By the time the ABC-produced crime and espionage fantasy series "The Avengers" reached its third series in early 1964, with the first episode of the production run airing in the London regions on the 7th March of that year, the show had finally established a popular format that had now only to be strengthened and consolidated over the course of the following 26 episodes. These are the episodes that would really be pivotal, during this Teddington based studio-bound videotaped era, in establishing the image of the show as it was to be remembered by future generations of fans.
The show had spent a good deal of its time during the previous series necessarily having to re-find its feet after the unforeseen departure of its title star Ian Hendry (at the end of series one) had necessitated a total rethink of the show's underlying premise and appeal. Since many of the scripts for series 2 had already been written with the presumption that Hendry would still be appearing in his role as Dr. David Keel, alongside Patrick Macnee's trench-coated undercover spy John Steed, another actor had to be quickly drafted in for just three episodes (Jon Rollason) to play a replacement doctoring companion, so as to not waste the scripts, since, by this point, there was simply no time to rewrite them all. But, from the start it appears that then-producer Leonard White, and in particular co-creator Sydney Newman, had already hatched plans to bring in a female assistant for Steed near the end of series 1 — the plan being to alternate jazz singer Venus Smith with Doctor Keel from then on, making Steed effectively the lead character.
But the departure of Hendry persuaded Newman that giving Steed a full-time female partner might perhaps provide an interesting new dynamic for the show. Thus, when the original delayed plan finally came to fruition at the start of the second series, Julie Stevens was employed for six episodes to play Venus Smith, with 'English Rose' Honor Blackman (not Newman's preferred choice, but she was cast anyway —despite his objections!) employed also for six episodes as glamorous anthropologist Cathy Gale: a widower with a talent for judo (and fencing, and motorbike riding, as we find during the course of this third series!)
But this new direction had its teething troubles, and the second series inevitably feels a bit compromised by the random swapping of Steed's partner every other week, as well as the fact that both Cathy Gale and Venus Smith were very evidently still in the process of being developed as characters by both writers and actors alike across the whole of the series. Julie Stevens' portrayal of Venus Smith changes radically in just six episodes, from a mature torch singer to a bubbly, girlish innocent with a Mary Quant hairstyle; while Honor Blackman can be seen gradually feeling her way into the role of Cathy. She changes her appearance a little with each episode: quaint fifties hairstyle, cape-coats and jaunty hats gradually diminish in frequency of appearance while the amount of practical, Michael Whittaker designed leather she was wearing increased as the fight scenes Blackman was required to perform on-camera became ever more arduous. Also, the character continues to become more forthright in personality and more independent: the sharp, witty dialogue between she and Steed becoming the series' hallmark — these characteristic exchanges were becoming much more important than the plots of the show itself. The obvious chemistry between Macnee and Blackman was enough to ensure the continuance of Cathy Gale as numero uno partner for the rest of the series, while Venus Smith quietly disappeared after her initial run of six contracted episodes. By the end of the second series, Blackman had become immensely popular and "The Avengers" was one of the biggest shows on British television.
So when the new series began, the show was ideally placed to capitalise on the hard won work of development accomplished by series 2. Former story editor John Bryce was now firmly established as producer after the departure of Sidney Newman and Leonard White midway through the last series. The show had a roster of able script writers to draw on for its consistently inventive storylines; writers like Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks (both to be heavily involved in "Doctor Who" during the early '70s Pertwee era), Roger Marshall and Martin Woodhouse established an inventive and flamboyant style of storytelling, a long way removed from the real world crime stories of the first series, but still with at least a flavour of reality, at least. Inventive directors like Peter Hammond and Don Leaver had somehow wrought magic from the cumbersome cameras and 'as-live' recording restrictions imposed on domestic videotape-recorded TV, to give the show a visually dynamic air, despite the unavoidable camera wobbles, boom-mike shadows and fluffed lines that inevitably plague many of these episodes. The show's newer writers, now joining on series 3, would, from hereon, have a good idea what was expected of them; and in particular, how to write for Cathy Gale. In fact, a typed list of 'dos & don'ts' was provided for all the writers coming to the series fresh.
