Death a la Carte (Episode 03-13, December 1963).
In Death a la Carte, Steed and Cathy go undercover in a hotel kitchen. There they cater to the needs of Emir Abdulla Akaba (Henry Soskin), the potentate of a Middle Eastern nation with oil concessions that the British government hankers after. Akaba is in London to visit Dr. Spender (Paul Dawkins); the Emir is in poor health, surrounded by yes-men, and has been the target of several assassination attempts. Steed and Cathy have reason to believe that another attempt will be made during the Emir’s stay at the hotel, to which end Steed poses as a chef to keep his eyes on the pastry cook Lucien Chaplet (Gordon Rollings) and pasta-maker Umberto Equi (David Nettheim). Cathy acts as go-between, managing the Emir’s menu and keeping watch over his bodyguard Ali (Valentino Musetti) and right-hand man Mellor (Robert James).
Death a la Carte has a number of things going for it, not the least of which is the cast. There are broad racial and national caricatures, but despite the “brown-face” performances it largely avoids overt racism or unkind stereotyping. Everyone is stereotyped, really, from the passionate Italian chef and his conflict with the snarky Frenchman, to the silent bodyguard and lazy kitchen maid. Most enjoyable is the presence of Ken Parry as head chef and manager Arbuthnot (he’ll make another memorable appearance in the Emma Peel episode Honey for the Prince); he’s one of the more adorable secondary character actors to pop up in The Avengers. Even Steed and Cathy play their parts to the extreme, with Steed doing an amusing rendition as chef Sebastian Stone-Martin (“I got it from a bird,” says Steed). This takes the edge off the fact that once more Arab characters are being played by white men.
The kitchen antics are the most entertaining part of Death a la Carte – as well they should be, for we cannot say much for the plot. The viewer knows right off the bat what form the assassination attempt will take, so most of the tension lies in how Steed and Cathy will figure it all out and whether they will be able to prevent it. Unfortunately the kitchen/hotel setting makes for a lot of talking and walking about, but not a lot of action. Cathy doesn’t get to show off her judo skills much, but Steed does get to play action hero nearing the end – another reminder that Patrick Macnee had a lot of physical talent when he could be roused enough to show it off.
I have come to love Death a la Carte more with each viewing. Once you get past some of the dull dialogue about the Emir’s health, it’s actually a quiet, entertaining episode, full of comedy and vitality. The viewer might not care whether the Emir lives or dies, but our heroes do and that’s enough to keep things going. During this viewing, I was amazed at how much fun I was having just watching the actors do their thing. I’m not certain you can ask for much more.