Thursday, March 08, 2007


The Avengers – The Bird Who Knew Too Much

The colour Emma Peel episodes of The Avengers are among the most distinctive television ever made; sometimes a bit too silly or too stylised, if anything, but you can’t mistake them for any other series. This one, then, on BBC4 at 7.10 this evening and 11.30 tomorrow night, is unusual for being… Ordinary. Despite the presence of Ron Moody, Kenneth Cope and Anthony Valentine, there’s something a little drab and prosaic about this tale of espionage and birds, made up of an uneven string of set-pieces rather than a strong story. And what do triangles have to do with it?

Steed fancies pigeons – Emma gets the bird

It’s not all bad, of course, but it is curiously disjointed. It’s disappointing in a quite different way to another recently shown episode, The Fear Merchants, which was structurally fine for an Avengers episode but just seemed to have had the fun and colour drained out of it… By contrast, this has several fun moments but simply doesn’t feel like The Avengers at all. Some of the set-piece scenes are very entertaining; some are rather clumsy; but few of them flow together. It’s as if the script was written for some other series and polished up in a hurry, then left with a director with more enthusiasm than ability to make a sequence go with verve. For once, it feels like The Avengers is swamped by the Sixties rather than coasting on top of the period: Steed and Emma are both great fun modelling, for example, but the groovy fashion photographer who takes their pictures feels much more in tune with this episode than they do – stripy shirt, narrow tie and trousers, down-to-earth manner, very Sixties but not very Avengers at all. Still, Steed looks rather fab striking poses (while firing off questions) in his stylish grey suit, as of course does Emma in nothing but a Union Flag. You get the feeling this was more so they could use photos of her like that for publicity than because it was really part of the story, though.

Part of the problem is that The Avengers at this point is extraordinary: extraordinary agents, extraordinary crimes, extraordinary style. Too much here is rather mundane. Someone’s taken photos of a fairly anonymous missile installation; yawn. There are a pair of drably dressed killers who could be dialled out of any rather nasty sadist-you-like directory instead of the book of urbane Avengers masterminds; ugh. They drive a forgettable car, and visit a shabbily ordinary house; sorry, what show am I watching again? Perhaps aware of this, the director tries a bit too hard to create some ‘quirky’ deaths of agents early on, but they just come across as a bit daft. You’ll never see someone drop his gun in so contrived a way as Danvers does while on the run from the pair of killers, and while the director thinks high structures look cool to dash into, you can’t help thinking that they’re not outstandingly practical if you’re trying to take cover from men with guns – why not paint a big target on yourself while you’re at it? I mean, it’s quite well-shot, but so, inevitably, is he. The next agent makes exactly the same mistake, but rather than an observation tower (which is at least partially covered), he dashes into scaffolding. Then plunges into a handy tank of quick-setting concrete. Now, I’m the last person to say that everything in The Avengers needs to follow common sense (it’s hardly common at all), but it does have its own sort of logic, and these events just lack any cohesion at all. Things happen purely because they’re trying to look cool, and, guess what? They don’t, very much.

How do the killers know who Steed and Emma are? How does Steed know who the killers are, and how does he smuggle a homing pigeon among their birds without them noticing? Why doesn’t he take them in while he’s doing it? How do they creep up behind the highly-trained Steed, or take Mrs Peel unawares when she’s deliberately creeping in on them? Why don’t they kill Steed instead of just knocking him out, and why do they decide on a complicated booby trap to kill Mrs Peel when they’re not worried about an ‘alibi’ for killing anyone else – including Mrs Peel, at other points in the episode? Why is one of the killers so astoundingly slow to shoot her at the climax that she can disarm him by coming all the way across a room? Why does Steed, having strung along a dead agent’s girlfriend for most of the episode, coldly spring on her that he’s dead, unprompted, and why does she still trust him afterwards (though she’s called ‘Sam Spade’, she’s distressingly insipid, only there to move along what passes for the plot, and despite the birds this is no match for The Maltese Falcon)?

