We have gone from an amusement arcade to a circus, and another reused setting from the first season. But whereas last week’s was a big improvement on the ghost tunnel idea, this episode is considerably weaker than the first season approach to locating an episode in a circus. What makes the difference is that the setting isn’t really integral to the plot. You could set this anywhere, because the story at a basic level is about a man being forced to commit murder, due to his mafia connections. Writer Roger Marshall makes some effort to make this about the would-be murderer struggling with his conscience, but that falls flat because we see him willing to pull the trigger almost immediately, with the excellent location filming in a park. Carlo only fails because he misses with his shot, so Steed has a lucky escape.
From that point onwards we know that Carlo will eventually try again, and the rest of the episode becomes an exercise in delaying the moment where he will get a second shot. When I say the location isn’t integral, it is used as a reasonably entertaining distraction, with a B plot concerning one of the clowns, but in the end it is just that: a distraction. At least, towards the end, the circus does provide a fairly creepy location at night time, although not as effective as the amusement park last week. I was entertained by the sound of a tiger’s roar superimposed on shots of the world’s most chilled out tiger, quite clearly making no noise at all other than perhaps a gentle purr.
A couple of things make this episode well worth a look. Firstly, there’s a great performance from Willie Shearer as the diminutive Professor. I don’t know why we never saw a lot more from the actor, other than occasional comedy roles, and within a couple of years he had been relegated to chumbling around on the inside of a Chumbley in Doctor Who.
Secondly, as is often the case, the interactions between Steed and Cathy bring the episode to life. There are three of significance. The first takes place over the phone, with Steed flirting with Cathy and promising to scrub her back for her, so the mind boggles at that idea. The second is by far the best scene of the episode, perhaps even of the season. Here’s the key dialogue:
“I’m going to threaten him. Either he gives us that information or I’ll have him deported. By Monday he’ll be canning tomatoes in Naples.”
“You’re fighting fire with fire.”
“He’s scared. It’s the only language he knows.”
At that point Steed is so exasperated that he makes this face:
… and this face:
… and quite frankly I could have gone on snapping away at the screen for about six screenshots, because Patrick Macnee is the very picture of frustration and his face tells a story. The actors play this a lot like a domestic argument (well, an intelligent one), but more importantly it’s a reminder that their working relationship is one of equals. Cathy is not afraid to challenge Steed at a fundamental level.
“You’re an idealist.”
“And you’re a cynic.”
This is nicely balanced at the end of the episode with a clear indication that Cathy does actually care deeply for Steed:
“Are you shaking?”
“I’m not surprised if I am.”
“Did you think I’d been killed?”
“Yes I did for a while.”
“Well, I’m blowed, you really thought you’d lost me.”
“Disappointment, isn’t it.”
It’s a shame that Honor Blackman fluffed that last line (“disappointing”, surely?), but she gets the point across. Cathy would be devastated to lose Steed, but she’s too proud to let that show, or perhaps she feels the need to maintain an impression of emotional strength all the time. She has achieved an equal working relationship with a man, and not just any man. That must have been a difficult thing to maintain in the early 60s. Equality was in its infancy, and just like a man at the time was not generally at liberty to show his sensitive side, a woman in Cathy’s position would have probably felt that she wasn’t at liberty to do that either. The dynamic between the two main characters, with these moments of tension, attraction and an unusual equality for the time, remains at the heart of this series. RP
The view from across the pond:
When the mafia wants to kill John Steed, they do what all criminal organizations around the world do: they hire a clown. Everyone knows clowns are agents of hell so it only makes perfect sense, but that’s about all that does for this episode. Carlo is manipulated into killing Steed in cold blood all because some villain knew of his past, some 16 years ago. It felt disjointed to me. But this episode fails on a number of levels and I’m not even going to complain about the sound, even though it was coupled with a guy with a thick accent. What’s the point? Sica (Alec Mango) says the magic word to get Carlo to do the dirty deed: Omata. This is a reference to the Mafia and Carlo knows when they come a’callin’, he’s gotta do what they say.
Steed is walking his 87th pet dog since the season started, through the woods when Carlo stalks him. Auditioning for a part as #6 in The Prisoner, Carlo hides out in shrubs waiting for his opportunity to strike. As a trained killer, he carries a briefcase to hide his gun because who uses pockets? He then misses because no one in The Avengers can hit the broadside of a barn (a problem that crops up for the henchman at the end as well) and leaves the briefcase behind. Then Carlo goes missing and Sica, along with everyone else, wants to know where he went. Early in act 2, I figured out that he was one of the clowns, hiding in plain sight like a fan of Silver Blaze. Steed wants to find him because he realizes, through no logical path that I picked up on, that the mafia is behind drug pushing and wants to take them down. So it’s a situation where both sides want the other gone, and poor Carlo the clown is stuck in the middle.
The episode recovers a few points with a cast of characters that are all reasonably interesting. The Professor fascinated me most of all but that might be because he was Scottish. He knows all things about circuses, which was nice that they had someone else know something for a change; usually Cathy has to be an expert in everything. She almost is a tattoo expert, but her comment comes off as more comedy than sincerity and I let that go. Alas, Cathy only gets points in this episode for stopping a laughing idiot from laughing again, which he seems to do at every available word. I love laughing and I can’t pull it off on every single, solitary word I say, so when Cathy derailed his inane laughter, I was thrilled. But she never really gets any other wins. She fails to disarm a villain, only to then have the villain be so inept that she then does disarm him by knocking his chair over two seconds later. She still allows him plenty of movement around the room though, so I really wondered about her abilities in this episode. If not for her feelings about the potential death of Steed, thus implying to me that they’ve now been working together for a while, I might have thought this was another episode placed grossly out of sequence like so many others this season! Meanwhile Steed is actually ambushed. Mafia-henchman #2 has a gun on Steed at point blank range and Carlo comes down covering Steed from the front. I don’t know whether to be grateful for the director cutting away so we wouldn’t see a total mockery of a fight scene or not, but after 2 shots offscreen, Steed waltzes into the room where Cathy is holding Sica semi-hostage. It seems Carlo shot the other henchman because, why not. Steed even asks why the henchman doesn’t shoot him and off-screen I’m fairly sure the henchman said “because I can’t hit the broadside of a barn”. The Mafia might have their flaws and pride might even be one of them, but I think protecting their anonymity would be more important and if Steed is on their tail, they’re not going to care who pulls the trigger. (Maybe these people are descendants of Stormtroopers?)
“He’ll be counting tomatoes in Naples!” Um, yeah, that’s how I felt… that’s what I’d rather have been doing. This was a hodge-podge episode struggling to meet the 26 episode quota for the season. The best part of the episode really was watching the tight-rope-balancing-knife-thrower hurling blades at a woman on a spinning table. I was actually on edge watching that because it genuinely seemed to be a real act. Now if the next episode can capture that sort of excitement, I’ll be a happy camper indeed. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: A Chorus of Frogs