Posts Tagged ‘ian hendry’

Tunnel of Fear (Episode 1-20, August 1961).

Any Avengers fan will tell you the sad tale of The Avengers Series 1 episodes. The very first season of the show is almost entirely lost, thanks to the habit of British television studios of not preserving the video stock used to record their shows. There were even a few episodes that were never recorded, just broadcast live. So all that remains of the first series/season of The Avengers are two and a third episodes, one of which (“Girl on a Trapeze”) that doesn’t even feature John Steed. But now we make that three and a third episodes, with the happy discovery of “Tunnel of Fear,” now released on DVD from Studio Canal.

“Tunnel of Fear” was the twentieth broadcast episode, nearing the end of the first season, and as such already has some of the hallmarks that would carry over into the second season and the introduction of Dr. Catherine Gale. But here David Keel (Ian Hendry) is still Steed’s partner in avenging, playing the occasional foil to Steed’s secret agent as they investigate nefarious goings-on at a local carnival. The episode opens with the arrival of Harry Black (Anthony Bate) on Keel’s doorstep. Harry is just recently escaped from prison, where he claims he went on a trumped-up charge. He begs for Keel’s help, and Keel only obliges when John Steed pops up (bringing with him a massive Great Dane named Puppy) and informs Keel that he’s been investigating the leakage of top secret information out of a Southend carnival, where Harry just happens to have worked. So Keel heads down to the carnival, while Steed takes Harry to the police, and promptly loses him.

Down at the carnival, Keel investigates, meeting a host of odd characters that include a hypnotist, the ghost-train runner Jack (John Salew), Harry’s mother Ma Black (Doris Rogers), and a bevy of dancing girls at a “girly-girly” show being run by none other than John Steed, having the goddamn time of his life as a carnival barker. The episode proceeds in twists and odd turns, very much reflecting the increasingly odd plot lines and character types that The Avengers would eventually become known for.

Patrick Macnee’s Steed is in top form here, a funny, energetic presence who loves dressing up and play-acting, but always with a canny, intelligent edge that can shift to steel if needed. Anyone who doubts that Steed’s feminism was inherent from the start would do well to really pay attention to what happens in “Tunnel of Fear,” and how Steed relates to the (numerous) women who pass through. He’s jocular and charming with Keel’s nurse Carol (Ingrid Hafner), and when he meets Ma Black, he embraces her as a friend, smiling over photos of her son with genuine good will. And while he’s having the time of his life corralling the dancing girls, it would be a mistake to understand Steed’s flirtations with them—especially Rosie (Julie Samuel)—as particularly lascivious. He’s playing a part, yes, and he’s enjoying it, but his flirtations are never predatory. We can easily see the man who eventually works his way into Cathy Gale’s affections, and makes Emma Peel fall in love with him. Steed was always a decent bloke.

Of course, there’s Ian Hendry’s David Keel, rightly considered the first Avenger, of whose influence we only get a taste, given the scarcity of the first season episodes. He and Steed spend a good bit of the episode apart, so there’s little time to process the chemistry between them. Keel’s a very above-board character, genuine in his desire to help people, but often a bit of a stickler for rules and adherence to his personal brand of morality. Maybe he’s underutilized in this episode, but it’s hard to care very much about him one way or the other. He’s there more as a foil for Steed than as a partner, and though his machinations eventually help his friend and solve the mystery, his time onscreen brings the mood and energy down a bit.

In the simplest terms, “Tunnel of Fear” is loads of fun. It maintains the slightly grotesque, film noir edge that all but vanishes in later seasons, helped along by the live television aspect of its taping. There’s a sense of the slap-dash the cardboard sets and reaction shots that is quite charming, if sometimes a bit hokey. The live aspects give the show a feel of a theater production, watching the actors play out their parts in real time, sweat and all. The DVD is well worth the purchase for any Avengers fan, or fan of 1960s TV. It’s more than just a curiosity—it’s a damn fine piece of television.

*If you purchase the Studio Canal DVD of “Tunnel of Fear,” be aware that the advertised Season 1 scripts are not included on the disc. You must contact Studio Canal (info@studiocanal.co.uk) to receive the scripts.

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With Umbrella, Scotch and Cigarettes – An Unauthorised Guide To The Avengers Series 1

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Following their excellent The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes, writers Richard McGinlay and Alan Hayes have gone even deeper into Avengers esoterica in With Umbrella, Scotch and Cigarettes – An Unauthorised Guide to The Avengers Series 1. The book focuses on the production history of the lost season, detailing everything from how The Avengers began right through to Ian Hendry’s departure in the aftermath of an actors’ strike and the ascension of Patrick Macnee to the lead role. Drawing on information from scripts, other histories of The Avengers, star biographies, and production notes, the authors paint the most comprehensive picture yet of the lost season.

