Season Three Episode 8- Rumours of Death
(1980) Writer: Chris Boucher / Director: Fiona Cumming
(1980) Writer: Chris Boucher / Director: Fiona Cumming
Determined to punish those responsible for the apparent death of his lover Anna Grant two years earlier, Avon leads a dangerous mission to the heart of Servalan’s new regime but a separate rebel plot causes complications.
While this episode has a straightforward plot, the way it is written and presented adds a sophistication that you might not expect from this series. Viewers in 1980 were probably surprised by how much is packed in while from this vantage point we can see a series reaching a pinnacle after an already strong third season (give or take the odd misstep). `Rumours of Death` mixes the political and the personal with engrossing results and were it not for one significant production decision could be the best episode the series ever made.
|"I can understand why the last President resigned"
Avon is seeking revenge for what happened to Anna Grant on Earth just prior to his meeting Blake and co. We’ve heard Anna referenced before in what amounts to the only time Avon has allowed his surface to be scratched. Now, after the plan was mentioned at the start of last week before the crew were diverted, the episode opens with Avon incarcerated five days after being captured on the seemingly reckless mission. The Federation’s notorious interrogator Shrinker turns up, as Avon knew he would, and falls into the trap set for him. This marvellous trick opening wrong foots the viewer and ensures we are in for a rollercoaster of twists and turns.
Chris Boucher writes in the style of a political thriller mixed with a spy drama, a feeling enhanced by the country house setting. This also means the episode has dated less than many in appearance. In a manner more normally associated with Robert Holmes, he introduces a series of two handed `double acts` to essay the background and provide interesting characters in their own right.
So we have Greenlee (Donald Douglas, convincing despite a mixed accent) and Forres (an unrecognisably young David Haig) whose monitoring of the Presidential palace is a mixture of protocol, worry and accident. There’s Sula (Lorna Heilbron) posing as the wife of a dignitary but really the undercover leader of an attempt to seize Servalan in her new power base and Balon (Philip Bloomfield) her assistant who argue over the next step . More than the usual bickering leader and deputy, their class background has shaped each of their views on how to progress; he wants to kill Servalan as a symbol of their success, she realises the President will be more useful alive.
|"I'm not kissing you till you take that beard off"
With a melodramatic flourish, Avon takes Shrinker to a cave where they debate what happened to Anna-these exchanges expose the brutal way the Federation works. John Bryans does a great job in changing from the initial snarling interrogator to someone more cowardly than Vila. The fact that he turns out not to be the killer Avon is looking for, but gives him the clues that he needs to find someone codenamed Bartholemew is another neat turn. These conversations between the various characters are able to put across exposition but never at the expense of colour and a wry humour, sometime playing with the viewer’s idea of what might happen then doing something different.
Boucher offers a clearer delineation of the crew’s roles than most of the writers do. He is able to get under the surface of what he feels makes each one tick and their interactions here play to those strengths. He adeptly captures their differing priories and emphasises the bond between Avon and Dayna dating back to their initial meeting, handles Tarrant better than in any episode he’s been in so far and gives Vila a funny line to remember. Sometimes that’s all he needs! Boucher uses Cally to challenge the morality of Avon’s mission which the others fail to do. The scene where they are bullying Shrinker is quite disturbing until she steps in. This reminds you how bold the series often is in showing the less virtuous side of so called `heroes` and such intelligent writing is something that gets the best from the cast.
Ultimately Avon is at the heart of matters and Paul Darrow has never been better. The plot stretches his default settings and allows us to see a less sure Avon whose early confident sense of purpose is challenged. If the results occasionally seem melodramatic this is what Avon has become anyway. Again we glimpse a frisson between Avon and Servalan who both seem unsure whether to kill or kiss each other. Even chained to a wall Jacqueline Pearce radiates power though you do wonder quite how she will escape from this one.
Now all of this is great but someone decided it would enhance matters to let us see flashback scenes showing Anna which completely pulls the carpet from under the end of episode revelation that she is Sula who was Bartholomew who was Anna and was using Avon all along. There are enough signs for seasoned watchers to have guessed or speculated anyway (as soon as Avon learns the agent was `playing` him along who else could it be?) but placing it in front of us really does suck all the surprise out of what would otherwise be a powerful moment.
It says something of the strength of the episode that this does not spoil the story too much; by this point we’ve already seen so many sparkling scenes that we can tolerate such a lapse in presentation. `Rumours of Death` is still an episode to be cherished and shows the best of the series. It ends with a famous quote that inspired the title, an intellectual bow to conclude a classic fifty minutes.