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Spyder’s Web

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
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Directed by: 
Patricia Cutts
Anthony Ainley
Veronica Carlson
Roger Lloyd-Pack
Bottom Line: 
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From the vaults of ‘70s British archive TV emerges this unusual and tantalising (but ultimately short-lived) attempt to mine the rich seam opened up for quirky post-modern programming created in the wake of the success of “The Avengers”.  Now being released again on the Network label as another of their web exclusives, “Spyder’s Web” was produced for ATV in 1972, from an idea by the screenwriter Richard Harris, who also penned one of the most fondly remembered episodes of “The Avengers” -- ‘The Winged Avenger’ -- and wrote for many of the ITC filmed adventure serials of the ‘60s, as well as the BBC’s 1966 attempt to launch its own high camp, pop art espionage-themed Avengers knock-off, “Adam Adamant Lives”. He’s best known today for co-creating the ITC series “Man in a Suitcase” but he later went on to create some of the best known TV of the ‘80s and ‘90s (“Shoestring”, “The Darling Buds of May”), so “Spyder’s Web” inevitably appears again now weighed down by the high expectations of today’s connoisseurs of ‘60s/’70s vintage TV.

The series’ multitude of “Doctor Who” connections will also undoubtedly mean this curio finds an expectant new audience: Anthony Ainley (The Master from 1981 to 1986) is the male lead, and the series scripts were ‘supervised’ by Malcolm Hulke, who, as well as writing over fifty episodes of “Doctor Who” between 1967 and 1974, also penned a significant number of Avengers plots, often in collaboration with former “Doctor Who” script editor Terrence Dicks. Robert Holmes, one of Doctor Who’s most highly regarded writers and script editors, also pens an episode, which has a premise that seems remarkably similar to that underpinning “Adam Adamant Lives” (a spy frozen in a block of ice on a mountain goes missing in transit from Switzerland).

Another main casting decision regales the show with cult associations that brings it yet more retrospective kudos in the form of Hammer starlet Veronica Carlson (“Dracula Has Risen From The Grave”, “Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed”), who appears in most of the 13 episodes providing what is inestimably a quintessential product of the 1970s with its obligatory helping of groovy contemporary glamour in her role as Wallis Ackroyd: a go-go booted blonde secretary from Scunthorpe who displays posters of Jason King and Steve McQueen on her office wall. Other unanticipated delights include a young and rake-thin Roger Lloyd Pack (Trigger in “Only Fools And Horses”) playing a blokey David Bailey-mimicking photographer with a Jaggeresque style, who spends most of his time ogling the pneumatic charms of Miss Carlson, and John Savident (also enjoyable in “Tightrope” where he was yet another in a long line of eccentric British special agents) who appears in two episodes as a harassed, highly-strung British spy chief on the verge of retirement.

Despite all this preloaded cult significance, “Spyder’s Web” proves to be made up of rather a disappointing hodgepodge-bundle of elements that never quite gel into a whole in a satisfactory way. On paper it sounds fantastic, and there are moments of wry comedy and arresting quirkiness that lead one to think that the series could have become something special with a bit more work or, perhaps, if it had been afforded the slickness and budget of the ITC filmed shows of the period, rather than being largely confined to video at Elstree Studios with 16 mm filmed inserts, in a system that was little different to the production methods being used on the first four series of “The Avengers back when it was made in black & white in the early’60s at Teddington Studios.

Only two episodes of “Spyder’s Web” remain in colour, the rest survive only as black & white filmed recordings. This is unfortunate since it means that a lot of the show’s period, post-sixties day-glo trippiness is excised from any modern-day appreciation of it. In black & white, for instance, the opening credits feel more akin to those of a series such as “Callan” -- Derek Scott’s Bondian, melodic, twangy guitar theme playing out against animated titles that seem stark and cold, encouraging the viewer to see them in terms of the downbeat cold war vibes emanating from the work of le Carré , Len Deighton or indeed of the classic ABC/Thames series featuring James Mitchell’s fictional rogue agent played by Edward Woodward. When we get to see them again on the two instances in which the show survives in its original transmitted colour mode though, the titles suddenly take on a whole new signification: the animated backgrounds now pulse in blues, greens and purples like a lava lamp in a disco, and we suddenly notice that Scott’s musical arrangement for the title sequence includes an edgy, moog-style analogue synth drone effect and some loungey electric piano which underpins the theme’s shimmering electric guitar lines and languorous, picked out bass counter-melodies. It suddenly feels a bit more ‘mod’ and stylistically is suddenly grounded in a heightened James Bond vision of spy craft.

