Friday, January 16, 2009

 

The New Avengers – The Tale of the Big Why

Tonight at midnight, BBC4 brings us The New Avengers’ puntastic The Tale of the Big Why, which I’d not seen for ages but which, in one of the joys of writing these reviews, I watched again today and thoroughly enjoyed. Although it has a surprising amount in common with last week’s disappointing episode, it’s both much more exciting and much more laid back; in short, much more Avengers. It looks great, it keeps you guessing with plenty of dodgy characters (a young Roy Marsden, a crooked Tory councillor…), and Steed, Purdey and even Gambit all come out of it superbly. Oh, and the opening titles have finally replaced that uninspiring assemblage of clips with a remarkable bit of 1976 CGI, a union flag lion that so delighted the producers that, in tonight’s adventure, Purdey wears it emblazoned on the back of her rather fetching biker jacket. Along with her name, in big letters. What a fabulous secret agent she is – at last, someone’s even more noticeable than Steed.

Before the analysis and the spoilers, for the second week running, the most entertaining scenes include those of Gambit and Purdey zooming about the countryside. Again, he’s at the wheel, but this time rather than his talking about sex, it’s Purdey’s carnal lusts that drive their destination. She’s gagging for a meal, and dreams of Italian. Gambit, bless him, pulls up outside The Chef’s Hat, a roadside hot dog caravan. Purdey, not finding this what she had in mind, emerges from the car in a gold lamé cocktail dress and, in between bites of huge sausage sarnie (actually, I rather fancy one as I watch her), engages first Mike and then the cuisinier in conversation:
“Is this one of your favourite restaurants? I suppose you bring all your girlfriends here… Did he book?”
“Nah, he’s just lucky!”
The script’s fast-paced and, though simple in its story, quite complex in its plotting, so it’s to The Tale of the Big Why’s great advantage that Robert Fuest’s in charge, probably my favourite and almost certainly the most strikingly pop-art Avengers director. The story’s shot almost entirely on location, and illustrated with many striking images – justly the most famous is the recurring close-up of a beer glass used as chronometer, but it’s also perhaps the New Avengers episode most packed with chases. My favourite moments are probably of Purdey on her motorbike, zooming towards a great stunt in the pre-credits freeze-frame or popping suddenly into startling close-up, but there’s a lot more variation than that. Through tonight’s story, the vehicles move from a motorbike to an exciting chase with smashing cars (well, very ugly cars, actually, but they get smashed up), then lots of action with a crop-duster plane. Even Gambit gets a strikingly heroic moment facing off against it.

The Regular Characters (and some familiar plots)

Though it’s not quite as light-hearted – there’s an unexpected death, which I’ll mention shortly so look away now if you want to avoid spoilers, which comes quite early on and has a particularly grim aftermath – this has a lot in common with the marvellous Avengers episode Dead Man’s Treasure. That’s more of a summery week off than this is, but both feature extended treasure hunts with remarkable numbers of participants on remarkable numbers of sides. Admittedly, Dead Man’s Treasure has many cryptic clues while The Tale of the Big Why features only one, but the near-eponymous racy Western The Tale of the Big Y is a doozy (despite our heroes’ cracking it rather depending on all aviators’ maps being identical).

The other story from the same stable that this week’s bears an uncanny resemblance to when looked at from the right angle is, as I mentioned above, the previous New Avengers episode, To Catch a Rat. On paper, you’d think this was shallower – there’s none of the genuine emotion of a wounded old spy recovering himself to take on his old enemy, but rather more of the jolly runaround. On screen, it comes across as having a lot more to it. While the actors injected considerable pathos into the last story, it moved very slowly and had very little to it to live up to its serious intent – you could have halved it to a 25-minute episode without losing anything very important, while this week’s all-action frivolity not only deserves its length but passes the time much faster. The chasing around the countryside has had far more thought put into it; there’s far more variety, of scenes, of characters, of vehicles; again, there’s someone emerging after years away to expose a traitor in the Department (one of the perennial New Avengers clichés), but this time the exposer’s corrupt, too, and swiftly dead, which is a real shock after last week’s weary dragging-out. The feel’s improved, too, by a Jazz-flavoured score with which Laurie Johnson is clearly more comfortable than the usual more noticeably ’70s style; though Cornelltoppingday dismiss it with “Porno Funk Music Factor: 10,” I’d say it’s far less dated than that, and I rather enjoy the jazzy ‘chasing around’ theme that accompanies Purdey’s bike and the odd other vehicle.

