This week writer Malcolm Hulke takes us into the world of horse racing and betting, but what are the odds on a good story set in that location? I’ve seen a few crime stories set at racetracks, and it seems to be a gift for a writer, as viewers already bring a perception, right or wrong, that shady dealings happen amongst turf accountants. The cynical view is expressed very clearly by the bookmaker and gang leader:
“The only way to win in this game is to know who’s been given orders to lose.”
Theoretically it’s a great basis for a story, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a crime drama set at a race track that really came to life for me. Part of the problem, I have to admit, might be my own lack of interest in the sport or the world of gambling. I can’t think of anything more boring to watch than horses running around a track, nor anything more foolish than throwing your money away by gambling on which one will cross the finishing line first. But I don’t think my lack of interest is entirely the problem. I think the concept is good, but the reality becomes a story that is largely set in a small office and in a stable. There are some very good crowd scenes, but they are few and far between, and this ends up feeling oddly small scale. We don’t even see any racing apart from Cathy watching on a television screen, so it always feels like we are on the sidelines. Mind you, that’s where criminals tend to be found in these kinds of dramas.
There are some standout moments, which bring the episode to life from time to time. The opening is great, with a man being beaten to death because he hasn’t paid his debts, only to get up and walk away with a grin on his face when his attacker has left. This is part of a ruse to get the Right Honourable Lucien ffordsham, “spelt with two smalls Fs”, to join the criminal gang, blackmailed into his co-operation. There is also a very entertaining scene where Johnson (Derek Newark) explains a weapon disguised as binoculars to the rest of the gang, while Steed looks on in hiding. It’s all very James Bond, but these enjoyable moments probably only add up to 20% of the running time. The rest drags.
I have mentioned a few times how Steed can fit in anywhere. He’s probably most at home mingling with the rich, but he is normally a social chameleon. This is the exception that proves the rule, which does make this one feel like there’s a subtly different dynamic. Steed is immediately disliked and suspected, and spends most of the time well out of everyone’s way, lurking around in a stable, protecting a very important horse named Sebastian. In contrast, Cathy proves that she is even more capable than Steed at fitting in anywhere, thanks to her extraordinary intelligence. She is a character who is celebrated for being a portrayal of a modern, independent woman, relatively unusual in the 1960s on television, but I think most people would remember her physical prowess and cite that as the reason for her character standing out in the world of simpering television damsels. Equally if not more important, is how amazing she is at anything intellectual that she turns her mind to. This week she marches into the bookmaker’s office and dazzles him with an effortless display of knowledge of betting odds and mathematics. It’s bewilderingly complex, and Honor Blackman must have also been a genius to memorise it all. The way Cathy uses her intelligence, even more than her martial arts prowess, is why she is quite possibly the most important female role model there has even been on British television.
As brilliant as Cathy is, she can only provide us with occasional relief from the tedium of Trojan Horse. We’ll let Sebastian the horse have the final word on this one, so is it a yay or a nay? Neigh. RP
The view from across the pond:
It seems we’re in for another instructional video today with The Avengers. Always helpful for any aspiring criminals. We open with a how-to for putting on brass knuckles. I wouldn’t think that’s needed as they typically don’t need a big instructional video, but I guess one could put them on the wrong way round. Later we get some additional know-how with poisons. The irritant or corrosive versions of which have one purpose: to kill. But I ask you, is being killed an irritant? I guess I’d be irritated if I were killed so, maybe so!
Trojan Horse is another of those episodes that go back to repeat territory. Like the foolishness of the wine-tasting episodes, the viewer would benefit with some knowledge of the topic at hand, in this case horse racing. This is especially evident at the end of the episode when Cathy checks the horses teeth to verify Steed’s claim that the horse is 4 years old. Knowing nothing about that, the humor is lost on me, but I can assume the length of the horses teeth indicate something to do with its age. It’s not going to stop us from enjoying the episode, but it seems to lose sight of the audience, unless all of England is filled with horse people!
So Steed claims he’s from the Foreign Office and is investigating the disappearance of a number of high profile businessmen. The head honcho of the latest Murder, Inc is a filtered-cigarette-smoking slimeball who isn’t quite at the top of the organization which means that, when the episode ends and he is taken down, there would still be a true head honcho around and that seems to be brushed under the carpet like a body under hay. Again, this is The Avengers, so overly complicated storytelling seems to be the way to get people to ignore inconsistencies. Frankly, when most of these are done, I’m just so glad to get back to modern storytelling that I hardly think about this stuff, but it’s a symptom of the writing at the time this was made. (Specifically with this show, I mean!)
So we have another sleeper that kept me struggling to stay awake but let’s look at some of the characters. The daughter of the track owner is clearly… let’s say loose. Talking of all the men who started as stable boys, she says seductively, “I know them all…” Wow, really? And speaking of lascivious creeps, Steed goes from flirting with the bet taker (“Aren’t you here to play the field?”) to staring at Cathy as she watches a race. I wanted her to smack him in the teeth! He keeps ogling her as she watches and frankly it makes him look like a real stalker. We have a bad guy who injects people with such force, he wouldn’t need poison to kill his target – the speed of the injection would do that on its own! We have “Turtleneck” the bruiser who gets shot twice because he wasn’t content with one shot – undoubtedly a wrist shot in both cases! Oh and this is also the dude who walks up to the boss and says “Can I see you?” I wanted the boss to say, “no, I’m invisible!” Ok, this one is just me picking nits! Cathy is, unsurprisingly, the only one who comes out looking good this time around. She’s clearly a damned fast study or is actually a genius who knows at least something about everything. I have been looking forward to season 4 anxiously, but I can’t imagine how the series will evolve without her. (I’m guessing her black suit, which makes its 4th appearance in a row, is the template for why Emma Peel dresses the way she does.)
Really, the biggest question is: why don’t the bad guys shoot Steed (or Cathy) the moment they are in sight? Let’s face it, when Steed uncovers the body in the horse trailer, the obvious thing to do was shoot him and put his body with the one that was already there. But no! The baddies still follow the Dr. Evil school of thought and they get foiled every time! “OW!” I laughed out loud when Cathy grabbed the villain by the hair and karate chopped him! And I’m still trying to figure out when the baddies got the picture of Steed with the horse?! So yet again I was left wanting. Another stinker that doesn’t have a chance of ever being considered a classic. Now if only Mr. Ed were one of the horses in this story, we’d have a different story to tell. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: Build a Better Mousetrap