Thursday, February 08, 2007

 

The Avengers – From Venus With Love

Tonight at 7.10 (and tomorrow at 11.30) The Avengers come to BBC4 in color, along with several other changes from the black and white style. If you’re thinking, ‘But surely British television wasn’t transmitting in colour in 1967, so why make it like that?’ then the clue to the funding’s in the spelling! In a less dramatic change, this is my first New Blogger post, so if anyone knows how to make a heart symbol appear in a title…? Tonight’s episode is particularly silly, but dear to my heart purely because this week’s pile of murder victims are all astronomers.

Steed is shot full of holes – Emma sees stars!

…And one of the first changes you’ll notice is that those little ‘introduction’ lines above now appear on screen, just after the title (the ones in my reviews of the black and white Mrs Peel episodes were used in publicity for the show). Before then, though, you’ll already have spotted an absolutely smashing title sequence – guns, gold and roses – accompanied by an extended and more percussive version of the famous theme. Well, the main body of it’s the same and that great fanfare’s still there (an extra time, now), so I’m still happy. Another change comes straight after the obligatory opening murder and the title: each episode now starts off with Steed finding increasingly outlandish ways to tell Mrs Peel ‘You’re needed’. As we first see her – now in brightly-coloured catsuit rather than the white outfits of which I was so fond, and in a starkly red and white flat – practicing her fencing, just as we first caught sight of her back in The Town of No Return, it’s appropriate that Steed first proffers an invitation impaled on his umbrella. There’s also going to be a change to the regular pattern at the end, as Steed and Mrs Peel no longer find an eccentric vehicle on which to make their exit but chat instead, and the type of plots change, too: brighter in tone as well as film stock; clearly in an ‘Avengerland’ of Britain that never was rather than anything like the real world; and a significant recurring plot device that I’ll only mention a little later, once I start giving away spoilers for this episode…

It’s not unusual in The Avengers to have some select society whose members are being bumped off one by one, and this time it’s that well-known band of exceedingly rich amateur astronomers, the British Venusian Society – a group who believe in life on Venus, and wish to make contact with it. Blazing white lights are bleaching their hair and blasting them into another world entirely… Could the Venusians be a form of fiery, gaseous life that have struck Earth first? Is the Society’s head, Venus Brown, responsible for the deaths to cover up her misuse of all those wealthy donations? Or is there some other explanation to be found by Steed and Mrs Peel, investigating in the somewhat predictable guises of playboy and journalist?

Well, before I spoil the answer for you, while this isn’t among the best of The Avengers’ colour episodes, it introduces a lot of the elements that you’ll be seeing in later weeks. There’s a remarkable set of guest stars playing an extraordinary assortment of eccentrics. Hammer starlet Barbara Shelley is Venus Brown, in a selection of ludicrous outfits – horrible red and orange stripes, a barmy black wimple and red gloves… Jeremy Lloyd, later to write Are You Being Served? and ’Allo ’Allo, is impeccably dressed charming chimney sweep Bert Smith, full name Bertram Fortescue Wynthrop-Smythe (but he doesn’t get trade with his full name; sheer class prejudice)… Philip Locke is Dr Primble, the old gag of a nearly-blind optician with huge goggles, contact lenses, and glasses in his pocket, giving Steed a fabulous eye test that consists of having to identify a series of hats (mine wasn’t like that last week, but then I wouldn’t have been able to name them all anyway)… Derek Newark, who you may recall spent Inferno being either angry or on heat has the simpler role of playing nothing but angry… And, to confuse viewers of that particular Doctor Who period, moustache-wearing Jon Pertwee plays the Brigadier.

Should you have snapped up the DVD release of this episode before it was deleted, incidentally, even the subtitles are eccentric. Originally mastered by a French company, it had both subtitles and a soundtrack in both English and French. Confusingly, the dubbing and subtitles each used different translations; more confusingly still, the English subtitles were not a transcript of the original English dialogue, but, er, a re-translation from the French subtitles. The most striking idiosyncrasy for me was that astronomer Venus Brown had worked at “Dudrud Bank” instead of the spoken “Jodrell”. I’ve always appreciated astronomy in itself, but with my Dad working at Jodrell Bank, I made sure I told him to watch out for a stack of dead astronomers when he does the next planetarium show. But before you look at all those lovely star charts, back to the episode.

