The Scenester checks out the man and his most infamous Avengers episode.
There are few things that bear a more solid guarantee of brightening my day, than the prospect of an evening on the South Bank with Mme. Scenester, a bottle of Chateau Waterloo Bridge and a screening at the NFT. What made this evening extra special, was that the show in question was not only an excellent episode of my favourite TV show, The Avengers, but also an interview with the show’s creator, Brian Clemens. To a packed house, and with a few familiar Mods about town in attendance, we were straight into one of the best loved, and most controversial episodes of the Patrick MacNee / Diana Rigg era, ‘A Touch of Brimstone’.
The action opening in a sumptuous baronial home, where an aristocratic sybarite is watching television, whilst poring over his selection from a huge box of fine chocolates. The Hon. John Clavely-Cartney, played with considerable relish by everyone’s favourite rake and bounder, Peter Wyngarde, is watching with childlike glee, the loss of face of an East European diplomat, whose cigar has been peppered with explosives, live in front of millions of viewers. It has by now probably become a cliché to say it, but let’s say it anyway:
‘Mrs Peel? We’re needed.’
We are instantly transported to another scene of potential national embarrassment, this time a night at the opera for an Arab dignitary, resplendent in his private box, our two heroes keeping watch in the cheap(er) seats. The collapse of the floor below our distinguished visitor after the playing of his national anthem, with Steed & Mrs Peel as surprised as anyone, means the swift departure of the Eastern potentate and the instant loss of a valuable oil contract.
The standard of Avengers episodes was consistently high throughout the show’s life, but this one is a true standout. There is not a single aspect of the production that I can fault, from the script, the costumes, the sets, the acting, and the basing of the lead villain on a real historical figure, Sir Francis Dashwood, and his notorious Hellfire Club, is a master-stroke on Brian Clemens’ part.
Our heroes have already guessed at the identity of the perpetrator of these ridiculous and costly pranks, an arrogant, rich dandy whose name has already been mentioned here. His accomplices are his similarly inclined group of friends, who have recreated the Hellfire Club in all its horrible glory. Pursuing a life of unadulterated and rather raffish pleasure, their carefree attitude to life threatens the security of our country. Steed & Mrs Peel plan a two-pronged attack on this wayward son of the aristocracy. Whilst Mrs Peel poses as a charity worker, and purring, ‘I want to appeal to you’, manages to extract a fat cheque from Cartney, avoiding his slimy offer of dinner one evening, Steed successfully applies for membership of the Hellfire Club after downing a huge stone jar of wine and stylishly avoiding the loss of a finger in a game of speed with a pikestaff.
An auspicious date in the Club’s calendar is approaching, and Steed & Mrs Peel are keen not to miss ‘The Night Of All Sins’, particularly as the party will be a good cover for the plot to blow up a peace conference being held on the same night. Steed opts for the classic dandy look for the evening, complete with tapered hat and swagger stick, whereas Mrs Peel is demure in a lace dress and nosegay on a string, although not for long. It is the next scene, at the club’s orgiastic revels, and one later on, that presented a few problems to the TV company heads who would be screening the show. Mrs Peel is dragged away by a couple of ladies in waiting and clad, under duress, in an outfit more reminiscent of the ‘Batcave’ nightclub in the 1980s, than the swinging ’60s. In her tall, back-laced leather boots, fishnets, tight cinched balcony basque and spiky dog collar; we can only imagine how many coronaries this induced in the male viewing population! Cartney declares Mrs Peel ‘The Queen of Sin’ (have mercy!) and offers her to the salivating crowd, ‘To do with what you will’, echoing Sir Francis Dashwood’s famous dictum, later appropriated by another infamous pleasure seeker, Aleister Crowley.
Steed meanwhile, getting close to the truth, and after an exciting sword fight, manages to prevent the fireworks, whilst Mrs Peel, free of her would-be ravishers, is followed into the catacombs of the castle by the resident flyweight prizefighter. She defeats the sprite-like pugilist with some high speed, deadly kicks, but Cartney is quick to step in. Another problematic scene, this is the one that earned it a ban in the USA, and several cuts and a post-watershed showing non British TV. Cartney is setting about our lovely heroine with his whip, but she defends herself against the foppish brute with her usual dignity, and Cartney’s careless use of the cord makes it wrap itself around a secret switch on the wall, releasing the catch on the trapdoor he happens to be standing over, and he is dropped straight into the oubliette. Our heroes leave in great style, in a horseless carriage, and at last, I can draw a breath!
