The Avengers is becoming a series that prioritises unusual ideas over believability, and I have no problem with that at all. A prime example is the moment when a man climbs out of a coffin, grabs himself some supplies, and then climbs back inside, going down some steps into a hidden room below the coffin. It doesn’t pay to think too much about why he is doing that, but it’s an image that can’t fail to stick in the mind.
The most striking picture this episode paints is right at the start. Undertakers arrive in their big top hats, one of them commits a murder, they have a coffin ready and waiting for the victim, and then they remove their hats as a mocking mark of respect. That leaves us in no doubt that we are in for a really fun episode.
It helps that when we get the reason for all this it actually makes a lot of sense. You could see a need for the service these undertakers provide, among the rich and immoral. I tried to do a bit of research on death duties in the UK after I watched this episode, but nobody seems to have found the history of that particular tax worth writing about in much detail, although it appears that the current rule that exempts a spouse from inheritance tax was not the case until relatively recently. At the time this episode was written, a wife had to give up 80% of the wealth she shared with her husband on his death, above a certain level. If he had signed over his estate to her over five years before, they were exempt. Nowadays it’s seven years, the percentage has dropped to 40, above the threshold, and spouses are exempt, so take off those rose-tinted nostalgia specs because not everything was better in the 1960s!
So the service these “undertakers” provide is simply “keeping the millionaire alive for the required five years”, if he has failed to live that long after making the gift of the estate. To do that they dispose of the body and put an actor in his or her place, after a pretend spell in a “retreat”. So far that sounds like they are providing a good service, but remember that initial murder. The undertakers also kill people as a side business, or if the wives don’t want the company of their husbands for the whole five years and beyond.
The surprise star of the show is Mrs Renter, played by Lally Bowers. As scripted she’s a fairly unimportant character, simply a wife who has signed up to the scheme because her husband has died too soon, but Bowers’ performance is just fabulous, veering between joyful eccentricity and sneakiness. She nearly always has a look of mischief about her, and it’s immediately obvious she has something to hide. The best moment of the episode, apart from the opening sequence with the undertakers, is her complete failure to pretend a different man is her husband, asking him if he takes sugar in his tea, realising the foolishness of what she just said, and then confessing the whole thing with unrepentant glee. Writer Malcolm Hulke obviously realised we would warm to her, giving her a get-out-of-jail-free card at the end.
Speaking of the ending, by now it’s obvious there has to be a fight to finish the episode, and this one is a gunfight in the gardens of a stately home, an impressive, although rather blurry, bit of location filming. The big finale is a slightly odd exchange of fire amongst some garden statues of naked women, and at one point Steed doesn’t seem to realise exactly where he’s putting his hand.
“They were very big girls.”
OK, maybe he did know where he was putting his hand. With Cathy keeping him at arm’s length, reacting coldly to his gift of tinned goods earlier in the episode, I suppose he has to get his kicks where he can find them. RP
The view from across the pond…
I won’t deny that over the last few months of watching this show, I have lost steam. It’s just not that good. I would argue that most stories feature an over-complicated plot around some villainous idea that ends up being the Patrick MacNee hour. It’s a showcase of how Steed operates and it’s predicated on what is clearly a charasmatic actor. My issue, however, is that one has to separate the actor from the character he is playing and Steed isn’t that great even if MacNee is. Oh, he’s funny (the jellied bees were a hoot), but he’s usually late to the party. He’s adept but needs Gale to direct him like here with her “Steed, all these people are millionaires!” I think Gale is a better character, and that’s important because she’s not the main drive of the show; that much is evident.
Having just blasted a major element of the series, I owe it a big thumbs up with this story because frankly it’s one of the best stories I’ve heard in a long while. The Undertakers effectively help hide the fact of a death in order to keep very wealthy people from losing money to the government which is as much the unspoken villain as the people committing the fraud. That’s what makes this one so enjoyable; the baddies who are deceiving the government are just helping people keep their own money rather than lose it to some contrived governmental state tax. Frankly, I’d think the widow who just lost her key breadwinner would need the money more than the government, so I say the “villians” in this episode are not the villains at all and we should all be rooting for the Undertakers. Now, why that same widow would tell her aide what was going on based on a disreputable background is just another foolish oversight that wouldn’t likely happen. The idea is that if the aide has a checkered past, she won’t tell the secret. Not solid thinking though because blackmail works best with a wealthy target, so she should have been more concerned about Cathy, not less.
And see, that’s what I’m talking about: it’s the unnecessarily complicated stuff that takes this episode down pegs. The opening with the apparent murder of the smoker is pointless as it’s a red herring. Not to mention, when that same man turned up alive again later, it didn’t hit me that it WAS the same man because he was on camera for so little time that the reveal was lost to me. That ends up feeling like filler. And the whole “he’s with this guys wife, while his real wife is calling, and she’s got rid of her dead husband to be with the other dude…” thing was both shocking considering the time this show was made but also felt clumsy. And speaking of clumsy, our two highly trained professionals get on a phone call at the location where one of them is masquerading as an aide yet they have a chat on a potentially open line; a chat which ends up being overheard and, if not for having a silly gunfight in a garden, was just a way to keep the episode going longer.
I will give it that it had one of the best hidden rooms in history, needing to enter and leave through a stationary coffin with a ladder within. Genius stuff. I want one of those! So between that and a good concept, this was a genuinely enjoyable episode, but the writers should try to pull back on some of the twists and turns and actually work on a strong plot. A good story doesn’t need twists at every opportunity. We call that “points of failure” in technology. Sometimes too many bells and whistles just create more chance of failure. I hope the writers learn about this before Season 4… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: Man with Two Shadows