Series six of “The Avengers” begins with a poignant goodbye. After two series of gloriously unlikely adventures spent thwarting the plans of diabolical masterminds and uncovering their colourful secret plots to take over the country or to steal state secrets (always with an arched eyebrow and a firm sense of irony at her disposal), Emma Peel left her bowler hatted companion John Steed, and drove off to a new life with her husband – recently found alive in the Amazon jungle after having previously been presumed dead. But as Diana Rigg exited the show for good, and her replacement -- a twenty-year-old Canadian actress with no previous screen experience called Linda Thorson -- took up her place at Patrick Macnee’s side, the show entered a period of great instability and crisis that reveals itself all too evidently in the first few episodes to make it to the screen; in fact, the hand-over episode, that sees Emma Peel meeting her replacement, Tara King, on the stair leading to John Steed’s flat, is itself a result, and a perfect example of, the kind of turmoil the show now found itself caught up in. It required the last minute recall of a still-under-contract Diana Rigg for four days of extra filming, even though she had technically already finished with the series and three episodes of the new one had already been filmed in her absence!
At the end of series five, ABC had engineered the removal of producers Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens, replacing them with John Bryce, the man who had previously overseen the development and increasing popularity of Cathy Gale after the character was first established by the show’s original producer, Leonard White. The plan was to tone down the outlandishness of the fantasy elements that Clemens and Fennell had made an increasingly noticeable element of the show, especially during the series’ first colour season. However, after viewing the only three episodes completed under Bryce’s stewardship, American studio executives were not happy, prompting Bryce’s abrupt removal and the re-instatement of Fennell and Clemens.
Bryce had already cast Linda Thorson to play Tara King (a character name she was allowed to choose herself) and the two producers were left to sort out the legacy of their predecessor’s production decisions. For one thing, it had been decided that Tara King would now have blonde hair; but after dyeing it several times, Thorson’s hair fell out, requiring her to wear a wig. Clemens tried to salvage what he could of the rejected episodes: portions of Bryce’s original feature-length Tara King debut, “Invitation to a Killing”, were integrated into a chopped down episode called “Have Guns … Will Haggle” leading to continuity howlers, sudden changes from day to night and the seasons changing in a blink of an eye. Tara King was also changed back into a brunette, but Thorson had to wear a wig for the first seven episodes until her hair grew back; and she is blonde in the Terry Nation scripted episode “The Invasion of the Earthmen” because this was the only episode Bryce had commissioned that was judged to be good enough to leave largely unaltered. Clemens quickly wrote a new hand-over story that required Diana Rigg to appear again and that introduced the wheelchair-bound character of Mother as the boss of Steed’s department, to be played by Patrick Newell. An old, unused left-over script from the Diana Rigg era called “Split!” was put into production since Clemens and Fennell were struggling for material by this stage. More footage from Bryce’s rejected episodes was regurgitated later in the production block, in the episode “Homicide and old Lace” – often judged by fans to be the single worst episode of “The Avengers” ever.
The main victim of all this turmoil was Linda Thorson. Inexperienced she may have been, but as this series settles into its stride she does reveal herself to be a perfectly fine actress and the Tara King character develops her own unique relationship with Steed. But it takes a while to get there, and when the episodes are viewed out of their original production order (which is how they were broadcast in the UK) there are wild variances and discrepancies in the way the character behaves, caused by the gradual, piecemeal way she was developed. Thorson appears to have been given no clear direction originally as to where the character came from or exactly how she should pitch her relationship with, and attitude towards, Steed. In the only one of the John Bryce episodes to be used in the series, “Invasion of the Earth Men”, a blonde-haired Tara appears to have had a long standing relationship with her partner, indicated, for example, in an exchange during which he asks her ‘have I ever let you down before?’, after she expresses doubt that he would turn up in time to help her escape from the villain’s lair.
However, Clemens wrote the episode “The Forget-Me-Knot” to act as a bridge between the Emma Peel era and the Tara King one and it was broadcast as the first episode of the series. It features the usual (though slightly modified) Emma Peel title sequence, but introduces both Mother and Tara King (although we don’t in actual fact see Mother again for a great many episodes). Here, Clemens establishes a contradictory back-story for King in which she’s an ingénue -- a trainee agent who is assigned to take Emma’s place by Mother after she aids Steed in exposing a traitor within the organisation. The plot is contrived to keep Mrs Peel and Tara King from meeting until the very final moments of the story. It is apparent from Clemens’s initial dialogue exchanges between Steed and Tara that the inexperienced agent idolises her new mentor, and is, if anything, slightly infatuated with him. Tara’s girlish innocence and her sometimes reckless enthusiasm establish a very different dynamic between the two protagonists as the series settles down and the standard of the stories increases.
The trouble is, in the first few episodes, in stories such as “Split!” (a left over Emma Peel script), she acts in a very assured, Mrs Peel-like manner in some scenes, and very naive and girlish in others. Her appearance also changes quite dramatically over the course of the series; not just the hairstyle and the switch from wigs to her own hair, but also in costuming. An ill-judged leather trouser suit in “Invasion of the Earth Men” designed by Harvey Gould is the most egregious example of some poor costuming decisions that led to the re-instatement of Diana Rigg’s designer Alun Hughes later in the run. A story pattern eventually comes to dominate in which Tara frequently has to be rescued or protected by Steed. She plays the damsel in distress all too often and after the radical depictions of Cathy Gale and Emma Peel as Steed’s equal, this smacks of the sexist proclivities of mainstream TV reasserting themselves once more.
