The Nutshell, a thermonuclear underground shelter, the seat of government for World War Three, a shell that protects nuts. It seems like a suitable name for a bunker for politicians. The problem is that it was impossible to really create the illusion of being deep underground on a 60s television budget, so what that actually translates to is studio-bound tedium: grey sets with grey civil servants, and I don’t just mean because it’s filmed in black and white. It’s all a bit dull, at least for the first act, with little to get excited about other than mulling over the strained attempt at an acronym that is BIG BEN, “a document that lists all known double agents on both sides of the Cold War”. Apparently it stands for “Bilateral Infiltration Great Britain Europe and North America”. I make that BIGBENA. And what’s with the weird exclusion of Asia? Might as well have added that in and made it BIG BEAN, although “somebody’s stolen a big bean” perhaps wouldn’t have sounded quite so dramatic.
Things are not helped by the lower standards than usual in general. A very wobbly security camera sets the tone at the start, and then we have actors stumbling over their words and dropping things. I’m pretty sure Steed wasn’t supposed to knock over his radio equipment, but his (presumably) ad libbed response disguised the mistake well.
A couple of surprises bring the episode to life. Firstly, a woman who has broken in and stolen the BIG BEN(A) document turns out to be working with Steed. Secondly, she later shows up dead. Writer Philip Chambers does a very good job of making us doubt Steed’s loyalties. Could he really be a traitor to his country? The writer is helped by how much Steed’s motives have been shrouded in mystery over the last two seasons. We have rarely seen his bosses, and he is a bit of an enigma. Cathy is our audience identification character in this respect, and her apparent lack of trust in Steed sets the tone for the viewer:
“How would I know if you were working for a foreign power and not the government.”
It’s a testament to the line the series has been treading that this actually works, despite the fact that we are in the third season of The Avengers. But we realistically always know in our hearts that Steed isn’t going to turn out to be one of the bad guys… except we don’t quite know who the bad guys are. Those waters are muddied in a way that is decades ahead of its time. I’ll explain…
This was made at a time when the good guys were the heroes and the bad guys were the villains, even more so than today, despite our divide-and-conquer media. The simple reason for that was the Cold War. Early in the episode, Cathy criticises her own government’s approach to the arms race, or at least the approach of the Western world in general:
“We can’t go on arming forever.”
Then we see how the good guys are more than capable of bad guy tactics. Steed is not just questioned, he is tortured. He is starved and threatened with electrocution. His captors, the supposed good guys, resort to tactics I’ve only ever seen in an Edgar Wallace Mysteries film, where a murderer killed his wife and her lover with a sick game of “what’s electrified?” That sick, murderer’s game is inflicted on Steed by the people we are supposed to respect, not some scary foreign power. This is an episode of television made in 1963 that dared to show agents of the British government torturing people and show that to us unflinchingly, something that I’m pretty sure had never been done before, and in doing so made the viewer question whether we are any different to our enemies. All of this is set against a backdrop of a surprisingly accurate representation of the future of security technology, with voice recognition and computerised finger print checking, albeit with computers that whir and clunk and need their own large rooms. “Ahead of its time” doesn’t begin to describe The Nutshell. It’s not the most scintillating drama, but it’s… how can I put this in a nutshell? It’s Bold, Revolutionary and Very Enlightening. BRAVE.
Yeah, Mr Chambers, we can all play that game, and without a redundant letter A to ignore. Big Bena indeed. RP
The view from across the pond:
As most fans of 1960’s television know, retakes were not usually an option. Mistakes typically needed to be ignored. Amazingly, The Avengers doesn’t suffer from many fumbles or botched lines and considering the hour-long format, I think that’s impressive. When I then think of the early days of Doctor Who, I recall loads of fumbles and they only had 25 minutes to fill. In my estimation, that makes The Avengers nothing short of amazing and speaks well of Macnee and Blackman who typically float effortlessly through most scripts. So, it was a real surprise to me that there were so many mistakes in The Nutshell. “Scamera” is quickly corrected to “camera”, someone says “untypical” instead of “atypical” (although perhaps that’s more of a British vs American thing), Macnee drops something and even walks into a door at one point. For a show that has been trying my patience through the first two seasons, one would think this would put me off. However, The Nutshell is such a strong episode, I only noticed those on the periphery of my awareness.
This episode relies on one of those triple-double bluff setups that makes us question if Steed has gone rogue. Although we’ve been there already this season, it’s still compelling. Now, we can be pretty sure he hasn’t flipped, but the evidence mounts, so we’re left waiting for the big reveal at the end to figure out what’s really going on. And it works surprisingly well with another very Prisoner-like episode featuring levels of government, subterfuge, and mysterious agendas all around.
The premise is that a top-secret base has been infiltrated and Steed appears to be the man who made it happen. A document has been copied which lists all the double agents the British government is aware of. Should that fall into the wrong hands, it would be very bad for the good guys. So why did Steed commission the theft? Obviously, to force another rat out of hiding. To do so, he puts himself in danger and is accused of treason. Things are not looking good. Cathy seems to waver in her trust but never to the point of giving him up. That’s a quality we saw frequently in Star Trek that I loved as a kid: a loyalty between friends that is strong enough to defy a government! Does it ring true? Hard to say, but it kept me glued to the screen.
What did throw me was Cathy herself. First off, she’s called a member of the public which I wasn’t aware of. Isn’t she a colleague of Steed’s? Doesn’t she work for the same organization? If she is just a member of the public, why is she given any access to this top-secret facility? Also, why was she called to drive Steed to the agency anyway? Doesn’t the agency employ people for such tasks? She seems to be aware of the need before Steed which makes nearly no sense if she’s just a member of the public. But I was so intrigued to understand the plan that I didn’t really let even that bother me. I am really curious to see where this series is going because this is the second episode that has hinted at other high ranking members of the government going rogue. There’s a line about another person they can “rule out” but we don’t know who they are referring to; can it be the same person they were talking about last week? I really hope this is building toward a bigger payoff and not just individual stories which never connect.
A few tiny observations: the woman who Steed hires to break into the facility was stunningly attractive and I had hoped for more episodes with her. Alas, the writers of the show were cruel and had her killed off by the end of the first act. Also, we get another of those famous 1960’s “wrist shots” – you know, where shooting someone in the wrist is the easiest thing in the world and a great way to disarm a villain. Oh, I get it: disarm…!
So far, season 3 has the feeling of a whole different show and I’m delighted with it. I realize I wasn’t saying that after episode one but maybe the first episode of the season was a carry-over from the previous one. Who knows, but the last three episodes have been very enjoyable. I’m hopeful, which is more than I can say I was going into season 3. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: Death of a Batman