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From his days working alongside the dry, somewhat bland Ian Hendry Doctor Keel through daffy, brassy-voiced Venus Smith (Julie Stevens, who will always remain associated with that ridiculous song about kippers from the perhaps appropriately monikered A Chorus of Frogs) to Honor Blackman’s sexy, intimidating Cathy Gale and the slyly sensuous innuendo of the Diana Rigg Emma Peel period, Patrick MacNee’s John Steed has always been the centerpiece of what for the sake of distinction we’ll refer to as Brian Clemens’ Avengers.*

*so noted not only to tip the hat to the eventual producer and script editor as well as screenwriter of several episodes throughout the entire series run, but to distinguish from the goofy comic book heroes of the American iteration since.

Even through the decided series low point of the Linda Thorson/”Mother” era, his suave and stylishly debonair (if quite tongue in cheek) take on the spy craze of the era and satirical pastiche of the stereotypical Briton (complete with bowler and brolly, remaining calm in the face of any situation, regardless how dire) provided a model of sophistication and modern day swashbuckling akin to few others – a rare ‘hip’ representative of the establishment wholly embraced by both the workaday chap and the style-setters of Swinging London.

When the series briefly returned in the mid to late 70’s, albeit saddled with a more age-necessitated backseat political intrigue oriented role in the proceedings, Macnee’s Steed quite simply outclassed and out-acted his fellow cast members, carrying sufficient personal magnetism as to remain the focal point of the show, despite the producers obvious intent to showcase the more “modern” Gareth Hunt (who while likeable enough, came off quite lacking and ludicrous by comparison).

While Joanna Lumley (who was considered something of a sex kitten at the time and would go on to far better work as Patsy in AbFab) was certainly attractive enough, her often quite didactic uber-feminist Purdey might well have been rechristened Prude-y, given both her strong resistance to Hunt’s somewhat bumbling advances and her atrociously prim dress sense*.  Given this rather odd melange of factors and personages in combination with a second season that seemed to be an endless parade of snooze inducing Iron Curtain affairs, the series sunk without a trace or much acclaim since (which is rather unfair, given an interesting first season and some decent performances and scripts by all concerned therein).

*the producers, to be fair, had intended her to be another Diana Rigg type, but Lumley both chopped her locks immediately prior to filming and demanded a wardrobe barely more aesthetic than that of Liz Sladen’s Godspell-waif inspired Sarah Jane Smith!

One thing likely to be lost on fans of the more popular Emma Peel era  (not to mention those who came in beyond that) is just how dangerous and ruthless John Steed actually was in the early days.

Where the latter day incarnations seemed increasingly inclined towards subduing the villain du jour at the tip of a brolly while cracking a witty riposte Adam Adamant style, in the early days, Steed would amend his wry smirk to a steely gaze and a surprisingly cold blooded murder in the course of duty.

Worse, he displayed a decided propensity (still present but far more played down in the later years) for pulling civilians into the fray and displaying a decidedly manipulative streak.  In the company of John Steed, innocent physicians, nightclub singers and bored divorcees find themselves placed in some rather life-threatening situations in order to achieve his purposes.  Not enlisted agents, mind.  Civilians.

It is this era, most specifically the debut 1961 season, which is being tapped into herein.  With the majority of its run wiped by a misguided BBC policy of reusing aired vault recording tapes for new shows, only two and a half episodes have since been recovered, all of which appear on a bonus disc appended to the rerelease of the (otherwise unrelated) Emma Peel megaset in 2005.

In this light, and much akin to the Doctor Who Lost Stories line, Big Finish has initiated the first of a series of Lost Episodes for the Brian Clemens Avengers.  While not technically “lost” (unlike the Who efforts, these stories did actually see their way to the airwaves), due to the aforementioned BBC policies, a fair number of the first season episodes, like many Hartnell and the best of the Troughton era serials, are effectively lost to viewers not having been privy to their initial airings.

