Saturday, May 12, 2012


The Avengers – The Morning After

No, this isn’t another post about the Coalition. It’s a strange and sinister 1969 tale of waking up in an English town to find it deserted… But why? With a script full of tension, twists and betrayal, eerie direction, terrific music and impressive guest-star turns from Peter Barkworth, Joss Ackland and Brian Blessed, The Morning After is one of The Avengers’ strongest and most gripping episodes. Steed is landed with an unexpected (and unwilling) ally and faces unexpected (and all too unflinching) enemies in this stylish mid-point between Seven Days To Noon and Doctor Who – Invasion of the Dinosaurs

First broadcast in the Midlands 43 years ago last night (oh, all right, they showed it in London several months earlier, but it’s difficult to celebrate proper Avengers anniversaries when ITV regions all used to do their own thing), you can now find The Morning After on Disc 6 of The Avengers – The Complete Series 6 DVD Box Set, or Disc 35 in The Avengers Complete 50th Anniversary Collection. I’ve previously offered tips on which The Avengers DVDs to buy. You may be surprised, though, at how little Tara King appears in this episode from her season of the show; with Series 6 half as long again as any of the others, both Linda Thorson and Patrick Macnee had to have a couple of ‘holiday’ episodes each. I’m a huge admirer of Tara, as I’ve gone into before in The Avengers – Game and My Wildest Dream, but Steed’s new best enemy in The Morning After more than makes up for her absence, a help and hindrance who’s surely the best of the one-off Avengers.

Having written about Seven Days To Noon a week ago, it’s appropriate to recognise the debt this story owes to that film while still being very much its own show. For me, of all the closest variations on that central idea (the original, this, Doctor Who – Invasion of the Dinosaurs and The New Avengers – Sleeper) this is arguably the best, with a clear identity of its own and told with more economy, great visual style and an outstanding musical score. It turns the film’s central threat on its head, an idea which goes on to be swallowed whole by Invasion of the Dinosaurs; it’s probably a coincidence, but a satisfying one, that it deploys a minor young actor from the film, Joss Ackland, as a major guest star two decades later; and it may well be deliberate that it hires stock film shot for Seven Days To Noon to depict its own evacuation scenes, though intriguingly often off-cuts from the film rather than those used in the final version, such as a different edit of men hammering up an evacuation sign (Tat Wood put me onto this in his Doctor Who guidebook About Time 3, though take its thumbnail plot summary of this with a pinch and, for Homicide and Old Lace, a lorryload of salt). Its focus, punch and production values are way ahead of the Doctor Who, although that shares with Seven Days To Noon a greater political depth, while I’ve said before that Sleeper, while mostly enjoyable and looking impressive, is by far the least interesting of these, having no twists, nothing to say and, for all its attempt at ‘urban realism’, pulling almost all its punches (it even takes the near-comic relief gas from this episode and makes it the main plot). True, the others have over The Morning After the ambition and unsettling impact of a deserted London, though this story’s less iconic ‘everytown’ has its own claustrophobic effect. On which note…

That Golden Moment
“Do you think the world’s ended, and they forgot to tell us?”
The Avengers doesn’t do multi-part stories with cliffhangers – except that, made for an hour ITV slot in the ’60s, each fifty-minute Avengers episode usually splits into four ‘Acts’, each designed to come to a climax, then fade to black for the ad break. And the first Act of The Morning After is an outstanding example of the style, eighteen minutes opening with an exciting James Bond-style mini-adventure preview, then plunging into Steed’s forced exploration of a mystery in which he’s on his own – no briefing, no Mother to send him in, and no Tara to watch his back. And it’s as gripping for the audience as it is disturbing for our hero, building steadily until a sudden burst of action and the first death, inevitably, to keep you breathless through the adverts that aren’t there.

The Avengers doesn’t do ‘continuity’ – but could a man in a clown mask raiding the Ministry of Technology and Scientific Innovation suggest an old enemy? No. It’s just yet another of those sort of openings, here at least done more briskly and impishly than in previous episodes, then jumping straight to a busy, noisy town somewhere in England, where Steed and Tara lie in wait for him (no spending half the episode working out how he got in or what he’s stolen). I told you this started with a fast-moving Bond mini-adventure, didn’t I? And already, it’s unsettling; Steed never carries a gun. But against quadruple agent Jimmy Merlin, an adversary as playful, as charming and as dangerous as he is, Steed jarringly arms himself. Our heroes get the jump on Merlin; he jumps back to fling down the new sleeping gas capsule he’s stolen; but Steed’s locked the door, so as the little rendezvous fills with gas, all three go down. There’s a thrilling freeze-frame for the title as the phone starts to ring and suddenly music crashes in, fast, bombastic and threatening.

