coming to Britain to break the new ‘Western Defence Conference’ planning bases and routes for Polaris. In return, Steed and his dull new sidekick Major Carson (easily overcome for a bet by his usual Mrs Peel) intend to break Psev. No-one’s ever seen him, but he’s feared around the world and spotted by his entourage and foibles. When Shevedloff, Pudeshkin, Alicia Elena and Vogel turn up and demand remote-controlled model planes to adapt, a particular brand of cigars, and the rare liqueur ‘la crème de violettes’, people know Psev is in town.

Psev’s little idiosyncrasies make for entertaining scenes. See Mrs Peel in glasses, working at London’s top model shop, or turning up at the embassy with a delivery (sternly refusing to leave it at the door: “There’s two pounds to pay”), or Steed helping out Brodny with a bottle of la crème de violettes before the poor chap’s eliminated for failing to deliver. And, of course, the way Brodny grabs the plane from his underling to give himself an excuse to enter the Colonel’s rooms and try to catch a peek of the elusive Psev (where he is of course refused access to the inner office by Psev’s implacable team). There was a splendid and very darkly funny Honor Blackman episode with Warren Mitchell called The Charmers, in which also he played the leading ‘opposition’ man. That role’s essentially been split here, with the ‘spymaster’ side hived off to Psev and Mr Mitchell’s ambassador left as the comic relief. Brodny is constantly flustered, much keener on staying in Britain than being sent home, and tries his not terribly stylish best to dress like Steed. Psev’s staff, on the other hand, are much more threatening.

The episode is initially stolen by Colonel Psev’s entourage, led by Julian Glover – tall, young and commanding in his first of four Avengers roles. There are half a dozen outstanding Avengers guest actors that each appears at least four times in similarly styled roles and always steals the show… I’ve written in the past about ‘Villainous Peter Bowles’ and ‘Loveable Roy Kinnear’, but I have to admit ‘Villainous Julian Glover’ has been a favourite actor of mine from a very early age and is terrific here. He plays Vogel, very much the focal point of Psev’s team, with Shevedloff, Pudeshkin and Alicia Elena constantly consulting between themselves. In many ways it’s a joint performance, as throughout they act almost as one, closing in on Brodny in step in a remarkably threatening manner. Of the others, Ms Elena also gives a great performance with a lot of clever observations, as well as looking as striking as Vogel. It’s Glover’s arrogant spokesperson whose icy impatience with Brodny really sets them off, though.

The most impressive aspect of this episode is the way that, with a compelling four-person enemy team so comprehensively stealing it from the regulars with their performances and model gadgets, Patrick Macnee dresses up as an altogether different sort of model to steal it all back again. With Brodny already dressing as Steed’s mini-me, he’s despatched to the big new fashion show – fashion being, of course, yet another of Psev’s notorious and curiously decadent foibles – where he discovers one Gordon Webster in a hideous hat, floral shirt and ’tache, modelling the latest ghastly outfits with a most un-Steedlike swagger, his vulgarity set off by a bevy of swimsuited ‘lovelies’. It’s all hugely unlike The Avengers for a moment, and Brodny can’t believe it either, even ringing Steed to make sure he’s at home. And, naturally, this dubious male model and actor was cashiered from the army, drinks, gambles, womanises and is perfectly corruptible. Fancy! Webster is soon brought in to be quizzed by Psev’s staff, just as – coincidentally – Steed is visible on TV arriving at the Conference with the ‘Western Defence Chiefs’. Who’d have thought News 24 was going back in 1965? Mr Macnee clearly has enormous fun as Webster, wearing horrible outfits (even beating the two cardigans Steed wears this time, one of which is particularly nasty), being terribly louche and displaying a completely different body language to that of Steed, as well as managing to play someone attempting to give an unconvincing impersonation of himself once it’s decided that Webster will play Steed to infiltrate the Conference. The huge stack of notes he’s given as he bargains up his very large bribe is a scream, too. There’s an arresting moment later, when he disparagingly confuses several different customs from ‘abroad’ in a stereotyped British hooligan sort of way; it calls attention to one of Steed’s most striking characteristics, that his highly stylised Britishness isn’t remotely jingoistic and he’s confident enough not be anti-foreign, with an appreciation of other cultures and customs, notably being on rather friendly terms with Brodny from ‘the other side’. Naturally, Mrs Peel spots Webster on a visit to the Embassy, and becomes more than a little concerned. When they’re both invited to a cocktail party there and ‘Steed’ turns up with a buttonhole so huge that even Brodny despairs of his taste, Emma is caught trying to ring Major Carson about a fake Steed – by ‘Steed’, gun in hand and really rather sinister – and has to be locked up as Webster is sent off to kill the real one…