Here we find a Steed who is more the “dark money” mover and shaker behind the scenes than the onscreen centerpiece he would become shortly.  Dropping in on occasion to steer the erstwhile Dr. Keel through his adventure du jour, Steed is more instigator and cleanup man than protagonist per se, and this may come as something of a surprise to those more accustomed to the series’ more famed years and style.

Further, these stories contain little to none of the exaggerated absurdism, pop art or sexual innuendo fans have come to expect.  In its place, much as with the later New Avengers, we find a more direct and brutal political intrigue and undercover police infiltration milieu, much in the vein of the original Ian Fleming Bond novels (as opposed to their wild and interpretive incarnation onscreen) or a John LeCarre effort.  While many of the stories under discussion herein tend to remain more directly involved with local rackets and criminal endeavors than international affairs, it is this basic zeitgeist the early Avengers most precisely taps into.

Eventual producer and script editor Brian Clemens, also responsible for or playing a significant role in the uniformly superlative 1970’s iteration of Thriller! (not to be confused with the interesting but spotty Boris Karloff hosted American series a decade prior), Adam Adamant Lives!, the Persuaders and The Protectors, was something of a standby for quality television screenwriting of his era.  Like Richard Matheson and Dan Curtis in the States, Clemens’ name on a production meant you were in for a cracking good time, with clever scripting and a likely sting in the tail.  Series he founded, overtook or held any major involvement with tended to attract both the biggest names of the day and some of the most attractive ladies of the era, each of whom seemed to be itching to try their hands at one of his assured offerings.

It is therefore somewhat surprising in retrospect that Clemens only contributed a few scripts to the first season of The Avengers, most or all of which are represented herein.  He was to play a far more significant role in the Cathy Gale period (in particular the second season thereof), before taking over the reins of both production and script editing with the Emma Peel era, but in terms of the Lost Episodes, the Clemens touch is minimal at best.

While I’ve always found the more ruthless Steed (and the far more believably dangerous Cathy Gale*) to be far superior to the more populist iteration to come (seriously…have you seen Mrs. Peel’s “karate”?), his suave demeanor, way with the ladies and stereotypical British calm was firmly in place from the outset.  While it’s a bit odd to viewers accustomed to Emma Peel (much less Linda Thorson!) era Steed to see him taking such a Sylvester McCoy Who-like grim and manipulative backseat driver role, the only real issues with the first season episodes are the rather colourless effective leading role of Dr. Keel and the sheer mundanity of most of this period’s scripts.

*Honor Blackman was, in fact, so formidable as to terrify the stuntmen who had to work with her onset.  She knew and utilized judo, resulting in some onscreen Blackman stunt work and plenty of bruised stuntmen – hell, she even published a how-to guide to the martial art!

How mundane, you ask?  The first two episodes (Ray Rigby’s Hot Snow and Clemens’ Brought to Book) revolve around drug dealers and a protection racket respectively, with Keel going after the killers of his fiancée as directed by the mysterious and opportunistically timely arrival of government agent Steed.  For all intents and purposes, these serve as a two parter, even featuring a recurring character (‘Spicer’, essayed by Adrian Lukis) bridging both episodes.

The way most of the season’s stories appear to be structured is that Keel will at some point early in the proceedings make contact with Steed, who then points the erstwhile doctor towards involvement in a dicey situation, only to reappear at the denoument to pull his fat out of the fryer.

The third episode (Square Root of Evil by Richard Harris – presumably not THAT Richard Harris!) turns the tables somewhat on the established formula of the 1961 season, with Steed taking more of a central role and infiltrating a band of counterfeiters and Keel more or less saving the day.  Regardless, the overall banality of the scenario continues to permeate – don’t expect any day-glo surrealism here.

Brian Clemens’ son Sam stars in the fourth episode of the set, One for the Mortuary – appropriately enough, as this was yet another of his father’s scripts.  While the other stories contained herein do run in chronological order, this final offering is actually the season’s 13th episode, likely chosen as one of Clemens few further scripts of the Keel era.  This one is more of the expected spy-oriented affair, and features Keel as the unknowing courier of a secret formula which due to the interference of a Mata Hari type winds up in the wrong hands.

