THE AVENGERS - The Complete Series Four / Review

The first series to go to 35mm film, using more location filming rather than confined to studio bound video tape, this is The Avengers that everyone remembers, as a vision of England wherein Emma Peel was 'rad' to John Steed's 'trad' and diabolical masterminds were seen off with champagne corks and a parting, pithy one-liner.

Whilst the origins of The Avengers were arguably rooted in the British noir of the late 1950s, the series continued to reflect the zeitgeist as it developed across the six series that spanned the Sixties. As it grew, so did the market for television product and the sophistication of television production. By switching to film in 1965, the international market, and crucially the lucrative U.S market, was wide open to the charms of The Avengers. Whilst John and Emma may have thwarted villains and scientists from world domination, the series itself went on to achieve the same. And so we leap from the realist Keel and early Honor Blackman episodes, which embraced the pulp stylings of Graham Greene and Ray Chandler via Soho and Limehouse, into something far more flamboyant. far more recherche. This is The Avengers at its all knowing, tongue in cheek best.

There are still episodes that play as throwbacks to the more linear stylings of the previous video taped era but as soon as you sit and watch The Town Of No Return you are immediately aware that a gloss of sophistication and post-modern awareness has been applied to the series - be it the influx of well-established British directors such as Roy Ward Baker, Sid Hayers, James Hill or Charlie Crichton or the lounge-jazz of Laurie Johnson's addictive new theme and incidentals or Harry Pottle's combination of period nostalgia and retro-futurist set designs - and that the Cold War would never be seen in quite the same light again.

The clash of East and West ideologies was wrapped up in a parody of the spy genre, where a touch of Ealing comedy gently mocked cinematic Bondian excess to provide a discourse on the real upheaval in social and cultural mores that England was struggling with in the mid to late Sixties. The Avengers of this period is littered more with disconsolate British scientists, angry executives, dilettante playboys, autocratic technocrats than it is with frigid Soviet double-agents and Communist infiltrators.

As Britain grasped Harold Wilson's rallying call to make the best use possible of the 'white heat' of technology, The Avengers spent a great deal of their time sorting out the failures, the forgotten and the simply misunderstood. If Emma and John stood for English adaptability in the face of rapid and often confusing change, then the Adrian Lovejoys, the Henry Boardmans, the Clement Armstrongs and John Cleverly Cartneys were, like some of us who were scared about the Sixties, looking back over their shoulders at a by-gone English age. Emma and John were the new England, lovingly born of nostalgia but brutally efficient with those that demanded a pre-Sixties status quo and hip-enough to register the equality between men and women. Thus they dealt with their opponents with casual grace - be they grumpy industrialists bumping off rivals with Cybernauts, a marriage bureau with a neat line in assassinations or department stores hiding atomic bombs.

Whilst it may have spoofed many science fiction elements within its format - taking 1950s pulp themes of alien invasion and twisting them round to suggest such attacks were coming from inner rather than outer space as a critique of the dehumanisation inherent in science and technology and the push to mass industralisation - the essential motif of The Avengers of this period is 'Britain versus the world'. This dovetails with the upsurge in British music, design, style and visual arts in the period - the so-called British invasion of the Swinging Sixties.

As the Sixties themselves were heavily influenced by Victoriana and Edwardiana, including the nascent drug culture, the dress, the rise of Empire and the surrealism of Carroll and Lear, The Avengers style was modernism seen through the prism of the 19th Century. Its panache was held in check by a wistful yearning for past glories and past cultural standards. It is an incredibly playful series that acknowledges the feel good utopianism of the period whilst also suggesting that many in power reject such intentions and desire to maintain the Old World Order by fair means or foul.

With Series 4, we're knee deep in what might be regarded as 'classic' Avengers. The move to film provides the series with a slick cinematic vocabulary - the chase sequence in silhouette in The Town Of No Return, the dream sequences in Too Many Christmas Trees, the confusing and labyrinthine house in The House That Jack Built, the fight on the miniature train in The Gravediggers are just a few amongst many worth mentioning - and there is a fair amount of visual playfulness to admire. The dialogue often crackles with subtle and not so subtle innuendo and Macnee and Rigg make some of the slower, more formal episodes worth watching. Dial A Deadly Number is worth it simply for the wine-tasting duel between Steed and Boardman (a great Clifford Evans) culminating in that wonderful shot of Boardman's monocle popping out of his eye when Steed bests him in identifying a wine.

