Sunday, 1 April 2018

The Avengers Series 1: The Frighteners


I meant to have several posts up this week, about some shows I have never written about here, but I have been ill so it hasn't happened. This post isn't any of them, but it is a post about something which I have already managed to think about - the series posts about series 1 Avengers episodes I started some time ago. Lucky I use labels, isn't it - I so rarely complete an actual series of posts when I conceive them.
I am of course at least partly thinking about the forthcoming release of Tunnel of Fear and am prompted to think about others in the series, including The Frighteners, which of course still exists. It was actually the only episode known still to exist until Girl on the Trapeze and the first part of Hot Snow (both of which I have written about here before) were discovered. The Frighteners was always seen a the quality piece of work it is. In fact I have read that the received wisdom was that while The Frighteners was obviously quality, it was the odd one out among a bad lot and the rest were rightly scrapped - a view which was of course contradicted by the ones which were discovered anew.
If there is a shortcoming to the commentary on these series 1 episodes, it is that it tends to be too deferential - understandably so, with the feeling we all have that we are dealing with the remaining delicate baby numbers of our favourite show and can't really be rude about them. Additionally these shows are now 57 years old, and they have a venerable air which makes it difficult to criticise. It is like being rude about a very elderly lady telling us about the stick and hoop she played with as a child. Nonetheless I will have some criticisms, which I will whisper before putting myself to bed with no supper for a week.
Actually watching this show for this post, and reading some other people's comments on the internet has made me like it even more than I did to start off with! I am indebted to the dissolute website for making me notice how much Macnee and Hendry visibly enjoy playing these roles - they actually laugh at the dialogue in places. I do like a show which can bring out this sort of youngster's enjoyment in the artistes.
There are two things in which this episode excels in my opinion. The first is the evocation of the network of corruption and criminality under the surface of the city. The second is the splendid visuals.
I wonder whether this episode would have been considered shocking by many people in 1961? I particularly wonder whether they would have been more shocked by the revelation of corruption among 'respectable businessmen' or the network of completely unbridled criminality among the 'lower orders'. I do think it particularly interesting the way the criminal world is so organised, and even more interesting that in the earlier part of the show the criminality has a feeling of being run by Italians (of Napoli) - of course this is a common psychological defence mechanism to separate things we don't like from ourselves. The episode also manages to make the criminal world incredibly complicated involving organised crime, small-time crooks, corrupt businessmen and a confidence trickster. Given that the original premise of the show was the doctor who turns avenger against the underworld after the murder of his fiancee this is all to the purpose of series 1.
The visuals have rightly been described as feeling very much like a Cathy Gale-era episode. The huge majority of the episode of filmed in studio, but there is one part where stock footage is cleverly used to set the scene of the London streets. None of this sounds special, but the way in which I mean the visuals are superb, is that what is chosen to show is very effective. Take the flower lady with Steed - it's a picture if ever there was one. As is the sight of Keel tickling a cat. What is shown is carefully selected to stop this show looking boring. My favourite scene of all is the one with Steed with the flower seller, because again he visibly enjoys it. I love the way she says 'I bet you get orff before you get home with one of these in your buttonhole'. I also love that she is plainly one of  his network of informers, and her old-fashioned clothes give her the air of a character out of later Avengers series. 
I'm not planning on commenting much on the nature of Steed's character shown here. It is the first remaining episode we have where Steed appears and he is very much the Steed we expect from the nature of other series 1 episodes. I have discussed him at length in other posts on this series. He is an habitue of the underworld and it shows. What more surprises me is the character of Keel, who far into series 1 still doesn't seem to understand the danger of what he has taken on, and takes the most incredible risk in this episode. Steed is quite rightly not impressed with the risk he has taken, which seems rather different to the impression Venus Smith always gave, that he was an annoyance who would happily risk anyone else's life. In fact I seem to recall this is the impression I got in the posts I wrote about her shows some time ago. Interestingly Keel plays a cunning but very obvious trick on de Willoughby about the scar on his back which is recognised by his 'mother'. De Willoughby doesn't twig that he is obviously the source of the strange woman's knowledge about his body.
My favourite character of all has to be Doris Courtney who is obviously a theatrical to her fingertips, witnessed by the way she comments that we can't leave all this lovely gin.
Now to the criticisms.
My personal opinion is that the plot is overly complicated and hence rather confusing. Even allowing for the convention of the age that TV shows were treated much more like plays to be watched with attention and considered, this is no simplistic good vs bad plot. In fact it seems like everyone is basically bad in this one, and even the baddies are agin each other. I have watched this episode numerous times, read summaries of the plot and remain confused as to what is going on in places and the exact relationship between the various criminals. I wonder whether it would have been possible to tease this out at all on a single viewing with no possibility of repeats in 1961.
It is also very apparent that it was considered ephemeral. There are lines gone wrong here and there and there is one instance where the camera visibly crashes into something. What this spells is that this was a show which was cranked out at speed with minimal repetition and not intended to be seen again, so may not really be a valid criticism. Nonetheless it's strange that some obvious mistakes were allowed to remain in something which was otherwise so carefully put together. Oh - another one is that 'witchazel' is the incorrect spelling on Dr Keel's bottle of witch hazel.
The ending where de Willoughby is confronted by his 'mother' is a masterpiece of dramatic effect.
In conclusion this is a first series Avengers episode which contradicts the former received wisdom that the first series was rubbish. It is an excellent episode, with particularly good visuals, marred only by some mistakes in production and a plot which isn't completely to my personal taste but others may disagree.

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