With scripts over half a century old and geared towards teleplay, a bit of doctoring is expected to be in order.  In this case, said revisions and tailoring to the audio format hail from the pen of John Dorney (Justice of Jalxar and 1963: Assassination Games).

Director Ken Bentley (the Death Collectors, Enemy of the Daleks, Eldrad Must Die and any number of Lost Stories, including the excellent McCoy-era offerings Crime of the Century and Animal) keeps things moving along apace, with only the prominence of certain anachronistically modern day cockney accents throwing the vintage feel of the affair a bit off.  Certainly, similar regional patois may have in fact existed at the time, but you’d be unlikely to hear anything but the Queen’s English portrayed on the telly prior to some major changes in BBC policy during the 1980s.

While Anthony Howell’s Dr. Keel, perhaps hampered by the character as originally written, proves nearly as dry as his televised incarnation, Julian Wadham takes the unusual tack of ignoring the Patrick Macnee Steed in its entirety, in the hopes of delivering his own unique interpretation of the character based wholly on the scripts at hand.

As such, while sufficiently droll and uppercrust, Wadham’s Steed comes off as both unfamiliar and somewhat indistinct by comparison to Macnee’s colorful mix of suave and sinister.  In fact, I actually had to explain the situation to my wife, who was insistent that Big Finish had made the faux pas of releasing an Avengers set without the presence of John Steed!

All told, Wadham does bear a vague similarity of approach, with a palpable raised eyebrow inherent to his delivery which suits the character to some degree, but it’s still a bit of a stretch for those accustomed to Macnee’s somewhat iconic role.  In fairness, it’s hard to offer, much less find easy acceptance for, an entirely new take on a cultural milestone, so credit where credit is due – only time will tell whether Wadham’s very different approach to Steed grows on the listener or no.

An always welcome presence is Colin Baker, whose warm, melted butter tones denote Keel’s partner Dr. Tredding, who both covers for his frequent absences and scheduled appointments and provides something of a running commentary as to both the erstwhile doctor’s frequent mysterious absences as well as Keel’s presumed underlying psychological issues driving events throughout the first two episodes.

At this point, after hearing Baker with any number of companions (including but not limited to televised partners Peri and Mel, audio originals Evelyn Smythe, Charley Pollard, Phillipa ‘Flip’ Jackson and even Jago and Litefoot) in additon to an impressive recurring engagement as Gerald Conway in Big Finish’s Dark Shadows line, I’m inclined to believe “old Sixie” could enliven a funeral procession by sheer dint of his presence.  Hats off to you once again, Colin, you remain my favorite living Doctor.

Speaking of Who regulars, both Sophie Aldred (Ace) and Terry Molloy (Davros) play walk on parts in the Square Root of Evil and One for the Mortuary episodes, respectively.  It’s worth noting here that Aldred disguises her tones sufficiently enough that I actually missed her presence as the Cardinal’s wife ‘Lisa’ first time ’round!

Toby Hrycek-Robinson provides music and sound design, at least those cues not borrowed from the original televised Avengers of the era (some of which bring to mind the jazzy score of the old Power Records Batman vs. Joker adventure Stacked Cards!)

As a lifelong fan of the Avengers series as a whole (bar perhaps the completely over the top camp of “Mother” and the rather helpless and dizzy Tara King which combined to rather indelibly mar the Thorson era – there’s a reason the series went off air, you know...), I for one am quite glad to see Big Finish taking up the reins on yet another beloved British cult series, and certainly look forward to hearing more of the same.

Can the wonderful Gerald Harper/Juliet Harmer series Adam Adamant Lives!, also beset by a number of wiped episodes and boasting Clemens’ participation, be far behind?

http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/the-lost-episodes—volume-1-934

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