Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Spyder's Web: Spyder Secures a Main Strand

Yes, I know. This still isn't noticeably a post about The Corridor People <sigh>. I'm obviously going to have to come back to them. Instead it's actually happened - this is a blog about TV, & I hadn't decided what I would do when I got to the point of re-watching something I'd blogged about before ( & wanted to write about it again. I've settled on another post. This is actually the second time I've been watching Spyder's Web since my original post, & I've reacted differently each time, the first by being unimpressed, & this time by warming to it all over again & thinking how good it is.
This time round this episode strikes me as the best of the series - I think I found the plot somewhat over-involved last time, but that comes across as being the point this time. However this invites the obvious criticism that if it is confusing on the first couple of viewings & it is the first episode of a series, the one-time viewers of 1972 wouldn't have stood a chance.
But its main impact on me this time has been purely visual. I can't begin to describe how much I love the Avengers-style, 1960s (not forgetting that the 1970s were most people's 1960s in Britain) - so you will forgive me for being a bit heavy-handed with the screen caps, won't you?
The scene in the field is so Avengers-esque, then the title shot of the man coming out of the modern office is such a staple of sci-fi at the time that it is almost as if Spyder is a self-referential commentary on the genre. It can't conceivably be a spoof, it's too serious. Hawksworth's Lagonda is clearly a caricature of John Steed's vintage numbers, though, & the fact it is out of order at the start of this episode is therefore a comment on the likely functionality of these high society, champagne-swigging secret agents! If the series is understood as a comment on spy-fi television & particularly its ridiculousness, the overly daramtic scene where Hawksworth is actually taken into Spyder, ceases to seem overdone. Well, it is still overdone but that is the point!
The repartee sparkles - I just can't describe it as anything else. It's actually quite sexy in this episode - more so than I remember it in succeeding episodes. I like the comment on a quick dip of your Y-fronts equalling engagement these days.
I see I downplayed the likeness to The Avengers in my previous post about this episode - this time it's kept making me think more of The Avengers. This time Hawksworth is so obviously a John Steed character, that I think I must have been resisting the screamingly obvious the last time I wrote on this. His repartee with the secretary, even his sparking off his boss, in addition to his flat, all strike the top-drawer-taken-into-the-service-at-Oxbridge-where-he-rowed-&-came-down-with-a-pass-degree persona (Hawksworth actually says a John Steed line about shooting people will keep them down!).
Yet this is so clearly not the whole story, either Hawksworth or Lottie Dean. Hawksworth is plainly better-read (at least judging by the books) than Steed - he is only ever seen reading Tintin or one of the leather-bound volumes in his library that amount to wallpaper. In Spyder both Hawksworth & Lottie Dean are seen lip-reading - no mean feat, believe me - in a later episode. Nor does one give the impression of conceding intellectual superiority to the other, as happens - differing depending on the female partner - in The Avengers. Mind you, I wouldn't go to the stake for this opinion, it's really based on a gut feeling I have that both Lottie & Hawksworth must have been selected for personal skills & qualities that would be really out of the ordinary. Yes I know - exactly as The Avengers would have been.
The creative ways used to communicate in this episode have struck me again with bother their authenticity & cleverness. When Hawksworth is reading the slides with his message from Spyder (changing them is over is relatively laborious in itself) raises the question of the sheer labour that would probably have gone into making those slides! Similarly the office equipment & equipment at Arachnid is so outdated it's incredible. And the smoking! It's only these things that have reminded me I wasn't born when this series first showed. The Avengers therefore ended well before I was born but doesn't give me that impression at all - I think it indicates the relative realism of Spyder's Web, whereas The Avengers could never be real.
So Spyder's Web is therefore both reminiscent of The Avengers in terms of the characters, yet different by virtue of being far more realistic. This obviously explains why on my last posting I was convinced it was totally unrelated but on this viewing it keeps bringing 'Avengers' into my mind. In fact even while I've been writing this post I've changed my mind about Spyder's Web somewhat - I have commented on the plot being complicated, but I think I may be missing the point. On balance I think it may actually be that this series opener is a piece of quality television that is no lightweight. I think this may not have come across before because the somewhat uneven writing of this series makes the entire series come across as more lightweight than this episode at times. It is clear that this episode taken alone is a piece of quality television on all levels that was unfortunately not maintained for the rest of the series.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Adam Adamant Lives!: The Terribly Happy Embalmers