Sure enough, the early episodes of this series feel more assured than ever, although many of the stories aren't themselves anything to write home about. "Concerto", the first episode of the second Cathy Gale season, kicks off with a plot that, indeed, seems fairly standard for the show at this time: rogue business elements who are set to lose-out from the success of trade talks between Britain and an unspecified East European country, attempt to frame for murder a visiting classical pianist from said country whose tour is being organised by Mrs Gail. It seems that Cathy also works for the British Cultural Association when she's not helping John Steed out with his international criminal investigations — which plunges her into the thick of the intrigue.
But with its brand new, still-primitive but now stylishly redesigned, title cards and a perked-up rhythmic version of the late (Sir) Johnny Dankworth's theme music (still nowhere near obtaining the lush, sophisticated twinkle of John Laurie's theme from the Diana Rigg years, but getting there!) and with the far more sophisticated production design enabling the appearance of an elegant and spacious new apartment (with large windows overlooking a view of the City) in which Steed now lives (and where Mrs Gale apparently also lodges!), rather than the cheap, cramped-looking bachelor's flat of the previous series — it's obvious that the show is beginning to open up, and is getting closer to the escapist fantasy of the series in its mid-sixties prime.
The story still features the grittier elements of earlier series though: a swanky strip club where the criminal masterminds hole up ("Le Stud Club"!), and Steed rather viciously clouting a miscreant with a telephone receiver, for instance. But Steed's image is already beginning to flower into the sophisticated gentleman persona everyone remembers with affection: the repartee between he and Mrs Gale was already there from the off, of course, but now the bowler hat & brolly-twirling, the suggestion of a '60s playboy lifestyle and a large consumption of brandy are starting to become regular features of Macnee's portrayal, and Mrs Gale's wardrobe is to become more flamboyant too. In this episode she appears in, for no particular reason, a frilly, 18th Century-style costume while being held prisoner by the episode's suited heavies.
Meanwhile, the leather factor would continue to play a huge role in the public perception of Mrs Gale. It had mainly been introduced during the second series as a practicality after an unfortunate costume malfunction occurred during one of Honor Blackman's fights: if the actress was to continue to engage in violent fisticuffs with assorted villains each week (and her fight scenes are indeed extremely vicious when you watch them back now, akin to real, 'live' wrestling bouts complete with grunts and screams as Blackman hurls her opponents about the cement studio floor!) then she would have to be dressed in durable but flexible clothing to avoid further mishaps. Leather was the best option in terms of lighting the scenes (Macnee's suggestion of a suede costume was overruled because the material absorbed too much of the light). The green leather outfit Blackman would usually be dressed in by the third act of the series 2 episodes, began to give way to more fetishistic wear by Fredereck Starke as the producers realised the effect this style of dress was having on the viewing public in series 3. By the episode "November Five", Blackman is seen sliding into sultry knee-high black leather boots in early scenes in Steed's flat, and her leather outfits continue to get sleeker and sexier, so that an episode such as the classic "Mandrake", for instance, introduces her with a slow pan across her leather-clad derriere as she stretches out on Steed's front-room sofa.
This series continues to showcase stories that mine vaguely real world espionage scenarios to great effect, honing the style that began to predominate in series 2, but seamlessly incorporating the increasingly more outlandish and surreal elements of the show with consummate skill. Stories such as "The Golden Fleece" deal with such disparate elements as a gold smuggling operation controlled from a stylish Chinese restaurant by a Fu Manchu-esque mastermind, as well as a strangely poignant social problem 'back story' of impoverished British ex-servicemen forced into crime.
