The Wild, Wild West (Season 1, Episode 1: The Night of the Inferno): a cautious start to a classic TV series

Richard C Sarafian, “The Wild, Wild West (Season 1, Episode 1: The Night of the Inferno)” (1965)

With the Civil War over and the period of Reconstruction begun in the South, there is unrest aplenty in the western and southwestern territories of the United States and President Grant needs a man to go undercover and help bring order to these lands and their peoples. Enter one Jim West (Robert Conrad), brought to Grant in disguise as a renegade prisoner, and entrusted with a mission to seek and apprehend a Mexican revolutionary Juan Manolo in Texas. Travelling by private train given him by Grant and enlisting the help of Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin), Jim meets a Chinese informant Wing Fat (Victor Buono) who introduces him to Lydia (Suzanne Pleshette), who turns out to be an old flame of Jim’s.

Gordon and West discover that Manolo is keeping gunpowder in barrels supposed to contain wine in the cellar of Lydia’s mansion. After going their separate ways, West is later captured by some of Manolo’s men and imprisoned with Lydia. West engineers an escape, rejoins Gordon and together they capture the man who they think is Manolo. West takes the man back to his train where he is ambushed by the real Manolo who has been disguised as Wing Fat all along.

There follows a billiards game during which West tries to buy time while Gordon and Lydia, having arrived at the train, battle Manolo’s men. Both agents quickly despatch the baddies and with Lydia ride off into the night on the train. All quite mundane really: but this episode was a pilot episode for the series so it erred on the side of caution.

The episode liberally borrows from the James Bond movie series and the tropes borrowed become part of the show’s regular props: the character of James West himself, a suave undercover agent who’s cool, calm and very collected in even the most dire and dangerous situations; a femme fatale who’s attracted to West but can’t always be trusted; eccentric villains; bizarre plots and plot devices such as the billiards game; and strange settings (a train as a secret hide-out?!) among others. An original touch is the character of Artemus Gordon who’s a dab hand at ventriloquy and outlandish disguises which come in handy in every episode. Conrad plays West as a straight, fairly colourless character, foil to the real star Martin who imbues Gordon with a distinctive cheerfulness and zest: no matter how far-out the disguise is, Martin’s Gordon pulls it off comfortably in a way that treads a fine balance between plausible (and not so plausible) camp and seriousness.

Victor Buono brings flamboyant flair to the episode as the disguised Manolo, enlivening an otherwise run-of-the-mill story-line. America in the mid-1960s being a relatively innocent time, the producers dared to push the boundaries of what was acceptable to American TV audiences by portraying a Chinese character relatively sympathetically and then deconstructing it: in this way, the show called attention to racist stereotyping and the Hollywood tendency at the time to cast white people in roles of non-whites. (The series was unusual for its time in hiring non-white actors to play minor and sometimes major characters, to reflect the reality of the period in which it’s set.) The plot about a Mexican revolutionary thirsting for the return of US territory to his motherland soon after the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction might say something about how fluid territories and identities can be at a time when the civil rights movement was in progress and people generally were hit with the notion that what they considered “normal” was really unjust and degrading to people who through no fault of their own were born as social and economic inferiors.

The series was also pushing the portrayal of women just a little: women were no longer helpless but were as capable of throwing bombs or acting off their own bat. Still, compared to the British TV spy series “The Avengers”, “The Wild, Wild West” had a long way (literally and figuratively) to go.

And last but not least – why the Western setting? It provides a comfortable arena for a TV series to comment on and deconstruct familiar stereotypes about American society and history, past and present, and to present an alternate view of how America might or could have evolved. The Western genre had become tired and stale and was in need of a fresh approach in both TV and movies: shows like “The Wild, Wild West” by throwing and blending together the spy and Western genres breathed new life and eccentricity into both genres. Future episodes would feature science fiction and horror elements. Plus it’s just fun to think that “The Wild, Wild West” anticipates sci-fi steampunk about 20 years before William Gibson introduced the world to cyberpunk and all that followed in his 1985 novel “Neuromancer”!

Somehow it’s ironic that I’ve started watching this series at a time when American society in particular and Western society across the world generally seem to be retreating into identity politics and a crisis of confidence in its institutions, values and ideologies. West and Gordon might have been backing the “wrong” side as we moderns see it but whose side is really “wrong”?