Though there’s a less powerful emotional core to the acting than Ian Hendry provided and the script is one of the last gasps at fetishising macho Mike Gambit, this story makes far better and more interesting use of the three leads, too. I’ve mentioned Purdey’s fabulous biker’s outfit and gold frock; Joanna looks great in a fairly practical red jacket and black skirt, too, so it looks like the days of the diaphanous dress (so handy for running in) are behind her. Nothing can save Gambit and most of the others, though. Anyway, not only is she better-outfitted, but her part continues to break out of the sexist trap the series’ initial set-up had consigned her to. She’s heavily favoured early in the story, with some fantastic bike work as she takes the lead, Gambit only following at a distance and mainly to report back to Steed at ‘home base’. Towards the end of the story, Purdey’s kidnapped so the two men will break and have to save the poor little girlie – sigh – but, again, that template’s swiftly broken, as Purdey gets hopping mad and, in a terrific scene, shows that she can beat the villains with both arms tied behind her back.

Steed, too, has a much better part this week – rather than kept back until virtually the last scene, he not only has much more to do back at ‘base’ but gets out towards the end, where he’s caught up in some splendid action sequences and has a great time exploring the wonders of nature (while tiring out poor Gambit). Given a far more dynamic role, he seems far more like the old Steed than in most of the previous New Avengers episodes. It’s not that he takes the lead as the action man – though, when two heavies come calling, there’s a great moment where he slaps a gun out of one villain’s hand, instantly punches him out, then repels another with his hat – but that he gets the space in the narrative to relax and enjoy himself. It’s how Steed should be: carefree in doing his job, serious in what he does but not how he does it. He’s perfect when sent to charm a lady and catch a package in his bowler hat, when performing a Holmesian piece of deduction in tracing a location through orchard crop-spray on a pair of boots, or when giving Purdey her moment at the climax with a typically off-the-wall distraction, and Gambit rewards him with absolute trust (when it matters). Amid a profusion of villains, it’s Steed’s attention to detail that captures the most important one, because he’s got almost as much of an eye for photos and guns as for antique doorknobs. We also spend time, for once, not in Purdey’s bedroom but in Steed’s palatial apartment and Gambit’s groovy pad, and to complete the set Gambit gets two action set-pieces towards the end (against a plane and a gun) which really work.

The Irregular Characters (and a deadly sin)

Although I’ve made it sound like it’s all rather fun, and it is, there are some serious undercurrents, particularly in the guest parts. Rarely, almost every new character in the script is working for someone different – themselves, for almost all of them, and so many of them chasing that it resembles Wacky Races – yet almost every one of them has the same motive: greed. It opens with everyone focused on Burt Brandon, a spy just about to get out of prison after nine years and all set to make a fortune, he claims, by exposing a secret at the heart of government. Played by George A Cooper in his third Avengers role, he’s an instantly recognisable actor (Mr Griffiths from Grange Hill) and so blatantly the centre of attention that it’s a real shock when he’s killed barely a dozen minutes in. This takes the viewer by surprise, not least because now it means that no-one knows what they’re looking for, nor where to find it: the chase becomes that much more unpredictable. And, of course, when Steed and Gambit finally unearth the ‘buried treasure’, it isn’t there, so even solving the clue of the pulp paperback doesn’t tell you who has the goods, let alone what the goods actually are.

