Ah, Mrs Peel, Mrs Peel.
The Avengers swaggers back onto the screen after what – at the time – would have been an 18 month gap with a new theme tune, title sequence and production method. It’s on film! The new producers have a film background (Brian Clemens, promoted to associate producer, included). Laurie Johnson (one of my favourite composers) has provided a new the new theme tune, as well as the new, tailored scores. It’s no longer ‘as live’ and everything is slicker, crisper and just looks… well, wonderful.
To have one brilliant, catchy theme is impressive. To have two looks like genius. Johnson’s ‘The Shake’ is even better than Dankworth’s, it’s more orchestral and lighter than the urgent, driving staccato theme it succeeds; it’s sedate yet lively, it’s grand yet mischievous, it’s stately yet fun. The accompanying title sequence is equally stylish; adopting the still images of the first season but instead of the trench coats and lamp posts we have carnations and hatstands. The candid frowns have become posed frolics. It’s a fashion shoot with silencers and deadly umbrellas. It’s fun.
The Avengers has always had an extraordinary visual style; but here the production quality matches the vision, and shooting on film allows greater ambition to be realised. Suddenly, with this season, The Avengers looks magnificent – perfect – it’s never looked this good (and, with the challenges of colour, it never will again).
None of this would matter, of course, if Cathy’s replacement was no good… These is actually a remake of Town of No Return – it was the first new episode produced with Elizabeth Shepherd as Emma Peel, but mid-way through filming her second episode it was decided she wasn’t right for the role. They finished production on that episode with Rigg and later returned to redo much of this episode too. So it’s actually Rigg’s second performance in the role, and the second time the episode was filmed too!
Emma Peel clearly shares a lot of characteristics with Mrs Gale – she lives in a modern apartment, publishes scientific papers, fences better than Steed, and is naturally suspicious of him. She’s also rather handy in a fight! The differences are subtle – she seems to be a little more indulgent of (and even gentle with) Steed. There’s more wit a deflection and less confrontation. Her fighting style is also judo-inspired, but there’s a balletic grace to her movements. (The fights are tighter and faster, too, but that may be more to do with the luxury of film editing.) And there’s a wonderful moment where – after dispatching the vicar with her judo – she’s thwarted in making her escape by two more baddies and, realising the game is up, she leans her elbow on the doorjamb, rests her head on her chin, and just smiles. Cool.
Mrs Peel is captured and tied up – not unusual for this season but would have been uncommon for Cathy (Concerto being an exception). But Mrs Peel is the opposite of submissive – she maintains her sardonic air and calm, and acknowledges her rescue only with a quip.
Although she and Steed are clearly acquainted already, there is an introductory scene. “Is this a social call?” she asks, with that sardonic eye-brow twitch that makes plain she knows it isn’t. When he finally drops in a suggestion she come Little Bazeley with him she asks “When did you buy the tickets?” and Steed is forced to give himself away: “Yesterday morning.”
They fence in her flat – she beat Steed fairly, so he twists her up in the curtain. “That was very, very dirty” she admonishes him. “You’re quite right. But I didn’t promise to fight fair.”
Steed brings a hamper of tea (there’s no buffet car). This even contains a cake stand (Steed describes it as roughing it) and in one of the silly OTT moments, a whistling teapot. (The final tag scenes – which in season 4 all involve transport – are usually pretty silly too, but somehow that feels allowable. In this one they ride off on a moped.) Along with charming touches like this, the wit and badinage is at an exceptionally high level here, it never lets up.
There’s an allusion to Steed’s professional status (and Emma being an amateur) when he tells her to stay in her room because he has “superior training” to creep around quietly. He is, of course, instantly discovered. Mrs Peel raises an eyebrow on his return. “Whatever happened to pussyfooted pussy?” This time, I suspect that’s not a deliberate allusion to Cathy (Goldfinger would have been over a year ago when this aired).
The only slight disappointment is that, unlike the first three seasons, on the DVDs there’s no ad bumpers (well, they’re there as an extra, but they don’t punctuate the episode). This is presumably related to the episode being shot on film, and packaged for sale to overseas networks.
The bold, typically bizarre opening has a man on the shore watching a black shape emerge from the sea. He doesn’t bat an eyelid when a man unzips himself from it, and steps out in three piece suit with an umbrella. Such a strong opening would have stood out in previous seasons; from now on it’ll be more commonplace, a trademark.
The music in this is stunning – it’s not just the richness of Johnson’s score, it’s the contrasts (the jazz radio in the pub, abruptly switching to the choral singing apparently coming from the church). But the music is a strong feature of the show – I was once watching an episode and my grandfather, in the other room, told me he knew it must be the Avengers because no show know would have such a strong, prominent score. (Perhaps new-Who, which he didn’t live to see, is an example of a return to that cinematic scoring.)
Patrick Newell, one of the guest actors, would go on to appear as series regular Mother (shudder) in season 6. He’s fine in this though, even if it’s not exactly a subtle performance (and he’ll be back once more before he shall be mother). Terence Alexander made me laugh out loud (even on this, the umpteenth time I’ve seen it) as ‘Piggy’ Warren.
Mrs Peel goes ‘undercover’ as a school teacher in this one. But the dress code at the school apparently allows teachers to wear leather head to toe. (Yes, she does have a cane.)
Steed has a steel bowler If he’s had the metal headwear before, it’s not been obvious. It’s a convenient weapon when he needs to see of several solidiers single handedly. But he doesn’t use it when he is at his most lethal – which is when he believes his companion to be in danger. Instead he brutally he sets Piggy Warren’s moustache on fire!
Lots of the exterior shots are taken very close to the ground. It’s incredibly effective at creating the sinister atmosphere of Little Bazeley. Visually, it’s virtually flawless (even the studio-shot beach scenes don’t jar too badly). The quality and freshness of this show is extraordinary by any standards, and it’s 49 years old.
The scenes I love most have Steed blithely swinging his umbrella as he pokes around among a ruined WW2 barracks (a motif echoed and enlarged on in The Hour That Never Was). That’s my Avengers.
This is wonderful, wonderful stuff – a hugely confident opening. Town of No Return is not quite my favourite episode of The Avengers, but that’s only because we’re about to see maybe four or five episodes that – astonishingly – even better still. It’s damn close.