One of the elements of the show that goes right out of the window after Tara King begins to be depicted regularly as a more childlike, slightly infatuated ingénue is the witty banter and the verbal jousting, not to mention the use of double entendre, in the dialogue between the two protagonists. It’s what made the Diana Rigg era in particular such a joy. Even a weak story could be lifted by some brilliant exchanges between Steed and Mrs Peel. There are few instances of this quality playing a role in the relationship between Steed and Tara though; instead, Clemens brought in the character of Mother in order to enable something of that dynamic to continue to play a role in the series. It’s also one of the ways by which the element of whimsy Clemens had made such a feature of the filmed series could be re-incorporated after the failed attempt to bring back a more realist style under John Bryce. Mother is a wonderfully surreal comic creation, played superbly by Patrick Newell, who appears most weeks in increasingly bizarre introductory sequences in which his headquarters moves from place to place and has to be reached by a whole host of very unusual and convoluted methods. The character is invariably accompanied by his imposing carer: a muscular six-foot-tall blonde female Viking called Rhonda (Rhonda Parker), who never utters a single word in any episode.
The storytelling techniques and plot forms of series six do in the main conform to the general story types the series had already firmly established and familiarised since way back in series two. But there is further development (once Clemens and Fennell settle back into their roles, and get the series back on track after a difficult readjustment) of the element of genre parody which had begun to creep into the series during the latter half of the Emma Peel colour series. “Invasion of the Earth Men”, screened in 1968, takes the secret underground take-over army plotline that had long been a mainstay of the series, and applies it to the then contemporary race to put a man on the moon, imagining in the process a crypto-fascist imperialist army being trained and then cryogenically frozen ready to colonise the solar system in fifty years’ time (a somewhat optimistic assessment of Man’s likely progress in space travel, as it turns out). Visually, the episode beautifully parodies Star Trek, with the fascist recruits’ uniforms designed to look like perfect replicas of those of the crew of the Starship Enterprise. Was the creator of the Daleks, Terry Nation, likening Captain Kirk and his intrepid crew to his most famous space age Nazi-like creations?
Meanwhile, an early episode, ”The Case of the Countless Clues”, turns the conventions of the classic detective mystery on their head by showing how the deductive logic of a Sherlockian colleague of Steed’s (complete with traditional deer stalker and ulster coat) is subverted when a gang of art thieves go about planting exactly the kind of evidence a modern-day Homes would use to trap a culprit, in order to implicate innocent people in crimes they have committed themselves, and whom they can then blackmail.
“Noon Doomsday” is such a carefully crafted contemporary pastiche of the plot of the Gary Cooper western “High Noon” that most of it will go over the head of anyone who hasn’t actually seen that film: Steed is incapacitated after breaking his leg, and is sent by Mother to recuperate at a rest home for spies (called Department S – an obvious reference to the Monty Berman produced ITC series of the same name, that was closest to “The Avengers” in its style and which starred Peter Wyngarde as Jason King). A criminal called Kafka, who was once put behind bars by Steed, breaks from prison and sets out to avenge himself by killing his now defenceless foe, leaving Tara to try and organise a defence among Steed’s unwilling incapacitated colleagues on her own when Department S is cut-off from the rest of the agency.
Elsewhere, “Wish You Were Here” functions as a classy, pitch-perfect parody of “The Prisoner” with Thorson getting to display her rapidly developing comedic talents; and Clemens stretches the boundaries of the series in the episode “Pandora”, whose bizarre story one could equally well imagine being made the basis of an episode of his ‘70s series “Thriller”. After rigidly following the same story template almost all the way through series 5, Tara King’s season demonstrates a willingness to break completely with the show’s own format, incorporating the main characters in a Gothic period suspense thriller like “Pandora” or a curiously uncharacteristic and serious episode like “Take-Over”
“The Avengers” spanned nearly the entirety of the sixties, and inevitably the show reflected the changing cultural traits of the decade. A series that became so inextricably associated and linked with the concept of style and image could not help but document the decade’s changing mores in design and fashion, contrasting them against John Steed’s invariant traditionalism. The first black and white filmed series from 1965 revelled in the stark, sleek, Op Art-influenced sets of Harry Pottle, documenting and satirising the optimism of the can-do space-age rhetoric of the political class of the high-sixties. The stories from that period were full of amazing, shiny James Bond-style gadgets; powerful automata controlled by domineering masterminds; and imposing and sophisticated supercomputers replete with all the retro-futuristic trappings we find so indicative today of the sixties’ attitude to technology.
But by 1968, the modernist dream the series had been so persuasively satirising while remaining aesthetically indebt to, had largely given way to a cynicism about the political will to deliver the utopian dreams of technology outside the cold war machinations of the space-race. This Tara King series marks a subtle change in attitude toward such matters; it still plays host to plenty of wildly speculative visions of futuristic technology, but now the attitude towards the subject is neither quite as paranoid nor as confident in any future technology’s all-conquering inevitability. Quite a few episodes seem to be parodying the show’s own earlier portrayal of the potential power of computers to take over the world, by ascribing them with improbable, fantastical or cartoonish abilities that are played up for laughs. “Love All” features a computer in the shape of a piano, where the keys feature the narrative elements of romance novels which it can use when played to create a manuscript for a bestseller in a matter of seconds. This is more a comment on the hackneyed nature of romance fiction than a ‘serious’ comment on technology.
