The Avengers: The White Elephant

The White Elephant (03-15, January 1964).


Steed and Cathy grapple with ivory smugglers and big game hunters in The White Elephant, making it the only episode that utilizes Cathy’s past as a big game hunter in Africa as an important plot element. It’s unfortunate that The White Elephant fails to gain momentum, because it has all the hallmarks of a good episode.

The trouble all begins with the disappearance of a white elephant named Snowy from “Noah’s Ark,” a clearing-ground for imported animals run by Noah Marshall (Godfrey Quigley). The animals are captured by Noah’s team of hunters, and then run through the Ark on their way to zoos and “private collectors” across Britain and Europe. But Steed suspects that Noah’s Ark is also a front for smuggled ivory from illegally slaughtered elephants. Cathy joins up as a new hunter while Steed starts tracing possible co-conspirators, leading him to a gun merchant’s and, more amusingly, a ironworks specializing in cages and restraints.

The White Elephant goes through a lot of bending and twisting to make everything work out, once more introducing the “young lovers” motif that makes so many episodes from the video seasons so very boring. These lovers are not terribly sympathetic: secretary Brenda (Judy Parfitt) and hunter Lew Conniston (Scott Forbes) are among the least likable of the bunch. Their nasty little problems drag down some scenes that might otherwise pop, and unfortunately they take up more than their allotted space. The time spent with secondary characters takes away from the main plot, but it also continues to highlight the somewhat questionable activities of…pretty much everyone. While the importation of captured animals must have been more common in 1964, it leaves a bad taste in 2015 – especially as we watch a final fight waged around animals who look somewhat terrified by the whole ordeal.

Still, there are certainly high points in The White Elephant. We have Cathy telling one baddie that he “surely does not need a gun to kill a woman” (answer: yeah, he does), while Steed has a marvelous time purchasing restraints. Our two heroes seem to be enjoying each other’s company for the majority of the episode, playing chess and looking over Steed’s bondage purchases with open interest. If the rest of the plot was as interesting as their relationship, The White Elephant would be one of the best of the season. As it is, it’s not quite a bad episode, but is also nothing to write home about.

The Avengers: The Gilded Cage

The Gilded Cage (Episode 03-07, November 1963).


As The Avengers moved into its third season, the series hit a stride that produced some of its all-around best episodes. Still tied down by the necessities of live videotaping, the writers and directors tried to expand their repertoire to involve more locations and more complex plots. Among the best of Season 3 is The Gilded Cage, an episode that eerily foreshadows Honor Blackman’s later foray into the gold trade.

The Gilded Cage has Cathy posing as a gold bullion expert employed at a secret vault that stores millions of pounds worth of gold bars. She and Steed attempt to draw millionaire criminal  J.P. Spagge (Patrick Magee) out of retirement using a brilliantly planned robbery (conceived by Cathy) as bait. Things do not  go as planned, resulting in Cathy’s arrest for Spagge’s murder. All is not as it seems, however, and Cathy soon finds herself in the company of some nefarious (but charming) criminals, led by Abe Benham (Edric Connor), while Steed tries to figure out just what the hell is going on.

The Gilded Cage has two things going for it: excellent plotting with numerous but explicable twists and turns, and a very strong supporting cast. Edric Connor’s performance as Abe Benham is notable – he’s a charming crook, likable and good-humored, with an undercurrent of ruthlessness that perfectly matches Cathy’s. He’s also one of the only black actors to have a major role in an Avengers episode, happily giving the lie to Brian Clemens’s unfortunate pronouncement that there are no black people in that world. Abe and Cathy have a powerful, amusing chemistry together that makes one almost wonder if Cathy wouldn’t like to chuck in the whole “law and order” thing and have a go at being a criminal mastermind.

The plot of this episode demands a number of location changes and some pretty complicated blocking, most of which comes off without a hitch. The greatest failure in the episode is that lack of Steed and Cathy banter – they’re separated within the first fifteen minutes, and remain separated right until the end. But both get to have their fun: Cathy with Abe and the boys, and Steed as a rather inept crook nonetheless admired by Spagge’s butler Fleming (Norman Campbell). Listen carefully as Fleming delineates Steed’s wardrobe, where he got it, and how much he paid for it: it’s a beautiful litany of male sartorial appreciation.

