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

The episodes starring Diana Rigg as Emma Peel are iconic.

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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.

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Source: http://www.wsj.com

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.

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Source: http://www.honorblackman.co.uk

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.

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Source: http://www.ianhendry.com

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.

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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.

 

The Age of the Sex Olympics III: Twenty-first Century Blues

Modern film and television have little interest in engagement with the outside world. They are distinguished by their nihilism and love of violence; their recycling of ideas; and their tunnel vision.

We live in an age of cultural recycling. Cinema is largely made up of sequels, prequels and remakes. Modern media thinks that self-referentiality – in-jokes and references to television and film, pop culture and celebrities – are witty and original. This is why dreck like The Lego Movie – in which pop culture references substitute for genuine humour and imagination – are popular.

This is a sign of cultural stagnation.

The most popular genres are science fiction, fantasy and superhero films, which are largely vehicles for flashy special effects. It is worth considering here what science fiction actually is.

Science fiction has three main purposes: to hold a mirror to society; to imagine what the future could be, based on current trends; and to instil a particular attitude. Its worldview is material, rational and empiricist, aiming to understand and master external reality through knowledge, and celebrating the mindset that makes this possible. The hero is frequently a scientist, who is intelligent, curious and observant, and has a strong sense of justice and compassion; for instance, Professor Quatermass or Doctor Who.

 

Modern science fiction is “cult”. Cult is ultimately about itself: a closed system. It may borrow some of the trappings of science fiction (spaceships, aliens, etc.) but it is not interested in the same things. It is disengaged from the real world; instead, it is written for fans, and emphasises continuity, series mythology, character arcs and origin stories. Story arcs are more important than stories, and set pieces more important than plot. It is written for fans who like arguing about details, want to identify with characters and write pornographic fan-fiction. We’ve all met them – the bore who corners you at a party and whose idea of conversation is to reel off statistics about spaceships in Battlestar Galactica.  Unsurprisingly, cult leads to tunnel vision.

Earlier science fiction and telefantasy programmes wanted to make people think and broaden their horizons, as well as entertain them. The works of Nigel Kneale dealt with the anxieties of the nuclear age and the welfare state. The Doomwatch team monitored scientific research for possible threats to humanity, and dealt with such issues as environmentalism, pollution, urban depression, genetic engineering and the complicity of big business. Doctor Who began as a semi-educational series, teaching children about science and history, and became about humanist intellect, investigative and exploratory, asking questions and making sense of the world. Nowadays, it’s more interested in its own mythology.

The same was true of other genres. Anthology series such as The Wednesday / Play of the Week / Month examined social issues. Spy series like Danger Man were a crash course in international relations, set in foreign countries against a background of contemporary politics.

 

The Goon Show, Monty Python or The Goodies satirised the absurdity of contemporary life, bureaucracy, the class system and current fads and trends.

Most fiction assumed that the world was a fascinating place, and had protagonists who were well balanced, sophisticated, clever and enjoyed life. John Steed and Mrs Peel crossed swords and then were off for diabolical masterminds and champagne.

Tintin, James Bond and the Saint travelled around the world from Peru to the Poles, from the Orient to the North Pole, from the depths of the sea to outer space.

Tintin Red Rackham

Moore Saint

Mysterious Cities of Gold journeyed the length of South America, and ended each episode with a short documentary on history or geography.

Such tales opened up the world; they made audiences curious and whetted their appetites for travel, even if only from their armchair.

An adventurous, optimistic attitude is a healthy one – but it’s not one that is encouraged by the media.

Our entertainment lacks expansiveness, cosmopolitanism, curiosity, a sense of fun and interest in the world. We seem as a society to be in love with misery; the more of it, the better.

Characters don’t have personalities; they have angst and trauma, revealed in elaborate back stories, and brood and mope. The most popular television series feature sociopaths in a moraDexterl wasteland: Breaking Bad, Dexter, Game of Thrones.

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are also sociopaths. In the movies, Man of Steel (which particularly disappointed me, as I was expecting a panegyric to Stalin), Batman and the Daniel Craig 007 are sociopaths. Everything is “dark” (when it’s not blue lit).

The movie that most triumphantly set its face against the cult of gloom was The Lone Ranger. The film is unabashedly brilliant: exhilarating, exuberant, subversive and rightfully angry, dealing as it does with genocide and land exploitation committed in the name of capitalism. It champions the individual over big business, idealism and noble causes over greed and self-interest, and proclaims that freedom – fun, humour and cleverness – are better than angst. Hardly surprising that it was a dismal flop in the States.

Angst and trauma, death and darkness, despair and gloom – that’s what life’s all about it. “Sadness,” as Steven Moffat remarked in one of his more idiotic moments, “is happiness for deep people.” Really, what’s so great about sadness?

Such stories (as a wise man once remarked) tell us that we’re dull and damned, as well as being damned dull.

Why, when there’s a world out there, focus on such things? (Something whispers: So that people won’t focus on the world.) If someone thinks the world is an awful place, full of miserable people who do ghastly things to each other from the moment they pop out of the uterus and strangle their mother with their umbilical cord, will they really want to engage with the world? Or are they more likely to lock themselves away and brood?

Life’s too big and complex to be boiled down to gloom, doom and atom bomb dropping planes’ sonic boom. Life’s this great rich glorious thing out there, full of colour and excitement and adventure.

Good art — movies and television shows, theatre, books, music, painting or sculpture — opens up the world. It inspires; it engages with the world; it reflects life in its complexity; and it broadens the audience’s minds. As such, it has an important role to play in shaping people’s attitude to the world. Television and film that makes people think about the world makes for a healthier democracy.

Works that show life as bleak and miserable distort the world – and are therefore dangerous. If people are forced to accept a myth rather than truth – as Hugh Greene, Director-General of the BBC, observed in both Nazi Germany and McCarthyist America – intellectual freedom was stifled and tyranny followed.

NPG x16892; Sir Hugh Carleton Greene by Godfrey Argent

Television, Greene believed, should be:

“a mirror behind what is going on in contemporary society. I don’t care whether what is reflected in the mirror is bigotry, injustice and intolerance or accomplishment and inspiring achievement. I only want the mirror to be honest, without any curves and held with as steady a hand as may be.

“If those who look out, with the eyes we have given them, see only the familiar, the comfortable, the reassuring, then surely we have failed, for the world is not like that. If we ensure that only the ugly, the bestial, the violent and the tawdry appear before them, then just as surely we have failed, for the world is not like that either.”

The Age of the Sex Olympics II: Technology

Many of my views on television and film production are influenced by Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood’s series, About Time: The Unauthorised Guide to Doctor Who (Mad Norwegian Press), and by Miles’s blog < http://beasthouse-lm2.blogspot.com.au/>.

 

There is now a single aesthetic for film and television. The American model – a Hollywood film on a smaller budget – is the norm. This limits the potential of the medium. In Britain, well into the 1980s, television was seen as a sort of theatre for the masses that had cameras pointing at it, with an emphasis on scripts and acting.This is as true of William Hartnell era Doctor Who (1963-66) as it is of The Forsyte Saga (1967), I Claudius (1976) – arguably the best television drama ever made – or Blackadder (1983-89).

If you think of television as a movie on a smaller screen, rather than its own medium, this reduces the number of stories you can tell.

Paradoxically, the better the technology, the less one can do with it, and the more possibilities are ruled out.

A quick technological explanation: Up to the ’70s, film was reserved for location shoots, and video for studio work. Video looks smoother and high res, but film looks grainer (fewer frames per second). However, film is the dominant stock for cinema, so feels more expensive to viewers. From 1975, lighter video cameras meant location footage could be shot on video – and locations could be made to look like studios. This breaks down the film/location – video/studio divide. Nowadays, filmification is in: shoot on (cheap) video and apply digital filters to make it look like it was shot on film. Film is increasingly giving way to digital video, because of shifts towards high definition TV, and video is thought of as bad.

If television is to have a certain look, it becomes more expensive to produce (thanks to post-production costs and editing), so the number of shows you can make diminishes. Television becomes a product, a commodity to be sold and consumed. It has to sell. And what sells? What makes money? Lowest common denominator programmes: reality television and game shows. Programmes that can be exported overseas, with emotional storylines, and nothing too difficult. British television now largely consists of costume drama, crime shows and soaps.

Secondly, there is an inverse relationship between the quality of the picture and the quality of the content. Modern television is as much or more about the spectacle than it is about the content. Modern television is realistic and representational; everything seen (unless explicitly coded as a dream or flashback) happens as the viewer sees it. Because the image is presented direct, the viewer has to work less, and is less imaginatively challenged. Miles & Wood (About Time: The Unauthorised Guide to Doctor Who, 1980–1984, Seasons 18 to 21, Mad Norwegian Press, 2007, p. 129) argue: “The number of possible interpretations made by anyone born after 1990 is drastically smaller than for those raised in the 1960s. ‘Realism’ is the level of unthinking interpretation, and anything made to avoid disturbing this process.” The audience are spoon-fed, and become as passive as the consumers in The Year of the Sex Olympics.

Audiences in days gone by had a very different relationship with television (one which involved the danger of severe burns to the genitalia and, in those days, imprisonment). Watching television was active. Viewers switched on a small black and white box in the corner, waited for it to warm up, and had to participate to make sense of the image and consciously decide to believe in it.

This gave television more licence to be strange and thought provoking. Large audiences enjoyed Doctor Who, The Avengers, The Prisoner, the Jonathan Miller Alice in Wonderland, Out of the Unknown and The Wednesday Play, which were stylised, often surreal. Bizarre imagery, symbolism, and abstract use of sound and light were standard techniques, were used to convey a subjective (emotional or intellectual) view of the world.

 

The turning point is the mid-’70s, when special effects become something the audience is supposed to believe in (real at the level of the story) rather than an aesthetic representation of an event. Once television is expected to be realistic, its ability to produce non-realistic programs declines, to the point where it is almost unthinkable today. Consider The Prisoner. The 1960s series was a surreal allegory about freedom and autonomy versus conformity; the remake ignores the philosophy and focuses on Six’s relationships. The original culminated in “Free for All”, an explosion of Pop Art like the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, whereas the 2009 remake explains everything as (yawn) virtual reality.

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The emphasis on realism and special effects creates a preference for the familiar and a craving for visceral excitement. Most television today consists of familiar characters in familiar situations. Audiences want to empathise with characters they know well, in the sort of programme they’ve seen before, rather than have their ideas challenged or learn something new. Such programmes only reinforce what people know; they do not inspire curiosity or wonder, only familiarity, which breeds not contempt but complacency. Television has become a comfort for consumers, bland and anodyne.

Special effects lead to a shorter attention span, increasing inability to focus on longer scenes, and an addiction to stimulation.  This is also true of computer games; there’s a distinct correlation between the imagination needed to play an adventure game, which rewards exploration, curiosity and lateral thinking, and the higher quality graphics and the monolithic domination of action games today.

Dickens adaptations end up looking like the Bourne films, complete with Shaky Camera ™, in a desperate attempt to convince audiences that 1850s London is dynamic and modern – a hip, with it, really happening place, even though the women are wearing bombazine, crinolines and hoop skirts, and the men sprout Dundreary whiskers and mutton chops.

Handheld cameras are cheap, but a whooshing camera, jittery screens, blurred backgrounds, desaturated colour and rapid cutting – considered more “artistic” than a clearer picture, and useful for concealing budgetary shortcomings – make it difficult to concentrate and are unaesthetic. Shots that are not composed are irritating to the eye. Shallow focus by its very nature removes the context and background from the shot. Two people in the same shot, sitting next to each other, one blurry and the other in focus; or a person in clear focus against a blurred background look wrong. All these techniques contribute to a loss of visual creativity. Whereas look at a good episode of The Avengers or Poirot, both of which are entertainment – and are witty, stylish programmes made by people who know how to use a camera. “Too Many Christmas Trees,” to pick an Avengers episode at random, has surreal dream sequences; a visually rich mansion; an Op Art table; and a fight in a hall of mirrors.

The dumbing down of television is a vicious circle. The more people watch bad television, the dumber they become; the dumber they are, the more they want bad television, which makes them dumb.