So, did you spot what the twists were going to be? If you recorded it last week and haven’t watched it yet, look away now…

What normally happens in these things is that the ‘fake’ Steed is sent to kill Steed, our hero overcomes him, and the real Steed impersonates the fake one in turn in order to round up the villains. There’s a brilliantly tense sequence with some great suspense music (largely lifted from The Cybernauts) as Steed is apparently killed, then ‘Steed’ arrives at the Conference and, with Vogel excitedly counting away the time, makes it back to the Embassy with the crucial plans captured by miniature camera tie-pin. Except, of course, that it’s all a deception. Yes, obviously it’s Steed who comes back, insists on reporting to Psev in person and gets Emma out of there while the Colonel is distracted… But it’s always been Steed. Yes, he was playing Webster all along, with recordings of him playing at Steed’s flat and on TV to give the impression he was in two places at once. And that’s not the only deception, because the entire ‘Defence Conference’ was a fabrication as bait for Psev. And ‘Colonel PSEV’ is of course a deception, as the reason he’s such a perfect all-round spy is that the acronymic mastermind is really four people. Pudeshkin handles ciphers (and smokes those cigars), Shevedloff is an expert in elimination, Elena runs the administration and makes sure every instruction from ‘Psev’ is relayed by phone by her, while Vogel is in charge of planning. They’d always acted eerily as one, and Steed had earlier sent up the carefully established set of foibles that make Psev seem ‘real’:
“He’ll be there, cigar in one hand, liqueur in the other, and flourishing a copy of The Aero Modeller, no doubt.”
The most sinister sequence was another clue, when Brodny’s deputy finds out he’s to be eliminated for his failures, discovers something (or, rather, nothing) in Psev’s inner office and attempts to defect on the shore of a rather beautiful lake, only to be shot by a model sub within sight of Steed. There are more models at the climax as Steed and Emma make their getaway – back to being Steed, he’s magnificently dignified when she holds him at gunpoint, and she’s only convinced when the model planes sent after them fire at ‘Webster’. In that old Avengers cliché, of course, the Psev team are blown up (in a rather feeble explosion) by their own model bomber. Which is jolly handy, as while Steed had already suspected Psev was his entourage, once they’ve confirmed that for him he has no plan to deal with them or even to escape with the information, which makes you wonder what he thought he was up to.

By this stage, The Avengers was mostly inhabiting its own world, a version of Britain quite unlike anyone else’s. Two’s A Crowd steps away from that to send up at the same time the gadgets of James Bond (or, indeed, ridiculous real-world spies) and the intricate string-pulling of John le Carré. The result is very entertaining, but more from the performances and characters than the quality of the plotting. By stepping into other people’s rules, it’s somehow less believable than less ‘realistic’ episodes are. A diabolical mastermind with a preposterous scheme somewhere in the Hertfordshire countryside allowing Steed and Emma to infiltrate his tiny operation? Could be. The top international spymaster of an unnamed superpower (with Russian accents, mentions of Western decadence and internal exile… All right, we can take the hint) having not a single agent at their beck and call, so that they have to get the Ambassador to do fieldwork and Steed can run rings round them? Rather than my usual willing suspension of disbelief, I find I have to switch my brain off and just enjoy all the marvellous actors. Steed’s running rings is almost literal – he certainly runs about remarkably easily for someone who you’d have thought would be under surveillance. How does Steed flit between his apartment and Webster’s or the Embassy so quickly? Are they next door? Is no-one watching him do it? Why does the attempted defector attempt to meet Steed in the Embassy grounds, and why does Steed assume he and Emma can just run out of there through the woods at the end? Are there no guards in these grounds, or even a fence? Why is Ambassador Brodny sent with ‘Webster’ to kill Steed, when he just waits outside anyway? Come to that, why is a male model sent to eliminate a top agent, rather than Psev having him accompanied by a crack team of killers? The Avengers is usually underpopulated as a stylistic trait, and I can believe that of private villainy. But when the Soviet Embassy in London and the USSR’s top world spymaster between them manage half a dozen staff and no ‘professionals’, while there’s much to enjoy here, it seems stepping out of Avengerland and into the real world (or something like it) is a mistake. I can believe the ‘unbelievable’, but the ‘unrealistic’ merely jars.

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