McGinlay and Hayes open their book with a detailed depiction of the inception of The Avengers, initially conceived as a showcase for star Ian Hendry after the folding of his short-lived drama Police Surgeon. The addition of Patrick Macnee as “undercover man” John Steed, Ingrid Hafner as Dr. Keel’s nurse and assistant Carol, and a slew of producers, directors, and writers would make The Avengers what it eventually became: a combination of British noir, spy show, and genre-defying pastiche. From the rather harried early days of the show (that included Macnee being told that his character, already undeveloped in scripts, was not developed enough), The Avengers quickly became a sort of British noir, permeated with underworld characters and almost-anti-heroes.

Following their in-depth discussion of the show’s birth, McGinlay and Hayes cover each episode in turn. They divide their discussion into smaller sections covering existing archive materials, a general plot synopsis, production, location, star/writer/director biographies, miscellanea, contemporary press/media coverage, and finally a “verdict” on the episode itself. The division works well to present the complexities of production in a fairly readable manner, allowing writers and readers to delve into the various issues and occasional anecdotes that permeated the show. Some of the episodes have a fascinating production history and the book does an admirable job of charting the ebbs and flows of characters and plots, with new emphasis on the parts that various writers and directors played in creating the show.

With Umbrella, Scotch and Cigarettes is quite readable, an impressive feat for a book concerned with the missing episodes of a niche TV show. The production histories are fascinating, as are the individual bits of information about different episodes. Some episodes are more comprehensively covered than others, largely due to the availability of material, but every one is treated with interest and respect. Although I rarely enjoy looking into extensive production circumstances, I found the behind-the-scenes look into this series more interesting with each word.

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There are problems, however, mostly to do with the more critical and analytic aspects of the book. The authors have an unfortunate tendency to editorialize in the “verdict” sections of their episode overviews, providing small reviews of the episodes based upon available sources. The verdicts appear out of keeping with the otherwise scholarly and historically-minded book; what is more, they are assessments of episodes which the reader cannot hope to question or refute, as the only material presented in the book is of general plot synopses and production history (script excerpts are confined to the other McGinlay/Hayes book The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes). The reviews come off as an attempt to pass judgment on character actions in a series that no one has actually seen, with the reader in particular left faced with the authoritative statements of the authors over against no other ability to fully assess the episodes for themselves. It would have been more efficacious to provide a deeper critical analysis of episodes, based on extant information, rather than the limited reviews here. Having read The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes and watched the available materials, I am neither as enamored with Keel’s character as McGinlay and Hayes – in fact, I think they give the character far too much credit, and rather short shrift to the complexities of John Steed – nor do I share some of their assessments of the episodes or the characters. This is a critical disagreement only, but McGinlay and Hayes fail to support their reviews or assessments with in-depth analysis.

At times, it appears that the authors cannot decide whether they are writing a popular work or a serious scholarly investigation into the series – the effect is that some elements of the series appear to be elided over, while others (like the biographies of directors, writers, and actors) delved into with greater depth. At the same time, Hayes and McGinlay occasionally employ coy language in discussing the sexuality or violence present in The Avengers. I was particularly bothered by the use of phrases like “unable to come to terms with losing the woman he loved,” just prior to describing a director’s almost murderous attack on his former girlfriend, a director of programmes – an occurrence that caused a production delay on one episode. This sort of editorializing seemed an out of place and somewhat saccharine treatment of the story. That the authors are otherwise rather coy about their discussion of Steed’s “philandering” and relationships with women, as well as the darker sexual and violent aspects of the series, seems to bespeak an editorial inconsistency that sometimes mars episode discussions.

As with The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes, we see no photographs or images (save for a few lovely drawings of our heroes by artist Shaqui Le Vesconte), which again makes some of the episodes and productions difficult to visualize. The unwillingness of the authors to provide more comprehensive plot synopses makes it equally difficult to fully assess the episodes as fictional productions. Granted that those synopses are in the earlier book, it would behoove the reader to have both books on hand. I would encourage the reader to purchase both With Umbrella, Scotch and Cigarettes and The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes, and read them in tandem with each other to get a more complete picture of the season.

Finally, there is the matter of the appendices. Hayes and McGinlay have thought it fit to include an examination of several unproduced scripts for The Avengers, as well as discussions of “later” adventures of Steed and Keel, including comic strips that appeared in the 1960s and a later novel from the 90s. While the unproduced stories are fascinating, I cannot quite get behind the inclusion of a rather in-depth discussion of Too Many Targets, the novel by John Peel and Dave Rogers. Not only does it have little to do with a “guide to Series 1,” it really should be forgotten by the annals of time as a rather paltry form of fan fiction (of which there is also a plethora available on the Internet). If an appendix was absolutely necessary for this book, the authors might have been better served by covering the adaptations of the existing scripts in the Big Finish productions, if just a general overview of that resurrection attempt.

