Railways on TV: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station (The Avengers)

It’s a funny thing (damn, I swore I wouldn’t start out like that) but coming to this, one of my all-time favourite Avengers episodes, straight from the Man from UNCLE episode I last blogged about, it seems rather plain and ordinary in comparison. I would like to think that that merely suggests the sheer psychedelic quality of UNCLE rather than any defect in The Avengers. I also wish to put right the error I made in my last post of only getting to the railway when I had dealt with the actual programme, by starting straight off on the subject of trains.
The opening scenes bring to mind a very different picture of the world of trains, and a different Britain, from that which pertains today. Look at those rows of trains in uniform livery, a livery which brings back happy memories of train journeys with my parents as a child. Not a livery you would see nowadays, and of course you would see all different liveries now: a legacy of the subsequent Conservative government’s policy of privatising everything in sight. The eccentricities of the British railway system are of course all historical (for example I have no fewer than four railway stations within walking distance of my flat) and I was amused by this description of the British rail system which I recently found on Trip Advisor:
' Britain's railway system is one of the most extensive in Europe, and although the network suffers from its Victorian heritage as well as the legacy of successive governments' interference and underfunding; it is the best way to travel from one end of the country to the other and appreciate its highly diverse landscape and culture - once you have worked out the network's many infuriating quirks and idiosyncrasies! ' ( https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Travel-g186216-s202/United-Kingdom:Culture.html)
One of the things I find most interesting about this episode is that the Avengers are very clearly working, or at least Steed is, within an organisation. There are times when Steed can seem like something of a maverick, but it is very clear here how he and his fellow agents follow procedures and within an organisational framework. I do love the way it is not ever made clear just what Steed’s organisation is, but the fact that they are sent in subtly to investigate the Admiralty would indicate that they are very high in Whitehall indeed. The paraphernalia of spying in this episode can only be described as excellent: I love the scene with the recording on the umbrella.
It is just as clear that the Avengers and their world don’t exist in reality. This episode is set in a Home Counties Avengerland which clearly isn’t real. In railway comfort viewing terms, that obviously helps, since it is obvious that this train is travelling through a world which never existed and is never going to come into collision with our own. I think there are a couple of reasons this episode comes across as so cosy and comforting. It is obviously set in the winter (mentions of a girl’s fireside and Steed’s electric blanket) and much of the action takes place in the evening. The brightly-lit train functions as both a warm cocoon in the cold dark evening, but the fact that it is set in the evening makes mental connections for most people with going home after work. Many a commuter must have watched this and been lulled into calm. Despite the fact that the subject of the episode is a (completely Avengersesque and unrealistic) plot to assassinate the prime minister, which ought to create a sense of disease, it manages to be remarkably cosy. I think this is a similar way to how The Town of No Return, which I also find very comforting and cosy, works psychologically, but of course I may be alone in this perception.
Eccentric characters abound in this episode. I particularly love Admiral Cartney, who is such a dirty old man, as well as being incredibly naïve. The 1960s was a time in Britain when you could often buy a disused railway station for a song (following Beeching’s reduction of the railways) and convert it to a home. The eccentric station owner’s ambition to own a main line station is however completely unrealistic! My absolute favourite character is the groom. I love the deranged glee with which he obviously loves killing people! I see that he is played by an actor called Drewe Henley, who was luck enough to be married to Felicity Kendal for a time, but sadly had to retire from acting due to suffering from manic depression.
I have a perception that this is a show of two halves – I don’t claim this to be objectively true, I’m just saying what I think. I feel that the tone of the show changes dramatically after the shooting at the signal box, and becomes darker and more intent on the count down to the assassination. This is signalled by changes in music – and can it be that the sound of the train changes slightly? – and I find it very effective. If I have one criticism of this show at all, I would have to say that I think this changed mood is spoiled by the more slapstick/Avengersesque elements subsequently introduced, such as the throwing of things in the restaurant car and the mere fact the Durbridge’s main industry is the manufacture of eyes for teddy bears.
Otherwise the pace is excellent. This is The Avengers at its peak. The train is not so obviously a set as it was in The Man from UNCLE. The stations are fairly obviously sets, but of course in The Avengers you can always let that go with the simple explanation that things are not supposed to be real! If you read the article on dissolute.com.au about this episode (to which I also owe the picture of the groom) you will see that continuity and other blunders galore can be attributed to this episode if you watch closely enough; I think it is best appreciated as a piece of comic relief which won’t take too much scrutiny!