Tony’s feeling vengeful.
Possibly no TV series has ever both had its sexist cake and eaten it quite as successfully as The Avengers. With its combination of a dashing ‘English Gentleman’ stereotype and women that were both strong, capable and sexy, the show would carve itself a unique television landmark (twice if we count The New Avengers) while at the same time ensuring that its strong, capable women wore outfits designed to get an audience of unreconstructed men and boys drooling into their TV screens.
Let’s make one thing perfectly clear: This is probably not The Avengers you remember.
Nor, for those worrying about it, is this just Counter-Measures with different characters. What it actually is though is something a little bit special in its own right, a kind of proto-Avengers with some pretty different DNA powering it on.
Doctor Who fans are very vocal on the idiocy of the missing episodes that deny us the experience of some of the seminal stories in early Who, but The Avengers is another show where the policy of wiping and re-using tape in the sixties has robbed die-hard adherents of some of the earliest adventures. Big Finish acquired the rights to make audio stories of those missing adventures, and whereas for instance in Counter-Measures, the sixties has been rendered with modern storytelling and character depth in mind, these Lost Avengers stories have been delivered almost entirely word for word as the shooting scripts describe them, with invention only where those shooting scripts were perfunctory or vague. What that means is these stories positively reek of the sixties, both in terms of the attitudes and values they portray, and in terms of the exposition-heavy dialogue with which the scripts were laden to allow for shooting on (usually) a single camera. The vibe that comes through is very different, in audio terms, from the rest of Big Finish’s output. With a notable sixties jazz soundtrack, we’re in a world of sleazy clubs and sleazier men, where ‘the good girl’ and ‘the whore’ were still the general boundaries of male (and therefore, given the age, societal) understanding of women’s roles, feminism a thing heard of but not espoused by ‘reasonable people.’ Shows like The Avengers and movies like the Bond series had yet to develop the idea of ‘the Vixen’ as an ass-kicking middle ground – and that’s the point. This series has nothing in the way of female ass-kickery to offer spark and wit, The Avengers here chiefly consisting of Steed and Dr David Keel. Deep characterisation is not the game here. Steed is something of a mystery man and proto-Bond, and Keel is a perfectly ordinary doctor who gets involved when his fiancée is shot dead in his arms. Keel is rather optimistically said to be ‘traumatised’ by her death, and determines to do all he can to avenge her death. To be honest, ‘traumatised’ is reaching somewhat – Keel goes from being a cardboard cut-out of ‘everything Sixties Man should be’ to the life of a secret agent with barely a beat of the emotional sturm und drang we would recognise today as trauma. This was the sixties, getting emotional was for the girls.
But what survives intact in these adapted scripts is a very good sense of a show with an idea, struggling to find the way to best way to realise it. The villains are more real world and gritty, the plots less inventive than they would become in later years, but the core of an idea that would bear its best fruit when Keel was ditched for a female Avenger, and which continues to bear fruit today (if Kingsman’s not rooted in The Avengers, I’ll eat my bowler) is there from the start. And if you want a sense of those early sixties shows, and what action adventure TV was like at the same time Doctor Who was setting off to battle evil pepperports and giant ants, and the Enterprise was battling Klingons and blue-skinned Andorians, you couldn’t do better than picking up this box set.
One thing needs to be said before you start. Only two people have played John Steed before this, and one of them was Rafe Fiennes in the abysmal movie version, so let’s not remember that, shall we? The best thing to report from this box set is that the bowler hat and umbrella is in safe hands. Julian Wadham’s hands. He hasn’t gone for a Macnee-alike performance, but rather taken the scripts, and what everyone remembers of Macnee’s Steed – the suavity, the charm, the wicked eye-glint – and delivered a version of it that’s accessible to modern listeners while retaining the fundamentals that allow you to say ‘Yes, that’s Steed.’ Vocally, it’s a slightly lighter, more nimble performance than Macnee ever laid down, but in episodes that are still trying to find their golden rhythm, that’s no bad thing, allowing us a point of constancy as we take the trip through a world of villainous exposition and double-dealing.
Stylistically, The Avengers Lost Episodes Series 1 has a sixties pulp TV fiction feel – titles like Hot Snow, The Square Root of Evil and One For The Mortuary, and musical stings that imagine a dramatic camera close-up to end episodes root the stories in that world. The episodes that open the series take us into the world of gangland crime, cocaine smuggling, protection rackets, and in One For The Mortuary, the first real hint of the scale and invention that would come to characterize Avengers plots.
Hot Snow is little more than an origin story for Keel’s work with Steed, involving the misdelivery of a pound of heroin, the shooting of Keel’s girlfriend Peggy (a paper-thin role for Camilla Power), and the efforts of Steed and Keel to put the perpetrators behind bars. For all its simplicity, there’s growing entanglement and tension as it seems as though Steed may be playing both sides against the middle and using Keel as a hapless pawn in a bigger game. Hot Snow also introduces us to Colin Baker as Keel’s practice-mate, Dr Tredding, a character so appallingly reasonable by sixties standards of bluff men that, given Baker’s pre-Who history of playing wrong ’uns, we continually wait for the twist that proves him a villain. Brought To Book is a story of gangs and gambling, and again, the basics are in place, the tension ramping up as covers are blown. The Square Root of Evil (I swear, no-one knows why it’s called that), ups the ante, with Steed and Keel penetrating a gang of forgers before they can pull off the job of a lifetime. It gives us a bit of ‘Steed under cover with an accent’ action, but the way it’s resolved rather relies on the criminals being more stupid than they should be. Of them all though, it’s definitely One For The Mortuary that feels more like The Avengers as they grew to be, with an international conference at the World Health Organization, a secret formula for a disease cure with spec-TACularly vague properties (sci-fi bafflegab at its best and boldest at work in this script adapted by John Dorney), femme fatales who aren’t, good guys who may not be, a chronically confused animal undertaker, Nick Briggs as a sword-stick-wielding assassin, and the combination of mad conspiracies, scientific wonder-breakthroughs and espionage that would eventually make up the spine of Avengers storytelling.
So while this box set is probably not The Avengers as you remember them, there are important things done very right here. Wadham as Steed is excellent – a crucial element, because the character went on to be synonymous with The Avengers in every permutation. Anthony Howell as Dr Keel, while no Mrs Peel, is both solid and stolid, the capable Sixties Man that could make you think any sufficiently buttoned-up gentleman of the era could be a spy or secret agent. The plots, while basic in the early episodes, deliver some effective tension (the music design here is a big help as far as that’s concerned), and by the end of the box set, we’re at least starting to get a sense of the show The Avengers would become. While Lucy Briggs-Owen as Carol Wilson is no Peel, Gale or Purdy either, but more a kind of Moneypenny figure for Dr Keel, her growing involvement in the Avengers’ adventures as the set goes on also signifies an idea that was clearly germinating. It’s significant that while the first three episodes in this box set were the first three episodes of The Avengers broadcast, One For The Mortuary was actually episode 13 in the run, and significant development appears to have gone on in the ten intervening episodes.
The Lost Stories, Volume 1 may not be all-time classic Avengers, any more than The Underwater Menace is all-time classic Who, but if you want a sense of how it all began, grab this box set and get lost in some Lost Avengers today.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk