Monday, 1 January 2018

The Avengers: Killer

A pink and purple pass...that's what I have for this week. I worked the week after Christmas and it was flat out because so many people were given annual leave so I thought right I'm having some myself. So off I popped to Mother to ask for one and now there's nothing anyone can do to make me go in to work. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the bureaucracy of our own workplaces was like that in The Avengers? But the rather pedestrian procedure of making veiled threats to my manager until he gave me annual leave has anyway had the same effect.
Of course the effect for Tara King was that she vanished out of the show for a whole episode giving way to...a whole new Avengers girl whom I've never blogged about before. So let me count them now... we have Honor Blackman of course, Julie Stevens, Diana Rigg, Linda Thorson, I personally feel we should include Ingrid Hafner, Joanna Lumley if you include her, and this episode alone allows us to add Jennifer Croxton playing Lady Diana Forbes - Blakeney. That means seven. You could even include Elizabeth Shepherd as the Mrs Peel Who Never Was (although if you look closely in The Hour That Never Was you can see gloves appear on Mrs Peel in certain shots of her hands which were reused from the Elizabeth Shepherd shooting of the episode, so she does genuinely appear in an episode). Call it eight.
All naturally of very different personalities. I imagine Diana Rigg is the favourite with the fans, although my personal favourite is Honor Blackman. I do like the fact there is another Avengers girl in this one, and I think the reason is that I love Lady Diana. I feel there is a sense in whcih of all the Avengers gels she embodies the eccentric English spirit of the show best - she's titled and double-barrelled for a start. But she's not some titled bimbo - she is clearly a career spy who is very capable in her own right, and in fact even Steed underestimates her. One of the things I find interesting about this is that I personally would tend to think she is more like Joanna Lumley and certainly has a more simlar presence than she does to Diana Rigg, who to my mind has quite a different presence to the other two. On the other hand the comments by the fans on the internet almost unanimously compare her to Diana Rigg and in fact several fans comment that they like her because she is more like Diana Rigg than Linda Thorson. Hey ho...
Aside from the delights of a new Avengers girl this episode is one of my favourites, I think because in so many ways it takes the Avengers formula to its extreme end and yet manages not to overdo it. An example of this is the fact that the venue used for the murders is an old street mock-up. This is clearly only ever seen as a set, we even get to see the scaffolding holding it up. As everyone reading this will know the whole point of The Avengers is that it is not real. The mock up of the street is not real. The unreal show is now using an unreal set of a place which never existed as scene and not even pretending it's real. That makes it unreality to at least the power of four, and yet it doesn't seem overdone. Nowadays of course we would call it postmodern and make bright remarks about Derridan deconstructionism, but The Avengers, made in the age of modernism, got there first.
The other running theme of 1960s TV which is carried to an extreme is the idea of the machine. Over and again in TV of this era the machine is seen as both the tool of progress and a dangerous monster which can get out of hand, or be dangerous in the wrong hands. The quote which I believe comes from Herbert Read best encapsulates the suspicion of this takeover: 'The machine has rejected ornament and the machine has everywhere established itself. We are irrevocably committed to a machine age,' and suggests that there is no going back from the machine age. This Avengers episode shows that the fear of the machine is valid, since in this episode the machine is the killer and dangerous to all concerned. Of course the take-home message is the same one as elsewhere, that machines have no loyalty and will do whatever they are told - any random diabolical mastermind can use them.
There are two high point to this exceptional episode for me, and they are REMAK's multiple tidy methods of murdering agents and the role Richard Wattis plays as the man from the ministry. The methods of murder and their tidiness can be seen as another reflection on the machine age...they're also very funny indeed, in a completely inappropriate way. This is something The Avengers can get away with by being unreal. Of course it helps that the graveyard is also obviously unreal - do I recognise the set from Epic? Wattis's work on the repeated immaculately-packaged corpses is very entertaining. While I don't normally like the same old faces appearing over and agin on TV shows, in this episode there are a huge number of very familiar actors of the age, but for some reason I don't mind them here, in fact I find I quite like the way actors have been drawn from the familiar stable of Avengerland faces. This doesn't mean I've turned over a new leaf, and I expect my customary curmudgeonliness will return in no time.
The unreality which makes the murders entertaining is another aspect of this show which is carried to its absolute extreme to great effect. I love the way you can look out of the window of what is supposed to be a village pub and see what looks like a new office building which contains this fearful mechanised apparatus of death! That doesn't come across as a blooper, it comes across as part of the pretence. Otherwise the setting of this one is very plainly Avengerland, a world which never existed and sadly never will except in the hearts and minds of fans all over the world. In the usual language of The Avengers's sets it is interesting that the baddies inhabit a building which is modern and furnished in uncompromisingly modern taste, while virtually everyone else's setting is the usual classical furniture and leather armchairs one which is The Avengers indicates solidity, reliability and that Blighty will carry on. I am not sure I can identify the nature of the building Mother's office is in for this one. He is surrounded by barrels of booze and the room is furnished with rows of rocking chairs, set cinema-style, facing...well, something we never see. A village hall set up for a talk to the Women's Institute given by a home brewer? It could happen - the episode isn't short of amiable eccentrics in addition to diabolical masterminds - I particularly love the packaging man.
I suppose I should try to think of some criticisms, although they will be mainly stolen from the dissolute website which has really had to go into details on its trivia for this one. They rightly point out that when the coach leaves the factory gates you can see the camera crew reflected in the windscreen. I haven't spotted it but apparently there is a shot when the dummies in the coach are real people - as I say you really have to go into detail to find things wrong with this one. I suppose my own criticism would be an organisational one - what the hell is Mother playing at to let so many agents die? Some of this is because he just doesn't listen to his agents, and because his agents have a habit of going off on their own without running things past Mother first. You would think Mother would really have got on top of that. It's dangerous, apart from anything else. You would also think that the agents - especially, ahem, Steed - would be canny and cynical enough to check that a dead body who has just theatrically died in front of them is actually dead!
Production-wise, I don't really have any complaints. Plot-wise, this one's failing is that it can tend to be in the nature of repeated introductions of agents who abruptly get killed, and it can get a bit samey. Nonetheless it is absolutely superb, definitely one of my favourites and it would have to stand on its own for introducing a new Avengers girl.

