Friday, February 16, 2007


The Avengers – The Fear Merchants

It’s almost automatic that I recommend The Avengers each week, but while tonight’s on BBC4 at 11.30 remains head and shoulders above most TV, some Avengers are higher up than others. An ‘automatic’ feel is indeed the downside to this story of hi-tech business efficiency. The first colour episode shown was remarkably silly; this one by contrast is severe and colourless (except for Emma’s hideous mustard smock), but for a story all about fear, curiously un-thrilling. It’s not a patch on next Thursday and Friday’s showing of Escape in Time, where they suddenly turn on the colour and the fun.

Steed puts out a light – Emma takes fright

So what does The Fear Merchants have going for it? Well, there’s an intriguing mystery to start with, as leading businessmen (no women; it’s the 1960s, and only Mrs Peel or murderesses are yet allowed to be tycoons) are literally scared out of their wits by such phobias as speed, naff model spiders and, er, mice, illustrated by an impressive array of big-name and soon-to-be-big-name guest stars including Patrick Cargill, Brian Wilde, Garfield Morgan, Bernard Horsfall and Andrew Keir. The mysterious rash of nervous breakdowns opens up into something strikingly modern, as the villains – look away now if you’re particularly concerned for 40-year-old spoilers, though there are no red herrings to make it a twist – turn out to be the Business Efficiency Bureau, a team of coldly competent management consultants willing to do anything to boost the bottom line.
“Efficiency isn’t a crime.” “That depends how it’s applied.”
Even someone phoning Steed hears “Your call is being answered by a recording device…” in what must have felt a wild sci-fi idea in 1967 (today it feels strange that it’s our hero that puts you on hold rather than the soullessly efficient hi-tech villains). Think yourself into the time, though, and there’s also a whiff of something from a couple of decades earlier: the BEB’s stark, horrible ‘efficiency’ has a hint of Nazism about it – or is Doctor Voss’ German accent an accident? And that, I think, is at the root of the problem I have with this episode. It feels clinical and rather unpleasant, and as a result no-one seems to be having much fun.

Patrick Macnee does his best virtually single-handed to make this entertaining, but he’s struggling against a script and plot devoid of the usual humour, and against design and direction with little of the usual diverting style. It’s rarely witty, playful or surreal, and though there are several eccentrics, they’re mainly among the ruthless business fraternity, making them rather difficult to warm to. It’s still not without the odd spark, with Steed enjoying himself in the role of a jumped-up bureaucrat from the very 1960s-central-planning-corporatist-sounding ‘Central Productivity Council’ (more points for his cover from the ‘Monopolies Commission’, putting Mr Raven on the spot for claiming that eliminating all his competitors would be good for the customer) while investigating the way the heads of our leading ceramics firms are suddenly breaking out into the screaming heebie-jeebies. But, well, ‘our leading ceramics firms’ doesn’t set your pulse racing, does it, and though it’s not his most gorgeous day for outfits, you realise something’s wrong with the design when he’s wearing, say, a charcoal pinstripe and grey tie, or a chocolate-brown overcoat, and you start thinking, ‘Oh, that looks nice’. Neither charcoal pinstripe nor brown are looks that I usually find among his most appealing, but virtually everything else looks simply horrid. The villains, for example, wear dark glasses, black suits, white shirts and ties or ‘clinical’ white coats, surrounded by white walls, yet don’t look remotely as bold as the brilliant stylings of the previous black and white season did – more that they simply forgot to add enough colour to the picture. And as for ‘eccentric tycoon’ Jeremy Raven’s beige cardigan in his beige office… Why go to the bother of switching to colour and obviously spending so much money on sets if they’re so drab they might as well be shot in sepia?

‘What of Diana Rigg,’ you may well ask? She has a few nice bantering scenes with Steed, some of them with rather contrived drilling and chiselling to show off her artistic side, and the closing gag where she affects to have run out of champagne and really frightens Steed is a treat. And there are two sets of chocolates. Sadly, she doesn’t get the chance to do the same sort of amusing play-acting he does here, merely – inevitably – ending up tied to another chair and threatened with just plain nasty torture. Her wardrobe is something of a torment, too, but not for want of trying. Early on, she’s seen in that simply horrible mustard-coloured dress with the most unflattering cut and white highlights, with the walls in the hospital she’s visiting using exactly the same colour scheme, making it surely one of the ugliest Avengers scenes ever committed to film. Then she turns up in a vivid purple ‘Emmapeeler’ catsuit which improves her look no end, before more unflattering dresses strike, in white with an ill-considered square chest or very pale lilac that just looks washed out. At the climax, of course, she’s been sewn into an outrageous black catsuit showing the maximum amount of flesh, with metal buckles and a distinct lack of practicality. Unused to filming in colour, were they just slinging every outfit they could think of on Mrs Peel and hoping one of them would work? ‘That looks good. That looks dull. That looks ridiculous but sexy. That looks hideous, and what were they thinking?’

I don’t have a problem with the determinist caricature of ‘everyone can be driven instantly mad by their convenient phobia’ – picking up something vaguely ‘real’ and exaggerating it out of all proportion is something that suits The Avengers. It’s just that six leading industrialists become gibbering wrecks and one flings himself through a window as a result, and we get to see it happen to most of them in sadistic detail, to piercing music. This gloating nastiness goes on and on for about half the episode, and really doesn’t appeal. Neither is it directed with enough oomph to make it tense or scary for the viewer, even when it comes to an elaborately staged but dreary fight involving lots of dirt and a bulldozer, and in which Steed somehow fools his assailant by getting him to fall for exactly the same feint he used to get Steed into it (though it seems to go on for ever, someone must have liked it. It turns up again in a later story that’s the nearest the series came to ‘So It’s Come To This, An Avengers Clips Show’). Were the colour cameras so much bigger and clumsier that they’d just not learnt how to shoot exciting fights with them yet, or was it down to the director or film editor not having the knack? Either way, so much of this episode drags that for once you get the feeling it would have been better at ten or even twenty minutes shorter.

Still, there are some interesting details with the Business Efficiency Bureau. Identifying the fatal weaknesses in their clients’ competitors with the help of reams of probing questions should put you off all those questionnaires constantly thrust in front of us in modern life, while their offices have sinister automatic doors and white walls only livened by sparsely typed inspirational phrases such as ‘Observation is the root of decision’ or ‘Analysis reveals motivation’. They’re not quite evil enough to have posters of dolphins, though. Perhaps my own fear is of hospitals, as I find the ‘operating theatre’ chic of their HQ distinctly off-putting, and the revelation that the harsh lighting hides someone who’s afraid of the dark doesn’t entirely convince me, as Steed appears to deduce it because the man wears dark glasses. Eh? Mrs Peel, it must be said, does stand up well to her lie-detector-aided interrogation, revealed as so extremely well-adjusted that for their purposes she’s without fear, having learned to live with them. To modern viewers, BEB head Mr Pemberton’s gloating peroration may be especially chilling:
“Our territory is the mind. Our merchandise is fear. The dark balloon we try to hide…”
Gosh! So they’re doing PR for the Tories, then? In the end, it’s not without its moments, but with neither the tension of the bolder black and white episodes nor the vivacious fun you associate with the switch to colour, this feels like a definite wrong turning. That it’s still not at all bad is a testament to the series’ quality, but it’s a relief that most of the episodes that follow are far superior – and next week’s is one of the very best…

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There is a fan video on YouTube that you would really enjoy.

If the link doesn't work, seach under "Steed Emma what might have been"
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