The most gripping part of the story for me is on the morning after; Steed wakes first, the busy town suddenly silent save for a dog howling miserably. Only emphasising the silence, eerie music drifts into the scene, like the wind. Steed tries the phone – no connection. The same with the red callbox outside – from where he can see a car crashed into bins and abandoned. All around, things smashed and left, and not a soul. With Tara still deeply unconscious, Steed testily wakes a protesting Merlin and drags him down to the yellow Rolls, eager to hand him over now he’s captured. I love the banter between the two fabulous characters as everything the camera shows us makes us – and them – more worried, right from Steed cheerily telling Merlin to enjoy the view while he can: usually, in The Avengers, glorious countryside; here, the garage door. And Steed has to enjoy the drive while he can, too, as soon he runs into an empty truck used as a roadblock and has no choice but to handcuff the two of them together and start walking…
“Any chance of making a deal?”
“I shouldn’t have thought so, but keep talking.”
“Twenty thousand? In a Swiss bank? No names, no strings?”
“Very sorry, old chap. Only deal in guineas.”
“Well, I could throw in a yacht.”
“I’ve had one.”
“My private plane?”
“It’s lonely up there.”
“String of Arab ponies?”
“Prefer palominos.”
“Well, how about… A villa? France?”
“St Tropez.”
“Prefer Provence.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Steed – isn’t there anything you want?”
“Yes. There’s one thing I want very much. You – behind bars.”
And of course, in this strange setting, suddenly neither can get what they want. It’s a terrific sequence with superb cinematography as the two stroll through the deserted town, nothing but keening music to keep them company. And it’s a brilliant idea to use all the humour to build tension, every line played like a gag between them but juxtaposed with the emptiness yawning around them: the policeman’s helmet on the ground and in the foreground as we see them, tiny and lost, far beyond it; the high, old-fashioned buildings looming above them; the sack of spilled coal, the milk bottles, surely to Steed most disturbingly the abandoned pub with drinks left unfinished. And while both actors keep their tone light, their faces are at odds with their voices. Patrick Macnee’s Steed is determined but disturbed, keenly observing; Peter Barkworth’s Merlin jittery and increasingly desperate. Watch Steed knowing that “It’s lonely up there” merely reflects ‘here’; watch Merlin’s little face fall as Steed keeps raising and dashing his hopes.

It helps enormously that all of this is out on location, on a sunny day, so you can see right down long, narrow, slightly claustrophobic streets. This was The Avengers’ most ambitious location shoot to date (later beaten in that, I think, by Sleeper), and for this eerie ‘everytown’ director John Hough carefully slices together non-contiguous parts of Watford, Old Hatfield and, particularly, St Albans, most blatantly when the streets suddenly give way to the Cathedral, zooming on the little pram and dollies left behind in its grounds. That always gives me a bit of a turn, as I remember the place vaguely from a single childhood visit with my Nana and Grandad (who lived in the other end of Watford), though the cathedral also offers some mirth if you watch carefully; as Steed and Merlin walk and talk, you keep seeing it poking up in the background in different shots, but never in the same place. You could say that it shows they’re going round in circles; you might just shrug that they’re cutting together lots of different locations; but it keeps looking like the cathedral is tiptoeing from side to side, stalking them.

Brian Clemens’ script is merciless, telling you nothing more of what’s going on than Steed and Merlin can see, and even as Act One draws to a close with eerie exploration shifting to sudden threat, there are no answers – just Merlin starting to ask some of the same questions as the audience. Where has everybody gone? And why? Was it an emergency? A mass kidnapping? War, plague, radiation…? Your mind races through all of Terry Nation’s favourite plot devices, not least because he’s script editor here (is this why he and Clemens fell out over who had the idea for Survivors? All so much more absorbing than Sleeper, which tells you what’s going in the pre-titles sequence). Even the bank’s deserted, notes fluttering everywhere, and no-one comes running when Steed sounds the alarm. Or do they? Now there’s a black, silent VW camper van gliding through the streets – robots? Remote control? Hypnotism? Then, just as Merlin and Steed explode into action, there’s that shockingly loud, thundering fanfare again, not a march but a dash, soldiers running through the streets to shoot a little man down as a “LOOTER!” And if you think the capital-lettered sign they toss onto him is shouting, the man giving the order to fire (camera appropriately zooming on his mouth in close-up) is Sergeant Brian Blessed!

