Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Singer

It was with a dreadful sadness that I heard this morning of the passing of Andy Hallett, who starred as Lorne the singing demon on the US TV series Angel, at the appallingly young age of just thirty three. Andy died last night at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles after a tragic five-year battle with heart disease. I had the good fortune to meet Andy and interview him twice when I was writing my book on Angel, Hollywood Vampire in 2004 and 2005. I found him, on both occasions, to be one of the most pleasant, genuine and decent people I've ever met - in any walk of life. Andy was the epitome of the classy New England gentleman - charming, sharp, witty, the very life and soul of the party. He was, I think, wholly unaffected by finding himself thrust, somewhat unexpectedly, into the spotlight on a hit TV show in what was his first acting role. But, by the same token, he was someone who seemed genuinely thrilled by this and amazingly grateful to the show's fans for whom he always seemed to have a lot of time and who, in return, showered him with much love and affection during his public appearances. The feeling, one always felt, was entirely mutual.

Andy, from the Cape Cod village of Osterville, Massachusettes, appeared in more than seventy episodes of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer spin-off between 2000 and 2004, being a series regular for most of the final two seasons of the show. He developed, quickly, into an accomplished actor, particularly good at dry comedy sequences and pithy, acid-tongued one-liners. But he was also a superb singer and fans of the show will fondly recall his belting renditions of songs like Stevie Wonder's 'Superstition', Tony Bennett's 'I Left My Heart in San Fransisco' and, his "theme song", LaBelle's 'Lady Marmalade' in episodes of Angel. The character he played, Krevlornswath of the Deathwok Clan (or just plain Lorne for short) was, of course, the owner and host of a demon karaoke bar, Caritas, which gave Andy plenty of opportunity to display his musical talent. One of the finest moments in Angel is in the last episode - Not Fade Away - where Lorne sings a truly heart-tugging version of 'If I Ruled the World' before going off on one, final (unwanted) mission for his friend, Angel. He based it, he said, on James Brown's rendition of the song and blew everyone on-set away with his one-take performance.

According to legend, Andy didn't even begin singing until he was well into his twenties when Patti LaBelle herself invited him onstage at a gig in the late-90s. It was, as he would subsequently note, 'a life-changing experience.' He was working as a runner for a publishing agency during the day and singing in a Universal City blues review at night when Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt, Angel's co-creators, saw Andy's stage-show and were instantly captivated by his presence and the power of his voice. They became friendly with him and, allegedly, conceived of the character - an anagogic demon who reads people's souls when they sing karaoke - pretty much there and then. Charmingly, Andy was unsure whether he would last more than a couple of episodes and so carried on with his day job for a while, until ultimately convinced to quit by Whedon and others on show. 'Once the makeup is on, it's fine,' Andy told Horror Online concerning the green-face-and-horns look that his character became known for. 'The contacts lenses [can be] irritating. I've never even worn regular contacts and these are much thicker. But I can't emphasise enough how extremely professional everybody is on the set, in every single department.' Always a generous man towards his fellow actors, Andy was especially fulsome in his praise of his co-star Alexis Denisof: 'He's so focused and dedicated to his craft,' Andy noted. 'I turn to Alexis for guidance on just about everything from memorising my lines to turning them into a real conversation.' Andy certainly made a deep and lasting impression on many who met him, including guest star Adam Baldwin who fondly recalled 'The person who made me laugh most was Andy Hallett. He's so gregarious and outgoing.'

In a 2005 magazine interview, Andy revealed that shortly after filming the last episode of Angel the year before, he had suffered what had seemed at the time to be a relatively minor tooth infection but which quickly spread and eventually led to cardiomyopathy being diagnosed. His health never fully recovered. He did not return to acting thereafter (except for a voice-part in Geppetto's Secret), but instead pursued his musical career and frequently appeared at Angel and multi-media conventions where he was always a welcome and very popular guest. In particular, I recall at our second meeting he expressed his extreme fondness for London, a city that he loved and experienced to the full when attending the Nocturnal 3K convention at Heathrow in 2001 along with many of his Angel and Buffy co-stars. 'That place is a bomb!' he told me gleefully. 'I might end up living here one day.'

Tall, handsome (albeit - charmingly - somewhat embarrassed by the shape of his nose, something that he mentioned in both interviews with me!) Andy was the kind of guy that you'd really rather like to simply have a beer with and talk about music to. We spent probably twenty minutes of the first interview, at a coffeeshop in Marina Del Ray - which was supposed to last half-an-hour but eventually went on for the best part of two hours - talking about Motown and a shared love of Brenda Holloway's voice and the bass playing on What's Goin' On? I am as saddened by Andy's passing as much for the fact that the world just said goodbye to somebody who put some unequivocal joy into it as anything else.

We lost one of the good guys yesterday and we shall miss him terribly.

Join Our Club: More Songs About Chocolate and Girls

For some unfathomable reason this blogger recently got into a lengthy (and only marginally completely bloody pointless) conversation with his good friend, Deborah Williams, on the subject of Club biscuits. Don't ask why, please, it's genuinely not worth knowing! Now, yer actual Keith Telly Topping really likes a nice Jacob's Club®™. Deb was wondering if they still existed having not seen them in the shops that she frequents for a while and this blogger was jolly happy to tell her that, indeed, they do. Yer actual Keith Telly Topping still gets a seven-pack at his local Morrison's every now and then for the singular purpose of keeping them in business. Jacob's still make the - classic - orange filled ones (in an orange wrapper, of course) the version that, I think, most people reading this bloggerisationisms will be familiar with. And they also do a fruit and nut variant (in purple) and a sort-of minty variety (in a greenish wrapper). Never been particular keen on either of those two, personally. Not liking either fruit or mint, it's reasonable that this blogger wouldn't.
The ones that Keith Telly Topping used to hugely enjoy scoffing as a kid were the original milk chocolate brand (in red) and, particularly, the dark chocolate version (also in green but with a comforting golf-ball on the wrapper for some obscure reason) but Jacob's seemed to have stopped making those sometime around 1982. Tragedy.
If anybody from Jacob's happens to be reading this bloggerisationisms and is in any sort of position of authority, please tell us why you stopped making them for Heaven's sake? They were very nice and yer actual Keith Telly Topping liked them! A lot. So, start making them again. Instantly. If not sooner. For some reason yer actual Keith Telly Topping always associates the plain, golf-ball Clubs with Telly Topping family holidays at Butlin's in Filey in the early 1970s - probably because he scoffed copious numbers of them whilst he was there. Jacob's also, for while, made a chunky milk chocolate version of the biscuit (in a blue wrapper) but this blogger hasn't seen one of those for ages, either. This blogger recalls there was also a wafer version at one point (also in blue) and the very familiar milk chocolate variant (with an Ace of Clubs playing card on the wrapper) in red along with the orange one. And, apparently, during a web-search this blogger discovered that Jacob's had a brief flirtation with a lemon and lime variant in the 1980s (in light green, and pictured to the left). This blogger never experienced those, his very self, but I am assured they did, indeed, exist.
Marginally related to all of this, yer actual Keith Telly Topping still has, in his record collection, Called To The Bar, a 1980 compilation vinyl LP of some great 1960s and 1970s tunes - on CBS Records whom Jacob's had obviously done a deal with; That was, probably, because at that time they were using a cover version of The Beach Boys' 'Barbara Ann' on a TV advert (slogan: "If you like a lot of chocolate on your biscuit, Join Our Club"). The idea was that you collected about twelve Club biscuit wrappers (any sort would do) and sent them in with, like, fifty pence or something to cover postage and you got the LP in return. Bargain. The advert which it tied in with featured a stereotypical Teddy Boy in the dock of a court singing 'Bar-bar-bah, bar-bar-bah-a-Club' and all the jury doing the harmonies after the usher had shouted 'Prisoner at the bar...' A - reasonably flattering - bit of artwork of the actors involved is featured on the LP's cover holding a Club orange-backer whilst the - I'm presuming prosecuting - barrister has one of the previously mentioned dark chocolate variants in his grubby mitt.
On the back cover, the judge is looking faintly groovy in a Batman-style with his wig, clicking his fingers to the sensational soaraway summery sounds thereupon. But, he has no obvious Club biscuit to hand. More fool he, I say. Fine bunch of songs on the LP, as you'll note. Why don't biscuit companies do stuff like that these days to promote their nice choccy biccies? That LP may well have been the first place this blogger ever HEARD things like The Honeycombs' epic 'Have I The Right?' It was certainly the first time that he had owned songs like 'Waterloo Sunset', 'Albatross', 'An Everlasting Love' and 'Something In The Air' on a record. In fact, apart from the thoroughly crap Dr Hook dirge on side two I reckon Keith Telly Topping still has just about everything on that LP somewhere in his CD collection. Yes, even Tina Charles.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Damned If They Do And Damned If They Don't

