Thursday, April 12, 2007

 

The Avengers – The Correct Way to Kill

This evening’s edition of The Avengers (BBC4 at 7.10, and again tomorrow night at 11.50) is one of the most amusing and – with its impeccably polite killers, an army of deadly agents inspired by Steed’s fashions, and Emma meeting her Eastern Bloc match – one of the most ‘iconic’, though hardly the most original. The US-financed colour episodes from 1967 were really getting into their swing, so writer Brian Clemens decided he’d like to show American audiences some of what they’d missed in the early ’60s with this direct remake of black and white Honor Blackman episode The Charmers, the first of three and a half such rewrites. With the beautifully filmed Mrs Peel shows “in color” by far the best-remembered, most-repeated and most often commercially available of The Avengers these days, it’s a fair bet that this version is better-known than the original version. But is it better?

Steed changes partner – Emma joins the enemy

This story certainly has a scintillating script, though writer / producer Brian Clemens deserves most of his credit for it for the 1964 rather than the 1967 version, but there’s also impressive work from (appropriately) Ealing Comedy director Charles Crichton and a startling array of guest stars – Philip Madoc, Peter Barkworth, Anna Quayle, Terence Alexander, Timothy Bateson, Michael Gough – with even Steed and Emma’s outfits almost uniformly delightful this time out (thanks to Pierre Cardin and Alun Hughes). Added to all that talent, it certainly had a lot more money put into it than the visibly much cheaper version made more crudely on videotape. Now, by this stage you’re going to imagine my punchline to be that the cheapie prototype has a raw power to it, but that the stylish and expensive remake loses the chemistry and is a terrible flop. Actually, no. Both of them are splendidly crafted and highly entertaining pieces of television – but the earlier one, while less polished, remains the more stylish…

More (sigh) to follow…

Meanwhile, for anyone trying to get in touch, again please use the e-mail link in the sidebar. My main e-mail address remains inaccessible, despite my being told by my ISP that it was a temporary problem and everyone’s service would be restored by “tomorrow evening”. That was a week of tomorrows ago now… Anyone with the misfortune to share Breathe as their ISP has my sympathy.

…And after a slight interregnum, I’ve caught up [readers may be reassured to learn that we did eventually find a better ISP. And for this particular piece of television, it seems apposite that it’s Waitrose].


Iconic Avenging

It’s not hard to understand why this is an iconic episode: The Avengers defies a simple description, but is often called a comedy spy series, while I’d describe it as a fantasy of Britain. This is one of the most comedy scripts (even more noticeable in the more down-to-earth 1963-4 series as a clear signpost of what was to come), one which unusually revolves around spies from ‘the other side’ rather than mad scientists and mad conservatives, and as for a fantasy of Britain… The villain wants to take over the world with an army of Steeds. It even starts on a foggy cobbled street at night by gas lamp, as a rather nastily-outfitted Russian member of the other side with an accent – which all of them share (to verifying degrees of plausibility) but no-one mentions – waits for two impeccably attired chaps in suits and bowlers just like our hero’s to come round the corner, accompanied by an inappropriately (or is it?) martial fanfare. They have important information to sell – but, being British, can’t do so until they’ve been properly introduced. So, is this a topical tale of traitors? It seems so for a moment… But then it looks more complicated, as their raise their hats to their contact – and shoot him dead with silenced pistols, leaving him in the gutter as they walk briskly away and the episode’s title is revealed as the punchline: “The Correct Way to Kill”. The music’s far better with Laurie Johnson than the 1964 version, of course, as is the title, and this teaser scene’s much more to the point – establishing the Cold War and the perfidious stiff upper lip. Yet while upper-class killers Percy and Algy are one up on the less memorable lone well-mannered warrior of the earlier production, I can’t help thinking it was more subtle and stylish when fencing practice turned suddenly deadly was presented as a complete mystery. As the episode goes on, too, you notice that the army for whom Percy and Algy are prototypes are all trained in foils; that the episode ends with an exciting pair of fights with foils; and that this opening scene rewritten with guns… Lacks its earlier symmetry.

