The Avengers: The White Dwarf

The White Dwarf (Episode 02-21, February 1963)


The Avengers regularly grappled with post-war terrors and Cold War realities, involving spies from vague foreign lands (most of them with Russian accents), double agents working within Great Britain, secret plans, secret weapons, and secret programs. But only seldom did the show look into the farther reaches of space and engage with threats from without rather than within.

The White Dwarf is one exception. Unlike its Space Age successor Man-Eater of Surrey Green – the only episode to introduce the concept of aliens into The Avengers universe – The White Dwarf treats of a far more realistic threat from the outer regions.

Steed and Cathy are tasked with investigating the death of an astronomer who predicted that the end of the world was near when he observed the progress of a “white dwarf.” His theory postulates that within nine months the dwarf would swallow up the sun, and the earth with it. In an effort to keep people calm, the British government has kept the discovery under wraps until it can be verified by a further observation within a few weeks’ time.

While Steed remains at home to “have a good time while there’s still time,” Cathy heads down to the observatory to discover the reasons behind the astronomer’s death. She meets a group of frightened people, none of whom seem to have much of a reason to commit murder – especially if everyone is going to die in a months anyways. Steed embarks on his own investigation at the Ministry, and discovers that several someones have been buying up large shares of stocks, and that one such person is the brother of a Ministry official who just happens to know about the white dwarf.

The White Dwarf is a bizarre story for The Avengers because it seems so dire. It’s difficult to believe that either Steed or Mrs. Gale would be so calm in the face of imminent disaster, even if they don’t really have faith that the prediction about the dwarf is accurate. As a result, the episode suffers from a confusion of tone, with Steed’s cheerful quips seeming ill in keeping with the situation, and the violent deaths of more than one astronomer off-setting any sympathy we might feel for the lesser villains.

Needless to say, the world does not end at the end of The White Dwarf, and thankfully The Avengers did not try to use the same sort of story in any later episodes. While The Avengers sometimes does deal with serious issues, ranging from mad villains and sadists to those who want to cause World War III, the show is at its best when it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Green Grow The Rushes (1951)


Green Grow The Rushes (1951) represents an odd little subgenre of post-war British filmmaking that does not really have an American equivalent of which I am aware. I’m not certain what to call it (although perhaps someone has already coined a term), but it was a specialty of studios such as Ealing. It usually involves the coming together of a British country community – either a village, a town, or a county – in a bid to maintain their independence and resist the oncoming tide of modernization and government control. In films like The Titfield Thunderbolt and Passport to Pimlico, these communities are faced with incorporation and by extension an assault on their solidarity and their uniqueness. It’s an interesting subgenre because it combines that British spirit of community with some not very subtle Socialist undertones, all wrapped up in the charm and quirkiness of the English countryside.

Green Grow The Rushes is just such a film. The coastal community of Anderida Marsh is “invaded” by three government inspectors from the Ministry of Agriculture, out to discover why the area’s open farmland is not being cultivated (and where, exactly, the inhabitants are making their money). Anderida claims that it is independent from the rest of England due to an ancient charter granted them by Henry III. Their resistance to government interference is further complicated by the fact that the community largely makes its money from smuggling liquor in and hiding it in the marshes, something which they don’t want the officials to discover.

roger-livesey-green-rushesAt the head of the smugglers is the odd and wholly amusing Captain Biddle (Roger Livesey), and his compatriot Robert (a very young Richard Burton). When an attractive newspaperwoman Meg Cuffley (Honor Blackman) discovers what the smugglers are up to, she wants a piece of the story and the action (not to mention a piece of Robert). Meanwhile, the smugglers and those in the town aware of their shenanigans must continue to cover up their activities from the government inspectors. It’s a somewhat complicated set-up, and it gets even more complicated when Biddle’s boat runs ashore during a storm, stranding the crew (and the liquor) in a duck pond belonging to Bainbridge (Russell Waters), a farmer with strong resistance to anyone trespassing on his land. Faced with threats from the inspectors, the coast guard, and the local officials, the smugglers have to find a way to get the liquor off the boat before they’re boarded and their contraband discovered.