Without a pause, Dick Fiddy ushered the great man onto the stage, and I had my first real life sighting of Brian Clemens. In apparent good health and humour, Brian recalled that the US ban on the episode did not prevent the studio heads from showing it at their junkets, to great success. My own first sighting of the unexpurgated episode was at the late, lamented Scala Cinema in London’s Kings Cross, and it was longer than the version shown here, apparently the UK TV version, with much of the whipping removed. The complete episode also, I recall, got a showing on British TV in the 80s/90s, but to my knowledge, this is the only time it has been broadcast in the UK.
Brian’s stories of working on the show were a joy to listen to, going back to the earliest days, when it was called ‘Police Surgeon’ and starred Ian Hendry as a doctor, widowed by a criminal gang, who swore to ‘avenge’ his wife’s death. Patrick MacNee, whose city gent character was already established, although the essential bowler was not yet in evidence, played his partner in the crusade; he sported a homburg instead. Few episodes of this show still exist, and Brian recalled Ian Hendry’s dependence on alcohol was a major stumbling block to making the kind of show they wanted. The show was given a re-vamp, Steed was teamed up with a sassy female partner, Mrs Cathy Gale, played by the svelte Honor Blackman.
Brian recalled that the ‘action girl’ persona of Mrs Gale came about partly by accident, as the part was originally written for a man. They found Honor adaptable and up for the role as written, and so her judo-throwing, high kicking character was born. Her leather cat suit, originally chosen to give her a little dignity in the high kicks (really?) was quickly replaced with PVC, as it creaked too much! The night’s proceedings were complemented by a showing of the French titles to the Rigg-era show, ‘Chapeau Melon et Bottes de Cuir’ (Bowler Hat and Leather Boots!) and a short clip of Steed & Mrs Peel voiced by French actors.
Brian’s pride in making the show was evident throughout his conversation with Dick Fiddy, and he shared many anecdotes with us. The one that particularly stuck in my mind, was the one about them being left to their own devices by the US backers, who, Brian said, felt that the show was like a house of cards; if upset, the whole thing could come crashing down. It is hard to imagine, he said, any TV producer getting this level of autonomy today. Everyone from the advertisers to the company accountant would want a say in its making. The mention of the ‘house of cards’ did, of course, remind us of two similar, particularly good episodes in the Blackman and Rigg series, where our heroines are being menaced in a haunted-house scenario. ‘The Joker’ anyone?
Asked by your humble narrator to give his views on why the show has continued to sell, and outlasted all of its contemporaries, Brian modestly put it down to consistently good work on everyone’s part, and I can see no reason to disagree with that. Their use of 35mm film in the later, colour Rigg & Thorson series ensured a life beyond flimsy and easily wiped and re-used videotape, and the complete exclusion of the ‘real’ world from the stories, the lack of mundane, ‘everydayness’ gave it an otherworldly quality that cannot date so easily as, say, a ‘gritty’ drama would.
Another audience member asked if Brian remembered what role Kenneth Williams mentioned as turning down in his hilarious diaries, published a few years ago. Brian could not remember of course, – give him a break, its over 45 years ago! – but he did say that Williams could have taken on any of the parade of eccentrics in the supporting roles, which I would agree with completely. The questions kept coming from the floor, including one about the availability of the incidental music, which we learned was specially composed for the show.
Brian’s feeling was that with the end of the Thorson series, the show had not yet run its course, and he intimated that there were around 40 episodes that could have been made, but for whatever reason, they were not. The short-lived stage play was mentioned, as well as current interest from Germany in re-staging it, and the later, and in my view wholly inferior, New Avengers series was also touched on. Was the presence of the former model and now all-round campaigner, Joanna Lumley, possibly the only reason to watch it? Even the hated film, made in the 90s, for some unknown reason, was mentioned, with merciful brevity.
All this made a perfect evening at the NFT, and I can only say, if you missed it, better luck next time.