A brief summary of the series’ fundamental premise, established in episode one, certainly makes it sound promising: top British secret agent Clive Hawksworth (Ainley) is inducted into a secret organisation so hush-hush that no-one else in the British secret services is even aware of its existence. The front for the SPYDER organisation is a small documentary film production unit called Arachnid Documentaries, with its base of operations a cramped office situated in a shabby corner of Soho. Charlotte Dean (known as ‘Lottie’), an award-winning filmmaker and producer, runs the company, and, to Hawksworth’s evident chagrin, turns out also to be the head of SPYDER and therefore Hawksworth’s superior, receiving coded mission instructions from a mysterious Mr J Smith whose identity is never revealed, even to her. In the rest of the series Hawksworth often finds himself not really knowing the true nature of the operations he’s being sent on until sometime into them, with other incidental characters often being revealed as SPYDER agents (only identifiable from a spider tattoo on their wrists) who themselves are unaware of the identities of the people they are working for. Lottie Dean is played by Patricia Cuts (“The Tingler”), as a bold and dominant middle-aged blonde dynamo with a cut-class English accent. In her appearance and deportment she is startlingly similar to Honor Blackman, and since Hawksworth is meant to be an establishment figure and a gentleman with a similar army background to John Steed, and is seen in episode one driving a vintage car, the comparison with the Avengers duo is unavoidable and no doubt deliberate, and is further accentuated by the quality of the surviving materials which, in their black & white filmed telecine form, make the show look even older than it actually is, more contemporaneous with the 1963-65 version of “The Avengers” -- when it is in fact partly a reaction to the later filmed series under Brian Clemens, in a similar way to Yorkshire TV’s offbeat parody “The Corridor People”.

These parody and satire elements dominate the show’s format, and with the participation of so many who had been formerly involved in the production of “The Avengers” at various stages of its development, “Spyder’s Web” is often adept at recreating many of the more defining tonal elements of that series’ fantasy world. The most frequent motif is the idea of a normal, respectable organisation or business being used as a front for criminal or espionage activity. In the opening episode for instance, not only do the main protagonists conduct their secret business under the cover of running a film production unit (with Hawksworth and Lottie being the only two of the four employed there who’re aware of the ulterior reason for the company’s existence), but Hawksworth’s former chief runs an export business (also out of a Soho office!) which is really a benign front for springing turned KGB agents out of Communist bloc countries. Later episodes feature a Marriage Bureau service which acts as a cover for a group of Communist assassins, an experimental puppet theatre that helps ferry Jewish residents from Soviet controlled countries to Israel, and a cabal of important establishment figures that sets out to rid Great Britain of its ‘undesirable’ elements while posing as an aristocratic hunting party hiding behind the quiet calm of an English country manor house and its surrounding estate.

Many episodes hinge on fairly bizarre sci-fi turns of plot or play host to some offbeat narrative choices that attempt to echo the quirkiness of “The Avengers” at its most surreal, while at the same time there’s always a sense of the show’s desire to poke fun at its predecessor or parody it rather than merely emulate its tone and style. The episode “Red Admiral” starts from the premise of an apparently patriotic retired rear Admiral being identified as a covert pacifist by a sophisticated Government computer that’s been fed examples of his self-written poetry; while “The Prevalence of Skeletons” includes a very Avengers-like piece of machine technology that can prematurely age both people and objects. The series’ comedy is often played more broadly than even that of “The Avengers”-- which always aimed for sophisticated wit -- though. The humour in “Spyder’s Web” comes across more often than not as sitcom based or as mannered stage farce:  “The Executioners” sees Lottie and Wallis dressed up as nuns while trying to rescue Hawksworth from the clutches of André Morell’s criminal band of fundamentalist conservative judges and MPs, the farcical nature of the scenes rendered all the more acute because Wallis does not even know that she is involved in a dangerous spy operation; “Emergency Exit” has Hawksworth posing as a furniture delivery man but looking more like Charlie Chaplin, complete with bowler and toothbrush moustache; “Things that Go Bump in the Night” meanwhile, actually plays like a stage-bound sitcom and revolves around Lottie and Hawksworth staying in the home of a recently deceased weapons expert while they try to find information about the top secret weapon he was working on before he died, but all the while being assailed by  eccentric members of his family who each have their own agenda for being there. With other plotlines featuring Voodoo being practiced in modern-day London (“An Almost Modern Man”); a talking mina bird, used by the mysterious Mr Smith to deliver SPYDER’s latest mission to Arachnid Documentaries’ headquarters (“Lies And Dolls”); and a private maternity clinic that becomes the centre of a plot to murder a visiting South American dictator’s wife (“Life at a Price”), the Avengers influence remains constant, though. The strong comedic tone and the broad, non-realistic nature of the characters is perhaps a result of many of the series’ episodes being written by Roy “Last of the Summer Wine” Clark, who is the main story contributor when it comes to establishing the series general style.

