And so we come to the second installment of the Avengers Lost Episodes. Still running a bit out of transmission order, we get four more somewhat uncharacteristic adventures of John Steed (Julian Wadham).
What makes this unusual, even for audiences well familiar with the Patrick MacNee iteration hereof, is that this is a very different Avengers. Here we get none of the surrealism and camp of the Thorson era and little of the charm and sex appeal of the justifiably famed Diana Rigg run (“Mrs. Peel, we’re needed…”), with this early, comparatively unrefined take even proving quite different from the Cathy Gale era, with the bristly flirtation and judo stuntwork of the saucy Honor Blackman.
That said, it is this latter (or more precisely speaking in chronological terms, former) period with which the Lost Episodes shares the most affinity. Think the Venus Smith episodes, minus the daffiness of the character in question or the brassy musical numbers (“the lips that touch kippers will ne-ver e-ver touch miiiiiiiiine!”). In other words, a very cynical, ruthless John Steed, perfectly willing to put some rather clueless and out of place everyday citizens in the path of mortal danger to his own ends.
But even with those episodes, it was an unspoken (or strongly hinted) given that Steed was in fact working for Whitehall, perhaps part of MI-6 or some other shadowy domestically oriented spy operation. The villains of the piece, however deliberately and quirkily British, generally appeared to have national if not global aspirations as an end to their malevolent schemes, and this zeitgeist ran throughout each of the seasons (and numerous distaff companions) of the televised run. This was even the case with respect to the 1977 New Avengers revival series.
Strangely, therefore, here we find a John Steed who (generally speaking) appears to be little more than a sort of detached police detective or insurance investigator, looking into and foiling some rather small time criminals and their particularly small scale endeavors.
While there are episodes relating to matters that would certainly cross the desk of the PM’s office, on the whole, we’re talking blackmailers, arsonists, low level gangsters and grifters. And while this is in fact the way the series was originally scripted and aired back in 1961, it’s all far more Banacek, The Saint or The Falcon than what viewers and fans have come to know and love as The Avengers.
As case in point, matters kick off with Ashes of Roses, which thrusts Dr. Keel’s assistant Carol (Lucy Briggs-Owen) into the hot seat normally occupied by reluctant participant Keel (Anthony Howell).
A several million pound arson ring has been making headlines…and serious profits around London. How does it all tie in to an exclusive beauty salon? Will Carol survive her first mission?
Featuring Terry (Davros) Molloy of Doctor Who fame in a guest turn, this is a relaxing, quite period-evocative tale that offers a pleasant tea time feel despite, or perhaps because of, its sheer insignificance in scope. While there’s enough veiled menace being bandied about in the dialogue between various characters (the daggers being shot between Keel and Steed inclusive), one wonders whether Steed will go after shoplifters in the next episode…
Things get a bit closer to the expected scenario with Dennis Spooner’s Please Don’t Feed the Animals. Government officials are turning up dead, with regular large withdrawals from their bank accounts as clues. And what does all this have to do with a privately funded zoo?
Spooner, a prolific screenwriter throughout the 1960’s, was something of an Avengers regular, also working prominently in the earlier Doctor Who and Jason King series as well as an episode or two of Avengers mastermind Brian Clemens’ Thriller, so it’s to be expected that this one would feel more “Avengers” than those of the more unfamiliar scripters in the set.
While still fairly small scale (revolving around a blackmail ring), there is a direct connection to national security in whom the baddies are targeting and what they want out of their respective marks. Interestingly, this is also something of a Steed solo episode, which comes as a bit of a surprise hailing from quite this early in the series.
It’s a bit cheesy (Steed’s “indiscretions” with the flirtatious blackmailer seem rather innocent beyond taking place at the early 60’s version of a strip show and unlikely to be cause for serious marital discord, much less as a spur to blackmail!), but nominally more “Avengers” than Ashes in Roses, while sharing that episode’s rather laid back and effectively small scale approach.
Another excusably nation-level threat comes in the form of The Radioactive Man, which finds Steed working in conjunction with the local police and an incriminated scientist to track down an unfortunate, if somewhat dopey Russian emigre unwittingly carrying a very deadly cargo.
Phil Mulryne stars as the ill-fated political refugee Marco, whose forged passport and past allegiances leave him trapped in a web of misdirection which keeps him on the run. Richard Franklin (Captain Mike Yates of UNIT, from Jon Pertwee era Doctor Who) costars as the concerned responsible party, whose distracted admittance of the likeable janitor to his lab results in the loss of a highly virulent radium isotope. And I could swear that was Colin Baker working the police dispatch…
While this one exposes the listener to a host of rather suspect Eastern European accents on the part of a very British cast, Mulryne manages to evoke a surprising authenticity, sounding much akin to a real-world emigre of our acquaintance.
