The Avengers: The Charmers

The Charmers (Episode 03-23).

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The Charmers bears the distinction of being one of a handful of Season 2 and 3 episodes to be remade – with mixed results – in the Emma Peel era. In this case, it’s a toss-up as to which version of the story is more successful, for there were several very fundamental changes made when The Charmers became The Correct Way to Kill.

In this iteration, Steed and Cathy have their domestic bliss invaded when Martin (John Barcroft), a Soviet agent, bursts in at Steed’s door waving a gun and accusing the British agent of killing a Soviet operative. Steed denies knowledge of the death, claiming that the Ministry thought that the “opposition” were doing a bit of housecleaning. It soon becomes clear that both sides are innocent of the murder, which means that a third party has been attempting to drive a rift between them. Steed goes to see Keller (Warren Mitchell, in his pre-Brodny manifestation), his “opposite number” on the other side, to propose a brief truce until they can get to the bottom of the killings. Keller suggests that they make a gesture of good faith: he will send an agent to assist Steed, and Steed will offer up a partner for Martin. So it is that Cathy, much to her chagrin, winds up as Martin’s partner, while Steed receives the services of “Agent” Kim Lawrence (Fenella Fielding). Unfortunately, Kim is actually an actress who thinks that Steed is a “Method” writer at work on a spy novel.

The convolutions of plot aside, this one is played for comedy, from Cathy’s fury at being “sold” to the other side, to Kim and Steed’s humorous misunderstandings as she talks about her life on the stage and he thinks she’s talking about her life as an agent. There are some very funny scenes in a shop as Steed insists on a tie for a “Totterers” Club, and some equally funny repartee between Cathy and Martin, who has quite a crush on the female agent. Unfortunately, the episode begins to fragment just a bit nearing the end, as the limitations of staging an elaborate fight scene on live television begin to tell. Splitting up our team for a large portion of the runtime also means that we don’t get much Steed/Cathy banter, but that might be forgivable in light of the very enjoyable opening scenes.

The Charmers is an episode that bears repeat viewings, if just to catch some of the fast dialogue between Kim (who becomes less annoying as time goes on) and a very confused Steed. While I give a slight edge to some of the changes made in The Correct Way to Kill, The Charmers is still very…charming.

The Avengers: The Wringer

The Wringer (Episode 03-17, January 1964).

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The Wringer is arguably one of the best dramatic episodes of The Avengers; it’s certainly the most serious. Steed is sent in pursuit of fellow agent and old friend Hal Anderson (Peter Sallis), one of seven agents who went missing after being detailed to the Corinthian Pipeline, an agent escape route in Austria. The others are all dead or captured, but Anderson remains at large and has not checked back in with his Ministry superiors. As is usual, Steed goes off on his own and eventually locates Anderson in a lookout post in the Highlands. But something is wrong: Anderson has forgotten the last two months of his life. Then he remembers, or appears to, and accuses Steed of being a traitor, the man responsible for selling out details on the Pipeline and causing the deaths of the other agents. Found guilty, Steed is sent to “The Unit” for interrogation and eventual disposal.

The Wringer achieves a complexity that not many episodes of The Avengers can boast about. The plot is complex without feeling weighted or overcomplicated. While some elements are introduced within the last ten or fifteen minutes, the whole moves along at a good pace, never rushed. The tension – and there’s a lot of it – is underscored by the relative calm surrounding the events. Steed does not yell, fight, or bluster when he’s accused of treachery, which makes moments of violence (as when he smashes a lunch tray) all the more powerful. We are watching our hero come apart at the seams, but he does it gradually, a testament to the strength of the character and to Macnee’s acting.

Cathy never loses faith in Steed, arguing with his superiors until they agree to allow her to see her partner. She represents it as wanting to know if she was wrong about the man she’s worked with for “many months,” but the subterfuge of cold intellectual interest is belied both by her concern and the look on her face the moment she sees him. She’s far from detached, as emotionally invested as Steed.

If The Wringer has any flaws, it is in the lack of humor. Seldom has there been a more somber episode, with even the opening scenes weighted down by Steed’s preoccupation with his assignment. The Ministry officials are both incompetent and unlikable figures, the villains (when we find them) creepy and self-involved. But the stars here are Steed and Cathy, their relationship and their reliance on each other in spite of everything that can be done to sever them. For once we are given insight into the psychological and emotional lives of these characters. While I’m glad that not all Avengers episodes are quite this intense, I’m pleased this one exists.

 

The Avengers: Death a la Carte

Death a la Carte (Episode 03-13, December 1963).

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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.

The Avengers: November Five

November Five (Episode 03-06, November 1963).

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Here’s another Season 3 episode that hits and misses with equal exactitude. November Five (which originally aired on November 2, 1963, so kudos on the planning) begins with the assassination of Michael Dyter (Gary Hope), a Parliamentary candidate who has won on the strength of promising to reveal a government scandal concerning the “loss” of a nuclear warhead as soon as he’s elected. Enter Steed and Cathy, the latter of whom winds up campaigning on the same platform as Dyter in the hopes of luring the villains out into the open and finding the warhead. In the process the pair come up again two politicians from both sides of the divide, and election agent St. John, who ran Dyter’s campaign. This is all wrapped up in a health club with tenuous connections to St. John, but which offers the opportunity for Cathy to beat up on another muscle-head.

