Brief for Murder is the first episode of the third season of The Avengers, not that you would know that from the DVD set, which once again goes for a random episode order, as if they threw all the episode titles in a hat and saw what came out first. But it works well as an episode to kick off the season because it throws doubt on the Steed/Cathy relationship. I’m not sure we could have bought into this episode as a mid-season offering in quite the same way as we can after a break between seasons, with their friendship from the previous season not quite so fresh in our minds.
Cathy is initially our audience identification figure, with Steed’s motivations shady and unclear. Cathy watches as a criminal is acquitted, thanks to the brilliance of the defence lawyer. The crime is one of treason, passing secrets to a foreign state, and on his way out of court the traitor greets John Steed as “Johno”, which was the nickname mentioned in court for the mysterious accomplice. Could Steed be selling secrets abroad?
Of course he couldn’t, but I think there would have been moments when viewers at the time would have wondered if that were possible, because the question hangs over most of the episode, and things escalate to the point where Steed has apparently shot and killed Cathy. It turns out that they are secretly working together to bring two lawyers to justice, the brothers Jasper and Miles Lakin, who have been aiding and abetting in crimes so they can make a fortune acquitting the criminals, having made sure there are details that will lead a jury to acquit. So, for example, when Steed secures their help in murdering Cathy and getting away with it, he simply has to plant evidence that will make the police look stupid and himself look innocent: a hat dropped at the scene of the crime with the initials “J.S.” It is only in court that he is asked to try on the hat, and in a very funny moment it slips down over his eyes because it is far too big. All of a sudden, the case against him looks shoddy and silly.
It’s a great idea for a story, but I have a slight problem with it, because the red herring of Steed’s treachery that carries the early part of the episode feels like a bit of a cheat. There is one key moment in particular when Cathy is outside the court and hears the acquitted traitor calling Steed “Johno”. This is all a set-up so she can go to a journalist with her accusation, prompting a public accusation and the fake murder, but Cathy genuinely looks surprised and suspicious at that point, and there is nobody but the viewers witnessing that reaction. It would be a great performance from Honor Blackman if she genuinely suspected Steed, but she doesn’t, so later in the episode we feel like we’ve been conned by the writing and/or the acting.
That aside, it’s a fun episode with the obligatory fight at the end, Steed being very Steed (at one point he hooks his umbrella around the leg of a man who has rudely refused to answer a simple question), and amusing performances from John Laurie and Harold Scott as the two crooked lawyers. You have to gloss over the problem of why one of the brothers is Scottish but the other isn’t, and also the absurdity of the two of them stealing every scene in court, reacting to every word a witness speaks with theatrical mirth. I don’t think anyone would ever be allowed to turn a courtroom into a near-slapstick comedy venue in that way. But I loved their unwavering joy at manipulating the law into the shapes they want, having a whale of a time whilst being totally devoid of any morality. You might think that’s not a million miles away from the truth of their profession. I couldn’t possibly say. RP
The view from across the pond:
Ah, there it is… new opening imagery, same horrendous music! It’s hard to reconcile that this show was a contemporary of such shows as Doctor Who and The Prisoner. I’m basing that on nothing more than the music at the moment, but so many of the shows of the 1960’s had such great music that The Avengers makes me sad. You have to hear it to really understand it. Couple high notes, followed by a couple depressingly low ones, repeat with just slightly higher and lower notes… blah. And I had given the show a long hiatus before coming back to it because sometimes you need a fresh perspective, but that crappy music instantly put me into a funk. And the incidental music isn’t much better. Often, I get the impression that someone just let a 4 year old into the recording room with a bunch of instruments lying around. What were they thinking?!
Then the next problem occurs around the episode itself. Look, I’ll be honest, I could ignore the opening and closing themes – that’s hardly fair to judge an entire story because of it – but the episode suffers a whole different matter: it has an excellent plot. What’s wrong with that, I hear you ask? Sure, it’s a solid story that was very interesting… except for one thing. In Brief for Murder, I will need to mock my British cousins. (And that says a lot, since I feel like I’m mocking part of my own soul, what with me having a British one after all, even if none of the DNA to prove it!) The Brits use the term “series” for what the Americans call a “season”. We’ve been over this but look, a series is an entire run of a show. Star Trek (TOS) is a series composed of 3 seasons. It’s not a series of three series. In fact, if anything, it’s a series of about 11 series: TOS, TNG, DS9, Voyager, Enterprise, Prodigy, Discovery, Strange New Worlds, Lower Decks, Picard and the classic animated series. You get the idea. So this episode starts season 3 which our cousins across the pond call a series and I think they forgot that we knew the characters already. It would have worked so much better had this been the start of an actual series (ie; a new show), the mystery would have been awesome. You can’t try to start a season with a murderous conflict between the two main characters and expect us to buy into it!
Cathy Gale is back and she is determined to prove Steed is a criminal named Jono. He threatens her openly then goes to some lawyers who help him plan the murder knowing they can get him off the charge. It’s all really clever and brilliant stuff except at no point did I buy it because we know Gale and Steed are not just colleagues but close friends. Was I expected to buy into what was going on? Was the general viewing public? And is there a murder if you don’t have a body because they sure as hell never find Cathy’s, for obvious reasons. Also, when Gale is shot, her compatriot jumps in a raft and paddles furiously toward where the shot came from; is this common practice, I ask? I know we are trained to avoid active shooters, not row out to where they are. Rowboats are notoriously not fast after all.
Steed is still charismatic and Gale is still awesome, but then the ending makes them look a bit inept with her being spotted and held at gun point. Only Steed’s unlikely arrival distracts the bad guys enough that another of those rambling fight sequences happen and the good guys win. I think this show was in need of a lot of things to really stand tall in the annals of 60s TV. Still, I have to admit that there are some things worth praising. I loved the name of Prinn, the principal. I also love the way the guard frisks Steed. It’s not so much a pat down as a smack down. He just rapidly beats the man about specific parts of the body very quickly to see if he’s carrying a weapon. And the Brothers Lakin were a delightful pair of older gentlemen who were simply immense fun to watch. Regardless of the ridiculousness of the concept that we are expected to believe Steed and Cathy are at odds, this ends up being a good episode despite itself. That said, I’m done listening to the opening and closing themes because they jar my mood too much. But for better or worse, I’m back in The Avengers with season 3 and I’ll try to keep an open mind on the episodes, incidental music be damned…. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: The Undertakers