Steed and Merlin
“Your friend wasn’t very brave.”
“He’s a big disappointment to me.”
The Morning After is a great episode for Steed, as he carries most of it and almost has to carry unwilling burden Merlin – a much more sober than usual performance, though still with plenty of Patrick Macnee’s charm. Against the usual flamboyant parade of outfits, this time he’s in the same suit from the teaser right up until the last couple of minutes; this isn’t London, and there’s no friendly flat to pop back to for a change of clothes and a glass of champagne. Fortunately, the brown with that trademark velvet collar suits him, and he stays immaculate throughout, of course (even if it seems strangely improbable that, confronting Merlin at the start, he has a touch of uncharacteristic five o’clock shadow, but is as beautifully clean-shaven as always on waking a day later).

Peter Barkworth, Merlin the spy before John le Carré, is a simply sublime guest star and, while I’d put My Wildest Dream just a touch ahead in the terrific episode stakes, Merlin makes a far better anti-Steed than the villain there. Charming and dangerous, tricky and devious, even more playful – sometimes gleeful – but far more cowardly than our hero, he doesn’t look as flamboyant (a straighter hat, a more buttoned-up look, a dark overcoat, as if he wants to stay unnoticed in the shadows) but has his own showiness, not least his conjuror’s-trick habit of producing whatever he needs from his sleeve. It’s a marvellous performance, easily the best and biggest of Barkworth’s four Avengers roles (one lost, a frosty businessperson in The Medicine Men, a well-mannered warrior in The Correct Way To Kill), dragged along, always complaining, never trustworthy – until Steed catches him out and leads him into the jaws of death. They make a very entertaining team. Look out for a particularly priceless exchange where each gives the other three reasons for investigating, or for running away, and just why Steed eventually uncuffs him…
“I’m too young to die!”
“You’re over 21.”
“If I were eighty, I’d still feel the same!”
Not a new man on the team but so fresh he sounds like it, composer Laurie Johnson adds to the feel of ‘The Avengers, but suddenly harder-edged’ with one of his very best original scores. After providing all the music for the Diana Rigg episodes, often reusing and reworking themes into old friends, Laurie Johnson had taken some time off while working on a musical, handing over several of the Tara King scores to Howard Blake. And that clearly recharged his batteries, as the soundtrack here is not just one of his best but strikingly different to his usual.

With Linda Thorson recharging her own batteries for the week, Tara gets a couple of good moments – praised at the start, an impressive knockout punch later – but is largely asleep with a teddy (not Chilcott) and in a red and white trouser suit, which isn’t bad but makes her seem a bit young. For anyone missing an Avengers woman for a week, half-way through we meet Jenny Firston, played by Penelope Horner. She’s not bad, if a little flat, and after a rather undignified entrance has little to do save act as the exposition and then hide; if you’ve seen Doctor Who – Invasion of the Dinosaurs, you may just expect to find a plucky female journalist sneaking in for the scoop, and she even has a man called Yates teamed with her who isn’t much help. Her exposition is rather stylishly by television, though it slightly clumsily underlines that they’ve not given the ‘everytown’ a name: “This town has become a ghost area” seems very laboured, when anyone would naturally say ‘This has become a ghost town’.

But why has this ghost town been evacuated, and the fifty square miles surrounding it? Spoilers follow shortly…

Commentary and Conspiracy (Or – Spoilers – What’s It All About, Ackland?)

Late ’60s Avengers episodes look gorgeous on DVD, shot on film and in colour, and with the current full-season (or complete series) box sets they’ve not only been cleaned up beautifully but have been given a few extra features – though, while the look of the episodes mostly beats Doctor Who hands down, the value added material is still some way behind. While almost every Doctor Who DVD release has a full set of commentaries, they’re rare for The Avengers, so it’s cheering that on this (one of my favourites) director John Hough is there to give his recollections, ably questioned by Jaz Wiseman. Hough’s direction is particularly impressive here; not quite as exuberantly inventive as Robert Fuest but still with a great deal of style, equally able in building atmosphere for the unsettlingly empty streets and then in giving it lots of pace and energy as the soldiers crash into the story.