Fortunately, it seems to find its feet a bit around half-way through. John Wood’s twitchy bird-exhibitor, Twitter, is worth the money, and his smart young assistant (a youthful Anthony Valentine, of Raffles and Robin of Sherwood) has rather a good mixture of casual charm and cold efficiency. The show is stolen, though, by bird-instructor Ron Moody. He’s not as well-used as in Honey For the Prince, but it’s a relief when he comes on to flutter about with his schoolroom of birds, disguised as one of them by the stuffed bird on his mortar board (soon blown into feathers – oh, and his system trains them using individually keyed notes from a set of triangles): at a late stage, it’s suddenly feeling like an Avengers episode. There’s still not a huge amount of wit, despite a flock of ‘bird’ puns, and though there’s something rather unpleasantly gloating about this week’s example of ‘Emma tied to a chair’ – yes, that’s three for three I’ve reviewed from this season so far where that happens – it does build up quite a lot of tension as, with Mrs Peel tied in place and a gun fixed to the door handle, a peril beckons of ‘Will Steed slay Emma?’ He doesn’t, of course, not that there’s any reason for him to come in by the window… There’s another exciting action moment in the same location when Steed leaps away from the mini-grenade in his umbrella, though I wasn’t sorry to see that particular ‘street’ set blown up; The Avengers has a fine line in utterly fake-looking but very stylish streets (check out Escape in Time’s fab ‘Mackidockie Court’), but this one is just grey with a lilac door. If you’re going to design a street scene, why build it in pale pastels? And Emma gets her own back on one of the killers in a rather impressive way, as towards the end of the episode the director’s high-rise obsession finally pays off. Trying to snipe at Ron Moody from a diving board, there’s a great shot of the giggling villain high above the swimming pool with Mrs Peel racing towards him below, and it’s well worth watching for when she kicks him off the edge, adjusts her hair, then dives in after him. Still not quite as stylish as the New Avengers episode featuring birds and an attack at an open-air pool, though…

Though few of the supporting cast are memorably attired (that bird-topped mortar board excepted), at least by this stage they’ve worked out what looks good on the leads – even when it’s nothing but a flag. Emma even gets a yellow dress that suits her, in contrast to the earlier mustard smock. Steed looks frightfully dashing when taking Sam to dinner on a lake, too, or relaxing as he waits for a homing pigeon in lush grey suit (I know that sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it does look rich) and gold tie, with champagne at hand. Oh, yes, champagne… They’re starting to consume rather a lot of it, here. Steed presses several glasses on Emma as a “pick-me-up” at one stage, though rather than being concerned that she rest, he’s just trying to get her ready to go back into action, the swine. Still, when dressed for action she’s now in rather a nice catsuit, a vivid blue number known as an ‘Emmapeeler’ (and which blatantly gives away one scene where they’re driving along against back-projection and the film mix can’t seem to pick up the colour blue, making our heroes rather pink and Emma’s outfit suddenly black). I’m glad some of the pictures are pretty, as the late and entirely unsurprising revelation that a talking parrot is to squawk all the missile details and thereby eliminate the need for smuggled microfilm – a twist on the ‘memory man’, I suppose – is deeply unexciting. Even the closing ‘tag’ scene is curiously lacklustre, as they leave backwards in an antique car in a throwback to the ‘vehicle of the week’ endings of the previous season. It’s a curiously lacklustre episode all told, so it’s a relief that the series hits its stride after this: next time features a far, far more Avengers idea of how to do a story about a bird

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Thnaks for visiting Voga on Saturday. A good day seemed to be had by all. Hope the journey back to London wet fine.
There are some goos photos of the day which I will be posting on the blog when I get some time.
Keep blogging.

Hi Brian

You’re welcome – and thank you, for making me feel so welcome. A well-timed warming cup of tea, despite the lack of milk! I staggered back home about 11 that night, completely exhausted, but I had a great afternoon. I’ll look forward to the photos, and in the meantime, I’ve blogged about it too.
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