The handful that are, in my opinion, quintessential viewing from this series are Too Many Christmas Trees (a psychedelic, nightmare inducing version of 'A Christmas Carol'), A Touch Of Brimstone (one of the most erotic pieces of mid-1960s television), and The Hour That Never Was (an extremely moody and atmospheric paranoid thriller) but much pleasure can be found in the majority of the episodes and that's particularly because of Macnee and Rigg's chemistry as they traversed the imagined Britain of 1965 and where the series, as writer Dennis Spooner once said, 'showed England as the world thinks it is, and England as England would like it to be.'

The DVD box set for Series 4 is perhaps the one that the majority of fans are eager to get their hands on. The restoration that Optimum and Studio Canal have been carrying out on the series really does benefit the filmed episodes. The picture quality here is exceptional on the majority of the episodes. Sharp, detailed (faces, clothing and set design come off extremely well here) and with good contrast and incredibly solid blacks, which is essential in monochrome presentations of this kind, this is as good as the series is likely to get on DVD. As I watched these episodes recently I sat there wishing they had released this on Blu-ray. The high-definition transfers created here are begging to be seen in that format. Sound is mono and perfectly acceptable with crisp dialogue and good replication of the Laurie Johnson themes.

I've also been made aware from Alan Hayes on the Roobarb forum "that previous DVD editions of this particular set of episodes have suffered from minor edits to some episodes and major edits to one episode in particular, The Thirteenth Hole. This episode has previously been missing over a minute of material - and Jaz Wiseman and Optimum have pulled out all the stops to ensure that this release is complete, and tracked down a complete print of The Thirteenth Hole for the set. So, this represents the first time Series 4 has been made available in unedited form." Thanks, Alan. Another great reason to buy this set.

Special Features

The Town of No Return with director Roy Ward Baker and scriptwriter / producer Brian Clemens. A pleasure to hear this as Brian and the legendary Roy Ward Baker tell us about the transition from video to film, working with Laurie Johnson, the aborted filming with Elizabeth Shepherd and the casting of Rigg. Lively, full of warmth and well worth the listen.

The Master Minds with scriptwriter Robert Banks Stewart. Good to hear from Banks Stewart on how Rigg picked up from Shepherd. Much praise for Macnee and Banks Stewart reveals that he wrote the first treatment of Casino Royale to star Pat McGoohan as James Bond.

Dial A Deadly Number with scriptwriter Roger Marshall. Certainly with the Don Leaver commentary, the weaker of those on the box set. Once the standard questions run out Marshall seems to lose interest and the chat fizzles out somewhat. There's a feeling that he also didn't like the direction the series went in during this period and he preferred to work on the Blackman series as he was more 'hands on'.

The Hour That Never Was with director Gerry O'Hara. Along with the Clemens/Ward Baker commentary, definitely the best chat track on here. Very nice to hear from O'Hara whose films of the period are now getting some deserved recognition and got the gig as a result of The Pleasure Girls. It's a good career view from O'Hara and some interesting background on the location filming for this story.

The House That Jack Built with director Don Leaver. Leaver tell us how it was in the transition between video and film and has quite a different view about working on film and with film technicians. Lots of praise for designer Harry Pottle's extraordinary sets.
    One of the slightly annoying things about some of the commentaries is that they suddenly break off in the middle of the conversation. Whether this is an issue with length or timing I don't know but it's a bit odd how they've been edited and dubbed onto the alternate audio track.

    Other features: 
    The Series of No Return - Exclusive audio interview with Elizabeth Shepherd. This is a fascinating interview. Shepherd, the Emma Peel that wasn't, gives her view of how she got the role, filmed one and a half episodes and then left the series. It's clear that she took the producers at their word when they said she could bring her own ideas to the series. And they didn't quite stick to their word in her opinion when she brought her own suggestions to the production on everything from scripts to costuming. Good to get her opinion at long last.

