The Avengers III: Mrs. Peel, We’re Needed!

The episodes starring Diana Rigg as Emma Peel are iconic.

Steed & Peel.jpg

Whether “iconic” means “good” is another matter.

The black-and-white Mrs. Peel episodes (1965-66) are the show at its height: witty, stylish and oh so clever.  These were the first episodes shot on film and shown in the United States, so they look better than the videotaped Mrs Gale episodes and had a larger audience.  The playful scripts explore a concept or a setting: hotels, department stores, thrill-seeking and mind-controlling plants from outer space.

And, of course, there’s Diana Rigg herself.


Best episodes include:

The Cybernauts (16 October 1965): Killer robots, karate, Michael Gough, and a tense final sequence – with a theme you won’t be able to get out of your phrase: dum dum dum dadadada.

Death at Bargain Prices (23 October 1965): The Avengers in a department store.  ‘”Our Mrs. Peel is in ladies’ underwear.” I rattled up the stairs three at a time.’

The Hour That Never Was (27 November 1965): A surreal, creepy episode, set at an air-base.

Too Many Christmas Trees (25 December 1965): The best of the lot?  Dickens, brain-washing, bad dreams and a sinister Santa Claus.

The Girl from Auntie (22 January 1966): A comic delight.  Mrs. Peel’s been kidnapped and replaced, and Steed keeps finding dead bodies in cupboards.

A Touch of Brimstone (19 February 1966): Not the best episode, but infamous for Mrs. Peel as the Queen of Sin.

The House That Jack Built (5 March 1966): The one with Mrs. Peel in the Op Art maze.


The colour episodes (1967) are weaker – a triumph of style over substance. With one eye on American sales, producer Brian Clemens made The Avengers formulaic.  The show coasts along on the charisma and chemistry of the leads, but the inventiveness of the earlier episodes is missing.  The stories are often shallow and insubstantial: half a dozen spies or scientists or cabinet ministers are murdered, and the Avengers swap bon mots over cooling corpses.

Best episodes:

Epic (1 April 1967): A crazed moviemaker kidnaps Mrs. Peel and makes her star in his new film: The Death of Mrs. Peel.

The Joker (29 April 1967): A remake of the Mrs. Gale story “Don’t Look Behind You”.


The Avengers II: Mrs. Gale, We’re Needed!

Avengers Gale title.jpgHonor Blackman’s Cathy Gale may be the greatest of the Avengers women.  She was the first television heroine who was truly her male co-star’s equal.  She had the beauty and poise of a Hitchcock blonde, was independent and intelligent, and had a warmth and morality that the roguish John Steed often lacked.  Blackman herself became a model for women in the early ’60s; she learned judo for the role, and wrote a Book of Self-Defence, one of the first such books aimed at women.


Audiences used to the surrealism of the Mrs. Peel episodes might be disconcerted.

Op Art and Mod hadn’t yet hit British TV, so the stories, while excellent, are more straightforward and less playful.  Some are realistic spy stories; some are workmanlike crime thrillers; and some tell you more about ceramics and ambergris than you want to know.

175px-cathygaleSteed and Mrs. Gale have a snarkier, more complex relationship than he does with Mrs. Peel.  She respects him, but doesn’t quite trust him and is often repelled by his ruthlessness.

There’s more drama in the Mrs. Gale episodes; in many of the colour Avengers episodes, the characters are comic eccentrics or victims killed by the menace of the week. The characters in the Mrs. Gale episodes have lives and agendas of their own, and The Avengers get involved in their lives – at least once, Mrs. Gale falls in love with a villain.

The episodes are shot on black-and-white videotape, so look decidedly less glossy than later episodes.  (This shouldn’t bother anyone who’s seen, say, William Hartnell Doctor Who.)  The series still looks stylish, though – thanks to Peter Hammond, one of the most auteur directors on British television.  His style is immediately recognisable: reflections in mirrors, shots through glass or keyholes, unusually shaped objects.  (Hammond later directed several of the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes episodes.)

The best Mrs. Gale episodes to start with:

Brief for Murder (28 September 1963): A couple of unscrupulous lawyers exploit legal loopholes to get their clients acquitted of murder.  To stop them, Steed organises Mrs. Gale’s murder.


