This supremely confident but embarrassingly schlocky episode is a guilty pleasure; a favourite that doesn’t disappoint. It retreads a well-worn Avengers plot – the doppelganger – that, even if we discount slightly off-the wall versions such as They Keep Killing Steed has been done twice before, once with a true doppelganger (The Man With Two Shadows) and once with a fake (Two’s A Crowd). This time, they have their cake and eat it, doing true and fake doppelgangers to the point where you start to wonder who is who and who isn’t. If you see what I mean.
Clearly the whole idea of doubles is appealing. It’s completely unrealistic, but intriguing and cheap. (Well, I say it’s unrealistic – but in the pub the other day, I noticed two strangers starting at me – and when I asked why, they insisted I’d been on something called Only Connect that week – something I’ve never even watched, let alone appeared on…) Anyway, in The New Avengers they go overboard on the concept, recruiting down and outs who resemble senior members of the elite, and training them (Pygmalion-style) to take their places.
The down and outs of The New Avengers are slightly victorian. They like to sit by a fire, of an evening, hunt for food with a bow and arrow, or else sleep in missions. But when a resemblance is noted, they always have the potential not only to act and talk exactly like their target, but also to adopt their professions, fool their wives, etc. etc.
Once again, we get to see how well connected Steed is with the great and the good. He is familiar with the man who, before he is swapped, is tipped to become PM. Not only that, but he knows him as John – it’s what makes Steed suspicious.
“That’s a little formal.”
Given that Mrs Peel et al. only ever called Steed Steed, they seem to be very intimate…
One of my favourite scenes of this episode, if not the whole of The New Avengers, has Steed indulging in some clay pigeon shooting in the grounds of his country home. He’s on his lonely own (except for the servant who is firing the pigeons, of course) when Gambit shows up – with a pump action shot gun.
“It’s not a gentleman’s gun.”
But Steed is broadminded…
“I’m not annoyed with you Gambit. After all, you can’t help your background.”
Then, Steed asks Gambit to pretend to be distressed and needy, Gambit says
“Well I can do an Irish accent.”
WHAT? I mean, I know this is the 1970s, but WHAT?
It gets worse. They don’t tell Purdey what Gambit’s doing because
“How do we know it is Purdey?”
So Purdey follows her own avenue of enquiry, which involve getting dressed up in her idea of a do-gooder (glasses and a hat) so she can go and visit the mission, and then as a gangsta pursued by the law (chewing gum and wearing a curly wig) so she can get to impersonate herself. She calls herself Lolita.
“I can’t help it. My mum like the film. She said it reminded her of my dad.”
I’m not making this up.
Hunt has far too much fun doing his oirish, but it’s Lumley who carries this episode emotionally. At the point where she suspects that both Steed and Gambit have been replaced, she is in a phone box in tears. It’s far more emotional than the moment where Mrs Peel suspects the real Steed is dead and the fake (fake) Steed has replaced him, in Two’s A Crowd, even if not quite as powerful.
Even beyond the ludicrous army of Eliza Doolittles, there are some howling liberties taken with the plot. How can you create a scar, post-mortem? And a watch stopping a .38 bullet at 20 paces? That’s daft enough to be a plot for Blackadder.
But the reason I enjoy it so much is the excuse it gives to explore the relationship between our three protagonists. Even if Steed and Gambit are evil enough to tease Purdey while she thinks they are doubles, there’s a real urgency as they start to fear for each others safety.
And the production is so confident, that the fourth wall is broken again – for only the second time, but far more successfully than the lines Mother delivers at the end of Bizarre – as Purdey and Gambit go out squabbling, Steed looks at us: