Friday, January 09, 2009


The New Avengers – To Catch A Rat

Are you still up? Well, stop what you’re doing, and turn over to BBC4 at 12.25 for tonight’s episode of The New Avengers, To Catch A Rat. While its sexual attitudes aren’t as wholesome as your everyday Internet porn, it’s still interesting for all sorts of reasons. On Wednesday, The Avengers was 48 years old – in this one, you’ll see the return of Ian Hendry, the show’s original lead actor (that’s right; in 1961, Patrick Macnee was the co-star). It’s a Cold War ‘thriller’ in which the story makes little sense but the main characters are rather beautifully drawn.

Gambit and Purdey are driving in circles, discussing what they were doing seventeen years ago. Gambit is driving, quite badly, and flirting, very badly. Purdey is eating marshmallows.
“Me? I was discovering sex.”
“What a waste of time. You might have been learning to drive.”
Our two young leads seem slightly out of place in this story, but they’re still among the best things in it – their relationship is coming on in leaps and bounds, as the camera has stopped fetishising Gambit as a hard man and Purdey has started taking the Mike out of him. And Joanna Lumley is fantastic at it, from the exchange above, through her pointed failure to get his terrible “undercover” pun, to one of the best scenes in it – at best peripheral to the plot – when they stumble into a church, Gambit’s gun drawn, and startle two ladies doing the flowers. Purdey’s brilliant idea for getting them out of there without causing any embarrassment is worth tuning in for alone.

That’s not to say that Joanna has it all her own way. I’ve written before about the sexism in this version of the series’ format (suddenly, an older Steed gets to do the ‘thinking’ and Gambit the ‘action’, both previously the purview of Avengers women) and in the deliberate writing and directing decisions, and Purdey is still leched over by every character to an uncomfortable degree. This was one of the few New Avengers episodes to be novelised, and the only one I’d actively urge you to avoid; the author makes every male character drool over her in a way that leaves you feeling soiled. The TV original is less sleazy, but we still get her involvement with ludicrously improbable men, and the director offers lingering shots up her legs as she rolls filigree coverings over them. No male character’s ever objectified in this way, though I have to admit I wouldn’t thank them for offering the same treatment to Mike Gambit. Thankfully, Purdey’s relaxed teasing of Gambit (and her spotting and nearly stopping the villain) points the way the series is going to go – Joanna’s clearly the one to watch here, and that leg shot is almost made up for by her scenes spent in a suit and big tie, which both looks fantastic and shows that she still commands the camera when completely buttoned up.

The main plot, though, centres on the older actors – and it’s rather nice to see so many of them about, whether in charge of records, swilling brandy and smoking cigars in the bath in the world’s largest bathroom (yes, all right, one rather nicely acted old chap gets to show off even more of his body than Purdey does, though I don’t think the director’s enjoying it so much), or of course being the main protagonists. On the one hand, the villains are rather bland; there’s a double agent to be exposed, and though technically there are several suspects, we only get to know two of them. One of these acts so suspiciously throughout that he may as well have a neon sign above his head saying, ‘You’re supposed to think it’s me!’ while the other’s more urbane until he becomes Purdey’s unbelievably slimy date. If you’re under the age of four, you may not have just worked out whodunnit. It’s odd, really, that the usually prime parts of the villains are so dull, when almost all the bit-part old chaps shine, and both Patrick Macnee and Ian Hendry are marvellous, despite neither having much in common with the characters they were playing together back in 1961.

As in several of the earlier New Avengers stories, Steed largely stays in the background and gives the orders while the young ’uns handle the action; though I still prefer him light but dangerous against a diabolical master mind, this is one of the few episodes where his serious, authority figure persona really works, giving weight to the George Smiley figure in this cut-price le Carré (though the script’s so flimsy on that side that, without Patrick Macnee, there’d be nothing to it but lots of running around and looking concerned on the radio). Despite that, the show’s stolen by Ian Hendry, who’s the only actor in the whole series to get a full screen ‘Guest Star’ credit and thoroughly deserves it.

Ian Hendry and Dr Keel

Ian Hendry once played Dr David Keel, whose fiancée was murdered by drug dealers in the first ever episode of the series and who was assisted by a shadowy government operative named Steed to avenge her. He left after the first series, Patrick Macnee remained and became the lead, Honor Blackman took over the second ‘man’s’ role, and the rest is history. While every later Avengers episode still exists, only two and a half of Mr Hendry’s remain in the archives (the first reel of the very first episode, Hot Snow, up until the murder; The Frighteners, a mundane plot enlivened by great characters and performances; and Girl on the Trapeze, the only Avengers episode without Steed, and like this episode of course featuring a trapeze). His glittering film career never quite materialised, other than character roles like the violent chauffeur in Get Carter, and perhaps it’s not just his (make-up-assisted?) heavy ageing that helps inspire the melancholy feel of this episode.