So, we have a mystery. Who is killing off the Soviet other side’s agents? And why? Steed and Mrs Peel meet on that cobbled street in the clear daylight, and two of them look rather good on it. I don’t usually go for pinstripe, but Steed’s is in a rather plush grey that always suits him, while Emma’s in a striking blue top and very vibrant orange blouse and skirt (very Pet Shop Boys). It’s not what you’d expect her to be wearing, but she looks terrific in it. That street, though, looks even more like a studio in ‘daylight’; unusually for this period of The Avengers, the whole thing’s filmed on studio sets*, and perhaps it’s a little let down by their ranging only from ‘quite intriguing’ to ‘functional’ rather than up to ‘outré’, meaning that while this episode is visibly much less cheap than the 1964 production it’s still one of the cheaper ones by 1967 standards (perhaps they spent the budget on the star-studded guest cast?). Anyway, Steed is rather peeved to recognise Groski in the gutter:
“You mean he’s not one of ours?”
“No. He’s one of theirs. One of their top agents.”
“That makes a change.”
“Yes, but it’s embarrassing. If he had been naughty, they might have had the good manners to have popped him off in his own country.”
“Leaves us with all the paperwork.”
It’s just not cricket. He hopes they don’t do it again… But, of course, they do, dispatching agents in a lift and then a revolving door, with Emma pulling Steed up on repeating his same testy observations about purges and unethical behaviour…
“We need a drink.”
That you haven’t said.”
Which, knowing those two, I frankly find unlikely. Still, that gets us back to Steed’s flat for the scene that sets up the dynamic of most of the plot: Emma notices a lurking presence and, tethering Steed to declaim a mish-mash of poetry and prose, lures in and clobbers Philip Madoc’s agent Ivan, who wants to shoot our hero (while Steed saves, then offers, the red wine). And it’s not just that he’s fed up with schoolboys reciting Casabianca – in a twist on who’s usually ‘the Avengers’, he’s been sent to kill Steed in revenge for the others. But Steed hasn’t killed anyone all week! With Ivan convinced, they realise that someone is setting the two sides against each other and decide to work together – Emma being assigned to work with Ivan, and Steed given a new partner who’s the most Russian Russian ever shown on TV without anyone ever saying the word “Russian”. And so the hi-jinks ensue. With an increasing level of spoilers from this point on.

Stars From the Other Side

I’ve said this has a set of great guest actors and a script full of witty lines, though the two don’t always come together to make great parts. The late Peter Barkworth gets little to do but sneer and shoot as assassin Percy (and Graham Armitage still less as Algy, though the only other TV I really know him from is Doctor Who’s The Macra Terror, coincidentally broadcast the same day), while Timothy Bateson has virtually nothing but being testy, then jumpy, then murdered in a blackly comic way. Philip Madoc’s Ivan is on paper a more shallow part than the 1964 equivalent “Martin” and probably the slightest of his five Avengers roles, but he mines something memorable from not very much, not only making the most of his meagre lines but with a flickering wolfish grin, many significant looks, lots of business with his coat and an ability to insinuate himself into the foreground so that, when he does get something to say, you listen. Not long after they kill off Ivan, the traditional mid-episode shift of scene takes us to SNOB and Terence Alexander’s Tarquin Ponsonby-Fry, a larger role but almost his polar opposite – where Ivan was mostly gloomy with a predatory smile, stating his opposition to Steed but eventually helpful, Ponsonby-Fry lights up with admiration at Steed’s style but, for all his smiling worship, wants to give him a short, sharp, stab in the back.

The two biggest guest roles are both from the other side: Anna Quayle’s formidable Olga (wearing a complete Russian bear) and Michael Gough’s spymaster Nutski (“My friends call me Nutty”). Olga is a more heavily armed, more ideologically pure and far less knowing Mrs Peel, introduced to much admiration from Nutski (“And they say that today there is no moral fibre among the younger generation”) and with much hostility to Steed (though she thaws slightly by the end, the tag scene suggesting a degree of cultural exchange and offering a good shaggy dog of a party manifesto). She’s the biggest change from The Charmers – not as subtle, funny or lush as Fenella Fielding’s Kim Lawrence, but with a completely different character and different set of lines she’s able to make the part her own. And I suspect it may have been written that way, as Anna Quayle had had a hit on stage with a very similar Soviet part in Stop the World – I Want To Get Off. She has the disadvantage that where Kim’s unpredictability would throw Steed, Olga’s blunderbuss fanaticism doesn’t worry him at all, though her utterly straight absurdity and reactions direct to camera for his more outrageous moments are still priceless. While there’s a running joke about his asking for her to be more “subtle”, that’s something someone might have said to Michael Gough, as his characterisation of Nutski starts with the name and goes upward. Where Warren Mitchell’s 1964 equivalent Keller is grubby, Nutski is hammy, and only in part because his plan is significantly inflated here (like his little tribute to The Great Dictator). Perhaps Michael Gough, a superb actor with an amazingly long résumé, just wanted to differentiate his performance from last season’s Dr Armstrong in The Cybernauts (Emma gives a twirl to that role here as one of her several homages to that particular episode)? He still gets many of the best lines, and Merlin’s hanging crocodile, but somehow he’s less funny by being just that bit too over the top, right from his first greeting to Steed – and aside to Ivan:
“What a delightful surprise! What a pleasure to see you again! I told you to kill him.”
Imitation and Flattery

