Saturday, 29 October 2016

The Avengers: Season Six, Disc Six - The Rotters, The Interrogators, The Morning After

Occupations and preoccupations preclude many updates here, but circumstances (well, a slow and annoying cold of the type that wreak havoc in university towns at the start of the academic year) have allowed me to catch up on one of my viewing programmes,  The Avengers - The Complete Collection, acquired in 2015 in the wake of Patrick Macnee's death.  I'm now in the latter part of season six, on disc six of that season in this set. It's difficult to write a review without acknowledging the lore and reportage which have accumulated over the years. Producers Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens had not cast Linda Thorson as Tara King, and reportedly found her an unenthusing screen partner for Patrick Macnee's Steed. By this stage the two stars were given few opportunities to attempt to spark off each other in the way Macnee did with Diana Rigg in seasons four and five or (with a touch more acid) with Honor Blackman in seasons two and three. Season six was made between eighteen and thirty-six months before I was born, and there are details, more so than in the earlier seasons, which remind me of the world of my early childhood: Thorson, as Tara King, wears a short green dress in The Rotters I could imagine scaled down for the little girls of a few years later, while the payphones seen (including that in the as-good-as dimensionally transcendental call box of The Interrogators) have become the grey-painted buttonless type, with notices reminding customers that subscribers in the main conurbations now have 'all-figure numbers', a reminder of a service change still making ripples in the 1970s. It's this detail which grounds most of the Thorson-era Avengers in their time and place more prosaically than the fantasias seen in many of the Diana Rigg episodes.

The three episodes on this disc began with the most outlandish, Dave Freeman's The Rotters which involves a lot of fast cutting and sound effects to achieve the (deliberately semi-serious) illusion of a fast-acting dry rot spray getting to work. The main villain isn't that compelling, but the emphasis instead is placed on two supposedly upper-crust assassins, played by Jerome Willis and Gerald Sim; while they don't entirely convince, they are more memorable and performed with more deliberation than the main villain unmasked towards the end of the episode. It's worth being reminded that Gerald Sim could be sinister rather than officious or clerical as he was more often seen, the latter coming most to mind in the wake of the recent afternoon repeat run on BBC Two of To the Manor Born, where he played the Rector. There's some apposite juxtaposition in design choices. Mother, Steed's boss for this season played by Patrick Newell, works in this episode (coincidentally, from the point of view of the plot) from an office of inflatable plastic furniture and one withered-looking plant upon which, had they burst in, the dry rot-spraying assassins could have had little effect.  Pity poor Rhonda, though; Mother's silent assistant, played by Rhonda Parker, is the only human dressed in plastic - as if to show she is part of the furniture - and has to spend all her time inflating Mother's chair. 

The Interrogators followed, with Christopher Lee's Colonel Mannering being a more substantial and subtle part than the ghoulish Professor Frank N. Stone and his robot double he played in the previous season's Never, Never Say Die. The central gag in the story from Richard Harris and Brian Clemens has enemy agents using espionage bureaucracy to hide in plain sight, Chinese Red Army uniforms and all, conducting often brutal interrogations interspersed with upper-class chit-chat and cups of tea. This is carried off, though the tone is slightly miscalculated, with the cast perhaps not all resonating at the same theatrical frequency, something which happened before but which is more noticeable once The Avengers has lost the arched and arch eyebrows of Diana Rigg. Linda Thorson manages reasonably well; being separated from Patrick Macnee more frequently than were Diana Rigg and Honor Blackman was probably the best move, enabling her to interact on screen with actors she better complemented than Patrick Macnee, or playing in her delivery on Tara's frustration with being a dogsbody for her superiors, sent out to establish facts and rarely to take action. Tara King is often nonplussed among eccentrics but Linda Thorson learned to do something with these scenes, here with Cardew Robinson as the balloon-selling informant Mr Puffin. Though an ingenue in comparison to her predecessors, and more easily presented as a damsel in distress, it's Tara's exclusion from masculine clubbability which renders her less prey to manipulation by the smoothly charming and seemingly sporting Mannering, whose skill as recipient of confidences in his 'training centre' bar after proving his victims' resistance to a spot of torture in and out of the dentist's chair has left many agents dead. By this time in the season, Steed is re-established as more of an authority figure, evidently senior to the uniformed military intelligence officers from whom he tears strips; the ironic deflater of deluded megalomaniacs of the Rigg era is subsumed beneath a more literal interpretation of the power conveyed by bowler hat and Savile Row suit.