Don’t Look Behind You (14 December 1963): Mrs. Gale is invited for the weekend to the house of a wealthy collector, but things aren’t what they seem.  Patrick Macnee’s favourite episode.  Remade as the Mrs. Peel episode “The Joker”.


Dressed to Kill (28 December 1963): Steed boards a train for a New Year’s Eve Christmas party – and the guests soon start dying.  Remade as the Mrs. Peel episode “The Superlative Seven”.

Esprit de Corps (14 March 1964): Mrs. Gale becomes a pretender to the throne to stop an army coup.


Also first-rate:

Mr. Teddy Bear (29 September 1962): Mrs. Gale’s first case – she pays an assassin to have Steed killed.

The Mauritius Penny (10 November 1962): A murdered stamp-collector leads to a group of neo-Nazis.

Death of a Great Dane (17 December 1962): Later remade as the Mrs. Peel episode “The £50,000 Pound Breakfast”.  A hit-and-run victim has a fortune in jewels in his stomach.

Intercrime (5 January 1963): The Avengers versus an international crime syndicate.

Warlock (27 January 1963): Murder by black magic.

The Nutshell (19 October 1963): Treason in a top-secret nuclear bunker.

The Little Wonders (11 January 1964): The Avengers versus another international crime syndicate.

Mandrake (25 January 1964): The Avengers investigate why so many businessmen are buried in a Cornish graveyard.

The Charmers (29 February 1964): Later remade as the Mrs. Peel episode “The Correct Way to Kill”.  The Avengers work with Soviet agents to stop a group of gentlemanly killers.

The Wringer (18 December 1964): Steed is arrested for treason and interrogated.  Psychedelic.




The Avengers I: Dr. Keel, We’re Needed!

Of all the television spies and secret agents who saved Britain in the ’60s – Champions, Saints and Danger Men – none are more iconic or better loved than The Avengers.

Patrick Macnee’s dapper, bowler-hatted, umbrella-wielding John Steed and his female associates – Honor Blackman’s karate-chopping anthropologist Cathy Gale; Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel, expert in science and martial arts; and Linda Thorson’s rookie spy Tara King – drank champagne and exchanged innuendo as they thwarted diabolical masterminds intent on stopping the Sixties from swinging.

But it didn’t begin like that.


In its earliest incarnation, The Avengers was a gritty, noir-ish drama; Steed’s associate was a doctor named David Keel (Ian Hendry), whose fiancée was murdered by drug dealers; and the villains were extortionists, blackmailers and black marketeers.  Almost all of the first season, which ran from January to December 1961, are lost.  The only surviving episodes are the first half of the pilot episode “Hot Snow”, “Girl on the Trapeze” and “The Frighteners”.

Big Finish Productions, best known for their Doctor Who audio dramas, adapted the scripts for the missing episodes, starring Julian Wadham as Steed and Anthony Howell (Foyle’s War) as Dr. Keel, with Doctor Who stalwarts Colin Baker and Sophie Aldred in other roles.


Hendry left the show, and the second season saw Steed teaming up with a Keel clone, Dr. Martin King (Jon Hollason); a hapless nightclub singer, Venus Smith (Julie Stevens) – and Cathy Gale.


Featuring the Saint

(Continued from here.)

With 12 novels, 34 novellas and 95 short stories (collected in 24 volumes), the sheer volume of Leslie Charteris’s work can be daunting.

The beSaint Plays with Fire.jpgst Charteris novel I’ve read is The Saint Plays with Fire (1938).  ‘Retired Generals, great financier, and ex-Cabinet Ministers couldn’t conspire to cover up murder: it was one of those things which simply did not happen.’  Thrillers are often thought of as right-wing, pitting square-jawed Englishmen against dastardly foreigners.  Charteris was definitely liberal.  Here, the Saint fights the Establishment.  Charteris suggests that the people who run Britain (and France and Germany) – the politicians, the army, the businessmen – are the enemy of their country’s citizens.  Kane Luker (Cain Lucre) owns newspapers and armament factories in all those countries, and tries to start a major European war to line his pockets.

