Saturday, 25 August 2018

Virgin of the Secret Service: First Impressions

Source: here
After hesitating for a number of years, a hesitation which was caused by definitely mixed reviews on the internet, I have finally taken the plunge and bought the box set of this series on spec , having never seen a single episode of it.
Not a favourite of the cult TV world, is I suppose the verdict on the internet. This verdict seems to be based on the idea for this show cannot decide what it really wants to be. It is either an actual spy series set in the Edwardian era, or it is a light piece of fluffy parody, off the sort which the 1960s did so well. The show has been compared to Adam Adamant, just with the proviso that in this there is the hero has never gone to sleep. It has also been described as an Edwardian Avengers, surely a huge compliment if it can be said to be true.
I have been trying to get out of the habit of making general posts about a new series, and instead concentrating on posts about single episodes, but I am watching this series for the first time, really with only half an eye, and want to reflect on its impressions on me.
For a start there is a slight problem with the title. Word Virgin meant what it did now in 1968, and pretty well has meant the same thing since the dawn of time. Yes it is true that there are difficult surnames around, we only have to look at the situation in Strange Report, where Strange has a habit of walking into a room and saying, 'hello I'm Strange,' and I can only repeat that in reality you would not say that you would say that your name was strange. It is inconceivable to me that anyone has ever had a Virgin as a surname. Naturally I am quite prepared to be proved wrong about this, you were saddled with that burden of a surname you would probably take great care to change it very quickly. So therefore has an absolutely ridiculous name as part of its title, which implies that it is pure comedy and parody.
I do see why some people say that and decide whether it is comedy or a straight spy series. Moments in the episodes I have watched have made me laugh out loud. There have also been moments when Virgin has definitely compared with Adam Adamant in stuffiness. This show has the advantage that this stuffiness and formality are seen in their natural context rather than in the anachronistic setting of the 1960s. However to appreciate the show I think it is very important to remember that it was made in 1968, so that while not set in the 1960s it is a product of it and must be seen against the backdrop of the time. This is the age which gave birth to the other TV programmes that I have mentioned in this post, and both they and Virgin actually draw heavily on the cultural milieu of the time.
When I think of the setting of most of the TV series I write about here, I say a mixture of periods been drawn on. What I mean by that is that while I often find myself talking about the futuristic technological aspirations of the 1960s, when I look at the visual setting of these aspirations, I often see a yearning for the past. In the Avengers this comes across as a yearning for a Britain which probably never really existed, and which the series is very careful to with the actual contemporary world of the 1960s. We also see the artefacts of the past used in a modern setting in the series: I am particularly thinking of John Steed cars for example, which would already have been too old to be reliable run around in the 1960s. In the fashions of the time we see young people queuing up at shops in Carnaby Street and elsewhere to buy old military uniforms as fashion.
Virgin provides the setting where those military uniforms which that young people were wearing, were actually warm as real uniforms. It also provides a heavily colonial setting for the series, which moves from place to place in the days when most of the map of the world was Pink, representing the British Empire. I wonder whether virgin represents an insecurity of the time, since it was at this time that the Break-Up of the British Empire was gathering speed, and at the same time the Citizens of our former colonies were establishing themselves in Britain. That said I doubt very much that this was at the forefront of the shows creators mind. That said, writing this post has made me wonder whether a yearning for Empire was also partly the inspiration of the latest series of The Avengers, since the English settings of I'll definitely what I would call avenger land.
I imagine that this show was originally broadcast in colour, but the episodes on the DVDs are in black and white. As no this is not an unusual situation with shows of this era. In this case I regret it because I have a feeling that if we could see these shows in the original colour we would see that the sets are very much like those used in the Avengers episode Pandora: This show is of course set in the same period as Pandora was, and looks and feels like it. The photo I am using to illustrate this post is one of the many photos of the sets (the show is almost completely studio based, unusually for this late in the 1960s) and shows one which looks virtually exactly like John steed's flat in series 6!
This show  avoids one of my own personal bugbears, have repeated use of actors who tends to make me at least think about where else I have seen them rather than the show itself. The star is an actor who I am ashamed to say I had never heard of before, Clinton Greyn. I certainly should have heard of him, because he managed to guest star in pretty much every one of the shows I have in my collection. He also did extensive film work, and has also worked as an architect been presidents of the 20th century Society.
My own verdict on this show is that if you like the sort of programs I write about here, you should give it a go. It works better as the sort of escapist TV I like, van as either a straight spy show or a comedy. I think to viewers of my sort of television it would provide another example of the sort of odd series made in the 1960s, I would be very interested to hear readers opinions of this show, since Internet reviews seem to be so divided.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Another Avengers Being Released - Too Many Targets

