Monday, 26 August 2019

The Avengers: Take Me to Your Leader

I was convinced I had already blogged about this Avengers episode, since it is one of my favourites, but am unable to find it if I have. The episode came to my mind recently, because once again I am having a spot of bother at work. I solemnly swear I don't go looking for it! But when I explained to my manager the reason that it is a phenomenally bad idea to stop anyone except management reporting incidents, I found myself using the words of Mother in this episode, when he comments that his interlocutor would be foolish not to suspect him . Nobody should be above suspicion, and the best-intentioned of people can, and do, go off the rails. Since then one of my colleagues has quite rightly blown the whistle on their failureto treat a particular event as an incident, and management have wound up looking very silly indeed. Anyway the upshot is that all three of their seniors are looking for other jobs.
Incidentally, in this one Mother dictates a memo to Grandma, whom we never see, and in it he comments that it is essential that all agents get their priorities right. He is of course quite correct, and it is only slightly alarming that something like 35 years since I first saw The Avengers I seem to be turning into Mother, or at least being the unheard voice of his wisdom! Who would think that a throwaway series like The Avengers could provide life lessons... The idea of suspecting everything possible is embodied in the fact that one of the couriers shows up on the radar but is 'invisible' to the agents, and turns out to be a dog. The courier was there but nobody noticed him. The dog then attacks the similarly-unseen scarecrow who turns out to be an agent.
However the theme of suspecting everyone but everyone being mystified, does mean that there are more authority figures seen in this episode than usual. We all know that Steed and Miss King work for some shadowy organisation, but it more apparent here how the organisation is responsibleto the upper echelons of society, and in fact how much even Mother is answerable to other people. Of course the Avengers manage to identify who is the rot at the heart of the institution and save the day.
One of the main things I like about this episode is the way it takes relatively normal situations and... I suppose the word would be 'Avengersifies' them. Take the ballet school Steed goes to. I love the archetypally posh Penelope Keith as the harassed teacher of the school, with her Godfather-inclined niece. I love that she has a fight with Miss King, who wins. I also love that Miss King tries to be pink and fluffy with the little girl, but Steed knows that a bribe will work much better. It is very much our world, but given a twist. And this Avengersification is carried out partly by tine details, including the little girl's fairy wand being one of the keys to the case and one of the recipients of the case taking his key out from under his toupee.
Even apart from the little details, visually this one is superb. The sets alone would make this one worth seeing. Even apart from the psychedelic nightmare which is Tara King's flat, the other sets are wonderful, particularly the musical instrument collector who for some reason has a muslin curtain right the way across his flat. And the episode is so tightly scripted that the visual elements become parts of the plot. The visual language used by The Avengers would indicate that these traditional symbols mean that they are not amongst the criminal underclasses, but in the apparetly stable background of upper society. The red case actuallyechoes the famous red dispatch box which is used in our parliament, so there are obviously Big Things at stake. The vehicle in which the baddie meets his fate by poisoned gas is that symbol of the singing sixties, a Mini, and so it symbolises his abandonment of old values for some new world intended to disrupt the safety of Blighty.
I find it interesting how this episode manages to get in some sexiness and yet be sexist at the same time. One of the recipients of the case is very flirtatious indeed with Miss King before the case orders him to kill her. It is however flirtatious in a rather condescendsing way. Then when under the name of Tara Cavell she takes the case to the judo school, the man who is supposed to receive the case is very disappointed that she is a woman - always a mistake around Avengers girls, although of course in this case it is actually a blow from Steed's trusty bowler which finishes him off.
Obviously I am far from unbiased about this episode but I have wracked my brains to try to criticise this, and I suppose if you were determined to criticise it you would see that the plot is just plain incredible. But then this is The Avengers and so that is what you would expect.
All in all a superb Avengers episode, tightly plotted and since I have been watching it for years I can testify to the fact that it takes repetition. Oh - it is a bank holiday here, and the forecasters' prediction of a scorcher has come to pass as you can see.

Thursday, 22 August 2019

The Avengers: Did The Avengers Influence The Ipcress File and Then Parody It?