While Green Grow The Rushes will receive no awards, it is one of the more enjoyable little films from a time period that produced its share of enjoyable films. This is in no small measure the responsibility of the cast, a veritable who’s who of British leads and character actors. Livesey is the delightful and acerbic lead, dispensing homespun wisdom to his friend Robert about women (“lily whites”) and how to keep out of trouble with them. Not that Biddle took his own advice, entangling himself with a charming lass who ran off on him and married another (without actually divorcing him).honor-blackman-green-rushes

Richard Burton, meanwhile, does not get a great deal to do with his leading man part, but he fulfills the role admirably and with great charm. The same must go for Honor Blackman, in full English Rose mode, who nonetheless shows signs of the total disregard for social and gender roles that will make her so very effective in her later career. Both lift what could otherwise be a dull romantic subplot to a charming, if airy, love story. It’s always a pleasure to see good actors working together, even more so when they are so very young.

But it is really the English country community that makes this film so endearing. The film is full of little touches: the petty bureaucratic wars between various government officials, the coy flirtation of Robert and Meg, Captain Biddle’s plot to dislodge his ship. As Anderida Marsh joins together to celebrate their charter day – complete with a reenactment of Henry III signing the charter to grant them basic independence – a screwball comedy of bureaucracy and drunkenness ensues. All in all, Green Grow The Rushes is wholly enjoyable, from start to finish.

You can watch Green Grow The Rushes on Hulu+ or for free on YouTube.

The Avengers: The Golden Eggs

The Golden Eggs (Episode 02-19, February 1963).


With Dr. Martin King out of the way and Venus Smith still struggling to decide how old she is, Dr. Catherine Gale returned once more for The Golden Eggs. A scientist’s laboratory is broken into, the results published in the headlines. Although Dr. Ashe (Donald Eccles), an expert in diseases, claims that nothing has been stolen, Steed suspects something and dispatches Cathy to discover what’s going on. It turns out that the burglar did indeed get away with the loot: two ‘golden’ eggs containing a deadly virus. The audience learns what’s happening before Steed and Cathy do, meeting one villain (Peter Arne) obsessed with clockwork and his diabolical partners. The pair have to find the eggs before the baddies do, or risk unleashing the virus on England.

The Golden Eggs has all the makings of a stellar early-season episode. The episode opens (properly) on Steed and Cathy having breakfast together as they discuss the case; though we are of course assured that Cathy is only staying in Steed’s apartment temporarily and Steed is living in a hotel. The few scenes of repartee between them are the best parts of the episode, from Steed returning to his flat to shave, brush his teeth, and shatter a piece of pottery, to Cathy’s proper messiness and Steed’s horror at her inability to keep the refrigerator stocked. Cathy’s deep sympathy with the wife of the burglar, her fanagling of Dr. Ashe, and entertaining fight with one of the baddies shows off her character to great effect. It’s no wonder that Cathy won out and became Steed’s sole partner in season three.

But The Golden Eggs falls short in the villain realm, a pretty amazing feat given that the villain Julius Redferne bears all the marks of a James Bond baddie and is played by the deliciously snarky Peter Arne. Yet somehow the whole does not hang together, with Arne going up on his lines more than once (problems of live TV) and one of his two assistants changing sides in the middle of it all. The final fight comes off somewhat truncated, with Steed conspicuously absent from the action (he just sort of wanders off at the end of one scene and we don’t see him again until the end).

Watching these early seasons, I’ve come to realize that The Avengers is not terribly well written as a rule. The best episodes depend on the charm and dedication of the actors, both lead and secondary, and fall to pieces if anyone is not quite on point. While the plots sometimes have pop, it’s all on the shoulders of our heroes to make us believe them.

The Avengers: Dead On Course

Dead on Course (Episode 02-14, December 1962).


In the third and final Dr. Martin King episode Dead On Course, we take a sojourn out of England and head for Ireland. Steed is sent to the Emerald Isle to investigate a plane crash and the disappearance of some bank consignments that happened to be on board. He drags Dr. King along, presumably because Cathy Gale does not have a medical degree (although what I wouldn’t have given to see what Cathy made of this one).

