The Avengers: Propellant 23
In the visual language of 1960s television, the episode begins by telling us that the action will take place among the privileged, or possibly powerful. This is done by the simple device of setting the opening scene on a passenger plane. I feel that in the early 1960s flight would have been less available to most people than it was with tha later advent of cheap package holidays, and thus already sets the expectations. Additionally the plane is flying to Marseille - nowadays this flight would be nothing from, say, Heathrow, and of course Tripoli remains a truly far-away place, but at the time 'the Continong' was inconceivably exotic to many in Britain.
The next scene may begin to explain why I have always found this episode hard to understand - not least because of my habit of not paying attention. The scene is of Mrs Gale and Steed. Leaving aside the question of why he recruits an anthropologist to help with a matter of national security, and she allows him to wake her up in the middle of the night to ask her, the scene is full of the sort of magical omniscience the later series of The Avengers are better known for. Steed and Mrs Gale are at Marseille. There is no explanation why they both just happen to be at the scene of the action - they just are. I like the visuals of this scene - we see them sitting in the car but the background is completely black and they could actually be anywhere. Visually this is so effective, and the whole effect of the scene is rather disorientating, rather the way one feels while 'in transit'.
'Terrible bore hanging about in airports, isn't it,' says Steed to a man in the airport, thereby indicating that this mode of travel is old hat to him. In comparison to the visual effect of the last scene in the car, I love the way the sirport set gives a much more amateurish effect. It is very obviously a set indeed and this effect remains throughout the episode.
I love that Steed is his old shady self in this one. He enveigles Mrs Gale into helping and then when the airport gendarme asks him what he is doing in France he gives a very dodgy, almost blustering, answer, which would normally be guaranteed to make a policeman of any nationality prick up his ears. Steed turns the tables on the gendarme and starts asking him questions! He then asks another gendarme if he can take the murdered man's briefcase back to London - another of the sort of questions you just don't ask in a context of international travel! Steed gets even more shifty by returning to search the police's office at the airport after the've all gone home. Once again the airport gives an impression of not quite being real. I don't doubt there are tiny airports whic effectively close down at night, but I'm still sure they were patrolled by security if not police, even in the 1960s! While I have interpreted these characters as belonging to the gendarmerie, I see that they are actually security, yet are dressed as steretypical old-fashioned French policemen.
In common with being shady Steed, Steed in this one also puts Mrs Gale in a ridiculously dangerous position, with I have noticed he tended to do with Venus Smith as well. The wonder is that Mrs Gale just happily goes along with it! I like the way Steed's hair is very shiny and slicked back in Propellant 23, using, presumably, brylcreem. A further style thing I like very much in this one is to see Honor Blackman smoking a cigarette in a holder. And of course Steed just has to put in an order with the baker as he is looking for the bottle.
It is so Avengers to have the next scene set in the lingerie department of a shop! - Preceded by a fight in the airport that we don't see, but in another act of magical omniscience during the interval Steed has got the briefcase, Mrs Gale has examined it and they have arranged to meet. We see that Steed is answerable to somebody, and we also see that this episode is about a rocket propellant, which of course Mrs Gale knows about already, which places this episode firmly in the rocket age. Steed is outrageously flirtatious with the sales assistant, telling her that he will take her when she asks what he wants - these early Avengers really are incredibly flirty. This scene gives rise to my favourite exchange in this episode:
Mrs Gale: 'Do you always arrange to take your calls in a lingerie department?'
Steed: 'If humanly possible.'
Mrs Gale's garter gun which we see at the end is unthinkably kinky!
Subsequently we see more of the lives of the characters as they relate to Propellant 23. The mystery of who the young Geoffrey Palmer's character ('bit of a cock up in the catering department') is remains - but I think this is deliberate, naturally. However then we see that he is in cahoots with the man we see trying to stab Mrs Gale.
Something the episode does very well is to resist having the French characters speaking in 'French' accents. This adds a further layer to the unrealism, because while the effect of being in France is given loud and clear, these people are clearly not French. I can only repeat that I rather like the economy of the sets - few, simple sets are used to give the impression of this jet-setting world, and in monochrome they are very effective.
My one criticism of this episode is that unless you are really paying attention it can be quite difficult to follow. I suppose this reflects the sort of attention TV writers expected fifty years ago, but the difficulty is increased by the way the episode tends to jump from scene to scene in a rather impressionistic way with little explanation of what has happened. This isn't a criticism as such, but the small cast makes the scale of this Avengers seem much smaller that its international setting would suggest, more like a stage play. I mean that everybody knows who the man touting for a hotel is, suggesting the cast is smaller and more intimate than it would be in this sort of setting in reality. It is also rather evident before the denouement who is on what side and so by the time we find ourselves in the bakery there is only one way this can end.
So my conclusion about this Avengers is that it is quality television which requires close attention to keep track of what is happening. The scripting is rather impressionistic and the visuals are very effective. This is one of the more arty episodes of The Avengers, which is therefore harder work for the viewer.