We’ve gone international this week, with a story set in Marseilles. Well, it’s an airport in Marseilles and the inside of a plane. This being a British television show from 1962, France is represented by a couple of studio sets. There isn’t even any attempt at Allo Allo French accents, with the French characters just played by British actors speaking plain English, which seems like quite a clever move on the one hand, because there is nothing to detract from the story, but on the other hand there is little point to this taking place in France at all. You could substitute a British airport and other locations and it wouldn’t make any difference to the story.
While we don’t get to actually see anything of France, what’s lacking in budget is more than made up for in the acting and the script. What a treat The Avengers is proving to be for actor spotting. We seem to be guaranteed two or three great actors per episode, at the very least. Here we have Nicholas Courtney playing a pilot who displays great self-control when facing an extraordinary situation. One has to marvel at the lack of security checks in airports and planes in those days. How soon we forget what life used to be like! But the stars of the guest cast this week are John Dearth and Geoffrey Palmer as the two enemy agents, in competition with Steed and Cathy to try to recover a missing flask of rocket fuel (yeah, I’m not sure why, either). Adding to the entertainment value are the airport security men, who have a great bit of banter going on, mainly surrounding “Curly” and his attempt to grow new curls. They are a good mix of characters, with the chief of security displaying good observation skills and a canny suspicion of the shady people who keep turning up in his office, including Steed and Cathy, while the men working for him are pretty dense.
Once again, Steed and Cathy make for a great team, and it is interesting to see how Cathy treads the line between respect and disgust for Steed, generally coming down on the side of disgust. It’s an edgy working relationship. It’s like watching two James Bonds at work, one male and one female, and this week Steed is the less competent of the two, while Cathy seems to be able to cope with any situation.
There is an odd transition between the end of part one and the beginning of part two. We end with Steed being menaced with a knife, but part two starts with Steed chatting with Cathy and the fight is already over. I’m not sure if this was done due to budgetary constraints, or in the name of good taste, or if it’s actually a really clever move because there is so much story to pack into these 50 minutes that maybe a bit of stunt work would actually be the most boring part of this episode if it had been included. All we need to know is that there was a fight and Steed won. It did leave me a little confused, though, because I assumed Steed’s attacker was Siebel (the knife looks like his), and from what Steed says to Cathy he was apparently beaten so badly by Steed that he wasn’t sure if Siebel had lived to tell the tale, and yet he turns up later in the episode without so much as a scratch on him. But the more I watch of The Avengers, the more it seems to be going down The A Team route, with our heroes never killing anyone, even by accident. Certainly in this episode “he isn’t dead” becomes almost a catchphrase, even when Cathy shoots somebody at the end. Perhaps in 1962 the idea of heroes killing their enemies wasn’t palatable on British television, even when their enemies are criminals and foreign agents. Time will tell.
I loved all the toing and froing to try to find the “tin of fruit juice”, with the red herring of the hair restorer bottle. That cleverly sets up a scenario where you have two possible bottles, ended up in different locations, with two enemy agents and our two heroes in competition to find the right “juice”. It all comes together at the end in a great showdown, with Steed casually searching around some poor French drunkard’s bakery while munching on his cakes, and finally Cathy saving the day with her garter gun. It might be set in France, but this was just about the most British 50 minutes of television I’ve ever seen, and I loved every minute of it. RP
The view from across the pond…
I’m oddly torn with this show. I find The Avengers a strange mix of good action story with really tedious set design. I know I’m doing something I always recommend against: evaluating something from another era (or culture) against that of another time (or culture). Things had to be done differently in the 60’s but I’m put off terribly by how closely everyone gets to one another and talks in each other’s faces. I can sort of understand Steed doing that with Cathy Gale, because he’s possibly attracted to her, but everyone else must have been smelling horrendously stinky breath all the time, especially with how many people smoked. As far as Steed’s attraction to Cathy, well that just makes sense. She’s a force of nature and impossible not to admire. I was originally thinking they named her to rhyme with Keel, her predecessor, and considering Peel is coming next, I do think that played a role, but Cathy is like that gale force wind coming at the bad guys with style and skill. She’s even a good counter for Steed with her snarky comments to him. I can almost hear the biting commentary: Steed may get top billing, but I’m still the star!
So when I get past the silly filming, I can find plenty to enjoy, not the least of which was Doctor Who’s The Brigadier, even if he does have a depressingly small role. I was also impressed by the chief security officer, whose name eluded me, because he was very astute, picking up on the amount of things wrong with the whole ordeal from early on. He was far more believable as a security agent than any of the others. On the other hand, what impressed me less was the bad guy. The main villain has the decency to wear a trench coat to denote his evil; all good villains wear them, I hear. It’s his weapon of choice that leaves something to be desired: a scalpel. It’s not a great weapon to begin with. Sure, if you can get to that carotid artery, you have a pretty easy win on your hands, but when he attacks Cathy, it’s pretty evident that he was aiming at belly height. Yeah, she’s going to get hurt but chances are she will still beat him. And considering this attack happens after the off-screen battle with Steed, where he loses, you’d think he’d come up with a better strategy. (Since all of this seems to take place in a very sort space of time, maybe he didn’t get to go to Villains R’ Us to buy a new weapon but I couldn’t help wonder why he was left with his scalpel if he was beaten by Steed once already!) If he had fought Cathy first, he might have been able to abscond with her gun since she leaves it on the ground next to him after she karate chops him into oblivion. (He will get fired from his job after 2 bungled attempts, I’m certain!)
What really gets me about the show is the view it gives us about life in the swingin’ 60’s. We all have heard about the 60’s and the era of free love but I wonder how many people take that for granted. This episode really drives home how free things were. Have a really pretty waitress but don’t want to ask her out in front of your work colleagues? Come back tomorrow and ask a coworker for her phone number and address! Here you go. The amount of characters asking for other people’s details and getting them in this story is amazing. Hey, what’s her name and number? No idea, but here’s her address and what time she gets off work! No wonder the 60’s was the era of love. No doubt this practice changed by the next decade when someone complained about random airline workers showing up at the houses of all the stewardesses. (That said, when one person claimed “he hasn’t got a telephone”, I laughed out loud. Imagine that in today’s world?) Another alarming thing that one scoffs at in a post-Covid world is the idea of finding someone else’s hipflask and even considering drinking from it! One wonders how the titular Propellant 23 smells that it would even be considered as a plausible drink. Potent potables, indeed! Speaking of the hipflask… was the best hiding spot available just at the base of the steps? I guess it worked, as no one spotted it right away. Next time I have to hide from someone, I know where I’m sitting!
Overall I am enjoying the series and a lot of it is down to the confidence of the good guys. Even when they don’t have the upper hand, they don’t come off feeling beaten and that’s refreshing. Another thing I’m enjoying is seeing the range of actors because I know so many of them from Doctor Who. Geoffrey Palmer, for instance, was instantly recognizable from The Silurians. Not as recognizable as the Brig, of course, but still pretty well known. Barring some slight similarities though, this was often used as a comparison to The Prisoner when I was growing up and I have to be honest, I don’t see it. The Prisoner was pretty “out there” (or should I say “way out”?) but this show seems to take place largely in a believable world. I’ve yet to see the influences of the outré that were so commonplace in The Prisoner. But then, we’re only just grazing the surface of season 2. I’ll need many more before I can make that assessment stick! I look forward to finding out! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: The Decapod