Now you’re talking, says Tony.
The second volume of the Avengers Lost Episodes was something of a disappointment – it struggled not to make a modern audience squirm with the authentic sixties vibe of sexism, but more than that, there was a looseness in the original scripts in terms of the threads not being particularly well connected or paid off that encouraged audience disconnection.
The third volume, on those bases alone, is a massive step forward.
There’s still quite a long and often circular progression in the scripts here, from an initial nub of an idea to, in most cases, something rather convoluted and hidden from plain sight, as you’d expect from hardcore criminality, but the twists and turns in Volume 3 make a great deal more consistent sense, leading to more satisfying and faster listening – we were able to polish off Volume 3, for instance, pretty much in one sitting, the end of each episode inviting you to listen to the next, despite there being no specific through-arc between them. As each episode finishes, it leaves you with the sense of wanting more, so you naturally skip on through to the next one.
The two male leads – Julian Wadham as Steed and Anthony Howell as Keel – feel very much more at home in their skins in these episodes too, and the extras reveal at least part of the reason for that: Wadham in particular, while never having been a conscious Macnee-alike, dials the TV version back significantly for these four episodes, bringing it, as he says, closer to himself than it is to Macnee’s original. Howell too feels like he’s worn a few kinks out of the characterisation of Keel, always a fairly enigmatic slab of sixties maleness, and he’s helped in that by scripts which start to show us more of Dr Keel’s past, and which boil his occasional anger with Steed over into something more like a punch than a punchline, to the character’s benefit – he feels more like a human being here than a servant of the script.
The Springers, originally by John Whitney and Geoffrey Bellman, and adapted like all the other Avengers scripts by John Dorney, drops us right into a satisfying conundrum with Keel undercover as a famous prison-breaker, in an attempt to discover the route used to break out from a very specific prison, which is being used as a kind of ‘underground railway’ for convicts with enough money to pay for their freedom. The elements of that escape route are many and for the most part barking mad, but the episode is played with conviction by everybody involved, so it does the job of great adventure stories, making the incredible seem not only logical but sensible and, in a common theme throughout this box set that helps sell the drama, it never relies on its villains to be especially stupid, for all Steed, on the point of victory, castigates them as ‘third rate.’ There’s plenty of escalating tension too as the plans of the Avengers go wrong precisely because their opponents aren’t stupid, so the conclusion feels a bit like a Saturday night punch-up in an East London bar, but unlike the first couple of episodes of Volume 2, we’re never left in any doubt that the conclusion works.
In Volume 2, having Dan Starkey voice two prominent characters in a single story felt a little like overkill, but The Springers proves it was merely the size and similarity of the roles that gave us that feeling. Here, with a role and a half, he’s given room to breathe life into one character, while keeping the other relatively clipped and bureaucratic, and it works much better. Listen out for Miranda Raison too, who gives the sense of there being many other Avengers working separate to Steed, and adds a wealth of sixties bounce and possibility to string through the storyline.
The Yellow Needle, from an original script by Patrick Campbell, is more sixties-specifically topical than many Avengers stories, which gives it an appealingly fresh feel fifty years on, and also helps place The Avengers distinctly in the context of its time. An African nation is on the verge of independence from Britain’s colonial rule, and tensions are high between the nation’s Prime Minister (an old friend of Keel’s, as it turns out) and an opposition leader who has many local chieftains on his side. Questions of colonialism and the pathway to freedom are intelligently put, while delivering an assassination game, and involving Steed in some overseas espionage, while the true danger may be closer to home. The story makes good use of Robert Duncan in two roles, one of which is meat and drink to him, the other stretching him – or our perception of him, at least – maybe just an accent too far. But the story gives us other, longer-term pleasures too, filling in a chunk of Keel’s background for us and having him unbend from his sixties establishment masculinity a little, to show him laughing, remembering his younger self, flirting, and being rather more rounded as a character than the original Avengers scripts generally called on him to be.
Double Danger, originally by Gerald Verner, is an odd story, in that given the title and the first ten minutes, you rather expect it to be a kind of sixties precursor to Face/Off. It’s actually nothing of the kind, but there’s a great shock value to those first ten minutes, and a great ‘first episode’ cliff-hanger too, that takes the story in a whole new direction. There’s a certain inevitability to the plot resolution, but plenty of escalating tension on the way to it, and some especially good, emotive acting from Lucy Briggs-Owen as Carol as the work of the Avengers comes too close to home.
That sense of the work coming close to home prevails in the final episode here, too. Toy Trap, originally by Bill Strutton, and we suspect most significantly smoothed by Dorney for modern sensibilities, takes the issues of the oversexualisation of women and girls, prostitution and even violence against women and presents them in a way which doesn’t sensationalise them, treating them instead like the evils they are. Getting the balance of that presentation right with the issues of the sexual liberation and freedom of women while never coming across as prudish is a tricky ask, but Strutton and Dorney deliver an accomplished creepfest that threatens to end the Steed and Keel partnership over a call girl racket centred rather sickly on the toy department of a London store. The balance is the key to this episode, and while never shying away from the increasing sexual liberation of women in the sixties, and those who came to cities like London to experience it for themselves, it still allows the horror and the predation frequently involved in prostitution to stand as relevant evils, while giving scope for the Avengers to track down the baddies and put a stop to their nefarious activities, giving the episode a genuinely satisfying feel and a resolution that, while obvious to we the audience, still works in terms of discoveries by the team.
Overall, the Lost Episodes Volume 3 feels almost like a different show to Volume 2, much more fluid and at ease with itself, and consequently a much more engaging listen. One to invest in, it’ll give you four hours of sixties adventuring pleasure, and make you think long after you’ve finished listening.
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