On the same evening that a Dalek first waved a menacing sink plunger at one of the Doctor’s companions, over on the other channel The Avengers offered Death a la Carte, later the same evening, written by future Doctor Who writer John Lucarotti, and starring no fewer than four Doctor Who alumni: Honor Blackman, of course, David Nettheim (Enemy of the World) as chef Umberto Equi, Henry Lincoln (co-creator of the Yeti) blacked up as Emir Abdulla Akaba, credited by his stage name Henry Soskin, and Robert James as Brigadier Mellor. James would later be menaced himself by the Daleks in Patrick Troughton’s debut story, Power of the Daleks. Instead here he provides most of the villainy himself, with the help of a couple of co-conspirators. The identity of the villains is revealed very early on and is never really much of a mystery, so the dramatic tension instead springs from whether they will succeed in their plans or not.
Emir Abdulla Akaba is Middle Eastern royalty, who makes an annual visit to see his British doctor. He is in very poor health, which makes the twist in the tale at the end entirely unsurprising as it is signalled so far in advance, and it’s questionable what the point of that twist is anyway, because it simply mitigates the crimes of the bad guys for no particular reason. He employs some top chefs to prepare his food, who are not all quite what they seem. For a start, one of them is Steed, having great fun in an undercover role that suits this connoisseur of the finer things in life very well indeed. The others are French chef Lucien (Gordon Rollings), Italian chef Umberto Equi, and their supervisor Arbuthnot (Ken Parry). In a fabulous moment, the mask of Umberto’s Italian affectation slips, and he becomes very British:
“You great big steaming nit!”
Few people in this are entirely what they seem to be, but the revelations are all highly guessable as they are generally telegraphed so strongly. So if the surprises are blatantly obvious, what does that leave for us to enjoy? Well, there’s a nail-biting moment with Steed balancing along a high ledge and then climbing up onto the roof, which is thrilling stuff, and a brilliant piece of work from the director, but the best thing here is the characterisation, and the most interesting offering is the Emir. Let’s first get the elephant in the room out of the way: the blackface makeup is of course uncomfortable to watch for a modern viewer; it is of-its-time, but still a little disappointing in a series that has generally done better than this, whether by luck or judgement. That aside, he’s a fascinating character, and his loneliness really comes across in Soskin/Lincoln’s performance. His culture does not allow him to pass on the throne to one of his sons, so he cannot rest, and that is shortening his life expectancy. The doctor is the closest thing he has to a friend, and to a certain extent the Emir is his own worst enemy, treating the Brigadier like dirt, but he is living a life of paranoia, at constant risk of assassination attempts, whilst living with the fact that he is rapidly dying because he can’t get the rest from his duties that he needs. Cathy, often the most empathic character out of our duo of heroes, sums up the Emir perfectly:
“Hates being alone and yet despises and distrusts everyone around him.”
At least he enjoyed his last meal, and there is something to be admired about his philosophy, whether we agree with it or not, placing duty first and determined to enjoy what he can of his life, while he can still eat a good meal, instead of eking out his final days with bed rest and salads. Less admirable, although perhaps understandable, is the extent to which he isolates himself by treating everyone as a potential traitor. That inevitably becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you can’t have trust, you don’t really have anything at all, even for a king. RP
The view from across the pond:
I’m torn on this episode of The Avengers. Death a la Carte is another slow episode that takes forever to get to the point, but it’s clever in that we wait an entire 2 acts to finally get to the death of the Emir. The Emir has been built up since the opening moments to be our victim so we know it’s coming. This is very Alfred Hitchcock in style actually – we know the event is coming, but we don’t know when. What that means is that for 2 acts, we’re waiting for a murder to take place so the tension has time to build. The audience is along for the ride just like Steed and Cathy. That sort of clever writing increases the tension. To further increase tension, we get a scene of Steed climbing up the outside of a building which, even though it was clear he was crawling, I found my feet sweating. The idea of it got into my head!
So what we know is the murder weapon: poisoned mushrooms, and we know the who since we’re shown the very man unloading the ‘shrooms into the desk drawer. So it’s just a question of when and it’s a matter of some intense tension building that really warrants some praise for the writing of this episode.
So even though I found the episode slow to the point where I paused and walked away for 15 minutes – this never happens when I commit to watching something – I was impressed when the Emir dies and it’s revealed that the poison would not have taken effect for 10 days! The death was of natural causes. Wow. Didn’t see that coming! This episode blind-sided me in the end and that was truly something I could not have expected which might be a sign that I need to take a break before going back for more of these. I’ve come to expect something and that might derail my enjoyment! I should allow the surprises to come!
And make no mistake, this episode did give me a few surprises. John Steed finally uses an alias! Good job; shame it took so long to think of that. The fight scene didn’t abruptly end the episode although it was close. And there’s an off-screen death bound to happen later that could make a second part. (Hopefully not…) See, the poisoning attempt is thwarted by Steed timing his entrance to knock food out of the Italian’s hand, so our fake Italian uses his finger to scoop some off his own clothing to taste it! Maybe he’ll just get an upset stomach; it was only a small amount after all.
Now, the Italian is another story! To prove he’s Italian, the “Spaghetti maker” just says things like “ravioli, fettuccine, cannoli!” Mamma mia, I’m more Italian than that! And yes, he was called a spaghetti maker twice! It’s like proving someone is French by having them order French Fries! I could hear another Sebastian, the comic genius Sebastian Manascalco, asking “Aren’t you embarrassed?” Then to add insult to injury, the end of the episode has the same man suddenly talking like a native of England because… what? Was he a fake too? Steed had him working there as well? Steed just hires random people off the street? The British Government has a lot to answer for!
For that matter, what is it with Steed having Gale around all the time if she doesn’t work for his organization?!? It doesn’t make sense. But then, should I expect sense from a series that gets its music from a madman in a drum shop? Too much to hope, I guess. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: Dressed to Kill