You will notice that this is not a post about The Corridor People. Having seen all four episodes several times now, it is very apparent to me that I'm going to have to reflect on them at length before presuming to post on them here. I'm also going to have to do some background reading : I want to re-read some Joe Orton to see whether the dialogue really is Ortonesque. This may be complicated by the fact that the majority of the stock of the brand spanking new Library of Birmingham remains inaccessible ('Shambles!', thundered the Birmingham Post the other week). Suffice to say I am not ready for a detailed post on each episode yet.
Meanwhile I haven't watched Adam Adamant for a while, so I'm going to cast a baleful eye over this episode. I like the story a lot, but it could be so much better. On the plus side it is perhaps the most Avengers-esque episode, with a plot very similar to The Undertakers. In fact Brian Clemens reworked this episode as Bizarre, the last Linda Thorson episode of The Avengers.
Anyone who's even set foot in my world via this blog will know my dislike of the way the same faces recur over & again in these 1960s TV series, & this episode is largely ruined to my mind by the fact that the faces of the cast are all way too familiar. The top-listed cast, in order as they appear on IMDB, are: John Le Mesurier,Dereck Guyler, Jeremy Young, Arthur Brough, Hamilton Dyce, Ilona Rogers, & John Scott. This is too many well-known faces, not helped by the fact that two of the faces are probably now best known for Dad's Army, so that you spend the whole episode thinking of the characters' other roles. I recently rewatched the Avengers episode that Gerald Harmer appears in, & was astonished to find I had made no connection between his character there & Adam Adamanat, so I don't think I'm being overly harsh. I can live with recurring actors when they're not noticeable, but here it's just overkill.
The plot is superb, it flows perfectly & isn't hammed up too much. Jack May's character is also superb, just acerbic enough, & I love his little rhymes. This episode plays on the way the fad at the time for psychiatry & psychoanalysis would have been completely alien to Adamant. I find it interesting that he just walks in & under hypnosis tells them his real history, which is interpreted as an 'archaic delusion'! I have written before that I find the culture-clash element of Adam Adamant overwritten as a rule, probably because it was intended to be funny, but I find the plot element just right here. Of course there is a crashing great fault in the plot. At one point the baddies say that they have studied Adam Adamant's case to learn about preservation, suspension, whatever else they supposedly do to make a living person seem dead. Yet they manage completely to miss that they are saying this to Adamant himself, who would have presumably been such a celebrity that they couldn't fail to notice this!
There is something strangely postmodern about this episode - the fact that Adamant has already 'died' once, yet is posing as willing to undergo a process based on his own suspension of life. It isn't quite the medium commenting on itself, but it's as if the subject has become so knowing that he can afford to comment on the subject of the episode, while also being the subject of the episode. This high-falutin' subtext is almost completely not mentioned, strangely allowing this episode to be understood on several levels.
In summary, this isn't bad by any stretch of the imagination, but nonetheless I prefer its reworked version as The Avengers episode, Bizarre. The plot is too close to Adamant here, there is that crashing plot disaster in the middle, & I don't like too many familiar faces.
My favourite bits: Adamant producing a medicated snuff that his father picked up at Balaclava. Great virtue there is in not throwing anything away; the place where he wakes up to find the undertaker measuring him for a coffin.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The Corridor People - My First Impressions

My usual custom is to blog about tv shows episode-by-episode. I've blogged about every episode of two shows - The Prisoner & Spyder's Web - but this wasn't ever really my aim, it just happened that I wanted to run through The Prisoner thinking about it from a particular point of view, & Spyder's Web also has relatively few episodes so that I suddenly found myself writing about all of them. Actually I don't doubt that I shall return to both of these series. In the case of The Corridor People, there were only ever four episodes, all of which survive, so writing coherently about all of them shouldn't be that difficult.
I say *shouldn't* because I find I'm having to write a separate post before I start on the episodes because I'm trying & failing to come to an overview of the series. I have now watched all four episodes - not back to back - & am struggling to decide their effect on me. This post will therefore probably be rather disjointed. As so often I see what people on the internet are saying so that I can disagree with it violently, but am surprised to see there isn't really that much & what there is is wildly contradictory (the customer reviews on Amazon alone are very divided, some say this show is genius television & the others say not to waste your money. Here, in the words of Double 0 Section is why:
'I didn�t glean too much from Network�s publicity for their DVD release of the series, which resorted to describing the characters rather than the show�s premise. I thought that was odd, but now I can see why they did that. The premise, if there really is one, would be very difficult to describe; the eccentric characters much easier. I also thought it odd that I couldn�t tell from their copy who was the hero or heroes of the show, and I�m not much clearer on that after watching every episode. (All four of them!) There is one character who more or less emerges as the closest thing the series has to a hero, but that definitely isn�t clear in the first two episodes. So what else did Network offer? A comparison to The Avengers (that certainly intrigued me) and an unattributed quote calling The Corridor People �akin to a lost Harold Pinter play with an added dash of Monthy Python.� The Avengers comparison didn�t prove very apt, and the quote smacked of hyperbole to me, but in retrospect, I have to concede that it�s actually the best description of the show I can think of, too�although the pendulum swings much closer to Pinter than Python.' (
Tanner goes on to compare the show to various other sixties ones, crossed with each other, & I'm gratified to know they're all ones I've heard of & have at least seen some episodes of. However I don't feel that's the way to approach this show. I'll grant you, I'm finding it so difficult to describe that it's made even me speechless.  So perhaps that's actually the first thing to say about it, that it is something unique that is difficult to describe.
Nor does the oft-repeated comparison to The Avengers work. Having now seen it all the way through once, I have no desire to compare this show to The Avengers, this is some seriously heavy-duty televisual art that is Marat Sade (in stature that is) to the pantomime that is The Avengers. It has the intrigue of Dangerman without the clarity of who is who. It has the dead people of Randall & Hopkirk without the rigidity about who is dead or alive. It has the paranoia of The Prisoner with no clear delineation of who is the boss. It is as if the two Men from UNCLE kept changing sides & the sides kept changing names. It is as if the department of Callan went rogue. To me there isn't really much point trying to compare The Corridor People to anything else - it is on its own.
The main interest for Avengers fans must be casting Elizabeth Shepherd, who was the first Emma Peel, in a key role. The question is of course what Mrs Peel would have been like - well you'll have to watch this yourself & make up your own mind. Shepherd in this role lacks the poise combined with ease & sexiness that Diana Rigg has as Mrs Peel, & is much more weighted towards poise. She isn't quite the ice queen, but I do like one point where she says, 'You must keep your hatred little self-indulgent concessions.'
There is, though, one show The Corridor People reminds me of, & that is The Young Ones of the 1980s - Corridor People actually uses many of the same techniques that Young Ones used, it gives the same impression of talking to someone slightly more intelligent than oneself. Perhaps that is why Corridor People only ran to four episodes - it was ahead of its time & the great British public wasn't ready for it - in fact I feel most of them probably aren't ready now.
I am at some point going to attempt to write about the episodes individually, but my impressions at this point leave The Corridor People in the category of Great Television. If you try to get the point, you miss it: 'there are no patterns' van Epp says towards the end. This is the sort of television that requires repeated viewings to get even many of the impressions. I have no doubt it gives up layers of meaning as you rewatch it. Again this is no doubt a reason it failed in the sixties - there is no doubt a single viewing would not be enough.
Visually I can only describe it as superb. I literally cannot describe how effective the scenes are. They are also quality scenes.
The quality of the action & dialogue also make you forget that it is mainly studio-based. It feels theatrical, but not in the old-fashioned way some earlier sixties series do. The characters leap out of the screen fully-formed, easily distinguishable. And quotable, oh how quotable. In the flow of narrative & quality of dialogue I would have to compare it to Joe Orton's plays. In fact more than The Young Ones I think Orton is the best comparison. Have I said that this some serious quality television?
In fact I don't even have the vocabulary to describe the 'plot': you end the four episodes with no clear impression of a premise or even an idea of 'sides': this is truly surrealist television, well beyond anything The Avengers ever did.
I just have two criticisms. The first is the theme tune is all wrong - this may be a deliberate part of the surrealism, but the tune is better suited to a situation comedy, & leaves the viewer unprepared for what is coming. No, I wouldn't like to suggest different music! The other is my ongoing dislike of recurring 1960s actors - John Sharp in this case. He is superb in his role, doesn't really distract with his personality, but nonetheless *looks* like a recurring character in other shows, so you find yourself thinking, 'Oh, that's...'
I'm starting my second viewing as I write this & am already rather nervous at trying to do justice to the episodes of this series...

