THE AVENGERS - Complete Series 2 & Surviving Series 1 Episodes DVD

STOP PRESS: If you nip over to the excellent Television Heaven website you can be in with a chance to win one of these great Avengers DVD sets from Optimum! Thanks to Laurence Marcus for asking me to review the set and for posting the review over on his site.

In 1960, Sydney Newman, ABC’s Head Of Drama, suddenly canceled a half-hour crime series called Police Surgeon. After a run of only thirteen episodes he felt the series wasn’t working, was too mundane, and he demanded a new starring vehicle for its lead actor Ian Hendry. Hendry, he felt, was the right person to lead what would eventually become The Avengers and he cast him in the role of Dr. David Keel. Joining him on the series were a number of Police Surgeon cast and crew, including producer Leonard White, director Don Leaver and actress Ingrid Hafner. Finally, actor Patrick Macnee was cast in the role of John Steed, a shadowy figure, an undercover spy, to whom Keel turns for help in seeking revenge for the murder of his fiancée by a gang of heroin smugglers. And thus television history was made. Well, nearly.

Optimum Releasing have now put together a handsome DVD box set of the remaining first series episodes and the entire run of second series episodes of The Avengers. All of the episodes receive their UK DVD debut with this release, have been restored and are accompanied by a very comprehensive package of special features. Most importantly, it offers us an opportunity to see how The Avengers originally developed between 1961 and 1963 under the producership of Leonard White.

A shame then that all we have as our reference point for the first series of The Avengers is the first reel of Hot Snow, the opening episode of this new series transmitted on 7th January 1961, and two other complete episodes The Frighteners and The Girl On The Trapeze. The opening 15 minutes of Hot Snow is terrific, Don Leaver’s Hitchcock inspired direction building the tension right up to the 'End Of Part One' title card, efficiently introducing the character of Dr. Keel and initially setting up the early videotaped series visual house style. Lots of close ups, lots of audience point of view shots where characters are framed by objects such as bottles and telephones in the foreground or the camera looks through staircases, doorways, windows. The first and second series house style is partly dominated by German expressionist cinema, also co-opted by Hollywood in the war years under the influence of émigré directors and cinemaphotographers, and created atmosphere from minimal sets and a fast recording schedule.

When the series began it also embraced the influence of the late 1950s and early 1960s pot boiler British horror and crime cinema of Corridors Of Blood, Circus Of Horrors and Hell Is A City, tapped into the pre–Angry Young Man series of social dramas such as Brighton Rock, Odd Man Out, Seven Days To Noon, It Always Rains On Sunday and the sleazier elements of later films like Victim and Peeping Tom. As the second series progressed, the story locations and styles diverged, capitalising on the growing desire for international travel whilst also exploring the preservation of British identity in relation to it’s rapidly developing post-colonial, post-Empire status. It’s clear the influences became less about the criminal underworld in the back streets of London and more about the Graham Greene and Ian Fleming view of the British on the international stage. Imagine a mix of Our Man In Havana and the James Bond cycle as the predominant flavour of the second series. Where the majority of British noir cinema outings generated atmosphere by the striking use of locations, The Avengers did the opposite and exploited its studio bound production, the economy of its set construction and its ‘as live’ taping to create an often feverish, claustrophobic tele-visual noir and the improved image quality of the episodes in Optimum’s welcome DVD release really heighten the chiaroscuro lighting and shadowy, high-contrast broadcasts.

The Frighteners and The Girl On The Trapeze, whilst they are all we have of the Ian Hendry starring episodes, are good examples of what the series was achieving overall in its narrative form during that first year. The majority of stories stem from Keel’s profession as a GP and his partnership with Steed. Make no mistake, The Avengers was designed as a star vehicle for Hendry and Dennis Spooner’s Trapeze indicates well how the Keel solo episodes worked within the structure of the series. Spooner’s script also inaugurates an ongoing and developing trope for The Avengers as a whole in that the story uses an atypical circus setting for a tale of Communist defections. Outlandish set-ups would increasingly start to drive the narratives of later episodes, particularly in the filmed series, but here it’s the exception to the rule and was an attempt by producer Leonard White to shake up the rather dull formula where Keel would bring various London based street gangs, blackmailers and crooks to book.

Later episodes in the first season did move away from these stock situations and take in deadly viruses, industrial saboteurs and political assassinations as well as more international locations. Patrick Macnee’s John Steed character didn’t feature so prominently and was very much brought into situations by Keel himself. It’s only gradually that Steed became more central to the series. Steed’s status and role in the series was also epitomised in his changing sartorial arrangements. As the Steed figure left Keel behind and dealt with threats on an international scale with sidekicks Cathy and Venus, the dirty raincoat and trilby uniform of the first series gave way to the iconic bowler, sharp tailored suits and the brolly.