Saint Around the WorldThe later short story collections, The Saint in Europe (1953), On the Spanish Main (1955) and Around the World (1956) are great.  As the titles suggest, the Saint is a globe-trotter, who finds adventure as far afield as Canada, Haiti, South-east Asia, the Middle East and Europe.  Charteris is equally venturesome, and tries something new with almost each story.  One story might be a whodunit or an action piece, another is a character piece about the reformation of a spoilt heiress (the delightful “Golden Journey”), the next is a domestic murder drama influenced by Somerset Maugham (“The Pluperfect Lady”), and a fourth puts the Saint in an ethical dilemma.  Among the best are “The Rhine Maiden”, in which the Saint deals with a crooked financier on a German train; “The Black Commissar”, set in Jamaica, and which shows the half-Chinese Charteris’s dislike for racism – Simon horrifies a dowager by shaking hands with a black man; and “The Questing Tycoon”, with a respectful treatment of voodoo.

Best of the Saint.jpgThe Best of the Saint (2008), two volumes of short stories, will give you both The Saint in Europe and Around the World, as well as Enter the Saint (1930) and stories from The Saint vs. Scotland Yard (1932), The Saint in London (1934), The Saint Goes On (1934), The Happy Highwayman (1939), Follow the Saint (1939) and The Saint in the Sun (1964).

The earliest Saint stories, written in Charteris’s early twenties, are exuberant but unpolished; although the dialogue is bright and clever, the prose can be luridly purple and the plots are sometimes a confusing blur of gunplay and fast cars.  So far, the best of the very early ones is “The Wonderful War”, in which Simon and three friends bring down a Latin American dictatorship.  Simon pretends to be a Spanish peon, gets thrown in jail, escapes after months, and takes a bath in the president’s bathroom.  Chutzpah!

Moore Saint gif.gifThe TV series (1962-69) featuring Roger Moore (a decade before 007) as “the infamous” Simon Templar is fantastically entertaining – an adventure series with a witty, cosmopolitan tone and the production standards of a movie.

Moore is in his element as the debonair Saint: charming and roguish, with a twinkle in his eye and a sense of menace.

The cast reads like a who’s who of 1960s actors.  There are big film stars: Oliver Reed, Donald Sutherland, Julie Christie, Anthony Quayle.  There are stars of Doctor Who, The Avengers, and the James Bond movies: Patrick Troughton, Roger Delgado, Honor Blackman, Nicholas Courtney, Ian Hendry, Jean Marsh, Shirley Eaton and Lois Maxwell.  And there are character actors: André Morell, Julian Glover, Warren Mitchell, Ronnie Barker, Ronnie Corbett, Philip Madoc, Judy Parfitt, William Gaunt, Andrew Keir, Nyree Dawn Porter, Peter Wyngarde, Nigel Davenport, Geoffrey Bayldon, Robert Hardy, Peter Bowles, Peter Jeffrey, Michael Gough, Christopher Benjamin, Nigel Stock, and Freddie Jones, to name but a few.

Even the minor episodes are never less than entertaining.  There are gritty, film noir episodes: “The Contract”.  There are witty episodes, often set on the Riviera: “The Persistent Patriots”, “The Lawless Lady” and “The Spanish Cow”.

Best episodes include:

“The Pearls of Peace” (8 November 1962)

Pearls and girls in Mexico.


“The Element of Doubt” (22 November 1962).

A clever biter-bit story about a crooked defence lawyer in the States.


“The Saint Plays With Fire” (28 November 1963)

This is strong stuff.  The political angle of the original is absent; Simon’s enemy are neo-Nazis rather than big business, the army and politicians in cahoots to start a war and take over Europe.  From the opening at a Nazi rally in 1960s Britain, there isn’t a single dead minute.  Joseph Furst plays Kane Luker; unfortunately, he doesn’t shout “NUZZINK IN ZE VORLD CAN SCHTOP ME NOW!”.

“The Wonderful War” (2 January 1964)

The Saint in the Land of Black Gold!  Was this actually filmed in the Middle East?  There are Arabian palaces with doorways and pillars; markets with donkeys; townspeople in robes and keffiyeh; helicopters; and camels.  The Saint disguises himself as an objectionable American oil millionaire, J. Pierpoint Sykes.

“Sibao” (25 February 1965)

The Saint in the West Indies, in an adventure involving voodoo and murder.  This is almost a dry run for Live and Let Die, one of the best 007 movies.