The Wild, Wild West (Season 2, Episode 17: Night of the Feathered Fury): well balanced between serious drama and tongue-in-cheek fantasy

Robert Sparr, “The Wild, Wild West (Season 2, Episode 17: Night of the Feathered Fury)” (1967)

In this episode, the two US government agents Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) meet the diabolical master-mind magician Count Manzeppi (Victor Buono) who is seeking a toy bird that his assistant Gerda Scharr (Michele Carey) has stolen from him. Gordon has already stashed the bird in a locked safe after finding it abandoned in a building that Gerda had recently fled. Both West and Gordon are puzzled as to why Manzeppi and Gerda want the bird so desperately that they’re prepared to kill for it. West and Gordon subject the toy to various tests and find the name of the toy shop where it was made. West visits there with the toy where he watches an early form of motion picture in a box and is again introduced to Manzeppi who makes a grand entrance down from the ceiling on a crescent-shaped prop. After a fight and a chase, Manzeppi traps West in a bird-cage.

Buono over-acts magnificently as the dastardly devilish Manzeppi, particularly in the scene where he explains that inside the toy bird he seeks is the famed Philosopher’s Stone which also has the Midas touch on nearby objects when exposed to the full moon. Everyone else plays second fiddle to him though Martin’s Gordon almost steals the show in disguise as a Jewish travelling salesman. Minor characters can be quite eccentric and include a deadly Mexican dancer and an equally threatening Japanese fellow with an awfully long and vicious scythe. After a daring rescue and many fights, West and Gordon pursue Gerda who has taken the bird, only to discover that she has exposed herself and the Stone in the bird to the light of the full moon with a dire effect on her that recalls the famous murder scene in the James Bond film “Goldfinger”.

This episode treads an excellent balance between serious drama and tongue-in-cheek fantasy: it’s true that Manzeppi has too many far-out magic tricks up his sleeve that can’t be explained by science or logic to be completely credible but Buono carries off the character’s flamboyance and psychopathic villainy without a care in the world. Viewers can clearly see the actor was enjoying himself immensely in the role.  The sets for the toy shop with its labyrinth of dark passages and dead-end tunnels, and collection of sinister toys make for a magnificent backdrop for the action which ranges from all-out action-thriller Western to comedy to fantasy. There is an air of lushness and decadence to the entire episode: all the actors wear bright and lavishly decorated clothes, even for fighting – and that’s just the men alone! The coda to the story suits it well as West and Gordon voice a hope that one day Gerda could be restored to human form but the toy bird ends up in the ownership of someone who is completely unaware of the bird’s power.

Perhaps the silliest part of the whole episode is that something as mystical and dangerously powerful as the Philosopher’s Stone could be housed in a toy chicken of all things … no wonder in an early scene Martin is struggling not to laugh as Gordon and West face down a couple of villains.

The Wild, Wild West (Season 3, Episode 2: Night of the Firebrand): insubstantial plot wastes a good cast and some good ideas

Michael Caffey, “The Wild, Wild West (Season 3, Episode 2: Night of the Firebrand)” (1967)

In this episode, government agents Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) travel to the Oregon Territory to stop an insurrection fomented by outlaw Sean O’Reilly in Canada. Going their separate ways at first, West goes to Fort Savage to meet a Major Jason – and discovers the fort’s been taken over by O’Reilly (Pernell Roberts), aided by a comely lass Sheila O’Shaughnessy (Lana Wood, the younger sister of Natalie Wood). Despite O’Reilly’s best efforts to kill West, the agent escapes and continues on. Likewise Gordon meets a few colourful characters and despatches them to join up with West.

The episode is very slow to reach its centrepiece which comes about halfway through when West steals a Conestoga wagon, kidnaps Sheila from O’Reilly by making her comatose first and then high-tailing all the way from Oregon back to Fort Savage. This part of the film becomes a running gag: West and Gordon keep losing the wagon for some reason and Sheila keeps reviving only to be made comatose again … and again. The climax is an all-out catfight in which West faces down O’Reilly and a horde of henchmen; West however saves the day with a stack of dynamite which he throws one by one, eerily simulating a 20th century bombing raid. Eventually he has to get his hands dirty going mano a mano with O’Reilly and, well … no prizes for guessing who goes tumbling over a cliff.