The most consistent of the three episodes is probably The Morning After. Knocked unconscious for twenty-four hours, Steed and his adversary, quadruple agent Jimmy Merlin (Peter Barkworth, suave and chippy by turns) find themselves in an almost totally deserted town, which is mostly St Albans, including the abbey, but which also (so Bowler Hats and Kinky Boots by Michael Richardson, tells me) includes parts of Old Hatfield and Watford, combining conventional if misplaced impressions of half-timbered or gothic Avengerland with a grimier world of run-down factories and working-class terraces. There's also some stock footage from the film Seven Days to Noon (1950) which throws Western Avenue in London into the mix as well as establishing the episode in a genealogy of deserted urban landscapes. Terry Nation was script editor of the series by this point and it's tempting to think that he suggested Seven Days to Noon's use, as he'd already proposed it as a source for stock footage in his Doctor Who serial The Dalek Invasion of Earth in 1964. The plot recalls several earlier Avengers episodes, including The Town of No Return, The Hour That Never Was, Esprit de Corps and The Danger Makers, but takes everything a little further and plays with images such as the abandoned milk float, the symbol of the upturning of the nurturing society used in a comparable situation by Doctor Who in Invasion of the Dinosaurs (1974), though it's as now as redundant an image as a sack of coal which also appears.

The Morning After is the only episode on this disc where Mother does not appear; his role as problem-maker and bowler of drolleries for Steed to bat back with added spin is filled by Merlin instead. Given the town's desertion and isolation from communications it would be too convenient for Steed to have phoned Mother for some plot information. Meanwhile Brian Blessed plays an sergeant in the military force which occupies the town: Blessed's bellow is managed on a tight rein here, implying his Sergeant Hearn is a man who enjoys violence for its own sake almost before we learn that he enjoys executing civilians without trial for looting. Tara, meanwhile, misses most of the episode by not recovering from Merlin's gas capsule as quickly as the hapless crook and Steed do, allowing writer-producer Brian Clemens to substitute her with Penelope Horner as Jenny Furstin, an initially assertive leather-clad television reporter with distant but fading echoes of Honor Blackman's Cathy Gale, which contrast with the 'vulnerable' Tara. While competent Horner's is by no means as dominant a character or performance and so doesn't outclass the largely absent or dozing Thorson, who manages a short fight scene nevertheless. All the performances in this episode are well-pitched: while perhaps Brigadier Hansing (Joss Ackland) is one of the more lightweight 'diabolical masterminds' of the series, that makes him seem all the more deranged when he orders summary execution as preferable to capture and interrogation. Hansing's scheme, though, has some resonance for our times, with a population being scared into believing the 'Eastern Hemisphere Trade Commission' left a primed atomic bomb in their building before they vacated it, leaving the town where the commission was based en masse, allowing Hansing and his international troop of mercenaries to instal their bomb and blackmail the country into acceeding to their demands. There are at least two doses of xenophobia here, but the tale of the communal interest of a specific place being manipulated by a group of rootless chancers for their own ends could be claimed for both sides of the Brexit debate. Aptly and knowingly, Tara naps in an outfit patterned after the uniform of the Yeomen Warders of the Tower of London, as if unaware the ravens are running amok. Perhaps Britain has barely moved on from the anxieties about Britain's post-imperial state which The Avengers often used as fuel for its whimsies.

The Avengers - The Complete Collection is released by StudioCanal and is available at Amazon UK and other retailers.