'The BBC's answer to The Avengers,' that's the received wisdom on Adam Adamant Lives!, to the extent that even the BBC themselves say so:
'Adam Adamant Lives! tells the story of an Edwardian adventurer who wakes up in the swinging Sixties, having been frozen in a block of ice by his nemesis, "The Face". The show is about how the dashing adventurer (Gerald Harper) thwarts evil, overcomes temptation, and buys a Mini.
'It's very much "What Doctor Who did next", as the timelord's creator Sydney Newman and his first producer Verity Lambert joined forces again to come up with a BBC version of The Avengers. Adam is a Reithian version of Steed - all the suits and gentility, but with all rakishness removed. Adam is a very proper hero, who belongs to all the right clubs, and even has a butler.
'The clash between Adam's terribly strict morals and the permissive society of the Sixties was the main source of humour in the series. This meant severely limited opportunities for sexual chemistry between Harper and his co-star Juliet Harmer, who played reluctant side-kick Miss Jones. A nicely brought-up modern woman, her role was mostly to mope around after Adam, flirting mournfully and getting into scrapes.
'The show ran for two seasons of incredibly Avengers-esque adventures, as Adam thwarts sinister ladies' charities, terribly well-brought-up satanists, killer dresses, and cigar-chomping female crimelords.' (http://www.bbc.co.uk/cult/classic/adamant/intro.shtml)
You knew I was going to disagree violently with this analysis didn't you? For me Adam Adamant Lives! Is not the BBC's answer to The Avengers. Superficially it feels like it for a number of reasons: it draws on the zeitgeist of the time, this was the age when people were buying vintage clothes in Lord Kitchener's Valet! The impression of similarity is helped by the crossover of writers between The Avengers & Adam Adamant Lives! It is for me this crossover of personnel that indicates less of an intention to ape The Avengers's success, since these people would have been fully aware of the recipe for The Avengers. This is no secret, & the tricks can be seen by any observant viewer: the main key is that the world of The Avengers (in later series) is not real. There are no working class people, no black people, no blood, nobody on the streets of London, & so on. The premise of Adam Adamant Lives is rather the resuscitation of an Edwardian hero in the real world of 1960s London. Unfortunately this premise is solely responsible for the show's status as an also-ran:
'[...]It was intended that the conflict between the modern world and the Edwardian hero should be balanced, but finding such a balance proved to be hard. Despite the occasional zinging quote, the show ended up using this central premise as little more than a superficial level of camp rather than being something to drive the plot. By missing this opportunity the potential of the show was largely unfilled and instead the gulf between the eras looks to be shallow and of little consequence.
'This inability to quite get the balance and tone of the series affects the main character too. This is most notable when Adamant�s ruthless streak was ordered to be toned down in the second series, further reducing the distinguishing features of Adam as an Edwardian adventurer beyond the purely cosmetic. This works against the show as Adam looks so very out of place but never really feels that different. Interestingly care was taken by The�Avengers production team to make sure that Steed appeared as rarely as possibly with �normal� people because he was too odd to be considered realistic. Over at the BBC, the production team wanted Adamant to stick out, but the hollowness of his Edwardian characterisation only heightens the problematic realisation of the series' central concept.' (http://www.denofgeek.com/tv/adam-adamant-lives/27121/celebrating-adam-adamant-lives)
Notwithstanding the failure of the show's central premise, it can still be enjoyed - probably more so now - as a relic of sixties weirdness. Another inspiration for Adamant's character was Mary Whitehouse, that the campaigner against indecency was acting like an Edwardian, & it remains an interesting comment on the culture clash of that age. For myself I watch it as a sixties-era relic & adventure. I have to confess to missing the humour, I really don't find this series funny at all. Perhaps this says more about me than it does about the show!