    The Masterminds - alternate UK opening and closing credits and alternate UK bumper. Presumably these were prepared for the initial press screenings and then changed to those we are now familiar with. Very much in the spirit of the video taped era. 

    Standard UK Bumper - If you caught up with the repeats on Channel 4 back in the early 1980s then this will be familiar to you as episodes went to the ad breaks.

    Armchair Theatre – The Hothouse - Television play made for ITV and transmitted in December 1964 and where Diana Rigg was spotted as the potential replacement for Elizabeth Shepherd. Written by Donald Churchill, this is well worth your time. It's a starring vehicle for the wonderful Harry H. Corbett, probably fresh from the original run of Steptoe And Son, and Rigg plays his wife in a gentle farce about an upwardly mobile supermarket owner and a young manager, played by Churchill, and his wife's attempts to get a promotion. Wonderful that Optimum have added this as an extra to the set. Hopefully we'll get some other programmes like this with Rigg, Macnee or Thorson in.

    USA Chessboard Opening sequence - When The Avengers was bought by the ABC network in the United States in 1966, network executives were worried that their audience might need something to help them 'get' the show, so they commissioned a short introductory sequence to fill in the perceived gap. The sequence was only ever broadcast in the USA.

    Episode reconstructions - From the first series we get reconstructions of Kill The King and Dead of Winter using narrator, telesnaps and stills. They're not bad and give you an overall sense of the episodes. 

    ITN Newsreel Footage - Some very brief snippets featuring the Avengers fashion show, Patrick Macnee's wedding, a Rigg interview (the only section with audio as the others are mute) and some footage celebrating the sale of the show to the US.

    Reconstructed John Stamp trailer - Presumably a trailer for the return of the show on ITV.

    The Strange Case Of The Missing Corpse - Test colour footage shot on the set of Honey For The Prince and offered as a mini-episode to promote the forthcoming colour series in the US.

    Image Galleries - Huge resource of publicity and on-set photographs from all the episodes with many rare colour shots. Look out for the whole gallery of Elizabeth Shepherd material as it contains a lot of colour images and on-set coverage, mainly of the final scene from The Town Of No Return.

    Colourised Test Footage - Someone thought it would be a marvellous idea to colourise the monochrome Rigg episodes. Here are the results. Why bother

    Alternate Tags and Opening Titles - Variants on the end tag scenes for several episodes and opening titles for The Gravediggers. Also includes the German and French opening titles.

    DVD Rom - PDF versions of the draft and shooting scripts from the series, ABC's episode synopses, ABC PR about Jacqueline Pearce starring in A Sense Of History to tie in with her Hammer appearance in The Reptile, Sue Lloyd's role in A Surfeit Of H20 and Emma's use of 'kung-fu', loads of production memos between the likes of Julian Wintle and Brian Tesler, TV Times and TV World coverage from 1965.

    A stunning package with fantastic restorations of the episodes and a wonderful collection of extras. A slight niggle is that spellings of names should be checked whilst putting these together. Elizabeth Shepherd's name is spelt incorrectly on the DVD menu and in the interview featurette there is footage of Rigg where her name is spelt incorrectly as 'Dianna'.  It's little slips like these that spoil an otherwise fantastic release. However, this is clearly what the DVD releases of The Avengers should have been like ten years ago and congratulations to all involved for the sheer effort spent on putting together these releases in 2009 and 2010.

    Essential purchase!

    The Avengers: Digitally Restored Special Edition: The Complete Series 4 (Optimum Releasing - OPTD1750 - Region 2 - Released 5th July 2010)

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    6 Responses to “THE AVENGERS - The Complete Series Four / Review”
    1. Surely Bank-Stewart is mis-remembering? The Bond that McGoohan was first approached about was "Doctor No". No?

    2. Maybe Banks Stewart is mis-remembering. I'm just quoting the actual commentary and I don't know enough about the early development of the Bond films to know if he's wrong.

    3. Anonymous says:

      Great, well written review. It's nice that you seem to have some affection for the show.

    4. Larz says:

      Brilliant review. I can't wait for this to be released, and of course I have it on pre-order.

    5. Anonymous says:

      Excellent erudite review. A pleasure to read.

    6. Again, many thanks for your comments on this review. I hope to complete these with a look at the Tara King DVD box set soon.

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