In Doctor Who terms, this is less The Five Doctors, more Meglos, as the original star returns but not to play his original role. In an uneven script’s best and most self-referential bit of writing, he’s a former agent, lost for sixteen years, come back a shadow of his former self but determined, once again, to avenge his own dead. And Mr Hendry’s performance as Gunner is full of that pathos – one early scene has him struggle to pull his identity back out of his fragmented mind, then see a little girl and break into a warm, reassuring smile, not wanting to frighten her, and it’s beautifully played.

The trouble with the episode, then, isn’t with the leading actors, but with the plot. It desperately wants to be John le Carré, but misses out the multiplicity of suspects, the intricacy and, well, all the clever bits. So we’re left with a trapeze artist agent in East Germany who wounded the double agent who blew his cell – arguably the only ‘clever le Carré plotting’ here has to be inferred to precede the first scene, in the trap Gunner has laid ‘off’ for the “White Rat”; I’d rather we actually got to see some intelligent intelligence work than have to assume it was there just before we joined the story – but was then let down by his traitorous partner before he could tell London. His brain and body broken by the fall, he takes sixteen (or seventeen, depending on who’s speaking) years to be hit on the head again, in traditional fashion, get his memory back and go on the hunt for the White Rat. If you’re hoping for more character moments and subtle intrigues, tough luck; his return is just a cue for everybody to run around the countryside and the odd flat after everybody else until everybody’s either cleared or dead, or simply tired out after all the chasing. Perhaps the biggest let-down, other than the pre-titles freeze-frame, is that the logic of what passes for the plot means Steed can’t catch up with Gunner until the last couple of minutes. Patrick Macnee has one tender moment with his old co-star, but I can’t help hoping for more, and it’s not as if the story came up with a gripping alternative.

A Bit of A Disappointment, Then…?

The plot isn’t merely thin, either, but full of holes. How come the terribly wounded Gunner was moved to a ship’s hold to be found and cared for, rather than finished off or turned over to the Stasi? Why, if the villains were going to soft-heartedly put him on a boat, did they stick him on a boat to Britain, where he can expose them (Richard wonders if they gave him a memory test before dumping him)? Why does the man who dropped him from a great height just happen to be listening in all those years later to spot Gunner’s signal? Why does he then go to ‘reassure’ Gunner, when surely if the man’s finally got his memory back he might remember who betrayed and tried to kill him? Why are the villains the only ones who remember the Department’s signals and codenames from a mere decade and a half earlier, while others in the service at the time – all the other potential White Rats Gunner checks out, Steed himself – have to shrug and wonder? Why isn’t the first thing the Department does to check everyone who was involved back in 1960, then isolate and interrogate them, rather than the identity of one of the main participants being sprung as an off-hand ‘surprise’ at the last minute? And did they really think the contrived nudist jokes about Steed’s old codename were funny – though it does make me wonder which came first, the laboured puns or Patrick Macnee’s naturism? At least if Pat was already hanging out nude, the in-joke’s amusing, if not to the viewers.

So, I’m afraid this isn’t one of the great episodes (rather, among the weaker ones; not actively bad, but dull, plodding and with very little distinctive Avengers feel to the script). It does, however, have some great moments for the regular cast, and particularly from the one who stopped being a regular fifteen years before. But that’s not the only recommendation – despite on the surface being a very old-fashioned story, probably dated in 1960 let alone 1976, it has some elements that the series will take further and improve on. There are some of the first steps in elevating Purdey in the script and treating Gambit as a bit of a prat, rather than the holy soul of machismo. Most strikingly, elements of Terence Feely’s script – a pre-titles sequence years ago on the Iron Curtain, the lost old agent returning from the other side, a melancholy exploration of Steed’s past – are reworked into a far, far better script that knows what to do with them a year later, when Brian Clemens writes by a long way the greatest episode of The New Avengers, Dead Men Are Dangerous. One thing that doesn’t point to the series’ future, though, is the title sequence; sorry, I said last time that this would be the first to have the swishy, expensive, nearly-three-colour 1976 CGI opening. It isn’t. But this time I think it really is the last one to have the by-the-numbers clips montage. Tune in next week to see if I’ve got it wrong again, and for an unusual secret code, an hilarious ‘secret’ outfit and a very dubious young Roy Marsden…

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