The New Avengers Season 1 Eps 1- 3

As many writers have previously identified The Avengers takes place in a parallel Britain, a place that is composed of cliches, often referred to as Avengerland. It is populated by larger than life characters and our three heroes are vaguely sketched people who seem to get by on a combination of confidence, sparkle and innuendo. The action is more realistic car crashes, punch ups and lots of death whereas the storylines are fantastical and over the top, a mixture of James Bond, Doctor Who and Quatermass. They do love their professors and secret laboratories! The presentation is filmic, brilliantly directed and has that grainy look which marks it out as very Seventies. 

It does have something of an identity crisis as it is never quite clear what sort of series it wants to be. A continuation of the classic Sixties original? A more modern espionage thriller? A fantasy series? A typical car chase driven adventure series? Different episodes have aspects of these and it doesn’t always work but when it does it’s very good indeed. There were two seasons first shown in 1976 and 1977. While the quality and tone of the show varied one thing doesn’t change- every episode has a what we now refer to as a cold open which freeze frames just as someone is falling and after the title credits resumes at that moment.


`The Eagle’s Nest` kicks off the first season in lively fashion with a sequence involving a man being pursued by thugs using fishing rods as weapons. The remote island of Dorca where this takes place turns out to be owned by a group of Nazis masquerading as monks and seemingly keeping their Nazi uniforms underneath their habits.  If you think that sounds weird then their long term plan is to revive the cryogenically frozen corpse of none other than Adolf H. Steed and co are investigating the disappearance of an acquaintance called Stannard who turns out to be that man at the start. The first thing you notice is how slick this show is. Edited with precision it scores highly on the fight sequences- one is almost a blur- and action with director Desmond Davis making every frame count and finding some unusual ways to show what would otherwise be routine Seventies telly action. The second thing you notice is the sharpness of the dialogue with some innuendo and no wasted chit chat.

Despite a gap of seven years since the previous series of The Avengers ended there is no compensation for new viewers, no summary of exactly who the leading three characters are. They may trade mildly suggestive remarks and enjoy abstract dialogue but are presented out of any wider context. Luckily there’s plenty of natural charisma to overcome this potential hazard, each getting a fair chunk of the action. It’s a shame that the actual narrative is nowhere near as sharp.

Brian Clemens was an ideas man, you can imagine he scribbled down a list of things he wanted in this episode and they are presented as set pieces- the initial fishing rod chase, the kidnapping of Professor Von Claus and subsequent pursuit, the rally where the villains abandon their brown robes and so on. The story then has to stretch to encompass these points but its an awkward fit at times and even if you are willing to go with the Hitler idea the way the Avengers overcome the Nazis is not especially believable even if  the results are fun to watch. The guest cast contains a lot of familiar Seventies television stalwarts with Derek Farr squeezing every manic moment out of the cult’s leader Father Tasker. Most surprising though is the presence of Peter Cushing as Von Claus and its fair to say he enters into the spirit of things. Surprisingly for a series unafraid to be silly we don’t get to see Hitler in repose though the plot note where the monks have substituted the original patient the professor worked on and not expected him to notice is unintentionally amusing. You do wonder though why the monks waited all this time and surely Tasker should be older?

`The Midas Touch` spins the classical story into an antagonist whose touch delivers every known viral disease to a victim. Developed by a Professor Turner the weaponless assassin is the subject of rival bids and by a coincidence that can only be described as one in a million a former colleague of Steed’s called Freddie witnesses an incident related to this case. The script rolls right over explaining just how someone could be a carrier of all known diseases and still be immune to each of them by not mentioning it! In truth its an episode too long for its plot hence a number of extended scenes that are obviously filling in the time. Not that these are necessarily bad as Robert Fuest directs with vigour. A lengthy car chase sweeps around some of London’s least desirable streets, parties pursue each other around some sort of factory that could be a gas works and in one sequence that is very Seventies assorted guests groove around wearing masks and imbibing all kinds of stuff. It all adds to the atmosphere but not the plot

The series’ trademark archness is in full effect none more so than when Purdey questions an army officer accompanying him around an assault course without breaking sweat while the soldiers around her seem to find it more of an effort! There’s also plenty of scenery digestion going on; Turner’s ultimate aims remain swathed in mystery as he prefers to talk about the “sensual” feeling of gold allowing David Swift (sporting gold coloured clothes of course) full reign to play the mad scientist. Philip Carson gets the more serious role of Freddie but his character is placed mostly to further the plot and nobody seems especially concerned when he drives off a cliff. This sort of response takes some getting used to when viewed in a modern context. The episode does also feature an English actor made up to look Chinese, a conceit which given the embarrassing performance must have grated even in those less enlightened times.

The Brian Clemens stable of series were hard as nails and seem to lack compassion or even empathy. When the heroes are as ruthless as the villains it makes it more difficult to root for them. Typical of this is an incident here when a suspect Gambit is chasing gets killed, it being a trope after just two episodes that either Gambit or Purdey or both pursue a suspect only for them to die in some way or another.  I suppose in the Seventies nobody really bothered about this sort of thing (and Brian Clemens definitely didn’t!) but I’m already finding myself wondering who are these three people. Any hint of personal information is couched inside a gag, deflected with a look or a raised eyebrow or clever talk. All that being said I do enjoy the outrageous manner in which Clemens deploys ideas, just about managing to include a fictionally plausible explanation even if in real life it is impossible.

The other thing about the series is that its surreal trappings divert us from the fact it is often  a spy thriller and the third episode `House of Cards` falls into that category. A Russian agent called Perov re-activates a group of sleeper agents after a defector called Professor Vasil is helped by Steed in a bizarre scene using screaming girls pretending to run after a pop star (played by Mike Gambit!). Despite this amusing opening the episode is actually a tad more serious than it seems with Steed finding old friends being killed and even a lady friend about to assassinate him. Perov himself- played as a typical 70s Russian by a robust Peter Jeffery- fakes his own death to undertake this revenge attempt.  

Events hinge on half playing cards with which the sleepers are `rewoken` to carry out the murder of whatever name is written on the back. Quite why they feel compelled after a long time to undertake these crimes is not addressed in an episode that isn’t as tightly written as it thinks. Matters reach a climax with a sequence that twice suggests characters don’t hear an approaching helicopter in a quiet country area. For a series that relies on its trademark action, some of these parts are awkwardly staged reflecting  the script’s tardy attention to detail. 

Long term fans however would have enjoyed an amusing sequence where we see the framed photos of the previous Avengers girls and the episode also offers some (jokey) background information including that Purdey’s stepfather was a Bishop! This probably played better in 1976 when secret Russian agents were familiar fodder for spy fiction while the playing card motif seems only liable to draw suspicion when Perov could just as easily write the victim’s names on a piece of paper. The main three have a ball while the Russians are stereotypes we’ve all seen before and I’m sure that was just as true in 1976.

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