“The Old Treasure Story” (26 August 1965)

Who can resist a story about the lost treasure of Blackbeard?

“Locate and Destroy” (16 December 1966)

Not based on a Charteris story.  The Saint in Peru, helping the Israeli secret service bring a Nazi to justice.  Enough thrills for a movie.




The Infamous…

Occasionally a series clicks.

Exotic locales; a cosmopolitan, man of the world attitude; hairsbreadth escapes from death; plenty of good fights; diabolical masterminds and ingenious plots – and a belief in adventure and excitement for their own sake.

For someone who has subconsciously had Hergé’s Tintin as his yardstick since the age of four, The Saint is manna from heaven.

SaintLogoThe Saint, for the uncanonised, is Simon Templar, a suave, globe-trotting adventurer and modern Robin Hood – and possibly the coolest fictional character ever.

He travels the world, enjoying the company of beautiful women, and thwarting the ungodly – war profiteers, crooked businessmen, spies, blackmailers, frauds and murderers – and the occasional giant ant.

Not, like James Bond, because his government orders him to, but for the sheer giddy fun of it.

He is, his creator Leslie Charteris wrote,

a rambunctious adventurer … who really believed in the old-fashioned romantic ideals and was prepared to lay everything on the line to bring them to life.  A joyous exuberance that could not find its fulfilment in pinball machines and pot.  I had what may now seem a mad desire to spread the belief that there were worse, and wickeder, nut cases than Don Quixote.

Even now, half a century later, when I should be old enough to know better, I still cling to that belief. That there will always be a public for the old-style hero, who had a clear idea of justice, and a more than technical approach to love, and the ability to have some fun with his crusades.

The Saint does have fun, and so does the reader of the 37 books published between 1930 and 1963 and the viewer of the screen adaptations, particularly the TV series starring Roger Moore.  The younger Saint lives for the sheer joy of living.

Moore Saint

He ought never to have been let loose upon this twentieth century. He was upsetting. Far too often, when he spoke, his voice struck disturbing chords in the mind. When you saw him, you looked, instinctively and exasperatedly, for a sword at his side, a feather in his hat, and spurs at his heels. There was a queer keenness in the chiselling of his tanned face, seen in profile—something that can only be described as a swiftness of line about the nose and lips and chin, a swiftness as well set off by the slick sweep of patent-leather hair as by the brim of a filibustering felt hat—a laughing dancing devil of mischief that was never far from the very clear blue eyes, a magnificently medieval flamboyance of manner, an extraordinary vividness and vital challenge about every movement he made, that too clearly had no place in the organization of the century that was afflicted with him. If he had been anyone else, you would have felt that the organization was likely to make life very difficult for him. But he was Simon Templar, the Saint, and so you could only feel that he was likely to make life very difficult for the organization. Wherefore, as a respectable member of the organization, you were liable to object…

He, of all men living, should have known that the age of strange adventures was not past. There were adventures all around, then, as there had been since the beginning of the world; it was a matter for the adventurer, to go out and challenge them. And adventure had never failed Simon Templar—perhaps because he had never doubted it. It might have been luck, or it might have been his own uncanny genius, but at least he knew, whatever it was he had to thank, that whenever and wherever anything was happening, he was there. He had been born to it, the spoilt child of a wild tempestuous Destiny—born for nothing else, it seemed, but to find all the fun in the world.

(The Avenging Saint, 1930)

The nature of the Saint is irrepressible.  Even when staring down the barrel of a gun, he makes up limericks about his enemies and gets riotously drunk on language.

Farnberg’s gun levelled accurately at the pit of the Saint’s stomach.

“How did you get here?” he rasped, and the Saint actually simpered.

“Don’t you think I’m a peach?” he said.

The eyes of the other two ranged behind him, to the packing-case that stood against the wall.  The lid was open, and it was beautifully empty.

“Of course, I’m not canned,” said the Saint, in his earnestly conversational way.  “That’s very important.  And I’m full of heroism, but absolutely void of heroin.  Perhaps she arrives in the next chapter.  You haven’t by any chance got a sister, have you, Jack?”

The Saint of the post-WWII stories and the TV series is older and shrewder, less flippant and more a worldly wise traveller, at ease wherever he goes, from high society to Central American villages, but still with the same hatred of injustice.