"They love me for what I'm not. They hate me for what I am."

I got to see The Damned United today. It's not the world-changing experience that the novel is. (How could it be?) The grabbing you by the throat and squeezing experience that David Peace achieved in his extraordinary book. The thoroughly pleasing pissing-off-some-people-who-probably-deserve-to-be-pissed-off experience that the novel, so manifestly, managed to be. But, the movie adaptation is a worthy effort and, almost, as great an achievement as its source text. Almost, but not quite. The 'almost', of course, is due to the thing that sports films generally - and football films in particular - always suffer from, the actual match scenes themselves. In this film, just as in Yesterday's Hero (remember that one?), When Saturday Comes, Goal, or The Arsenal Stadium Mystery for that matter, the recreation of football matches looks horribly stagy and fake. The day somebody can make a football movie without, actually, including any football action in it then that'll be a film well worth seeing.

I must say, I've been rather disappointed by Michael Sheen and director Tom Hooper spending most of the run-up to the movie's release seemingly in a fruitless attempt to get the Clough family onside with regard to the film. Stuff it, lads, if they don't want to know, knickers to 'em, you know? I understand the family's reasons, of course, they've got cherished memories of the man and they don't like having those interfered with. I daresay if this was a film about my dad, I might feel the same way. But, it isn't so, frankly, I don't. And I certainly wouldn't be so downright crass as to dismiss a creative work out-of-hand before having actually seen it. Besides, as previously noted, I ADORED the book and the Clough family's incessant bitching about how much they didn't only hardens my love for it. It is what it is, a novel. Just as the movie is a movie. Nobody ever said either was a documentary and nor should they even have to be.

Similarly, the BBC's Pat Murphy seeming to go out of his way to nitpick "seventeen factual inaccuracies in two viewings" - go back for more the second time, did you Pat? - deserves to be slapped down, hard. (As, indeed, Martin O'Neill did a pretty good job of doing in an interview with Murphy for 5Live available on Listen Again. Check it out, it's a very thoughtful, balanced and, ultimately, fair assessment of the film's faults and its highlights. Just the kind of thing that one would except from a knowledgeable chap like Martin, frankly.) Most of those errors cited by Murphy are minor to the point of being utterly irrelevent, though some are necessary and understandable for the purposes of containing an already sprawling plot. And the handful that aren't either are, frankly, not worth bothering with. Colin Todd was a defender not a midfielder. There wasn't a miner's strike going on the week Cloughie resigned at Derby. Etc. Etc. So? To sum up, I never knew Brian Clough personally, although I saw him on the telly a lot when I was growing up and I thought he was bloody fantastic. I wished he managed my club instead of Gordon Lee/Richard Dinnis/Bill McGarry and all of the other nonentities and also-rans that Newcastle's board foisted us with. And, I suspect, up and down the country that was a feeling which was broadly shared by many other supporters of many different clubs. I thought he should have managed England and so, seemingly, did a vast number of other people in football ... except, tragically, for a handful of craven and wretched self-interest cowards in charge at the Football Association. But, isn't that always the way - prophets are seldom as highly regarded in their own backyard as elsewhere? I delighted in Brian's achievements at Forest and was sorry that he didn't retire a couple of years earlier than he did so that his final season didn't end in relegation. And I was sad when he died because, frankly, the world was a less fun place without him in it to cast his insightful, bitingly ironic eye on the delicious ironies of life. Did either the movie or the book The Damned United change any of that perception? No. If anything they both made me admire the man even more - for what he was, what he wasn't and what he could have been.

So, to the review: It's actually a rather odd movie in some ways as it's, essentially, a (theoretical and conceptual, I hasten to add) love story between Clough and Peter Taylor - played with a fine dose of earthy sagacity by the great Tim Spall. And, of course, the other central prop in the film is the great rivalry with - and, indeed, hatred for - Don Revie (a splendid turn by one of my favourite actors, Colm Meaney). The funny bits are genuinely funny (for example, a terrific running gag involving a succession of new singings at Derby being introduced, with a wave, to their chairman). The football scenes aside, there's much humour, warmth and energy in Michael Sheen's portrayal (and, at least one bit of genuinely impressive football skill. Then again, he was offered a trial for Arsenal as a teenager). Sheen's Brian Clough (rather like Sheen's Tony Blair or Sheen's David Frost) is a complex, passionate, ambitious, sometimes obsessive man but, you sense, essentially a good person - flawed by an occasional hubris but grounded by those around him and his love for them. Essentially, the character in the book, then. Whether the reason that Brian failed at Leeds United in those forty four days in the autumn of 1974 was because he didn't have Peter Taylor with him, or that he was fatally undermined by a combination of Revie's continued presence and the players determination to get him out (the film suggests it was a bit of both) has been the subject of much debate, several books and at least one court case. I offer no observations on this except to suggest that it is genuinely interesting to reflect, perhaps briefly, upon the relative affection with which Clough is generally held in football circles as compared to the real enmity that Leeds team inspired - and continues to inspire - pretty much everywhere in the football world bar West Yorkshire. Great team, don't get me wrong. But a hard team. A spiteful team. Should the Leeds players go and see the film? Well, Johnny Giles probably won't for a kick-off although, if I was him I would. The actor playing him is about a foot taller than he was. I'm not sure if you can sue a movie-maker over height issues. If I was Norman Hunter, I'd definitely want to see it because the cush foul the actor playing him commits on Sheen in a training session is the kind of thing old Bites Yer Legs would have loved.

Ultimately, then The Damned United is like most other films about sport - I'm thinking of the better ones, here; things like This Sporting Life, Raging Bull and Ali, mainly. It's stylish, it's affecting, it's well-made and beautifully acted. It's got a few things in it that some people with an agenda will probably try to quibble over but, ultimately I believe its heart is in, roughly, the right place and so is its brain. Unfortunately, as with every football film ever made (and probably that will ever be made), it's also got both feet tied together when it's supposed to be dribbling down the wing. An almost great film, then and definitely worth your money to go and see it, even if you don't particularly like football. If you do, then you need to see this - just ignore the ten minutes where they try to convince you that Chesterfield's ground is Wembley and stick on your video of Match of the Seventies over those bits. "Players lose you games, not tactics," Cloughie once said. "There's too much crap talked about tactics by people who barely know how to win a game of dominoes."

