One thing The Avengers does very well is to come up with interesting locations for stories. This week we are at an unspecified English university. Unless I missed it, the university isn’t named, but reading between the lines it’s clearly supposed to be one of the Oxford or Cambridge colleges. For a start, Ted East is going to be a future Member of Parliament, and his future seems to be set in stone (if he survives!) so presumably there is a safe seat waiting for him when the time comes.
I’m not sure how true this was to life in the 60s, but it’s very much a stereotypical picture of university life at the time. Although tame in comparison with the impression the media gives of student life nowadays, we see little learning and plenty of snogging in the corridors and getting drunk. Amusingly, the action centres around the university bar, which seems to be the most important place in the world to the students and some of the professors. Bizarrely, that puts the barman in a powerful position, and ideally placed to be running a scam to blackmail students into becoming members of some kind of a shady organisation. Higby and his people want control over the students who will hold positions of power and influence in the future. As a story idea, it makes a lot of sense.
This is a Venus Smith episode, and we continue with the strange approach of having her involved in the action by coincidence. This has happened with Cathy as well, but not very often. As somebody who works with Steed, Cathy is more often sent to where she needs to be. Venus, on the other hand, does not really work for Steed, so is always already on the scene when he turns up. It’s a good job she seems to enjoy all this undercover stuff, because if she didn’t she would be just about the unluckiest person alive, always surrounded by intrigue and murder, wherever she goes. Perhaps that explains why she is in a rather odd location, performing her songs for a bunch of students dressed in pyjamas. She’s probably trying to get away from the shady clubs, and thought a boring old university would be a safe bet for a break from all the crime stuff. No such luck. Since her personality transplant in her previous appearance, this bubbly new version of Venus is fun to watch, and we even got another little fourth wall break from her, momentarily singing to the camera.
So what about the story? Well, there are a couple of twists and turns that keep things interesting. Claire Summers does such a good job of fooling Jack Roberts into thinking she is in debt to Higby that it fooled me too, and I was very surprised when all became clear. There is a great moment of dramatic irony later in the episode, where she repeats her scam but with the unwitting Ted as her new victim, although I was a bit baffled about why all these young men would be so romantically interested in an unattractive, apparently middle-aged woman, who is hanging around the university painting truly awful paintings.
As for the rest of the cast, it was nice to put a face to a… Celation, with Terence Woodfield playing a very unhappy student, and his plight really puts into perspective how nasty the whole situation is at the university, with authority figures who should be trustworthy (and specifically in one instance there is a comparison to a paternal relationship) cruelly destroying the lives of young students. But my favourite character was Professor Aubyn, played by Frank Shelley. Admittedly he’s a walking cliché of an absent-minded professor, but he’s so entertaining, with a head so full of Latin that he doesn’t have room for much else.
“Have you met Shoctor Danklin er Doctor Shanklin yet?”
I think that one was deliberate, but this one definitely wasn’t:
“This is a friend of mine Jod Steed John Steed Jack, John Steed this is Jack Roberts.”
Julie Stevens trips over her line so much that she metaphorically falls flat on her face, a symptom of these episodes being recorded as live (this episode was broadcast just an hour or two after it was filmed, so retakes and editing just wasn’t an option). It all adds to the charm of watching archive television, but also it’s interesting how skilled the actors were at dealing with that kind of thing. Patrick Macnee improvises a line to turn it into a joke, and not for one second do Stevens, Macnee or Frank Shelley break out of character. These are actors bringing their theatre acting techniques to the screen, and their momentary stumbles only serve to highlight what an amazingly difficult job they had to do, making an hour-long complex television drama, without retakes. For Julie Stevens there was the added complexity of performing live music as part of that drama. What an exhausting process this must have all been. So let’s forget about what went wrong, with the occasional fluffed line or clumsy cutting between camera shots, and instead focus on what went right, because everyone involved in making this managed to create an hour of solid entertainment in what would nowadays be considered extraordinarily difficult circumstances by anyone involved in making drama. As Professor Aubyn would say, per angusta ad augusta. RP
The view from across the pond:
After the previous, highly enjoyable episode with Cathy Gale, I was disheartened before this story even started. The opening credits show Julie Stevens, which means we’re in for another musical number with the adorable Venus Smith. Don’t get me wrong, she’s cute, fun and smart but she is no Cathy Gale!!
In School for Traitors, a university student is found dead, supposedly of suicide, but we know quickly enough that it’s murder! Steed is sent to investigate.
This episode was a bad one to watch right after The Golden Eggs. The previous episode really exemplifies Cathy’s skills and makes Steed look a bit lackluster. To start this episode, Steed’s boss is clearly upset with him for using an amateur (Venus) to watch over someone only for that person to end up dead. Then Steed fails to follow the very man he plans to follow after he gets Venus to plant an envelope. Even later, he nearly breaks Venus’ neck trying to get her to wash acid off her face; which she hadn’t put on. I don’t think she would have been chatting so amiably with him at that point and he should have realized that. The point is, for the second episode in a row, Steed is shown to be lacking. Sure his final victory is a fun one, but that’s after a load of mistakes!
Venus, by contrast, is a cool customer; part of a line of strong females in this series. She walks in on someone rummaging through her flat and doesn’t freak out, but grabs a vase to defend herself, then has a polite chat with the intruder even asking him to put the vase back when he leaves. She breaks into song with confidence and ease, even if I never seem to like her style, and she helps Steed through highly dangerous situations. Is she a secret agent or just a singer he likes to rope into tough spots?
She’s not the only strong female in this story either. While Higby might be behind the scams, or even the dean of the school, it’s Melissa Stribling as Claire that really holds power here, using her charm to put many people in a tight situation through forgery. I have to say that the females in this series are far scarier than the male baddies!
The concept of using a school to manipulate people the way they do here is surprisingly clever. One can’t help but wonder how much of this sort of thing actually goes on. Perhaps not at all, but it seemed like a plan that could work. Unfortunately, it also seems to be based on a long game where villains position students in powerful places for the future and then hold them over a barrel to get something out of them. The issue I took with this was that the last fellow who gets ensnared in this should simply have reported himself to the police to get out of the hot water as, surely, no judge in their right mind would take the case as a sign of criminal proclivity. He was trying to help a girlfriend and the story she gave him was a believable mistake.
At any rate, this is another of those convoluted plots that just don’t seem like the sort of thing that would involve the top secret agents of the nation. That said, it has another of those moments that really sell me on the “reality’ of the story. When Venus tries to introduce Steed and stumbles all over his name, Steed plays with her for a second before moving on. I can’t imagine for a second this would have been scripted that way, but it shows actors who are on top of their game, rolling with the mistake and creating a believable world.
The Avengers has not been my favorite series from the 60’s but time and again it wins me over with some element, often a small thing like an actor saving a scene or when a plot point is just so good it deserves to be appreciated. And of course, there’s always Cathy Gale! I just wish Venus impressed me half as much! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: The White Dwarf