It’s all highly stylised, though not quite as colourful yet as it will be – most of the colour is in the outfits, and they’re not all good (I don’t like Mrs Peel’s pale lilac dress, nor Steed’s shiny maroon dinner jacket, though his deep grey suit is rather nice). The bizarre deaths don’t get much more bizarre than these, though; the music’s rather nice from the Holst-styled opening to the lovely new closing tag theme; someone’s killed with his own weapon; there are plenty of red herrings. They’re not drinking champagne in every episode yet, but we do see Emma sip a Pimm’s and accept a brandy from Steed (who drinks bottled beer), while the first astronomer killed has a drink to hand and Lord Mansford drinks whisky in his vault. Most importantly, there are lashings of playful wit. Particularly enjoyable scenes include Dr Primble’s eccentric eye test and way of making an appointment, and Brigadier Whitehead’s way of recording his memoirs for LP, dashing between sound effects gramophones – both Steed and Emma literally fall for his machine gun sounds. And Mrs Peel inevitably – there’s a spoiler coming; I’m getting near the end here, so watch out if you’ve read this far and not watched it yet – and Mrs Peel inevitably ends up strapped into a chair with a deadly laser pointed at her. “Excellent!” exclaims the villain. “Not from where I’m sitting,” she says, finding this mildly trying.

Ah, the villain, and the method of murder. There are three things to notice here, and the first (and apparently most obvious) is that it’s not Venusians. In the black and white Mrs Peel episodes, it might not have been that obvious, though – with robots, a man-eating alien plant and telepathic spies, this could have been a real alien at work too. But though this colour Mrs Peel season seems more ‘fantastic’ and less part of the real world, these ‘Avengerland’ episodes are in fact much more likely to boil down to a more ordinarily extraordinary explanation than the previous year’s occasional willingness to experiment with wild science fiction ideas. This is the year of hoaxes.

As you may have spotted a few lines ago, the ‘glowing white light’ that floats about is, it turns out, a laser. On a car. Well, I say a ‘laser,’ and so do they, but other than being a form of projected light (and, curiously, after we know it’s a laser it’s suddenly a cool blue beam rather than a huge round blaze), it seems to boast a remarkable array of superpowers that other lasers strangely lack. Marvel as, instead of burning, it bleaches your hair and anything you’re standing next to, as if someone has chucked a bucket of sinister white paint in your general direction; wonder as it makes everything in your vicinity get very warm, but only before the light actually shines; scratch your head as characters announce they recognise it by its uniquely distinctive sound (a clue: no). Despite the amusing eccentrics, the direction is rather flat, the story seems a bit slapdash, and I have to admit this use of technology is a bit of a sticking point. I’d much rather they did what they usually do and just made something up that doesn’t really exist; it’s much more distracting to be told something that does exist works entirely differently. Ah well. Rather bizarrely, they correctly predict that lasers will be used for eye surgery (just like Mrs Peel’s futuristic phone in her car. No, really, this was like jetpacks in the ’60s).

Hang on a minute… Eye surgery? Gasp! Then this week’s diabolical master mind was Dr Primble all along! And here’s the other thing to notice. Philip Locke is enormous fun to watch and is at the heart of the funniest scenes as well as giving us ‘demented villain’ – he gives a delightful beam as he trains his laser on Mrs Peel – but this all disguises his drearily prosaic motive. It’s the argument used too often about public spending on art, science or anything not universally popular: ‘You shouldn’t be interested in space, because we should spend all our money on schools and hospitals’. In this case, he’s been wiping out the British Venusian Society because one of their sponsors switched funding from him to them. However wildly the actor goggles to try and stop you noticing, his villainy is at heart Daily Mail-sensible. On the other hand, I may just be a bit wary of opticians wanting cash at the moment. It’s been more than a week since they took my money – not enough to fund a space programme – but my new glasses still aren’t ready…

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