Interestingly, the same thing continues to be true in the field of movie and literary reviews, Brian.

Week Fourteen: Top Dogs, Underdogs And The Long And The Short And The Tall.

Another week is, thus, come upon us, dear blog reader.

Let we, therefore, open our hymn sheets in the good book Radio Times to page forty five and raise our voices to the God of the Cathode Ray. 'Is it nearly Easter yet? I'm getting flaming desperate for some new Doctor Who. (Even if the next one has got Lee Evans in it).'

All this waiting around for a new episode of an SF icon, it's fair doing my head in, so it is. Takes me back in time - TARDIS-like - to the early 1970s when the ITV, in their infinite wisdom, were showing the cult US SF series The Invaders ("A Quinn/Martin Production"!) at some quite ungodly hour of Saturday night opposite Match of the Day. Despite this not being a school night if yer actual Keith Tely Topping wanted to watch it (which, being the precocious and snotty brat that he was, he very definitely did) he was still required to go to bed around eight o'clock and then get woken up by his mother at, like, 10:30 (or whenever it was on). He would emerge - pyjama'd and bleary-eyed - into the living room, usually to his father's grumbling complaints about having to switch over from Crystal Palace versus Coventry. All, to watch David Vincent (sorry, 'Architect David Vincent' ... I always wondered why they were so very job-specific on that show until somebody pointed out, rightly, that 'Sheet Metal Worker David Vincent' didn't have quite the same authority to it) taking on yet more of the 'aliens-who-looked-like-humans-but-turned-into-smoke-when-you-killed-them.' I'm anguished to report that I rewatched a few episodes of the show again about two or three years ago and was totally shocked at how really badly they've aged. That's one of the main problems about growing-up. Stuff you liked when you were seven now looks, frankly, shit.

And on that shocking indictment and realisation that the passing of time leaving empty lives, waiting to be filled (as Morrissey once said) let us procede to the Top Telly Tips for Week Fourteen.

Friday 3 April
Top Dogs: Adventures in War, Sea and Ice - 9:00 BBC2 - is genuinely splendid fun, largely because it's so outrageously civilised and, you know, British. In this three-part series a trio of Top Chaps of Absolute Distinction - ace Foreign Correspondent John Simpson, arctic adventurer and former SAS commando Ranulph Fiennes and sailing circumnavigator Robin Knox-Johnson - saunter through adversity in a variety of locations and challenges. After last week's excursions in Afghanistan, tonight they attempt to round Cape Horn in a small yacht. At one point, just before the real rough stuff starts in earnest, they have a snifter of whisky on deck. 'Anyone else want ice?' asks Knox-Johnson in his thoroughly appealing and raffish Ian-Fleming-meets-Alan-Clark-down-the-Club style, before he pulls a lump from the freezing sea and hacks bits off. What's great, too, is that no-one lays on the melodrama with a fork-lift truck. All three of these men (now well into their sixties, remember) are perfectly sanguine about the serious dangers they will face - all that worries the unflappable Fiennes, for instance, is the potential seasickness (quite rightly, as it turns out), while Simpson is concerned about how he'll use the netty in a force nine gale. This is Three Men in a Boat with added gravitas and dignity – beat that Rory, Dara and Griff.

Saturday 4 April
Speaking of the Great Spirit of Adventure inherent in the British (for which read 'sheer bloody daftness') in Timewatch: In Shackleton's Footsteps - 8:40 BBC2 - a small group of British men have some unfinished family business in Antarctica. One hundred years ago their ancestors, under the leadership of the renowned explorer Ernest Shackleton, tried and failed to become the first men to reach the South Pole suffering incredible hardships before they were rescued. You probably saw the excellent biopic with Kenneth Branagh a few years ago. Stirring stuff. Anyway, following in their footsteps, the team set off on a 900-mile trek across frozen wastelands. Timewatch follows their remarkable journey. The furthest a spirit of adventure gets me is up off the sofa on a trek to the frozen fridge in search of a refreshing beverage I'm appalled to confess. This looks great, anyway.

The other thing of interest on Saturday night is BBC's Match of the Day. Apparently Shearer's not doing it this week. I wonder if he's got anything else on? Anybody know?

Sunday 5 April
It's a major - by which I mean Brigadier-General - drama night on Sunday with Five Minutes in Heaven at 9:00 on BBC2. Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt star in this powerful-looking drama which explores aspects of Northern Ireland's troubled past and the challenges which the future holds in coming to terms with the events of the seventies and eighties. Powerful stuff. Or, you may prefer a somewhat gentler drama with Lewis - 8:00 ITV. In this episode, Lewis and Hathaway are called in to investigate when religious fanatic Steven Mullan is found scalded and drowned in his bath. Actually, come to think about it, that doesn’t sound all that much less torrid and nasty than the worst that Ulster had to face. Mullan had been imprisoned for attempting to murder celebrity atheist Tom Rattenbury, and had only recently been released. Lewis is drawn into the fragile but glamorous world of the Rattenbury family, and finds himself unprepared for the dark and deadly secrets that the Rattenburys are fighting to keep hidden. Think I’ll go with Liam and Jimmy rather than Wor Kev and Mr Billie Piper, personally. Both look rather good, though.

The election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States last year - you might have noticed - was propelled, according to those who know about such things, as much by his skill as an orator as by any other factor. From the silver-tongued to the tongue-tied, Yes We Can! The Lost Art Of Oratory - 7:50 BBC2 - takes a look at the history of the political speech. Alan Yentob traces the power of oration throughout history. What makes a good speech great? How much is content, how much is presentation, how much is having the right audience and preaching to the converted? Has Obama brought eloquence back to 21st-century politics for good or is it just that, after eight years of a President who could barely form of coherent sentence that qualified as "English", he's merely reminding us of what politicians always needed the ability to do, talk their way out of trouble?

Monday 6 April
I like the look of tonight's opening pick: Channel 4's top historian, the spiky-but-rather-cuddly-when-stroked Doctor David Starkey (if I'd had a choice between him and Simon Schama for A-Level I'd've probably gone with Simon) presents a four-part biography on the psyche of a pivotal figure in British history in Henry VIII: Mind of a Tyrant at 9:00. In the opening episode, Starkey studies the dramatic events of Henry's childhood, which helped to shape his gangsterish personality and his attitude towards the kingship that was thrust on him at the age of eighteen. One for all fans of The Tudors, this, I think.

In Coronation Street - 7:30 ITV - Tina plans a new future for an uncertain Joe. Norris makes a shocking decision. Can Peter persuade Michelle to go on a date? I have to say I've been a bit down on Corrie of late but the story last week about Fiz discovering Chesney was being bullied at school was really rather good. Thoughtful, balanced, a proper bit of socially-aware issue-based telly just like Corrie used to do all the time twenty or thirty years ago. More of this kind of thing, please.

I suppose we have to end tonight with Bradley and co. The plot for this episode of Law & Order: UK - 9:00 ITV, the last in the current series – sounds rather small potatoes for the team since it's been murderation and rapery all the way through the six episodes so far. When gynaecologist Alec Merrick is accused of sexually assaulting one of his patients during a routine examination, the team are called in to investigate. But how can they find enough evidence when it is just one person's word against another? Prosecutors James and Alesha find themselves up against unstoppable defence barrister Phyllis Gladstone. With a paper-thin case and a dangerous level of emotional involvement they have no choice but to battle it out in court - but who will the jury believe? If I was on there and was presented with evidence collected by Bradley and his mate Apollo-from-Battlestar-Galactica, I have no hesitation in stating that I'd be spending all of my time in the jury room talking about the manifest injustice of what happened to the Guildford Four. I'd be just like Tony Hancock in Twelve Angry Men – 'does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain…?'

