Saturday, 3 March 2018

The Man From UNCLE: The Never Never Affair

I am writing this post in reaction to somebody else who blogs prolifically about TV series of the era I write about here. It may seem like I'm being difficult but I'm not going to say who she is. My own opinion is that if I'm not going to put my opinion as a comment on her blog, I'm not really disputing with her but only publishing my own views, even if it does seem curmudgeonly not to say who I'm talking about. She has, anyway, commented at length that she will block those whose views she disagrees with, and I'm speaking as someone who left a fairly mild comment (not about gender) some time ago on her blog and received a withering put-down in reply. This is someone who is apparently an academic and I wonder how her students perceive her, despite her once commenting on her tumblr that she's sorry if anyone is offended by her response to their comments, and to let her know. Hmmmm. I suppose therefore I am debating the position because I have found the person impossible to debate with.
I'm making her sound even more curmudgeonly that I am myself. The reason she is blocking other people is that she is tired of the attitude found among many Avengers fans, of treating Mrs Peel as a pin up. She is particularly annoyed by the attitude found among many on the Avengers fan forum - such things as discussions of whether Mrs Peel or Mrs Gale was more sexy in leather annoy her intently. She has recently commented of the Tara King episode where Steed comes home and finds Tara has emptied rubbish all over his living room so that she could search through the bins, taht this could only have been written by men in the 1960s who would have no conception of the clean up operation required. She has, of course, missed the other aspect of the The Avengers that it isn't supposed to be real in any shape or form whatsoever. We all know that in reality the studio staff would have had a huge clean up afterwards, but in the world of Avengers magic, that clean up just wouldn't have happened at all. It is about unreality, not gender roles. In fact this unreality about cleaning up often pervades the world of television. Many a game show which involves the people getting gunged or dirty in some way would have meant a monumental clean up, but that's the point of television - we don't get gunged, but we also don't have to clean up. One of these days I will post about Tiswas.
The blogger I am referring to is particularly vexed by two other things. One is that there are some heavily manipulated pictures of Mrs Peel doing the rounds of the internet. I get it that if you disagree with people using women's images in that way it's always going to be wrong. However I think her monocular feminist vision makes her see things through that filter alone. Just as it made her miss the unreality element of the clean up operation after Tara King's bin search above, it makes her minimise the sexual elements of the show which were (probably) intended by the original writers. She also doesn't notice that there is a scene in a lost series 1 Avengers (sorry, I have forgotten the name of the episode) where Steed is tied up bare chested and tortured - there is many a tumblr where this picture has been animated and commented on how sexy it is. I have managed to stop myself making this a post consisting of nothing but manipulated kinky images of Mrs Peel or a compendium of the more sexy sequences in The Avengers. I'm probably getting myself into hot water here but while I do understand the feminist critique of pornography I don't completely agree with it because, frankly, anything can be pornographic.
I think what I'm saying is that I understand the feminist criticism of the male gaze, but I think it is not a sufficient way of viewing complex media like television, alone. Certainly not when she then blocks anyone who posts the manipulated pictures of Mrs Peel. The whole point of Mrs Peel in a catsuit is she's sexy - refusing to acknowledge that men will push it further into an erotic picture or fantasy is to ignore that sex is largely present on television and in our world because it just plain is.
Personally I try not to avoid the sexiness of the television I write about here. I don't have a problem with talking about it quite frankly. My opinion is that The Avengers didn't shy away from both male and female sexuality - although I think the view that Steed and Mrs Peel were getting it on is a hiding to nothing. Sexuality is more present in a less obvious way. There is a first series episode where Mrs Gale (I think it is The Inside Out Man) goes to a garage and is pictured against some very obviously topless pinups. Similarly in The Master Minds Steed is pictured being amused at a school girl's collection of topless male pinups. The Avengers therefore shows both male and female pinups at different times. That said of course traditionally a bare chested man is not such a sexual image as that of a female (I have no idea where she stands on that) and anyone who reads this regularly will know my profile picture is a bare chested one, which I don't personally consider a sexual thing. In the unlikely event of somebody wanting to use my picture as a pinup - well, frankly I don't care. Anyone who particularly wants full size pictures of me to use as pinups is welcome to drop a comment here and I'll email you some - ROFL!
The other thing which drives this particular blogger spare is The Man From UNCLE - particularly Napoleon Solo's attitude to women, which she contrasts greatly to Steed's attitude to women, which she thinks is more respectful. I think she's just plain wrong. Remember the scene in Split where Steed shuts the nurse in the cupboard but smacks her bottom as he pushes her in? A great respecter of women's bodies and autonomy then. She thinks that Solo's attitude to women is much more patronising - and I honestly can't see it. He has the role of the womaniser in The Man From UNCLE, but I have not noticed his attitude to women being particularly poor, hence my watching some of the show to think about this. My initial opinion is that the TV show with the worst attitude to women is probably The Professionals: whenever Bodie and Doyle come across a woman the conversation begins 'Look, love...' and they make it plain that the woman's intellect is way below what they require.
