“Mrs Peel! We’re needed!”
The extraordinary excitement of Steed and Mrs Peel returning in a tale of pernicious pipers has caused me to leap-frog my overdue Lost Episode reviews (I took last year off from Avengers blogging after my 2014 marathon). Big Finish, still mid-way through their reconstruction of the mostly-missing series 1, have released a first box-set of adaptations of the 1966 comic strips from Diana magazine with their own Steed (Julian Wadham) and a new Emma Peel (Olivia Poulet).
These are distinctly set in the colour era – and while I’m on record as preferring the less-loopy monochrome seasons – on the strength of this first episode these are going to be classy entertainment.
There’s such a lot to live up to – but Wadham’s made Steed his own, and seems to have shifted gears from the tough-manipulator to the more playful version of the character, emulating instantly the evolution Macnee took him through over 5 years or so. I’m not only eager to hear more of this, but I’m also now harbouring a hope that somehow Big Finish will be able to create New Avengers episodes with a new Gambit and Purdey for Wadham.
Mrs Peel was a difficult to choice to cast at the time (the producers re-cast her after filming half of the first episode) and Diana Rigg is impossible to match for her lethal grace. Her voice is mixes a sardonic steeliness with a sing-song charm – but crucially, she has perfect comic timing, and here Olivia Poulet matches her, and proves an excellent Peel. You can hear the haughtiness – it’s quite impressive to make a raised eyebrow heard on audio.
The fact it is a sort of sequel to a season 4 story is curious, in that while Wadham and Poulet make the characters their own, there references to the TV story are a reminder that they were once Macnee and Rigg. It is, however, pleasingly respectful (Castle De’ath is one of the absolute best) whilst taking a very different direction as a story in its own right.
The episode opens with a near-perfect rendition of The Shake (the drums under the carnations and shooting open the champagne have been dropped, presumably because the sequence is so visual). Laurie Johnson’s original Avengers music was so exceptional – light, jazzy, yet cinematic – and quite unlike anything else you could hear on television when I first saw The Avengers back in the ’80s and ’90s. It’s also different from the early videotape seasons of The Avengers that Big Finish have recreated so well, with the dramatic cues and stings – and my initial fears that those would just be replicated for this were dispelled. The music here isn’t Laurie Johnson’s, but it captures the feel and the style incredibly well. There’s even an homage to Black Jamie’s theme (I assume that the semi-tone difference is to avoid copyright issues).
The story – being a comic strip, as well as being from the sillier era of the show – was always going to be an action comedy. It takes advantage of things a TV budget wouldn’t have extended to (skiing sequences, for example). But there’s a pleasing amount of character and whimsy – and wit – Morag McIntosh explaining Murdoch “lost his tongue as a bairn in a freak caber tossing incident” had me hooting with laughter. And when Mrs Peel intervenes to stop an assassin, and the prince declares that “the Gods have saved me once again” the response is Mrs Peel at her most arch: “as their humble envoy, you’re welcome.”
I listened on a train and as the episode reached it’s conclusion, I realised I’d been grinning solidly for the whole hour (I’ve not idea what my fellow passengers thought). I enjoyed it hugely. It’s a very different beast from those perfect recreations from original scripts and storylines, but then the texture of the original Avengers owes everything to its progression. In short, like those colour episode in the 1960s this is amiably absurd, delightfully daft, intensely entertaining and sedulously silly – brought alive by the exceptional standard of soundscape Big Finish is renowned for. An absolute delight.