The episode “Whoever Shot Poor George Oblique Stroke XR40?” satirises the anthropomorphisation of technology in a fun story where a methodical attempt to save some valuable information from a sabotaged computer is performed as though the show were a medical drama and the moribund technology a real human patient, with the operating team of computer technicians wearing gowns and masks and extracting components with medical instruments.
“Killer” is another episode where a whole building becomes a giant computer, this time called REMAK, which stands for Remote Electri-Matic Agent Killer. This ludicrous washing machine-style acronym describes a machine invented for the express purposes of killing secret agents, but Steed defeats it simply by being cool and Steed-like.
The previous colour Diana Rigg series presented a bright, slim line pop art world of swinging London cool, but the following series demonstrates increasing American influences on the show -- even down to ‘flats’ now being described as ‘apartments’. The show now had only the finances of its American backers behind it, so this isn’t too surprising; but the truth is that the mid-sixties British explosion of cultural influence was largely past its prime and the influence of California was making itself felt in the hippy fashions and psychedelic music of the London of the late sixties, together with a nostalgic boom in Victorian revivalism which can be seen in a resurgence in Art Nouveau design and an increasingly popular trend for Edwardian era vaudeville trappings – both stylistic backlashes against the streamline modernist OP Art look of the early sixties,that blended perfectly with the cartoon collage style that began to dominate fashion after The Beatles released “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in 1967.
The primary locus for this influence in the sixth series of “The Avengers” has to be Robert Jones’s design for the interior of Tara King’s flat, first seen in “The Forget-Me-Knot”. With its bright turquoise walls, ornate spiral staircase, floral curtains and Tara’s apparently miscellaneous, somewhat cluttered collection of objets d’art and brightly coloured bric-a-brac, the set looks like something out of a garish Peter Blake collage. The character of Tara became increasingly representative of the turn towards a childlike innocence that was the signature quality of the flower power generation. Her eclectic and sometimes tasteless costumes were a world away from the stylish simplicity of Emma Peel’s dress sense, incorporating some horribly flowery items that have not weathered quite so well as her predecessor’s iconic wardrobe. This series’s looser structural form, and its contemporary pop culture influences (in combination with Brian Clemens’ taste for whimsical excess in storylines), brought forth a few instances in which the show pursued a similar kind of indulgent, cartoonish psychedelia as can be seen in Bob Rafelson’s satirical, genre parody 1968 feature film “Head”, starring The Monkees . Even the episode title “Look - (stop me if you've heard this one) But There were These Two Fellas …” sounds like a song title from a contemporary Pink Floyd or Beatles album and is rife with eccentric vaudeville music hall slap-stick and crazy, broadly played parody (a pre-Monty Python John Cleese even appears as the guest star) of the spy genre. “Homicide and Old Lace” meanwhile, tries to cover up the fact that it’s virtually a clips show (made up of scenes from old Emma Peel stories from the previous series, combined with some sequences from the abandoned John Bryce episodes) with a broadly played framing device in which Mother relates a tall tale to his aunties, who point out all the glaring plot holes caused by the episode’s patchwork nature.
For all its flaws, the uneven nature of the overall series and the uncertain characterisation of Tara King, there are many fine episodes in this series, on a par with anything in the show’s history. The sparkling interplay of Emma Peel and John Steed is never matched, and the steely, clipped force of Cathy Gale’s character is a faraway thing of the past, yet Linda Thorson brings a sweetness and an endearing innocence all of her own to the show that allows new sides to Steed’s character to emerge -- even if she is consigned all too often to the role of pretty damsel in distress. Optimum have once again restored these thirty-three episodes of series six to a point where they look sharper and more colourful than at any other time since their initial release. And, as ever, the company has put together a comprehensive selection of extras which have been spread across all nine of the discs in this, the last and equally as essential of their Avengers box set releases.
AMERICAN END CREDITS FOR “INVASION OF THE EARTH MEN”
While the UK version of this episode’s end credits features the usual deck of playing cards sequence, the American one retains the same credit sequence that was used for the episode “The Forget-Me-Knot”, with Macnee and Thorson striking poses and interacting with each-other against a bright orange studio backdrop, while a superimposed target moves across the screen to the sound of gunshots over Laurie Johnson’s title music – a sequence directed by Harry Booth in 1968, and which was then used for the first seven episodes in the US. It’s in much the same vein as the end credit sequence that was used throughout Diana Rigg’s colour season, only with more of a screwball comedic quality. The similarity with that previous sequence is probably the reason why they eventually changed it, although I personally much prefer this version to the bland and rather generic one that was eventually used in the UK.
INTRODUCING LINDA THORSON – PROMOTIONAL TRAILER
This is indeed a trailer, composed of clips from some early Tara King episodes, with Patrick Macnee providing a friendly voice-over to introduce viewers to his new partner in crime-fighting for the coming 1968 season (“a girl who’s going places – fast”). The clips used here emphasis the more comedic side of King’s character, with her early fight scenes shown to be much more slap-stick, improvised and wild than the pseudo Kung Fu and Judo of the Diana Rigg and Honor Blackman years.
ARTIST TEST FOOTAGE (1)
This is a real find from deep inside the Elstree Studio vaults, discovered during Optimum’s search for materials while they were busy restoring the series. When John Bryce took over as producer (before being sacked and replaced by a re-employed Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell), he set about auditioning around 200 actresses in order to find Diana Rigg’s replacement. Although most of the colour test footage from these auditions is believed lost (probably junked during an Elstree clear out when the production moved to Pinewood), eight audition reels were found still intact in the vaults, and four of them appear on disc one (with the other four appearing on another disc in the set). They’ve now been fully restored for this DVD release and look as sharp as a tack here.
It is completely silent footage, featuring the four very different actresses performing a two-handed scene with the American actor James Maxwell, who’s standing in for Patrick Macnee as Steed. The tests require them to demonstrate what they look like when they run and to perform in some action shots; how they would interact with the Steed character, and also how they look from a variety of camera angles and in close-up. The four actresses here are Lyn Ashley, who displays a much more winsome quality than one usually associates with Avengers girls; the blonde girl-next-door qualities of Diana Clare; the dark-haired but somewhat boyish Susan Engle; and Jane Murdoch -- another blonde, who comes the closest to possessing an Avengers girl ‘vibe’ about her, but one more in the vein of Honor Blackman perhaps, than of Diana Rigg. Each of the films come with a commentary by Jaz Wiseman, who provides what little information there is about the shooting of these four short but massively important pieces of previously lost Avengers history. The main thing these screen tests show us is the sheer variety of actresses that Bryce was prepared to test for the part. Obviously he was aiming to go in a completely different direction to what had been before, but it’s really hard to imagine any of these actresses playing opposite Patrick Macnee in the series, although some of them did appear in other roles.
VARIENT END TITLES FOR “THE FORGET-ME-KNOT” –
That is exactly what it is: a slightly different edit of the end title sequence from the first episode.
GRANADA +POINTS FOR “THE FORGET-ME-KNOT” –
A selection of trivia facts about this last recorded episode to feature Diana Rigg, and a short to-camera piece by Patrick Macnee in which he tells of his reaction after the shooting of his last ever scene with her.
AUDIO COMMENTARTY FOR THE EPISODE “SPLIT!”- WITH ROY WARD BAKER AND BRIAN CLEMENS
Jaz Wiseman is once again the moderator for this commentary track featuring the episode’s director and the producer of the series. Much of the track involves an involved discussion about the circumstances surrounding the troubled early production of this particular series, with Clemens being called back after dissatisfaction was expressed with the three completed episodes under John Bryce’s faltering stewardship. “Split!” is an early episode in the production run under the newly re-instated Clemens and Fennell, and showcases the original title sequence.
Baker only recently passed away (at the ripe old age of 93), but seems lucid here as he and Clemens frankly discuss Linda Thorson’s casting and their belated attempts to remodel the role of Tara King, concentrating on Linda’s vulnerability in an effort to make a virtue of the actress’s natural sense of insecurity after the sacking of the producer who hired her in the first place. Baker mentions Thorson’s athleticism, and how it eventually greatly contributed to the role, but both initially felt that her being a Canadian made her unsuitable in a show that had always played up its quintessential Englishness. The character of Mother was introduced as a way of allowing Steed to continue to engage in some of the witty, ironic repartee that was no longer an option in the more filial relationship that came to the fore between Steed and Tara. They talk about the replacement of Steed’s iconic Bentley (glimpsed here for the last time) with a yellow Rolls Royce model, and Clemens’ praise of Baker’s directorial style leads into a discussion of the differences between shooting for television and for the cinema. One notable thing about this series in particular is the number of directors working on it who were heavily involved with Hammer films, Baker perhaps being the most high profile of them; he would even work with Clemens again during his Hammer years on the enjoyable romp “Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde”. This is an opinionated but enjoyable track.
TEXTLESS CLOSING CREDITS –
Pretty self-explanatory really: the end credit graphics without any of the episode credits.
GIRL ABOUT TOWN – PROMOTIONAL TRAILER
No information is provided about when this was shot or for what purpose, but it appears to be a short film made to advertise the acting talents of Linda Thorson, possibly intended for casting agents. Over a swinging easy-listening backing track, Thorson is depicted, dressed casually in jeans, riding a bike along Hampstead pavements, visiting a local pottery shop, climbing trees, swimming, and riding a horse in Hyde Park, intercut with interview footage in which she talks about her training, a touring trip to Russia in which her purse was stolen, and various theatrical assignments she’s had in the past. There’s also footage of her playing a scene with an unseen male actor. This is an interesting sixties curio that ends with Thorson glammed-up for a night out, with a pink feather boa and white lipstick, which she uses to write her name on a department store display window.
GERMAN OPENING AND CLOSING CREDITS –
Some battered-looking German opening and closing credits for the Tara King era episodes.
FILMED EPISODE INTRO WITH DIRECTOR CYRIL FRANKEL FOR “WHOEVER SHOT POOR GEORGE OBLIQUE STROKE XR40?”
Born in 1921, this veteran director is famous for helming the cult Hammer thriller “Never Take Sweets from a Stranger” and founded his career during the sixties and seventies by filming copious amounts of episodes for Monty Berman produced ITC series such as “The Champions”, “Department S”, “Jason King” and “Randall and Hopkirk Deceased”. Now in his late eighties he talks briefly and in general terms about working on “The Avengers”, although it turns out that he cannot remember anything at all about this particular episode -- even wondering whether there has been a mix up leading to his being credited for an episode he didn’t direct!