I thought this would be a half-decent episode but it’s turned out to be a lot of fluff: the story is too insubstantial to sustain nearly 60 minutes of viewing-time. That’s a pity as some fine guest actors, notably Roberts and the horse playing West’s mount, appear: Roberts himself dominates the cast whenever the camera focuses on him. Conrad plays his usual all-American hero self who extricates himself from an apparently cast-iron deadly fate that Houdini himself would have gasped at, and Martin rises to the occasion of impersonating a French-Canadian diplomat and an ornery coonsman out of the backwoods. The story could have been beefed up a lot more by depicting the relationship between O’Reilly and Sheila as more complex than it is: Sheila the idealistic and starry-eyed proto-socialist following the more cynical O’Reilly who pretends to fight for the cause of the common man but who’s prepared to throw the girl to the wolves and take the money and run when it suits. The budding romance between West and Sheila is unconvincing: viewers know that in the next episode there’ll be another femme fatale waiting for him.

Although some ingenious fighting weapons are at hand for both West and Ward, the episode as a whole features few futuristic ideas and concepts. Aerial bombing as a form of warfare is the main futuristic technological idea here and a world in which ideologies favouring either the wealthy or the poor are at loggerheads is prefigured also. Historical accuracy was apparently a bit sloppy: in an early scene, a van passes through the forest in the far distant background.

Like many tongue-in-cheek TV drama series of its time, episodes of “The Wild, Wild West” usually feature so-called tag ends which comment on or parody the action that’s just concluded: in this respect, this series’ tag ends seem a lot less cute and more humorous than the ones for “The Avengers” (Season 5) which would have been screening in the same year.

The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 10: Never Never Say Die): under-cooked plot fails its cast and ideas

Robert Day, “The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 10: Never, Never Say Die)” (1967)

Now this is the episode that should have been the Return of the Cybernauts and not that other wishy-washy episode featuring just the one robot and a lot of mind control. Christopher Lee as both Professor Frank N Stone (chortle) and his robot duplicate are a fine team, even if very under-utilised in two roles that send up his Hammer Horror film career playing Count Dracula, the Mummy and Frankenstein. One fine day the robot duplicate is wandering the countryside and is hit twice about two hours apart by the same car driver. The horrified driver reports to the nearby hospital and Steed (Patrick Macnee) and trusty sidekick Peel (Diana Rigg) are quickly called onto spy duties. Peel finds a clue left behind at one of the accident scenes and this leads them to the Ministry of Technology – Neoteric Research Unit, a secret government facility engaged in work of the usual dubious sort that wastes taxpayer money. Steed narrowly escapes being chopped down to size in a country house and Peel visits an eccentric radio ham operator playing chess games with several people around the world to get information about the government unit. The two agents’ paths bring them to the unit’s headquarters where they are informed by the pack of mad scientists there that the unit is creating robots that look exactly like real human individuals, sharing their thought processes and memories, but indestructible and possessed of superior intelligence.

The quest for immortality, scientific arrogance and doppelgänger robots with minds of their own conspiring to rule the world by deliberately impersonating real people full-time are the main themes that are played for satire and to express people’s fears that one day science will run riot and regular folks might be replaced by clones or robots. Eventually the robots themselves will decide to replace the thinkers, creators and leaders of society with their kind and humans will have become completely redundant. The satirical aspect is made blindingly obvious in the episode’s coda and in the scientists’ plans to replace some visiting politicians with their duplicates. Amusingly, one of the radio ham operator’s chess opponents is an American lady whose face and hair are never seen but whose arms and legs are long enough that we suspect she might be Peel’s long-lost identical twin! Let’s hope the lady never meets Steed! The one weakness of the robots is that their neural wiring is affected by transistor radios operating at a certain frequency and this is exploited in a long scene, harking back to scenes in old Frankenstein films where the monster meets a little girl beside a lake, where Lee’s robot attempts to kill an enthusiastic old gent playing with his remote-control boat but can’t because the old fella’s radio is interfering with the robot’s functions; thus the boat’s circular movements on the pond are replicated in Lee’s movements around the field behind the man who is completely unaware of the robot.