Steed and Emma are still at the centre of all this, despite so many scene-stealers – not least because even the villains recognise that they are the best in the world. Everyone mysteriously seems to have the same Enemy Identification Boards boasting rather lovely publicity shots of each of them, with her tickled at their labels; and while Steed is the more obvious model for the evil of the Third Way, that might just be because Mrs Peel is too high a standard to meet. The killers trained at Sociability, Nobility, Omnipotence, Breeding, Inc. (like FOG, SMOG and ABORCASHATA, I can’t resist an acronym) are all men, and all doing Steed the compliment of becoming dangerous agents with bowlers and swordstick brollies but with added fascistic taxi-hailing… But they’re all taught by a woman, who’s clearly deadlier. SNOB, as it should, has the best of the sets, rich-looking golden panelling outside, fashionable paint sketches within.

Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg live up to their roles as ever, both seemingly enjoying an episode in which even the baddies hero-worship them. Steed has enormous opportunities for fun paired with Olga and then admired by Ponsonby-Fry as so much better than his protégés even in defeat, with Patrick Macnee happily every bit as suave as the script demands, and while Emma has less time to form double-acts with Ivan or Nutski, Diana Rigg gets some sparkling moments on her own (as well as a fabulous reaction to what Hubert Merryweather does, in a gag that literally up-ends a role from the earlier version). Emma wins the outfits, too in an episode where neither of them have a bad one – though Emma’s lilac trouser suit isn’t too striking and Steed’s slightly-too-dark-for-him navy suit is, shockingly, accessorised by a non-matching black bowler, even Steed’s cravats are stylish, and while Emma’s vibrant dark blue and orange from earlier in the episode is her best outfit here, to prepare for the inevitable fights she swaps round the dominant colours for an even more vivid orange Emmapeeler with dark blue trim. If I have a complaint, it’s that neither are at their most dangerous – perhaps they simply assume beating imitations will be a breeze. So, for example, Emma’s delivery of “I can assure you, my cheek will be nowhere near his jowl” can’t help but sound secretly indulgent, lacking Cathy’s fiery whiplash the first time, and though their individual swordfights at the climax are neatly choreographed – particularly Emma and Olga at last perfectly in sync – something in me says they’re the wrong way round; Emma gets to be stylish but looks too easy, while Steed’s fight with Ponsonby-Fry sees the two smashing and slashing as if their foils are broadswords or cutlasses, making it more about strength than style. It’s a rare moment where they slip into sexual stereotypes, and also for me Steed seems more dangerous when he looks like he’s not trying, and Emma when beating men at their own game.

Perhaps that’s part of the sense that, in polishing The Charmers, they’ve filed off some of its edge. Other than Ponsonby-Fry’s creeping, it’s mostly so light and frothy that there’s not much sinister, despite a rare outing for Mrs Peel’s first season’s old ‘mysterious’ music in a colour episode and two effective ominous moments, one a ‘hanged man’ in the foreground as Steed and Olga enter Winters’ shop (though the proprietor is much jollier than the creepy old curmudgeon once in his place), and another a brief use of writer Brian Clemens’ favourite ‘undertaker’ motif. It’s certainly not threatening when the diabolical mastermind’s plan suddenly grows to preposterous proportions. He’s revealed as none other than triple-crossing Nutski himself – not merely frustrated, as Keller was in 1964, with being an underfunded station chief and looking to exploit both sides, but suddenly a Bond villain who wants to take over the entire world! I like the idea ‘How would a Russian take over the world? By being just like the British’, and that we’re secretly very unsporting, too, but it’s a bit of a leap, and Michael Gough is both too much and not enough. If you want a bonkers villain who throws around a globe, plots world domination and declaims “this is merely the beginning” like he means it while still being funny, I have the terrible confession that Sean Connery slices much better ham in The Avengers movie (though in general that’s far less successful than The Correct Way To Kill). For what’s been – for 1967 – a relatively small, relatively (relatively) rooted in reality spy spoof, it seems to climax in a failure of nerve and try to puff itself up to something it isn’t. The villains want to be the Avengers, but bigger, and badder, and fail; the producers want to do The Charmers, but bigger, and better, and… Nearly succeed. But not quite. It’s still funny, stylish and a solid piece of Avenging, but it tries just that little bit too hard.


*There’s just one brief scene filmed in a real dingy, wet street as Ivan’s nasty car drives up; establishing it shows us that the other side are a bit cheap, but it hardly adds to the style of the thing.

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