The Avengers, before they were Marvel superheroes, were light-hearted spies on British TV. Dapper agent John Steed, played by Patrick Macnee, had numerous partners over the show’s run, but the most famous of these was scientific genius and martial arts expert Mrs. Emma Peel, played by Diana Rigg.
Now, in addition to commenting on the episodes, I’m also mentioning the notable (for me) writers and guest cast, particularly when they’ve been involved in Doctor Who. There’s no real reason for this except Doctor Who is pretty much my favorite show, and so far there seems an awful lot overlap with The Avengers.
The £50,000 Breakfast
As we get to the end of Emma Peel’s time on The Avengers, the show continues to break away from some of its more recognizable formulaic elements–things like “Mrs. Peel, we’re needed,” are gone now, as well as the little two-line couplet that followed each title for a while. And in an episode like The £50,000 Breakfast, you can’t even count on someone getting murdered before the title screen! In this case, there is instead a totally regular car accident, but one which causes the discovery of loads of swallowed diamonds, presumably as part of a smuggling operation.
As the episode continued, I found myself very much enjoying things, largely because I was so confused about what was going on. The episode introduces many different elements–like the strangely elaborate pet cemetery, the fast moving stock market trading, and the conversation with the bizarre ventriloquist’s dummy. It’s a lot of fun trying to figure out how it all works together, especially since often in The Avengers there aren’t many well-done surprises.
Unfortunately, these various ideas don’t really come together very well. The ventriloquist thing, especially, ends up adding almost nothing to the story except for some token weirdness. This is a pity because the episode ends feeling like it just was throwing things in to till the runtime, rather than they had a compelling story to tell. Even the titular diamond breakfast doesn’t really add a lot to the story–for a show that usually prides itself on coming up with some of the most outlandish plots, this one is a bit mundane.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of the show was Cecil Parker’s performance as Glover, the refined but villainous butler. He does a good ob playing the various aspects of the character, especially when he lets his guard down and reveals his motivations: “I want to be ill mannered and rude and uncouth, and order people about, especially women. I look forward to being excessively rude to a considerable number of handsome women!” I think I would have preferred it if he’d turned out to be the story’s “main” villain, although Miss Pegram was surprisingly effective in her fight against Emma (even if not all of the stunt work was).
This episode is one of the few times that we’ve seen a woman killed on the show (Mrs. Rhodes), which was surprising. The dummy’s, though mostly irrelevant, are kind of creepy. And the image of the car being crushed at the junk yard is pretty effective as well. And it was fun to see a companion from Doctor Who in a guest role. But on the whole, it’s not the most successful effort.
Anneke Wills (Judy) was Doctor Who regular companion Polly with the First and Second Doctors over nine serials, from The War Machines to The Faceless Ones. David Langton (Sir James Arnall) was a regular on Upstairs, Downstairs over its five year original run, as appearing as Richard Bellamy. Jon Laurimore (Security Man) appeared as a Count in the Fourth Doctor Doctor Who story, The Masque of Mandragora.
Dead Man’s Treasure
Unlike The £50,000 Breakfast, Dead Man’s Treasure kept me guessing, but also paid off that mystery fairly well by the end of the episode. The script does a good job throwing suspicion around on different suspects as the story unfolds. That isn’t to say there weren’t predictable elements–I knew that eccentric rich guy was going to be killed in his electrically charged simulator the moment they mentioned that it gave off shocks, but I was legitimately uncertain who had actually killed him for quite a ways into the episode.
For quite a long time, I assumed it was going to be Steeds distractingly attractive partner Penny, which is I guess is what I was supposed to think. Then one is thrown off by the well-timed red herring of Bates and the question of what hes doing with the shotgun. By the time its revealed to be the more mundane and obvious Mike, its a testament to the deftness of the story that it comes off as a surprise.
The episode’s scenario–an extended car rally, with lots of high speed driving and some fun clues to decipher–proves to be a great set-up for a memorable adventure, giving the story a satisfyingly unique flavor. The episode features some particularly jaunty car-driving music, although this gets a little repetitive by the end. And Emma being trapped in the lethal car simulator in the story’s final act makes for a terrific nail-biter of a cliff-hanger and climax. Of course we know Emma isn’t going to die, but the directing and editing is so good that it ends up being one of the show’s most tense sequences.
Incidentally, Valerie Van Ost is memorable as Penny. The whole idea of her endless parade of dead fiancees is one of those daft and probably sexist ideas that The Avengers was particularly good at pulling off. It’s nice to see Steed turn her down at the end.
And then at the very end, Emma grows a mustache in one of the show’s silliest ever tag scenes.
Edwin Richfield (Alex) appeared in Doctor Who both with the Third Doctor in The Sea Devils and with the Sixth Doctor in The Twin Dilemma. Neil McCarthy (Carl) was also in two Doctor Who stories–The Mind of Evil with the Third Doctor and The Power of Kroll with the Fourth Doctor. Rio Fanning (Danvers) was in The Horror of Fang Rock with the Fourth Doctor.
You Have Just Been Murdered
You Have Just Been Murdered has a great opening. It looks at first like what we see all the time on The Avengers, with an extended and elaborate scene of some hapless dude being killed. But after an excellent build up, it springs its surprise on us, with the revelation that the murder is a bizarre prank–a great reveal if one doesn’t already know the title of the episode. Skelton (Simon Oates) is has got a particularly creepy icy stare as he delivers the not-actually-lethal attack, and the directing and editing of the sequence is excellent.
All the other faux-murders are also well done, taking us by surprise in much the same way they do the characters. I particularly liked the bit where Skelton nearly runs over Unwin in his car, and his dialogue afterward: “I damaged his orchid.”
Eventually, however, the episode’s shtick gets a little repetitive, without much of anything new being added. Indeed, that is also the failing of the villains, who simply pull their routine too many times to keep getting away from it. All their targets seem to belong to the same fraternity of millionaires (who all use the same bank), whom they subject to same regimen of threat and blackmail, demanding the same amount of money to be dropped off in the same type of bag in the same place…I mean, of course they’d eventually be caught.
The saving grace for this is George Murcell as Needle, who is engaging as the roguish mastermind of the episode. Emma’s fight scenes on the bridge and later in the river are both pretty fun as well, as it’s always gratifying to see her beating up the bad guys. And I enjoyed the idea of Unwin’s character–a victim who actually fights back and even plants a bomb in with his ransom payment (I guess he really is rich). His death is a bit abrupt and unfortunate after the character had had such significant role.
Barry Ingham (Unwin) was Basil of Baker Street in the Disney animated film The Great Mouse Detective. He also played Alydon in Dr. Who and the Daleks, the film with Peter Cushing. Leslie French (Rathbone) had a small part in Silver Nemesis, with the Seventh Doctor. Clifford Cox (Chalmers) also had a small part in Doctor Who, in Spearhead from Space with the Third Doctor. John Baker (Hallam) had several small parts in Doctor Who: in Colony in Space with the Third Doctor (as a Time Lord), The Visitation with the Fifth Doctor, and uncredited in the Third Doctor story Planet of the Spiders. Frank Maher (Nicholls) is one of those actors / stunt men who has worked on tons of stuff, including all of Patrick McGoohan’s spy series (Secret Agent, Danger Man, The Prisoner), the movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Superman II, and Blake’s 7, as well as The Avengers.
Final Stop: Disk Sixteen