Much of the first half-hour of the episode is wasted with the robot Frank N Stone, Steed and Peel literally given the run-around such as the one just described above. Fortunately the episode starts to speed up once Peel is captured and imprisoned by the scientists.  For a change, the climactic fight ends differently with a minor character Dr James (Patricia English) coming to the spies’ rescue in the nick of time.

To this viewer, Lee is wasted in this episode which obsesses over his previous Hammer horror film roles in the way he stumbles around early on and later when he is lying still on a bed, his eyelids just flickering: he’d have been better off in a role trying to seduce and ravish Peel with the force and elegance of his personality and good looks … and succeeding! Apart from this, the acting of everyone in the episode is adequate for the job at hand. Unfortunately the plot appears under-cooked to address the themes adequately and the idea of robots taking over the world seems to have been incorporated into the story as a second thought.

 

The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 23: Murdersville): good episode with suspense, tension and some horror

Robert Asher, “The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 23: Murdersville)” (1967)

Major Paul Croft (Eric Flynn) has retired from the army and bought a mansion on the edge of the village Little-Storping-on-the-Swuff, an idyllic little place with a pond, so his childhood friend Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) offers to drive him there where his valet Forbes (Norman Chappell) should be unloading the furniture from the car and moving it inside. On arrival, the two discover a lot of smashed crockery in the driveway. Croft assumes Forbes is down at the pub dead drunk so he runs off to the village while Peel snoops about and discovers Forbes dead near a log. Someone whacks her from behind and when she wakes up in a doctor’s surgery, she is told she crashed her car. Unconvinced, she tries calling for the police to report Forbes’s death but when the sergeant arrives, takes down the details and drives off, she sees he is not dressed in full regulation uniform.

Peel attempts to escape and accidentally discovers the bodies of Croft and Forbes in the doctor’s spare room. Earlier, Forbes had been killed by two men who were supposed to help him move the furniture, then laid next to the log and later moved to the doctor’s surgery. Croft, on arriving at the village, stumbles into the village library and sees a businessman kill another. For being a witness to a crime, he is also killed. Furious and upset, Peel beats up the doctor and almost brains him with a telephone. She tries to escape the village but after running through fields, is captured and imprisoned in the village museum where she meets four prisoners who inform her that the entire village, at one time on the verge of dying out due to lack of money, is now in the business of killing people on behalf of crooks who pay them loads of dosh to do so and hushing up witnesses, with Forbes and Croft the latest victims.

Subjected to waterboarding on a dunking stool, Peel is forced to tell the villagers that her husband will miss her so they frog-march her to a telephone to phone him. She phones Steed (Patrick Macnee) instead and gives him a heavily coded message that she is in trouble. Satisfied, the villagers imprison her again, planning to take her out to sea in a helicopter where she will be dumped. Steed however turns up in the nick of time, releases Peel and the other prisoners, and together he and Peel put a stop to the villagers’ extortion racket with a custard-pie fight.

The plot is played for laughs, the acting is unremarkable and the ending deeply unsatisfactory – Steed and Peel waltz off to yet another party when they should have been attending the funerals of Croft and Forbes, and Steed wiping tears from Peel’s eyes – but there are some dark undercurrents to what is basically a satire on the provincial and narrow mind-set of small-town people. In some ways, the message that gets through the fluff is still a timely one: when a community is desperate due to the local economy drying up, and someone comes along promising a cornucopia of riches, without the necessary information they need to check out the offer the people may sell themselves to the Mephistophelean benefactor, unaware they have entered a Faustian pact that imprisons them forever to greed. In this way might gangs create their territory and continue to extort payment from the people under their “charge”, and petty vendettas begin between and among rival groups and factions within a community. The plot-line strikes me as cruel to working people caught between continuing poverty and joining in communal crime and murder, but even in TV and movies life isn’t always fair. The whole thing might have worked better if the village had been reworked into a modern-day estate where the landlord has been replaced by a crook and all the tenants choose to work for the crook to save their jobs – but if Steed and Peel free them and help them to rebel against the landlord, that would be too, er, socialistic.