Sunday, 20 April 2014

The Avengers: Chorus of Frogs (Venus Smith was an Avengers Girl)

This is the final Venus Smith episode in Series 2 of The Avengers. I get the impression, at least judging from the relative lack of critical hammering I can find online, that it is perhaps the most popular. I find this strange, because personally I've always found it *very* difficult to get a handle of any sort on this episode - I'm hoping that this may be because I've been watching it rather passively, & certainly one of the reasons I started blogging about TV was to make me watch it in a different, more attentive, way.
Not the least interesting thing for me about this episode is the commentary by Julie Stevens on my boxed set. She makes a number of interesting points, from the point of view of this series of posts considering how Venus Smith stands as an Avengers girl. First from my point of view is that she defines two different Venus Smiths, defined by the hair, a more mature one in the first two Venus episodes, then the younger-acting one of the remaining ones. She didn't have any choice or influence over this, it was something thrust upon her by the producer. Her hair was cut short by Vidal Sassoon, in contrast to the wig she wore at first, & also ahead of the prevailing style of the time, since she comments that everyone else was wearing a beehive & short hair hadn't come into fashion yet. The later, younger-seeming, 'perky' Venus appears to be Stevens's preferred of the two.
Stevens also comments on Smith naivete. Exactly chiming with the point that everyone makes about her, that anyone else would just tell Steed to go away. She identifies that there must be 'something' between them, but whatever Venus gets out of her danger-inducing relationship with Steed, it's not sexual, it's more a brother & sister relationship. My own enduring impression is that the idea at this stage of development of The Avengers seems to be that Steed has all sorts of friends & acquaintances whom he can rope in to things - Dr Keel was the first. The nature of these relationships is necessarily rather cloudy - Stevens takes it that Venus & Steed already know each other on some level before Venus's televised adventures with him begin. However, despite the difference in relationship from that of Mrs Gale & Mrs Peel, Stevens clearly sees herself as an Avengers girl, the one who is always missed out in pub quizzes!
This episode is interesting in all sorts of ways apart from the plot. The sets are so much better than they have been up till now that it really gives the show a different look. This episode in particular shows what a different age it was made in - it is set in Greece, but the complete absence of location filming or even stock footage means it could take place virtually anywhere. A mere decade after this show Jason King went all out with the sophisticated locations, although as I remember from only having seen a couple of episodes a long time ago, even that only suggested locations with stock footage. On the other hand Steed's boss is at liberty to - presumably - fly all the way to give him information when it could have been done with a telegram or phone call.
I like Steed's status as a stowaway in this episode - very much in the earlier vein of Steed as rather dodgy character who turns up unexpectedly in odd places. I like the way this episode, while set in a completely closed environment, resists becoming a mystery a la Agatha Christie. I like that we viewers retain enough omnipotence to see the functioning of the baddies. As a mystery, though, when the interested parties gather in the state room it is like the scene where they gather in the library & the detective says why he has gathered them there! Unfortunately as a mystery it both gives too much away too soon & is also quite confusing because of the convoluted characters & goings-on on the ship.
This episode has my favourite of Venus's songs, The Lips That Touch Kippers, which can be found at Stevens reveals that she chose this song herself. Visually this episode isn't as interesting as some because interiors on a ship are, well, interiors. I suspect this may be a case where the uncritical viewer of fifty years ago may have found something to admire in the lives of the rich, but visually it falls flat on its face now. Similarly the only possible 'issue' present in this episode - corruption & the things people will do when cornered of desperate - also falls flat on its face, swamped by the lengthy development before the issue really raises its head just before the denouement.
In conclusion I feel that my opinion of Venus Smith's standing as an Avengers girl has changed as a result of watching these six episodes with greater attention to what is happening. I blithely subtitled this series of posts 'Venus Smith was an Avengers Girl', because that is how I have thought of her since I first saw the episodes in which she appears. I have actually only seen them since I got the boxed set: my original viewing of The Avengers was Channel 4's revival in the 1980s, in which they only showed colour episodes, & I never owned any of her episodes on video. She came as a pleasant surprise to me when I first saw them - having read the decidedly mixed opinions of her, & I think I was fast to jump to the conclusion that she was the Avengers girl that time forgot. I like her enormously, more in the vein of Tara King than the others. The differences in roles that I have identified would certainly put her in a different stable from Mrs Gale & Mrs Peel, the archetypal Avengers 'girls'. There is also an obvious change in her character during the course of the episodes, which I feel reflects a relative unsureness in direction for the series. What she is really, therefore, is a try-out for a possible direction that did not prove to be much of a future, causing her status as an Avengers girl to be terminally compromised.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