"November Five" mixes Westminster politics with the goings on at a posh health club, while the late-series episode "The Outside-In Man", written by Philip Chambers and directed by David Marshal, is the perfect culmination of this style of story in which the incredible is mixed with the everyday or the mundane. The story is an exciting, twist-ridden spy plot more akin to a "Danger Man episode than anything else, about an escaped British agent, back on British soil after five years being held prisoner by the enemy, who is determined to carry out the plan he was originally given by his superiors before he was captured: that is to eliminate the head of a corrupt, military controlled state, called General Sharp. The problem is that in the meantime, Britain has completely changed its entire foreign policy and is now set to sign an arms treaty with the very same dictator, in order to stop him having dealings with 'the other side'. This basically realist espionage plot is given all manner of quirky twists in its execution, with Steed's boss Quilpie (Ronald Radd, later to play Hunter in the series "Callan") directing the British Intelligence agency PANSAC (Permanent Agency for National Security and Counterintelligence) from a poky-looking office, complete with attractive tea-making secretary overseeing an index-card-based filing system, which is hidden behind the freezer room of a London butcher's shop!
What with Mrs Gale now a series regular, the relationship between she and Steed gets more attention from the scriptwriters (and the actors themselves) than ever, and noticeably develops across the 26 episodes as the series really starts to come into its own. Early episodes in the run emphasis the mysterious and unknowable side to Steed's character. In "Brief for Murder", not only does he appear to be in league with criminals, but he even apparently shoots Cathy dead and then has to stand trial for her murder! "The Nutshell" appears to implicate Steed in treachery to such an extent that even Cathy, never mind the viewer, is unsure, for much of the episode, if he really has gone over to the other side and passed a stolen file from a high-tech British underground nuclear bunker containing the names of every known double agent in existence, to enemy agents.
But by the time we reach a late series episode such as "The Wringer", Cathy is in no doubt as to Steed's innocence when he is marked as a double agent by one of his oldest friends (played by Peter Sallis). That doesn't stop her from reacting violently whenever Steed inevitably takes advantage of her though, much as he used to do with Venus Smith on a regular basis. Sharp words and sometimes even objects (or pillows) are violently thrown whenever Mrs Gale discovers she has been tricked into taking part in one of Steed's elaborate schemes, such as when she obtains a curator's job at a Military museum only for it to turn out to have been somehow arranged by Steed himself in order to have her in a position to better spy on a potential suspect. The dialogue continues to be a standout feature of the Cathy Gale era episodes (much more so than in the more visually opulent Diana Rigg years), and the scripts are often astonishingly literate and subtle. In what other popular TV shows do grinning, mind-altering beatnik villains name-drop Ludwig Wittgenstein (in "The Wringer") and where else does a protagonist casually drop a St. Augustine quote into a conversation (Cathy Gale conversing with a typically eccentric English vicar in the episode "Mandrake") — all without it ever seeming in the least bit forced or pretentious.
The flavour of the new decade is much in evidence throughout these episodes, the production design and the set dressings appear classier and modish, much more of their time than previously. With the more outlandish elements of some of the plots and the stylistic directorial flourishes of Peter Hammond in tow (filming one entire scene in the reflection from a polished table top in the episode "Second Sight" for instance), the show has by now developed a completely unique aesthetic look that (as it turned out) was the beginnings of its gradual transformation into the surrealistic riot of fantasy/sci-fi it later became under the aegis of Brian Clemens when the series switched to film in 1965.
The futuristic looking episode "The Nutshell" features an underground nuclear bunker that looks like something midway between the Dalek city on Skaro in "Dr. Who" and a villains' secret base from a Sean Connery era James Bond film; when Steed visits a yoga class in "A Brief for Murder" a weird, sexy atmosphere is established by having the girls lining up in a column, with Steed traversing the leggy rank twirling his umbrella as he inspects each leotard-clad beauty in turn, while one of Johnny Dankworth's quirkier jazz-based cues gives the scene a lighter and frothier air than anything that had appeared in the series before, almost like a scene from a musical. The unusual and the uncommon work their way into the very production design in "Lobster Quadrill" — where a plot point concerning postal chess becomes an excuse to have a chess-based design for virtually every major set in the story, from a restaurant with chessboard-top tables (and "Alice in Wonderland" cardboard cut-outs along the walls) to even a morgue being rather improbably furnished with the same chequer motif! An air of unreality thus creeps into even the most mundane, real-world stories. But thanks to the influence of Brian Clemens, even the stories themselves are beginning to push into more outré territory!
