Friday, January 23, 2009


The Psychedelic Spy and The New Avengers – Faces

At 11.55 tonight it’s BBC4’s latest episode of The New Avengers: Faces, an impressive adventure that reels you in slowly and really grabs you by the end. It’s the fourth and perhaps the best of The Avengers’ ‘doubles’ stories, going for broke with Steed, Gambit and Purdey all replaced by doppelgängers – or are they? Patrick Macnee and Joanna Lumley in particular are brilliant, and you can also catch Joanna on the iPlayer in The Psychedelic Spy, a drug-soaked, disturbing ’60s-set thriller that’s been playing on BBC7 all week (watch out for spoilers about both if you read on).
Doppelgängers were a staple of ’60s and ’70s series whose feet left the ground, especially science fiction or the more outré spy thrillers – and with The Avengers crossing the boundaries between both of those, with comedy, fantasy and more besides, it’s no surprise that the series had a go at the subject more than once. Two’s a Crowd did it as cod le Carré for Mrs Peel (and there’s a touch of it in her Who’s Who??? and Never, Never Say Die, too), while Tara King’s They Keep Killing Steed may just give you a hint as to which character is copied multiple times. The two that try for the most ‘realistic’ approach, however, are the best of them. Back in 1963, Man With Two Shadows pitted Cathy Gale against Steed, both when one of his associates tips her off that he’s a fake and when he’s shown at his most ruthless with the real doubles. More incredibly, Faces relies much further on coincidence, recovering slightly with talk of plastic surgery and a story spread over a five-year time period, but really succeeds in its intercourse between the regulars. There’s also arresting direction, and among three well-characterised villains you’ll find Edward Petherbridge, later to find fame as Lord Peter Wimsey. Oh, and before I go on with my usual spoilertastic analysis, have you got this week’s Radio Times? Ignore what it says. It’s not a spoiler, just almost completely wrong.
“I’d better have a word with him. Pull him back into line.”
“And if he doesn’t?”
“Hmm. He’ll just have to be replaced, won’t he?”
Like several New Avengers episodes, the opening scene’s set some years – five, it turns out – before most of the rest of the story. Unusually, this is without clearly identifying it as such, and the strong implication’s that the main part of the episode takes place over a period of weeks, if not months. Though neither script nor direction express that as well as they might, it gives the story added weight and credibility, and the director gives it real force. Two tramps see an obviously wealthy man drive past, the spitting image of one of them; after what we infer is a period of studying him, the pre-credits sequence ends with one of the series’ most striking freeze-frames, as the rabbit-poaching tramp shoots an arrow into the wealthy double who’s diving into his own private pool. It may not be a subtle way of killing, but it gets your attention.

I’ll fill in the rest later, having given you a taste; my beloved came in late from work after a hellish journey, so I’ve been ministering to his needs and cooking a big meal in an attempt to revive him. Now I’m a little sleepy on it, so I’ll finish once I’ve had a while to digest. Possibly Monday!

The Psychedelic Spy

And finally, a word on Andrew Rissik’s radio thriller, made in 1990, set very firmly in 1968, and broadcast in five parts this week on BBC7. If you missed it, it’s well worth tuning in on the BBC iPlayer; James Aubrey’s rather good as the lead, but ’60s legends Gerald Harper, Charles Gray and of course Joanna Lumley completely steal it.

