The Avengers Series 1: The Radioactive Man

This is a very interesting Avengers episode, because on the one hand it deals with so many perennial human concerns: rules, identity, conformity, suspicion and trust, and yet it is also very much of its time, and forms as it were a time-bound expression of the more permanent subjects its raises.
I think it is probably important for this one not to forget that whether or not Eastern Europeans were illegal immigrants at the time, they were always the inhabitants of the mysterious land behind the Iron Curtain. We are therefore talking about people who would always be aliens of one sort or another here, and who in addition to the traumas of their own countries and stories of immigration to Britain, would be forced into an identification with their own people, and always looked on with suspicion by the natives. This is far different from the very nuanced, yet more integrated multicultural population we have nowadays, despite a current wave of feeling against Europe. This therefore places the eternal question of identity in a specifically Cold War framework.
The other main issue dealt with here is rather secondary to identity and it is about conformity, nonconformity and people’s attitude to external rules and pressures. What really kicks off the action in this one is a scientist (yes, that’s right, one of those intelligent types who in 1960s TV are notorious for going off the rails with disastrous consequences) who casually breaks a major security rule in his research establishment, resulting in radioactive material being stolen by a man who is in a rather ambivalent position, not least because of being an illegal immigrant. That people’s attitude to authority and external pressures is the real subject of this piece is shown by the fact that the ongoing action depends on people further ignoring rules, going their own way, and generally making life or death decisions, with conflicting pressures from groups they belong to or their own values.
Some time ago I posted about a DVD of British safety films from the 1970s, and it was in the decade after this show was made that safety in industry became a great legal concern in Britain, culminating in the rationalisation of many industry-specific laws into the formation of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. I remember commenting that you would think from that DVD that Britain was a country in which people customarily played in quarries, went swimming in canals, crossed railway lines, and fished around overhead lines, and of course that is true. The legal side apart, the perennial question is here is how dangerously can you expect humans to behave? The doctor who caused the security breach in the first place was clearly under stress as his wife was expecting a baby, but it is clear that the security of the research establishment was wholly dependent on fallible humans respecting rules made for safety, with nothing to stop them breaking the rules. The question naturally arises as to whether this situation could arise again today. I suspect that it would be much more difficult to bring a dangerous substance out of an institution nowadays, but you always get some jack the lad who manages to find a way. The most depressing thing about this episode is actually this aspect of it, that it shows up human behaviour and attitude to danger specifically, in a very bad light indeed.
Into the middle of this human drama, of course Keel steps in as the man most likely to sort this mess out. In epic terms, I suppose you would see him as the hero who happens to be in the right place and time and also have the wit to sort this. Once again, though, it shows a different time in that the situation is saved by a talented amateur, despite the involvement of the police. I have a feeling that nowadays this incident would result in large-scale evacuation of the area and the total exclusion of non-officials.
I find Steed’s role in this interesting, since it personifies his series 1 character as a person who just appears and disappears and it is never very clear where he comes from or who he is. Yet it is clear that he is involved in intelligence here: that can be his only possible role. I also like that his flippant personality is already developing, seen in his comment to Keel that he always finds a visit to Keel’s surgery ‘always seems to affect my health’, and Keel replies by thanking Steed and telling him that he always tries to do his best. A further Avengers theme which appears early on here, is that while there are issues around the immigrants’ political sympathies and the legality of Milan’s immigration, these things are trumped in jolly old Blighty for a humane concern for his health. Despite not being One of Us, we wouldn’t like to be like Them, and so Milan is not treated as the dodgy character he may well be. Perhaps he is intended to elicit sympathy or be shown as someone who needs to be cared for, despite being Foreign, although personally at times I felt like shouting ‘Don’t be such an idiot’ at him as I was reading through the synopsis of the show.
Obviously I haven’t seen this show and don’t believe I ever will, but it is clearly very much of its time. The very fact that much of it takes place in a radio shop is immediately reminiscent of a past age. It is also reminiscent of an age of lodgings, bed-sitters, cafes run by the proprietors, and in short, a world quite different from today. I would genuinely love to see this episode if it was ever recovered. I am not really in a position to criticise it and wouldn’t dare, since it is clearly a well-written play capable of standing on its own, and is also an episode of The Avengers whose like we will not see again.