Tuesday 7 April
The search is on to find Britain's best young speaker in this eight-part The Speaker - 8:00 BBC2. From across the UK, thousands of 14-to-18-year-olds applied, speaking out about what really matters to them: from knife crime to teenage love; global warming to vampires; pop music to mixed race families; what's going on in their street to what's going on in Coronation Street. The judges - Jo Brand, motivational speaker John Amaechi and performance expert Jeremy Stockwell - toured the UK in their mission to find the best whilst a series of mentors – including Katie Silverton and Alistair Campbell – were on hand to offer advice. At the end of the series, one person will be crowned The Speaker. The search begins with the first regional auditions from Glasgow and London. Hmmm… Okay, I'm quite prepared to give this one a go in the name of positive presentations of youth, and all that. But, let’s be honest, this is - conceptually - The X-Factor for articulate teenagers, isn’t it?

Willie's Chocolate Revolution - 8:00 C4 – is the first of a three-part special series following chocolate enthusiast the delightfully-named Willie Harcourt-Cooze as he attempts to introduce the nation to real chocolate, creating the world's finest, purest choccy bar particularly at a time when there are sour-faced, arid and joyless voices suggesting that chocolate should be heavily taxed to aid with the fight against obesity. Bastards. I'd dip 'em in hot fudge until they'd had enough, personally. Anyway, in this programme Willie demonstrates the versatility of chocolate through a range of sweet and savoury recipies and attempts to get the funding and equipment to produce his bars, which he hopes will change the way that people think about and consume chocolate. Me, I open me gob and stuff it in. I understand that's how most people think about and consume chocolate. It'll be interesting to see if Willie suggests we've all been doing it wrong over the years. In which case I suggest that we're right and he's wrong and I've got a vat of hot fudge here if he wants to argue his corner further.

Holby City - 8:00 BBC1 – has been on rather good form of late. Quite experimental too - the episode with Joseph and Jac trapped in a cordoned-off operating theatre was really, genuinely, clever and original. With Ric away dealing with the Hewitt case, Connie (the outrageously over-the-top Amanda Mealing) sees this as a chance to push for the Director of Surgery position and, upon discovering the truth about Annalese's breath-test, persuades Jayne to come clean to Hewitt's lawyers – resulting in a charge of manslaughter against Annalese. But, the duplicitous bitch is frustrated when Michael reneges on his deal to back her for the job she seeks. Meanwhile, Martha tries to engineer some family bonding between Elliot (the excellent Paul Bradley) and Ben, but when Samson joins the party it all goes terribly wrong. 'With hilarious consequences', no doubt. And, as usual Faye (Patsy Kensit) stands around pouting a lot and acting her little cotton socks off. Tremendous stuff.

Wednesday 8 April
What is it with Five and Hunky, Rugged, Manly-types doing Big, Sweaty, Dangerous Manly-type work? They’ve got Ice Road Truckers and now, they're premiering Oil Riggers at 8:00. This follows life on the oil rigs of West Texas. We are solemnly informed that 'teams of men work long hours in tough conditions to carry out one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.' You think? Anyway, this episode follows the story of three neighbouring rigs who have fifty days to find oil. A rookie faces a trial by fire; a veteran is put under intense pressure and a driller commits a major error of judgment.

Superhuman: World's Tallest Children - 9:00 ITV – is a documentary following the lives of the tallest children on the planet as the title very much suggests. These include a thirteen-year-old boy measuring an astonishing 7ft 4in, Britain's tallest family revealing their bespoke supersized home and a divorced father who is reunited with his 6ft 9in daughter - who only came up to his waist when he last saw her. The programme discovers how such children cope with the challenge of towering above grown-ups and what effects their extraordinary height has on their health. They can grow all they like, but they’ll never get up to Robert Pershing Wadlow's level... 'Eight foot eleven point five and THIRTY-FIVE STONE!' Ah, Roy Castle, how did I ever make it beyond childhood without you?

It's clearly 'Someone in Scheduling's idea of a joke to have the previous programme on directly opposite Extraordinary People: The World's Heaviest Man Gets Married, also 9:00 on Five. This edition revisits the morbidly obese Mexican Manuel Uribe, whom Five have done several documentaries about over the last few years, as he prepares for the biggest day of his life. Biggest day of his life, do you see, it's a … oh dear. Listen kids, fattie jokes aren't funny, take if from a certified lard-arse himself. Anyway, weighing in at a peak of just a shade under 600kg (that's approximately ninety stone for those of you still using Imperial weight measurement) when he earned the dubious title of the world's heaviest man in 2006, Manuel has since shed a lot of weight (he's now down to a slimline 360kg - that just fifty stone), found love with a lady named Claudia and got out of bed for the first time in four years to get married in October last year with the cameras present. Hence this documentary. Good on yersel, Manuel.

Thursday 9 April
It's really good to have My Family back at 8:00 BBC1. This sitcom about a dentist and his family starring Robert Lindsay and Zoë Wanamaker and was, until Outnumbered came along, frankly just about the only regularly funny sitcom the BBC had produced in years. There's nothing startlingly original or different going on here, it's essentially The Good Life: The Next Generation but the show's ability to tell one-joke-after-another (most of which, usually, work) within a framework of traditional sitcom family dysfunctionality is effective and, more often than not, genuinely funny. Tonight, Janey desperately wants to keep her new man under wraps, while a suspicious Ben tries to expose an affair between Susan and a client.

DIY SOS, the home-renovation show, return to BBC1 at 8:30. Tonight, the team is in Bridgwater to help the Robinson family. David was discharged from the army for medical reasons after being injured in Iraq. With few savings he has been forced to use his own DIY skills - only to discover that, like many people, he doesn't have any. Designer Julia Kendell and gaffer Chris Frediani are challenged with righting the wrongs of David's DIY disaster. If they want a real challenge, I need a couple of shelves putting up in the bedroom.

Lastly, a serious one to finish off. The Millionaire and the Murder Mansion - 9:00 Channel 4 – is a documentary about the tragic case of the Foster family from Shropshire, who hit the headlines in August 2008 when father Christopher murdered his wife Jill and daughter Kirstie before committing suicide. With exclusive access to West Mercia Constabulary's investigation and interviews with family members and friends, the film attempts to find out what drove the self-made millionaire to murder his family and then take his own life in this rather sad-looking bit of reportage.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Medium Is The Message: Revolution, Style & The Avengers.

