Posts Tagged ‘season 1’

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.

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For those who are unaware, Big Finish has begun to produce full-cast audio shows of the lost Season 1 episodes of The Avengers. Here is my considered first reaction, having listened to the first CD.  (A more complete review shall be forthcoming, but this is my blog and I do what I want.)

The Big Finish radio series is not The Avengers. The removal of the two lead actors, who historically had a huge hand in crafting their characters, is tantamount to removing the heart of the show. At best, this production qualifies as a reboot, with a new cast that do a poor, barely recognizable facsimile of the originals, with little apparent understanding of what made them tick. The audio production values themselves are excellent, as with most Big Finish productions. The problem lies in the casting. Julian Wadham plays Steed as a public-school accented fop with no charisma and no steely undertone in even his most cynical delivery. He’s a secret agent without charm, an undercover man that no one would believe as a criminal, and a ladies’ man that achieves none of the inherent charm that Macnee put into his characterization. This could improve as the series goes on, however establishing one major hero who is neither charismatic nor an interesting rogue means that listeners will be unlikely to return for more. I fear that Wadham has missed the point of Steed, and perhaps the scripts don’t have that point in them. Anthony Howell’s earnest but largely boring Dr. Keel is a tad less offensive than Wadham’s characterization, but does not  make the whole proceeding particularly interesting.

The adaptation of television scripts to radio likewise has serious limitations that are not insurmountable. The difficulty is that in attempting to be loyal to the original series in using the original scripts, the producers have largely ignored the difference between mediums. The scripts are confused, with action taking place via thumping and thudding that poorly stands in for any real tension or scene-building. The closeness of voices between Wadham and Howell, moreover, meant that I was forced to listen to some of their scenes twice and make educated guesses as to who said what.

I find the whole series to be ludicrous and borderline offensive in terms of characterization and casting. This isn’t just about not liking Wadham as Steed (I don’t) but about an inherent respect for the series itself, as a product of its time and, even more importantly, of the people who participated in it. More so than many series, The Avengers was built by the actors as well as the writers, brought to life by them and given a soul by them. Take away Hendry and Macnee and you have a poorly-plotted British noir with plot holes aplenty and no character interest to back them up. While it is a source of great sorrow that we don’t have the original televised episodes of Season 1, this is far from an adequate or even desirable replacement. As far as I’m concerned, Big Finish should have let well enough alone.