Thursday, May 26, 2011


The Avengers – Game

The most fabulously Sixties of all Sixties TV shows, The Avengers, is fifty years old this year – and twenty-seven years ago today, I was hooked by a repeat on Channel 4. It starred Linda Thorson as Tara King, and for me she’s always been as terrific an Avengers woman as any other. Her series of The Avengers was the last and perhaps the best, mixing colourful camp with the more sinister atmosphere of the earlier years. Where better to start than with Game, the larger-than-life postmodernism (and larger-and-deadlier-than-life Snakes and Ladders) that really opened her time on the show?

My introduction to The Avengers was the episode Who Was That Man I Saw You With? and though I’d thoroughly recommend it, Game was both chosen to launch Tara King at the time and is one of her stories that even her detractors praise. You can watch both, beautifully restored for DVD, in The Avengers Complete Series 6 box set, or in The Avengers Complete 50th Anniversary Collection. Way back in 1999, I was commissioned to write a piece on Game for Cult Times, and that forms much of the article below, originally published in Cult Times Issue 45 as File Under… Cheat! Cheat! Cheat! I’d love to encourage you to buy their magazines, but sadly Visual Imagination went under a couple of years ago; they produced some wonderful stuff while they lasted (and were among the very few houses that’s ever paid me for writing).

Game was the first Avengers story broadcast with Tara King as Steed’s main partner (after the season opened with a more muted handover episode), and starts the new era off in great style. Enjoyable, surreal and intense, this is one of the most visually striking episodes the series ever produced. And even for The Avengers, it plays games with the audience – confident that everyone’s enjoying it all enough to laugh along with the joke that both it and the audience know it’s a TV programme.

Breaking Out of the Screen

The Avengers itself is a great big cheat that encourages everyone to play along with a fantasy of Britain that never really existed, rather than a ‘real’ thriller show. Usually it’s Steed’s playful attitude that gives the game away. Game is different and as postmodern as even this consistently fourth-wall-breaking series gets, with persistent nods to the audience that it’s not only an exciting piece of action-adventure television – which it is, very much – but also a work of artifice.
“Take me, for example. Did I create myself… Or did others create me?”
The story has two directors: vividly in-your-face first-time director Robert Fuest, delighting in thrilling Op-Art style; and, within the story itself, villain “Monty Bristow,” who’s just as in-your-face for the characters, moves all the pieces and first appears watching his plans unfold on TV… But is as unreal as an Avengers villain gets. Officially dead, he’s taken making a new life to extremes – it’s not his real face, it’s not his real name, and he’s not really as good a sport as he pretends. At dinner with an expert on fiction, he all but asks, ‘Who wrote me?’ Technically that was Richard Harris, whose script is a story all about how these stories go, with Bristow almost a killer Avengers fan. He knows the series to a tee, describing his killer game based on Steed’s lifestyle as requiring courage, strategy, cunning, and a damsel in distress, while the inside of his mansion is filled with giant games that are as blatant studio sets as any in the series. Steed wins through at the end despite odds of six to one against, yet earlier fails when Bristow offers him odds of only one in six of failure – because the underdog always wins in fiction, and Bristow knows from The Avengers ‘formula’ that means Steed will make the wrong choice.
“Evens, Brigadier. That’s very fair… Much fairer than – say – six to one against. That’s what you gave me!”
Bristow wants revenge on the six army officers who court-martialled him in Germany twenty years earlier. All are to be killed in giant games based on their current jobs – and to make certain of that, Bristow cheats whenever any of them looks like ‘winning’. A Brigadier, for example, is a natural games player and treats life as a game anyway, as befits the man with the most ‘serious’ job. Watch him win – and watch how our villain loves people trying, but only if they fail. Bristow is such a control freak he doesn’t even let people roll their own dice (you could see him working for the Labour Party). As the final victim, Steed is given the most challenging “Super Secret Agent” game in many parts, but keeps subverting the way it works, as if he’s overwriting his own ‘director’s cut’ over Bristow’s version of the plot. Bristow’s face twists even on their first meeting, when Steed’s read the script and knows who he really is; when Steed, not just a better gamesman but a better cheat, goes on to dodge facing a symbolic six assailants alone, Bristow stamps to his feet in disbelieving anger like a child facing defeat.
“Cheat! You cheated. You cheated! Cheat! Cheat! Cheat!”

Steed and Tara

Patrick Macnee’s Steed becomes more understated the more that Peter Jeffrey’s Bristow loses control, but never stepping out of line of the episode’s blatant postmodernism – his marvellously inappropriate look of mild surprise on being told, “The safe contains a bomb” is perfect, just as Steed is perfect to foil Bristow. On one level, it’s simply about class; gentlemen are ‘allowed’ to cheat, as long as they treat the cheating as a game too, and Bristow can’t even cheat with good grace, let alone lose. On another, notice that while Steed is more than capable of killing, he more often chooses not to – and that while Bristow cheats in order to kill, Steed’s bit of cheating that most infuriates him (and most breaks the rules of TV thrillers) is using a gun not to kill, but to give life.

So while many action heroes are honest and upright, but kill with abandon, Steed is the reverse. Being a secret agent is always less important to Steed than having fun, and if he can have more fun by cheating… Ever since he was the shadowy partner to respectable Dr David Keel, each of the ‘other’ Avengers played it straight while Steed never fought fair, whether beating Tara in an outrageous game of “Steedopoly” in her first principal story here, or cheating his way to a fencing victory over Mrs Peel in hers. That was the biggest mistake in the movie version released a few months before I wrote this originally: while nowhere near as bad as it was cracked up to be, it did get the central character badly wrong by having their Steed claim always to play by the rules while his partner breaks them, when it’s quite the opposite. The only ‘rule’ the other Avengers break is their gender.

