Tony puts on his bowler and grabs an umbrella.
The first iteration of The Avengers, featuring the joy that is John Steed and the…shall we say solidity that is Dr David Keel describes almost perfectly the arc of a series finding its feet and working out what the hell it actually wants to be.
The Avengers as they found global fame, and as they seared themselves into the imagination of fans, had a balance – Steed, the smooth, slick, sexually rapacious bowler-hatted Bond, matched witticism for witticism, eyebrow-raise for eyebrow-raise and uppercut for high kick by a female Avenger – Venus Smith, Cathy Gale, Emma Peel, Tara King, and eventually in The New Avengers the mononymous Purdey. The episodes in the Lost Avengers box set…aren’t that.
Not without reason does The Avengers only feel like it really hits its stride with the ascension of Cathy Gale. When you have the developing character of Steed, who already in Volume 2 of the Lost Episodes from Big Finish is becoming the stylish cheeseball of your TV memories, and you pair that energy chiefly with a stolid, enigmatic slab of more traditional sixties maleness like Dr Keel, what you get is a series that feels like it’s drenched in aftershave and testosterone – there’s not the equality and opposition to take Steed down a peg or two, or indeed raise him up a peg or two depending on the needs of the scene. That means that the four episodes in this volume feel entirely truthful to the sixties environment in which they were spawned, and therefore quite hard work for the modern audience.
Julian Wadham, facing perhaps the biggest task in the set as a non-Patrick Macnee Steed, pitches the role somewhere between Bond and that other great British exemplar of infuriating charm, Sir Humphrey Appleby, for a smoother feeling than your average gentleman spy, while Anthony Howell brings a touch of caramel to the voice of Dr Keel, the ordinary doctor co-opted into Steed’s life of espionage. There’s an effort in these episodes to bring Lucy Briggs-Owen’s Carol character, Dr Keel’s secretary, more into the action, but she’s still very far from being a female Avenger in the mould of any of those who would follow her. That’s more to do with the original writing than it is to do with John Dorney’s adaptation of the scripts or Briggs-Owen’s performance – both are fine, but the capacity of both writer and actress feel like they fight for breath against the sixties attitudes of the original writers and audience.
Ashes of Roses kicks us off, and it’s fair to say the connections between the strands of the script don’t make a great deal of sense – a murder at a paper factory and a suspected insurance scam lead to a high-class hair salon offering the latest in shock treatments. While there are solid performances throughout, you’re left at the end wondering how the strands actually tie together, if in fact they do at all. But satisfying explanations seems not to be the early Avengers way, because the second episode, Please Don’t Feed The Animals, suffers from the same problem. The second episode does at least have an intriguing premise – a strip club-cum-bordello where the antics of the clientele are recorded as a way of putting pressure on particular people is a plausible enough scenario. The idea of a gang of criminals using that pressure to get government ciphers – A-OK. It’s more or less when we get into the business of crocodile pits at a local county house zoo that things go a bit ‘Eh? What?’ It’s a cognitive jump that feels like the storyline has been bullied to include some oddness and elements that don’t especially have a place in the story. We never find out why the villains want the ciphers, or whether there’s some grander plan to put them to use, or even the precise nature of the connection between the cipher racket and the country house – we know how they fit together as far as the script is concerned, but not why, or how things are resolved beyond the moment of arrest.
There’s a gimmick in the script too, which in the sixties was probably innovative and original, but which with the benefit of significant decades of advancement in crime writing, you’ll see coming many, many miles off. But really it’s the tenuous connection between the plot-elements that makes the first two episodes of Volume 2 feel unsatisfying.
Fortunately, the second set of two episodes has rather more clout in terms of their drama, mostly achieved by keeping their focus in a single direction. The Radioactive Man follows the adventures of an immigrant from Eastern Europe – it’s never specifically stated where his home country is, and in fact, as the episode goes on, the lengths to which characters go not to reveal that information feels conspicuous, but essentially it’s the story of a nice guy who has hopes as aspirations in Britain, having been here some time, but who has a complex history and some arguably dangerous friends. A simple mistake on his part leads him to become a walking avatar of perfectly reasonable sixties nuclear fear, and Steed and Keel have to mobilise a search for a radioactive needle in a haystack. There’s a far more pleasing joining of the story’s dots in episode 3 than in the previous two episodes, meaning it’s the most engaging of the stories in this volume. That’s also helped by some emotionally affecting acting, especially from John Banks, Beth Chalmers and Phil Mulryne (unrecognisable as Milan). The Radioactive Man also features a couple of high quality two line guest stars, including Richard Franklin and Colin Baker, just to heighten the tension of the race against time.
Dance With Death, the final episode of the set, has a similar tension, and a vibe similar to Patrick Hamilton’s ‘Gorse’ stories – or The Charmer, as you might know them better. I bow to no-one in my admiration for Dan Starkey, but having him voice two major characters in a single episode is possibly stretching the budget just a little far – especially as they’re both simultaneously suspects for the same series of murders, and both connected to the dance studio where the latest victims work. Nevertheless, voices like the unmistakeable Jacqueline King, Anjella Mackintosh and Gemma Whelan help give the episode its spin and drama, but most of all its period brightness and bounce, leading to a scenario that’s involving and suitably small, suitably unobtrusive, in which a murderer can work. Steed and Keel attack the problem from different angles and piece the footsteps of the killer together, leading Steed to carve pervy holes in walls and Keel to throw well-timed punches in order to save the day.
Overall, Volume 2 is a rather more hit and miss affair than the first box set of Lost Avengers episodes was. Still one that’s worth picking up for what it shows us about the nature of sixties adventure drama and the way the early Avengers scripts were structured and delivered – but possibly, a set worth getting when there’s a sale on, rather than shelling out for at full price.
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