When I wrote my recent piece speculating whether Bond was an influence on The Avengers, I didn't envision that post becoming a series, but this is probably the second in an unintentional series of posts on The Avengers in its context of Cold War spy literature. Perhaps I should also say that probably none of what I am going to say is academically proveable, so if you're a media student please don't quote me, I am not respectable in any way.
Oh, one last disclaimer, Michael Caine normally irritates me witless. In fact Ipcress is the only one of his films I have managed to see all the way through, and I notice a few other people say that they like the film despite its cast. You may also say that his Palmer character is almost diametrically opposed to Steed - definitely working class and not with the grand origins Steed refers to now and again.
My theory would be that The Ipcress File may have been initially influenced by The Avengers , since it came out halfway through the show's original run. Ipcress was phenomenally successful, and so I would theorise that later series of The Avengers then parodied the Ipcress File. It's all getting a bit postmodern and reflexive here, especially as Ipcress was conceived as being a sort of anti-Bond, and deliberately made to be downbeat.
An example would be that the earlier series of The Avengers actually make quite a lot of the characters' sophisticated taste in food. Take the episode where Steed is going away and gives all sorts of exquisite things he won't be eating, to Cathy. In the manner of the time, both Steed and Cathy are depicted as quite sophisticated in their tastes, which even into the sixties was a major symbol of modernity and luxury. In The Ipcress File this focuses into Palmer's gourmand taste, shown by the opening shots around his flat which focuses in on his kitchen. In the book Palmer has other luxurious tastes apparently (I haven't read it) but in the film this becomes his taste in food alone, for which he is renowned. Then The Avengers parody this even further in the later series by the introduction of endless champagne, far more than an ordinary spy would drink in the course of a day's work. Palmer is quite similar to Steed in his attitude to authority, and I would suggest that the last series of The Avengers sends up the subject of authority by making Mother the authority figure.
The pretend servant agency which serves as a cover in The Ipcress File is so Avengers I'm surprised they didn't think of it. Steed had to make do with a pretend butchers of course. There are other symbols of the gentleman of the time in The Iprcress File, for example the magnificent building used as a set for the ministry, and the way Palmer's boss looks like Steed by his outfit of suit, bowler hat and umbrella, the uniform of the gentleman civil servant or whatever at the time. Another visual similarity is the scene where Palmer is being interrogated, which is very reminiscent of a similar scene with Steed (its in one of the extant expisodes, but I can't remember which one, perhaps someone will comment).
Perhaps the likeness that I'm getting at is the atmosphere of The Avengers. Not least I think is the similarity of personality between Palmer and Steed, at least in terms of humour. The scene where Palmer is taken into a cover fireworks factory and pushes down the plunger on one of those things used to set off dynamite, is exactly the way Steed would have behaved in the setting and the sombre circumstances. I also have a feeling that The Ipcress File isprobably what The Avengers would have looked like if it hadn't been confined to studios mainly (in the early days): the London of the 1960s. Of course as we all know it came to rest in an England which was about as unreal as it could be, but that was after Ipcress. One of the reasons therefore that they feel like each other, is that Ipcress is set in the real London which was the setting of the Avengers, and which it came to parody.
Does my little theory here stand up to much scrutiny? Probably not, and of course the similarities may just be the result of the craze for all things espionage at the time. But it would be nice to think it happened like this.

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Hancock: The Craftsman

I have written about episodes of Hancock's Half Hour here before. I thought all the episodes of the earlier series just called Hancock had been wiped but have been delighted to discover some on YouTube. Perhaps I should say that they are far from archive quality, but we old TV fans mustn't be too fussy.
The key difference from the later show is no Sid James, and of course his presence was the rock on which the show floundered, because Hancock didn't want to become a double act. Here the stooge is played by the familiar face Brian Wilde - at least I knew his face but had to look up his name  He makes a less sharp counterpoint to Hancock than Sid James.
Set against the white hot heat of progress which is so often the setting in sixties TV, Hancock becomes the self-appointed expert, both in the old, embodied by the ancient lamp lighter and the modern, embodied by the trend for home improvement.
This show is quite heavily criticised on the Internet because of the way it then resorts to a quite stock comedy formula of the disastrous attempts Hancock makes at DIY. And that is one of the reasons I wanted to signpost people to this episode here. Yes, it's a stock comedy situation but in my humble opinion it is in the hands of a master here, and it shows. I haven't even watched the other shows yet!

Sunday, 4 August 2019

The Avengers: Could The Avengers Have Been Influenced by Bond?