STANDARD BUMPER SLATE –
The title cards from the Tara King years that were used between episode acts to lead in and out of commercial breaks.
AUDIO COMMENTARY ON “GAME” WITH DIRECTOR ROBERT FUEST.
Perhaps best known for directing the wonderful British-made Vincent Price comic horror film “The Abominable Dr Phibes”, a film which has a similar colourful, camp comic-book appeal to “The Avengers”, Robert Fuest appears here on a commentary moderated once again by Jaz Wiseman. Like most surviving members of “The Avengers” crew, the former production designer turned director is now well into his eighties and often loses track of his train of thought during this fifty minute talk, requiring much gentle prompting and reminding by Wiseman. Nevertheless, this once hugely able and stylish director covers the beginnings of his career here nicely, telling how he was inspired to take up film directing while working as a production designer under Peter Hammond on the first series of “The Avengers” with Ian Hendry. Hammond’s inventive style, much praised for inaugurating the outlandish look that came to dominate in the later film series, had a great influence on Fuest’s own approach, and the veteran director has many tales to tell from the old days, still evidently having a great deal of respect for the legendarily difficult-to-deal-with Hammond. A pleasant amble down memory lane this, with some good gentle questioning by Wiseman to tease out a few nuggets from his often slightly floundering and aged interviewee.
AUDIO COMMENTARY ON “NOON DOOMSDAY” WITH CYD CHILD
Stuntwoman Cyd Child talks about doubling for Linda Thorson on the sixth series, with Jaz Wiseman moderating. This is a relaxed, anecdotal commentary track with Child talking about her memories of the period in much the same manner as she did for her commentary on the series 5 set, where she talked about stunt doubling for Diana Rigg. This Peter Sykes directed spoof of the Gary Cooper Western “High Noon”, written by Terry Nation, is particularly action-orientated, giving Child the chance to point out her work in an episode which was mostly shot on location in Bedfordshire on Brian Clemens’ own farm. Child is vocal about the unhappy atmosphere during the initial John Bryce produced episodes of the series, with the lack of family atmosphere cited as the main reason for the disorganised set. Child doubled for Thorson in driving scenes as well as action scenes; the Canadian actress did not possess a British driving licence and repeatedly failed her test, requiring Child to take her place in any sequence that involved the character of Tara King having to be seen driving.
AUDIO COMMENTARY ON “KILLER” WITH JENNIFER CROXTON
Although the episode “Killer” was originally scripted for Linda Thorson, Steed is actually paired with a ‘one-shot Avenger’ for this adventure only, in the form of the character of Lady Diana Forbes-Blakeney, played by Jennifer Croxton. A fan favourite and one of the highlights of season six, “Killer” sees Mother supplying Steed with a replacement agent when Tara King goes on holiday. The episode plays almost like a return to the style of the Diana Rigg era, with “Forbes” (as Steed calls her – thank goodness he didn’t settle for Lady Diana!), an accomplished and confident agent, able to hold her own in a fight (as she does in several scenes) and to use her reasoning skills without relying on Steed to come and rescue her, which is the pattern many of the Tara King episodes tend to fall into. The story is a typically quirky Avenger-style variant on an assassination bureau plotline, involving Steed and Forbes investigating the death of a number of Mother’s best agents, all of whom have been found with multiple injuries, but wrapped in plastic sheeting and the corpses dry cleaned! In this Commentary, Jaz Wiseman is joined by the actress Jennifer Croxton, who turns out to be a delightful participant, full of memories of the happy time she had working on this one episode. She got the part after having been previously cast in the now lost John Bryce episode “Invitation to a Killing”, which was originally intended to be Tara King’s debut and was eventually recycled as an entirely different episode when Brian Clemens and Albert Fennel returned. Unfortunately, Croxton’s role as a photographer in that episode didn’t survive the new edit, but she obviously made an impression and was recast in this marvellous role; the character is more of a posh, well-to-do sixties ‘it’ girl -- part way between Emma Peel and Purdy from “The New Avengers”. This is an enjoyable listen with an enthusiastic Croxton able to remember plenty of trivia about her time on set.
AUDIO COMMENTARY ON “THE MORNING AFTER” WITH DIRECTOR JOHN HOUGH
John Hough worked his way up through the ranks of the British film industry by starting as a tea boy at Merton Park Studios; he eventually moved to Elstree and worked in the roles of assistant and second unit director respectively, working on many of the ITC shows that were being made there during the mid- to late-sixties. He moved over to “The Avengers” – which was shooting episodes at Elstree at the same time as shows like “The Saint” were being produced – and eventually came to direct full episodes in the Linda Thorson era, by which time he had gained a great deal of experience. Hammer fans know him best for helming “Twins of Evil” and Quentin Tarantino is such a fan that Hough gets a ‘thank you’ credit at the end of “Death Proof”! Hough appears on this track, moderated once again by Jaz Wiseman, in a commentary that proves to be the most lucid and technical of the lot.