Overall the episode is enjoyable with plenty of suspense, tension and a moment of horror when Peel is dunked in the pond but the silly pie fight is anti-climactic and detracts from the plot. This could almost have been a Hitchcockian piece along the lines of “Psycho” and I’m rather sad the producers threw that opportunity away.

The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 20: Dead Man’s Treasure): fun and childhood fantasy turn deadly and dangerous

Sidney Havers, “The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 20: Dead Man’s Treasure)” (1967)

A courier, mortally wounded, just manages to stumble into Steed’s home and mutter to Steed (Patrick Macnee) scraps of information about some important documents he has hidden in a treasure chest at a manor house before conveniently expiring.  In order for Steed and Peel (Diana Rigg) to recover the documents, the courier hands them an invitation to enter a rally hosted by wealthy Formula One aficionado, Sir George Benstead (Arthur Lowe). Whoever wins the rally wins the treasure chest and the money (and documents) inside.

The two enter the rally but each is partnered by another person. Unbeknownst to them, Benstead and the other rally partcipants, the two enemy agents Carl and Alex (Neil McCarthy and Edwin Richfield) who shot the courier have also entered the rally, having found out by eavesdropping on Steed and Peel that the documents they want are in the treasure chest. During the course of the rally, Carl and Alex throw spikes onto the road, putting most of their competitors out of business save for Steed paired with Penny (Valerie van Ost) and Peel paired with Mike (Norman Bowler). Unfortunately for the dastardly duo, the people partnered with Steed and Peel also cheat so any advantage the enemy agents gain is quickly lost.

This is one of the more enjoyable episodes in this season as our heroes have to deal with not just the enemy agents but also mercenary double agent Mike who’s prepared to torture and kill Peel to get the prize money and documents at the end of the rally by strapping her into the racing simulator where he has killed Benstead early on. The plot is very light and has more holes than a piece of Swiss cheese, and the English countryside suffers from the smell of burnt tyres and hot asphalt, squashed hedgehogs and other roadkill, and excess air pollution as rally participants race one another in classic 1960s sports cars and try to dodge the enemy agents’ spikes.

Character is done well through quirks in the plot and in excellent dialogue, the latter particularly in the case of Penny who chats constantly to Steed about all her boyfriends who had the misfortune of dying in freak accidents. She is developed into a ditzy blonde babe who proves to be useful with a weapon when it counts. Even Carl and Alex banter about Peel’s fighting abilities, Peel having taken one of them on in Benstead’s study. Mike is a bit colourless and one sees in him an early prototype for the character of Mike Gambit in the later New Avengers series. The later part of the plot in which Peel is forced to race for her life in the simulator, suffering progressively more painful electric shocks that come close to killing her, demonstrates the character’s steeliness and is very tense as well. The racing simulator with the electric shock deliverer is an excellent plot device used first to show off one character’s eccentricity, another’s amorality and sadism, and a third’s bravery in not revealing the location of the prize and documents in spite of the death that awaits her.

As long as The Avengers stuck to straight spy stories with ingenious plot elements, well-rounded characters and smart dialogue, the series worked well. This episode just manages to get away with the vacuous Penny because she does save Steed’s life and disposes of the enemy agents, and gets to claim the prize money as well. It’s surprising that for all the kudos the series got for its lead female characters in Cathy Gale and Emma Peel, the supporting female characters who appeared were often very one-dimensional stereotypes. Naive women are played as empty-headed bunnies. In addition as Season 5 progresses and the episodes start becoming darker, Peel is subjected to some very unpleasant forms of torture, any one of which would cause major post-traumatic stress disorder in most people. I know the show is not meant to be serious but you sometimes wonder if the producers and script-writers were fully aware of what they were doing. But then, perhaps that’s the point of episodes like “Dead Man’s Treasure”: people may imagine they’re acting out childhood fantasies as did Benstead but such fantasies can be a double-edged sword and what’s fun at one point of time can be dangerous and deadly the next moment.

