Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The Avengers Series 1: Girl on the Trapeze

Well here I am back on track for the moment with posts on series 1 of The Avengers. I must just repeat the sensation of loss I've been feeling, as I have posted about series 1, because once I have stopped to think about all of the episodes that's it, there really will never be any new Avengers for me. The fiction on the internet just doesn't mostly cut it because people are so preoccupied with getting Steed and Mrs Peel into bed, and for me much of the point of their relationship is that they never actually do go to bed.
This first series Avengers is of course one in which Steed doesn't feature at all - Dr Keel does it all on his own - and so we are in genuinely different territory from the one we know so well from later Avengers seasons. That said, my very first impression of this episode is how very 'Avengers' it actually manages to be right from the start. What I mean by this is that it one of the first things the viewer sees is a scene behind the scenes of a circus, which visually places the episode in a setting of leisure, childhood and pleasure. This is a classic Avengers visual trick of the later series, and it is subverted in classic Avengers style here, by having a clown committing a murder. I suppose the point here is the original bottom line of The Avengers - that Dr Keel has been jolted out of his comfortable middle class existence by the murder of his fiancee, which turns him into an avenger and plunges him into the underworld. This is a permanent change in his world which can never be undone.
I speak of the 'original' bottom line, and of course it is impossible to deny that the exit of Dr Keel caused a change in the way the series developed. However I have been trying to think what it is about this episode that reminds me so forcefully of later Avengers episodes, and I have had to come to the conclusion that it is because the image of the clown is used (or subverted) so often in The Avengers. In fact it is already subverted in this one, and I like the apparently sneaky way the clown is rapidly taking off his make-up in the screen capture I have used to illustrate this post. Translated into the pictorial language of The Avengers, I suppose this would mean that things are often not what they seem, and that masks can be used to hide real personalities. The clown figure repeats in later series of The Avengers - the obvious one is the murderous disgruntled vaudeville artistes in Look Stop Me If Youve Heard This One..., but in a broader sense The Avengers gets into the habit of subverting safe childhood imagery (Something Nasty in the Nursery) and then restoring it or at least eliminating those who would upset our comfortable world. Seen in this light, Girl on the Trapeze can be seen as an early example of The Avengers using traditional safe imagery to create a dangerous setting.
I am reminded by this episode particularly of the major changes in technology and society that have occurred in the intervening fifty years. The doctor's house is apparently heated by a gas fire. He is seen smoking. While the secretary has a television set, the radio seen in Keel's room is huge and I suspect powered by valves. A search to identify a dead woman involves a lengthy hand search through the magazines and newspapers in the house. The fire precautions in the theatre consist of buckets hanging off the wall, which I don't remember seeing for years and would certainly get you closed down now. The tickets for the circus cost sixteen shillings (77 and a half pence) each, and the circus includes animals in its acts. For me the extent of change also provides a sense of loss, just because while the world of The Avengers is supposed never to have existed, there is enough detail in this episode to mean that these shows could only ever be remade as 'period dramas', which would change the dynamic dramatically.
Given all the above, my main feeling is that this Avengers episode is under serious pressure to perform,  yet in another sense can't fail, between its status of being one of the few recovered series 1 episodes and the tendency of the fans to pick over it to experience series 1. Leave these things out of it, and I have one major problem with this episode, which is that it has a serious plot failing. You know that the clown did it all along, which means that if you want to work it out (rather than watch Keel and Carol work it out) this one will always disappoint.
I have one other difficulty with this show: I know I keep harping on about it but these old TV shows will not take the kind of criticism they are required to take on repeated viewings, certainly not the kind of criticism I subject them to. I have deliberately focussed on my own preoccupations with this one, because you can find detailed analyses of plot, characters, acting, and even bloopers, elsewhere on the internet, and I feel that that is also to do this one an injustice. It is unfortunate that it has wound up being the object of such scrutiny, because it would have been intended for a one-off viewing with no pausing or repeats available.
Viewed in that light, it is an excellent drama for the time. The pace is faster than a lot of old TV (certainly faster than the Dixon of Dock Green episodes from a decade later I have been watching). The characterisation apart from Carol and Keel is rather impressionistic, but of course that it is intended to portray the way we view circus characters. The fact that much of the action takes place behind the scenes of the circus is an indication of the way the Avengers of necessity has to go behind the scenes and find society's murky underbelly.
My personal conclusion on Girl on the Trapeze is that it has to bear an unenviably great reputation as one of the few recovered series 1 Avengers episodes, which leads it to be examined too closely. If you want to watch a whole series 1 episode, then obviously this and The Frighteners are your only options and if you want to see an Avengers without Steed, this is literally your only option. As a drama, my opnion is that it is probably a lot better than a lot of the drama of the time, in pacing and 'edginess'. However as a crime drama, my opinion is that if you don't want to know who the baddie is, you will be bitterly disappointed. Watch it by all means, but remember what it was meant to be and be kind to it.

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