John Hough has some intriguing insights into this story in particular – how to match Peter against Patrick as the two leads so that both could let their own charisma flow and battle each other’s characters without overshadowing each other, or how though it took more hard work than usual to create so much of the empty town, it was only one step up from the way The Avengers always eschewed extras to create its own world – but, with few commentaries about for the series, it’s mostly more of an extended interview than a bantering, story-led traditional commentary. It ranges over his four episodes as full director (he returned for one especially good New Avengers) and how he started off as second unit director, having got that post on The Avengers following The Saint after he and Ray Austin managed to swap jobs. He explains how the series doing it differently led to such high quality, with good words to say about the likes of Linda Thorson, Patrick Macnee, and most of all producers Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens. Though not about the Movie. And, like me, he admired Patrick Macnee’s special velvet collars, though unlike me he went to Patrick’s tailor and got one (it looks like you can see it in the Photo Gallery for Super Secret Cypher Snatch)!

So, now, are you ready for the spoilers on what was going on?

Much of The Avengers takes place in a highly stylised fantasy of Britain, sometimes called ‘AvengerLand’, with highly stylised characters within it. Here, the threat is more grim and real-world than usual, though it’s still informed by Avengers themes and, in the extensive location shooting, brings ‘AvengerLand’ further than it’s ever been before in transforming the real world. Rather than outlandish sets, rolling countryside or picturesque villages called Little Storping-in-the-Swuff, this ambitiously turns a whole town inside-out and into Avengers country, closer to most viewers’ experiences but more unsettlingly different at the same time. And it’s unsettlingly different for Steed, too, as rather than be sent in to investigate the mystery, here he simply wakes up in the midst of it and becomes a hunted fugitive, the full force of the authorities seemingly out to kill him, a reversal that gives him new oomph.

Army nuclear expert Brigadier Hansing has detected an atomic bomb secreted by one of the unfriendly governments who backed the old Eastern Hemisphere Trade Commission in town, and enforces martial law while he’s staying in the evacuated area to dismantle the bomb. Or is he? The conspiracy goes right to the top, with Joss Ackland as Hansing moving deftly from sternly efficient, to snarling brutal orders, to just a few notches below his full Hollywood-villain-boggler of later years. Hansing’s due to be pensioned off in favour of a computer and, as with so many Avengers villains motived by either amity or animosity towards technology, turns. His good old British nuclear shock troop platoons are lying drugged in their trucks while merciless mercenaries led by the excellent Donald Douglas and the even more outstanding Brian Blessed shoot anyone on the streets and Hansing supervises not the dismantling of an imaginary bomb but the installation of a real one, ready to blackmail the government with no time for evacuation once the town’s population returns (though while he’s in it for money and pride, it’s never made entirely clear just what his “Eastern Hemisphere” backers are aiming for. It might have been interesting to hear they intended to double-cross him in turn, and blow up the bomb anyway).
“You have been found guilty of looting!”
A shoot-to-kill policy is, of course, just not British – except when it is – and you can see the effect it has on Steed; not concerned for himself, but neatly underplayed doubt that they’re genuine and fear that they might be. It’s a conspiracy thriller quite unlike any other Avengers, full of twists and betrayal, and as well as cleverly subverting the motivations of Seven Days To Noon, when we see soldiers running along house-to-house searches they become far more sinister, the film’s subtext become the text. And, in villainous ’tache, it’s Brian Blessed who barks their orders, on the cusp of serious stardom, already known for Z Cars, still in a working class role, some great asides as he tells Steed he’s not a regular (he gets the drink; Steed doesn’t; he doesn’t drink like Steed does, though), but in an early example of SHOUTING!

I should mention the final moment designed to defuse the tension, the traditional light-hearted ‘tag scene’; in Steed’s flat, it’s immediately rather jarring, as it’s the only scene since the pre-titles where we’ve not been trapped in that unfamiliar town. Unusually, there is a link to the main plot – something else Merlin’s stolen – but it’s not a particularly good gag and, for once, not particularly well done (dialogue or lighting). And though Tara’s back, in rather a shimmery frock, Steed’s tux is a bit much. If it ends on a slight disappointment, though, The Morning After’s still been one of The Avengers’ strongest episodes, and showing great confidence in doing something so different in tone so late in the series. That confidence even shows through in what might be the best moment of that tag scene: Steed, enjoying the TV, hears one hand clapping and sighs, “Sock it to me,” the catchphrase of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, which was right then causing problems for the series when scheduled against it on US TV. It was very interesting to show even Steed fondly watching their opposition… But it was also stupid. Though I think it was more interesting than stupid…

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