Whenever I think the Avengers well has run dry another story comes out. My only sorrow is that this is another'non-canonical' one, but am still delighted that Big Finish have made an audio adventure of the novel called Too Many Targets.
Two agents are dead, and their murderers sound worryingly familiar. A killer gorilla is on the loose, a deadly disease is ravaging a distant country and an eminent doctor has been kidnapped. It's all pretty much business as usual.
But when John Steed is called in by his old boss and given an appalling task to complete, at the same time as Tara is given one that's even worse, it becomes clear that the myriad threads of a terrifying scheme are drawing together. The fate of the world hangs in the balance.
Steed won't be able to handle this case alone.
The Avengers are needed. All of them. Source, where you can buy the adventure.
It is based on a 1990s novel (which you can buy here), which I have read and remember liking for its authentic Avengers feel. In fact the only criticism I think people might have is  the obvious one of all the Avengers being present at once! So I think the fans will either love it or hate it. It is one of the more recent novels. I have read some but not all of the earlier ones and remember them fondly and you can read about them here. Of course since then the internet has provided a platform to anyone who wants to write an Avengers-themed piece. Some are very good. Regular readers will not be surprised to know that I'm not taken with attempts to get Steed off with Mrs Peel. I am very much looking forward to listening to Too Many Targets, though.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

The Avengers: November Five (?the Fifth)

My last couple of posts featuring Avengers episodes with Mrs Gale well I'm the blogosphere so here's another one.
I realised that I have rather avoided writing about this episodes, and there are two reasons. The first is that the title is all wrong. What is clearly written November Five, but we don't say that, we say November the 5th, which is of course a monumental day in British history and particularly in the history of Parliament.
Remember remember the 5th of November,
Gunpowder fire and plot.
I don't know whether this date would be pronounced November 5 in American English, but I don't think this season was exported to the States, so even if it was that wouldn't be a reason for the transatlantic usage.
The other reason I have rather avoided it has been amplified by my reading round the episodes on the internet before starting to write. It is that I personally find politics intensely dreary.
I'm not the worst off as far as that goes with this episode though, and reading round it on the internet have realised that our parliamentary system is almost completely opaque to everyone else. So let me let you into a secret: We don't understand our politics or law either.
Suffice to say that Dyter is standing as one of the members of Parliament. Of the 2 house. He is standing for the House of Commons, because he is a commoner and not a Lord. Any citizen can stand for the House of Commons, to represent one of the 260 constituencies. You don't even have to have the backing of one of the political parties. If you can find 10 residents of the constituency to nominate you, and the sum of £500 which is Returned if you get over 10% of the vote anyway, you can stand for Parliament. That is why steed can sneak Cathy in, and also why he offers to pay her deposit because she obviously will have to pull out. Older readers may remember Screaming Lord Sutch, who must have lost thousands and thousands of pounds in deposits getting people to stand for Parliament who were never going to get many votes.
In fact the politics is one of this episodes major downfalls, it tends to make it turgid and over talkative, well as incomprehensible to non British viewers. There is an excellent review summarising the political and class matters covered in this episode here.
The other shortcoming of this episode is the plot, which is overly complicated, involving sea about a gym, a warhead, and an election! If you don't watch carefully it is very easy to get these confused. Additionally if you are not aware of the class differences referenced by accent and political party, subtle layers of meaning pass you by.
The absolute highpoint for me is the point at which Mrs Gale announces that she is going to for the seat. Of course she is wearing all leather to make this announcement, and that is an outfit that would be considered kinky for the role even now!
But what made me want to write about this episodes in the first place that I was looking at Mrs gales flat while I was watching the last episodes I reviewed, and thinking how uncomfortable it is. There is a post about the flat here. I have not watched Through the previous episodes to get screen captures off the previous flat she lives in, and strangely there don't seem to be any on the internet, but I seem to remember she lived in a rather ordinary flat with floral wallpaper and the only difficulty she had was finding space for all her heads! What is the height of modernity. Unfortunately that also means it is harsh, and the only apparently comfortable seat in the place is which hangs from the ceiling. It's always pictured it in shades of grey or blue, being intended of course only for black and white photography, but I'm delighted to see from the color pictures included on the disc, that it was actually orange, although that may have made it even less restful! Personally I prefer all of Steed's flats, the first for preference.
Incidentally I find the gym in this episodes to be very visually effective, since it looks more like a dry ski slope than anything else.

