The Avengers: Return to Castle De'Ath
One of the things I find myself repeatedly musing about here is the likelihood that the cult TV I like so much will one day turn into a static 'canon' because there will be no more shows to be discovered. My own rather dogmatic opinion is that it is possible further Doctor Who serials will be discovered while it is unlikely that missing Avengers shows will be discovered, and I am delighted to find that I have, in a way, been proved wrong. It turns out that a comic strip of Avengers adventures - with stories not based on broadcast TV episodes - was published in Diana Magazine in 1966 and 1967.
Getting excited yet?
I certainly got very interested when I found out that that was the case, and that these adventures have been republished in book form and, even better, turned into audio adventures by Big Finish Productions, under the title of 'The Avengers - Steed and Mrs Peel - The Comic Strip Adventures'. They are naturally available for download on the Big Finish website and in two volumes of CDs if you want to be old-fashioned.
What made me very interested indeed is that these adventures genuinely date from the time that the original Avengers series were being broadcast. In my humble opinion they are therefore very likely indeed to pick up on the zeitgeist of the time which originally gave birth to the later series of The Avengers. My fear with Avengers adventures written subsequently, and indeed much of the fan fiction, is that they either caricature the 1960s or introduce elements to may main alien to the series, such as that Steed and Mrs Peel are in a relationship. And indeed these adventures are incredibly true to the originals, because they comes from that time. I am focussing on Return to Castle De'Ath in this post because it is the only one I have listened to so far and in fact I am listening to it again as I write this post. I can say without hesitation that Return to Castle De'Ath is an authentic 1960s Avengers adventure, picking up on key elements in the original series. Eccentrics galore - check. A foreign prince - check. An isolated setting which allows for a closed environment so that an Avengers twist can be put on a cosy Miss MArple - check. Glittering dialogue - check. Action scenes - check. I literally cannot criticise Return to Castle De'Ath at all.
This is largely what gives me the most pleasure in writing this blog post, because I'm afraid I did a bit of a hatchet job on the Big Finish reconstructions of the Series 1 adventures when I posted about them. My opinion of what went wrong there remains - that Big Finish have essentially recorded television scripts intended to have visuals which makes them incredibly difficult to follow. My suggestion about them was that the scripts should have been rewritten to introduce a narrator (rather like the South African Avengers radio plays). I am delighted to say that in this dramatisation of a comic strip is done in such a way that you don't need a narrator. Sound effects, the script, different accents, are all used to create a picture in the listener's head. I see that Return to Castle De'Ath is written by Simon Barnard and Paul Morris, as is The Miser, while the other two are by other writers. Paul Magrs is familiar to me as the writer of a wonderful series of spectacularly eccentric books set in Whitby, but I don't know the writer of the final series in Volume 1, John Dorney at all. I would therefore caution the reader to remember that my laudatory comments only apply to Return to Castle De'Ath at this point.
I only have one little criticism, which is one that is carried over from the Big Finish productions of the series 1 Avengers episodes: the theme music lets it down by sounding like it was done on a cheap synthesizer. I will repeat what I said then: the theme music should be played by proper instruments and I don't believe it can work out that expensive to hire music students to play it - or even very expensive at Equity rates.
It is not something that is a criticism for me personally - but I'm aware that there is naturally a great attachment to Patrick Macnee as John Steed. If you are someone who feels like that you may have difficulty with these dramatisations. My personal opinion is that Julian Wadham is perfect as Steed, and in fact as he has been talking I have found myself visualising Steed in the original Castle De'Ath. Olivia Poulet is also excellent as Mrs Peel - I like that she sounds rather younger than Diana Rigg in the role (I am guessing that this is at least partly related to Diana Rigg's well-known smoking and I'm also guessing that Olivia Poulet doesn't smoke, at least going by the picture on the box). Other people who can only see Diana Rigg as Mrs Peel will again have a great difficulty with these dramatisations.
What this has made me realise is the sheer difficulty of what Big Finish have taken on, in continuing a series where the fans have such an attachment to the stars. Even with Doctor Who they don't have such a hard job, because one of the hallmarks of Doctor Who is that the lead actor changes periodically. The only other of their series which I'm familiar with is their productions of Sapphire and Steel, where again having a different male actor didn't bother me, but I have such an attachment to Joanna Lumley's vowels that I did miss her!
Otherwise, Return to Castle De'Ath is a perfect reconstruction of a 1960s Avengers adventure, because in truth that is what it is. It is really very good indeed, and I don't often say that, especially about Avengers stories!