The two start off by covering the usual ground (i.e. Thorson’s efforts to pin down her approach to the portrayal of Tara King in the absence of any outside help from the producers, and the initial replacement of Clemens and Fennel as the show’s main producers by John Bryce) before moving on to talk about such general technical topics as the lighting techniques that were used on the show and how they changed over the course of the series when director of photography Alan Hume’s time-consuming but effective methods were replaced by Gilbert Taylor’s indirect lighting style (Taylor famously lit Polanski’s “Repulsion”). Hough also talks specifically about shooting “The Morning After” which required early-morning shoots in order to create the illusion that the thriving town of St. Albans was deserted. It’s an eerie episode, obviously much in the same vein as the earlier black and white Diana Rigg episode “The Hour that Never Was”, but with Steed partnered by an enemy agent (played by Peter Barkworth) to whom he remains handcuffed for much of the run time. Hough has much of interest to impart during the fifty minutes, including his take on the difference in production approach between all those ITC shows of the period and “The Avengers”, which was one of the few action-adventure shows from that period made by ABC rather than ITC.
FILMED EPISODE INTRO BY LINDA THORSON FOR “THE INTERROGATORS”
The first of a small number of filmed introductions shot several years ago with a glamorous-looking Linda Thorson, in which the actress chooses her favourite episodes and says a few words about them. She selects “The Interrogators” because it gave her a chance to work alongside director Charles Crichton, who had once made “The Lavender Hill Mob” for Ealing Studios and went on to direct “A Fish Called Wanda” in 1988.
EPISODE RECONSTRUCTION: “THE SPRINGERS”
Another series 1 reconstruction which combines audio narration and the use of tele-snaps taken from video monitors at the time, to recreate one of the lost episodes from the Ian Hendry and Patrick Macnee black and white series from 1961. The Don Leaver directed “The Springers” sees Steed undercover as a prison warden and David Keel posing as an inmate, in order to discover the method by which a number of prisoners are being sprung from jail by an organised gang. Interestingly, Steed is paired with a young female agent in this episode – a foretaste of the Tara King era, perhaps? Watch out for a young Brian Murphy (“George and Mildred”) as a bent screw. Narration is by Alan Hayes. (8 minutes)
EPISODE RECONSTRUCTION – “THE YELLOW NEEDLE”
Don Leaver directs again in this tale of an African dignitary under threat of assassination in London by an African independence group. Steed travels to Africa undercover as a reporter, while Keel tries to protect his old colleague, Sir Willburforce -- unaware that a plot is afoot to contaminate the statesman’s insulin supply with a deadly strain of Yellow Fever. Extensive tele-snaps and an audio narration by Alan Hayes bring this lost black and white first series era episode to life once more. (9 minutes)
AUDIO COMMENTARY ON “LOVE ALL” WITH JEREMY BURNHAM AND VERONICA STRONG
Jeremy Burnham was a regular guest actor, appearing during both production blocks of Diana Rigg episodes, and even having a major role in her very final story (the first episode in this collection). Always eager to move across into writing, Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell were the first to give him that chance by employing Burnham as a staff writer and commissioning several of his episodes for this Linda Thorson series. One of those episodes also starred Burnham’s wife, Veronica Strong, as a glamorous spy who disguises herself as a Mrs Overall-like cleaning lady (dressed in a pinafore with a gun hidden inside!), who steals secrets from ministry bachelors with the aid of subliminal messages that make them fall in love with her. Husband and wife Burnham and Strong are joined by Jaz Wiseman for a charming commentary in which Burnham talks about his move from acting to writing and Strong remembers her fantastic transformation from glamorous red-haired siren to dowdy cleaning lady with a fag dangling from her mouth. Burnham went on to have a memorable career in TV writing, working on shows such as “The Professionals”, “Minder” and “Inspector Morse”. He is perhaps best known for his cult children’s sci-fi/Earth Mystery classic “The Children of the Stones”.
FILMED EPISODE INTRO BY LINDA THORSON FOR “LOVE ALL”
Linda chooses another of her favourite episodes and remembers some anecdotes from the set involving Steed’s Rolls Royce.
FILMED EPISODE INTRO BY LINDA THORSON FOR “TAKE ME TO YOUR LEADER”
More Thorson anecdotes concerning the adverse weather conditions during the location shoot for this episode, which didn’t stop her choosing it as one of her very favourites.
FILMED EPISODE INTRO BY LINDA THORSON FOR “PANDORA”
It’s not too surprising that Linda Thorson chose this particular episode as one of her favourites from the series. This odd Brian Clemens story is virtually carried by her alone, with Steed playing very little role in events (it was probably time off for Pat Macnee). Since the story involves Tara being kidnapped and brainwashed into thinking it is 1910 and that her real name is Pandora, it offers a chance for Thorson to show a different side to her acting ability and to be seen in plenty of period costumes. The story feels very much like the kind of thing Clemens would go on to do in his “Thriller” series with a few Avengers motifs grafted on, but it works well enough and has an unusual denouement in which the villains virtually destroy themselves with very little help from the two main protagonists.
FILMED EPISODE INTRO BY LINDA THORSON FOR “THINGUMAJIG”
Thorson was apparently taken sick during the filming of this episode and got to spend a few days in bed while Rhonda Parker (who played Mother’s statuesque blonde assistant) got to take her place in a number of scenes. It seems a strange reason to pick this one as a favourite episode, but there you go!