"A Brief for Murder" was the first episode aired in this season to be written by Clemens (a few other episodes he wrote for this block, such as "Lobster Quadrill" for instance, were written under a pseudonym). It marks the writer's return to the series after he'd been instrumental in establishing the style of the show during the Hendry years, after which he left to write for Patrick McGoohan in Lew Grade's rather glossier film series "Danger Man". The story is a tricksy affair, but a central comedy performance — a double act between John Laurie and Harold Soot as the aged, corrupt lawyers Jasper and Miles Lakin — helps make a rather ridiculous plot shine, and proves to be an early template for the more whimsical approach the series would take in its cartoonish, colour era, with Diana Rigg as Steed's assistant. Other stories here seem equally bizarre: "The Grandeur that was Rome" is based around the conceit of having a Caesar obsessed megalomaniac attempting to wipe out civilisation so that he can resurrect the social structures of Ancient Rome (with himself as a modern-day Caesar, of course): a really silly story by the standards of the series' original, hard-boiled crime origins, but the mad mastermind was to become a weekly occurrence in later years. "The Man with two Shadows" (a story written by "Callan" creator James Mitchell) is an entertainingly surreal tale with sci-fi overtones in which a holiday camp themed hotel is the unlikely setting for a plot by 'the other side' to replace Steed and other key agents with their exact clones.
The series makes arguably its first foray into outright pastiche with the Hitchcockian suspense tale "Don't Look Behind You" (predictably, also written by Brian Clemens, who would go on to direct and write several thrillers in this style, not to mention an entire TV series — "Thriller".) in which Cathy Gale, on-screen for almost the entire hour-long episode, is terrorised and tormented in a traditional old dark house setting by a mystery assailant. The episode, like many from this season, was later remade in colour with Diana Rigg, as was "Dressed to Kill", a playful Agatha Christie-like tale in which Steed and a bunch of other disparate people, whose only connection is that they have all recently bought land near a southern England radar station, are lured onto a train for a fancy-dress New Years' Eve party, only to be bumped off one by one. The story is a basic mystery/whodunit, but like so many of these episodes, it is elevated into something special by fantastic dialogue and wonderful performances from a great guest cast which includes, in this case, Leonard Rossiter as a bumptious Robin Hood and the lovely Anneke Wills as a quintessentially '60s, free-spirited 'pussycat'. It is in episodes like this that the playful optimism usually associated with this stage of the sixties really comes across most vividly.
Perhaps the key episode of the series, in terms of its combining all the elements that go to make this period of "The Avengers" so memorable, is the Roger Marshal scripted "Mandrake". This one's got the lot: Cathy Gale in her sleekest leather yet and essaying the series' most memorable fight sequence on the studio set of a Cornish graveyard: her co-star, rea life wrestler Jackie Sexton, was accidentally knocked out cold for seven minutes near the end of this sequence because of an earlier mistimed kick in the face from Blackman! The guest stars are also exemplary here: a delicately shifty John Le Mesurier as a crooked doctor; the sepulchral Philip Lock as the grasping mastermind behind the plot; and a rigidly imperious Annette Andre as his client, all go to make the whole memorable brew a delicious one, as does a beautifully-written and -acted eccentric vicar played by someone called George Benson: the kind of character that would come to dominate in the series' hyper-stylised representation of English country life during the colour era.
For my money though, the standout episode here is Brian Clemens' "The Charmers". Later remade with Diana Rigg, this version comes alive thanks to a beautifully eccentric performance from guest star Fenella Fielding. As its name suggests, it's by far the most charming, witty as well as one of the most playful Avengers episodes from this period of the show's development. The plot hinges on the device of having Steed and 'the other side' (here represented by a sneaky Warren Mitchell as Keller: a larger-than-life head of enemy operations running things from a mannequin-festooned hideout) being forced to join forces after they discover that both their agents are starting to be bumped off by a mysterious third party. They propose a 'job swap' with one of their agents joining up with his/her opposite number in a collaborative investigation to uncover the culprit who is disturbing the old 'balance of power'.
