Friday, January 30, 2009

 

The New Avengers – Sleeper

Tonight at 12.10, BBC4 is showing The New Avengers: Sleeper, one of the series’ most memorable (if not best) episodes as our heroes stand alone against gun-toting villains in a deserted London. And Purdey’s trousers fall down. Though other Avengers stories feature Cold War ‘sleeper agents’ (House of Cards, To Catch A Rat…), the sleep here is more prosaic. In the pre-titles sequence we’re introduced to: an astoundingly powerful new sleeping gas; the antidote; and the villain who’s replaced one of the observers at the top-secret test. Then the title comes up… “Sleeper”. Coo, wonder what it might be about?
“We have made exhaustive tests.”

“Exhaustive tests on rabbits. People aren’t like rabbits.”

“Oh, I don’t know. Uncle of mine sired nineteen children. He was a keen bicyclist.”
Anyway, the plot is, Steed, Gambit and Purdey all happen to be staying in London overnight – even Steed, who in this iteration of the series has a stud out in the country to which he normally repairs – and it turns out they’re all in the very part of London seeded by sleeping gas (well, apparently it’s really a fine powder, but the effect’s much the same) S-95, which gives every single person in the area a longer than usual Sunday morning lie-in. Everyone, that is, save our three stars and the coachload of gun-toting gangsters who’re running around the city looting all the banks (or, mostly, wandering aimlessly). That’s pretty much it, save for our heroes – wait for it, spoilers – foiling the dastardly plan.

Given that the story’s so slight, it’s mostly made up not of complex plotting but of moments of character, humour and style. Fortunately, the director’s got quite a lot of style, and so has Joanna Lumley – Purdey is today’s featured Avenger, starting off by ineptly locking herself out of her flat but then becoming the lead character for most of the episode. And she’s terrific. Look out in particular (or listen out, I suppose) for all the scenes with the radio on, like Steed and Gambit rushing to the rescue of a radio drama and, even better, Purdey in an exciting car chase as she swerves around town in a stolen mini, the sleeping owner flopping about next to her, crooks with machine guns roaring after her, while she’s coolly doing the exercises to an absurdly posh wireless-wake-up-with-torture woman. Superb. Then once she’s out of the car… Boy, can she run.

The Eroticism of Pyjamas

Others, of course, will mainly remember an unarmed (but ready to high-kick) Purdey hiding from her pursuers as a shop window dummy, at which point her pyjama pants fall down. Still, Joanna manages to carry it off without losing her cool, her blue pyjamas are hugely more stylish than her nasty floral frock of the day before, and her fighting her way out of the shop afterwards showcases her brilliantly. And if you think that element of sexuality’s a bit off, this is also the episode where you can catch a bizarre level of homoeroticism among men who you really wouldn’t want to. Not only does Steed inviting himself for a nightcap at Gambit’s flat frequently seem like he’s trying to chat Gambit up, but the villain’s apparently chatted up by Dr Graham early on, too (and do note that, while he and his group of hilariously over-tooled-up machine gun and bazooka-wielding macho thugs have no compunction about murder, he doesn’t kill the doctor to preserve his secret, but merely knocks him out… And throws him a single rose). At least, when a scene turns up where Gambit’s pyjamas feature, it’s both mildly amusing and gives him points for not wearing any.

Update: Richard, on watching late tonight, is struck (right between the eyes) by the full day-glo glory of Gambit’s décor: “I kept a man here for three weeks. At the end of it, he could never look at a lime again.”

The story’s other main stylistic touch is in all the eerie views of a deserted London. Almost the whole story’s shot on location, and in the grimy ’70s it does sometimes seem like a cross between The Sweeney and Survivors, with urban shooting meeting the feel of apocalyptic disaster stories. It looks great, though, with only a few exceptions – notably, the unbelievable night-time scenes shot in full day, without even a half-hearted filter on the camera, for lines such as “It’ll be light at four forty-five” (you scream, it’s light now!), intercut with scenes of genuine night supposedly taking place at the same time. And then back again. Such little details can really sabotage a production, just as – living in London – I find it difficult to believe in just one police car crossing the ‘border’ to find out what’s happening in the nation’s silent capital, or the mind-boggling take on London geography that, for example, places the Post Office Tower in Tower Hamlets.

