Friday, February 02, 2007

 

The Avengers – Honey For the Prince

Tonight’s episode of The Avengers (11.30, BBC4) is the last they made in black and white. Next week they’re back to showing the colour Mrs Peel episodes – let’s hope for Tara King eventually – but while the monochrome stories were generally more ‘realistic’, this one has the party atmosphere of an Arabian Nights-themed end-of-season panto. It’s a Cold War assassination plot in the style of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Peering at it last night was very enjoyable (plus they had the Move singing their groovy Fire Brigade on first), though it does cheerfully employ every cliché going.
Steed becomes a genie – Emma joins a harem
This has a great many lovely moments, though the actual plot is as skimpy as the diaphanous veils in which Mrs Peel inevitably ends up dancing. She looks good in them, mind, and in her sharp white trouser suit (much more her than the more famous black leather), while Steed wears a tux jolly well. Actually, it’s a good look all round – except Mr B. Bumble, in his equally inevitable unflattering stripes – with most of the guest cast not just scene-stealing but well-dressed, attractive or both, even the particularly impressive set of non-speaking extras. Ron Moody is the brains behind The Quite, Quite Fantastic Incorporated, able to fulfil any fantasy, and he and his organisation with its preposterous ability to stage any scene within a small set of London offices unquestionably run off with the episode, despite impressive competition. There’s a remarkable erotic undercurrent from the villains – fey, fur-coated assassin Vincent is pretty and slightly sexually ambiguous, while hairy-chested mastermind Arkadi usually gives his orders with a sexual swagger and very few clothes – even before the appearance of handsome Zia Mohyeddin as Crown Prince Ali and his (again inevitable) enormous harem.

The episode follows a familiar Avengers pattern of our heroes investigating a mystery for the first half that eventually leads them to an important character who takes up much of the second half, but right from the first it’s something special on top of that. Not the typically surreal ‘teaser’ scene (the ‘genie’ in an Arabian Nights-style setting turns out to be a man with a machine gun and, shock, horror, you can see Big Ben from the window), but the scene of Steed and Emma frolicking on the way back from a party as they cross a very pretty bridge is simply gorgeous. They then arrive back at Steed’s flat to find a dying agent waiting for them, which will become an enormous cliché in the series’ later years – though not as much as a villain dying by his own weapon, as one minor hit-man does here in perhaps the shortest and least successful fight in the whole series. In mitigation, the body leads to a killingly funny scene, as Steed testily rings to remind his department to have it removed only to have to apologise on realising it’s now a different corpse to the one at the start.
“Of course I’m not trying to corner the market!”
There’s really not a lot of deep meaning to this and little more plot. Without wishing to spoil it for you, I could summarise it by saying that when a Middle Eastern country agrees to supply oil to Britain, a spymaster for the ‘Eastern bloc’ plans the assassination of their Crown Prince, employing the brilliant but naïve imagination of The Quite, Quite Fantastic Incorporated. But that tells you nothing about why this episode is worth watching, and it has a much lighter tone than the subject matter implies. The dead agent’s trail leads our heroes in order of escalating eccentricity to his flat, a honey shop and then Ron Moody’s fantasy emporium, and it’s all in the playful detail. Steed investigates the QQF Inc by trying out its fantasies (well, he would), making a gloomy Napoleon smile and having Moody’s Ponsonby-Hopkirk guess what his betuxed desire might be (a band leader? Gambling at Monte Carlo? No, of course – he could be a secret agent, for a change!). Mrs Peel, having not yet exhausted reality, poses as a hookah-smoking journalist and (quite properly) is unable to pry the precise details of people’s fantasies out of Mr Ponsonby-Hopkirk. In scenes just a step away from farce, our heroes and our villains keep popping in and out of the QQF with such timing that they only just miss each other; ordered to shut Ponsonby-Hopkirk up, however, Vincent doesn’t miss. There’s a playfully deadly scene where the QQF boss chides him for not putting enough into his play-assassination:
“Think murderously! Fix me with your eye. And think to yourself, I am going to kill him! I am going to kill him! Much better! Much more –”
(BLAM!)
“…Convincing…”
As is always the way, silencing the witness to the plan comes too late, as Steed and Emma have finally worked out that an Arabian theme, an assassination plan and forty man-sized jars of honey might just have something to do with the visiting Crown Prince Ali. Yes, there are bound to be points when you wince, particularly at the harem – it’s not quite as culturally sensitive as Carry On Up the Khyber – but in a very Avengers way, it treats Arab stereotypes of the time in exactly the same way as it does its British stereotypes, both glorying in them and overturning them. Except for his taste in women, Prince Ali’s Arab clichés are all played for the benefit of his crawling vizier; as soon as Steed shows up, he springs out of his robes, fully dressed in cricket whites for a game. It’s a relic of when the world was assumed to be educated at Oxford and Cambridge, but very entertaining.

No points will be awarded for guessing how, suspecting the assassin is hiding in a giant honey-jar but unable to enter the scimitar-guarded harem, Steed manages to get someone inside there…

Though the drooling reaction is a little unsavoury, Emma’s “star of the east” dance of the six veils (“She was poorly educated, Your Majesty. Alas, she cannot count” – her reaction’s a treat, and I’m surprised he kept his jaw) leads to much hilarity as Steed puts down her intelligence, gives her to the Prince and then tries to distract him from, ah, going to see her, while rival ‘diplomat’ Arkadi stirs it unmercifully. Of course the Prince never gets to lay a hand on her, but before a rather clever ‘hoist with his own petard’ finish for Arkadi and our heroes’ exit via magic carpet, Ali does visibly enjoy one of the series’ sexier fights, as Vincent and Emma go at each other with swashbuckling cutlasses. It’s hardly demanding, but all the guest actors are great to watch, with Ron Moody’s eccentric just stealing the honours from Arkadi, a particularly formidable opponent (you may remember George Pastell as the ‘villainous generic foreigner’ of several Hammer films and the Hammer-influenced Doctor Who story The Tomb of the Cybermen). An unusual close to the black and white series, then, with Avengerland almost going international instead of op-art, but at the end you get the feeling they enjoyed making it, and you enjoy watching it. Suddenly, the series has become a lot sillier, and if you come back for The Avengers “in color” next Thursday and Friday, you’ll find this one pretty much sets the new tone…

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