However, While Mrs Gale is unwillingly partnered with one of the opposition agents, Steed is tricked by Keller into partnering with an actress, Mrs Lawrence (Fielding), who believes she is merely taking part in an acted charade and is unaware that she is involved in a real espionage operation. As well as a plot furnished with numerous twists and turns, a Hitchockian dental surgery scene, and many a bizarre flight of fancy culminating in a weird sequence featuring a woman in a monster mask assisting prospective gentleman at a charm school headed by the sinister Mr Edgar (Brian Oulton), this is just stuffed full of priceless moments trading on Steed's bemused response to Mrs Lawrence's casual attitude to the most diabolical of dangers, and on Mrs Gale's intolerance of both Steed's and Keller's habitual double-dealing. This story only works because Blackman and Macnee had by now established such a strong partnership, that seeing them interacting with someone completely different becomes both fascinating and illuminating. Fielding's amused commentary on the absurd events as she tags Steed on his investigation serves as a sly commentary on, and also celebration of, the show's more outlandish new direction.
Optimum Home Entertainment are, once again, to be congratulated in their restoration of these early videotaped episodes: now almost fifty years old, they often look stunning considering their age and the low quality of the recording medium. The quality is variable between episodes, but all of them are in noticeably better condition than the series 2 episodes and many, towards the latter half of the series, look unbelievably sharp. All in all, they have simply never looked better on any other home release! As was the case with the previous box set, extras are splashed all over the seven discs: each one includes extensive stills galleries for each episode and PDF files of all the scripts (including an extra alternative version of "Death of a Batman"). Disc 7 features a twenty-five minute documentary, "Avenging the Avengers", recorded for a Channel Four retrospective (with contributions from Macnee, Blackman, Rigg and Linda Thorson; as well as Brian Clemens, Don Leaver and story editor for series 3, Richard Bates), as well as about nine minutes of extra interview clips cut from the documentary.
The second part of a specially recorded interview with Honor Blackman, "Gale Force", takes us through some of her key experiences and memories of recording this series, and she also talks about her decision to leave at the end of this production block, just before the series was set to transfer to Elstree for a filmed series. There are various bits and pieces to be enjoyed all over the remaining discs: a black and white Newsreel clip of Blackman demonstrating her judo techniques in footage publicising her self-defence book; the surviving third act of a Leonard White-produced adaptation of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" with Patrick Macnee; filmed introductions to many of the series' key episodes (taken from the "Avenging the Avengers" documentary) and a PDF file of the series 3 promotional brochure. An unexpected treat is the inclusion of several reconstructions of stories from the lost Ian Hendry series. One would have though they would have been more at home on the previous box set, which contained the few surviving episodes from that series, but they are welcome here nevertheless. They are composed of a gallery of seldom seen production stills for the episode, with Leonard White narrating the story from the surviving camera scripts.
The key extras have to be the five commentary tracks though, moderated by Jazz Wiseman or Henry Holland and featuring contributions from series writers Brian Clemens ("A Brief for Murder") and Roger Marshall ("Mandrake"), directors Don Leaver ("The Man with Two Shadows") and Jonathan Alwyn ("The Outside-In Man"), and from series script editor Richard Bates ("The Grandeur that was Rome"). What comes across most loudly across most of these tracks is how committed most of the contributors were to the videotaped method and to the style of the show as it developed in the two Cathy Gale series. Not surprising really since none of them were asked to be a part of the Elstree production when the show moved to film; the show effectively becoming an re-imagining (to use a modern term) rather than a continuation of the old show, with the more fantasy-based approach developed by Brian Clemens not really favoured by the old guard.
Honor Blackman's last episode sees Cathy finally freeing herself of Steed's influence to take a much deserved holiday in the Caribbean ("pussyfooting along those sun-drenched shores" as Steed puts it — a wry reference to Blackman's upcoming role as Pussy Galore). The series was about to enter a whole new phase with an almost entirely new production crew, headed by experienced film producer Julian Wintle, and with Elizabeth Shepherd now taking on the difficult role of Steed's new sidekick, Emma Peel. It didn't last long though, and the actress was fired after just one and a half episodes. But that's a story for another time ...