Spyder's Web: Romance on Wheels
My top exchange in this episode:
Lottie: 'You're Henry Wormley.'
Lottie: 'No, he's a small farmer of moderate means. *I'm* God.'
I love that Hawksworth decides it's to be pronounced Wumley, 'to rhyme with bum'.
Visually this episode starts off by feeling like the first episode by featuring men, presumably from a ministry, arriving at an abandoned quarry in the middle of nowhere. The repeated theme of betrayal however, feels genuinely surprising again, by the shock of throwing the man who has found two bodies, to his death in the quarry.
Nowadays the idea of mail-order brides is perhaps not as alien as it would have been in 1972, although I love Romance on Wheels's explicit advertising that they average two marriages per tour, such a good idea to make it clear what's going to happen. The country to which the tour goes with its 'ambiance of romantic opportunity' is not made clear, but it's behind the Iron Curtain, Lenin help us. Of course before the Wall came down, that's what Europe was like, quite literally divided down the middle, that was the real division, at least as far as we understood it on this side of the wall.
Romance on Wheels looks suspicious from the start, going to Eastern Europe to find a bride is dodgy whoever you are, & I love the way the minibus is described as a luxurious cruiser. It isn't, you can hardly hear the exchanges that take place on it. Of course it is suspected that Romance on Wheels are a cover for a KGB operation to move agents around Europe, since who went on holiday to Eastern Europe before perestroika?.
The identifdication of the baddies & any moral issues are very simple in this one: it's the Communists on the other side of the great divide.
I love the repartee between Lottie & Harksworth in this one: the relationship between them is becoming established by now. It's quite Steed & Mrs Gale in its power play: if these two were married it would be awful because they'd always be circling round each other. I especially love that Lottie goes on the tour & doesn't tell Hawksworth until she turns up in character.
Characterisation is good in this episode, almost to the point of parody, which makes them recognisable characters. The jolly hockeysticks character (who reminds me of nobody more than Joyce Grenfell in the St Trinian's films) is played with a very heavy hand. Nobody's that hearty! It is spoiled slightly for me by Peter Sallis playing the guide - it was another year before Last of the Summer Wine started.
I feel the element of parody is actually overdone here: the spying & references to Communism overdo it ever so slightly, to my mind. However I may be over-examining it, & this episode may be a jolly romp which does not bear the kind of examination I'm subjecting it to. On the other hand the traditional espionage theme does provide genuine tension: I like the way Lottie leaves a message in a spider's web to be picked up by her unnamed contact.
What lifts this episode out of the run of the mill is the point at which the driver of the minibus runs off, leaving the party stranded, a clever device to add an element of a traditional detective story to a story otherwise about spying. It is also not without its romantic interest, which amusing Lottie tells Hawksworth must be exceeded by them so that they get snatched by the KGB first.
However my main criticism of this episode is in the ending: Lottie & Hawksworth do get snatched but manage to escape by a simple swap with their captors: we don't get to see the mechanism of how they do it. They have merely managed to prove what they already knew, which makes it a very unsatisfying ending. There is an attempt to lift this with further hints of organisation, but all that really happens is that they go halfway across Europe to see what they already know.