The Grandeur That Was Rome (Episode 03-10, November 1963).
The Avengers typically conjures up some impressive plots: diabolical masterminds with delusions of grandeur abound, some of them with a pretty good idea and a desire to rule the world. The Grandeur That Was Rome and its villain Sir Bruno Luca (Hugh Burden) should be among the finest examples of early insanity in a show that would eventually feature man-eating plants from the Moon. It’s unfortunate, therefore, that a good idea turns out to be so poorly done.
The basic plot is this: Sir Bruno, a feed manufacturer with an obsessive love for Ancient Rome, decides that he’s going to take over the world and turn it into a new Roman Empire, with himself as Caesar. To accomplish this, he enlists the help of Marcus (John Flint) to drum up trouble abroad when the grain he manufactures begins killing off livestock and tainting crops. But Bruno’s plans run even deeper and more diabolical than that, as Steed and Cathy step into the picture to stop the madman and save the world.
This has all the hallmarks of a really great episode: an obsessive madman, a credible and deadly plot, and plenty of togas. How, then, does it manage to fall so precariously short? For starters, the episode spends far too much time on the sneering villains and far too little time with our intrepid heroes. While Hugh Burden’s Sir Bruno is an excellent bad guy, it eventually becomes difficult to stomach his obvious delusions. His right-hand man Marcus and consort Octavia (Colette Wilde) are even less interesting, posturing to a degree that is boring rather than chilling.
When Steed and Cathy do put in an appearance, things begin to pick up. While we have precious little of Cathy’s judo to enjoy, there are some charming scenes of repartee between the pair. One might have hoped for some even greater excitement with the final act Bacchanalia at Sir Bruno’s house, but (as with the later Emma Peel episode A Touch of Brimstone) the censorship requirements of 1960s television put a damper on things. There is the joy of seeing Steed in a toga – not to mention Cathy’s reaction – but unfortunately that does not make for more than a few seconds of justifiable fun.
The Grandeur That Was Rome is an episode that I earnestly wish had been remade later in the series, when money and a better crew of writers might have been able to turn it into something truly weird and delightful. As it is, there are only a few scenes to really justify its existence.