The Man From UNCLE episode which I have arbitrarily chosen to look at to see Solo's attitude to women is a strangely suitable one, because while it is unspoken the gender roles of UNCLE are remarkably rigid in The Never-Never Affair. A female Portuguese translator in UNCLE headquarters (Mandy, played by Barbara Felden, familiar to us all from Get Smart, of course, which is rather disconcerting) tries, mistakenly, to persuade Solo that she could be an UNCLE agent with the use of a toy gun. Of course this gets her into hot water with the other agents. I will grant that if a second-generation feminist view is your chosen prism, you could get very annoyed at the way she is told to stick to interpreting.
The episode is otherwise strangely atmospheric of The Avengers, at least in its opening scenes. I frankly find the opening scenes rather bizarre, because the Thrush agenst who corner Kuryakin appear out of nowhere. It is all very evocative of Avengers omniscience. The sequence then rather goes wrong because they fail to surround Kuryakin with a wall of fire - the two lines of fire they succeed in creating are ones he could easily just walk around. Perhaps again it is intended to be magical.
This is an episode which I have always rather enjoyed because of the way Solo gives Mandy a 'mission' to fill Mr Waverley's cigar humidor at the tobacconist's. This is obviously to shut her up and is hilariously and very obviously nothing more. Unfortunately the point is that the joke is ultimately on Solo because she ends up involved in some real action. In fact Solo ends up looking frankly ridiculous as a result of this game, and a general call has to go out to UNCLE for everyone to look out for her before Thrush finds her.
Something which strikes me about this one is that while everyone says the campy ridiculousness was loud-pedalled in series 3 of UNCLE, this is an episode towards the end of series 1 and the idea of having the Thrush agents disguised as ice cream vendors already strikes me as about as slapstick as it can get. I particularly love the way they hide guns in ice cream boxes, and one comments to the other that he is giving him to burnt almond flavour. In this sequence the agents are prevented by Kuryakin's adroit use of a rail full of frocks to keep them away. The agents pursue her in the ice cream van playing 'London bridge is falling down' as they drive along.
The unreality continues by means of the action taking place in a darkened cinema, including reflecting the actual action in the film that is showing. The sequence where Solo shoots bullets through the screen and the dead Thrush agents collapses through it is particularly effective. Again this is an element curiously reminiscent of an Avengers episode - of course I am thinking specifically of Epic but there are many other occasions where unreality and reality twist and meet each other in a postmodern melee. The height of ridiculousness is that the UNCLE agents not only know that a certain garage is a Thrush cover but take the car in to get checked over after loosening the distributor cap. So much for Thrush's security. Would UNCLE agents have just walked in thusly? No way.
Personally I'm not noticing Solo being patronising to the woman in the episode. Beyond the fact that there is only one woman in a prominent role, which of course would reflect the working practices of any work place of the time, she actually shows up much better than Solo. Solo shows himself to be a buffoon and a bit of a security disaster by managing to get an UNCLE employee in such trouble with Thrush.
My considered opinion is that this episode (and this may well be extendable to the rest of The Man From UNCLE as well) is primarily about unreality and slapstick. This reinforces my original opinion that reading these TV shows solely with a feminist perspective misses much of the point.
There is just one thing completely wrong with this show. The humidor. It is the size of a tea caddy. As an ex-smoker myself I don't really think a man of quality would have a cigar humidor so small. I also think that Mr Waverley would have got his cigars delivered by his tobacconist, but I may be being a bit Steed about this.
In general terms, apart from the rather discombobulating effect of having Barbara Feldon who is so well known as a secret agent from another show play someone who is mistaken for a secret agent but isn't one (of course this is part of the slapstick itself), this episode is exactly what you would expect from the Man from UNCLE. Pacing is standard for the unreal TV I like from this period. The unreality, while it appears in huge spadefuls, is rarely allowed to get close enough to reality to be shown up for what it is. Interestingly one scene could have been surprising brutal if it actually happened in reality, where Solo douses a mechanic in the garage in petrol and threatens him with a lighter. But the fact that the show is unreal prevents it appearing as brutal as it could have been.
Something which strikes me about this is the sheer size of the cars. The Chrysler Solo takes to the garage to be checked is absolutely mammoth. I really don't think European cars of this age were that huge. I'm also not sure if American cars are still so big or whether the oil crisis of the 1970s impacted on their size.
So in conclusion I can't agree with the other blogger's opinion that the gender attitude shown by Napoleon Solo is half as offensive as she feels it to be. In my opinion she is tending to see the show through a prism of sexism alone, which blinds her to other aspects of the shows milieu, specifically the unreality of so many of these shows and slapstick elements. This is not, however to detract from the simple fact that the gender roles of the show reflect the norms of so many workplaces of the time.


