It’s that time again, and so we come to yet another quartet of episodes from the mostly wiped first season of The Avengers.
Those coming late to the party should eschew their visions of champagne, fancy clothes and flashy cars, with pop art visuals and a plethora of panache: this is the series’ earliest days, with a far darker John Steed, ready and willing to pull civilians into his web of intrigue and achieve government goals by any means necessary.
It’s strangely familiar (particularly to those familiar with the meatier Cathy Gale era) and yet wholly different from the more famed iterations to follow, with this very different take on the character and material possessing something of a charm all its own.
In The Springers, Dr. Keel heads off to prison in the guise of a jailbird escape artist to infiltrate a prison base for a ring that profits off of providing a surreptitious jailbreak (and posthumous safehouse) service.
Steed impersonates a wealthy sea captain whose “daughter” is to enroll in a prestigious girls’ academy serving as a waypoint for the ring, and all is wrapped up rather more quickly and tidily than Avengers aficionados may expect. Nick Briggs delivers his patented lower class thug characterization as a somewhat addled cellmate.
Things get a touch more atmospheric in The Yellow Needle. Steed and Keel are enlisted to cozy up to an Idi Amin-eqsue African dictator to flush out and foil a conspiracy to assassinate a former MD cum British Ambassador representing colonial interests. Dr. Keel gets more than professionally involved with a female staffer, Steed plays a particularly dangerous game of political brinksmanship…and what does an outbreak of yellow fever have to do with all this?
Set amidst a sweltering subtropical milieu marked by tribal drumming, the sound of exotic birds and the omnipresent chirruping of cicaida, this is one of the most vividly uncomfortable episodes to date, and comes recommended in spite of its potentially dry (and somewhat dated) politics.
Then Dr. Keel gets caught up with a criminal element when his latest house call turns out to be a the only man who knows the whereabouts of the spoils from the Hatton Garden jewel heist.
When the man dies, Keel finds both himself and his receptionist Carol trapped in the middle of some Double Danger…
With Steed playing Banacek as an insurance investigator, double crosses galore and even a spot of comic relief from a hard of hearing inkeep, this is definitely the other highlight of the set, with just enough menace, atmosphere and characterization to keep things interesting for fans of the darker, more intimate and cynical environs of the pre-Mrs. Gale Avengers.
Then Keel goes undercover (and under trenchcoat) in the wild world of wanking, when he investigates a ring selling saucy photographs and prostitution. With this early 60’s porno ring operating out of a London toy store, can Keel keep his mate’s youthful daughter from their clutches?
Covering everything from colonialism and the seedier end of global politics to pornography, prison life and mobsters, Volume 3 is certainly the most exploitation-worthy of the Avengers Lost Episodes releases to date.
John Dorney (Fifth Doctor Box Set, The Crooked Man, Survivors, Counter-Measures, King of Sontar, 1963: The Assassination Games) continues to provide engaging adaptations of these long lost television scripts to the audio drama format, with Ken Bentley (Blakes Seven, The Doctor’s Tale) helming the productions with appropriately vintage panache. Now well established in their roles, Julian Wadham and Anthony Howell deliver assured performances as Steed and Keel respectively, and Richard Fox and Lauren Yason offer period-appropriate, often jazz inflected cues to set the scene.
There’s plenty of lively character acting from a series of walk ons and guest cast and so many drive in exploitation elements involved that listeners even get treated to what retroactively seems like a nod to 60’s sexploiter The Yellow Teddybears (though the story actually predates that rather storied effort by a year or two)!
Only the absence of Volume 1’s Colin Baker mars what is certainly the ideal sampler and starting point for those interested parties yet to indulge in this series’ particular charms.