On his first appearance, in The Saint Meets the Tiger (1930), we learn that

He had won a gold rush in South Africa and lost his holdings in a poker game twenty-four hours later.  He had run guns into China, whiskey into the United States, and perfume into England.  He had deserted after a year in the Spanish Foreign Legion.  He had worked his passage across the Atlantic as a steward, tramped across America, fought his way across Mexico during a free-for-all revolution, picked up a couple of thousand pounds in the Argentine, and sailed home from Buenos Aires in a millionaire’s suite – to lose nearly all the fruit of his wanderings on Epsom Downs.

Charteris & MooreHis creator led almost as adventurous a life.  Charteris, the Singapore-born son of a Chinese doctor and an Englishwoman, travelled three times around the world before he was twelve.  He worked as a gold prospector in South-east Asia, fished for pearls, and worked in a tin mine in Malaya, while he was a bartender and a bus driver in the UK, played bridge professionally and toured England with a carnival.  Once he had made his name as a writer, he headed to Hollywood, while in later life, he and his fourth wife moved around the Caribbean.

Charteris believed that life should be a swashbuckling adventure, and detested both the dreary, mundane 9-to-5 grind, with its ‘routine office hours’ and ‘ranks of honest, hard-working, conformist, God-fearing pillars of the community’, and highbrow, introspective novelists.

‘I’m mad enough to believe in romance,’ Charteris said in a 1935 BBC radio interview.  ‘And I’m sick and tired of this age – tired of the miserable little mildewed things that people racked their brains about, and wrote books about, and called life.  I wanted something more elementary and honest – battle, murder, sudden death, with plenty of good beer and damsels in distress, and a complete callousness about blipping the ungodly over the beezer.  It mayn’t be life as we know it, but it ought to be.’

Hear, hear!

His first heroes were ‘the Knights of the Round Table – the Chevalier Bayard, Roland and Oliver, D’Artagnan as interpreted by Douglas Fairbanks’.  He wrote episodes of the Basil Rathbone / Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes radio series, the same series for which Anthony Boucher would later write.  He dedicated The Saint’s Getaway (1932) to his friend P.G. Wodehouse.

Oh, and he admired G.K. Chesterton.

He chose a Father Brown story for the MWA treasury Murder by Experts (1947).  References to the creator of Father Brown abound in the Saint stories, from “The Man Who Could Not Die” and “The Covetous Headsman” to a pastiche of Chesterton, complete with Indian mystic, light and colour, in “The Arrow of God”.  (Is there a more Chestertonian title?)

Would it surprise anyone to learn that, in that same story, Charteris calls John Dickson Carr a ‘genius’?

McCloy, Sardou & Paladilhe


Cue for MurderIn Helen McCloy’s Cue for Murder (1942), a young man is murdered during a revival of Sardou’s Fédora (1882) – a play written for the great Sarah Bernhardt, and which is remembered today, if at all, for Giordano’s opera (1898).

The tone is cool and sophisticated; characters are sharply and sympathetically observed; and one gets a good insight into theatre in 1940s New York.  The solution may not be earth-shattering – there are only a handful of suspects – but the clueing is excellent.

In its quiet way, a triumph.

Sardou, a disciple of Eugène Scribe (the master of the well-made play and the go-to man for opera libretti, including all four of Meyerbeer’s grand opéras and La Juive for Halévy), wrote historical plays (the Revolution, the court of Louis XIV, Byzantium, mediaeval Greece, 16th century Spain) – several of which were turned into operas.

affiche.pngAlthough the most famous is unquestionably Tosca, the one I am desperate to hear is Patrie!, about the Dutch rebellion against the Spanish in the sixteenth century.

Paladilhe’s 1886 opera was a major hit, but, like so much of the French repertoire, has vanished.  (For more information, see Carnets sur Sol’s excellent article.)

Arthur Pougin raved about the work in his supplement to Félix Clément’s Dictionnaire des  opéras.

“The poem of this work is the musical adaptation of M. Sardou’s moving and superb drama performed at the Porte-Saint-Martin on 18 March 1869.”

“Moving and superb”!  Bernard Shaw dismissed the playwright as mere Sardoodle-dom – but Shaw liked Ibsen and Wagner.

