The Avengers: Mandrake

The Avengers DVD releaseSeveral sources on the internet report that Honor Blackman accidentally kicked wrestler Scott Sexton in the head during one take of a scene in a graveyard during the filming of this episode, knocking him out. As is often the case, this appears to be a slight misremembering of what happened. The following article is from the Daily Herald, 16th January 1964:

“Television’s Honor Blackman, start of The Avengers, got her man with rather too much vengeance last night. The man: professional wrestler Jackie Pallo, known as “Mr. TV” because of his popularity with television audiences. Jackie was knocked out after a tussle with Honor – Cathy Gale in the TV series – at Teddington Studios. It was all part of a rehearsal for an Avengers episode. After losing a fight with judo-expert Honor in a graveyard, Jackie was supposed to topple into a grave. The wrestler fell, as the script said he should – but he also spent five minutes unconscious after banging his head on the grave. The knock-out shook Jackie so much that he had to withdraw from a wrestling match at Southend later last night. Back home early today he said: “I came round and found the rest of the cast bending over me. They were very concerned – especially Miss Blackman.”

Avengers Mandrake GraveyardWhether it was the kick to the head or Sexton hitting his head when he fell into the grave, it’s a very impressive scene (and that kick from Honor is magnificent anyway), helped by the location for the scene. The director makes the most of what he’s got, with a great pan across the graveyard at night, with the church organ playing and the church bells ringing. The opening scene is also brilliant, with a funeral in the pouring rain, and then the director fades from a shot of a coffin to a skull in a doctor’s surgery.

The doctor in question is Dr. Macombie, played by John Le Mesurier. He remains one of the most recognisable actors in the UK, thanks to the endless success of repeats of Dad’s Army, but I have seen him in several other roles. He is always a joy to watch, but John Le Mesurier basically always played John Le Mesurier. That inevitably makes Dr. Macombie a rather nice and gentlemanly villain, but that does fit well with his backstory. He has struggled to keep up with recent developments in medicine, and has been drawn into a scheme that will allow him to retire a rich man by the very sinister Roy Hopkins, played by Philip Locke, one of the go-to actors for criminals, and always dependable for a great performance.

The plot is deceptively straightforward and reasonably believable, thanks to one detail that is held back until late in the episode. I had assumed the bodies were being buried in the churchyard of an almost-abandoned village due to its remote location, but instead it’s all tied in with the local tin mine. Where there is tin, the soil is rich in arsenic, and that makes it pointless to exhume and perform autopsies on the bodies of victims who have been killed with the same poison. The service Hopkins and Macombie provide is a variation on the one we saw in The Undertakers, but much more clever because they don’t need to complicate matters. It’s an effective operation: murder with arsenic, a faked medical history, the body transported and buried in arsenic-rich soil. The perfect crime, until they happen to choose the wrong victim and Steed starts to investigate. Along the way, he finds the time to investigate a young lady he likes the look of, the “prettiest cracker” in the cracker factory where she works. Whether he pulls his cracker is best left to the imagination, but this is certainly a cracker of an episode.   RP

The view from across the pond:

Remember how I said “been there, done that” a week ago?  Here’s the thing: when I saw the first 5 minutes of Mandrake, I said out loud to an empty hotel room whilst on my travels: “Is this The Undertakers again?”  That was in the first 5 minutes.  Surely this wouldn’t be about a group that makes money by killing people and helping give the proceeds to the widow while getting paid a hefty fee, right?  I mean, it was this season that we’d last seen it!  This episode just lost the benefit of a really cool secret door.

Not to mention, the cliffhanger for the second act has Cathy fight a dude only to be confronted by the vicar who is holding a gun to her.  End scene… Come back and there’s not a mention of it!  In fact, she and the vicar are getting along famously.  In double fact, the gun was just a water pistol!  Are you kidding me?  That was almost as bad as that marvelous season one cliffhanger of Farscape where John and Dhargo are floating out in space running out of oxygen only for season 2 to come back and find they were ok and rescued between seasons…

Meanwhile Steed goes to see a wannabe actress who is busy stacking boxes with all the skill of a tyrannosaurus gymnast.  Every time she tries to stack a box, it falls because clearly her ams are way too short.  I can’t believe for a moment this was intended as many times as it happens.  It was comical for all the wrong reasons.  Come to think of it, was Cathy’s excuse for seeing the eye doctor the best she could come up with?  She was hit by a hockey stick?  I didn’t know they were so common in 1960’s England.

I will say that I was damned impressed by the fight scene at the end of act 2 though.  When Cathy flips her attacker, he goes down hard on the corner of a tiered yard.  At one point she kicks him in the face and by God, it looked real!  It’s actually a pretty impressive fight sequence.  It’s just a shame that the madman was let loose again in the drum factory, smashing his way into deafening cacophony to record the score for this bit!

It’s been a hard run pushing my way through season three of The Avengers, but weirdly, I’m almost having more fun picking holes in it now.  It doesn’t make the 50+ minutes an easy slog to sit through but it makes for some comical writing because it’s the only emotion I can summon now.  I am stunned that this went on for 26 episodes per season and depressingly, not more of these episodes are lost, but it at least has some redeeming values.  Like: if you’re an aspiring filmmaker who can’t afford to pay for a composer, just let a child eat a pound of candy then run loose in a music shop and record the sound effect.  Boom, score recorded!   Meantime, I’ll sit back and hope the next episode is not another repeat from earlier this season.   ML

Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: The Secrets Broker

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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