The crux of the script involves a plane crashing apparently off-course, the last in a series of mysterious plane crashes. The multiple dead are taken to a nearby nunnery. There’s a survivor, though: a severely concussed air hostess who might know what’s been happening to the planes. Things are further complicated when Steed discovers that the co-pilot is not numbered among the dead. Bizarre goings on at the local pub, the local airfield, and the local nunnery are all wrapped up in a somewhat confusing script.

Dead On Course is one of the more complex episodes to come out of the second season. It doesn’t much matter what’s actually happening, of course: there are villains with Irish accents, nefarious shenanigans, and Steed flying a plane. It seems safe to presume that this episode is a leave-over from the hard-boiled, more dramatic first season of The Avengers, as it bears little resemblance to some of the weirder-themed episodes featuring Cathy Gale or Venus Smith. Although death tolls in this series are sometimes surprisingly high, this one brings us up close and personal with at least one murder, not to mention the aftermath of a massive air crash. Steed gets very violent with one villain which, while justified, is shocking to those who have only seen him as the bowler-hatted English gentleman.

There’s not a great deal to recommend about Dead On Course, unless you’re a completist (or a Steedophile like myself). It’s a middling little drama with little flair until the end. There is the enjoyable performance of Donal Donnelly as the apparently simple pub worker Vincent O’Brien, but beyond that you might as well skip it. Even nuns with guns cannot make this more than slightly interesting. Good-bye, Dr. King. You probably deserved better.

Q Planes (1939)

Q Planes (Clouds Over Europe)


If you thought that British espionage stories started with a certain dry martini-drinking superspy, then you are missing out. Our neighbors across the pond have a long history of some excellent espionage in both film and print, featuring a whole host of literary heroes who were spying for Queen (King) and Country long before Mr. Bond was out of diapers (nappies).

Q Planes (released in America as Clouds Over Europe) is a British spy film made in the early days of World War II. In fact, the film was released mere months before Britain declared war on Germany. As such, there’s an urgency to the film that undercuts its otherwise breezy quality in a charming story of spies, sabotage, and fly-boys.

Q Planes stars Ralph Richardson as the fedora and umbrella-sporting British spy Major Hammond, assigned to figure out just what has happened to a number of planes that keep vanishing on their test flights. These planes are carrying expensive experimental equipment which we are assured another power would be happy to get their greedy little hands on. Hammond heads to the airfields of Barratt & Ward and enlists the aid of dashing pilot Tony McVane (a young and wavy haired Laurence Olivier) to discover just what has happened to those planes. Along for the ride is Hammond’s journalist sister Kay (Valerie Hobson), whom McVane just happens to be falling for.


Despite a middling plot, the film flies along on the strength of its main cast. Olivier plays slightly against type as a brash and noisy young man more likely to run headfirst into trouble than to hang back and make a plan. Hobson, meanwhile, has little to do beyond gazing into Larry’s eyes. She was an interesting, wide-eyed beauty of the time period, perhaps best known in America as Dr. Frankenstein’s titular bride Elizabeth in The Bride of Frankenstein. She does make the most of her screen-time here, though, as noisy and opinionated as her male counterparts.

The star of Q Planes is Ralph Richardson’s dapper Major Hammond, and the reason why I watched this film in the first place. Hammond is a secret agent prototype, waving his umbrella about, making fun of his superiors, insubordinate without being improper. He’s also one of the inspirations for the character of John Steed which, if you pay any attention, might explain why I gravitated towards this film. Hammond’s vitality make the film fun to watch, and you only need to check out any one of his scenes to understand why. What could have been a somewhat stodgy little war thriller is energized through Richardson, a serious actor having a lot of fun.

Q Planes proves that Britain did war thrillers just as well as Hollywood, and sometimes even a bit better. While it shan’t win any awards, it’s a nifty little film, wholly enjoyable for its entire 1 hour 18 minute run-time.