“This skilful adaptation inspired the composer in the happiest way. … From a superb libretto, he wrote music full of grandeur, passion, emotion, and poetry…

“What strikes me as particularly remarkable in the score of Patrie, considering it as a whole, is the monumental solidity of its construction; the sureness and firmness of the attaches, which show neither weakness nor lack of care; the beautiful sonority of the orchestra, an orchestra truly dramatic and never symphonic (which is not the same thing); the elegant cut and beautiful order of the musical phrase, whose ripples sometimes take a powerful richness; it’s a collection of qualities that are at once very musical and very dramatic and which denote a true man of the theatre, apt to seize all the situations and translate them into music with the greatest fidelity and the greatest effect possible.”

I have heard three pieces from the work, which are all sublime.



And yet the entire work has never been recorded.

Detective story fans think they have it tough!  All they need is a publisher and copyright.  Opera needs singers – who can sing; an orchestra; staging; and that rarest of things, directors who don’t destroy the work.






Queen and Commoners

“What is it you suspect, gentlemen—a bomb in my right pocket and a copy of The Daily Worker in my left?” HalfwayHouseElleryQueen

That’s Ellery Queen talking to the bloated plutocrats, snobbish bluebloods, frigid viragoes, and living corpses who govern New York.

Halfway House (1935) is the most class-conscious Ellery Queen novel so far.  The early books were brilliant fair play detective stories, but their backwards rooms, crucifixions, nude men, Siamese twins and bearded ladies were hardly realistic depictions of American society.

Here, Queen the writer tackles the class system “in the fifth year of the depression”.  And Queen the sleuth devotes as much time to awakening class consciousness and compassion in the ingénue as he does to solving the murder.

A man with two identities is killed in the “halfway house” in Trenton, New Jersey.  Was he murdered as Joseph Kent Gimball, wealthy New Yorker, or as Joseph Wilson, lower middle class Philadelphian commercial traveller?  Lucy Wilson is arrested for her husband’s murder, and Gimball’s stepdaughter Andrea knows more than she’s telling.

To make her speak, Ellery takes Andrea out of her sheltered upper class world, and shows her how the other half live.

He takes her to a settlement house on Henry Street, the city lodging house, and Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty; gives her William Faulkner’s Pylon to read; and jestingly suggests they visit the Rand School of Social Science, founded by the Socialist Party of America in 1906.

And then he takes her to the jail where Lucy Wilson has been imprisoned.

This is a remarkable scene.  Queen shows Lucy’s numb anguish; the shocked compassion of Andrea, realising for the first time just how harsh life can be; and the callousness of the Amazonian warder.  The closest Queen had come to this grim, naturalistic depiction of misery was in The Tragedy of Y.  That novel was too overblown to convince; the York family, that clan of syphilitics in thrall to a hellish matriarch, owed more to S.S. Van Dine and the Julio-Claudians than contemporary American life.  Here Queen depicts an average American woman in a realistic but unusual situation, and the result is powerful.

“It is not Lucy Wilson who is on trial for her life, it is Society,” writes an energetic woman reporter.

Society, which makes it possible for a man of wealth and position to marry a poor girl of the lower classes in another city under a false name, take ten of the most precious years of her life, and then—when it is too late—decide to tell the truth and confess his hideous sin to her.  Society, which makes it possible for such a man to commit bigamy, to have a poor wife in Philadelphia and a rich one in New York, to spend his time calmly between the two wives and the two cities like a commuter.

Innocent or guilty, Lucy Wilson is the real victim, not the man who lies buried in a Philadelphia cemetery under the name of Joseph Wilson, not the heiress of millions who took his real name of Gimball in vain at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in New York in 1927.  Will Society protect Lucy from itself?  Will Society make amends for the ten years it took from her life?  Will Society see that the crafty forces of wealth and social power do not crush her beneath their cruel heels?

All that keeps the novel from a place in the first rank is the mystery.  Ellery’s explanation is enthralling—but I anticipated most of the solution, including the murderer’s identity and motive, and the significance of the Swedish matches.  It’s lucky for Ellery’s logic that he didn’t meet Terry Pratchett’s Nanny Ogg; seeing her indulge one of her many vices would have seriously dented his beautiful theory.