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Avengers, The - Series 4 (Blu-ray)

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
1965-1966
Studio: 
Studio Canal
Genre: 
Cult TV
Format: 
Blu-ray
Region: 
B
Aspect Ratio: 
1.33:1
Directed by: 
Various
Cast: 
Patrick Macnee
Diana Rigg
Movie: 
5
Extras: 
5
Bottom Line: 
5

This Blu-ray upgrade for series four of ABD's international ‘60s cult TV phenomenon “The Avengers” joins the story at a time when things were looking pretty bleak in Avengersland after the sudden departure of the show’s female lead Honor Blackman. The actress had played the role of Cathy Gale, an anthropologist and Karate expert with a side-line in leather-clad amateur espionage, who had been the main sidekick in the adventures of Gentleman spy John Steed for the last three years. During that time she’d made the part so completely her own that there seemed little prospect of continuing the series without her. While the show was on hiatus, with no replacement for Blackman in the offing, it was decided to turn the property over to ABC’s film division, then headed by producer Julian Wintle, who assembled a brand new team to take charge of the series and oversee a completely new era and approach to the making of the show under the guidance of former Avengers writer, Brian Clemens, the recently deceased creative genius who was almost certainly the most important person in the development of the show. Much behind-the-scenes brainstorming resulted in the emergence of a new independent female character to take the place of Cathy Gale. An ABC publicist at the time described this ‘Mrs Emma Peel’ as being “a willowy, auburn-haired beauty with a sparkling wit, who leads the streamlined life of an emancipated, jet-age woman, dressed in ultra-modern, man-tailored fashions”.  In fact, it took a little time and much expense before the version of Emma Peel we’ve come to know today emerged on our TV screens. Like almost everything we now take for granted about this much-loved show, she didn’t arrive anything like fully formed. In fact, before Diana Rigg came on the scene, the actress Elizabeth Shepherd had first been cast in the role, and one-and-a-half episodes were filmed before it was decided that she was not right for the part after all. Those episodes have now disappeared, but tantalising on-set stills still exist and reveal a very different characterisation to the one we subsequently came to cherish: long blonde hair, a head-scarf and a striking red leather bodysuit seem to suggest a character much more closely modelled on Cathy Gale than the distinctive, modern, mid-sixties Op Art fashions associated her replacement, Diana Rigg.

Diana Rigg’s striking debut in the role of Emma Peel and the move to shooting on 35mm film are the two major factors which propel “The Avengers” out of the ghetto of successful but small-scale domestic British TV drama, into the realm of international cult phenomena.  The first monochrome batch of episodes to be shot on film and starring Diana Rigg in the role she made even more iconic than that of Cathy Gale, are collected here in their entirety for Studio Canal’s marvellous 7-disc HD re-mastered Series 4 set, and reveal a show transformed: slicker and more beautifully shot, gorgeously cinematic, the series from this point on revels in the new-found freedoms and opportunities for more sophisticated editing and exterior shooting now afforded by the entirely different set of working methods employed with the process of shooting on film. The result was a much more fluid and effortlessly stylish product. No longer was the show limited by the needs of  videotape shooting as-live, on a cramped TV studio soundstage. Now it could be taken out into the English countryside (or at least that part of the English countryside surrounding Elstree Studios), and a whole new glamorous, fast-paced world represented by the likes of Mrs Peel zooming along tree-lined lanes in her nifty French sports car, or Steed taking his classic Bentley out for a leisurely run, opened up to quickly take root in many nations' collective consciousness. This was increasingly capitalised on by Clemens as the show progressed, resulting in the exaggerated, tongue-in-cheek, fantasyland sense of Britishness which came to define the show for so many. Rather than the same repetitive music cues often reused on every episode in the videotaped era, new series composer Laurie Johnson scored many of the episodes individually, as would normally be done on a fully fledged feature film; and of course nothing defines the sophisticated, humorous, self-aware tone of this new, re-tooled Avengers more than Johnson’s iconic theme music, which makes its debut at the top of this first black-&-white film series.