The Wild Wild West (Season 4, Episode 4: The Night of the Sedgewick Curse): clever and intelligent combination of horror and science fiction

Marvin Chomsky, “The Wild Wild West (Season 4, Episode 4: The Night of the Sedgewick Curse)” (1968)

I don’t recall this series from my childhood yet when I heard the theme music in this episode’s opening credits, it seemed very familiar so I assume that it did feature on Australian TV in the late 1960s. Various distinguished gentlemen are disappearing in a hotel in a town and US agents James West (Robert Conrad) and his partner Artemus Ward (Ross Martin) set out to investigate the strange incidents. In the course of his work, West meets a young woman Lavinia Sedgewick (Sharon Acker) who invites him to dinner at the Sedgwick family mansion where he discovers the building is under a mysterious curse that may be linked to the murders and disappearances at the hotel due to its emblem: three knives embedded in a heart.

West is the action-man of the heroic duo while Ward does the brain work, dons the weird disguises and uses his ventriloquist ability to save his skin. Through West’s leg-work which brings him in contact with Lavinia’s grandfather and his spooky physician Dr Maitland (Jay Robinson) and Ward’s own investigation, disguised as a French diplomat staying at the hotel, which puts his life in danger a couple of times, the agents discover a horrible secret: the Sedgewicks suffer from a genetic disease that causes rapid ageing and Dr Maitland is seeking to cure the disease permanently by using the kidnapped men as guinea pigs to test a special serum he has developed. The problem is that while the serum works on animals and stops or slows down the ageing process, it has the opposite effect on humans and when West sees the kidnapped gentlemen in a cell, he is horrified to see they have all been rapidly aged.

This is a clever episode that mixes elements of horror (a haunted house with secret passages and a prison below, an apparently innocent woman harbouring a terrible secret, a bed that impales people dead, a housemaid who seems surly and who might be an ally – or the villain’s assistant) and science fiction (a mad scientist searching for the elixir that gives immortality) in a Western genre and a common TV narrative format: strange things happen to innocent people, two agents are summoned to snoop around and find out what’s going on, one of the agents is captured which leads the other to the villain’s lair, the entire business culminates in and is settled by some punch-ups, the crooks are rounded up and sent to jail and all loose ends are tied satisfactorily. The motivations of the various major characters are explained throughout the episode, the science seems quite plausible (one must remember the action takes place in the nineteenth century when Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was barely understood, let alone all the sciences that the theory as midwife enabled later) and the horrors that Dr Maitland’s nostrum causes are dramatic enough without appearing overdone and campy.

The acting is excellent, Robinson as the creepy and deranged physician and Acker as the desperate Lavinia probably the most outstanding. One notes that a couple of black actors play hotel clerks; this is credible from a historical viewpoint, black men often having been employed as cowboys, farmers, clerks and workers in the American West, but would come as a surprise to most people raised on old Hollywood Westerns where black people hardly ever featured. The music used is a mixture of the conventional orchestra-based soundtrack music of the period and some analog synthesiser tone melodies. The episode does rely on some cheap effects such as repeating thunder noises when a storm rages during the night. Set design and interior details, including those of objects used, look typical of the style and period of the 1870s.

“The Night of the Sedgewick Curse” shows that you can combine far-out science fiction and horror ideas in a plot-line that doesn’t need to be campy or feature wacky characters. The episode’s coda in which Ward attempts to feed West a healthy vegan lunch to prolong his life is comic without being cartoony, the actors playing their dialogue and actions straight. Characters show some sympathy and concern for others, even those others like Lavinia who turns out to be a femme fatale and who suffers tragically.

 

The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 15: The Joker): psychological thriller hints of psychological damage done by Cold War

Sidney Hayers, “The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 15: The Joker)” (1967)

Oops! As Steed (Patrick Macnee) excitedly races down the staircase to greet Peel (Diana Rigg) at the door, he trips and falls the rest of the way down, injuring his knee. As a result, he is laid up for the weekend, unable to accompany Peel to her weekend rendezvous with bridge-playing fanatic Sir Cavalierusticana – that should have been a dead give-away – who has read her article on applying mathematics to bridge in a magazine and wants to discuss the game with her. While she is away, an army officer (John Stone) calls at Steed’s home to inform him that the dangerous criminal Max Prendergast (Peter Jeffery), whom Steed and Peel put away in jail, has escaped and is hell-bent on seeking revenge against both of them. Later, on discovering that his staircase was booby-trapped to cause him to fall, Steed realises Peel’s life is in danger and frantically tries to track down her whereabouts before Prendergast can exact his revenge against her.