The Morning After That Came Before

Unfortunately, it’s not just the few miffed details and skimpy plot that let down a generally quite well-mounted story. My big problem is that The Avengers has already done the same story, and done it very much better. Eight years earlier, our heroes are knocked out by sleeping gas, coming round a day later to find the small town they’re in mysteriously deserted. Setting out to explore, they find the army gunning down “looters” and a plot involving nuclear blackmail… Yes, I’m afraid The Avengers – The Morning After does indeed have more thought, mystery, layers, tension, twists and does just about everything better than Sleeper does – despite being written by the same author. Though the scale is bigger in 1976, the ambition is much, much smaller, both of the story and the villains’ plans, our heroes (and the viewers) know from the start what’s happened, there’s no murderous betrayal by authority and consequent threat from all sides… While in The Morning After, too, from The Avengers’ much less ‘realistic’ days, sealing off a small town took several truckloads of soldiers and a huge public information campaign, here sealing off a large portion of London can be done with a group of people from just one coach. In the intervening years, even Doctor Who had done the same story, with lots of soldiers again and added dinosaurs, in 1974’s Invasion of the Dinosaurs (over which one might draw a discreet veil for many of the visuals, though it has some thought put into it). So it’s a bit of a shame for it to be so familiar, but to have so much less in it. It’s not bad, you understand, but frustrating when it’s mundanely recycling one of The Avengers’ strongest episodes.

Though it’s quite a shallow tale, you’ll also find Sleeper has quite a few ’70s concerns that are still live today, not that it treats them in any great detail: the S-95 ‘gas’ has been developed to knock out terrorists instantaneously (and magically, as one helicopter pass can put a densely populated city to sleep without a single exception, regardless of volume, wind currents or closed windows); after that mention, we’re primed to think that the looters look very much like terrorists of the time, act like terrorists in their brutal machine-gunning lack of concern for life, have a bit of a Baader-Meinhof vibe in the youngish mixed-sex couple who run the outfit… But only rob enough banks to take a helicopter’s-worth, as if Brian Clemens decided to write hard-hitting ‘real world’ villains but then copped out and came up with a plot so sanitised it could crop up in a children’s book, as is the thought that a bunch of savage killers would be entirely trusting about their bosses flying off to Rio with all the spoils. In one of the funnier moments there’s another topical touch, too; when Steed and Gambit are working out what the looters’ targets are, Steed suggests no-one would bother robbing the Bank of England when the economy’s in such a state. One of the minor actors also has a later political theme: Gavin Campbell, to be of That’s Life and career-killing anti-Europe loonyism fame. And there’s CCTV, as the main villain warns his minions to keep their faces covered because the cameras won’t sleep. Obviously, he shows his face all over the place anyway, because, well, he’s the villain.

If You Value Your Life, Don’t Befriend Steed

Oh, and Steed has yet another closest ever, ever, ever friend get caught up in the plot and die a short way into the episode. I know this happened from time to time in the ’60s series, but The New Avengers takes it to absurd lengths in an attempt to drive home the ‘Avenging’ narrative; actor Neil Hallett, who played the best friend who died in last week’s episode, was Steed’s bestest and most doomed chum in an episode at the end of the ’60s, too, so he’s really unlucky. If you want to fit The Avengers into a coherent, ongoing story, best of luck (it makes Doctor Who seem seamless), but there are two possible explanations. Either Steed had a best friend who was killed in an early episode and then, with fine attention to detail but absolutely rotten luck, he worked out who the next-best was and ‘promoted’ him – and so on, and so on, down the line – and each time he works out who’s the best out of what’s left the swines happen to choose that week to kill the very chap, or Steed, always having had an eye to technological innovation (carphone in 1967, the first answering device on British television, mind-swap machine, and so on), invented Facebook forty years early and he takes it really seriously when all these people friend him. He’s a very polite chap (except with a ’phone); even when technically looting a pub because he and Gambit need a drink, he’s adamant that they leave a tip.

If I sound like I’m in two minds about this story, I suspect I am – because how much I enjoy it really depends on the mood I’m in. It’s fun but uninspired; nice to look at, but you really need to switch your brain off. And the move towards greater ‘realism’ rather than outlandish plots and villains means, ironically, that stories like this are less believable – outrageous details are easier to swallow than mundane ones that simply don’t fit with our everyday experience. Next week: spies live and spies die, but the dance goes on. Plus, for Blake’s 7 fans, the first of two appearances by Travis in as many weeks, and for Gambit fans (there must be one, surely?), after Purdey drops her trousers in tonight’s, next week Mike gets his kit off.

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