As modern and as fresh as the episodes in this fourth series undoubtedly are, the series’ associate producer and writer Brian Clemens had already written for the show under the old regime at Teddington Studios, and  had a well-developed understanding  of  the kinds of  outlandish stories it was capable of accommodating. Even during the second Cathy Gale season, Clemens was always pushing the stories further into the realm of ironic, self-aware fantasy, combining some unlikely elements to produce absurdist plots full of strange juxtapositions and unlikely couplings. While other writers tended to stick to the standard spy stories and espionage plots, but with a comedic fillip, Clemens dealt in pastiche, and hinted at surrealism even back then. Now that he was in full creative control, these impulses found their full expression and the perfect home in the bigger budgeted, cinematic tele-film format. Here, traditional elements of British culture are writ large, where they are mixed with the most outlandish brushstrokes of surrealist whimsy: “The Town Of No Return”, the first episode of the new run to be aired, is a case in point: Emma and Steed turn up at the little seaside village of Little Bazeley-by-the-Sea to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a number of their organisation’s agents. They journey down by British Railways (during which Steed produces an entire cream tea snack from his seemingly bottomless  hamper) as though they were off on their holidays; they stay in lodgings above a traditional pub furnished in Toby Jugs and which is run by a sergeant major -type landlord with a handle-bar moustache, and become involved in a plot that ,while it turns out to be a fairly hackneyed ‘invasion’ story (a staple of the Cathy Gale era ever since episodes such as the Terrence Dicks and Malcolm Hulke penned “The Mauritius Penny”) , is nevertheless delivered in the most enjoyably deadpan fashion despite its intricate ludicrousness. We learn that the invaders are planning to replace the entire population of Britain, starting with the remotest English seaside coastal villages first, based on the assumption that nobody will notice the difference until it’s too late. If this odd version of a familiar foreign invasion storyline isn’t tongue-in-cheek enough, the episode is replete with bizarre images, not least the opening scene in which the invaders’ method of smuggling their replacement Englishmen into the unassuming village is highlighted: a figure emerges from the sea still in a zip-up plastic bag, which falls away as he walks up onto the sandy dunes to reveal that he’s fully dressed in a spotless tweed suit and tie, ready immediately to assume his new role as impostor Englishmen!

English eccentrics and offbeat representations of  traditional establishment figures populate many of these stories, although they often turn out to be not quite what they seem: diabolical wine tasters are plotting to influence the stock market by murdering key investors (“Dial A Deadly Number“);  a village vicar is a spy whose congregation  turn out to be nothing but voices on a tape-recording (“The Town of No Return”);  an aristocratic model railway enthusiast (played by Ronald Fraser) conducts interviews in a mock-up railway carriage, complete with moving scenery (“The Gravediggers”); members of a MENSA-like club of eggheads are hypnotised en mass and used as unwitting aids in a series of daring robberies (“The Masterminds”).  Clemens pioneered the plot template that hinges on an everyday institution turning out to be a cover for a criminal gang during the second Cathy Gale season, and this series makes it pretty much the standard formula for generating any Avengers story, taking it to ever more outrageous levels of self-consciously exaggerated comic surrealism.

Thus “The Murder Market” has a Marriage Bureau become the front for a gang of assassins for hire; while in “Death at Bargain Prices”, an ordinary high street department store is the nerve centre of a terrorist plot to explode an atomic bomb in London.  In “The Cybernauts” Michael Gough is the head of the fictional version of Microsoft or Apple of the mid-sixties: United Automation turns out, though, to be at the crux of a plot to replace humans with an efficient robot workforce; “Quick-Quick Slow Death”, meanwhile, posits a dance school as a front for a scheme to replace its bachelor clientele with enemy spies. The humour and playfulness inherent in these outrageous stories is echoed in their increasingly sophisticated and dynamic on-screen realisation. Many of the directors now working on the show were more used to shooting feature films than TV, and were encouraged to approach “The Avengers” in the same manner. Thus, an element of pastiche and playful comic-book exuberance soon finds its way into many of the episodes. “The Masterminds” features an entertaining fight sequence conducted in silhouette behind a projector screen running its film in reverse, and “The Gravediggers” has a tongue-in-cheek scene with Mrs Peel tied to the tracks of a model railway, shot in the traditional “Perils of Pauline” silent movie style. The black & white photography of this season enables the show to keep one foot still firmly in the shadowy noir style of old, but inventive camera angles and avant-garde framing gives the series a quirky, modern mise-en-scene unavailable to the studio-bound videotaped era.

