So here we have the first full episode of The Avengers that we can watch, the sixth episode from the first season. Episodes 2 through to 5 are missing, and we’ve already talked about the partially missing Hot Snow. This is one of a couple of first season episodes in which Steed does not appear, so we’ll have to wait a little longer to see him, but at this stage Ian Hendry as Dr David Keel is very much the star of the show anyway. In Hot Snow we saw Keel lose his assistant/fiancée, and we’ve missed the introduction of his new sidekick in the second episode, Brought to Book, Ingrid Hafner as Carol Wilson. She also appeared in the missing episodes Square Root of Evil and Nightmare, but not in the fifth episode Crescent Moon. In total she will appear in 19 of the first 26 episodes, so she’s our first Avengers girl, although I suspect if they asked a question about them in Pointless she would be a pointless answer. I must admit I had never heard of her before embarking on this journey. She’s a fairly positive portrayal of a female sidekick here, resourceful and brave, although she does partially exist to be captured and rescued, so it’s a little bit Perils of Pauline.
This episode was broadcast live, but you wouldn’t really know the difference. Once or twice actors tread on each other’s lines a little, but that’s quite common in 60s television shows anyway, in the days when cutting the tape and doing retakes was an expensive business. It’s an interesting window into a world where television was an evolved version of theatre with cameras pointed at it, and everyone involved is clearly comfortable with that world and knows exactly what they are doing. There are some magnificent performances here. Hendry is brilliant as ever, but I particularly liked Howard Goorney as the matter-of-fact Superintendent Lewis, with his wry sense of humour. I was disappointed to learn that his character is a one-off. His own sidekick is a lot of fun too, Ivor Salter as the Sergeant. Doctor Who fans might recognise him from when he played another sergeant in Black Orchid, and he was also Odysseus in The Myth Makers (also missing, dammit).
The villains are also great, although you have to allow for the fact that this is 1961 and we have quite clichéd Russian criminals being played by British actors. As much as I enjoyed Edwin Richfield’s performance as Stefan (Captain Hart from The Sea Devils for the Doctor Who actor spotters), I have to acknowledge that you would struggle to find a more British actor to play a Russian.
A circus is a great location for a mystery of this nature, and as soon as a clown attacked someone I was creeped out. I don’t like clowns. Fortunately there’s not too much of that, and instead we have a fairly complex mystery that holds the viewer’s attention very well throughout the episode. A suicide is not what it seems, with a woman apparently jumping from a bridge although the autopsy shows that she didn’t die from drowning and she was so drugged up that she would have been incapable of even walking. So there has been a switch here, and the suicide must have been staged. The mystery plays out largely in some dark and moody locations: the bridge at night and backstage at the circus are both great places to set a crime drama.
The only problem with all this is Keel’s involvement in the story, and I’m guessing that’s why the initial format of the series only lasted for one year. He’s a doctor not a detective, and just happens to be at the right place at the right time, to draw him into the story. If you can get past that coincidence, you then have to accept a doctor behaving like he’s a detective and the police happily accepting his involvement and working with him as if he’s their colleague. There’s an air of class deference about it, and whole book series such as Miss Marple have been built on the notion of a member of the public helping the police, but I can’t see it being sustainable as a format. It will be interesting to see how things work when Steed is involved as well. We’ll find out about that next week, when we fast forward to episode 15: The Frighteners… RP
The view from across the pond:
If there’s one important takeaway from Girl on a Trapeze, it should be that clowns really are bad. When the story opens and a clown is shown attacking a woman and the incongruity of it is very alarming. Clowns suck. So does the opening theme to this show. I prayed it would end. Unlike the magnificent opening to The Prisoner, The Avengers offers a jarring clash of sound that I am only too happy to skip! And I can’t say I was overly impressed by the acting either. The story was good, but the acting…
Ok, Dr. Sweatalot is the main character obviously. He and his assistant/nurse (or whatever she is) Carol are the duo to solve crimes but they are no Sherlock and Watson. I say that but it’s not like I was expecting it to be like Sherlock Holmes. It’s just that this episode is every bit a Sherlock Holmes mystery. I knew the moment a woman’s face appeared on screen in hyper close-up as she jumped off a bridge just how that mystery was going to be solved, and I completely thank my friends at 221B Baker Street. That took nothing away from the story, though. In fact, that’s only a part of the mystery. We are giving the clues, but there’s the motive to uncover and that ends up being far more interesting than the actual murder. See? As they say, the journey is as important as the destination and I absolutely enjoyed the journey! It was just that the characters left me a big dry. Maybe I’m too used to the hiding-in-shrubs Number 6 from the Village, but maybe I should explain why I didn’t love these guys…
The superintendent has a cold and stands awfully close to everyone, as if trying to get them sick. Carole stumbles along without realizing she’s putting her partner in danger (although she pulls a great save later in the story). But it’s Keel that really let me down. Dr. “Sweaty” Keel is supposedly a doctor, as you might have figured from that “dr” I put in front of his name. When he arrives at his office, he starts talking to his assistant … by standing still with his back to her. I’ve never actually tried talking to someone that way, but might give it a go tomorrow. Watching him pump water from a woman’s lungs was actually quite funny as its so evident he puts no actual work into it. I imagine the actress had to face away from the camera so her laughter was not caught on camera. Later, when trying to open another woman’s eyes, I was reasonably certain someone had crazy glued them shut. Opening eyes doesn’t require a degree; my nephew could do it and he’s 7! He feverishly (possibly because he sweats so much) handles a newspaper with a lit cigarette in hand just waiting to set the place ablaze and when he revives Ms. Glue Eyes, he grabs a nearby random container of liquid, pours it into a cup and tells her to drink it. Looked like a bottle of perfume if you asked me! “Are you alright? Have a cigarette!” Yeah, this is one doctor I’m not taking on as my GP! And to top it off, I’m reasonably certain he falls down the stairs at the start of the episode but the black part of the black and white image was so dark that I couldn’t be sure!
The villains don’t fare much better. Doctor Who’s Edwin Richfield plays the lead bad guy but I much preferred his work in The Sea Devils. He’s just a generic villain here and his henchmen, the clown, needs to retake Gun Holding 101. I’m not saying 60’s television should have held classes in how to hold a weapon, but this guy might as well be holding a baguette. Not to mention, on many an occasion, he holds it so close to his own face that, had he pulled the trigger, he’d be so insanely soaked in his victims blood as to make it impossible to clean up. Think about Vincent and Jules in Pulp Fiction if you want a visual!
Having said all that, I thought the episode was actually very good. I can laugh about silly things and still find merit in them, or love a thing and still mock it. (I am a fan of Doctor Who, for goodness sake!) This is a story that could very easily have featured in a Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie mystery. It’s beyond just a case of mistaken identity too; there’s a motive behind what goes on and the intrigue is layered. That’s the thing about it: we’re shown a murder and we know who the killer is but we’re not sure about who was murdered or more importantly, why. That plays out over the 50 minutes and it’s a well written affair.
I recently had the opportunity to talk about Hot Snow and, alas, that was a short visit to the series as so much of it was lost but this was a pleasant look at what the series was actually about. On top of that, it’s structured not unlike a classic Doctor Who episode with “end of part x” appearing after each “chapter”. I feel as though this series could be easily digested in 15 minute episodes; a serialized format that works well, though I’m only saying that after one full story so it may be an unfair assessment. It’s still far too early for me to determine if this is actually good as an overall series, and I know it changes drastically by season 2. I’ll reserve the right to judge, but based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m enjoying the escapism. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: The Frighteners