Tara and Steed make a splendid team throughout. She’s confident and determined, but with a refreshing innocence, giving the impression of working harder than her invulnerable predecessors. She earns her successes in moments like the cat-like spring to the ground that slashes the odds for the super closing fight, where the Avengers thump opponents in sync. Game was a flying start for her with viewers, rarely bettered until such fabulous stories as Pandora and Requiem, right at the end of her run. She has a good clothes day here in red-based outfits with waistcoats, though a bad one in green; Steed excels in rather a stylish navy suit and dark maroon tie and looks good in grey as always, but sinks to a dreadful patterned shirt in the otherwise diverting tag scene. Together they look terrific approaching a long swing like pall-bearers, with Tara in mourning colours of pale lilac blouse with black waistcoat and culottes and Steed in brown, but in step; but that same suit comes a cropper when partnered with Tara’s lime-green outfit, making them together look like mint choc chip.

Watch out for Tara’s confrontation with a remarkably queeny manager in a monocle at “Jig Creations” – “Royalty has walked through that door,” he tells her. Of course it has, dear.
“Tell me, what do you do on long winter nights?”
“I ride a bicycle.”
“What else?”
…breathes Linda Thorson, and sweeps out, leaving the wicked butler to pop up from behind a giant pink jigsaw piece. Sublime!

The Substance of Style

Much of Game’s superb eye for colour comes from former designer Robert Fuest, establishing him instantly as one of the great Avengers directors (the first story he filmed was the stunning My Wildest Dream, with this his first to be broadcast; he went on to direct Dr Phibes and other films). Giddy cuts between scenes grab your attention right from the opening teaser, where a game of Scalectrix contrasts with a driver on an indoor racing track, who crashes and is thrown from his car but hits the ground outside – his racing goggles full of jigsaw pieces… Avengers have found dead bodies in playgrounds before, but Fuest makes them uncanny, just as Bristow makes these invitations to a killing a mockery of the usual process of discovering clues.

Robert Jones’ set design splendidly realises the games, while the best of the well-chosen locations is Bristow’s big old house, in reality the Grim’s Dyke Hotel at Old Redding, Harrow (my heart gives a little skip, as I used to play near there on childhood holidays with my Nana and Grandad). You might also recognise it as the mad investor Maxtible’s house in top Doctor Who story The Evil of the Daleks. There’s fab music, too, from forgotten Avengers composer Howard Blake, at times strangely reminiscent of Inspector Gadget or – more appropriately – Batman.

Most of Game is so enjoyable that you barely notice any weak points (but you’ll notice a spoiler in a moment). True, friends of Steed being bumped off becomes a repetitive New Avengers trope later, but it’s not boring yet; there’s a moment where the ashtray with which Steed has been knocked out suddenly vanishes in the next shot, but perhaps the wicked manservant is just very tidy. The main irritation is the end – Sir! Madam! Please avert your gaze if you don’t want to know! – where Bristow dies by his own weapon, which is the most overused, least diverting of all Avengers clichés. But at least it was a razor-edged playing card rather than a gun, and in this story about Avengers stories, it had to be a cliché, didn’t it?

No description of such a feast for the senses can do it justice. The Avengers is a show to be seen for its fabulous surface style, and rarely more so than with Game. Sit back and let Steed and Tara’s duel with a diabolical mastermind enthral and amuse you – you won’t believe your eyes.

Five Reasons To Watch Game

And Guest-Starring…

The Avengers excelled in featuring top British actors in perfect guest roles. Five in particular stand out as their ‘Old Reliables’, each appearing at least four times, giving scene-stealing star turns with curiously consistent character traits. You know you’re onto a winner with ‘Villainous Peter Bowles’, ‘Loveable Roy Kinnear’, ‘Villainous Julian Glover’ or ‘Demented John Laurie’ – and if you’re lucky enough to see Pandora, two turn up at once! Game stars ‘Old Reliable’ number five, ‘Villainous Peter Jeffrey’, who you may know from many movies and as the wicked Count Grendel in The Androids of Tara – no, not a plot to replace our favourite Avenger with robots, but a just as camp Doctor Who story (as well as the less well-known but equally brilliant The Macra Terror). His first Avengers appearance is in the black and white Emma Peel episode Room Without a View as a mildly comic ministry official, but his villainous credentials are assured by a strange trilogy of stories as lead villain. Each of these characters is bent on revenge against an Avenger; each uses a playing card motif; each has a dubious continental connection. Oh, yes – and each is dead! Game was the middle story in this trilogy; for the first, Peter Jeffrey gives a performance of barely controlled hysteria as German smuggler Max Prendergast in The Joker, a sinister episode from the colour Emma season. A thoroughly disturbing psychotic who uses cards as interior decorations, he cuts up pictures of Mrs Peel and is revealed on screen in similar ‘slices’ of close-up. Chillingly, he tells her: “I’m dead, Emma. You can’t kill me twice.” Following Game, Jeffrey turns up again as wily spymaster Perov in The New AvengersHouse of Cards. After Steed humiliates him, Perov fakes suicide and launches a set of sleeper agents, the “House of Cards,” against our heroes. His dastardly plan even calculates that the first sleeper, David Miller, will betray him to Steed – then Perov makes the mistake of fighting Purdey…

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