Friday, December 05, 2008


The (New) Avengers – The Midas Touch / How To Succeed… At Murder

Crawling from my pit after six days of stomach virus, with Richard recovered too (I generously infected him, though he skipped what he called my “full Exorcist” – not the best way to lose half a stone over a weekend), I notice there’s a double bill of The New Avengers and The Avengers on BBC4 late tonight, after ‘Charlie Brooker Does That-Russell-T-Davies-Book’. They’re ideal if you’re not well: one features a killer who carries every infection known to humanity; the other’ll make you nauseous. Yes, it’s a pretty good New Avengers paired with the Avengers episode kept in the attic. I’m taking a look at them, then, to test if I’m almost back to my normal level of ill health, and put off the scary number of Doctor Who and politics pieces I feel I should be catching up with.
“Yes, Mr Gambit, they died of everything.”
The New Avengers is a strange beast. In 1976, more than half a decade after the last Avengers episode, the producers decided to make some more. Due to legal wrangles, they had the rights to almost everything except the title, which they had to change a bit. And they wanted it to be just the same, with suave, fey Steed and a capable woman, but also different, with a new pairing of a traditionally macho man and the woman, who now has to spend half her time pushing him away with a stick. So they did both. It never quite decided what it wanted to be, but occasionally it worked, and tonight’s episode is one of those where it works pretty well – in part because, despite being coarser and dumber in parts than it ever needs to be, this one rather wants to be The Avengers, and when Patrick Macnee is Steed, Brian Clemens is writing and the fabulous pop-art imagination of Robert Fuest is directing, if they all want to be The Avengers then it will be, damn it, even this far out of the Sixties.

The New Avengers – The Midas Touch

This is scheduled to start at 12.35 tonight, followed at 1.30am by the Avengers episode – assuming, of course, that BBC4 doesn’t go the way of BBC1 last night and replace its line-up with ‘Let’s All Be the Daily Mail: Extended Hand-Rubbing Over “Evil” Chavs’ so-called documentaries. So what’s good about this episode? Well, there’s a great mix of ideas, some original, many nicked, but mostly rather fun. The Masque of the Red Death gets stirred in with a wild ’70s party scene – Cornelltoppingday’s “Porno Funk Music Factor” review category was born for moments like this – that’s both memorable and rather icky, and though practically every review of this ever written uses the quote I’ve used above from the doctor checking out the aftermath of the party, there’s no doubt it’s the line that above all others springs to mind. David Swift from Drop the Dead Donkey plays the main villain, who it would be unkind (but not in any way unfair) to call a cheap knock-off of Goldfinger, but he has great fun doing it, responsible for a plot that appears inspired by Survivors – the first time round.

There’s a particularly striking ‘assassination’ at Heathrow, too – and, yes, even what I said above about losing half a stone unpleasantly in three days was relevant. Here, someone slims even more quickly. All you need to do is get shot and leak gold dust, and the pounds just fall away. Of course, the character who gets shot is supposed to be Chinese, and (the series again not quite knowing what it wants to be) there’s a Chinese actor cast as the spymaster, but the distinctly Caucasian Ronald Lacey is wasted as her agent, neither looking nor sounding remotely Chinese (it makes you realise just how much effort the BBC, by contrast, was putting into The Talons of Weng-Chiang – more on that story later – at about the same time). A more successful human chameleon is John Carson, good in almost every part he plays but almost unrecognisable as every different character, here an old agent turned alcoholic tramp and desperate for redemption. And then there’s an eye-bogglingly villainous Prime Minister of a vaguely foreign state, who’s after the perfect way to end the royal line and take control; he is, admittedly, evil, but as the last surviving princess’s accomplishments apparently amount to a nice frock, a nice smile and no lines, the script does leave you wondering if he may actually have a point that he’s rather better-qualified. Even for a bit of a mix of an episode, you feel that leaving you thinking the fascist coup leader may be onto something could be something of a misjudgement.

One of my favourite flourishes here is to take two of the most ostentatiously butch clichés that always pop up as action sequences, the how-fast-and-macho-can-you-go army assault course and squealing-tired car chase (“the one that goes on about half the episode,” some have observed, but it’s really very well done, and is borrowed for most of the ‘temporary’ titles sequence) and, while making the visuals for each of them every bit as exciting as they’re meant to be, utterly subvert them both through the dialogue and the presence of Joanna Lumley. During each of these testosterone-fuelled stretches, she’s not just keeping up with the boys, not just clearly finding it all too easy, but nonchalantly chatting away throughout, which more than any other one thing makes this fine Avengers material. It’s a thrillingly executed car chase, I have to admit, but you’ve seen a lot of those. It’s not the chase you remember; it’s the excellent use of a practical orange, and Gambit and Purdey arguing about who directed The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as they drive (if you’ve not seen the film, you’ve probably seen it pastiched in one of the finest Simpsons episodes). I love watching Walter Huston – he runs away with one of my favourite films, All That Money Can Buy – but I still can’t see his name without hearing Joanna Lumley breathe in my ear, “it was his son, John.” As well as David Swift, she does some of that breathing to another super sit-com star to be, this one in a small part as the young guard who perves over Purdey. Well, everyone perves over Purdey, particularly here…