Once upon a time, many years ago, this blogger co-wrote a book about The Avengers which, for a variety of different reasons, never came out quite as myself and my co-authors, Paul Cornell and Martin Day, intended. The first edition of the book contained (somewhere near the back) an essay of mine - a piece of work that I was particularly proud of at the time but which, again for a variety of reasons, didn't appear in the subsequent second edition, published four years later. With the book now long since out-of-print, this is an extended and reworked version of that very piece.
It is often said that if you can actually remember the 1960s then you weren't really there. Certainly, the popular perception of the era – nailed into the essential public consciousness via numerous contemporary and retrospective movies and television shows - is of one decade-long groovy melange of free-sex, political literacy, anti-establishmentism and a surfeit of mind-bending and illicit drugs; that, as Philip Larkin memorably wrote, 'sex began in 1963' (and ended at some point around about the time of the October 1973 OPEC oil crisis) and that everything in-between was the longest, most stylished, sophisticated and pleasantly drunken house-party in history. Or, certainly, since the Roman Empire concluded. Where all gatecrashers were banned and only the very best records were played. All of which may well have had a certain element of truth about it for the occupants of the smart apartments and town houses in Chelsea and Knightsbridge but had very little to do with the average working-class family in the rest of the UK living on a council estate on a weekly wage of twenty quid. It is important for any creative historian to remember that most works of fiction are, of course, governed by the socio-political and cultural atmospheres in which they were created. But certain works from that particular era have been elevated to such a mythical status that these sorts of considerations seem, on the surface, to have little actual substance to them. That The Avengers was a television series shaped as much by the complexities of 1960s British society and its (equally complex) collective attitudes towards issues as diverse as class, conventional morality, the UK's shaky place in the world and sexual consciousness as much as by, let us say, the Cuban Missile Crisis or the 1966 Dock Strike doesn't change the basic fact that The Avengers was a product of its era in just the same way that Coronation Street, Z Cars, Steptoe & Son and Doctor Who all were. The aesthetics may be vastly different in each case, but the cultural and conceptual conceits which helped to shape all of these - fine – series were pretty much identical.
Possibly because of the – many - social and political barriers which were overturned during this period (or in some cases, strictly speaking, during the period immediately afterwards) and to the changes in many peoples' lives which were affected by these crashing barriers, especially among the young and more affluent, the method via which such changes were relayed to the masses have acquired the reputation of being in some way, not only the medium through which these changes were seen but, more specifically, to have been actually responsible for them. Which is as false a claim as any that has ever made about the 1960s. It is nevertheless certainly true to say that television reflected - sharply, sometimes accurately and, occasionally, with more than a hint of trend-setting - what was going on. That is, kind of, the nature of the beast. In Great Britain, anarchic – and disparate - movements such as the satirists, the modernists and situationalism, the rapid growth of feminism and of the radical left (and the new right, for that matter) and, the birth of the cult of celebrity found a niche for themselves by using the populist medium of television to their own advantage. But television's influence was – and, largely, still is - a double-edged sword in this regard, creating a fictionalised era based, in many people's minds, upon its drama. This is probably true of the literature and visual texts of other eras, of course, but seldom has it been more acute and, in some ways, more counter-productive than it was during this period.