Why haven't I thought of this similarity before? As I write this I am watching Never Say Never Again, and while fans will know some don't even think of this as a real Bond film, I have a weakness for the unloved and orphaned.
I see from t'internet that the first Bond novel by Ian Fleming was published in 1953 - although push that back to the middle of the forties if you believe that Fleming plagiarised Bond from another writer. The first film was in 1962, although again there was a Bond episode broadcast in the 1950s US TV show Climax! I am not convinced that UK scriptwriters on The Avengers would have been that likely to have seen that show, but of course you never know. The first Avengers episode was broadcast in 1961. In novel terms Bond has the head start but The Avengers was broadcast in the UK before the first Bond film.
This  page has a list of real people who could possibly have contributed to Bond's personally - I had no idea there were so many! But one thing will strike The Avengers fan - they are all out of the same stable (ha) as John Steed, the upper-middle or upper-class spies of the middle of the twentieth century. I suspect that spies would have had to be able to be gentlemen, so this is not really surprising.
My own opinion is that Steed (particularly the more louche early Steed) bears striking similarities to Bond. So let's think of some  Steed is a thorn in his bosses' side - simply by being the best but being unmanageable at the same time. He drinks like a fish, and while it's champagne, he has the same luxury taste as Bond. He can come across as louche, and we will all remember periodic comments in the show to the effect that he's a layabout. Above all Steed is a ladies' man, and will flirt with virtually any woman. Both use humour in situations really not calling for it. Finally the main similarity is I think both men would not be kept on as spies, because their faces wouldn't fit.
And then of course we have the girls, where a difference must be acknowledged, because there is no doubt that Bond slept his way around the world: while Steed might have liked to, and his flirtatiousness and the outrageous sexiness of the show for the time is undeniable, much of the chemistry of Steed and the Avengers girls comes from the fact that nothing sexual ever really happens. Despite the many writers of slash fiction who wish it would. I feel that Steed's gentleman nature is subtly different from Bond's - you could think that Bond was a cad, but never Steed. Incidentally I have read that Fleming really wanted David Niven to play Bond, which would make Fleming's own picture of Bond far closer to the Steed character.
The character crossover is of course continued by the tendency of Avengers girls to go off and become Bond girls, a process which reached its apotheosis (obviously I like the film, you would probably call it the nadir if you don't) in the 1990s Avengers film, when Bond, sorry, Connery, played Sir August de Winter, to dramatic effect.
The other show which is always mentioned in the same breath as Bond when it comes to TV, is The Man from UNCLE. Personally I think this similarity works best with the gadgets, of which there is a striking lack in The Avengers  It doesn't work as well with the sexual side of Bond - while UNCLE is a mixed organisation the men who are our heroes don't really have sexual conquests as a motivation. Actually Napoleon Solo might have, but Kuryakin's staidness brings him back to earth.
The other show is Get Smart, and I find it difficult to see a similarity there, Get Smart being too much of a spoof of the craze for all things espionage at the time. Which brings me nicely round to a conclusion, because while I think there are striking similarities between Steed and Bond, it is difficult to detect a direct influence but it is true to say that there was a huge fad for anything to do with espionage at the time, and it is that fad being parodied in Get Smart, in The Man from UNCLE, and the parody takes more and more acid as the sixties wear on.
Anthony Clarke has already said what I want to say, helpfully illustrated with a picture of Steed and Mrs Peel on the BFI website:
The 1960s witnessed a number of events that helped change the face of the industrialised world. These included deepening East/West tensions, an explosion in international travel, the growth of military technology and the establishment of a global communications network. Combined, these helped create the conditions for a worldwide spy craze.
The modern popularity of the secret agent began with the first James Bond film, Dr No (1962), but growing Cold War tensions and the accompanying shadowy propaganda further fuelled the public's appetite for espionage. TV was quickly teeming with globe-trotting government spies and hard-bitten private eyes. The US contribution tended to focus on the former - The Man from UNCLEI Spy and the humourous Get Smart - while the UK concentrated on the latter category.
Most of the UK's undercover operatives were created by ITCLew Grade's independent production company. These included a disgraced CIA agent - Man in a Suitcase (ITV, 1967-68) - a private investigator and his ghostly partner - Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (ITV, 1969-70) - a crime writer who helped out Interpol - Department S (ITV, 1969-70) - and NATO agent John Drake - Danger Man (ITV, 1961-67).
The decade's top rank of British detective talent was represented by two series, The Avengers (ITV, 1960-69) and The Saint (ITV, 1962-69). The debonair John Steed and his fighting female sidekicks, and international playboy Simon Templar came to epitomise a peculiarly 1960s' vision of Britishness. But not every '60s British private eye enjoyed the high life.
The brutal government agent Callan (ITV, 1967-72) and the down-at-heel private detective Frank Marker in Public Eye (ITV, 1965-75) lived a more grubby existence at the fringes of society, where morality is flexible and right and wrong are commodities. Interestingly, both these shows survived into the 1970s, a decade that was anything but swinging.
In my tradition of including pictures of myself in the summer, here's another one today. I was going to say that in Never Say Never Again Connery is running to moobs a bit, and that he looks like me, but I think I look more like Busty O'Toole!