Purdey and The New Avengers’ Problem

The thing is, Purdey is both the best and the worst thing about The New Avengers, and the reasons why are particularly keenly on display here. What’s best is that Joanna Lumley is fantastic. She looks stunning, she’s amazing at the action sequences, but most of all she just blazes intelligence and charisma. The trouble is, she has a much more uphill struggle than any of the three main Avengers women – all terrific, too – in the Sixties. The Avengers women were strong, capable and independent, and the marvellous Patrick Macnee was very happy to stand back and let them do the rough stuff. Not only were they unique on television before the mainstream rise of feminism, they were the sort of powerful role models that helped get it running. The New Avengers, though, was filmed in the middle of ‘Women’s Lib’, where it was no longer new, no longer groundbreaking, and was even kicking against the sort of roles for women that had made The Avengers so different, the series no longer changing things a little in the real world that it strove to ignore but trying more to fit in with the real world instead. This series adds Gareth Hunt’s Gambit, perfectly decent on his own, but a macho, martial-arts man who’s always trying crassly to get his end away with Purdey, which means both that she becomes a bit more prim and that she gets far less of the action, while the older Steed does most of the intellectual work. So, astoundingly, a version of The Avengers is suddenly pushing the woman back behind the men again. While everyone just accepted the bizarre superhumanity of a woman in leather throwing men over her shoulders in the Sixties, here Purdey keeps being given clumsy ‘let’s have the argument about Women’s Lib’ lines to try and ‘justify’ herself. And there’s a really unpleasant recurring motif of male characters not so much fancying Purdey as drooling over her with a threat of sexual violence. With that set-up, it’s a tribute to Ms Lumley that she’s still so eccentric and energetic, and constantly steals the show.

Still regarding Purdey, another unbelievable decision for The New Avengers was that the Avengers woman now needed to be put in diaphanous skirts to make her look more ‘feminine’ – as if the others had never been sex symbols! – and to make sure she’ll trip up more often, flash her knickers going over a fence, and leave still more of the action to Gambit. In this episode, there’s a breakneck chase on foot through a derelict factory – or, in Purdey’s case, in heels. She’s still faster than Gareth Hunt. Fine, you can imagine Joanna Lumley saying, I’ll be dainty and demure and traditionally feminine for you. Whoops! Oh, I’m so sorry, I appear to have accidentally cut off all my hair. Look at the opening titles, made up of footage from some of the early episodes while they were waiting for the swish ‘proper’ titles to be ready (when those turn up in a few weeks, gasp at the massively expensive, ground-breaking, time-consuming three-colour hand-cranked 1976 computer animation), and you can see some test film of Purdey with long hair, but just as they were about to start filming the full episodes, Joanna had her hair cut into a short bob that became famous, and made the producer so furious she was nearly sacked for it. She’s fantastic.

How To Succeed… At Murder (but not at The Avengers)
Steed becomes a perfect boss – Emma goes seeking charm
After my reservations about The New Avengers suddenly discovering sexism in the Seventies when the Sixties series cruised by with hardly a flash of it, then, it must be a relief to get back to 1966, an episode from arguably the finest season of The Avengers, with – in another crossover with The Talons of Weng-Chiang – a breathtaking performance by Christopher Benjamin’s magnificent Hooter (as well as an eerie doll). It has much better outfits, and moody black and white photography… It has a chartered accountant, the always marvellously slimy Jerome Willis… It even has Steed and Emma interlocked on the sofa. What could possibly go wrong?

This is the episode, of all of them, after which you’re most likely to find yourself staring muzzily around at half-two in the morning, saying to yourself, ‘Oh, dear, I meant to watch The Avengers but I fell asleep and had such a rubbish dream’. To be fair, it isn’t entirely rubbish; some of the broad comedy murders are fun, the actors are good and it’s shot rather well, and incidental details like the perfume Leap Into My Fervid Arms are as diverting as ever. But the problem is, not only is the central story rather weak, it feels just plain wrong. The Avengers ‘got away with’ its uniquely strong leading women simply by making them superhumanly capable and ignoring anything that anyone might say about how odd that might be. Except here.

This is The Avengers Versus The Monstrous Regiment of Women. Oh, the number of times Doctor Who nearly did the ‘imagine how frightful it would be if the girlies were in charge?’ story and managed to pull back at the last minute… What a narrow escape! Everything did it in the Sixties and Seventies to show the little women why they should stay in their place, but if there was any series that you’d thing would know better, it’s this one. It’s only the presence of Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg that make it clear this isn’t a dumb spoof of The Avengers by some men who think the concept that a woman could be as good as a man riotously funny and set out to show how rib-tickling it is. Complete with Steed tickling the ribs of and spanking the miscreant uppity females who want to take over. “Ruination to all men!” indeed.

I’m torn between wishing that the plot was better and being glad that it’s pretty weak even without the silly sexism, as that robs it of any excuses. It’s by a long way the least impressive of this season of the show, an unsettling mixture of broad comedy, chauvinist ‘social comment’ and trying to be affecting over a lost love. Goodness knows what it thought it was doing. Still, the talent involved means even this remains watchable, if you turn your brain off, with some entertaining cameos, exciting fights (“I’d have brought my ray-gun”) and, look, help me, I’m clutching at straws here, the wafer-thin defence that the idea that the rise of women means the destruction of men is revealed to be nothing but a male fantasy at the end. Oh, just watch it for Christopher Benjamin’s outrageous camp innuendos.
“There you see the splendid beast, naked before you!”

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To be fair, Purdey's wearing a pair of (admittedly small) shorts in the famous "climbing over the fence" bit rather than knickers. Though you'd never see Gambit in hotpants. Nude, yes, shorts, no :)
Sorry I didn't notice this and activate it earlier - I sometimes miss comments on older posts (locked, I'm afraid, as they sometimes get a mass of spam).

I hadn't noticed the small shorts - but Gambit's nearly in hotpants at the start of House of Cards ;)
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