ARTIST TEST FOOTAGE (2)
This is the second batch of screen tests to survive in the Elstree vaults and which have now been restored for this DVD box set release. Once again these four tests depict the auditioning actresses in a two-hander alongside an actor standing in for Patrick Macnee in the role of Steed. In this first test they have to work with props such as a drinks trolley, a leather couch, a wooden eagle-shaped lectern, and a silver coat stand. Then there’s an action test designed to showcase their running skills and demonstrate the kinds of action poses they are able to take up, followed by an informal interview that seems to be designed to show off their legs as they sit with their legs thrown across the side of a leather armchair, the camera gradually moving in for a close-up, whereupon they’re instructed to turn their heads to give an impression of how they look on screen from every angle. The actresses included here are Toby Robins, Susan Travers, Wanda Ventham and Valerie van Ost. The last two in particular will be familiar to fans of archive TV from the sixties. Valerie Van Ost had previously appeared in the Diana Rigg colour episode “Dead Man’s Treasure”, while Wanda Ventham was ubiquitous in ITC shows from the era and is well known for her role in Gerry Anderson’s “UFO” series. These tests are in colour but once again without sound, so Jaz Wiseman provides a commentary in which he talks about each of the actress’s careers.
EPISODE RECONSTRUCTION –THE FAR DISTANT DEAD
Another series one reconstruction which features series star David Keel (Ian Hendry) getting involved in aid relief after stopping off in Mexico after a cyclone has left many people there homeless. Some cooking oil given as part of the aid turns out to be contaminated with hydraulic oil, and Keel and a female Mexican doctor set out to track down those responsible, following the trail all the way back to a greedy financier in France. Once again, off- screen tele-snaps and audio narration from Alan Hayes bring this lost episode back from the dead. (8.56 seconds)
EPISODE RECONSTRUCTION – THE DEADLY AIR
Steed and Keel join forces to find out who is behind the sabotage of vaccine research at a top institute. Another series one episode now lost in its original form. This is actually one of the top rated episodes from the show’s early years, according to the ‘The Avengers Forever’ website. (8.41 seconds)
All discs in the box set feature Individual image galleries for each episode, with production stills, publicity shots and behind-the-scenes shots, including stills from the now lost John Bryce produced episodes “Invitation to a Killing” and “The Great Great British Crime”.
PDF files of all the episode scripts and also a few of the camera scripts are accessible on a computer.
Series Six is available separately in the above nine-disc box set, as now are all of the other sixties Avengers series released by Optimum over the course of this year (you can find them all reviewed in this site’s archive). However, Optimum will also soon be releasing all five series together in a mammoth Avengers Complete Collection box set, which will feature an extra disc of bonus extras not found in any of the other individual sets. Below I take a look at what you can expect to find on this extra disc.
COMPLETE COLLECTION - BONUS FEATURES DISC
EPISODE RECONSTRUCTION - HOT SNOW
Where it all began: this is the first ever episode of “The Avengers” from 1961. Only the first act has been preserved in the archive, so we get to see the first fifteen minutes with the rest of the episode narrated by David G. Hamilton and accompanied by tele-snaps supplied by producer Leonard White. The story sees Ian Hendry playing Dr David Keel: soon to be married to receptionist, Peggy (Catherine Woodville) – the daughter of Keel’s partner Dr Tredding (Philip Stone). When she inadvertently comes into possession of a package of heroin which had been accidently sent to Tredding’s office by some shady gangsters, she’s shot dead in the street to stop her opening it – this while she and Keel are window shopping for a wedding ring. With no evidence for the police to go on, Keel decides to take matters into his own hands after a mysterious stranger called John Steed offers him the chance to set up the assassin in order to bring him to light, and then to bring his bosses to justice.
EPISODE RECONSTRUCTION: TOY TRAP
This is an intriguing reconstruction of a lost series one episode; with its theme of prostitution rackets and the seedy goings on in the attic rooms of some dingy Soho backstreets, it couldn’t be further away in tone from the playful light-heartedness of the later series. Keel is charged with keeping an eye on a relative’s daughter when she moves to London to begin work in a department store. The resulting film noir-tinged story deals with under-the-counter glamour photography and vice rings, and Steed is portrayed in a much grittier, amoral light than is usual when he is shown being prepared to risk the virtue of Keel’s teenage charge in order to expose the corruptors. It leads to an angry bust-up between Steed and Keel at the climax, with the doctor even threatening Steed at one point, to which he replies ominously, ‘nobody talks to me like that!” The reconstruction runs for 12 minutes.
LAURENCE BOURNE INTERVIEW
This is an interview conducted for French TV in July 1992, with director Laurence Bourne talking to two oddball French presenters who ask about the series’s origins and the pressures of shooting the series as live to videotape. Bourne worked on the show during its first few series at Teddington Studios, when episodes were recorded in near one take and any mistakes were forever preserved on tape. The interview runs for just over 6 minutes.
“DEATH AT BARGAIN PRICES” – ALTERNATIVE END TAG
Steed and Emma are on bicycles at the end of this series 4 black & white episode, leading into a different version of the end credits that’s more in the style of the Cathy Gale episodes.
A promotional trailer for series 5 consisting of a pacy montage of action sequences from Emma Peel colour episodes all cut together.
GERMAN CINEMA TRAILER
This is mainly the opening and closing title sequences cut together with some fancy German language font and a talkative German voice-over. A trailer for series 5, designed to play in cinemas.
WISH YOU WERE HERE – LOCATIONS FEATURETTE
A 15 minute featurette shot especially for this disc by Optimum Releasing, showcasing London as it appeared in the world of “The Avengers”. It takes the form of a Top Ten countdown of the most iconic London locations to feature in the sixties series, including the locations of the exteriors of Steed’s, Tara’s and Emma’s flats and a number of other recognisable streets, courtyards, mews and building which can still be easily located, many of which have barely changed in the intervening forty odd years. A delightful, well put together piece.