Yet there is a darker, jagged edge rubbing uncomfortably against the softer more comedy-based threads of the series, almost as if the show is intended as some kind of a riposte to “The Avengers” and its unrealistic portrayal of a world of espionage in which no-one ever really gets hurt. This is not the fantasy Britain represented by Avengers Land, with its quaint villages and pleasant Hertfordshire country lanes: instead, “Spyder’s Web” is full of cheap Soho offices and dank safe houses. The plots feature violent death as a matter of routine, despite all the comedy and arch wit. In “Rear Admiral” for instance, the Government computer that identifies the former rear Admiral as an enemy of the state, also marks him down for execution … and it is Lottie’s and Hawksworth’s job to decide if that decision is merited and, if so, to carry out the deed – not the kind of job you’d ever see Steed and Mrs Peel being called upon to engage in.

This brings us to an unavoidable conclusion about “Spyder’s Web”, one that seems to be deliberately highlighted at every opportunity so it can’t be dismissed as a fault or an oversight, which is that Hawksworth and Charlotte are not very likable characters, and probably aren’t really supposed to be. The point of the series seems to be to suggest that if John Steed and Emma Peel/Cathy Gale ever really did exist, then this is what they would inevitably be like -- cold blooded, hard hearted killers! Thus, the series becomes a wild collision and collusion between the fantasy world portrayed in “The Avengers” and the cold war cynicism of much contemporary realist spy fiction of the day.

 When Hawksworth finally finds the evidence to implicate his target as a traitor in the episode “Red Admiral”, not only does he have no qualms whatsoever about putting a gun to an unarmed man’s head and pulling the trigger, but he actively relishes it, so much does he actually enjoy killing opposition spies and lefties. This episode actually pushes Hawksworth into looking so utterly repellent that he is to all intents and purposes, thoroughly evil here. Ainley plays Hawksworth as a posh, public school educated, Sandhurst-trained officer who’s turned to spying simply as an excuse to be able to carry on killing people. Flinty eyed and single-minded, he’s an utter sociopath who hates ‘commies’, lefties, hippies -- anyone in fact who retains the tiniest glimmer of a social conscience. Barely an episode goes by in which Hawksworth doesn’t reveal yet more unlikable traits: he’s self-serving, militaristic, jingoistic and a loose cannon who appears to hate women as much as he hates communists. There’s a veiled suggestion that he might be, as he terms it, ‘a poof’, thus accounting for his distaste at being called upon to charm or seduce women during the course of his duties (‘I never got much beyond Scouting For Boys’); but his misogyny and ruthlessness extend to his actually being amused when he thinks SPYDER head Charlotte has been killed by the ‘aging’ machine in “The Prevalence of Skeletons” and in the very first episode,”Spyder Secures a Main Strand”, after first learning he has been partnered with Lottie as part of the SPYDER organisation, he covertly tries to set her up as a traitor to provide him with an excuse to terminate her, so distasteful does he find the prospect of having to take orders from a female!

