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April 2010

The Avengers: season 3

cast: Patrick Macnee, Honor Blackman

1300 minutes (PG) 1963-4
Optimum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
review by Andrew Darlington

The Avengers - season three

Rather like owning up to your favourite Dr Who, selecting an Avengers girl is something of a personality litmus test - the delicious Emma Peel, Tara King, or maybe even long-legged Joanna Lumley as high-kicking Purdey? But season three is dedicated to Steed's original companion, Mrs Catherine Gale, played by the very wonderful Honor Blackman. These 26 hardcore b&w episodes, four good-value exploits per disc, were originally screened on ABC between 28th September 1963 and 21st March 1964. Naturally fax 'n' info bores will tell you this wasn't actually the start.

The Avengers had begun unpromisingly in January 1961 as a fairly straight espionage thriller series conceived as a vehicle for Ian Hendry as Dr David Keel, a scientist intent on 'avenging' the death of Peggy, his fiancée who had been murdered by a drugs gang; hence 'avenger'. John Steed (Patrick Macnee) - "a man about town, his other activities are rather obscure" (in Concerto), was the dapper old Etonian adventurer he teamed up with to accomplish this end. Once Hendry was done avenging, Steed shifted centre-stage, and the widowed Mrs Gale was one of three potential replacements, vying with nightclub singer Venus Smith and idealistic doctor Martin King in alternating episodes.

But by season three, The Avengers as we know and love it had become more sharply defined. Steed was a wholly fully-formed character, with bowler and sword-stick brolly, Savile Row suits and old world sophistication. Perhaps Macnee was merely playing himself, certainly his subsequent roles with Roger Moore in James Bond's A View To A Kill (1985), or guesting on an episode of TV cop-show Columbo suggests as much by betraying no radical shift in his debonair persona.

While Mrs Gale forms, in every way, an equal partnering; as not only a brown-belt judo-expert, in high boots and black-leather fighting-suit, but also an anthropologist who beats Steed at chess. Strong-willed, coolly aloof, and a deadly weapon, in a fight scene with celebrity-wrestler Jackie Pallo she accidentally knocks him out cold for seven minutes (in The Undertakers). The incident front-paged the red-top tabloids of the day. While the mildly flirtatious but chastely distanced Steed and Gale relationship provides a template for that of Mulder and Scully in The X-Files. Their inspired pairing raises The Avengers a cut above the best, and some will claim this as the classic series.

Each episode is essentially an hour-long teleplay shot cheaply on stagey sets. Even the ad-breaks 'act one', then 'act two' signify as much. In Concerto, when Stefan Veliko, an eastern European pianist on a cultural exchange visit, plays a Chopin recital, it's not at the Royal Albert Hall, or even the Festival hall, but in front of a gaggle of half-a-dozen people in evening dress. "That'll be the newspapers," grumbles Zalenko, his minder, "their government has no control over them." Such incisive witty dialogue, plus the stylised comedy violence gives each tale a unique flavour, book-ended by Johnny Dankworth's distinctive theme.

Although there's quirky weirdness and visual gags aplenty there's strong plotting too; and something of its original espionage thriller remit left to give it grit. Which is where the 1998 film (with Ralph Fiennes as Steed, and Macnee himself doing voiceover) got it so disastrously wrong, concentrating on the style - which they couldn't even get right anyway, at the expense of plot. Sure, there's good and lesser good episodes here, but the good are brilliant, and even the less-good are highly entertaining, written by the period's best small-screen writers (Terrance Dicks, Malcolm Hulke), and featuring constellations of strong guest stars.

Brief For Murder, written by Brian Clemens, has a never-knowingly-understated role for John Laurie, as solicitor Jasper Lakin in his Dickensian book-lined office, writing details of the 'deceased-to-be' with a quill-pen. Steed is on trial at the Old Bailey for the murder of Catherine Gale, with only a series of crisply-observed docu-styled stills photographs in sharp monochrome to establish the exteriors. Naturally, she's far from dead, as Steed greets her with "liveliest looking corpus I ever saw, oh, and very dilecti, if I may say so!"

Then there are agents and double-agents, plots and counterplots to keep you guessing in The Nutshell by Philip Chambers. Set a quarter-of-a-mile beneath London, the duo investigate a security breach in level 43 of the 'thermo-nuclear underground target-zone shelter', the designated seat of government in the event of World War III, with a characteristically unruffled Steed undergoing a messy interrogation. Or The Golden Fleece with Warren Mitchell as 'old shiny boots' Captain George Jason who is operating a gold-smuggling scheme designed to fund ex-military personnel who've fallen on hard times.

Steed tracks him down by contriving an initial confusion of macs in a Chinese restaurant, while Mrs Gale infiltrates by cataloguing items in the military museum at Aldershot's Blore Camp. Together they naturally blow the scam. "Are you from the police?" they ask Steed. "Near enough," he smiles openly. But Mrs Peel shreds their log into the stove, to protect their beneficiaries. Elsewhere, there's Death Of A Batman with onetime 'Quatermass' Andre Morrell, and other offbeat highlights including The Grandeur That Was Rome with the Caesar-fixated world empire party intent on using germ-war to establish a new Roman empire. And Steed's double in The Man With Two Shadows, and more...

As England began to swing, with The Avengers not so much following trends as nudging them forward, the duo represented the decade's two contradictory elements, the eccentric traditional charm of Steed in his vintage Bentley, and the aggressive modernity of Cathy Gale, adopting what had been mildly risqué S&M-dominatrix apparel and re-branding is teasingly 'kinky'. For those who claim that later series tend to fall too far into trendy 1960s' pop-art silliness, season three still gets the balance about right.

If the period was scary from the point of view of superpower Cold War thermo-nuclear brinkmanship, it gave vital topicality to the fiction of Len Deighton, obviously Ian Fleming too, and it's many small-screen counterparts - legitimising lots of diplomatic shenanigans, shady 'Dr Evil' characters, covert bluff and counter-bluff. As guest villain Charles Tingwell points out (in The Nutshell), "espionage isn't a game, it's war, even in peacetime." Even when the action is limited to three or four characters manoeuvring within the restrictions of a soundstage, we know that it's all part of a global geopolitical drama being played out all around us.

Steed and Mrs Gale concisely précis both sides of the MAD (mutually assured destruction) balance of terror policy over tea (in The Nutshell). She criticises his ironic theory that "arming for World War III is the sole security against it." ... "So long as the arms race goes neck-and-neck," he counters. "I don't think anyone would dare start another war and risk the reprisals," she argues. "Annihilation by return of post?" quips Steed blithely, "someone will certainly try. History is full of people who tried to get away with it." Mrs Gale gets in the last shot, "we can't keep on arming forever." He merely passes the tea, "biscuit?"

Her final Avengers episode - The Lobster Quadrille, was also the final romp of season three, with Steed's closing advice to her about no 'pussyfooting'. She was leaving to appear as Pussy Galore, with Sean Connery in the Bond film Goldfinger (1964). That The Avengers has outlasted the urgencies of its time to become timeless has a lot to do with Macnee's charismatic presence, matched to the matchless girls that he was teamed with. In fact, such was the renown of the series, and the iconic status of her leather-gear, that Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman recorded a spin-off album. Overlooked at the time, the single from it, Kinky Boots, was re-issued in December 1990 when it reached #5 on the chart.



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