John P. Spagge used to be a “crime broker”, and the “king of the underworld”, but he has retired and spends his days sitting in his wheelchair being waited on by his snobbish butler. Steed and Cathy tempt him out of retirement on the promise of having a hand in a major robbery: the theft of three million pounds worth of gold. Their plan is to involve him in the crime and finally get him arrested and sent to prison.
Now, this is obviously a bit of an odd one, because Spagge is not only retired from his life of crime, but is so determined not to get involved in that world any more that it takes the prospect of the crime of the century to tempt him. He also doesn’t actually do anything himself, other than contact the right people, so “broker” is definitely the right word for him. This is clearly entrapment, although I don’t think that would have made any difference to his conviction in 1963 and probably wouldn’t today, because Steed and Cathy are not policemen, so the conduct of law enforcement cannot be brought into question. However, it does muddy the waters in terms of the extent to which we can consider Steed and Cathy to be the heroes in their own television series. It’s hard to see how their actions are for the greater good. Spagge is doing nobody any harm any more, and the end result is an old man living out the rest of his life behind bars, and several other people ending up dead, including one or two who seemed like quite nice chaps, frankly.
One of those nice chaps is the leader of the gang who will assist Cathy in her robbery, Abe Benham. He is a charismatic leader, and you can see why the other man look up to him and follow him. He also happens to be a black man, played by the actor Edric Connor, a man of Trinidadian origin. At no stage is his skin colour or accent referenced, and the part as written could have been played by an actor of any colour. A black actor just happens to have been chosen for the role, which sounds like nothing remarkable, but for 1963 it seems unusually progressive. Consider what was happening on the other side of the pond later in the decade, where putting moustaches on black actors was considered sufficient to represent a race of aliens in Star Trek. Like most countries, Britain has a chequered past when it comes to race relations, but watching The Avengers so far has been a revelation of the other side of the coin: an oasis of positive depictions of women and race at a time when casual misogyny and racism would have been all too easily, and probably lapped up by the viewers, like it was being lapped up by the Trekkies in the 1960s with their soft focus ornamental women.
I have latched onto that positivity and probably spent far too much time writing about a side issue instead of discussing the details of the episode, but that’s because the alternative is to pick holes in this rather odd story. If you can get past the entrapment, there is also the problem of Cathy’s initiation into the gang of thieves. It provides some great twists and turns, but it does seem strangely elaborate. At least it provides Honor Blackman with the chance to show us another side to Cathy. We are used to seeing her always in control of any situation, often the one who gets to rescue Steed at the end of an episode, but here the roles are reversed to a certain extent, with Cathy looking genuinely rattled at the confusing situation of apparently losing her memory about her trial and imprisonment and later getting into trouble and needing Steed’s help. For the first time, we see her doubt herself, and then later in the episode we see her careful plans almost fall to pieces when Abe changes the date of the robbery. This is very much Cathy’s episode.
As for the robbers, they take some believing, because they don’t seem like they would have a chance of organising anything properly, although they at least have the benefit of an enthusiastic leader whom they obviously admire. Abe is quite a character, introducing his plan of the vault as if it’s a work of modern art, and going to the trouble of wrapping up a gas mask as if it’s a present. All very amusing, but if you want a bonus chuckle, look out for the moment where one of the robbers touches a control panel in the vault and it just drops off the wall. Also unintentionally amusing are the directional issues the robbers have with the trolley loaded with gold, before they eventually realise you’re supposed to pull it not push it. For this motley bunch of thieves, that clumsiness actually makes sense. I couldn’t help rooting for Abe and his gang, and would have liked to see at least a flicker of regret from Cathy at the demise of a man she clearly admired, especially as she was instrumental in his sad fate. The lines between heroes and villains in The Avengers have never seemed more blurred. RP
The view from across the pond:
There’s a weird thing that happens whenever I share a show that I normally watch alone with my wife. We find the worst episode imaginable and that’s what she watches and then thinks I’m a nutcase for watching said show. While cable was out one night, and with limited options, she sat with me to watch The Avengers. Now, I was a little nervous, because I genuinely find this show just about average, but I thought: maybe she’ll give me new insights, open my eyes to something I am overlooking. When act 2 ended and she asked, “there’s more?” I knew I had my answer. At the end, I asked what she thought, and she said she hated it. And that’s made even stranger because, this was one of the best episodes I’d ever seen!
Unfortunately, I do think it’s proof that The Avengers is a one-trick pony relying on us thinking the good guys have gone rogue again for the umpteenth time this season alone, and that’s a bit of a disappointment, but with a strong episode, I can turn a blind eye to it. This time Steed and Gale are going to steal gold bullion from an armory. Steed engages the world’s most annoying man, J. P. Spagge, who manages to have Gale arrested for murdering him. Yes, you read that right: he makes it look like he was murdered by Gale; clever move! Of course, by now I’ve learned enough from the one-trick pony to know that Gale didn’t murder Spagge, no matter how convincingly Blackman sold the role. I also was fairly sure Spagge would prove to be very much alive, and he doesn’t let me down! So what was so good about the episode?
It’s carried almost entirely by Honor Blackman as Gale and she is delightful throughout the production. Plus her primary jailor, a fellow named Abe played by Edric Connor, was so insanely likable that it’s hard not to appreciate the episode. The entire setup felt surprisingly modern, akin to one of those Ocean’s Eleven movies. It also illustrates the long game these characters play. Think about it: if Gale and Steed were real agents, each mission could take months. In this story, Gale goes deep undercover to nab their prey. Sadly, that does eventually hit us with one of those fights choreographed by an insane madman on speed running through a drum factory, but at least it’s a short battle and the story actually was really strong, so I can turn a deaf ear to it to some extent.
While I was sure of many things being red herrings, namely Gales innocence, Spagge’s not-dead-ness, and even the shot that “kills” Steed, the overall series of events is more engaging than this show has ever been. But that says a lot: I’ve come to expect such a low score on these, a score of above average might have felt outstanding. Alas, my wife was lucky to have never encountered the more tedious episodes. Now the question really is: should I reevaluate my expectations or run with them the way they are so that I come out loving some of these. My real fear would be in expecting better and never coming close. These definitely feel even more like a the product of another time now! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: Second Sight