The plot is the culprit in this particular episode. All of the actors remain above par: there are Major Swinburne (Avengers doppelganger David Langton) and Arthur Dove (David Davies), the two rival politicians with interest in breaking the warhead scandal; then there’s the very enjoyable Mrs. Dove (Ruth Dunning), whom Cathy befriends and who provides more sanity and right thinking in her few scenes than the politicians in all their glory. The villains, however, leave a little something to be desired, with no one standing out as particularly interesting or nasty; though when the real villain pops up in the third act, it’s a pleasure to watch him mug about. All in all, however, the secondary cast is fairly decent and the political setting a neat departure for the show.

The plot, however, has so many bumps and twists that it’s difficult to keep track. As with some of the business-themed episodes of The Avengers, there’s a bit too much technical talk. The politics are dwelt on at length, with actors shooting out their lines so quickly that it becomes confusing; one loses track of what’s at stake. If they had managed to focus on Cathy’s election campaign and the search for the missing warhead we might have been all right, but the addition of the health club, the murder of a politician, and the blackmail of another, made this viewer at least felt somewhat at sea. We also miss out on a final showdown between Cathy and her stunt-man, as more time is taken up with Steed catching up to the true baddie to stop him from creating a real bang in Parliament.

Steed and Cathy are on point, however, and their few scenes together keep things moving right along. There are also some lovely little asides about women in Parliament, as Cathy makes her first official appearance as a candidate clad entirely in leather. Finally, a word must be said about Steed’s informants, two little ladies wandering the hallowed halls of government, collecting information and passing it on to Steed. It’s one of those small elements that makes The Avengers of any era so very charming.

 

The Avengers: Second Sight

Second Sight (Episode 03-08, November 1963).

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Second Sight is one of the stranger Season 3 episodes for a number of reasons, the most prevalent being the subject matter. While it is not quite successful in developing its strangeness to the fullest extent, it nevertheless has so many interesting and macabre elements that I found myself wondering how it could have been improved as a filmed episode, with time and energy devoted to drawing out some of those elements.

This is one of those episodes in which Steed has a fairly routine assignment: he represents the British government in the importation of corneal grafts sent from a clinic in Switzerland to treat eccentric millionaire Marten Halvarssen’s (John Carson) blindness. The grafts are to be transported in a sealed, sterile container, which means that no one can inspect the contents. Steed suspects that there’s something not quite right in the whole set-up, and so sends Cathy off to pretend to be a researcher interested in corneal grafting. She discovers that the grafts are to be taken from a live donor, a former acquaintance of Halvarssen’s, and winds up going off to Switzerland in the company of an eye surgeon (Ronald Adam) to see the operation done.

The very subject of taking corneal grafts from a live donor is enough to veer Second Sight into creepy territory. As with some of the best Avengers episodes, Second Sight gives nothing away. We know that surgeons Eve Hawn (Judy Bruce) and Neil Anstice (Peter Bowles) are not what they seem, but their game remains unclear, revealed in degrees as the episode proceeds. Halvarssen’s apartment is deliberately structured to be confusing to all but the millionaire, creating an Expressionist mis-en-scene that carries on to the clinic in Switzerland. The Swiss sequences are even more disturbing, and use the limits of live television to excellent claustrophobic effect. Steed and Cathy are balanced, “normal” characters plunged into a twisted world, as bothered as the audience by the events of the episode.

The secondary cast is likewise an asset here. Peter Bowles and John Carson were old hands at Avengers episodes, the latter appearing in one guise or another for most of the series’ run. Carson has a lot to do here as Halvarssen, a sinister and sympathetic character in equal measure. Bowles gets to be a bit more extreme, playing Anstice as a fully nasty piece of work who seems to delight in the suffering of others. But my favorite secondary character here is Ronald Adams’s Dr. Spender, the eye surgeon that accompanies Cathy to Switzerland. Spender is a blustering fool, insulting Cathy at every turn, and making life harder for Steed. He’s also one of the funnier characters to come through this episode, wholly out of his element in dangerous surroundings. The first scene where he blusters into Steed’s apartment is worth the whole episode.

Meanwhile, Steed and Cathy are hitting their stride as a team. Their first scene together has them coming back from stock car races, bickering like a couple: Cathy complains about the weather, Steed points out that he went to that lecture the other day (“Complaining bitterly the whole time,” as Cathy concludes). The two are not just work colleagues: they’re good friends and spend a lot of their free time in each other’s company.

With so many excellent elements in place, Second Sight should be one of the best of the season. Yet the episode doesn’t come together as a whole – the plot is a trifle thin, once revealed, and certain sequences (like the murder of Dr. Spender) are funny rather than frightening. This is one of those occasions where the set-up is more intriguing than the pay-off, and the general air of nastiness and the macabre falls apart in the final act. The episode disappoints because it’s not as good as it should be.