 This all seems to be the logical extension of the series taking Steed and Mrs Peel’s tendency in “The Avengers” never to be seen taking anything too seriously, and applying it to recognisable life-and-death situations to show how callous such an attitude would actually make characters of their nature in the real world, but it produces a very uneven tone as the episodes lurch from broad comedy to rather chilling scenes of callous murder, with the victims of Hawksworth’s and Lottie’s ‘justice’ often portrayed as rather more sympathetic than the main characters themselves, thus emphasising even more our distance from the supposed main protagonists of the series.

 In one of the best episodes, “The Executioners”, written by Alfred Shaughnessy, all these themes briefly come together in their richest and most fully developed manifestation. André Morell is a bluff, sergeant major-ish relic of the British Empire in tweed hunting gear, who goes by the name of Lord Rushmore, and who has set up a secret hit squad, made up of other British establishment figures, to forcibly abduct left wing personages (progressive educationalists, left wing student rabble-rousers and strike organising union officials) and subject them to psychotropic mind control that makes them see the error if their ways and turns them right wing. The episode is startlingly reminiscent of the plotlines motivating some of the work of British filmmaker Pete Walker, particularly “House of Whipcord”, in which a Mary Whitehouse figure and her right wing judge husband run a punishing correctional facility for modern youth in their country estate, complete with capital punishment for disobedience (coincidentally, Shaughnessy also wrote for Walker but not during his prime period). Hawksworth and Charlotte exploit the group’s hatred of modern permissiveness in all its forms by planting a story in the Times claiming Arachnid Documentaries is to produce a blasphemous film full of scenes of Satanism, Free Love and cannibalism, which they call ”Libido 72”. When he learns about this bogus work, Lord Rushmore is so outraged by the idea that he has to gee himself up with a rousing chorus of Onward Christian Soldiers at the organ!  But later, when Hawksworth catches up with the group, the agent eventually admits to rather admiring their aims and the episode ends with Rushmore and his people being let off, and Hawksworth describing their victims as vermin who well deserve the treatment being meted out to them!

Even though Lottie seems to have more of a heart than the uber ruthless Hawksworth, even she is seen to be a cold-blooded killer on several occasions. In the very first episode she is seen murdering/assassinating a series of spies, all of whom are unarmed, but just happen to be working for the other side. Meanwhile, in “Emergency Exit” she shoots an unarmed enemy agent in the face at point-blank range! Patricia Cutts plays film director-cum-spy Charlotte Dean as a sort of Cathy Gale with a cruel streak and a harsher tongue, but she manages to find some likable traits in the character despite Lottie’s admission in one episode that ‘behind this hard exterior there’s an even harder interior.’ She’s more agreeable when undercover and is adept at playing various dotty characters while on her many eccentric jobs for SPYDER; in one episode, she’s even given a love interest (much to Hawksworth’s amusement). Both characters are too one dimensional to sustain the series’ more serious aspects though. Veronica Carlson’s Northern secretary (Carlson’s accent fluctuates wildly from scene to scene) from Scunthorpe is also given one or two broad character traits (she enjoys reading heavy Russian literature and philosophy while manning the office phone lines) but is not called upon to provide anything more than the most superficial levels of characterisation and is barely involved in most of the stories. The series’ overall unevenness is emphasised further by its reliance on incidental music cues that seem to have been filched from all over the place, meaning the show has radically different underscoring from episode to episode: “Emergency Exit” features weird atonal synthesizer music that almost might be something cooked up by the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, while “Things that Go Bang in the Night” is entirely scored with bossa nova theme music from the 1969 series “The Gold Robbers” (also available from Network and well worth checking out). 

“Spyder’s Web” is a real mixed bag then. It’s hard to proclaim it an essential piece of previously lost nostalgia TV but, still, there is so much going on here that, messy as the series is, one can’t help finding an episode or two, or even just a brief sequence here and there, that works well, despite the main premise feeling somewhat misconceived and forced in trying to ram together surreal humour and edgy political satire. With some reservations then, I recommend this short-lived one series effort to fans of “The Avengers” and other similar perky, post-modern spy-themed series such as “The Corridor People”, which is the one even shorter-lived series that bears the most comparison to the adventures of Lottie, Hawksworth and co.

All thirteen episodes are included here over four discs, with the two colour episodes also appearing in broadcast order. Episode galleries feature on each disc and include colour stills that allow one to gain some idea of how each episode should have looked if they’d survived in their original form.  

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