The Avengers: Man in the Mirror (Venus Smith was an Avengers Girl)

This is perhaps the episode which may be most resonant for many people as showing most fully the nature of the organisation he works for. Previously Steed has met his boss in bars & on beaches, but he clearly has a new boss (One-Six) whom he as clearly doesn't get on with, surely an experience many of us have had when a perfectly good job has been ruined by the appointment of an idiot above us (I'm not bitter & twisted in the slightest, & in case you're wondering she left under a cloud after two grievances & a formal complaint). In this case it is plain that One-Six's priority is his particular way of doing things rather than getting the best out of his agents. Here Steed is shown up as a lone wolf rather than a company man. I like that in the later series this morphs into him being grand old man figure in the organisation, to whom trainees look up. On the other hand I love the way a prostitute hangs around outside the building where the meeting is - I personally wouldn't interpret this as being an agent whose cover is being a prostitute (for example I personally feel that she is actually a prostitute, or at the very least intended to be seen by the viewer as a prostitute rather than a simple cover for the organisation - not forgetting that Steed's character started out much rougher around the edges than he later become. In some series he would probably be sleeping with her - the ambiguity of The Avengers is that he knows her but it's not clear how.
At least in my opinion this insight into Steed's organisation answers a question I have asked elsewhere that is also asked on The Avengers Forever website:
'I am often accused of being too hard on Venus Smith episodes. Well, please explain to me why a young, professional singer allows herself to be so horribly manipulated by Steed�unless she likes having her life threatened for no apparent reason. And unless some details have been left to the imagination, it would appear that her only compensation for her considerable troubles are sugar-daddy-type gifts from a rather lecherous-looking older man!' (
I feel the answer to this question is found in this episode: watch the men at the briefing when they get up at the end. If you don't spot it, watch it again, then go through the episode noticing the differences in roles between men & women. I can't believe I've never noticed it before. We are so used to thinking that the (unreality-based) Avengers episodes were leaders of women's liberation, spearheaded by Peel & Gale, that we overlook the (slightly more reality-based) early episodes. My point about the briefing is that all the agents in the organisation at this early stage are *men*. I'm sure this is at least more representative of real gender attitudes of the time, if perhaps not the real spy world, than the liberated women & mixed spy classes of the later series.
This explains why Venus is such a passive-little-woman character - that was how women actually had to behave at the time & presumably was at least the mind-set of the writer. I would note, though, that Venus also has an extremely assertive side with men, shown to best advantage in The Decapod. Of course her relationship with Steed is also largely a vehicle for Steed, but again this reflects a subordinate role for women - Jon Rollason got his own shows to himself, remember, while Venus is entertaining & a help to Steed, but no heavyweight, that would only come with Mrs Gale. My thesis is that at this stage the production of The Avengers was still not sure where to take it - fortunately they took it down the Cathy Gale route, so much more in tune with the spirit of the age. I feel if they had gone down the Venus Smith route, the series would have sunk without a trace & not be the cult hit it remains today.
Of course this is where Venus Smith fails as an Avengers girl, in that she is rather the exact opposite of everything the phrase 'Avengers girl' (the use of 'girl' rather than 'woman' is also interesting) brings to mind, not even any leather in sight. I feel this difference is especially apparent in this episode - when she *asks* for her brooch & camera back she looks like a small child - far different again from the brassy character we saw in The Decapod! This aspect of her character is over-egged in the funfair. *Nobody* gets that frightened in a ghost train, any horror they evoke is through shock rather than genuine fear, so this scene takes Venus's childishness just too far.
Plot-wise I would agree with the criticism found elsewhere that the plot is rather tedious, & it isn't always apparent the function the different elements play - the opening scene of the body in the ghost train for example. Personally I remember this episode as a series of disconnected scenes, all of them effective on their own but difficult to think into a harmonious whole in my head. Visually a funfair is one of those things that it's difficult to fail with, although I find the bedroom hostage scene also very effective & memorable. It's a lost episode but a funfair & especially ghost train was used as a setting in the series 1 episode Tunnel of Fear, which is one of the ones I've always wanted to see, but am unlikely ever to be able to. I don't really mind any of the things often criticised in this episode, & feel it's had a bashing it doesn't really deserve. There is little point criticising the relative poverty of the funfair scenery - haven't these people noticed that *all* sets on TV of this age look like that? And I don't mind Venus's singing - I don't think she's off-key, I think it's meant to be folky jazzy singing. I also have a problem that the song about 'I know where I'm going' has me howling with or without gin!
So in conclusion, a Venus Smith episode highlighting her subordinate role as a contrast to the 'other' Avengers girls. I'm aware more & more, watching these episodes with more attention than I normally would, that the writing lacks a consistency in characterisation that later obtained in The Avengers. It is also apparent that the show is finding its way in this series & there are several different possibilities here, but going with the Mrs Gale route, rather than Venus Smith, made the show the cult success it became.