In the meantime, Peel has arrived at a huge mansion and is being entertained and terrorised in turn by her host’s creepy niece and housekeeper Ola (Sally Nesbitt) and a young man (Ronald Lacey) to soften her up for Prendergast when he comes to deliver the final blow. Can Steed reach her in time before Prendergast does? Can Peel’s nerve hold out against the torments Ola and friend pile upon her? Or will being alone in the mansion with its brooding sinister atmosphere, hallways lined with knights’ armour and bunches of roses, and rooms full of dark shadows, dead people in rocking chairs and things going bump in the night be enough to bring her down?

It’d be unfair to blame Alfred Hitchcock for everything referenced in this and other Avengers episodes: if anything, the portly one should have been demanding more than his fair share of the cut for inspiring this psychological thriller. One might imagine seeing many moments from the Master of Suspense’s past work here: bunches of roses lining the corridors recall the flower shop in “Vertigo”, the haunted house might have come straight out of “Psycho”, the fog from “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog”.  Even Ola provides the obligatory blonde: the twist is that she is an irritating psychopath rather than the heroine. Rigg holds her own as Peel, her expression and body language slowly revealing the character’s increasing nervousness beneath an apparently cool and tough exterior but the episode belongs to Jeffery in the short amount of screen time he has.

This is an excellent character-study episode that showcases Rigg’s ability in portraying a more steely side of her character. It does become slow and a bit repetitive halfway when Peel is forced to run from one room to the next and back again, and the script should have shown more of Steed’s efforts in trying to reach Peel to save her to increase the tension level.

The episode should have ended without its obligatory coda which was unnecessary: it would have been enough for viewers to see Peel’s relief on seeing Steed come to her rescue and her drained reaction is a fine piece of acting.

A Cold War romance with Peel as a honeypot who betrays him is implied in Prendergast’s speech which gives him the necessary motivation for wanting to destroy Peel and for a brief moment we see something of world politics as it was in the 1960s. There is a hint of faded and forgotten history and maybe of the psychological wreckage that the Cold War brought to people like Prendergast and even Peel: he remembers too much of his brief romance with Peel while she remembers nothing of it. (That may be the most chilling aspect of this episode.) It is all the more jarring when she reminds him of the people he has killed but does she not also think that he and she too are victims of a power play far above even them?

The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 6: The Winged Avenger): flighty fantasy let down by tedious and repetitive violence

 Gordon Flemyng and Peter Duffell, “The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 6: The Winged Avenger)” (1967)

The father-and-son team of stony-hearted corporate vultures at Simon Roberts & Son Publishers has been found mysteriously murdered – clawed to bloodless death, as it were, by a giant eagle – so Steed (Patrick Macnee) and trusty sidekick Peel (Diana Rigg) are immediately on the trail of this bird of prey. Initially an author with a grudge against Simon Roberts pere et fils is suspected of the deed but he’s discounted early on when his assistant is literally scratched out. Chasing more leads and more dead bodies, the intrepid twosome link a comic book studio called Winged Avengers Enterprises which specialises in writing, drawing and producing a comic around a superhero called the Winged Avenger with an inventor called Professor Poole (Jack MacGowan) who is trying to promote his special magnetised boots which allow people to walk up walls and on ceilings.

A homage to comic books and borrowing effects and some of the music from the Batman live-action series that starred Adam West as Batman / Bruce Wayne and which was popular in the mid to late 1960s, this episode is loopier than many others of the season and features as its climactic battle an upside-down fight between Peel and her enemy which viewers can see was originally filmed right way up because of the way the falling chair moves as if being pulled. The transitions between storyboarded cartoons and the live action are an interesting touch and illustrate how the villain Arnie Packer (Neil Hallett) has confused his fantasy world with the real world. On the other hand, the violence is unrealistic – for all the tearing and scratching that occur, there’s no blood shown at all – and the constant repetition of it when the novelty of the killing method wears off makes for a lot of tedium throughout the episode. It’s as if the script is running out of ideas so the fifty minutes allocated to the episode have to be padded up with pointless killing, especially that of Poole and of the actor playing the cartoon character for the storyboard illustrations. An unnecessary scene of a callous businessman shooting pheasants who ends up very dead to the delight of his would-be victims is included to drive very heavily home the point that his eponymous killer is motivated by social justice to pursue and destroy those who would exploit others for their own selfish interests.

