Friday, February 27, 2009

 

The New Avengers – Dead Men Are Dangerous

12.30, tonight, BBC4 – stay up, set your DVD recorder or set your alarm! There’s been much to enjoy in BBC4’s repeats of The New Avengers, but tonight’s haunting Dead Men Are Dangerous is the one I enjoy the most. A beautiful, tragic character piece, with a disturbing opening sequence and a nail-biting conclusion, it’s the best episode by a long way. The series’ strangely friendly Cold War rivalries give way to the bitter, deadly rivalry of a friend. This is simply magnificent television.
“The only thing that can’t be replaced is the love and life of an old friend.”
It’s been an interesting week for slightly or very off-beat programmes on TV, whether you call them comedy-thriller, sci-fi, fantasy, horror… I can never quite warm to the artificial umbrella of “telefantasy,” can you? Anyway, last Sunday we had the gripping penultimate episode of Being Human – a striking series that defies categorisation, and which I’m pleased to say has this week been recommissioned. Demons, on the other hand, had just one episode that hit the mark (the one with Mina’s vampire son) but several that were just rubbish, and after nosediving ratings ITV have this week cancelled the series. It should have been better, but the right series will be back.

Less off-beat – unless you count the distracting ‘Ooh, which Tory MP is that weirdly made-up actor of a cast of thousands meant to be? And why, with all the people they got right (Geoffrey Howe was uncanny), did they mess up John Sergeant so badly?’ effect – was last night’s Margaret, which I found rather gripping and even made me feel a twinge of sympathy for her. I can still remember exactly where I was when I heard the news of her fall, and who I was with; a Green who I’ve not seen for many years and a hard right Tory who shed a tear, then had a brief moment of rejoicing when news broke that John Major was to stand as the continuity Thatchianity candidate (within months he was snarlingly calling him a “bloody social democrat”). That second chap’s a Lib Dem these days… Still, looking back at that time, House of Cards still knocks spots off Margaret.

For me, though, the really stunning shows this week have been in the repeats. On Tuesday, ITV4 showed The Prisoner’s finest hour, Dance of the Dead, with its intricate plotting, insane ending and commanding Number 2 (though they mucked up the transmission); on Wednesday, ITV3 showed Robin of Sherwood’s greatest episode, The Greatest Enemy. The last half of that is still one of the most compelling and moving TV experiences I’ve ever had, and like Dance of the Dead – and unlike most ‘action’ shows where death is common but disposable – it’s an intelligent meditation on death. So, too, is The New AvengersDead Men Are Dangerous with its lingering death and killer nostalgia, beating Dance of the Dead for twisty foreboding and vying with The Greatest Enemy for elegiac tragedy, all making three very fine series which have each had their very finest stories repeated within a few days of each other, remarkably. Next Friday (concluding the Monday after), as it happens, BBC3 is repeating the best story since Doctor Who returned to the screen in 2005. Human Nature is more about love than death, though death and, particularly, war still come through.

But back to tonight, and the main thing that comes to mind is that Patrick Macnee is simply outstanding in this story; funny, gentle, wounded, authoritative, even athletic – he’s lost some weight between seasons and looks really good on it, and he’s extraordinary whether standing mourning his destroyed memories to sombre brass or dashing desperately through the woods to trace a chilling loudspeakered message. His old friend turned jealous enemy Mark Crayford is an equally brilliant performance by Clive Revill, though Mark’s bitterness offers fewer layers for his character. The episode hinges around their two gripping face-offs, beginning and ending the story, each stolen by Steed’s heartbreaking reply to Mark’s challenge.

After so many New Avengers episodes in which an old friend of Steed’s lurches in and dies on the carpet, to be avenged by our heroes through the rest of the story, Dead Men Are Dangerous both gives that recurring theme its finest ever treatment and turns it on its head: while for once you can genuinely believe that Mark was Steed’s oldest and best friend, this time the old friend is dying because Steed shot him (reluctantly but efficiently, as you’ll see in the opening scene), and his death is to be avenged not by the Avengers but on them. It’s an especially fine use of the top Avengers cliché ‘a dead man who isn’t dead’, too, with a twist to that as well…

I love Dead Men Are Dangerous so much that I would love to spend hours on my usual sort of long, discursive review to tease out every subtle moment. And the ones with Gambit. But I’m having a bit of a time today – though not as much as Steed, obviously – so I’m having to write rather more quickly. Were I writing a longer review, there are all sorts of issues that I’d be discussing in detail. Instead, I’ll mention some of them to whet your appetite and see what they prompt you to come up with when you watch it:
Just think how long I’d have gone on if I were writing this properly, eh?

Instead, I’ll finish with a word from someone else. I usually enjoy Cornelltoppingday’s The Avengers Dossier (originally published and pulped as The Avengers Programme Guide), but I very often disagree with them, not least on my favourite episodes. Just this once, though, our tastes converge, and their review puts it beautifully. If you ever chance across a copy of the book, do pick it up, but if you can’t find it, here’s a sharply edited extract:
“This is by far the best episode of The New Avengers. The difference is in the fondness with which it’s written… Steed and Purdey have a bittersweet relationship with real heart. But mainly this is Steed’s story. The damage done to his property is horrifying, but he doesn’t care a jot as long as the people he cares for are safe. It’s all rather wonderful, and is written with a nostalgia and grace that could have got the show another season if this had been the new format. Very special.”

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