The social realism found in Hendry’s pre-Avengers series, Police Surgeon, of which there is one extant episode, Easy Money, generously included as an extra in the DVD box set, was still present and correct in those first series Avengers episodes and in a number of second series stories. Where Easy Money comes over as a bit Dixon Of Dock Green and features a lovely performance from a very young Michael Crawford and a ‘crime doesn’t pay’ moral of the week, Hot Snow, The Frighteners and Girl On The Trapeze tap into a seedier London underworld as well as expand the stories to international criminal activity. It wasn’t the Reithian social realism of say, Z Cars, its BBC contemporary, and with the slow evolution of its second year The Avengers instinctively grabbed onto the style and culture of the 1960s, the technological ‘white heat’ of Wilson’s Labour government and realised its own identity as a cultural commodity that epitomised the era. Optimum’s DVD box set is therefore an opportunity to reappraise this evolution and understand that The Avengers didn’t begin and end with Mrs. Peel and Tara King but took its first important, social realist, British noir steps with David Keel, Cathy Gale and Venus Smith.

After its first 26 episodes a number of events also conspired to retrofit the series. An Equity strike held up production and during the hiatus Hendry took up the offer to pursue a film career. By the time production began on the second run of 26 episodes, Hendry was gone and Patrick Macnee was propelled into the starring role on the series as John Steed. Whilst the series went into production with a number of scripts that originally featured Keel, the Keel role was reconfigured, renamed as Martin King and played by Jon Rollason for a batch of three episodes, Mission To Montreal (a rather enjoyable caper on a cruise ship where Steed and King chase a missing microfilm and deal with neurotic film star Carla Berotti, excellently played by Patricia English), The Sell-Out and Dead On Course (an air crash investigation featuring sinister nuns that should get an award for its ensemble cast’s ‘Most Failed Attempts At An Authentic Irish Accent’).

Steed was also joined in his investigations by nightclub singer Venus Smith, played by Julie Stevens and, radically for the time, much of Keel’s activity in the second series episodes was transferred to the character of Cathy Gale, embodied by the iconic Honor Blackman. It was the serendipity of getting Blackman to play Keel’s largely unaltered lines in completed scripts that gave the Cathy Gale character such presence early on in the second year. However, the writing for the character went through some tortuous twists and turns as writers commissioned for new scripts realised that they were now writing for a female lead and it actually took a while to adjust and get a handle on the character.

Cathy’s first recorded episode, Death Dispatch, emulates Fleming’s Dr. No in its first reel, with its Jamaican location suitably underscored with steel band music, stock travelogue footage and Steed lounging by a swimming pool. The episode flits from Jamaica to Lima and topically features third world revolutions, positioning Cathy as a woman forged in the dying days of the British Empire now able to observe and comment on the changing mores of British society. Watching Death Dispatch it is abundantly clear that Honor Blackman made the Cathy Gale character her own from day one and the chemistry with Patrick Macnee is instantaneously appealing.

Simultaneously, Cathy’s first actual transmitted appearance, complete with leather fighting suit, in Mr. Teddy Bear, is a good example of how The Avengers would develop its surreal and stylish identity. A good thriller where the villain communicated to his victims via a teddy bear, Mr Teddy Bear hinted at a trope that the series would increasingly begin to indulge in: ‘espionage as camp’. There is even a hint of it as far back as that first reel of Hot Snow where director Don Leaver depicts the master villain, the ‘Big Man’, as a velvet voiced, dog stroking riff on Ernst Stavros Blofeld. As Toby Miller brilliantly pointed out in his BFI book The Avengers, the series, particularly with Blackman’s involvement, subordinated its grittier roots in exchange for something akin to the pop-art manifesto issued by The Independent Artists Group in 1957. It slowly began to understand its own sense of artifice, its style over content that signified gender play, fashion and materialism within a context of the post-war transformation of British society. The thriller elements of the storylines transformed from rather dull espionage tales into splendidly odd explorations of the occult, diamond smuggling, advanced computers and unbreakable ceramics.

If you wanted to pin-point the essence of what we now perceive as the typical mode of The Avengers, then look at Warlock, for example, which embraced the fantasy of occult worship being used to steal scientific secrets, complete with risqué, for the time, devil worship dance routines and in Peter Arne’s great performance as occultist Cosmo Gallion, a template for the many, many larger than life, arch villain creations that would populate the later filmed series. Propellant 23 also combined a Marseilles location, a frantic search for a lethal rocket fuel and a fabulous use of Cathy Gale’s garter gun to fell the criminals, offering an embryonic template for The Avengers later shenanigans foiling criminal masterminds. Another element here is the growing use of irony and wit. In Propellant 23, Steed and Cathy meet up in a Paris store where he takes a call from his superiors in the lingerie department, ‘Do you always arrange to take your calls in the lingerie department?’ asks Cathy, to which Steed replies, ‘If humanly possible.’ Honourable mentions should also go to Bullseye, a tale of arms and share dealing in South Africa with a great performance from Ronald Radd and to The Golden Eggs, a rather disturbing episode about bacteriological warfare that again showcases another wonderful performance from Peter Arne as villain Redfern.