Friday, 18 April 2014

The Man From UNCLE: The Summit-Five Affair

This is the episode that starts the fourth series of TMFU, often called more serious than the preceding one, which may have overdone the camp & slapstick slightly.
My personal feeling is that the larger-than-life elements of the last series are not completely missing here. Not the least eccentric thing about this episode is the agent Harry Beldon, played by Albert Dekker. I love his characterisation of his frankly ridiculous character enormously. I was even more surprised to look up Dekker & find the cause of his death was auto-erotic asphyxiation! Beldon is so far from the image of what a secret agent should be, that I think it is impossible to deny the high camp element of this series. His character is almost - I'm finding it difficult to find the right word - a spoof rather than caricature of the whole spy genre, Avengers, Bond, & everyone, from the moment he gets out of the car drinking champagne.
To my mind this caricature of the spy genre is made more crashingly obvious by the fact that the murder weapon is an UNCLE Zeron Acturator - merely being shot with an UNCLE-issue revolver would be slightly pedestrian in comparison to inventing a weapon that is the *only* one that could do the injury. The champagne-drinking was an Avengers touch, but the invention of a fantastical weapon suggests that it is firmly Bond being spoofed here. I suppose it is a plot point rather than a weakness, but once again UNCLE's security is shown up to be something of a shambles: it is almost a caricature of the spy genre & an inversion of it at the same time. Here the world of the spy has become so self-referential that in this episode nothing outside of UNCLE's inner workings come into it, even the threatened Thrush takeover is really only important as it affects UNCLE. UNCLE is the point, UNCLE is the threat, UNCLE is the vulnerable object here. Frankly, if a world-wide security organisation is so vulnerable that a world-wide takeover can be masterminded from inside, it isn't up to much & heads should roll. Any organisation where one operative can say 'Gentlemen, you seem to forget that I am UNCLE North-East,' stands or falls by the integrity of that operative.
Yet this episode manages to hold attention, by a mixture of good visuals, good characterisation & a developed plot building on many of the standard pieces of the spy genre, such as rendez-vous which becomes an ambush. The interrogation scenes are very effective, although this apparent seriousness about getting to the bottom of who is the traitor in UNCLE is spoiled to my mind by the fact that UNCLE's security has allowed a Thrush agent to take a key role in the organisation. Some of these scenes have Prisoner-like overtones - but of course this episode was broadcast the month The Prisoner started across the Atlantic, so perhaps the visual similarity is either in my mind or else something in the popular notion of how interrogation was carried out at the time. The look of glee in the interrogator's face after Solo confesses adds the sado-masochistic dynamic present in some Prisoner episodes. Where UNCLE's security has obviously worked is in nurturing Solo & Kuryakin as such a strong partnership that their partnership takes priority over loyalty to the organisation, ironically leading to the finding of the real culprit. Another way UNCLE isn't shown up in a very good light is that surely the confessions gained by the kind of torture methods shown in this episode should not be taken at face value.
There is of course one whacking great weakness in this episode: it is perfectly obvious who the bad apple is. I mean, seriously, isn't it so obvious that the person looks, acts, dresses, even speaks as the stereotypical baddie of a spy thriller that there can only really be one suspect? - especially if the many references to spy genre are taken into account. It is also obvious that they are mistaken about Struthers are the culprit. The immediate changing of subject in the conference call with UNCLE New York that that is the point. I think it is very clear that this episode functions largely as a vehicle to show off Kuryakin & Solo in the best light, which it certainly does, to the extent of making them look the shining lights of UNCLE!

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Police Surgeon: Easy Money

Police Surgeon, which ran for one series beginning in September 1960, is usually trumpeted as the predcessor of The Avengers. It received a lukewarm reception & was axed after its first run for reasons which differ depending on whom you listen to. The production was done by many names familiar to us from the early days of The Avengers, & of course Ian Hendry. It is even implied that The Avengers was thrown together as a vehicle for Hendry's star quality (source of this potted history:
I have one colossal problem with this show, & it effectively prevents me taking it at all seriously: it's the theme music. All it makes me think of is strippers. Having safely got that out of my system hopefully I can concentrate on the actual programme.
I don't object to this show at all. It is plainly, to my mind, only a predecessor of the Avengers in that it comes out of the same gritty underworld milieu. It is *so* much of its time, in set-bound production, its social ideas, the fact that all but one episode are missing-believed-wiped,  even the mention of one of the long-gone psychiatric social workers, & the underlying idea screams 1960s ideas of do-gooding:
'Bond�s idea had been for a socially conscious crime series, the sort of worthy but rather dreary sort of thing that was all the rage with British television producers at the time. Dr Brent would be a bleeding heart police surgeon who would deal with social outcasts and the other assorted misfits who needed saving by people like Dr Brent.' (
In fact what primarily strikes me about Police Surgeon is that I see it differently from the majority of the reviews I've read, for example:
'The half hour format of the show ensures the story is quite brief, and on the evidence of this episode the writers had aspirations to provide some sort of social commentary. The boy has spent most of his youth in borstal; Brent struggles to engage him with the idea of working hard to go straight. Hendry�s charm goes along way to kerb the preachiness, and there�s what appears to be intended to be a cynical twist at the end. It passes 25 minutes easy enough, but it�s dry fare with none of the flair, fun or fantasy of The Avengers; and if Hendry weren�t so watchable it could have quickly grown stale.
'Watching early Avengers episodes has awakened a longing for more to be found; but I�m in no hurry to watch more Police Surgeon and I won�t grieve too much if it stays lost.' (
In fact, Police Surgeon was so little what I expected, I found it a pleasant relief. It is very much a crime drama of its time.
The main opinion expressed by Little Storping that I disagree with is that it is relieved by Ian Hendry. Obviously I'm only going by one episode but it's apparent (I'm re-watching Girl on the Trapeze as I write this) that Hendry is playing quite a different character from Dr Keel. He is one of these chummy people who think the youngsters just need to be understood, whereas in The Avengers he is a much more workaday old-fashioned GP. To me Ian Hendry is not the star actor of this episode at all, it is Michael Crawford playing Joseph Clark.
This is the nicest surprise of Police Surgeon as far as I'm concerned. I actually had to look online to check whether it was the same Michael Crawford! He so perfectly does the sulky, old-enough-to-smoke-&-get-into-trouble-but-still-a-kid-really act, perhaps very slightly overacting at times in the manner of the age. However this really shows his star quality as an actor, that I didn't initially connect this actor with Frank Spencer & the opera singer. Unrecognisable until I realised who he was - that is the mark of a really quality actor. I'm also interested to discover how unusual Crawford's own upbringing was in some ways.
Of course faults there are a-plenty. For me the major one is that the doctor is dumbing down his job to a mere chat with a very disturbed young man in a cafe. The young man in question clearly has the makings of a personality disorder - he evene talks about the kind of upbringing that causes psychopathy. That Dr Brent avoids the clear psychpathology in front of him & instead - almost - gets drawn into Clark's chaotic web, makes him an essentially flawed character, & makes a nonsense of the social concern the series sets out to portray, since he actually ends up contributing to Clark's situation.
So my summary is that, despite a flawed plot, this surviving Police Surgeon episode is a pleasant surprise & an excellent vehicle for Michael Crawford's surprise - to me - acting quality.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