But some of these stories were beginning to venture into areas that would eventually, in series five, see the series take a giant leap into full-colour psychedelic modernism.  Science Fiction is but one element of the absurdist fantasy construction at the heart of the series, at its best when it pairs its essential, idealised British traditionalism with outlandish futuristic scenarios and some seriously stylish retro-modern production design, courtesy of art director Harry Pottle. “Too Many Christmas Trees” pits a gang of telepaths against the mind of Steed, while the ridiculous “The Man-Eater of Surrey Green” takes the series all the way into “Quatermass” and “Doctor Who” territory,  as Steed and Emma tackle a man-eating telepathic plant from outer space. Perhaps the most Doctor Who-like episode in this run is the fun technophobe tale “The Cybernauts”. The title is an obvious giveaway as to which aspect of that series this story is influenced by, and with its diabolical mastermind, unstoppable robot killer and an emphasis on technology paranoia (miniature circuits replacing transistors? It’ll never catch on!) the story could very easily be converted into a mid-sixties “Doctor Who” adventure, echoing the same mixture of fascination and fear when it comes to computers and robotics as Hartnell era stories like “The War Machines” and Cybermen centred Troughton adventures like “The Invasion”. Mass automation, the prospect of machines replacing man, and the unpredictable downside of technological developments are the common themes in many of these episodes, although there is always an ambivalence there: on the one hand they revel in the gleaming imagery and streamlined fashions of Pop Art and mod-futurism, but they also convey the familiar mixed messages about the subject -- a trait common to many  “Doctor Who” stories of the mid- to late-sixties when the Wilson Government’s ‘White Heat’ technology drive was at its height.

Mostly though, the series’ rich vein of avant-gardism concentrates on the surreal and the quirky without totally staking its claim to pure science fiction. The Gerry O’Hara directed “The Hour That Never Was” is perhaps one of the most memorable episodes, with a uniquely odd, hallucinogenic atmosphere.  Almost entirely shot on location at a deserted airbase in Hertfordshire, this is an ingenious, rather affecting and sometimes eerie combination of nostalgia for the vanishing post-war age and an exercise in outlandish strangeness represented by Steed waxing lyrical about his war-time experiences while on his way to a closing party being held at his former RAF base, only for himself and Emma to discover it completely deserted and all the clocks stopped at precisely eleven o’clock. It is half-an-hour into the episode before any of the supporting cast (which includes Gerald Harper and Roy Kinnear) even appear, the preceding time taken up with atmospheric shots of the two protagonists wandering alone in the flat deserted landscape of the airfield, surrounded by signs of its recent desertion: a spinning bicycle wheel or some half-finished drinks in the pub. But the off-kilter styling and the uncanny elements which gradually intrude on the plot are what make this sinister story of clandestine brainwashing such a series highlight. In the Emma Peel-centred “The House that Jack Built”, meanwhile, the plot outline echoes a previous Brian Clemens story, “Don’t Look Behind You”, which was originally written for the second Cathy Gale series (and later directly re-shot for the colour series as “The Joker”); but here, instead of  parodying the traditional haunted house genre as did the original, the story takes on a futuristic garish Pop Art character with Harry Pottle’s most  striking production designs set centre-stage, utilised in a bizarre story which most succinctly combines all the more salient features of the series during this particular period: futuristic technology and striking, surrealist imagery.  Visiting a house supposedly left to her by an obscure aunt, Mrs Peel finds herself trapped in a bizarrely decorated labyrinth of shifting rooms that turn out to be part of a giant computer, programmed by its long-since deceased inventor to trap and kill Emma because she once sacked him after she was made the company chairman of a technology industry he’d been working for.  Until we learn the secret of the strange house (which Emma works out through rational deduction) this plays as one of the more dreamlike episodes, with twisting corridors and doorways repeatedly leading onto the same room dominated by a curious, humming solar-driven mobile device.

