Cathy seems to be an expert on everything. Even allowing for how amazing she is, we start this episode with a massive coincidence. Cathy is visiting Marling Ceramics out of a genuine interest, in the preparation of a book she is writing, and is present for the discovery of a dead body. It’s a clumsy way to get her involved in the action, and it makes far more sense for the writers to do what they usually do, and have Steed send Cathy to investigate a place undercover, but for that to work here the discovery of the body would have had to take place before she arrives. The problem with this approach is that there comes a point where writers can’t just keep adding previous unmentioned areas of expertise to a character, and that point was probably reached a few weeks ago when Cathy turned out to be an expert in stamps. However, it is quite amusing that Steed has to mug up about ceramics very quickly in order to go undercover, while Cathy already knows everything about it. Exactly the same thing happened with the stamps. I wonder what Cathy will be an expert in next.
Apart from that, Cathy doesn’t have a huge amount to do this week, and Steed isn’t particularly integrated into the story either. The focus instead is on the soap opera that is Marling Ceramics. There is so much stuff going on there that it’s hard to keep up with it: rivalries, affairs, murder, dodgy dealings. A lot of this is quite weak, and it’s hard to care much about it, especially Richard Marling’s rocky relationship with his wife. As nice as it was to see Paul Eddington, of whom I have fond memories from The Good Life and Yes, Minister, in an early role, it’s just about the most boring and lifeless performance in the whole episode. His brother Allen is a much more interesting character, driven by the dream of creating something amazing that will make them instantly rich, with fate conspiring against him at every turn. Far too much time is focussed on secondary characters Miller and Mara (by the way, how great is this episode for fans of 60s Doctor Who, with Wigner from The Tenth Planet, Arthur Terrall from The Evil of the Daleks and the Security Chief from The War Games all in one episode!). Miller is the better of the two, playing to the strengths of James Bree as a very intense actor, but it’s hard to care about Mara one way or the other. The moment I really lost all interest in her fate was when Miller, a man in whom she has zero interest, asked her if she would marry him if he was rich, to which she replies, “you win the pools and we’ll get engaged.” To some extent I suppose we must put that down to 60s values, but her attitude to men and money seems little better than prostitution. With the inclusion of Cathy in this series, a woman who actually has some self-respect, independence and morality, characters like Mara are thrown into a very bad light, but I’m not sure the writer entirely realised that. I think we are supposed to care about her, and frankly I couldn’t care less.
Another area where it is interesting to speculate about the motivations behind the writing is Steed’s description of his attacker Blomberg, played here by Frank Olegario, an actor of Indian origin. In one of the earliest Avengers episodes (I forget which), Steed meets up with another secret agent, who just happens to be dark skinned. He has a quick conversation with him, and his ethnic background is of no relevance. Knowing that television in the 60s was often knee-deep in the mire of casual racism, that seemed refreshingly normal and modern, and here again we have Steed describing his attacker as pretty big, bald, and about 16 stone, with no mention of his skin colour, as if that’s the most normal thing in the world and not even worth mentioning. I would love to think The Avengers was as progressive on race as it clearly is on gender politics, but I suspect I’m giving the makers of the show too much credit there. In both examples, it’s presumably the case that the casting came after the writing, and nobody bothered to tweak the script at that point. I suppose there is some positivity in the fact that nobody felt it was essential to add a comment about Blomberg’s skin colour to Steed’s description, but it’s probably still just oversight rather than intention. That’s the way progress often works though, isn’t it: a series of happy accidents and baby steps, until equality becomes the new normality and discrimination fades into history. We are still walking that path, but maybe in the 60s this entertaining little show helped us get one little step further along. RP
The view from across the pond:
I’m consistently surprised by this show. Sometimes it’s a good surprise, sometimes it’s an “I don’t know what to make of it” surprise. I think Immortal Clay falls into the latter, but only because I’ve seen so many crime dramas that this feels like a misplaced episode. I sort of expected Tyler and Hunt to be investigating a dead body in a pottery factory, not globe trotting John Steed and Black Widow Precursor Cathy Gale. It’s like having someone break into your car, steal the CD player and calling a nation wide manhunt lead by the CIA. Overkill much? I get that his superiors put him up to it, but I’d think there are bigger cases out there. I get it: the pottery has a value greater than most of the pottery sold in Portmeirion because of its unbreakable quality, but that hardly constitutes The Avengers being called to action, does it?
“All this fuss over a little piece of mud!” I admit, the revelation of the dead body in the clay was shocking and it was the sort of gruesome thing one hopes never to encounter but it’s hardly worth calling in the national guard. Well, luckily there’s the Ceramic Research Council. It might surprise you to know that there is, in fact, a Ceramics Research center in Arizona. Seems like a family friendly place, hardly a location for dead bodies to be found. I didn’t check the about page, but I don’t think they have a Steed or a Gale on the contact page! To further my lukewarm attitude towards this episode, there are some really weak chapter cliffhangers. The first actually made me laugh and this would have been great if this were a comedy series. Go on, hit the ceramic… do it! …shatter… End of act one. Was that really meant to be a surprise? I mean, yeah, ceramic breaks; I think that might make national news. The look on the man’s face was hilarious. I won’t even get into the moment where Blomberg hits Steed “over the head” which was clearly a shove to the chest! What about the cliffhanger to the second part. Blomberg goes to retrieve a gun and he decides to play-shoot things in the house, actually saying “Bang, bang” out loud, which scares the hidden Steed and Ms. Little. Yes, I too get scared by the word “bang”. Then the final confrontation is really poorly filmed. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: I don’t expect actors to be proficient gunmen, but know the basics. The first shot De Groot takes is at the table, but Steed falls all over the place apparently trying to dodge bullets, then the most unfocused battle takes place where Cathy manages to take down the hulking Blomberg and Steed manages to bludgeon De Groot. But it’s all just a rapid sequence of moving bodies with no focus to even appreciate the victory. This was a strange episode indeed.
“Have a chocolate!” The funny thing is, I actually liked the episode but I felt it was totally out of place as an episode of the Avengers. De Groot is a fun villain whose obsession with offering people chocolate was surprisingly enjoyable. Blomberg really reminded me of Daredevil’s Kingpin but his hat removal to let Gale know who he was felt a bit too convenient. And Ms. Little was a wonderfully ditzy woman who was loads of fun to watch on more than one level. The story is a good murder thriller too; we can’t call it a mystery because we know things up front, but it’s how Steed and Gale figure it out that makes it enjoyable. I just don’t know why these two were really called to investigate and that will bother me for a while. At a guess, it probably had something to do with Steed being a proper Brit. After all, a good set of cups and saucers could make a big difference during Tea Time. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: Box of Tricks
Having first seen James Bree in his three Doctor Who guest appearances, remembering him most fondly for Nefred’s last words in Full Circle: “Because… we have never… been there.” and for how could immortalize a line in The War Games like: “THEY-WILL-BE-CAUGHT!”, he could indeed be a very intense actor. Thanks for your very first reviews of the New Year.
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Not a great episode, to be sure! But it DOES have a really great line of dialogue that Steed says to Cathy that really sums up the sort of ruthless, hard-edged character he was in the early years of the series…
“It’s bad to feel sorry for people in our business. It slows you up.”
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