Which brings us to The Avengers
For many people, The Avengers IS the 1960s personified - a gloriously over-the-top, camp and technicolour excess of 'Swinging' styles and 'with-it' attitudes. Occupying an only-marginal fictional London, its tree-lined mews and avenues paved with stolen microfilm and mad scientists; the kitsch, modernist apartments with their ultra-functional appliances battling for prominence amid art-deco flourishes and tasteful mood trappings; the élan car chases, in elegant but powerful machines, through the deserted, hedgerow-lined country lanes of green-belt Hertfordshire; the eccentrics whose names reflect their obsessions and the comic-strip wit of everyone concerned are all classic elements often cited by fans and critics alike as reasons for The Avengers' longevity. It's, again, that curious suggestion that the 1960s was essentially one long party to which everyone was - potentially - invited, but that, in reality, only those with the correct accent (be it Old Etonian/Rodean-class or Scouse/Shepherd’s Bush pop star-chic) and the manners to match could attend. You were either born with it, acquired it or had it thrust upon you and, if you didn't then, sorry, but you were, like, nowhere baby. In terms of the myth that surrounds it, The Avengers could almost be said to have become a genuine icon of its age. Something that transcends its humble, downbeat origins and to have become a definitive 'statement' on both the era and its many excesses. It is somewhat ironic that the very mention of The Avengers summons up a fixed image in most viewers minds when, in fact, the series itself was, from the very start, one of television's great chameleons. Changing - almost weekly - not only with the times but, in some cases, well ahead of them.
The Avengers' mirroring of Sixties concerns has been well documented elsewhere. But, although the series sometimes gave the impression of trying to fit a square peg into a groovy hole (notably in its blinkered, and surprisingly jealous, ignorance of youth culture on several notable occasions), The Avengers tended only towards true conservatism when certain televisual norms required it to.
Seen, in 1961, as a breath of fresh air to the stagnating genre of crime drama, The Avengers started off reflecting a world-view still dominated by the 1950s and all of that previous decade's suffocating one-nation austerity Conservatism, post-war gloom - notably about Britian's diminishing role in the world - and obvious internal neuroses. A world of black and white, literally as well as metaphorically. In 1961, when Sydney Newman created the show, the Cold War still raged (and it would get an awful lot colder within the following year); public perceptions of spies and spying was that of Burgess and MacLean (we didn't even know about Philby at that stage, much less Blunt). Moles within The Ministry - little men in bowler hats and umbrellas whose allegiance was to one side or the other. There was no middle ground in those days, no Guardian hippy-liberal sitting on the fence. Just as this was perceived to be a world of, essential, decency without crime, or foreigners, or dog-shit. You were either with us or again’ us. The Soviet Union was, to all but the most vocal of neo-Stalinists, a terrifying nuclear bogey-state, a bear of a nation run by apparent madmen hell-bent on international Communist dominance or, if they couldn't have that, then mutually assured destruction as a valid lifestyle choice for the entire bloody world. And, the Chinese were just as bad. Those spies who worked for those organs were either foreign agents, ideologues brought up within the sinister machinations of the party machine, or British double-agents, turned by misguided ideology or greed or else blackmailed whilst still at university because they were queer. In this climate of increasing paranoia and dread the James Bond novels of Ian Fleming were flourishing and there was even talk of movie adaptations on the horizon, Alfred Hitchcock's sophisticated spy thrillers like North By Northwest were hugely popular and television, sensing (as television often does) an attractive trend that could be followed, created its own branch of this mini-genre.
Originally devised as something which could accommodate a multitude of different styles and inhabit exotic locations (just so long as they could be created on a Borehamwood backlot, obviously), The Avengers began in 1961 as something of a generic patchwork. There were elements of the standard 'amateur sleuth' adventure, popular with crime novelists for decades, in the character of David Keel, the series nominal hero figure. The mysterious quality of his partner/handler John Steed's character, though, came straight from Fleming's twilight demi-monde world of gentleman's clubs and sophisticated double-dealing. The London that Steed and Keel inhabited was a very strange mixture of cod working-class criminality (see The Frighteners or Hot Snow, for instance) and the twilight shadows of espionage (highlighted in excellent second season episodes like Propellant 23, Man In The Mirror, Death On The Rocks' and Mission To Montreal).
Even from the modern perspective, outré and extreme examples of these early episodes, it's a huge step to what we had at the end of the decade, a juxtaposition of the postmodern, surreal and bizarre trappings within a fantasy oeuvre. Yet it was a step (or, actually, a series of steps) achieved within a definitive framework. Just like all television. As has been noted previously, television is - ultimately - the business of compromise and it is usually necessary for the medium to forsake at least some of its artistic leanings in search of true populism. That The Avengers was both critically and commercially successful during the 1960s is a useful indication that such contradictions can also be perfectly compatible.
The reason that The Avengers continues to be regarded as some kind of definitive statement on the era that spawned it is difficult to pinpoint, although it is (thankfully) true that the mid-decade episodes – The Emma Peel Years, essentially - have (for the most part) aged very well. This, in itself, is not particularly important - the kitschness inherent in many episodes is often cited, blandiloquently, as the sole reason for the affection with which the series continues to be held. Yet kitsch, as we know, normally works only in small doses. This does, therefore, begin to highlight how important The Avengers is in televisual terms.
The early juxtaposition between faux-naïf dabblings of quasi-realism and the exotic forms of revolt in style and content for which the series would become most celebrated manifested themselves, largely, during the third season with the proper establishment of the Patrick Mcnee/Honor Blackman partnership. The early steps towards kinkiness and strangeness became more pronounced (Cathy Gale's character being at the forefront of advances in both), more focused, more aggressive. See Mandrake, Man With Two Shadows, Build A Better Mousetrap, Esprit De Corps et al. By the end of the third season The Avengers had, effectively, begun to develop its own little - insular - world: Avengersland. A world where 'the enemy' could no longer be recognised by the accent of a particular political or state system, or even by the old school tie but, rather, by the protagonists' greed, their obsessions and their lust for power, or anarchy, or both. At the same time as real-world politics was becoming more a matter of presentation than dogma, so The Avengers worked itself into the new structures of power by being disdainfully aloof to anything so casual and two-dimensionally flat as reality.
There was simply no time for any kind of radical world-view in the early seasons. Steed and Keel were members of The Establishment (the doctor possibly less so, but, for all of the righteous anger at manifest injustice which characterised his motivation to live the life he did, he was still a management stooge through his relationship with Steed). Ditto, Cathy for most of the time. The series took time out to be cynical about politics and politicians (notably in the shockingly au currente November Five - a story about political assassination shown just three weeks before John Kennedy's murder). But, by the time that Emma arrived, a decision had been taken to actively avoid getting into overt political questions. Steed has a degree of independent thought from within the system (The Master Minds is a fine example, The Wringer another) and spent time pondering class consciousness (Two's A Crowd), but, hell, if Steed wasn't a Tory then who was? Interestingly, for the entire period from the middle of season three until The Avengers ended, there was a Labour government in power. Is it possible that the series itself was an MI5 attempt to undermine socialism from within and replace it, via a coup d'etat, with someone like Lord Mountbatten running the show? Nah, that's worthy of a Philip Levene script.
True politics, of course, is about far more than shallow Westminster partyism. Cathy's horror at her given role in a man's world was manifested in the number she threw over her shoulder with somewhat gay abandon. Wonderful stuff, but not very constructive in a way forward for The Sisterhood, Mrs Gale. Emma Peel, on the other hand, displays a complete lack of any form of traditional female concerns. Both women hated being patronised and weren't above using strong-arm tactics to get their way (a line of dialogue in Don't Look Behind You, later reused in The Joker, indicates both Cathy and Emma's hatred of male smugness: 'How'd you like me to break your-arm?') The Avengers certainly kicked a few doors open in the face of bigots and that was - and remains - a very good thing. The fact that the series is still widely seen as having a significant role in the changing of popular perceptions of women's ability is, without doubt, one of its proudest achievements (even if it doesn't stand up to all that much hard scrutiny).