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

The Avengers: Man With Two Shadows

I can no longer put off writing about this episode, because a recent post in which I commented on Mrs gales underwear was very popular indeed, and I can only say that I must have managed to miss the shot seen in which Mrs Gale is in her underwear in this episode! This will however be an equal opportunities underwear episode.
Actually in all seriousness in wanting to write about this episode but have been putting it off because I didn't want to sound uncritical, so I've had a good heart think and will post what I suppose is the obvious criticism of this episode.
You see the trouble is that I actually think it is superb! Regular readers will know that I am not usually slow to criticise these shows, but this Avengers episodes somehow manages to be visually superb, genuinely mystifying, have great actors, and only suffer from the slight shortcoming that the plot is about as implausible as you could wish to get!
Come to think of it perhaps that isn't really a short coming in an Avengers episode, perhaps it is merely a foresight art what is coming later in the series. Nonetheless if you are watching this as a more mainstream espionage show you do genuinely have to suspend disbelief, to accept the plot of complete doubles of people. This class device is also used elsewhere in the show, but in a series 3 episode can seem somewhat futuristic.
The actors rightly play it completely straight faced, which must have required some discipline. The character of Borowski, who has been brainwashed and given several different personalities - this drawing on the source of fear of psychology which was popular at the time, and which we see later expressed in The Prisoner - particularly effective. I suppose that steed is exactly the sort of person who would have ended up in the village if he had failed to cooperate with his master's, and we see clearly in this episode that he is completely disposable to them. If there is the slightest doubt that he is not the real thing then he must be killed. The underlying fear in this episode is one which recurs in the television of this time, human life was made cheat by technology, in this case the technology which could reproduce people and give people different personalities.
Visually the episode is also excellent, and the effective scenes of Mrs gales apartment and the interrogation room are with the more pedestrian scenes in the holiday camp. The episode therefore rightly depicts the ropiness of many of the holiday camps of this time.
There are some familiar faces among the actors, but not jarringly so in my humble opinion.
A further criticism I have that this episode is perhaps the one which makes most explicit possibility that Mrs Gail and Steed are an item, at least the opposition thinks they are, which isn't an unnatural conclusion to jump to, their behaviour together also suggests this possibility. Regular readers will know that I prefer the theory that there was a sexual tension between steed and his partners, but that's nothing actually happened. To me steed is the consummate professional, and in the nature of things would have remained aware of any sexual dynamic not actually crossed over into a relationship.
Despite this, this episode is rather sexy. Mrs Gail is not ashamed to have Steed see her in her underwear, and I suspect that it would have been considered quite racy underwear at the time! We see from Steed's expression that he is clearly appreciative of this, but it is not usual between them, so either Mrs Gale is painted as the uninhibited one, or possibly Steed is a bit of a prude. This is exactly the sort of situation which has giving rise to so much discussion over the years. Incidentally the underpants we see in the opening scene a man being shot by himself, seem to be the long-defunct X-Fronts made by a company called Wolsey in Direct competition with the more familiar y-fronts (and in what looks like a very fetching leopard pattern as well)! I wonder if they considered z fronts or w fronts as possibilities...
Besides we also see indications of what Steed would later become. Despite being painted as the total professional, in this episode as in later episodes, when challenged to prove that he is who he says he is, he becomes flippant and completely fails to come up with the goods. This is a bit different from the earliest Steed, who is a rather dodgy character who just appears out of nowhere now and then, and has much more in common with the flamboyant Playboy of later years.
My personal conclusion about this one is that it's over-complicated: there is a part in the middle where you lose touch of who anybody is and everybody wants everybody else dead! It is only after writing this I have listened to the DVD commentary in which Jas Wiseman comments that this episode may have been influential on The Prisoner, and I'm very chuffed that I also thought of that!