Back in September last year, looking at The Avengers: The Complete Series 2 (& Surviving Episodes Of Series 1) DVD set I remarked about the slow development of the quintessential 'Avengers' style in a series that initially was predominantly set within the gritty worlds of the British criminal underworld. By 1963 and the production of Series 3, we begin to see how that style emerged and eclipsed the pretensions to realism, voyaging from political conspiracy thriller to megalomaniac fantasies.
When The Avengers returned to the screen in 1963, the series had undergone something of a transformation. John Bryce had taken over as producer from Leonard White, Richard Bates had become script-editor and ABC had upped the budget on the series. Coupled with a core team of writers, who were now confident, willing, and certainly encouraged, to leave the grittier espionage of the Ian Hendry episodes behind and an acting partnership between Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman that instinctively understood what made Steed and Mrs. Gale tick, the series blossomed. The series became ‘appointment to view’ despite the fact that it wasn’t fully networked across the ITV regions.
The Avengers of 1963/64 embraced its Britishness at a time when all things British were making their mark on design and fashion, music and film. Michael Bracewell, in England Is Mine, summed up this new direction of the series, ‘in which the underworld of crime, the underground of popular culture and the hidden precincts of Cold War paranoia were compressed into a Looking Glass world where nothing – to satirical ends or not - was ever quite as it seemed.’ Bryce, his writers and directors captured that very moment in British culture when there was a synergy between the traditional and the modernist that was reflected in Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ speech, the boom in consumer culture, and the relaxing of social and sexual mores.
Steed and Cathy, for all intents and purposes, as icons of the English middle to upper class, negotiated their way knowingly through this tumult of British pop culture and along with the audience, were re-ordering and re-contextualising the roles of men and women in that culture. It’s ironic, considering Bracewell’s comments about the series providing a cultural reflection, that one newspaper at the time claimed the series was, ‘the thing that keeps the bright young things of Belgravia and Chelsea at home on Saturday nights’. This cultural relationship was also a two way street because those viewers who enjoyed the series were also recognising that series was beginning to play fast and loose with genre conventions, was in fact playing an intertextual game with them. In 1964, part of this game was to position the series in relation to the expansion of television and consumer culture. The fascination with fashion and style - Steed's increasingly mod-trad Edwardian suits and Cathy's leather outfits, the material comforts of well appointed Primrose Hill apartments - all began to use the spy genre to explore aspiration and mobility, the 'look' in connection with two socially mobile and sexually liberated characters. Dressing up, conspicuous consumption (the ultimate symbol is the champagne that Steed and Cathy tuck into on a regular basis) and affluence are mythologised in a series of Hitchcockian fantasy thrillers.
In Series 3, The Avengers dispenses with the international underworld, back street gangsters and ruffians and engages more with wrongdoers of the eccentric and whimsical variety. The Britishness of the series is also reflected in the fact that fewer and fewer episodes were being set in foreign locations and the narrative was becoming peculiarly insular and was starting to offer viewers an ironic and parodic interpretation of Englishness. This would form the final trajectory for the series when it made the move onto film in 1965. Here, it still has one foot in a realist discourse, notably in The Wringer, which examined the brainwashing of agents a la Len Deighton's The Ipcress File but its overall approach to Cold War politics and espionage was one of a tongue in cheek distancing as part of the series' hermetic Englishness. The villains Steed and Cathy started to encounter in Series 3 were more or less in it for themselves, substituting grimy realism for fantastic wish-fulfilment, political conspiracy for self-regarding megalomania, selfishly getting their own back on a society and a culture that didn't understand them rather than plotting to take over the world. In this way, the series seemed more a bizarre mix of Kubrick's Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove, A Hard Day's Night and the Boulting brothers comedies than at one with the 'kitchen sink' melodramas that were proliferating at the time. On television nothing else seemed quite like it.