Still, for all of that, there’s enough good here to make Second Sight worth a viewing. Like many episodes from this period, it improves on re-watching and I’ve found more to like about it the more I’ve seen it.

The Avengers: The Little Wonders

The Little Wonders (Episode 03-16, January 1964).

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The Little Wonders is a fan-favorite episode for a number of reasons, not the least of them being that it contains the one and only on-screen kiss between Steed and Cathy. It’s also one of the most amusing episodes to come out of Season 3, hinting at the slightly crazier plots to come when Mrs. Peel enters the fray.

Steed starts off the weirdness by putting on a clerical collar enters the orders as a way of uncovering the machinations of a criminal syndicate known as Bibliotheque, whose members pose as clergymen. He takes the place of the Reverend Hardbottle (arrested at customs) at a “convocation” designed to establish who will be the successor to the dying Bishop of Winnipeg.  Meanwhile, Cathy investigates the connection between Bibliotheque and a doll’s hospital in central London. These two threads will come together, of course, but not before Cathy has a chance to be threatened by men in sunglasses and Steed carves out a name for himself in the syndicate.

This was one episode I wished could have been a two-parter. The Little Wonders brings together some of the best character actors to feature on The Avengers through its long run. There’s Kenneth J. Warren, who will return several times over the course of the show, as “Fingers the Frog;” Lois Maxwell (that’s Miss Moneypenny) as a machine-gun toting nurse, and John Cowley as “Big Sid,” to name just a few who simply don’t get enough screen time. Steed gets into the spirit of playing a vicar/gangster, referring to himself as “Johnny the Horse” (the derivation is equestrian), and carving naked women in his spare time. Cathy has the more thankless job as she attempts to discover why Hardbottle had a priceless doll in his possession, resulting in her apartment being torn apart and an altercation with a doll-mender whose part could have been elaborated on. She also inadvertently becomes Steed’s girlfriend for a few seconds: just long enough for him to kiss her without getting slapped for his trouble.

The Little Wonders plays the clergy angle to the hilt, luckily without wearing it too thin. While there are some moments of filler – no one really cares about who’s going to take over Bibliotheque, but there’s a lot of time spent on the issue – the episode moves along at a dashing pace, with enough twists and turns to keep the audience guessing. The greatest flaw is in a sudden about-face in the third act, which feels a little confusing and perfunctory; there’s also the question of what “top-secret information” consists of, and why government officials have such difficulty keeping secrets. It’s all in good fun, though, and there’s enough going on in The Little Wonders to justify the praise it receives. If I was listing the top ten episodes of the Cathy Gale era, this one would be right up there.

The Avengers: The Undertakers

The Undertakers (Episode 03-02, October 1963).

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The Undertakers is a new kind of episode for The Avengers: one which hints at the slightly madder plots that would be forthcoming into the later seasons. A similar plot will be played out in the Emma Peel episode The Gravediggers, only with a bit more of a spy-fi edge. Think of The Undertakers as a more down to earth version of that increasingly weird little episode.

The Undertakers is also one of the few episodes that have Steed and Cathy stumbling onto a plot almost by accident. Steed has been assigned to accompany one Professor Renter  to America; Renter has “solved the problem of high-speed industrial film,” as the episode informs us more than once, and is heading to America to negotiate for patents, or something to the effect. But when Steed shows up at Renter’s flat, he’s informed by the hilariously flighty Mrs. Renter (Lally Bowers) that the Professor has “gone into retirement” without warning and cannot be contacted. Steed smells a rat and soon discovers that quite a number of millionaires have “gone into retirement” at the same shady community in Adelphi Park. He ropes Cathy in to help out with the investigation, uncovering a dastardly but rather clever little plot involving a funeral home and tax evasion.

The Undertakers has a breezy madness about it often missing from the more serious endeavors of the Cathy Gale seasons. Much of this is the result of Mrs. Renter, who is so apparently daft yet clever that she exasperates Steed within a few seconds of meeting her. There’s an organized crime subplot involving Mrs. Renter’s next door neighbors a bit more in keeping with the noir-ish aspects of the early seasons, highlighting the fact that The Avengers really did trade on stereotypes and unsubtle characterization outside of its leads. But even that cannot take away from the fun of the episode, or the visible enjoyment that Macnee and Blackman are getting out of it. The final outdoor chase sequence makes even some of the more ridiculous twists of the plot worthwhile.

As the relationship between Steed and Cathy goes through its ups and downs, here we see a rather warm domestic connection developing between the pair. Steed shows up at Cathy’s apartment to drop off some things from his pantry in preparation for his departure. As Cathy prowls around cleaning a set of pretty massive guns (why we are never quite sure), Steed attempts to engage her in conversation, telling her how much he’ll miss her and how he’d rather take her along on the ocean voyage. It’s an adorable little scene, augmented later by a visibly intoxicated Steed putting the moves on Cathy in a somewhat unexpected manner.

All in all The Undertakers is just plain fun – it doesn’t drag, the cast is enjoyable without overwhelming the plot, and the plot itself as clever as you can get from this season.