What really makes the series such a classic is, of course, the marvellous rapport between Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg and the completely unique and quirky way that the characters of John Steed and Emma Peel interact on the screen. More so than even in Honor Blackman’s day, the duo represent the two poles of the series’ appeal and they work in complete harmony with each other: he the quintessential traditional English gent (the bowler and brolly had by now become increasingly dominant features of John Steed’s persona), she the ultra-modern emancipated female, clad in a beguiling selection of up-to-the-minute Op Art-style fashions designed by John Bates. Emma Peel was one of the first women to be seen on screen wearing a miniskirt before the item was even widely available on the high street, the producers banking on it taking off the following season. The Emma Peel image was the most dominant representation of  the futuristic Swinging Sixties ‘look’ that had been recently devised by designers such as Mary Quaint and André Courrèges; but the fantasies of male audiences still had a role to play in her appearance, with the slim-line leather cat suit often making its appearance still; and let us not forget (as if we could) one of the most memorable episodes in Avengers history, actually banned from US screens for many years, “A Touch of Brimstone” -- which took the erotic S&M fetishisation of Emma Peel to previously undreamed of levels, fifty years before “Fifty Shades of Grey”!

But image and fashion aside, the characters interact in a charmingly self-aware, comic book style which feels postmodern to the extent that their reactions to each other and to the events surrounding them often seem designed to acknowledge the very artifice inherent to the Avengers’ world. This interplay didn’t quite arrive fully formed: an early episode, “The Murder Market”, has an uncharacteristic sequence where Mrs Peel chastises Steed in the style familiar from Cathy Gale’s tenure. But this would soon become a thing of the past and a playful, subtle, knowing rapport develops which incorporates a complement of racy lines (‘Oh! Tight girth!’ exclaims Emma while being untied from a horse saddle after being imprisoned in a stable during “The Town of no Return”. ’You’ll have to cut down on your oats.’ remarks Steed, slyly) and quirky situations: “The Town of No Return” introduces Mrs Peel while practicing her fencing technique in the front room of her flat (which has a camera attached to the door in the shape of a giant eye). She and Steed then proceed to have a conversation while all the while she chases him around the room with a fencing foil, while he attempts to remove ornaments from out of harm’s way! In “The Murder Market”, another piece of dialogue is conducted while Mrs Peel for no apparent reason practices playing the tuba!  The light, jovial tone and outrageous, often ingenious surrealist plots of this particular series, combined with the cinematic black and white photography, is felt by many to represent the show at its pinnacle and it is certainly the case that it has never looked so pin sharp and detailed as it does on this new Blu-ray set.

