Our experience of watching The Frighteners today is very different to a viewer in 1961, because this is the 15th episode of The Avengers but is our first opportunity to see Patrick Macnee as John Steed, with all his previous appearances in the series missing from the archives. It’s immediately obvious why he became so popular. Keel is a great lead for the series, but Steel commands our attention. He’s just so charismatic and fun, and I particularly enjoyed his undercover stint as a posh gent, towards the end of the episode. But Keel is still the lead at this stage, and gets the lion’s share of the action. He’s an interesting kind of a hero, quite ruthless in a way. The way he manipulates people using his medical knowledge is impressive but also a little bit uncomfortable to watch. He persuades one man into thinking his neck is broken, and won’t help him until he has taken him to see his boss, the Deacon. Later he threatens the Deacon with a syringe, which is a positively nasty moment, even if there’s something harmless in there instead of the acid he claims it contains. His methods are on the verge of bringing him down to the same level as the criminals, but this is clearly a 007-inspired series, and we can’t expect our heroes to play by the rules of civilised society. They fight the criminals at their own game, and win, but crucially they do that through superior intelligence and cunning. The syringe ploy is a classic case of pretending something is a weapon while actually being unarmed. It’s a post-watershed version of the Doctor threatening his enemies with a jelly baby. Keel bluffs with an empty hand, and wins. It’s a clever ruse, but not as clever as the plan Steed comes up with at the end, which gives us a delightful twist ending.
The interesting thing about this story is that there are very few innocent people involved. Arguably, lovestruck Marylin Weller is the only one. The story twists and turns, as we gradually discover people’s motivations and the ulterior motives they are concealing, particularly Marylin’s suitor Jeremy, who seems at first like the victim in all this, until a great scene where he lapses back to his natural accent and reveals that he is playing the con trick of a professional marrying man, trying to extract money from Marylin. That twist then makes her father much more of the innocent party, although his methods are questionable, employing thugs to “give him the real frighteners”. It’s still a key moment that causes the viewer to rethink who has the moral high ground here.
The Frighteners has a magnificent cast, so let’s get the one weak link out of the way first. Neil Wilson has to be the least convincing Italian I have ever seen, with barely a hint of an accent. “Dio mio”, indeed. He was obviously much better suited to playing a yokel in Doctor Who, but he seems to be an actor who specialises in looking shifty. Everyone else is brilliant. I was delighted to see Willoughby Goddard as the Deacon. He immediately became one of my favourite actors when I saw him for the first time in a very different role as Sir Jason in The Mind of J.G. Reeder, and it was great to see him playing the boss of a criminal gang here. He is equally convincing as a member of the aristocracy or the underworld. What a versatile actor. Philip Locke as his underling is memorable too, and Stratford Johns is great as the increasingly stressed out Sir Thomas. There is a great moment when he gets threatened by the Deacon and turns directly to the camera for a reaction shot, while the camera zooms in for an extreme close-up.
This episode gave us so many great moments, from the flower seller giving Steed the word on the street, much like the shoe shiner in Police Squad, to the in-joke about giving “the police surgeon a night off, follow me?” (we do!), to that great twist in the tale, which has us thinking what a disgrace Jeremy is for denying his mother while his father is dying, until she lapses back into her real accent and it turns out she was a paid actor.
“Never was ten quid better earned.”
Everyone gets their comeuppance and the episode leaves us reeling from the cleverness of the twist at the end. What’s not to love? RP
The view from across the pond:
It’s funny because I’ve been a fan of British TV for a long time and the 1960’s specifically holds a special place in my heart. Between Doctor Who and The Prisoner, I’ve watched and rewatched these shows, followed the making of both and just in general read a lot about that productions of the time. I know that the budget was tighter, the sets were smaller and the cameras were not as advanced as today’s technological marvels. But good God, I had no idea how closely people would have to stand to one another to be on camera together. I mean, it must have been a germaphobe’s worst nightmare. Heaven forbid these people ever got sick! If Covid came out back then, the whole nation would be dead or at the very least, no TV shows would have been produced from England! Not to mention, with everyone smoking, including the bad guys, it must have been an assault on the nose! I have a different idea in my head for what The Frighteners are and it has more to do with germs than people wearing pantyhose over their heads.
Actually, you only need to keep the stockings over your head for the tracking of the target apparently. This is the part you probably need to see the most, too, which makes that really funny. Once the frighteners get their guy, the lead nitwit takes his stocking off so his intended target can identify him later. Meanwhile, when the good guys show up, I have no idea where the second attacker went. Maybe a TARDIS picked him up? He was there one second, and gone the next. Hey, and while I’m having some fun at the expense of this episode, I was stunned by the line, “I should have married that little slut…” Um… what year was this? “She’s dumb, I know…” Wow!!! I had to go back and listen again because I was certain that I had misheard. Surely that wouldn’t have been said even in the early 60’s, especially on the very day that I commented to some friends on how 60’s television in the UK seemed more advanced in the area of women’s rights than their US cousins. I’ll just sit in the corner and assume to have a clue. Talk about broadcasting my ignorance!
However, for the second week running, I’m reminded distinctly of a Sherlock Holmes story. It’s not until the end where this really comes to play when Keel hires someone to play a part to help reveal the bad guy for what he really is; a cheat and a scoundrel. And a sexist, come to think of it! The story itself is a bit too heavy handed for a Sherlock Holmes adventure though but this is actually one area that really impressed me with the episode: the good guys always seem to have the upper hand. They directly confront the villains and even confidently threaten them. Steed comes off as the strong one, but when Keel goes up against a raging Mr. Weller, he not only holds his own, but wins in a sort of arm wrestle, then has the temerity to tell the man to watch his blood pressure. It was magnificent. Speaking of delight, I roared with laughter when the other villain, Deacon, gets “hydrochloric acid” in his face. He squirms and emits the most awful guttural cry before it dawns on him that he’s not in pain. Later, one of the crooks say it was just “lemonade” which I still laugh about even as I type this. This is an episode that paints the good guys as competent, tough, and still actually good!
If I have one complaint, I mean, barring the sexism, it’s the fact that Weller is a tyrant and a bad man. He hires people to hurt his daughter’s lover. Don’t get me wrong: father’s intuition might be right because her lover is a duplicitous wretch, but that’s still not the behavior you want to condone. Yet when Steed and Keel win the day, Weller goes off with his daughter without a penalty of any sort. I know Deacon was the worse of the two men, but they were both in need of a bit of justice. Still, hands down, my favorite character was Doris, the “actor” who helps break the case. Her negotiating skills are off the charts! She agrees to a fee, then negotiates more out of it after the act is done and gets a bottle of gin to boot.
The episode was a joy and I really liked the idea of having a good guy who has the upper hand the whole time. I don’t think that’s something we see in most series because you have to have a conflict, but in this story, the conflict is just tracking everyone down and getting to the bottom of another crime. I find myself anxious to start season 2. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: Tunnel of Fear