Death Of A Great Dane was also certainly regarded as an early example of how the series would evolve into its later filmed incarnation. Its writer Roger Marshall would bring much odder characters and situations to the series and his audio commentary on this episode is highly recommended. He’s also quite critical of the early series, describing Hendry and Macnee as a ‘couple of spivs’ in a ‘pretty grim’ production. He also rightly praises director Peter Hammond who clearly brought a great deal of visual flair to the production. The design and direction on Great Dane is particularly good, if a little rough round the edges, especially designer Patrick Downing’s work on Getz’s office cum apartment and it’s complimented by a delicious central performance from Frederick Jaeger as master criminal Getz.

Half way through the second series story editor John Bryce replaced Leonard White as producer and he and new story editor Richard Bates would take the series forward into its third year, leaving Venus Smith, Martin King and Steed’s pet dog Freckles behind and focusing purely on Steed and Cathy in scripts where the style and tongue in cheek humour would be to the fore. It’s fair to say that Bryce’s half of the second series wasn’t as strong as White’s and it perhaps took him a while to stamp his own impression on The Avengers. However, White Dwarf with its audacious ‘end of the world’ plot and atmospheric observatory sets, the dull Mafia blackmail story of Conspiracy Of Silence featuring a very strong performance from Honor Blackman, and perhaps the best story to feature Julie Stevens, Chorus Of Frogs are worth watching.

The DVD set appropriately focuses on White’s hard work in setting up the series, its transition from Police Surgeon and its ongoing development, and features a number of interviews with him and fascinating commentaries on the existing reel of Hot Snow and on The Mauritius Penny, an entertaining script from Mac Hulke and Terrance Dicks where Steed and Cathy go undercover to expose a right wing political group. White provides some great anecdotes about working on the show, his relationship with Sydney Newman and on working in the studio. Moderator Jaz Wiseman quite rightly points out that the series at this stage is more a reflection of a Britain emerging from the austerity of the 1950s rather than it being the quintessence of what we all now perceive of as ‘the Sixties’ with its explosion of fashion, design and pop music.

The set also scores points by bringing in writer Martin Woodhouse to discuss Mr. Teddy Bear, by providing a newly filmed interview with the lovely Blackman (a shame Blackman couldn’t have provided at least one commentary for the set), Blackman on Collectors’ Lot meeting fan collector Ian Beazeley and looking at the series’ merchandise, and filmed introductions from Julie Stevens. There is also a comprehensive amount of supporting material on the set, including a stunning and exhaustive set of photo galleries for each episode featuring hundreds of black and white promotional stills and behind the scenes shots as well as some beautiful and very rare colour images. You’ll also find reprints of the original publicity brochure and Leonard White’s scrapbooks, which are worth their weight in gold just to clap your eyes on the telesnaps of the missing episodes of the first season. You can also download PDF versions of all the scripts, including a couple from the now missing first year, a TV Crimebusters comic strip, TV Times covers (for Police Surgeon and The Avengers), a ‘knit with The Avengers’ feature from Woman’s Mirror featuring Hendry and Hafner modelling some choice knitwear and music cue sheets.

In terms of picture quality you shouldn’t expect the meticulous clean ups applied by the BBC’s restoration team to the 1960s episodes of Doctor Who for DVD. The episodes are sporadically littered with picture disturbances, blemishes, dirt and scratches but the sharpness and contrast are vastly improved from previous Region 1 DVD releases, rectifying much of the picture loss from zoomed in telecines, and overall this is probably the best quality these episodes will achieve for DVD release without a complete, expensive and time consuming clean up. Optimum and StudioCanal should be praised for at least making the effort to tidy up the episodes both visually and aurally and any inconsistencies certainly do not distract. Jaz Wiseman (very good as a moderator on the commentaries) and Alan Hayes should also be congratulated for suggesting and putting together an exceptional range of special features and the set is an essential purchase for these efforts alone.

Roll on the release of the restored Series Three!

The Avengers: Digitally Restored Special edition: The Complete Series 2 And Surviving Episodes From Series 1 (Optimum Releasing - OPTD1654 - Region 2 - Released 5th October 2009)

3 Responses to “THE AVENGERS - Complete Series 2 & Surviving Series 1 Episodes DVD”
  1. Anonymous says:

    great review, I cannot wait for this set!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Honor is absolutely beautiful. She inspires me for so many reasons, Cathy is so much better than Emma Peel

  3. Anonymous says:

    Honor is absolutely gorgeous in every way! I love her so much better than Emma Peel and Diana Rigg. She is the best Avengers and Bond girl and always will be!!!

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