This 7-disc UK set includes all twenty six episodes from the monochrome first Emma Peel season and five of the episodes also include commentary tracks, all of which are moderated by Jaz Wiseman. Director Roy Ward Baker and scriptwriter/producer Brian Clemens join Wiseman for “The Town of No Return” in which Clemens gives his account of the decision to re-cast the role of Emma Peel, replacing Elizabeth Shepherd with Diana Rigg after it was decided that Shepherd wasn’t right for the role soon after filming one and a half episodes of the new season. This was one of those re-filmed episodes, originally directed by Peter Graham Scott but now with Baker at the helm. This is a wide-ranging commentary in which Clemens and Baker also discuss issues around the transfer of the series from video to film. On “The Master Minds” scriptwriter Robert Banks Stewart talks about the unique feel of the series and his approach to writing this tale, which was inspired by his wife becoming a member of MENSA! Roger Marshall talks about his favourite Avengers episodes in the commentary to “Dial A Deadly Number” and reveals that he wasn’t happy about the increasingly absurdist Sci Fi territory Clemens was going in with this series. He also claims to have hated the playful episode he penned for later this season, “The Girl From Auntie” which was re-written as a surreal episode in which Steed teams up with an Emma Peel impostor played by the lovely Liz Fraser, while the real Mrs Peel is kept prisoner inside a giant birdcage, waiting to be sold at auction to some foreign spies! “Dial a Deadly Number” revolves around Marshall’s interest in the Stock Exchange and relies entirely on studio sets and conventional villains which give it a similar feel to the old video-taped episodes, only with snappier editing and noir-ish lighting. There’s a technology twist to it as well, as the murderers bump off their victims via a new-fangled ‘pager’ device which delivers an electric shock to the heart. Gerry O’Hara proves a lively and enthusiastic interviewee on his commentary for “The Hour That Never Was”, delivering plenty of anecdotes from his early career as assistant director to Carol Reed, as well as delving into his experiences of working on “The Avengers”. This episode, which was written by Roger Marshall, he claims to have been the best script he ever got to direct. Finally, veteran Avengers director Don Leaver talks about the move from video to film on the commentary for “The House That Jack Built”. Leaver was one of the few directors to make the move from Teddington where he worked on the videotaped series, and continued to work on the new filmed series at Elstree, despite the hugely different regime it entailed. It proved to be an unhappy experience, with Leaver relating his dissatisfaction with the internal politics of the situation, since he was made to feel unwelcome by many who didn’t want any association with the series in its previous incarnation.

“The Series of No Return” is an interesting phone interview with Elizabeth Shepherd in which she gives a slightly different account of her exit from the programme to that related by Brian Clemens, and in which she claims that she was originally offered the opportunity to contribute her own ideas to the scripts (something which Brian Clemens clearly found unacceptable) by producer Julian Wintle. The interview is illustrated with tantalising stills from her one-and-only completed episode, which are all that now remain of it, since the episode itself has since mysteriously disappeared. Diana Rigg was cast in the role of Emma Peel after she was spotted in an episode of Armchair Theatre called “The Hothouse”, and that episode is also included in this set as an extra. One can see why she made such an impression, as this tale of a supermarket general manager, his wife and the assistant manager who hopes to gain a promotion from a weekend dinner party at his boss's house, shows Rigg holding her own against Harry H. Corbett in great style.

There are a plenitude of other morsels and tit-bits spread throughout the seven discs including:

The USA Chessboard opening sequence (filmed to introduce the series to an American audience)

The Strange Case of the Missing Corpse: a three minute film designed to promote the colour series, which acts as a pretty good indicator of the thoroughly postmodern direction the series was to take as Steed and Mrs Peel parody just about every aspect of the show while they attempt to find a corpse to investigate.

Alternative end tag from “Death At Bargain Prices”

Episode reconstructions for series 1 scripts “Kill The King” and “Dead of Winter”: which take stills and tele-snaps and combines them with narrated studio scripts to give a 15 minute précis of these two episodes from the David Keel era.

Colourised test footage from “Death At Bargain Prices” and “A Touch  of Brimstone”

Reconstructed ‘The Avengers are back’ John Stamp trailer

Alternative UK opening and closing credits (which are in the same style as the static caption card titles used during the David Keel and Cathy Gale era).

Alternative UK animated bumpers

UK animated bumper

Variant opening title credits for the episode “The Gravediggers”

French opening credits

German opening credits

ITN Newsreel footage: very brief black and white shots of an Avengers fashion show featuring Diana Rigg's clothes from series 4, Patrick Macnee getting married, and Diana Rigg being interviewed after getting the role of Emma Peel.

Each episode has its own extensive image gallery (including the lost Elizabeth Shepherd version of “The Town of No Return”).

This really is a tremendous set with some absolutely magnificent-looking high definition black & white transfers and clear mono sound throughout. Subtitles in English and German are available. All Avengers fans will be blown away by how good it all looks; it’s been a long time coming, but this HD Blu-ray upgrade is superb.

 

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night

 

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