Conversely, when this blogger was co-writing The Avengers Dossier in the early 1990s, it should have been easy to dispel, once and for all, the myth that The Avengers was, in any way, casually racist. It's a horrible charge to throw at anyone and it's not something that anyone likes to believe about one of their favourite shows. So, myself and my fellow authors really wanted to nail that claim once and for all. Sadly, it didn't proved anywhere near as straightforward as we had hoped. A quick pop quiz will illustrate our problem: Name five Avengers pre-1965 episodes featuring a black actor. Easy: The Frighteners, Kill The King, Immortal Clay, The Gilded Cage, The Medicine Men. And that’s without really thinking about it very hard. Now, second part, name five episode after 1965. Not so easy. Brian Clemens' much quoted dictate on the lack of presence of black actors in the series and of the class conditions that he felt necessary to the creation of such a rule, have been discussed at length elsewhere and both criticised and defended in equal measure. (My friend Paul Cornell's memorable assertion that 'sadly, the only black man you'd ever see in most of The Avengers was Honor' being a particular favourite of mine.) However, it has to be said that the fact that such a rule - however justifiable the producers could argue it to be on the grounds of distancing the series aesthetic from realism - could not and would not be tolerated today is the clearest indication that, in this regard at least, television (and life) has changed for the better since the 1960s. All wretched political correctness aside, that sort of thing has the potential, always, be viewed as little short of justifying crass and unhelpful niggerism. To be blunt, if one ignores entire ethnic groups for the sake of presenting a fiction whose audience will (presumably) include members of said groups then it is, at best, a trivialising of important social issues and, at worst, a bloody obscenity and one that even The Avengers' greatest fans - and this blogger is one of them - cannot have any pride in. 'We only admit to one class and that is upper,' said the series writers' guide. Fine. The fact that The Avengers production team could not, it appears, conceive of too many situations where a person of colour could occupy a place in those upper echelons of such a society says an awful lot about 1960s Britain as well as 1960s television.
Society was developing and evolving not just because of the force of the changed perceptions of individual men and women. Hand-in-hand went an evolving technology and technological consumerism. The third and fourth seasons of The Avengers showed a paranoid edge when it came to the technical advance of knowledge, a rather Luddite attitude that wasn't uncommon in much 1960s television, even among ostensibly fantasy-based programmes. It was, however, unusual to have a series which seemed so keenly in-tune with the vibes on the streets coming on like a reactionary old git when it came to this week's latest 'new toy'. Criticising electronic brainwashing techniques like those used in The Wringer may have been hip to the groove, but when you start attacking robotics and cybernetics (The Cybernauts), computers (The House That Jack Built) and cool invasions by man-eating-plants-from-outer-space (Man-Eater Of Surrey Green), then the kids are entitled to ask just how 'turned-on' and 'tuned-in' you really are in the great scheme of the whatsit and the how'syerfatha. Any cultural analysis of the 1960s usually has to conclude that whilst the era produced splendid scientific wonders, the public were, almost to a man/woman, so frightened of out-of-control technology that such advances were regarded as little more than another step towards Armageddon.
But, here's a problem. The Armageddon that the series railed against was rarely reflected in its landscapes, either emotional, institutional or architectural. The bent-out-of-shape wide-focus rocket-concrete of most mid-Sixties feature films may be missing from The Avengers (whose London was vaguely rural, with tree-lined Mews and no urban decay), but there is still an element of groovy-angst in The Avengers (especially in the astonishing fourth season) that lies perfectly in tune with the beat of the era. The lyrics of The Rolling Stones circa 1965 (notably in hysterically paranoid songs like 'Get Off My Cloud' and '19th Nervous Breakdown') frankly sound like lines of dialogue from Avengers episodes of the period. This was life in the fast lane, even if that particular fast lane was a twisting country bridal path travelling from Smalltown, Hertfordshire to Nowheresville, Bucks that played havoc with your Aston Martin DB5's suspension. The concerns of 1960s living, as well as somewhat extreme examples of 1960s neuroses, are visible in contemporary many episodes: the consumer society in the superb Death At Bargain Prices, dating agencies in The Murder Market, the permissiveness of the idle rich in A Touch of Brimstone, dropping out (in all its forms) in A Sense Of History (and, later, Escape In Time), indoctrination (Something Nasty In The Nursery), the anxiety of nightmares in the BF Skinner-influenced Death's Door and, generally, the sheer pace at which life was going (brilliantly satirised in Dead Man's Treasure). For all its mood trappings The Avengers showed a sense of mistrust with many aspects of modernity.
The fifth season is, perhaps, the point where it all comes together. True, for many in the cognoscenti the black and white Diana Rigg episodes of 1965-66 are the pinnacle of The Avengers creativity and skill (Castle D’eathDial A Deadly Number, Too Many Christmas Trees, The Girl From AUNTIE, the extraordinary, headline-making A Touch Of Brimstone et al) but, for this author, it was what came next that really counted.
The Avengers In Color [sic]: A caption slide appears of a carnation stuck in a revolver (how very 1960s!) Then, the title sequence - that marvellous choppy Laurie Johnson jazz tune with its left-field trumpet solo and thundering brass and string score, as Steed and Emma walk towards each other in a chic-but-minimalist setting (it could be the drawing room of a posh country house, an ultra-all-mod-conned King's Road apartment or a TV studio). Austere yet stylish and rather charming. Classy. The title comes up, and the tune becomes jauntier. We see swordsticks, silhouetted karate moves and very red carnations. A stylistic summary of the series in swiftly intercut images. Then, a teaser sequence, usually showing how the body of the murder victim that our heroes are going to investigate came to be where it is. The title and a little description: Steed Does This, Emma Does That. After that - unknown to viewers of most syndicated repeats of the 1980s and 90s - there was always an incredibly pithy little scene in which Steed would tell Emma: 'Mrs Peel, we're needed' in a variety of unusual ways. From that surprised first caption onwards, the show luxuriated in its new found colourfulness and breathed confidence, assurance, methodology. Satisfying a smart criteria, specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timebound. A perfect world in miniature in which chaos is order and order is chaos. Eternal. Stone. Immaculate.
Colour had first come to The Avengers camp in the form of an extended trailer, The Strange Case Of The Missing Corpse. This was filmed on the set of the final season four episode, Honey For The Prince and was broadcast in America as a prelude to the new series. After the transmission of most of the black-and-white Rigg episodes, it had become clear that this curious British series was becoming increasingly (outrageously) popular on primetime network TV in States. Why? Well, Diana-in-leather helped but there were other factors. Because 1966 was the year when Davy Jones was the most popular of The Monkees, when The Stones were bitching about just how very unsatisfied they were with pretty much everything and The Beatles had seen it, done it, smoked it and were about to start growing moustaches just to prove it. In short, 1967 was going to be a good year to be British, a good year to be young and a good year to be a new word dripping outwards from the West Coast of America, psychedelic. Whether The Avengers actually was is pretty much a moot point but, since the previous year's big surprise US TV hit had been Batman, it might be a good idea to adopt a tongue-into-cheek approach to life in general and crime solving in particular with a dollop of comic-strip wit. Check. Check. Check(ish) and, very definitely, check. The 'unspoken-best-friends' relationship between Emma and Steed was, by now, well-established and, indeed, was seldom even referred to within the text. It didn't need to be. They no longer seemed to have any obvious history, such was the confidence of that particular batch of episodes. In America, for instance, there was no longer any need for that - quite embarrassing - explanatory voice-over from the previous year, booming out concerning our heroes' mission in life, one that they never saw fit to explain in Britain because it, quite simply, wasn't needed. They were Steed and Mrs Peel, you dig? They did 'stuff.' It was cool. In this season, Steed simply showed up on Emma's doorstep (although, there were occasion hints that, post-coitally, he'd been there all night) and they were off, without backgrounds, motives or organisations to hinder them and only an unspoken agreement holding them together. What a brilliant piece of sleight-of-hand that something so utterly simple could conquer America.
It must be noted, in the interests of balance, that with colour came a slight decline in the subtlety and sublimeness of the caustic wit which one had come to expect of the series. Some of the 1967 episodes have, dare one say it, their odd dull or formulaic moments. However, there was humour aplenty to be had from the actual situations with A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Station, The Hidden Tiger and Who's Who??? being riotous in, and of, themselves with the dry and caustic scripted jokes, therein, being an added bonus. As regards the Kinkiness Factor, Emma had pretty much stopped being tied to things on such a regular basis, but Steed's eyebrow-work had heightened an inch or two with some of the knowing exchanges between them. Champagne was still not the all-encompassing cultural weapon that it was later to become. The icon appears in only five of the 1967 episodes – though we hear that the body-swapping Basil and Lola have finished some off in a sixth. However, it was now all over the title sequence. The fights, however, become outrageous and vast production numbers. It was obvious from The Winged Avenger that the production team had taken note of the development of this art form in Batman and acted accordingly.