I’ve been trying to work out in my head something to say about The Prisoner since Patrick McGoohan died last week – I fear it’s still in a bit of a tangle, but if you want to try unpicking the series yourself, it is of course being repeated twice every Tuesday on ITV4. It’ll only be four episodes in this week (depending on how you count them, which is trickier than it sounds), so the next one up’s as good a place as any to pick it up: Free For All is a relatively early episode, which means it explains some of the set-up, but it’s also the first to go utterly barking mad, so that gives you a flavour of what it can all turn into. This isn’t quite as much of a detour as it reads, as BBC7 has been repeating two of The Prisoner’s cousins. Each weekday morning at 9.30 they’re currently broadcasting Michael Jayston’s superb reading of Rogue Male, a 1930s thriller novel that’s a clear antecedent of Patrick McGoohan’s masterwork – it, too, has a magnificently egocentric lead character, a lone wolf at the top of his brutal profession, who’s trapped, repeatedly trying to escape, and persecuted physically and psychologically by anonymous servants of a mysterious service who want to find the purpose of his attention-grabbing opening action. And, of course, the starting point of The Psychedelic Spy is a top agent who resigns – only for his old bosses to try to bring him back in, sent against his will to a mysterious environment where no-one’s loyalties are entirely clear. With a lot of drugs.

The story is both an effective thriller in itself and a meditation on where the ’60s went sour, aided by a soundtrack including Jimi Hendrix, the Byrds and, most tellingly, the Who; the performances are uniformly excellent, the mood alternately grumpy and despairing, and the twists – all right. Look away to avoid spoilers, remember, as I turn to the outstanding actors. Robert Eddison, Michael Cochrane and Ed Bishop are all excellent as minor characters (particularly, I think, Mr Eddison’s fading old master of secret information), and James Aubrey’s rather good as Billy Hindle, the British secret assassin who wants out because he fears he’s turning into a psychopath. The first episode stars Gerald Harper, formerly Adam Adamant, as his manipulative boss Sir Richard Snark; no, with a name like that he’s not very nice, but he’s awfully good at it. The whole thing really gets going, however, when Hindle flies out to Temptation Island, run by dying charismatic genius Charles Gray and his glamorous wife Joanna Lumley. They are, in short, fantastic.

It feels very much like a ’60s thriller, not just for the stars but its mix of acid music, James Bond, The Prisoner, Callan and le Carré (with a dash of Apocalypse Now), but despite its quality, one aspect disappointed me. I think of women in thrillers being the ’40s and ’50s femmes fatale of film noir, or the powerful figures of the ’80s, or simply being treated much the same as the men since; the fact that my favourite series from the ’60s that can very roughly be described as a spy thriller is The Avengers has, I fear, rather spoiled me for a story like this that, in setting itself firmly in the feel of the time, pushes its women firmly into the background. So I admit I was disappointed as The Psychedelic Spy’s three significant women were one by one revealed to be much less interesting than I’d anticipated. In a very ’60s way, they are essentially pliant victims, and it’s notable that Hindle shags each of them. His rather drippy girlfriend whom he picks up after resigning, Marianne, was so utterly convenient that I assumed she was an enemy (or perhaps British) agent right until she was shot in his arms; I then instantly assumed, correctly, that she’d been the target rather than him, and probably at the order of either his ruthless employer or Joanna Lumley’s Tara (another Avengers name). Joanna’s performance is so magnetic – and, as she gives as good as she gets with Charles Gray and claims to be a very bad person – I assumed that she was an agent in her own right, probably responsible for the dodgy activities her husband’s implicated in. Again, I assumed that right up until the last minute… At which point it became dispiritingly clear that she was only there as unfaithful wife and then widow after all. The third woman in the story is Hindle’s ex, who’s disappeared while investigating Charles Gray’s character – our anti-hero characterises her as an evil, manipulative bitch, so I had high hopes that she’d have survived and be secretly engineering the whole thing. No such luck. It turns out, eventually, that she’s dead after all, leaving her undoubted abilities both of no use to the story and entirely framed by men who didn’t like her. I’d have liked us to meet her, instead.

The close is a little too neat – not happy, you understand, but missing a dash of ambiguity, as if what we hear in the final episode is the truth rather than leaving it likely to be another layer of lies – but still, despite being occasionally predictable and a let-down on some of the non-existent twists involving female characters I’d predicted in hope, it works on the whole. Oh, I’m underselling it now; I liked it. But you might want to listen when you’re on an upper.

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