CULT DIANA RIGG 8MM FILMS
And now we come to the really good stuff. The following films need to be set in some sort of context. After she left “The Avengers”, Diana Rigg was a hot property; a fully-fledged movie star with a Hollywood career ahead of her and a James Bond role in the bag to boot. The last thing you’d expect her to do is to appear in some amateurish, blurry, European 8mm films with no dialogue tracks and primitive dubbed sounds. These dubious films give the impression of being for all the world exactly the kind of thing that at one time used to get distributed through the back pages of pornographic magazines, or played in private members cinema clubs in Soho!
Why did she make them? Nobody appears to know. Rigg won’t even talk about “The Avengers” these days, let alone explain her participation in these strange films, which clearly only exist to assuage the desires of drooling Mrs Peel fetishists.
The first one, a six minute short shot in Germany and titled “The Golden Schlüsse”, was apparently made in 1966 (before Rigg had even left “The Avengers”) and announces its Mrs Peel-aping intentions from the opening seconds when Rigg, emerging from a light aircraft – and clad in knee-high leather boots and a leather micro-length mini-skirt -- zooms off in a trendy sports car while a jazzy arrangement of Laurie Johnson’s series five ‘tag scene’ music but played on a piano, is heard above the credits. There is a basic plot of sorts involving an enemy agent scuba diver attempting to get hold of the golden key Miss Rigg keeps on a chain around her neck; a series of random scenes are played out, all of which exist merely to enable Rigg to enact her full panopoly of Emma Peel facial expressions and fight poses. She gets to wear some trendy sixties garb, including a dandy frilly regency shirt and waistcoat that give her appearance a bohemian, Pink Floydish psychedelic vibe. There’s a weird interlude involving a swimming pool of dolphins and a sleazy night club scene, in-which a roomful of shifty Germans eye the lithesome Miss Rigg salaciously. The music shifts between jazzy piano riffs and atonal avant-garde dronings and the jokey pay-off – where we learn what’s in the safe ‘Mrs Peel’ is protecting – is ridiculous. Frankly, it looks like a cheap sixties Jess Franco Undercover Angels espionage flick – but in a strange way that kind of makes it all the more alluring, especially if you love that sixties euro cult vibe.
The second treat, in a similar vein, is even more offbeat. “The Mini-Killers” could have been titled “What Mrs Peel Did on Her Holidays” since, once again, Rigg is essentially re-hashing her iconic sixties role in this Spanish-made four-part mini-series of 8mm episodes that run for ten minutes each. The title sequence is a crazy sixties parody that plays like a surreal Russ Meyer “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” pastiche: a ‘funky’ late-sixties era title theme runs along to some distorted lens images of kids’ plastic toy dolls. The action revolves around a gang of shady mafia-like gangsters who assassinate their targets utilising cutesy, plastic, battery operated children’s walking dolls that spray lethal gas out of their eye sockets!
“Operation Costa Brava”, the first episode, sees Rigg, clad in a bikini, relaxing by the pool at a Spanish resort when she catches sight of one of the mini dolls’ attacks. Once again, no proper soundtrack exists and the tone of the piece is even more strange and surreal than the first film. Every time the ponderously slow killer dolls are unleashed, the funky theme music appears on the soundtrack (the rest of the time it’s a generic Spanish flamenco cue); even after she finds out how lethal they potentially are the dolls appear to hold some kind of curious fascination for this Mrs Peel substitute and she’s forever gazing at them reverently each time she stumbles across one of the mop-haired toys. The second episode, “Heroin”, goes all avant-garde and off-the-wall on us: pretend Mrs Peel is shown sunbathing on a Spanish beach when she suddenly notices that all the other bathers are in fact storefront mannequins! A fishing net then drags her into the sea, but she escapes and swims to a small abandoned boat wearing nothing but the skimpiest of white bikinis that’s, frankly, only a hair’s breadth away from being completely transparent! The third episode, “Macabre”, sees the villains planting a bomb inside one of their dolls and hiding it in pretend Mrs Peel’s black sports car; while in the final episode, “Flamenco”, an evening out leads to the heroine uncovering the villains’ master plan: exporting the killer dolls all over the world in cardboard boxes. For some reason the bad guys have their secret store-room backstage at a nightclub in a hidden room concealed behind a panel in a flamenco dancer’s dressing room? Rigg has to make a daring Emma Peel-like escape to save her from being crushed to death underneath a descending nightclub stage, and she eventually manages to foil the head villain with his own doll-reliant method of despatch.
Utterly weird, extremely amateurishly shot and acted, and with a faintly illicit and somewhat disreputable air around them, these bizarre 8mm films have been circulating among Avengers fans as dupey videocassettes and bootleg DVDs for years, but now get nicely spruced-up -- or as much as forty-year-old 8mm films can be spruced-up -- for this extra special bonus DVD release. All those Emma Peel fetishists (and I’m one of them!) will absolutely have to have these in their collection!
Finally, this bonus disc features PDF Files of a 130 page series one episode guide brochure that also includes cast and crew credits for each series one episode and a reproduction of producer Leonard White’s scrapbook, featuring contemporary articles on the series, tele-snaps, production stills and early TV Times covers.
“The Avengers” remains one of the all-time greatest television shows ever produced in any country and Optimum have done the show proud with these five marvellous box sets.