There is something disheartening about watching old TV, in that it reinforces that human nature does not really change, and that the ambivalence about progress which I write about so often here, is a wise way to approach the treatment we humans mete out to each other. This series 1 Avengers episode is incredibly topical - for me at least - since recently in my city three brothels were busted in three separate operations on three successive days. The police were supposed to have reason to believe they were brothels. Well with the best will in the world, apart from the tea rooms in Sutton Coldfield, I knew all along that the other two were brothels and fail to see how they could have been anything else. I also used to live round the corner from the notorious Cuddles, where a major legal concern was that the girls were foreign nationals who had their passports taken off them. Even without that danger, the takings at the other brothels were phenomenal - in the millions - and it is very plain that sex remains a roaring trade from which staggering amounts of money are to be made.
All that is merely a preamble to saying that this Avengers is a series one episode where Steed and Keel enter into the shadowy world of prostitution and break a vice ring. They come literally to blows at the end of the episode over their differing ethical approaches and the tactics used by Steed. I find it particularly interesting that a department store and hostel are used as fronts for the vice ring. Again there is nothing different there: last year when a snooker club in Digbeth was closed down for violations including drug dealing, blocked fire exits, and allowing rooms to be used for underage sex, personally I wasn't at all surprised since I had walked past it in the evening and decided it had dodgy written all over it. The difference is that I personally can't think of a single snooker club locally which doesn't look iffy, but this Avengers uses an apparently more respectable front to cover up the vice ring.
No doubt the sleazy milieu of this and other series 1 Avengers episodes was intended to be shocking to many viewers of the time, just as the revelations that the world's oldest trade continues to be plied among us are still shocking to some. This episode is poised on a very interesting ethical knife edge: our heroes the Avengers have to enter the sleazy world to avenge the injustices committed against the girls in the sex trade, and of course Steed as usual does the sleazy old man act to perfection. On the other hand, there is another aspect of the world of the 1960s underlying the sleaze of this episode. In reality it would have been difficult to attain anything like the life style we see on the television programmes I write about here. Of the three girls we see at the opening of this episode, the only one who can afford her own place is the one who is working as a prostitute and who as a result is covered in bruises. The other two girls have to make do with living in a hostel, which of course is the front for the vice ring. The irony here is that the entry into the vice ring is what allows the girls' lifestyle even to get close to that of Steed and Keel, and yet they are rescued from sex work by Steed and Keel, which ironically would doom them to a life of poorly-paid shop work and presumably reliance on marriage to improve their lot.
There is the ethical matter between Steed and Keel to provide most of the interest through the last two acts of this Avengers. This is something into which Keel's standing as a physician is brought to play: and which is expertly subverted by having Steed pretending to be a doctor as a 'door-opener' and having Keel disapproving of this. Steed's interest is the bigger one of preventing the whole vice network, operated from the Continent, from working at all, and thus saving many girls from their claws. Keel gets drawn into personal concern for one of the girls, who Steed wants to use as a trap for the big boys of the vice ring. This reinforces the interaction between Steed and Keel which pertains throughout this season: Keel is driven by personal motives, and while Steed is portrayed as a rather sinister figure, it is very plain that he really has higher motives in mind.
With my usual proviso that these old TV shows don't stand up very well to the sort of grilling I give them on this blog, since they were intended to be seen once with no pausing, I would have to say that I actually find this episode rather unsatisfying. I think it would be best seen once only, and not be someone as jaundiced and world-weary as me! The shock factor of the look into the sleazy world of Soho granted by this episode was clearly intended to carry it through the ethical dilemma of the second two acts, and as such it works very well. It has a plot weakness in that the vice ring can only possibly be operated from a setting introduced in the first act and so it can only really be from the department store or from the hostel. It is interesting as developing the relationship between Steed and Keel.
My conclusion on this Avengers series 1 episode is that I would still love it to be discovered so that I could see it. I feel that I am probably too jaundiced and world-weary to be shocked by its revelations of sleaziness, but that is just me. I would particularly like to see it as a elaboration of the poverty trap suffered by so many young people, and to see how it explores that in a 1960s context.