With his (perhaps a tad over-scripted) allegiance to his new homeland and obvious mutual affection for his Cockney girlfriend (Beth Chalmers) and her son leaving Marco quite a sympathetic character, this becomes a surprisingly downbeat episode, one which leaves a rather sour taste in the listener’s mouth. While events do wrap up tidily enough, it’s perfectly obvious that at least Marco, if not several of his close acquaintances, are about to face an untimely demise (or at least a severely foreshortened lifespan) at the close…
Like Don’t Feed the Animals, it does touch on an issue of national health if not security, but again feels somewhat tenuously related thereto. In point of fact, these episodes deviate little from the very domestic, low level detective work of Ashes of Roses or the final episode in this box, hardly tapping into the sort of Ian Fleming by way of Brian Clemens spy milieu The Avengers is generally known for.
Finally, things drop back to the level of local police work with Dance of Death, which brings Steed to take lessons at a dance school, investigating some mysterious deaths…and even Dr. Keel plays a part in the unfolding drama.
I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help drifting off into reverie during this story, picturing the far more entertaining (and visually quite sumptuous) Brigitte Bardot comedy-mystery Come Dance With Me (Voulez-vous Danser Avec Moi?, 1959), similarly set in a dance school but centering on blackmail over murder. It’s like someone conflated elements of Dance of Death with Don’t Feed the Animals, then added laughs, charm and the stunning Ms. Bardot to boot…
There’s really nothing more to say about this one. Sadly enough, given the rather un-Avengerslike orientation of box opener Ashes of Roses, it appears that scripters Peter Ling and Sheilah Ward may have blown their load with that story. If anything, Dance of Death comes off like a particularly impoverished retake on the former episode, attempting but failing in every respect to recreate the comparative charm of the earlier tale.
While the other episodes come with their own respective admixtures of merits and failings, Dance of Death is very clearly the least of the stories contained herein, and with due respect to the efforts of the actors involved (who are, after all, doing their best with some especially weak material), very much unworthy of comment.
All in all, The Lost Episodes – Volume 2 represents something of a change from the more business minded (and Colin Baker-enhanced) Volume 1. There’s far less of Dr. Keel (much less his fellow Doctor), but strangely not so much of a corresponding increase in the centrality and screentime of Steed.
While Keel assistant Carol plays something of a part in Ashes of Roses and Steed himself gets a chance to shine a bit in Please Don’t Feed the Animals, The Radioactive Man is all Mulryne, Franklin and the incidental characters. And while Wadham once again takes more of the screentime than he had in either Ashes of Roses or The Radioactive Man, the same can be argued for the rather unnecessary and dull Dance With Death.
Wadham’s variant of what we’ve all come to know as Patrick MacNee’s John Steed continues to grow on the listener, with an appropriate if quite different melange of cold hearted brusqueness and oily charm. It’s easy to see how Steed is able to so easily persuade random contacts into life-threatening situations (or ladies into his temporary affections) given his Bond-reminiscent delivery, all confidence, compliment and sexual innuendo for the ladies and character-reading psychological manipulation and terse hints of underlying violence towards the males.
Howell’s Keel doesn’t play as much of a part this time around, though for the portions where his presence is noticeable, he tends to come off as sulking and (if appropriately) mistrustful. It’s a difficult role to essay without striking the audience as something of a petulant child, all nominal resistance and practical giving way. “No, I’ll never ever do that!” Cue him doing exactly what was demanded. How much of this is down to the scripting as opposed to Howell’s take on the character is open to debate, but given other factors apparent throughout the series thus far, I’m inclined to lay blame at the feet of the original scripts.
As ever, Toby Hrycek-Robinson provides period-appropriate enhancement to very original-sounding Avengers cues of the era, with Ken Bentley keeping everyone on track and John Dorney transliterating television scripts to the audio medium with effortless panache and appropriate fluidity (so well does he adapt these hoary telestories, the unwitting listener would be unlikely to realize these were stilted early 60’s television scripts).
Those who enjoyed Volume 1 are sure to be happy with the second installment in the series; newcomers are advised to take a step back and sample that earlier set before making a headfirst dive in to these far less Steed (or Keel)-centric, not particularly Avengerslike adventures.