The episode I've chosen to write about first is, in my humble opinion, the perfect illustration of the show's similarities to The Avengers, its dissimilarities to The Avengers, & particularly the things that make it an also-ran in sixties cult TV terms. For a start the episode opens with a very Avengers-feeling drive through an apparently abandoned village: this is Avengersland at its best. The villain of the piece is introduced right at the start: the mere fact that he's played by one of the 1960s' recurring actors, John Bailey, makes it visually like all the other sixties series that he featured in, including The Avengers. The theme of this episode is a kind of combination of two Avengers episodes, Warlock & Murdersville, managing to come across as more sinister than The Avengers ever does, with the use of the poppet & the mill wheels. In fact, Murdersville appeared a year after this one, & was additionally written by different people, so it is not impossible that this Adam Adamant episode inspired The Avengers. Of course it is also possible that both just drew on images floating around in the zeitgeist. Unfortunately the plot of Village of Evil makes it slightly too obvious who the villain is: it is not only a convention of detective fiction that the villain be introduced as a totally trustworthy character (such as butler, or in this case doctor) right at the beginning, but once the doctor asks the landlord to wash out the glass it is very obvious he is at least in on it. Given that he is such a community leader it places him as favourite to be the victim. Of course I realise I'm talking about this episode very differently from how I would talk about an Avengers episode, more like I would about a detective series. The reason, of course, is that the basis of Adam Adamant was much more in stories of gentleman adventurers such as Bulldog Drummond or Sexton Blake (unfortunately the BBC couldn't get permission from the copyright holders of Sexton Blake to revivify him). The roots of The Avengers are more in spy stories & even film noir, given a psychedelic twist as the series went on. The scene where Adamant is left in the hay to be harvested is pure gentleman adventurer, only ever parodied in The Avengers.
And of course this is where Adam Adamant both differs from The Avengers & falls flat on its face. Adamant is intended to be a somewhat unreal character, as I said above the problem is that he is usually placed in juxtaposition with real-seeming characters; the trouble with this episode is that the setting for Adamant is completely unreal. The Avengers episode Warlock, handled an occult theme much better, by making the occultists shady city sophisticates. This Adam Adamant episode mishandles the subject by making its Satanists the population of a village, where the main inhabitants have sold their souls. This mishandles both the unreality & the Satanism: The Avengers handled the unreality better by making it never threatening.
Adamant himself comes across as unconvincing in this episode, with some inconsistencies: he has to have the 'pull the other one' idiom explained to him, yet understands when the boy asks if Georgina Jones is his 'bird'. I have to confess to not liking the Satanism theme in this one: I find it unlikely that Adamant would have the knowledge of Satanic practices he claims to (in fact it is an amalgam of several things in the sixties zeitgeist, including popular ideas of Satanism & the popular notion of witchcraft as the old religion, already discredited in academic circles.
I don't want to give the impression that I don't like this episode at all, although I feel it doesn't take the repeated viewings I've subjected it to with a view to preparing this post. I return to Adam Adamant Lives only occasionally because of its inability to take repetition. I love the scene where Simms takes Georgina Jones to Evensong to keep her out of the way of Adamant's investigations, the interaction between them is classic & even Simms's singing, which is always slightly out of tempo with everyone else. I like the scene where the miller is trying to kill Adamant, & he just keeps on in his gentlemanly way looking for Master Jeremy Fletcher, while dodging the blade that comes at him. John Bailey really shows his acting ability in his final confrontation with Adamant. Once again I fail completely to laugh at this: I feel the picnic scene was intended to be funny, but culture clash fails with me completely.
My last criticism is another of the whole series, that the relationship between Georgina Jones & Adamant is all wrong, once again in stark contrast to The Avengers's will-they-or-won't-they chemistry, which failed in Series 6 because Linda Thorson was too young for this chemistry. We all know that Miss Jones's (I'm even starting to talk like Adamant) flirting with him will get nowhere. Another reason for the failure of this dynamic is that it is anachronistic for the 1960s: by that time most people would find Adamant's studied avoidance of all women as either suspicious, or indicative of homosexuality. This is the difficulty of trying to transplant a relationship from one era to another: in the opening years of the twentieth century Adamant's behaviour would have been correct & gentlemanly, but simply open to misinterpretation when transplanted sixty years later. For me, this is one of the ways in which this series fails: there is no real point to the clash of sexual mores, because there will never be an outcome.
So all in all, I don't want to overly-criticise Adam Adamant Lives! I do, however, want to puncture its undeserved reputation as an Avengers imitator. If you watch this series looking for that you are bound for disappointment. If you watch it looking for a sixties series building on pre-World War II boys' stories, with all the successes & failures inherent in that, you won't be disappointed.