The Avengers: The White Elephant

The Avengers DVD releaseOn 22nd November 1963, at almost the exact time that JFK was assassinated, the cast of The Avengers was busy filming this episode, and by the end of the evening the cast would also have borne witness to a tragic death… perhaps. For once, the usual caption about no animals being harmed in the making of the programme did not apply… or did it?

At around the nine minute mark I was trying to swipe a fly off my screen, only to realise it was actually a filmed part of this episode, and I was 60 years too late to swipe it out of the way. I suppose that was appropriate for an episode that deals with wild animals being where they shouldn’t be. A white elephant has gone missing from a zoo, and during the course of Cathy and Steed’s investigations they uncover an ivory smuggling plot.

This element of the story has aged relatively well, and still feels relevant today, but otherwise the episode is very much of its time, with Cathy reminiscing about her big game hunting days in Africa. All the chatter about going on safaris to shoot animals or capture them for a zoo as if it’s all jolly fun is quite depressing to watch, especially when the rarity of the elephant is mentioned without any reference to exactly why it is rare in the first place.

We never do get to see the elephant, but there are several real animals, and we get interminable shots of various people sneaking around a zoo in the night. It’s all quite atmospheric and reasonably creepy, but at the same time the lack of dialogue for such large swathes of the episode make this one feel very slow indeed.

As usual, we are always marking out time until the big showdown at the end, but did they really need to stage a gunfight with live animals getting in the way of things? This brings us back to my opening paragraph. Reportedly, a hornbill died during filming, prompting a cruelty probe into ABC television. Now, I’m not one to repeat stuff I find on the internet without checking things out for myself, and I have to sound a note of caution here: I have not been able to corroborate that story. The otherwise excellent Deadline website, listing news reports that feature The Avengers, lists an article titled Cruelty Probe After ‘Avengers’ Zoo Chase, in the Daily Mirror, 11th January 1964, page 2, without quoting a word of the text. I have been onto the British Newspaper archive and there is no such article on that page, nor can I find anything within that entire issue. I have also run a search for the article using every combination of keywords I can think, for the whole relevant date range, and nothing came up. It’s possible that there was an article in a different newspaper, but I am unable to find anything. So did this actually happen, or did some kind of game of internet Chinese whispers get out of control, as is often the case? If anyone can offer any insight into this, please use the comments section.

Whether or not the scene resulted in a fatality, it’s undeniably hard to watch. The guns would not of course have been firing live ammunition, but the bangs and flashes are all too real. The animals and birds are clearly utterly terrified, and on more than one occasion a shot is fired right through a cage. If a bird died of shock I wouldn’t be at all surprised. And all this for what? A silly, boring episode that follows the Avengers formula that has by now become stale, trying to hide the lack of an interesting story with live animals as window dressing, while the same old plot beats are followed slavishly, everything from the discovered body to the final showdown, to the moment where Cathy gets stroppy with Steed, only to turn that frown upside down when he makes some unfunny remark to win her over. You would think by the innocent look on his face he couldn’t hurt a fly. Just maybe a hornbill…   RP

The view from across the pond:

Having so thoroughly enjoyed Dressed to Kill, I went right into The White Elephant hoping to be equally impressed.  What I was reminded of was that there’s more to the meal than the ingredients; a subject I speculated on last week with the previous episode.  I enjoy zoos quite a bit, but perhaps needed a bit more than a missing white elephant to keep my attention.

This episode also illustrates a point I made last week and I wonder how a newcomer would feel about this show.  The plots don’t make sense, specifically from Steed’s viewpoint.  Why would he get involved with a case around a missing elephant?  It’s not quite Sherlock Holmes here, where a zookeeper comes to the great detective asking for help.  Steed has to have some investment in this.  International ring of ivory smugglers makes sense in that it’s an international event, but that hardly seems to be what’s behind why he would be called in to investigate.   Surely there are bigger crimes.

It’s a shame that this was such a slog for me.  The writer is John Lucarotti of Doctor Who fame.  Also starring in this episode is Edwin Richfield, also from Doctor Who.  Plus the owner of the zoo is a guy named Noah and he calls his zoo “Noah’s ark”, which is pretty damned clever.  Did he need to dress like a pirate, complete with corn cob pipe, scar and parrot on his shoulder?   Probably not, but hey, it takes all kinds.

I did get a deep guffaw out of this episode however.  After Gale knocks Richfield out, Steed walks by him and karate chops him to the neck again with the words, “down rover!”  The absurdity was priceless.  I was also impressed with the final cut into the epilogue.  Shocked, the baddie says “husband?” and the image cuts to a ball and chain.   Hell, I’ll even go so far as to say the fight sequence was clever: rather than have the nutter loose in the drum shop, they just had a fight where it would sound cacophonous!

Sadly, even with those handful of perks, at the end of the day it’s still just another weak episode.  Even the epilogue seems unsure what it’s doing with itself.  Is Cathy really mad at Steed?  I wouldn’t blame her in general but it seems out of place only for her to then laugh at his joke at the end.  Well, I’ve said it before, they can’t all be winners, but I do wish the win/lose ratio would be a bit better!   ML

Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: The Little Wonders

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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