I have had a lot of fun so far with The Avengers, spotting actors who are familiar to Doctor Who fans, but never mind the actors, look who wrote this episode: Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks! This is quite a moment in television history, because it’s the first ever writing credit for good old Uncle Terrance, who had his breakthrough here by pure luck, simply because he was renting out a room to Malcolm Hulke and helped him out with the script for The Mauritius Penny. The Who fans will notice the similarity between the end of this episode and the Doctor Who story Robot, which happened unconsciously, according to Dicks.
It’s a long and complicated tale to get us to the point where we might spot those similarities, with most of the episode concerned with the mysterious death of a dealer in stamps. By an outrageous coincidence, Cathy Gale just happens to be a stamp collector. I never had her pegged for that. Cathy and Steed’s investigations into the strange world of philately are enormously fun. Steed poses as a collector to visit the shop where the victim was killed, and makes the nervous murderer feel very uncomfortable, although the tables are turned with a trick question about a non-existent Maltese Twopenny Blue. This sets the tone for the episode, with our two heroes always slightly on the back foot. This is a world that Steed in particular doesn’t really understand, and he’s winging it much more than he normally has to. At every turn their plans are discovered or foiled very quickly. The villains identify Steed as an enemy straight away, thanks to his knowledge of stamps only being a superficial bit of research. By the time Cathy goes undercover to work in the shop, the crims already know she is spying on them, and are just playing along with it, in order to find out what her game is. Steed visits a dentist where Goodchild had an appointment, and within seconds they have figured out that he’s an imposter. Then, in the fascist meeting, Cathy is spotted and is about to be thrown into the lion’s den when Steed intervenes and knocks out Brown. It’s all a wonderful game of cat and mouse, with the cards (or stamps) always stacked against Steed and Cathy. It feels like they are constantly out of their depth this time.
Cathy is unusually incompetent in this one. She wanders into the auction room and waves to Steed, accidentally bidding £50 for a stamp collection, getting them noticed straight away. She’s dreadful at being undercover this week. Later, when she’s searching the back room of the shop, it’s completely baffling how she thought she could get away with prising open that crate and then fixing the lid back down in secret. I’m not sure if the sight of Cathy hammering down nails with her stiletto heel was supposed to be funny, but I found it highly amusing, and it would obviously be heard from the shop. Somehow she gets away with that and then casually sits down at the desk, rifling through some paperwork, getting caught red-handed. At least she made up for her incompetence with her fight of the week, and it’s another win for Cathy, with a karate chop this time! Even when she’s making silly mistakes, rather than being her usual capable self, she’s still a hugely entertaining character to watch.
I loved how we got to see more of Steed’s home life this week. I envy him his gorgeous dog Freckles, but I don’t envy him his house keeper, who says she has “been doing my best not to disturb you”, after she has literally been hoovering a few inches from his head.
The threat of dental torture made me squirm, and the delivery man turning up to save the day was a welcome, if odd, plot development. Seeing the silly fascists taken down by our heroes at the end is just as much fun here as it is in Robot. Dicks clearly enjoyed writing fascist or self-aggrandising characters and then taking them down a peg or two.
“You didn’t really think you could take over this country with a few fanatics in fancy dress, did you?”