Series 3 is significant for all these reasons and at the centre of this shift is the work of certain writers, Brian Clemens, Roger Marshall and Martin Woodhouse in particular, the directorial talents of Peter Hammond and Don Leaver, and the two lead actors. Between them they defined the style of The Avengers that would take the series beyond its video taped, studio bound production and into the highly stylised filmed episodes of the mid to late 1960s. Clemens scripts, witty and crafty, lead the way with Brief For Murder - two eccentric lawyers indulging in the legal challenge of acquitting Steed of Cathy's murder - Build A Better Mousetrap - a pair of dotty sisters using a jamming device to ensure their country idyll is left undisturbed - Dressed To Kill - a land owning scam exposed via a New Year's fancy dress party on a private train. There's also Roger Marshall's The Gilded Cage, a virtual dry run of Goldfinger with its gold bullion bank job plot, and the wonderfully eccentric Mandrake, with its parish church setting as the cover up for a rash of arsenic poisonings. Woodhouse also contributed Second Sight where cornea grafts add an unusual dimension to a diamond smuggling plot. Hammond and Leaver shot the episodes with their own inimitable styles with Hammond trying out a highly experimental approach in creating images. In The Gilded Cage he memorably uses mirrors to provide some very stylised and often dislocating visual sets ups. Leaver concentrated on character, often getting some rather energetic performances from his actors.
Key to the realisation of many of these scripts were the ambitious sets. There is some exceptionally good studio based work, especially where the designers have to realise exteriors without the availability of location shooting. David Marshall's rain lashed churchyard in Mandrake and the train station and train interiors in Dressed To Kill are stunningly crafted, Paul Bernard's work on the holiday camp in The Man With Two Shadows seems to anticipate Jack Shampan's production design for The Prisoner and there is also particularly good work from Patrick Downing and Richard Harrison on this series too. All were ambitious designers working hard in cramped television studios to get the scripts on screen and often performed minor miracles for the series. Their skills added a real sense of scale to the series.
The picture quality on this DVD set, although again not reaching the standards of the work on the BBC's Doctor Who releases, is still a great improvement on the original releases of these episodes. It is certainly very nice to have episodes showing the full width and height of the image where previous telecines had been zoomed in. There are good contrast levels here too bringing out the noirish black and white quality of the images. Despite the various picture disturbances - off locks, rolls etc - these episodes look the best they ever have on DVD.
We are again very lucky to have such a wonderful selection of extra features on this set and my congratulations go to those involved in putting together the various treats for us. There are five audio commentaries with directors and writers who worked on the series - the particular stand outs being those with script editor Richard Bates on The Grandeur That Was Rome, director Jonathan Alwyn on The Outside-In Man, director Don Leaver on The Man With Two Shadows where all three provide plenty of anecdotes and detail about the making of the series, the particular processes of rehearsing, shooting and designing the series. Fans will really treasure their recollections. A rather special treat is the commentary featuring Brian Clemens on Brief For Murder where his obvious love of the series shines through.
You will also find all the Channel Four intros to the repeat run of episodes from 1992, the 'Avenging The Avengers' documentary (screened in the Without Walls strand on Channel 4) and the extended interviews from it, all the scripts in PDF format and hundreds of stills in extensive galleries. My only bugbear with the galleries is that their design has the back and forward arrows and 'galleries' plastered on the bottom of each image. I would prefer images to be left clean and navigation not to interfere with them. Other PDF material includes a Series 3 promotional brochure, TV Times features, Psychology magazine and a real treat, a lavishly illustrated 'Meet The Avengers' book.
Alan and Alys Hayes have also gone to the trouble of reconstructing two episodes from Series 1 using a selection of promotional stills and telesnaps with Leonard White narrating each episode's plot. On this set we have Double Danger and A Change Of Bait. They offer a flavour of what is now sadly missing from the archive and its terrific to see the effort made to represent them here. There is also Part 2 of the Gale Force interview with Honor Blackman, and newsreel footage about Honor's Judo book! But by far the most interesting extra for me is the inclusion of the third act of the 1964 Armchair Theatre adaptation of 'The Importance Of Being Earnest' starring Patrick Macnee alongside the late, great Ian Carmichael, with Fenella Fielding, Pamela Brown, Susannah York, Irene Handl and Wilfrid Brambell. What we get here is tantalisingly good and I would loved to have seen the whole thing!
A stunning DVD set, more than matching the standards established by the Series 1/2 set released last year and a testament to the dedication and hard work of the team putting these releases together. I can hardly wait to see what they have in store for the filmed episodes.
The Avengers: Digitally Restored Special edition: The Complete Series 3 (Optimum Releasing - OPTD1672 - Region 2 - Released 15th February 2010)