The Gilded Cage is a high point of Season 3, right up there with The WringerThe Nutshell, and Don’t Look Behind You. The Avengers would be cleaner in the future, but you can’t get much better than this.

All Night Long (1962)

All Night Long (1962)


Shakespeare has been retold, re-adapted, modernized; he has been edited for length and subject, retold to fit high school love triangles, Miami street gangs, and even animated lions. Ubiquitous as Shakespeare is, it should come as no surprise that someone along the line decided to retell Othello as a (then) modern tale of love and race among drunk and disorderly jazz musicians in 1960s London.

Basil Dearden’s All Night Long takes the plot of Othello and adds some needed jazz scoring. Aurelius Rex (Paul Harris) is the leader of a major jazz ensemble that includes his passionate sax player Cass (Keith Mitchell) and brilliant drummer Johnny Cousins (Patrick McGoohan). Rex is married to Delia (Marti Stevens), a beautiful blonde chanteuse who quit her night job to be his wife. On the eve of their one-year wedding anniversary, music promoter Rod Hamilton (Richard Attenborough) throws the happy couple a big party, complete with fellow jazz musicians Dave Brubeck, Johnny Dankworth, and Keith Christie to keep the music and spirits flowing. Things are not well in paradise, however: Johnny Cousins wants a band of his own, with Delia at the head. To this end, he employs any nefarious means necessary to get Delia away from Rex and back in the spotlight.


There are two real stars in All Night Long, and the first is the music. The likes of Brubeck and Dankworth lend some serious musical talent to the proceedings, punctuating the backstage manipulations, petty jealousies, and passionate love affairs with piano solos and drum kicks. The non-musical lead actors do a credible job of miming their instruments, but give wide range to the real jazz performers to do what they do best. Even if the film was unsuccessful in other ways, the sheer virtuosity of the jazz would be enough to make me watch it all again.

The other star is Patrick McGoohan. His Johnny Cousins is the perfect Iago: a blend of malevolence and desperation, a pathetic sociopath incapable of loving anyone, including himself. Johnny makes his entrance with a slew of drum cases bearing his name, bruiting both his self-involvement and his desperation to be recognized as someone important. His manipulation of Delia, Rex, and just about everyone else at the party starts out as calculated and self-serving, but it soon becomes apparent that, like Iago, Johnny does what he does out of pure spite. McGoohan has never been one of my favorite actors, but his intensity is perfect for the part. (As, indeed, are his formidable drumming skills. It’s difficult to mime drumming chops, and as far as I could tell McGoohan was doing his own work).

One of the more interesting elements of All Night Long is the racial aspect – or rather, the lack thereof. Despite the setting of London in the early 1960s, the marriage of Rex and Delia does not seem to raise any eyebrows. Other musicians are critical of Rex for making his wife quit working (though he constantly reiterates that she made the choice herself), but no one remarks on the social difficulties of a marriage between a black man and a white woman. Johnny’s malevolence has no hint of racial motivation, as it does to some degree in Othello – gone are Iago’s racial epithets, replaced by Johnny’s painful inability to love. We should note that Dearden was also the man behind films like Sapphire (about a racially motivated murder in 1960s London) and Victim, both unflinching in their examination of British intolerance. Yet in All Night Long, there is much being said in no one saying anything.

All Night Long has its failings, however. The trope of marijuana causing people to behave violently and erratically was a recognizable one in the 1960s, but is pretty laughable in 2015. The jazz lingo employed by our (predominantly British) musicians falls harshly on contemporary ears, making some lines impossible to listen to without cracking a smile. Finally, there is the confusion of British actors playing Americans, with McGoohan especially having difficulty maintaining a clear-cut accent. While far from a deal-breaker, some elements of All Night Long have dated rather badly, making the film more a product of its period than a universal classic.

Basil Dearden is one of finest and least recognized directors coming out of Britain in the 1960s. Here he makes excellent use of an excellent cast, highlighting some of his favorite social issues without shining a spotlight too fully on them. Patrick McGoohan in particular gives a fascinating performance, as Johnny’s cruelty runs hand in hand with his pathetic psychology. Othello was never as swinging as this.