6 comments:

Mike Doran said...

Chicago Calling (with more Than You Wanted To Know!):

Back from a research jaunt, spurred by a question that you didn't ask:

Were the producers of The Avengers looking to get rid of Linda Thorson - and is that why they put in a new face in the middle of the season?

This episode ran in the USA on December 30, 1968 on the ABC (US) network, halfway through the season.
I don't know what the reaction was in GB to Linda Thorson's arrival, but here in the USA most of our "TV Critics" went totally bat-guano: they all had crushes on Diana Rigg, and took personal offense at Thorson, sight unseen.
The changeover was shown in the USA in mid-spring of '68; ABC announced that The Avengers had received a pickup for a full season - 26 episodes at that time, starting in September.
The Avengers was slotted by ABC on Monday evenings at 7:30 (6:30 Central Time).
This was the beginning of the end:
The competition on CBS was Gunsmoke, then thirteen years into its tenure in prime time.
Meanwhile, NBC had just launched Rowan & Martin's Laugh-in, the breakout smash of '68.
Between those two shows, and coupled with the fact that ABC had fewer affiliated stations than either of the other two networks, The Avengers got clobbered early on, and never recovered.
It's a long-standing custom in US TV to assess blame when a once-popular show suddenly becomes less popular; I've heard (can't confirm) that US-ABC took the anti-Thorson reaction Stateside as proof that she was to blame for the losses and told GB-ABC to do something about it ASAP.
Jennifer Croxton's appearance may be regarded as an audition of sorts; there might very well have been more had Avengers been continued beyond '69 - but that's just guesswork on my part.
Just asking here - was there any gossip in GB about any of this? Then, or ever?

I watched "Killer" from my DVD Wall today, preparing for the writing of this whatever-this-is.
As it happens, I didn't see many of the later Avengers shows (mainly for the two reasons listed above).
It didn't really seem all that different from other episodes - maybe a bit more over-the-top than usual.
The surprise was seeing William Franklyn as a really bad guy, hitting people and all - he mostly seemed a smooth type (I have seen a couple of his Schweppes ads - "...shh - you know who ...").
Well, I'm no expert, so I defer to others.

Anyway, Happy New Year and like that there ...

John said...

And to you too.
What you suggest is entirely possible, because in the commentary on my set she says she was lined up as a possible next girl after Linda Thorson.

Mitchell Hadley said...

That is interesting, that Jennifer Croxton was being considered as a possible replacement for Linda Thorson. (I thought your comments were interesting as well, Mike!) John, I agree with you on favorites; as much as I love Diana Rigg, I still favor Honor Blackman. I wasn't sure about Linda Thorson at first, but she really grew on my as time went on. In the end, I thought she was a more-than-worthy addition to the cast.

Best of the New Year to you as well!

John said...

Mitchell, thank you for commenting. I'm glad to see I'm not alone in not going along with the Mrs Peel only crowd!
And happy new year.

Mike Doran said...

Chicago Calling - Back:

I can still remember when The Avengers hit the USA airwaves in the spring of 1966.

It was truly like nothing the American "critics" had ever seen before.

Even Secret Agent, their previous exposure to British TV, was every bit as straightforward as any US TV adventure show.

But Patrick Macnee's bespoke suits and Diana Rigg's black leather gear - well, our press made themselves a "discovery"!
And once they made it, they wouldn't let go.

When that first spring-summer run of B/W shows had ended, the "critics" all said that ABC(US) had cancelled The Avengers, as if to affront them personally.
Nearly all of them had major crushes on Diana Rigg (the Honor Blackman shows would not be available for US viewing for many years afterwards).
When the color episodes arrived in January of '67, all the "critics" managed to give themselves credit for having "revived" The Avengers, which was all so much expired horseradish, but there you are.

ABC(US) announced that the show would leave in the fall, but return in January with new episodes: these would be the last of the Riggs, giving way to the first of the Thorsons by spring of '68.
Our "critics" somehow wrote this up as though Diana Rigg had been fired (more than a few used that word), and their public bought that in toto.
Thus - the Beginning of the End.

I'll venture the educated guess that anybody who would be brought in as a "new Avengers girl" would have gotten a similar press freeze-out from our American "critical" crew.

The old 408-line tapes with Honor Blackman were long believed to be lost/wiped/something; when they turned up years after the fact, those few "critics" who were still at it were thrown for the loop of loops.

That was the situation in the USA in the late '60s; fifty years later - no change, really ...

John said...

It often feels as if that's the situation here too, and in the fandom. And that approach makes me regret the loss of series 1 all the more, where Steed was the 'sidekick'.