Posts Tagged ‘The Avengers’

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

with-umbrella-avengers-paperback-cover-front

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.

umbrella-scotch-cigarettes-art

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

Advertisements

The Medicine Men (Episode 03-09, November 1963)

the-medicine-men-1

There are very few bad episodes of The Avengers (at least leading up to the sixth season), but there are quite a few that simply don’t impress. Some, like The Secrets Broker, fail to add up to something cohesive. Others are difficult to nail down, as their parts and plots all add up, their characters are interesting, but the episode itself comes off as lackluster. The Medicine Men is one such episode.

Steed and Cathy are back in the business side of things as they investigate the production of counterfeit medicines that have been flooding the market. When a young woman doing some investigation is murdered in a Turkish bath, that’s when The Avengers get involved. Cathy goes to the baths and Steed goes to Willis-Sopwith Pharmaceuticals, one of the companies hit the hardest by the counterfeit drug trade. They soon uncover a pretty diabolical conspiracy afoot, as Cathy’s investigations lead her to an artist (the delightfully creepy Harold Innocent) involved in the counterfeiting and Steed begins to suspect that someone within Willis-Sopwith is responsible for murder.

The Medicine Men has some excellent moments: Steed pretends to be an art dealer from Reykjavik, while Cathy gets smacked in the eye and spends the rest of the episode in an eyepatch. Their scenes together are as entertaining as they come as they trade barbs and golfing tips. Yet The Medicine Men fails to ever properly get going, rather moving from one scene to the next without much energy or panache. Here I think the plot itself is the culprit: like other business-themed episodes, the story gets bogged down in counterfeiting discussions, leaving the rest of the plot floundering. It took me awhile to begin to care about the case itself, and by the time I did the episode had about ten minutes left.

Still, The Medicine Men is far from a bad episode – in fact, the sum total of the enjoyable scenes makes up for the lack of an interesting plot. Put this one in the middling category; it’s far from the worst The Avengers did.

The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes (Book Review)

avengers_strange_case_cover

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.

patrick-macnee-ian-hendry

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.

The Charmers (Episode 03-23).

the-charmers

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 Wringer (Episode 03-17, January 1964).

the-wringer-avengers-john-steed

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.

 

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

steed-cathy-death-a-la-carte

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.

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

november-five-steed-cathy

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.