Saturday 30 January 2016

The Avengers - The Lost Episodes - Volume 5

We all know the Avengers, don’t we? Mrs Gale, Mrs Peel, Tara King, Bowler hats, brollies, Bentley’s and bonkers out–there plots involving groovy megalomaniacs in a bonkers version of swinging sixties Britain? Of course we do, it’s as much part of our shared TV heritage as Doctor Who, The Prisoner, Sapphire & Steel or The Tomorrow People. However as Coldplay once sang in one of their mournful dirges: “I’m going back to the start”, and with The Avengers – The Lost Episodes that is just what Big Finish have done – you see before catsuits, kinky boots and Laurie Johnson there was another first series of The Avengers, a series not that well remembered…
Doctor Who has had its fair share of episodes wiped, but the crumb of comfort to us Who fans is that they at least exist as audio recordings – the same fate hit the first series of The Avengers, with only two of the twenty-six episode run existing in their entirety. However unlike Doctor Who no audio recordings are known to exist. The first series saw Ian Hendry as Doctor David Keel paired with Patrick MacNee as the mysterious bowler-hatted stranger John Steed as together they battled criminals and conspiracies in pre -swinging 60’s London. The title The Avengers comes from Doctor Keel and Steed coming together to avenge the murder of Doctor Keel’s fiancé. Series One was an oddity in The Avengers canon, the lead was Ian Hendry with MacNee as his assistant and the show had yet to become the high-kicking high-camp show that it evolved into – the episodes were lost forever… and then Big Finish came along.
How do you follow an act like Patrick MacNee? The answer is simple: “You don’t”. So all kudos to Julian Wadham as John Steed for not just “Doing a MacNee” – he plays Steed, not MacNee playing Steed and interprets the role in his own way – still debonair and wry, still with a twinkle in his eye and a Bowler on his head, but very much his own man. Anthony Howell brings a world weary realism to Doctor Keel and the trio are rounded off by Lucy Briggs-Owen as Doctor Keel’s surgery Nurse Carol Wilson.
This is the fifth set of stories to be released in the range and has four stories:
Nightmare by Dan Starkey (from a storyline by Terence Feely)
When Doctor Keel’s patient is reported as missing by his wife Keel ends up taking his place to draw the kidnappers in to the open. The missing patient is a scientist in a top secret research unit that are looking in to the military appliance of new psychotropic drugs – as the stakes are raised and Keel is wounded by a gunshot, Steed and Carol are involved in a race against time to unmask the traitor and save Doctor Keel from death on the operating table.
Strong stuff and not The Avengers I was expecting – Steed is still debonair, but the air of whimsy just isn’t there, this is a lot more real world rather than “Avenger-land” and has a claustrophobic feel – I can imagine that the original was all shot on studio sets with little or no external scenes – this is an edgy and dangerous Avengers, more like Danger Man than its later incarnation, its an Avengers where bullets hurt and there is a palpable real world threat of imminent death – a grim austerity that I just was not expecting.
Girl on the Trapeze by Dennis Spooner (adapted by Rae Leaver)
Now this is odd – a “Steel-lite” episode of The Avengers. It’s hard to imagine that in the original series Doctor Keel was the main character, but he carries this slice of Cold War espionage admirably. This episode even has touches of the whimsy that characterised later episodes of The Avengers. Doctor Keel witnesses the apparent suicide of a trapeze artist from a visiting Soviet Bloc state circus – when the dying woman utters the word “Danilov” and Keel thinks that he recognises her from somewhere Keel and Carol decide to investigate and are drawn in to a world of defectors and murder. The lack of Steed does not diminish this episode one little bit, its a cold war era pulp detective fiction story brought to life with skill and care – again it feels just so authentic – just like a missing audio track from a studio bound story from the early 1960’s.
Crescent Moon by Phil Mulryne (from a storyline by Geoffrey Bellman and John Whitney)
If the preceding episode was “Steed-lite” this one is “Keel-lite”, the good Doctor only appearing in  a few scenes (which on broadcast I imagine were filmed weeks apart as Hendry was on holiday? answers on a tweet please…). Steed has been called in to investigate the kidnapping of the daughter of the recently deceased leader of a Caribbean Republic – the late General was a hero of the revolution that freed the island from its Western oppressors – so Steed’s intervention as the archetypal Englishman is unwelcome to say the least – but who are the kidnappers and is all really rosy in the post revolution era? By this point I am visualising Wadham as the audio version of Steed – he really does suit the part, his easy charm wins over (almost) all he meets on the island and like any good detective story there are bluffs and double-bluffs, plus a very “Avengerish” fate for the villain of the piece. Again a very dialogue heavy story with very few locations – betraying its origins as a TV show, this episode almost feels like a radio broadcast in its own right rather than an adaptation.
 Diamond Cut Diamond by John Dorney (from a storyline by Max Marquis)
Bringing the box set to a close is a tale of diamond smuggling, murder and airlines – taking on the guise of Australian air steward John Ryan – Steed investigates the going on at an airline to break a diamond smuggling ring. This is a particularly hard hitting and nasty story that pulls no punches in showing the underbelly of genteel early 1960’s Britain, the criminals are ruthless in their pursuit of their enterprise and think nothing of using blackmail to get airline staff to smuggle on their behalf and then kill them off when they have no further use for them. Steed is in a very dangerous place in this episode as the smugglers drug him and try to frame him for the death of stewardess Stella Creighton in order to gain his acquiescence to smuggle. A hard hitting and exhilarating end to the set.
It is a very authentic set, dripping with post 50’s pre-swinging 60’s charm – still very safe and at this time a small “c” conservative series, but loaded with with the wit and charm that wit blossom in coming seasons. A special mention must go to the incidental music, a sort of groovy jazz of the sort that Nigella Lawson has on her cookery shows  - and this style is used to great effect to punctuate transitions between scenes. Actually Nigella would be a great foil for Steed, hello Big Finish, if you are reading this hows about “Miss Lawson, were needed!”
But back in the real world what can I say about this release? Pre-King, pre- Gale, pre-Peel, all Keel – it’s The Avengers, but not as we know it, and a very good release it is too.

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