The ongoing audiofication of the 1961 debut season of the Avengers (a fair portion of which remain “lost” and wiped by BBC archivists decades since) continues with another volume of surprisingly serious-toned, small scale spying.
In Nightmare, Keel takes the place of a missing research scientist. But this turns out to be more dangerous than anticipated when one of his fellows proves to be indebted to some rather unsavory types who’ve sussed out that all this secrecy and security may in fact conceal something worth stealing…
Then it’s time to admit your deep seated fear of clowns, when Keel stumbles across what appears to be a suicidal dive towards death, but which turns out to be a far more deliberate matter: one that involves trafficking across the Iron Curtain…
In what proves to be the most enjoyable story in this set, Howell gets to show a bit more of a human side than we’ve seen in a bit, taking his assistant cum love interest Carol (Lucy Briggs-Owen) out for an evening at the fair. There’s even a touch of the old sawdust and peanuts atmosphere enlivening the mix a bit. Not bad.
Next up, we get reminded of the time period in and for which these scripts were designed, when we go all early Saint (or Mr. and Mrs. North, or even early Mission Impossible, for that matter) and take on the dodgy accents, Cold War politics and eye-rolling overacting of Latin American revolution.
There’s some business about an official’s daughter being kidnapped and family politics that impinge upon (and are driven by) national if not global politics…you get the idea. If you’ve seen television of that era, you know exactly what to expect and are very likely stifling the same uncontrollable groans as I am. Next…
“There’ll be girls there that make that one look like a gorgon…and they veer towards the frisky, rather.”
Finally, Steed investigates an airline with some diamond smuggling problems that turn murderous for their mules. Going undercover, he attends a swinging sixties bachelor party full of sexy stews…and Dr. Keel is tasked with his most dangerous mission yet!
Well, OK, it’s watering Steed’s plants…
“An Australian, eh? G’day.”
Wadham puts on a bit of a Paul Hogan for this one, but it’s a little obvious, with his natural tones bleeding straight through. Yet and still, respect where it’s due: at least he never resorts to camping it up and getting hammy like some of the folks in the prior episode…
Speaking in terms of the set per se, Julian Wadham offers his now-typically sly and sinister take on John Steed (a version fans of the earlier, more cold blooded Patrick MacNee interpretation should find somewhat familiar), with a casual, good humored demeanor concealing a far more practical, even ruthless character beneath.
It’s unclear how well Wadham would handle the later, more bowlderized version of the character, but there’s no question he “gets” the earlier, more dangerous character as written and developed in the Keel through Gale era – which perhaps not coincidentally turns out to be my own favored version thereof.
Anthony Howell’s Dr. Keel is a bit more constrained by the character as written and the dynamics between the embittered civilian and his manipulative government liason – there’s ultimately not a hell of a lot you can do with Keel, when it comes down to it.
But that said, Howell certainly does his level best to bring some life and character to what is unfortunately a rather constrained and delimited role. From what episodes of the original we do have to compare against, Keel was barely a Venus Smith, much less a Cathy Gale or Emma Peel, so credit where it’s due.
The early Avengers are something of an odd duck, in fact, being neither fish nor fowl. The Keel era tends to please few, with interest even among longstanding Avengers devotees beginning to spark only with the arrival of Honor Blackman, if not Diana Rigg.
Well beyond the merits of the ladies in question and the respective character dynamics they shared with the character of John Steed, this was when the series became more lively, hip, even dayglo and camp (something that tripped the light fantastic straight into archness with the arrival of the useless Linda Thorson and Patrick Newell’s “Mother”). To fans of this later, more popular era, the Keel years seem not only surprisingly small scale and grimly realist, but in fact, positively stodgy.
As such, while some stories are better than others, the Lost Episodes is somewhat hard to recommend to a general audience, even one composed of folks with fond nostalgia for the series per se.
But for fans of Big Finish audios and appreciators of the effort folks like Wadham and Howell put into bringing these half-century old teleseries scripts to a reasonably vibrant life, this is certainly an interesting ongoing endeavor, if somewhat of a piece from one volume to the next.