The great Philip Levene wrote exactly half of the season's scripts (eight), including the first four episodes to be transmitted and he did a remarkably fine job. Three, in particular, Escape In Time, From Venus With ♥ and The Hidden Tiger have many champions for being the best Avengers episodes of all. It is Levene's Avengersland that most people remember fondly, with one foot set firmly in the real world and the other, very definitely not. Verbal wit was an important part of what Levene did, but so to was the complete interrogation of a entire concept into the story. For example, in The Hidden Tiger, we get every single take on the concept of killer cats, every possible 'pussy joke' imaginable, every pun and wink to the audience with the writer's usual bijoux comic timing to the point where you simply want to watch the episode with someone curled up in your lap purring and wanting her stomach tickled. Brian Clemens, on the other hand, was a much more direct author, who tended to present the central problem, the 'twenty-words-or-less' of American screenwriting, straight away in the opening scene and then, simply, do variations upon it. Clemens contributed six scripts to the fifth season which ranged from the quite wonderful – The Bird Who Knew Too Much and The Superlative Seven - through to the patchwork The Living Dead (a cut-and-paste job from an Anthony Marriott story that bears the signs of swift rewriting and borrowed from the previous years season opener The Town Of No Return) to the horrid Epic. Just what makes Epic so apocalyptically awful is worth considering for a moment. It seems, from surface evidence, to be a deliberate attempt to create a genuinely 'iconic' Avengers episode, one that Clemens could provide as an example to new writers - that he could point to and say 'that's how it should be done.' Everything that one expects in an episode from this period is present and correct. Perhaps as a direct result of this banal obviousness it come across as completely vacuous and soulless, without any heart or much individuality. This was to be the main problem in later years, The Avengers trying just that little bit too hard to be itself and, like some neurotic impersonator, losing all confidence in the process. Of the other writers, Richard Harris contributed the very nice The Winged Avenger (he would continue to be a welcome occasional contributor to the show for the next couple of years, his Game being easily the highlight of the disappointing final season). One of the best scripts of 1967 was actually a rewrite: A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Station started off as a Roger Marshall script, but Marshall and Clemens are reported to have clashed over the direction that the series was taking. (Marshall objecting, perhaps far-sightedly, to some of Clemens' excesses.) The pseudonym Bryan Sherriff was therefore used for the completed episode. Whether the quality of the end product is the result of a typically witty Marshall script or of Clemens' forceful moulding of the series into its own image is hard to decide. One actually prefers to think of it as a typical example of Avengers-serendipity, a happy accident of the kind that would soon prove to be difficult to reproduce deliberately.
Following a six-week break after the completion of Who's Who??? in April 1967, the production team returned to Borehamwood to complete a further ten episodes. Along with the sixteen from the fifth season, these were intended to be sold as a twenty six-episode package to the American networks. In the end, it didn't turn out that way. The schedule was tight as the first episode of the new batch - Return Of The Cybernauts - was due to go out as part of the ITV autumn package in September 1967, at which point the team would still be filming the later episodes - and if anything went wrong, the consequences could be disastrous. When something did go wrong, it came in the formidable shape of Diana Rigg.
The popular perception of the mid-Sixties, of course, is of an Avengers episode being completed and then Patrick and Diana having a quick glass of champagne in their trailer before popping into town in the Bentley, still in-costume, to enjoy an evening at The Ad-Lib discothèque with Michael Caine, Terence Stamp, Sean Connery, The Beatles and The Who. In fact, according to Rigg, 'It was great fun to do but everyone thinks it was party, party, party. In fact it was work, work, work. You had to get to the studio at Elstree for 6.30 every morning and you'd be working until eight o'clock every night.' She also claimed that she was earning 'less than the cameraman' and eventually issued an ultimatum to ABC, describing her working conditions as 'the life of a mole.' In the event, she got her – well-deserved - pay rise but she indicated that this would be her final batch of episodes. Having already earned more than five million dollars from US syndication rights (proudly trumpeted in an article in The Times in March 1967), the production team could, perhaps, afford to be generous towards one of its two biggest assets.
Aesthetically, the stories from the fifth and sixth seasons are very similar, although the 'Mrs Peel, we're needed' sequences disappeared. However, something seems to have changed in the writers' bible during the summer of 1967. The new batch of episodes were much more sombre in tone and aura than those of the previous few months (a trend that would continue into the following year). Philip Levene provided four of the scripts, whilst Brian Clemens worked on three and between them they began to draw Steed and Emma back from the brink of science fiction and (vaguely) into the real world again.
Ultimately, only eight episodes were ever completed (the season ending, somewhat prematurely, with the broadcast of Mission ... Highly Improbable on 18 November 1967). Production on the episode The Forget-Me-Knot, begun in mid-September, was abandoned before completion due to the various hierarchical changes which were taking place behind the camera before being remounted and used as the opening episode of the following series and a bridge between the Emma and Tara King eras. The point at which season six became season seven is, actually, rather difficult to establish. However, by 30 October 1967 - when The Times announced, rather sneeringly, that Linda Thorson ('who is twenty and, rather disarmingly, admits that she has dyed her hair blonde') was 'stepping into the shoes, or boots, of two famous predecessors' and that filming had started on what was then intended to be the first full Tara King episode, Invitation To A Killing - the sixth season had, effectively, been put to bed. What happened to that mysterious tenth Emma Peel episode is now, sadly, lost in the mists of time.
Of the eight episodes eventually broadcast, we have a sequel for the series' most popular foes, a (good) rewrite of an old Cathy Gale episode, a story about nightmares, a location travelogue, two 'plot device' episodes, an Emma solo adventure and an inscrutable (and punning) parody of SF nonsense. Filmed in the three months that included the release of Sgt. Peppers' Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Six-Day War and the devaluation of sterling, Steed's suave Etonian charm and Emma's acid Chelsea wit were probably just what the country needed right about then. Certainly the episodes were as popular as ever, both critically and in terms of viewing figures.
We were solemnly informed by the end credits that 'the principle items of Mr Macnee's wardrobe [are] designed by Pierre Cardin', whilst Diana Rigg managed to - at last - get out of her leathers and into Alan Hughes' brilliantly designed Crimplene catsuits (dubbed 'Emmapeelers' by their creator). For Rigg herself, this was a moment of some considerable personal satisfaction. 'It meant I could move - we are talking about three-quarters of an hour to go to the lavatory, because they were so tight!' As Diana has noted, 'I was always getting tied to dentists' chairs with my legs in the air!' However, by this stage much of the inherent kinkiness had been diverted into dialogue. A case of too much talk and not enough action, perhaps? Conversely, these were possibly the best bunch of episodes for fisticuffs since Honor Blackman left the show: the sight of Mrs Peel dancing the kung-fu seven years before Carl Douglas remains, still, an awesome one.
Critique: By this stage critics were divided on the series progression into the fantastic. Carol Millington wrote that 'the programme has always suffered from a surfeit of fantasy, and in that lies much of its charm. Steed and Mrs Peel can cope placidly with the most outrageously improbable situations and introduce a touch of extravagant myth into the run-of-the-mill adventure series.' This contrasts sharply with another critic, Lesley Blake, who considered that the series was not what it once had been and reckoned that the rot set in with Emma's pants: 'This was a cracker of a series until Mrs Peel's leather trouser suit became a fashion craze ... My heart sank when the current series began and all we seem to hear is what everyone would wear, who would design them and what the clothes were going to cost. Dianna [sic] Rigg, poor girl, hasn't half the character of Honor Blackman, anyway.' Blake concluded: ‘It's just conceivable that if they spent less on all these expensive fashion trimmings they might still be able to make a programme that was, simply, a good programme.' A fine article in The Viewer magazine coincided with the beginning of the season. Rupert Butler described in detail his visit to the set of You Have Just Been Murdered. Rigg told Butler 'I had to do a deep sea fight with a sinewy villain.' It sounded, the reporter believed, 'intriguing ... in a kinky sort of way. I can reveal that, with mounting visions of swelling insurance premiums the girl just dived in and got on with it. In a masterpiece of understatement that might have come straight from an Avengers script, Diana breathed: "It was a welcome cooler on a hot day!"'
Perhaps the last word on this season should go to Steed and Mrs Peel themselves, from the tag sequence at the end of The Positive-Negative Man. Magnetised by all of that 'messing around with electricity,' they find themselves firmly attached to Steed's Bentley. 'Don't fight it, Mrs Peel,' notes Steed, ‘We're inseparable.' Tragically, not for much longer they weren't. But for that beautiful, mad summer of 1967 they were. And in colour, too.
Analysing these disparate elements, then, gives scholars a hint as to the reasons for The Avengers' huge - and lasting - success. The most obvious danger of any success, of course, is that of failing to live up to it. Brian Clemens and his production partner Albert Fennell between 1965 and 1967 created a television series that will, quite possibly, live forever. The fact that someone, somewhere, in a position of authority decided that this wasn't enough and moved them off the project between seasons six and seven was one of the most crass acts of managerial interference in areas of artistic concern imaginable. Everything that possibly could go wrong, did from the moment Clemens and Fennell's hands were lifted from the series' tiller. The fact that they were only away for a couple of months before being begged back doesn't negate the problems that they collectively faced upon returning. From here, onwards, the series could never quite regain its momentum. The seventh season of The Avengers is a roller-coaster ride of quality. Some of the episodes are great (Game, The Super-Secret-Cypher-Snatch, My Wildest Dream, The Rotters, All Done With Mirrors), a lot are quite average but with memorable set-pieces, some are pretty bad and one or two are downright bloody awful. In this respect it closely mirrors many other long-running TV series. And, when all is said and done it's important to remember that that's all The Avengers ever was or could ever aspire to be.
But ... The Avengers reflected the 1960s by taking its concerns, its neuroses and its aspirations and painted them - in broad, impressionistic cartoonesque strokes - across the canvas of popular consciousness. It's not always pretty, but it's very London. If the 1960s had a face, that face had to reflect the optimism of the age as much as the anger and the confusion and the schizophrenia. Steed doesn't, can't, represent this. His is more the face of the 1950s: Harold MacMillan's Great Britain rather than Harold Wilson's: Solid, reliable, multi-talented of course but, ultimately, belonging very much to a pigeon-hole of an established order. But Cathy, Emma and even, to an extent, Tara do represent aspects of the 1960s face. And, in making that face female The Avengers as an entity - regardless of whether it was 'just a TV show' or not - changed the world: Perhaps only to a tiny degree, but changed it nonetheless. Which is as much as any television series has ever done and a damn sight more than many would even dare to try.