Wednesday, 5 February 2014

The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 1 (First Impressions)

This post is first impressions only of Big Finish's new release, since I haven't listened all the way through. Of course I was awaiting these recordings with baited breath, since I'm very curious about the Series 1 Avengers episodes that were junked. I like very much the idea that the dynamic with Steed could be completely different so that he's sidekick instead of the boss, a slippery, shady character, aspects of which are reflected in the way he can sometimes come across as something of a dirty old man in Series 2 & 3.
I think it is important to remember how challenging these particular serials would be to reconstruct, not least because of the ephemeral medium television was in those days. These episodes would have been seen as plays, to be performed once. If you wanted to see them again, you couldn't - in fact in video days of television, repeat broadcasts were often achieved by acting the whole thing in front of a live camera over again. In many ways television & the world were different then. One of the ways in which it was different was that TV scores were often recorded by an actual orchestra. Unfortunately the absolute first impression of this set for me were very bad, as the theme sounds played on a keyboard, which gives a cheap effect. Big Finish! If you can't use the actual original recording, hire a band of music students to record the theme for the next ones, real instruments sound so much better & don't give such a cheap impression.
The main difficulty that Avengers fans have with these (that I completely disagree with) is that they can't engage with it without Patrick Macnee playing John Steed. It sounds like a heresy as I say it but I don't mind other people in this role - in fact it is not true to say nobody but Macnee has played Steed. He was played by Donald Monat in the South African radio serial in the seventies (http://declassified.theavengers.tv/radio_main.htm), of course Ralph Fiennes played him in the film, & I would even draw readers' attention to the parody by Lily Savage in which a convincing Steed addresses her as Prs Meel (http://www.new-gallery-of-art.com/goodies_serendipity.htm) to make my point that other people have been Steed. I don't want to detract from the extent to which Macnee aligns with the Steed character, but we really need to get over it: if fans are too attached to Steed = Macnee they will stop themselves seeing the role any other way & prevent any future remakes. I don't object at all to Julian Wadham's Steed or Anthony Howell's Keel: in fact Wadham manages to give a better impression of the two sides of Steed, the shady side, yet a gentleman with breeding. I feel he does this better than Monat, who could make Steed feel a little lightweight.
I've touched on the nub of this for me here, since for me what these recordings have to compete with are more the South African radio plays than the TV series, although obviously they do invite comparison with the TV series.
As audio plays I have mixed feelings, which is why I'm only calling this review first impressions. For me The Avengers works in all media: TV, film, books, radio, comics, fan fiction, all have a place. I even have audio recordings of the TV series on my mp3 player that I listen to, some work better than others (Thirteenth Hole is the only one that really doesn't). So I've tried to identify what I think for me works in other adaptations, which is where the South African radio shows come in) that isn't working for me here.
There must be a reason I can listen to audio recordings of 1960s TV shows & understand what's going on: I think it is precisely the approach of treating them like plays as if in a theatre, with lots of speech explaining things for the cheap seats & relatively little action without dialogue. If there is it usually involves gunshots so you know what's happening. The reason the South African radio adaptations work is they use a narrator who covers the visuals. Big Finish's adaptations are trying to follow the way audio plays work now, with much more speech & little or no narration, & this is where it goes wrong, because they're ending up with conversations where you can lose track of who is talking. I'm finding these plays are demanding work on my part rather than inviting me into a fictional world which I could analyse more deeply if I had a mind to.
On the other hand... I listened half way through Brought to Book & had to stop since I realised I had no idea what was happening & had actually 'switched off' from it. I listened to One for the Mortuary next which I found I could follow better, although still with the lack of narration. I think another thing that (should) work in transferring The Avengers to audio, that Springbok Radio got right is that the larger than life characters should leap out at you. Admittedly they were working with later scripts. The best of the three I've listened to so far is Square Root of Evil. Aside from my criticism that I still found myself confusing characters, this one got some genuine suspense going, I felt the forgers' characters came to life, this was much closer to what I was hoping for.
So top marks for trying, do something about the music, introduce some narration or at least work on the script to get more description in, & ham up the characters so they leap out. Oh, & get actors with more clearly differentiated voices. Another criticism I've read, about the actors' cockney accents, wasn't a problem for me. People don't want real criminals in a fictional show, we want to be sure they're actors. Is it just me or is much of the point of The Avengers that it's not real?
These aren't the only foray I've made into Series 1 this week. Richard McGinley's book on the missing Avengers episodes is now available electronically (it's on lulu.com ). The price is actually £5.99 (after VAT is added at checkout), & I've been wanting this book for ages, but didn't want to buy it because I'd never seen it to know whether I would like it. I do. Lots. I'm also watching the episode reconstructions on the dvds with enjoyment. I'm just not sure about the Big Finish adaptations, but I'll carry on listening & see what effect repeat listenings have.
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