Mike Doran said...

Chicago Calling (and this is going to be a long one ...):

In no fixed order:

- This episode of UNCLE is from Season One, airing early in 1965 - at about the time that Get Smart was just getting organized.
The story goes (and I believe it) that Barbara Feldon actually got the part of 99 as a direct result of her performance in "The Never-Never Affair".
Before this show aired, Ms. Feldon was mainly known for her TV commercials, with very occasional parts as glamour girls on different series (both comic and dramatic).
The story continues: NBC was having some problems with the casting a female lead opposite Don Adams, who was somewhat shorter than was the custom of the time.
In reality, Feldon was slightly taller than Adams; she nearly lost out on 99 for that reason.
But Don Adams was smart enough to see that a slightly taller leading lady could be a source for comedy - and Barbara Feldon was smart enough to learn to play against this factor.
Watch enough Get Smart episodes, and you'll note that in any scenes they have together, 99 always slouches a bit, or leans against something, or generally tries to make herself "shorter" than Max; in that same frame, you'll also note that as 99, Feldon never high heels.
This is the long way around; what I'm saying is that all of this was in the future when Barbara Feldon appeared on UNCLE.
As a teenager in '60s Chicago, I saw UNCLE first; when Smart came around a season later, no discombobulation.
So there too.

- Some of the above would seem to apply to your "poison pen pal" of the feminist bent.
People these days have no sense of history; they apply rules of the present day (largely of their own creation) to judging occurrences of even the recent past.
Even as that awkward '60s teenager, I think I knew that shows like UNCLE were scarcely Stark Realism; at no time did I ever seek to "learn something" from what I was watching.
TV shows - and movies, and the stage, and even most print media - were mainly for having fun, entertainment to enjoy of an evening with the family.
That's how it was when I was a teenager in the '60s.
That's how it still is now that I'm a sixty-ager in the 'Teens.

Over to you.

John said...

Ah thank you Mike.
Ironically I'm guilty of anachronism as well by not checking the dates of the two shows... Heigh ho.

Mike Doran said...

In the interregnum between morning and night, I just remembered something that I forgot to mention earlier:

That's not a cigar humidor.

As was established from UNCLE's beginnings, Mr. Waverly is a pipe smoker.
You may recall that he's rarely without a pipe in many of the early episodes.
A humidor for pipe tobacco doesn't need to be as large as one intended to hold a stash of stogies.
In fact, the smaller size more easily accommodates dipping a pipe in, to get the right amount of tobacco into the bowl.

A small detail, I know, but that's what makes this such a fun subject ...

John said...

Oh yes!
Who on earth has a humidor for pipe tobacco (rather than a pouch) rather than cigars? That's never right in itself!

Mitchell Hadley said...

Well, I appreciate you, John! I am curious as to the blogger in question though, although it sounds as if I'm better off staying far, far away.

John said...

That's very kind of yoy, Mitchell. And yes, bwsr not to get bitten!