The Avengers: The Charmers

The Avengers DVD releaseThis episode sees Steed having to work with “the other side” when it seems there is a third party killing off both their organisations’ operatives. That puts Steed in a very interesting situation, and the ease with which he strolls into the enemy hideout makes you wonder how much of a threat they really are. However, the interaction between Steed and enemy agent Keller (Warren Mitchell) makes sense of that because it’s fairly obvious that the spy game really is a game to them all. They have a drink and a cosy chat, laughing and gossiping about old times and “expenses” as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to do, despite the fact that these two men are supposed to be mortal enemies. It’s very Steed. He’s polite and sociable in the company of anybody: criminals, enemies spies, and aristocracy alike.

Keller’s reaction to the news that there might be a third party involved is amusing. He appears to be highly affronted, complaining that it’s “unethical”, so there is clearly a code of honour among spies. Nobody likes it when somebody isn’t playing the game right. As part of their plan to deal with the problem, an exchange of assistants takes place, although there is more to all this than meets the eye. Steed gets Kim, played by Fenella Fielding, who gives a masterclass in overacting. It’s a mercy that she lost out to Honor Blackman for the role of Cathy originally. For the majority of the episode she just tags along with Steed, asking questions like “where are we off to now?” and complaining a little bit, so she is a fairly redundant character, just adding a bit of metaphorical colour to proceedings.

Avengers The Charmers Betty in her maskThe one thing she gets right is her reaction to Betty’s mask at the “charm school”. Steed, who takes everything in his stride, just glances at her and says nothing, while the viewers’ reaction will be surely to sit up and take notice, probably with an expression of puzzlement and horror, much like Kim’s. The masked woman makes for an incredibly creepy sight, playing havoc with the uncanny valley response, already primed and on edge due to the bits of mannequins dotted around Keller’s hideout.

The Avengers has settled into a pattern of unusual scenarios and locations for a crime drama. Here we have a training school for assassins masquerading as a charm school, which is an entertaining idea, and we have a dentist surgery and a tie shop as secondary locations. By now we are probably expecting Act One to end with the discovery of a body in an unusual place, and The Charmers does not disappoint, with a dead body in a crate of hats (which are being fitted with transmitters by the dentist, for reasons I didn’t entirely understand). It’s almost inevitable now that Steed and Cathy will be split up to have their own adventures, which makes perfect sense from a scripting point of view, but it’s a shame how that limits their interactions. When they are together the show always crackles with an extra energy, and Cathy’s exasperation with Steed is a joy to watch. It’s not hard to see why she gets frustrated with him, either:

“Steed, what did you give them?”
“I gave them you.”

So why does she put up with it? The answer to that question is simple: she’s clearly having a huge amount of fun, while Steed is in his element strolling into just about any location and making his presence felt. In the tie shop he manages to make himself very troublesome to the owner and very charming at the same time. He’s the perfect gentlemen and the perfect spy. It’s no wonder the teacher in the assassin/charm school looks at him with such admiration.

In the introduction to the episode on the DVD set, Honor Blackman mentions the creative control they managed to exercise over the characters, with a “do and don’t list for the writers”. This really comes across in the consistency of the characterisation of Steed and Cathy over the course of their two seasons. In this episode, the assassin tutor gives the nickname “show business” to a stab in the back. In The Avengers, it seems both the actors and the characters they played were experts in fighting their battles.   RP

The view from across the pond:

I think The Charmers would have been better as a comedy.  Oh, wait it was: it’s a modern movie called Kingsman: The Secret Services and it’s outstanding.  This was a good episode because it gives us some understanding of Steed’s world but it still manages to get top heavy with a villain who is both a nurse and a fencing instructor, a dentist who is dispatched for being nervous because “the boss won’t like it” and a really fun adversary who is both delightful and gross at the same time.  I admit it, I’m clearly feeling worn out by this series and we’re only in season 3 but I know it’s night and day when we get to season 4, so I feel like I’m biding my time.  With just three more to go, though, I won’t bail now and at least this was a fun one.  The episode pits the good guys and the bad guys against an unknown agent that threatens both of them.  Good stuff indeed.

It’s always interesting seeing where ideas come from and having loved Kingsman: The Secret Service, I don’t think this was going to bother me like some of the episodes have.  I don’t know if it’s ever been acknowledged that this was the origin of that idea, but I’d be flabbergasted if it weren’t!  The episode isn’t perfect, but it is better than most. For a start, I love cordial enemies.  When Steed goes to see his rival, Keller, there’s a joy on both sides that makes some delightful viewing.  I especially loved them reminiscing about other agents, like the one who died falling down an elevator shaft, laughing all the way down.  Then when Keller complains about how his people treat him and shows us that they gave him a wooden box when he requested a new office chair, I laughed out loud.  (I have to submit expense reports for my job too and I got a real kick out of thinking about how that would look if I were in Steed’s job.)  I also had to laugh that Keller has a mannequin that he caresses tenderly and looks under her skirt… where he keeps a TV.  A little crude, but funny although perhaps not what one might expect in a school of charm!  And that whole idea of a school of charm, a place where Steed obviously graduated, was wonderful because I imagine all spies must go there.  James Bond might have been a later graduating class.  Lastly, there are some witty moments in the script, like when Steed calls Cathy by the wrong name because of their conversation.  It’s writing like that that I appreciate because it happens in real life; adding it to the script just shows an understanding of how people actually communicate.  Finally, as a massive fan of the Uncanny Valley, I absolutely loved the mask worn by the fencing instructor.  While we knew there was going to be some diabolical reveal as a result of it, I still loved seeing that creepy face!

In fairness, there were very few things that disrupted my enjoyment of the episode but the biggest bother was with Keller.  He has this idiosyncrasy of jamming a tube up his nose like he’s addicted to Afrin.  I assume this was an affectation to give him some semblance of abusing snuff, but it’s disgusting and I felt bad for Honor Blackman when she had to film a scene in close quarters with this dude jamming what looked like a ChapStick into his nostrils.  Weirdly, this is one of the few episodes that never gave Blackman a chance to shine, but that speaks well of the overall script that we didn’t need it to enjoy the episode.  If I have a complaint about quality, it’s when the actress hired to accompany Steed throws an epee at someone and harpoons them in the back.  First off, the strength needed to hurl an epee to do any damage like that would have to be Hulkian.  (That might not be word, but it should be.)  Then, let’s discuss angles: any thrown object tends to have a path – let’s call it a “trajectory”.  They are not usually capable of mid-air turns, yet she hits her target who is standing at a 90 degree angle.  Clearly this was a homing epee.  (They never had them in Quake 2!)  Now, this was more of an unintentionally funny moment; not that it ruined the episode for me but it really shows how some ideas are better on paper than on screen!

Overall, this was a far superior episode to most of what’s come lately but it still bears the hallmarks of a season in need of concluding.  I’m not holding my breath that the next 3 will be of this quality, but there was a feeling of fun that was stronger in this episode than many of the others from this season.  I think that’s one of the things that made Star Trek and Doctor Who so relatable – they were both fun.  This series has missed the mark on that, aiming for a bit more of a serious drama, but I think it works better with its tongue firmly planted within its jowls.  I mean, cheeks!    ML

Read next in the Junkyard… The Avengers: Concerto

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in Entertainment, Reviews, Television and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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