The best scene is right at the beginning where Simon Roberts is instructing his son on how to sack people in the cruellest, most cold-hearted way possible and Junior turns out to be a chip off the old block when turfing out a loyal employee of the publishing company. Needless to say, the role model is quickly turfed out of the story and this sets off the race to find his killer.

The acting varies with MacGowan almost over-acting his role as the batty boffin bestriding the firmaments of his mansion and looking not a little flitter-mouse himself with his elfin features, and Hallett not quite looking and acting crazed enough as the creator of the Winged Avenger taken over by his child. John Garrie is unconvincing as the Asian man-servant to explorer / adventurer Lexius Cray (Nigel Green) which is a bit strange as the show had used Chinese-British Burt Kwouk in three episodes in the past; the role of man-servant could have been adjusted slightly to be non-Asian.

This was one of two episodes that featured birds as a sinister motif and it’s hard not to think that Alfred Hitchcock (“The Birds”) was not an influence on this episode and on other episodes of the show.

The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 9: The Correct Way to Kill): satire on upper class English culture and mores

Charles Crichton, “The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 9: The Correct Way to Kill)” (1967)

Soviet agents are being cut down almost as soon as they arrive in Britain and a diplomatic criss between the USSR and the UK is imminent. Who better than Steed (Patrick Macnee) and Peel (Diana Rigg) to entrust with the task of messing up the crime scene, follow leads that go nowhere, visit eccentric individuals and training organisations, and eventually uncover mad schemes hatched by the most unlikely of villains to take over the world and install a Nutski World Order? Our dynamic duo once again follow the well-worn script of trawling through bodies of people done down by seemingly polite City of London bankers (who turn out to be the vanguard of a highly trained and professional assassination squad) in office elevators and even rotating doors. This time Steed is given extra assistance by one Soviet agent Olga (Anna Quayle) and it’s Peel’s turn to feel a little annoyed at this unwelcome intrusion into her and Steed’s tidy partnership.

There’s considerable over-acting from those playing Russians, especially Quayle who plays Olga as a dour KGB agent stereotype fresh out of spy-training school and inclined to interpret everything literally and robotically, and Michael Gough who lays on the thick accent as Nutski, an long-term Soviet agent living in Britain who turns out to have double-crossed his side and the British side. Generally the characters are one-dimensional and Nutski and his lieutenants are presented as power-hungry types. The plot as usual is convoluted and a little tricky, and there are loose ends dangling, with not much depth overall. How on earth Steed and Olga can hide in the S.N.O.B. office and keep opening the door at intervals to watch a fencing training session and not be noticed at all by the instructor or his students is very strange indeed!

The staple cat-fight that climaxes the narrative is a fencing fight between Olga and Peel on one side and Nutski’s men training as spies and assassins in his organisation that masquerades as S.N.O.B. (Sociability, Nobility, Omnipotence, Breeding Inc.) which purports to teach ruffians and common caitiffs how to be Proper English Gentlemen. (Although I’m not sure that part of the training includes wielding umbrellas as foils and sabres and pricking Bulgarian exiles with ricin-injecting tips.)

Upper class English culture is satirised in this episode and the message that politeness, gentility and culture often hide a brutal, savage and amoral mentality and set of values is not lost on this viewer. In such a culture, style is privileged over substance: even the episode title in what it says and the minimal, succinct way it announces itself suggests as much. However clunky Olga appears, she provides a good if wide-eyed vicarious stand-in for audience reactions to goofy British character caricatures and assassinations.

Running umbrella and hat gags and loads of bawdy sexual and anal penetration jokes and double entendres, especially in the episode’s concluding scene, rather ruin this viewer’s experience. The episode itself is a remake of an earlier Avengers episode “The Charmers” with Honor Blackman as Steed’s partner Cathy Gale.