The Avengers: School for Traitors (Venus Smith was an Avengers Girl)

The opening scene of this Venus Smith episode may perhaps encapsulate what is wrong with all of them: I wasn't around in universities in the early sixties, but whatever the students were dancing to, I'm damn sure it wasn't the Varsity Drag. The song comes from a 1927 musical called Good News, & since this would be associated with their parents' generation, it would have been terribly demode. I don't get this total feeling of wrongness with the other songs used in the Venus Smith episodes: even if they are old songs they're suitable to their nightclub milieu.
The wrongness extends to everything else in this episode: the plot is outlandish, the characters unsympathetic, it simply fails to maintain interest. The university setting falls flat on its face - to me it feels like the idea of a university of someone who hadn't been one. Since James Mitchell, the writer, had been to Oxford, this idea is just plain wrong, but nonetheless it remains for me an Oxbridge man's idea of a provincial university, clearly based in sets trying to be an Oxbridge college. There's all the tweedy, pipe-smoking old school clubbishness of Oxbridge, but yet with town mixing too much with gown. This episode compares poorly with the Emma Peel episode A Sense of History, set in the fictional university of St Bode's. I think with the creeping unreality that set in with the Emma Peel series, the production could get away with creating a university with minimal personnel & sets: the whole point of St Bode's is that it isn't real, & so the unreal antics that go on in it are excusable & indeed to be expected. Here the unreality of the setting makes the story unreal, & that is definitely not what was being aimed for. The university setting does provide an opportunity (the earliest I've spotted so far) for the books which later formed Steed's library in Stable Mews to make an appearance.
To attempt to drag myself back to the point of this series of posts - Venus appears fully-formed as Venus in this one, the first time we see the Venus we love or are irritated by. She finally appears with hair & clothes that suit Julie Stevens & contribute to Venus's personality. Perhaps this is also the episode so far where she acts most like an Avengers girl, remaining a sidekick to Steed, but then her business is music not undercover work. Although she must like it - by now she really ought to be sharply on the lookout for any gigs Steed arranges for her & run quickly in the opposite direction if she sees him. In this one she addresses him as 'love': I maintain that despite her apparent naivety there is a sexual tension to their relationships.
Morally, of course this episode once again shows up Steed in a bad light: in fact the danger Venus is exposed to makes him look not that different from the villains of the piece, planning a takeover of the great & the good while they are still young, for rather non-specific reasons. I don't personally buy the connection people make to the traditional approaches made to Oxbridge undergraduates (by both sides in the Cold War) to become spies: this feels much more like corruption & blackmail, than an offer of 'work'. This is not being done by a side that you could defect to.
My dislike of continually reappearing actors is usually plain: here there's a relatively heavyweight actor playing East, in the shape of John Standing, who became a Baronet after this show, although he doesn't use the title. His family owned Bletchley Park, where so much intelligence work was done in World War II, until 1937. It takes a real quality actor to play a minor part without you continually thinking it's him: here I feel Standing's quality stands out - he comes across as a different sort of actor from the others, with an economy of technique where some of the others overact at times in this one.
Best bit: Steed making a blooper look like it was intended.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

The Avengers: Box of Tricks (Venus Smith was an Avengers Girl)

It was only after my last post in this series attempting to rehabilitate Venus Smith as an Avengers girls was up on the blog, I realised that I had totally omitted to make any attempt to rehabilitate her reputation in that post! I have decided to leave it as it is because my omission may point towards why she is usually *not* included in the list of Avengers girls: she is largely ornamental & a pawn for Steed in that episode. She just fits in with other nondescript characters, in complete contrast to, say, Mrs Peel, who you couldn't conceivably miss under any circumstances. My hypothesis therefore is that Venus's disappearance from the roll call of Avengers girls is partly caused by her relatively paltry parts in the scripts. I also think Julie Stevens has a quite dfferent presence from Diana Rigg, Honor Blackman, & even Joanna Lumley - they all have a presence that it is impossible to miss. There's nothing wrong with it, but Stevens's presence in the introductions by her on my boxed set feels more nurturing & comfortable. Even at pushing ninety Honor Blackman can still be extremely challenging - in an interview on youtube with her on Loose Women she still projects in a way that fills the field of attention. I don't know how Stevens's acting education would compare to Blackman's, Rigg's, or Lumley's, but she seems less theatrical, somehow.
As an episode of The Avengers, I don't really have anything to add to the frequent criticisms that the little box of tricks & the disappearing box are a dead giveaway. I'm also not keen on the interchangeable blondes: it actually becomes difficult to tell them apart.
As a development of Venus's character, it's superb, despite her remaining essentially a pawn used by the still-dodgy Steed. I feel she actually becomes a character in this one: even the different hair makes her look like Venus Smith rather than a young woman trying to look like a forty-year-old. The clothes also begin to look like Venus Smith's wardrobe: I particularly like the jumper she has on when she opens the box - the androgynous boyish sixties look suits her so well. In the last act there is a continuation of the rather acerbic character she showed in The Decapod. This episode makes me wonder *why* she's still having anything to do with Steed, I mean, honestly, she nearly got killed in their last encounter! There is a subtle theme of naivety in these episodes, not confined to Venus in this one but it also comes up in the remarkable faith shown in Dr Gallan's little healing boxes. This aspect of Venus's character & the society that surrounds the Avengers makes me reflect on how different society was at this time from now. Larkin wrote that sex began in 1963, & the obvious explanation to me at this distance of time for Venus's continued involvement with Steed would be an affair, crush, passion, what have you. I actually find it far more likely that Venus would be sexually or romantically involved with Steed than I do any of the other female Avengers characters. Given the seedy nightclub setting of these episodes & Steed as lounge lizard, my cynical mind would also tend to interpret him as a man who hangs around nightclubs, involved in shady deals, who would have several 'businesses' on the go, & may at the extreme even be a pimp. People don't tend to like the more child-like aspects of Venus's character: here in true child fashion she is inquisitive enough to open up one of Dr Gallam's boxes. The curiosity & excitement at opening what she thinks is a present are palpable, & endearing beyond anything.
An extremely strong point of this episode is how it looks. The sets are effective, don't really come across as sets, there is always good contrast in the tones on the screen. Visually this episode really is excellent.
The good news is I've finally found someone else, Ron Geddes, who likes Venus & writes:
'Venus's songs are enjoyable; it was a good idea to have a singer in the show for a while. She's very agreeable and helpful to Steed in his assignment even looking to him to give her the nod to take over in the show. Of course she would be inquisitive of the box he gets delivered to her address. I like his reaction on hearing that she's opened it. He's really done all the intelligence work this time however so her enthusiasm at the very end is quite adorable in telling him all they've achieved. She gets everything right but still needs some reassurance. He doesn't even mind getting a kick on the dance floor from another blonde acquaintance because of her. Venus obviously believes they make a great team and for the few episodes she was Steed's Avengers girl�they did.' ( Thank you, Ron, I was beginning to think I was crying in the wilderness!)
My favourite bits: Steed being a masseur on call to NATO. This cover is so hilarious. Also he's wonderful when he's dramatically telling his symptoms to Dr Gallan. Why he wants to know, I can't think, since all he does is give people a box.
Nonethless this episode is a superb vehicle for Steed, showcasing Patrick Macnee's acting (with an opportunity to over-act) ability to perfection. The reason Venus Smith doesn't stick in people's memories is clear: she's treated as a minor character, despite improvements in characterisation.

Friday, 4 April 2014

The Avengers: The Removal Men (Venus Smith was an Avengers Girl)

I'm a bit nonplussed how to start with this one, if I'm honest. I can rave about The Decapod until the cows come home, but this episode begins to confirm the commonly-negative opinions of the Venus Smith episodes for me.
In terms of character development, this episode has lots of meat to chew over. For a start, assuming the events of The Decapod are not that far behind her, what the hell is Venus doing having anything to do with Steed? - she actually says 'Oh no, (with the impication of not you),' at one point, but then proceeds to let him put her in mortal danger instead of having nothing to do with him for life, which would be the natural thing to do. Venus - despite a blond wig better suited to a forty year old - comes across as so sweet & naïve in this episode.  Unfortunately her naivety also puts Steed in danger: the irony is that their interaction means it is actually Steed's character that is most elaborated in this episode. Leaving his colossal misjudgement in relying on Venus aside, he perfectly plays a lounge lizard. I love how smooth, suave & sophisticated his character is in these series 2 episodes. The dodgy nightclub & spiv scene remains the perfect one for him. In contrast to the way he is an almost fatherly figure to Tara King, here he is incredibly dodgy, apparently having no regard for what could happen to Venus as a result of his criminal involvements: far different from the solid establishment figure he later becomes. He smokes cigarettes (minus holder this time) & once again visibly smokes in the way a pipe- or cigar-smoker smokes, taking the smoke into his mouth & blowing it out again, rather than into the lungs. As far as I know Patrick Macnee's own smoking history hasn't been elaborated, whether it was only something he did for a part, or whether he actually smoked himself.
I can't put my finger on what goes terribly wrong in this episode: certainly some of the common criticisms don't grate on me personally. I don't object to the songs & the whole jazz piece in the middle, myself. I maintain that The Avengers was trying to find a way forward after Ian Hendry in this series, & presumably that was one conceivable way forward. Edwin Richfield is one of several familiar faces in this episode, but unfortunately the only one that irritates me by not being Australian but being an Australian character. Additionally I feel it is possible for the actor to overshadow his character, & going by his filmography (!) he appeared in pretty well *everything*! But for me what brings this one down is the plot, which somehow manages not to draw one in, & doesn't have the oddity attraction of The Decapod.
I do feel there is a disparity in how we would view this show now from how it would have been seen when first broadcast. Britain was very different: the second world war & rationing weren't that far away, people were looking forward to a bright new future of prosperity, including foreign travel. Elizabeth David's books had already brought sophisticated foreign food to the bookshelf, but this episode may be slightly before the masses got cheap package tours. When this episode was first shown it was therefore when the idea of Abroad was both suspect & incredibly sophisticated, since unattainable, at the same time. I do feel it is important to remember that that is how the original audience would have viewed the setting of this one: it is in a sense escapist viewing rather than a more straightforward mystery. The escapism of this one is into the world of those who can just afford to go to the South of France. I think the correct viewing setting would be in a nearly-new flat in Park Hill in Sheffield. I do think that if this episode is seen at the cusp of a brave new world of foreign travel (while drawing on the traditional British suspicion of anything vaguely Foreign) some of its shortcomings wither away.
My favourite bits: the scene where we see a burglar who turns out to be Steed, the very visually-effective (in contrast to the other studio-based scenes) staircase scene, and Steed putting suntan lotion on One-Ten's back.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