My objections to this book, however, are vastly outweighed by the positives. To my knowledge there has not been a more in-depth discussion of the first season of The Avengers, and certainly not one as accessible and interesting. Once more, McGinlay and Hayes paint a comprehensive picture of this season, giving us invaluable insight into the harried early years of a show that would eventually influence everything from James Bond to Marvel comics. As with The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes, I found myself longing for the original productions, to see Steed and Keel rushing through London, tackling underworld characters, drinking gallons of Scotch, and grappling with all the excitement and danger that live television could offer. As it is, we can only imagine what it all looked like – but With Umbrella, Scotch and Cigarettes goes a long way to fueling that imagination.

Both The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes and With Umbrella, Scotch and Cigarettes can be purchased via the following links:

Lulu: The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes, With Umbrella, Scotch and Cigarettes

Hidden Tiger: The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes, With Umbrella, Scotch and Cigarettes

Amazon: The Strange Case of the Missing EpisodesWith Umbrella, Scotch and Cigarettes

The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes (Book Review)

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Seldom do I attempt book reviews on this blog, but this is a special exception because it relates to The Avengers and my ongoing obsession with that strange, sometimes confusing, and always interesting show. Season 1 of The Avengers has long been a difficult nut to crack. All that remains of that season in watchable form are two and a third episodes – one of which that does not even feature the two lead characters of the show. With such limited material, it’s nearly impossible to consider the season as a whole, despite being the foundations on which every subsequent permutation of the show was based. So it is a fine and wonderful thing to come across The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes, which attempts to fill at least some of the gaps in that first year.

Editors Alan Hayes, Alys Hayes, and Richard McGinlay gather together all the existent information on that first series, episode by episode. Using available camera scripts, plot synopses, and tele-snaps, they attempt to put together as complete a picture of each individual episode as possible. Following a brief introduction that explains why the first season is largely missing (and what we can do if we happen to have a copy of those original lost episodes), the authors dive into the thick of the season itself. The episodes that have existing scripts are the most well-developed reads, with extensive excerpts of dialogue and stage direction in the midst of the plot synopses. Other episodes for which no scripts or even complete synopses are available are harder to comprehend, but Hayes and McGinlay have done an excellent job of piecing together information to produce a basic synopsis, act by act. Some episodes require a leap of faith on the part of the writers, as they describe plot elements that might or might not be included – but even these are always footnoted with information about how the writers came to their conclusions, and where they simply made educated guesses on plot development and complications.

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The book is interesting and remarkably easy to read, an opportunity to experience the first season first-hand with minimal editorial interference. The characters of Keel and Steed are sharply drawn in the synopses and scripts – Keel in particular is fascinating, as we have so little of Hendry’s actual performance as a reference point. The nascent aspects of Steed are also present; though not, unfortunately, the development that Patrick Macnee himself gave the character. It is a revelation to see where the “undercover man” came from, knowing where he went. These episodes are much more noir in tone and characterization than later Avengers incarnations, though there are the occasional bizarre plots, weird secondary characters, and diabolical masterminds that will feature in later seasons. Many of these episodes are darker in tone than anything that even in the Gale period, with Steed and Keel doing battle against vice rings, assassination attempts, and organized thugs. There is a healthy dose of humor in most, however, mostly provided by our dynamic duo. One can see the development both of the characters themselves, and their relationship, with Keel usually strenuously objecting to Steed’s apparent callousness and tendency to use people to his own ends, while Steed blithely goes on his way, playing the hero. The least interesting episodes, for my money, are the ones that remove one partner, leaving the other to his own devices.

Unfortunately for the reader, The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes includes none of the tele-snaps or images from the original productions, which would have strengthened the experience of reading original scripts from a television show. This can hardly be laid at the door of the writers, as obtaining rights to these images is a complicated and expensive endeavor, but it’s a shame nonetheless (many images can be seen, albeit watermarked, on the Rex Features website and on The Avengers Dissolute website). Not included in the book are the two full existing episodes The Frighteners and Girl on a Trapeze – this also seems like an oversight, as their presence would have at least been helpful in painting a complete picture of the season (although it is understandable that the authors would not want to include two episodes that we can watch for ourselves).

There is really very little to object to in The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes, and then it is mostly nitpicking. It gives the most complete picture of each episode now possible, and in many cases had me longing for a real look at the original shows. Take my advice: avoid the overpriced and poorly cast Big Finish productions that attempt (and fail) to give us a taste of the original Avengers. Jut The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes, and try to imagine Patrick Macnee and Ian Hendry running around subterranean London in pursuit of dastardly spies and dangerous criminals. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.