I don’t know how much of this was Hulke and how much was Dicks, but if Doctor Who is anything to go by, I’m guessing Dicks injected a lot of the fun into the script. His first writing credit is an absolute triumph. RP
The view from across the pond…
Philately – The art of stamp collecting. I never really understood this until the US Post Office re-released Star Trek stamps a year or two ago. Then I remembered my sheet of Trek stamps that I owned as a kid and wanted them back desperately. When I was in 7th grade, my teacher had a stamp collection and during detention we’d have to sort through tons of them. Yes, hard to believe I was ever in detention, I know, and I confess it was more than once too. Considering how well behaved I am, I bet you’re a bit put off by this revelation. Don’t worry, you do know me. I was usually in detention because the whole class was too. I think Brother Shannon gave us detention for any minor misdemeanor so we could help sort his stamp collection! I never asked if he’d watched The Avengers largely because in 7th grade, I probably didn’t really know the show but had he been a fan, this episode might have meant a lot to him. The Mauritius Penny is a rare stamp that appears to be discovered at the start of the episode. This leads to a murder by an overwrought fool who didn’t have to murder the shop owner who simply believes he found a stamp. This minor discovery leads to havoc because, luckily, and for no readily apparent reason, Steed was taping some poor bloke’s phone! And you know what? For the first time since watching this series, I had the idea that there could be a diabolical organization behind the crimes we’ve seen so far. Which made me think of Sherlock Holmes.
I’ve said a few times that the crimes in this series remind me of those of the great detective. I stand behind that. It’s not just the crimes, either! Steed even has a housekeeper, who vacuums around his unconscious body; I doubt Mrs. Hudson ever did that! Fans of Sherlock also know that his arch nemesis is Moriarty, a character who only appears in one story of the original 60. Once he was established, however, more than one crime from the past is linked to him. And it occurred to me how awesome it would be if we were to discover a similar thing with Steed and Gale. Maybe the Nazi-like organization behind this fiasco is at the heart of a number of other crimes. The Mauritius Penny might be the Moriarty of that criminal organization! While there’s no evidence of that in this story, the story is resolved abruptly and one wonders if there was more that could be done with it. Even if it’s never stated, I’ll be more mindful of the possibility when watching other episodes.
The Mauritius Penny is a man too; not an actual penny, or a stamp. It’s a code name for Lord Matterly whose reveal is kept as a surprise until the last few minutes. I imagine I should have seen it coming, but I honestly did not. And the episode is chock full of wonderful moments but it’s also the first episode where I think Steed is painted in better light than Cathy, and that’s saying something. Not much better, but a little. I mean, Cathy does take down an assailant, which was wonderful to watch, but she’s oblivious while invading the criminal organization, failing to even notice someone who basically leans over her to see her face. She struggles to close and nail shut a crate and even waves during an auction accidentally making a winning bid on an item – at least that made me laugh. Steed, on the other hand, nearly beats two people in his flat by getting the cop to notice his toe-caps. I suppose if I’m being practical, he does fail to consider the ramifications of playing a part while going to see a dentist. Even if the patient were a new one, one might think the dentist could verify his identity. Why not just go as a new patient?
The dentist scene is actually quite scary too. After Dustin Hoffman went up against Laurence Olivier in The Marathon Man, I’ve had a healthy respect for villains in the dental profession. I don’t think it was safe for Steed to challenge someone when he’s at their mercy to such an extent. Talk about making people uncomfortable around the dentist, with that high speed drill by the temple! I love that he’s rescued by a random mover who says “I’d change my dentist!” I also knew when a gunshot was coming earlier in the episode but thought the cleverness was in waiting for a sound: as a gavel falls during the aforementioned auction and the gun goes off. While predictable, it was still enjoyable. If there was one thing I found idiotic, I’m pleased to say it didn’t take me out of the episode. The bad guy who hires Gale to work at the shop gets on a call and is clearly told to kill Cathy. He is just on the other side of a door when he talks about her as if his voice could not carry. As if his stupidity were not annoying enough, it’s also that he feels it would be a shame to kill her because she’s “not a bad looking woman”. So if she were ugly, it would be ok? I didn’t know that was a criteria. Ugly people = ok to kill, pretty people = not ok. Wish I knew that with all the other series I’ve ever watched. (I also might become more of a hermit now, just in case…)
I am coming around to understanding how much fun this series must have been during its first broadcast. We have good characters and good spy stories. And maybe this Nazi-like organization will turn up again, even if it is just in my head. I look forward to watching with the added mental filter. Maybe I’ll find even more to enjoy. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: Death of a Great Dane