The Avengers: The Decapod (Venus Smith was an Avengers Girl)

I have projected for some time a series of posts based on the character of Venus Smith, who appears in six episode in the second series only. I've entitled this series Venus Smith was an Avengers Girl to make my approach to the subject about as obvious as it can get. Who knows, I may even next do some posts on Jon Rollason was an Avengers Girl! Joking apart - the existence of other partners to Steed in the second series gives the lie to the common perception that The Avengers can be divided into Gale, Peel, & King eras, & that's it. In fact there is a far more complex relationship between the protagonists of this show. Of course Steed was only ever a rather shadowy, louche figure to start off with, appearing out of nowhere to push Dr Keel in the right direction. A similar dynamic pertains with Jon Rollason - interesting how the doctor theme was continued. I like the series 2 episodes before Mrs Gale became a fixture in series 3, where Steed has several different partners & the partners often have more screen time than him. I think the reason is that I feel it would be so much more true to the shadowy Steed's character to duck & dive a bit, to have friends & contacts everywhere. In the nature of his work he *should* have contacts in all sorts of places - in some ways I find the toff he later became a bit of a disappointment.
Yet the Venus Smith episodes are not a favourite with the fans at all. *Nobody* seems to like her, to the extent that I've wondered at times whether there's something wrong with me because I do. She is often criticised because she increasingly turns into a teenager as her episodes progress - that's obviously a mistake of production to my mind. In the introduction to the episode on my boxed set Stevens says she hadn't done much acting before landing this role. This may be some false modesty, it is plain that she had worked extensively in television before this role; acting apart she even went on to be Harry Secombe's personal manager for many years (a biography is at In this episode her modesty is belied by the surprising maturity of the role she plays , to my mind, when allowed by the script, despite only being in her mid-twenties. Her lines really suit her - I like the repartee about whether it would be cheaper to get a dog than the bodyguards. I don't even object to the songs - her voice also sounds mature, I wonder whether in the manner of the time she smoked (incidentally we get to see Steed smoking a cigarette in a holder in this episode, although he looks to me to be smoking more like a cigar or pipe man than the deep intake of a true cigarette smoker, & yes he's in his nineties now). I'm forced to the conclusion that series 2 was a time when The Avengers lost its direction somewhat following the loss of Hendry, & tried different things as possible ways forward.
And what an episode this is, it's quite one of my favourites: once again I seem to be on my own in this estimation & Avengers Forever, for example, calls it uneven & only gives it two bowlers ( I'm actually going to find it difficult not to forget my stated aim of rehabilitating Venus Smith in my admiration for this episode. I think the reason for my appreciation of this episode is that there is something so right about it: it takes place in exactly the milieu I would expect Steed to inhabit: essentially seedy, but one also frequented by the great & the good. Surely every city has its dodgy nightclubs & seedy boxing clubs - I can certainly think of the sort of places Steed would frequent locally (cough - more Digbeth than Jewellery Quarter). Steed is a shadowy figure who may or may not be on the 'right' side - here he produces more of the dirty old man persona that only appears fleetingly later in the series. To me the earlier Steed is *supposed* the be a loung lizard & somewhat louche. Here I find the light cast on both his & Venus's personalities interesting. Steed thinks nothing of deceiving her, it's all in a day's work & his apology to her is blatantly insincere. Smith is astoundingly forgiving - & also naïve - since she also falls for the president. Many mothers may not think to warn their daughters against presidents of Balkan states who can forge passports at the drop of a hat, so this Avengers episode may stand as a salutary warning. In this Venus is even more young & naïve than Tara King, who is frequently criticised because she was too young a character for Steed & looked up to him too much. Miss King was less naïve than Miss Smith, yet Miss Smith is this strange mixture also incorporating a fully-fledged woman perfectly capable of tearing a strip off a foreign president, let alone Steed. There is an interesting parity between dodgy Steed & dodgy President. The ambassador is quite plainly the power behind the throne.
Needless to say there are some sixties standard actors in this one, Philip Madoc & Paul Stassino, but the quality of the script means the actors' own presence does not distract from the characters. I like the way a relatively small number of people are used to create the wrestling scenes: if you listen to the wrestling scene without looking, it sounds as if it's in a much bigger arena. My one criticism of this episode - I'm not sure it is really - is in the character of the decapod: he looks ridiculous. In this, though, I can detect a foretaste of the future of The Avengers - even at this early stage there are characters who are so heavily caricatured they're not real. This is also where I feel the criticism of Venus Smith falls on its face: the Jon Rollason episodes of this era are much more realistic, even the Cathy Gale ones are. The Venus Smith episodes are not real, despite the apparently gritty setting of this one. In this Miss Smith is a more accurate prediction of what was to come than, say, Mrs Gale. This, in my eyes, makes her an Avengers girl with the others.