The story’s main ‘villains’ are apparently Eastern Bloc heavies gone native – they’re communists who’ve turned capitalist, the power of all that money having turned their heads. And one of them’s a Conservative councillor into the bargain! Well, all right, that’s not strictly true, but a corrupt, communist, capitalist traitor Tory is believable, isn’t it? It’s not like we can’t all think of the odd crooked Tory with an extremist political past… No, no not that one – I’m actually thinking of the actor’s later role in The Vicar of Dibley. Yes, it’s him, isn’t it? That surprised you. Anyway, where was I? He and his nervous henchman ambush Brandon and kill him without actually intending to, as this means they can’t get the truth out of him; instead, in the episode’s grimmest sequence, they strip and search his body, splayed out in the middle of a field. Fortunately, the nastiness of that moment is swiftly followed by a surreal echo as, having failed to find anything on him, they search his car then take it to pieces and lay them out around the frame, creating an image in the field like an exploded diagram of all a car’s components. Gambit drives up later, seeing Purdey sitting on the completely disassembled wreck of a car:
“I say! Need any help? Could be a blocked carburettor.”
Brian Clemens creates an interesting flourish with the names, too. The two heavies are Roach and Poole, and there’s something distinctly fishy about them; Roy Marsden plays Turner, an apparently ordinary guy who’s tempted to the dark side by the lure of lucre (his first name, ironically, is Frank); and the top civil servant who’s sold out his country for whacking great pay-offs (again, entrepreneurship from the communists) is called Harmer. Incidentally, for Doctor Who fans of old, the two main suspects for the turncoat at the top are Hepesh and Shardovan, but the traitor’s the other way round in this series. With so much money said to be washing around, one of the most memorable things about this story is that it creates new villains among everyone who hears of it, as they’re all tempted just that little too far – an ordinary woman turned gleeful gas-bombing femme fatale, crop-sprayer Turner who takes the vital parcel (and who never had any hair) and is prepared to sell to the highest bidder… Though, with each, there are hints that the lure is only bringing out incipient corruption: the woman is jailbird spy Brandon’s estranged daughter; bluff, friendly Mrs Turner is first seen at her farmhouse, dipping bits of machinery in acid to sell them on to “Genuine Antiques”. But the multiplicity of villains, like the multiplicity of chases, help to keep the episode constantly lively, unpredictable and much better than the ordinary. It all leads up to a splendid series of climaxes with different villains – big and small – and they’ve all been set up so well that each grabs your attention, whether it’s an edge of the seat fight with Soviets turned independent, an impressive stunt with a plane to stop an ordinary bloke, or the fun of revealing and dealing with the traitor that, it turns out, the whole thing’s been about.

Next week, it’s about-face for a story of spies right up close rather than ones you have to chase, and there’s another villain who’ll grow up to be a famous detective on TV, in one of The New Avengers’ best.

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Comments:
Great to see I'm not alone in celebrating the virtues of the New Avengers on a Thursday night. The greasy sidekick to the villain who went on to bigger things in the Vicar of Dibley had an uncanny resemblance to a young Nick Ferrari. I was so convinced, I watched the repeat of the episode on Friday night/Saturday morning.

I had always assumed that the New Avengers was not a patch on the original Avengers, but seeing it on BBC 4 has had me hooked.

Hoping you can answer me one thing - can I hope to see a 'Fine Fare' or 'Mac Market' supermarket fascia in any of the episodes as a car speeds by in any of the scenes? I'm living in hope!
 
Hurrah!

How lovely to hear from you.

And we came in half-way through the episode on Thursday evening, so we caught the beginning of it last night... And ended up watching the whole way through, of course. After I'd watched it to make notes from for review purposes, too. Hmm - I don't think I've ever studied a New Avengers so thoroughly!

And which is better really depends on which you're looking at. But that's a complicated question for this time of night. It's definitely the same series, though.

As for supermarkets... Gosh, I've been asked all sorts of Avengers miscellany, but that one stumps me. Excellent! I can, however, tell you that there's a sort of reverse product placement in the vehicles: it was decided at an early stage that our heroes should only drive British. So they bought British Leyland cars and wished they hadn't, as (rather than giving them lots of them) they ended up incurring lots of expense, the company was very unco-operative and they kept breaking down...

Have you looked at the original series of Survivors? There are definitely supermarkets being raided in that, just as there were in last year's remake, for which the producer took an eye-poppingly mendacious 'creator' credit.
 
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