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Avengers, The - Series Four

Review by: 
Blackgloves
Release Date: 
1965-1966
Studio: 
Optimum Releasing
Genre: 
Spy/Thriller
Format: 
DVD
Region: 
2 PAL
Aspect Ratio: 
1.33:1
Directed by: 
Various
Cast: 
Patrick Macnee
Diana Rigg
Movie: 
5
Extras: 
5
Bottom Line: 
5
Video: 
Click to Play

After the sudden departure of Honor Blackman things looked bleak for a short while in the world of “The Avengers”. The actress had made the role of Cathy Gale, the main sidekick to Gentleman spy John Steed -- an anthropologist and  Karate expert with a side-line in leather-clad amateur espionage -- so resolutely her own that there seemed little prospect  of continuing the series without her. While the show was in hiatus, with no replacement female lead in the offing, it was decided to turn the property over to ABC’s film division, headed by producer Julian Wintle, who then assembled a brand new team to take charge and oversee the new era, headed by former Avengers writer Brian Clemens. 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 Emma Peel we’ve come to know today emerged onto the screen. Like almost everything about the show, she didn’t arrive anything like fully formed. In fact, the actress Elizabeth Shepherd  was first cast in the role and one-and-a-half episodes 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 know: long blonde hair, a head-scarve and a striking red leather suit seem to suggest a look much closer to that of Cathy Gale than the distinctive modern mid-sixties Op art fashions of her replacement, Diana Rigg.

The coming together of Diana Rigg’s striking debut in the role of Emma Peel and the move to 35mm film are the two major factors that propel “The Avengers” out of the ghetto of successful but small-scale domestic TV drama into the realm of  international cult phenomena.  The first monochrome batch of episodes to be shot on film and to star Diana Rigg, collected here in their entirety for Optimum Releasing’s marvelous 7-disc re-mastered Series 4 set, reveal a transformed show: slicker, beautifully shot, and gorgeously cinematic; revelling in the new-found freedoms and opportunities for editing and exterior shots afforded by the entirely different set of working methods employed in 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 need to shoot as-live, on video, entirely on a cramped studio sound stage. Now it could be taken out into the English countryside around Elstree studios, and a whole new glamourous fast-paced world -- represented by the likes of Mrs Peel in her nifty French sports cars zooming along tree-lined lanes; or  Steed taking his classic Bentley out for a leisurely run -- opened up to quickly take root and be increasingly capitalised on by Clemens as the show progressed to create the exaggerated,  tongue-in-cheek, fantasy-land sense of British-ness which came to define the show for so many. Rather than the same repetitive music cues of the video taped 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 than Johnson’s iconic theme music, making its debut on this first black & white filmed series.

As modern and as fresh as the episodes of 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 these impulses, with Clemens in full creative control, could find full expression in bigger budgeted, cinematic tele-films.

Here, traditional elements of British culture are mixed with the most outlandish strokes 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 disappearance  of a number of  their Agents. They journey down by British Railways (during which Steed produces an entire cream tea from his seemingly bottomless  hamper) as though they were off on their holidays; they stay in a bed-and-breakfast above a traditional pub furnished in Toby Jugs and 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 ridiculous fashion. 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 which reveals the invaders’ method of smuggling their replacement Englishmen into the unassuming village: emerging out of the sea in a zip-up plastic bag, which falls away as they walk onto the beach, already fully dressed in spotless tweed suit and tie, ready immediately to assume their new role as impostor Englishmen!

Eccentrics and offbeat representations of  traditional establishment figures populate many of these stories, often turning 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 form which 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 an Avengers story, taking it to ever more outrageous levels of self-consciously  exaggerated surrealism.

Thus “The Murder Market” has a Marriage Bureau become the front for a gang of assassins for hire; 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 a fictional Microsoft 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 the episodes. “The Masterminds” features an entertaining fight sequence conducted in silhouette behind a projector screen  running a film in reverse, and “The Gravediggers” has a tongue-in-cheek scene with Mrs Peel tied to the tracks of a model railway that’s 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 video taped era.

But some of these stories were beginning to venture into areas that would eventually see the series take a giant leap into full-colour psychedelic modernism by series 5.  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-y episode in this run is the fun techno-phobe 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!) it could very easily be converted into a mid-sixties “Doctor Who” story, echoing  the same mix of fascination and fear with computers and robotics as did  Hartnell era stories like “The War Machines” and Cybermen centred Troughton adventures like “The Invasion”. Automation, machines replacing man, and the unpredictable downside of technological development are common themes in many of these episodes, which are always ambivalent, revelling in the gleaming imagery  and fashions of Pop Art and mod-futurism on the one hand, but conveying the familiar mixed messages about the subject 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 and rather affecting, sometimes eerie combination of nostalgia for the vanishing post-war age and 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 he and Emma to discover it completely deserted and all the clocks stopped at 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 alone in the flat deserted landscape  of the airfield, surrounded by signs of its recent occupation: a spinning bicycle wheel or 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 like the original, the story takes on a futuristic garish Pop Art character with Harry Pottle’s most  striking production designs utilised in a bizarre story which most succinctly combines all the more salient features of the series during this period: futuristic technology and striking, surrealist imagery.  Visiting a house supposedly left to her be an obscure aunt, Mrs Peel finds herself  trapped in a bizarrely decorated labyrinth of shifting rooms which turns out to be 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 chairman of a technology company.  Until we learn the secret of the  strange house (which Emma works out through rational deduction)  this is 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 marvelous rapport between Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg and the  completely unique and quirky way 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 their complete harmony with each other: he the quintessential traditional English gent  (the bowler and brolly have 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 fashions designed by John Bates. Emma Peel was one of the first women to be seen on screen wearing a miniskirt before it was 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 catsuit often making its appearance still, and not forgetting one of the most memorable episodes in Avengers history (banned from US screens for many years), “A Touch of Brimstone” which took the erotic fetishisation of Emma Peel to undreamed of levels.

 But image and fashion aside, the characters interact in a charmingly self-aware, comic book style which feels almost post modern to the extent that their reactions to each other and to the events surrounding them often seem to acknowledge the very artifice of 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 saddle in “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 practicing her fencing technique in the front room of her flat. She and Steed then proceed to have a conversation while all the while she chases him around the room 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 a tuba!  The light, jovial tone and outrageous, 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 DVD 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 him 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 tail 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 into with this series. He hates the playful episode he penned for later this season, “The Girl From Auntie”: this becoming a re-written 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 his experiences of shooting for “The Avengers”. This episode, written by Roger Marshall, he claims as 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 and the video taped series, and continue to work on the new filmed series at Elstree. It proved to be an unhappy experience apparently, 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 of Brian Clemens, 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 -- all that now remains 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 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 pary 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 post modern 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 precis 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 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 cloths 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”)  and there is loads of PDF material accessible on your PC featuring all the scripts, TV times listings and ABC production paperwork. 

This really is a tremendous set with some absolutely magnificent-looking high definition  black & white transfers and  clear mono sound throughout. All Avengers fans will be blown away by how good it all looks. This has to be the most highly recommended yet of all the newly re-mastered Optimum Avengers sets. 

5
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