The very first review I posted on this site was for an episode of the cult 60s TV series The Avengers. In fact, the whole idea for starting Taking The Short View in the first place grew out of a longer background piece about the show I wrote for a general interest blog a couple of weeks prior to that. While I’ve returned to cover the programme only once more in the intervening years – which is just a small drop in the ocean compared with the many reviews of Doctor Who episodes and a large assortment of Nordic Noir offerings – I still nonetheless consider The Avengers to be the (unsuspecting) patron saint of my witterings here.
It was therefore with genuine sadness and deep dismay that I learned yesterday of the passing of the wonderful Patrick Macnee, who was and shall forever be inseparable from the part of gentleman spy John Steed that he created and played throughout all the various incarnations of the show over a decade and a half. He was also quite the best thing in the James Bond film A View To A Kill and his inimitable tones also struck fear into me as a young child when he lent his voice to the Cylon Imperious Leader in the original Battlestar Galactica. Macnee was 93, the same age as Sir Christopher Lee whom we also lost just the other week; and the coincidence isn’t just a numerical one, as the pair were actually at the same prep school together. There must have been something rather wonderful in the drinking fountain water there.
Without a doubt, some sort of commemorative salute seemed to be called for. After taking expert advice on the best episode of The Avengers to watch last night, I then accidentally made the wrong menu selection on the DVD and ended up watching a different one entirely; but no matter, because the 1965 fourth season is such a complete boxset of delights that you’d be hard-pressed to find an episode that isn’t a wonderful joy and an entirely worthy way of remembering the man and the character.
Featuring what many viewers regard as the classic starring line-up of the show – Steed and Diana Rigg’s Mrs Emma Peel – season 4 was the one that set the show up to be a huge hit in America. The next year would be a full-colour, big budget (by UK standards) affair, but this one was still in sparkling monochrome and has a touch of the home-grown parochial feel to it that makes it charmingly and authentically British, with just a dash of the endearingly amateur compared with the slick US productions of the time.
In particular, “The Thirteenth Hole” is almost completely set in an exclusive golf club and is a comedy of English manners and golfing etiquette as much as it is a spy thriller. While there’s a lot of location filming for this one, several ‘outdoor’ scenes still had to be shot back at the studio against a photographic backdrop (there being no such thing as green screen or CSO back then) and you can see the glare of the studio lights reflecting off the glossy two-dimensional ‘trees’ and ‘grass’, and the actors casting sharply defined shadows across the ‘sky’ which is clearly positioned just a foot behind them. Whoops. But really, all part of the appeal.
Steed and Mrs Peel arrive at the golf club while investigating the death of another agent. Initially the episode is quite slow and some of the scenes around the clubhouse rather dull despite the presence of some wonderful guest stars including Patrick Allen, Peter Jones (the voice of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy), Francis Matthews (subsequently TV’s Paul Temple) and Donald Hewlett (It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.) However once we get to the golfing sequences, the show goes into a whole new orbit with some delightful gentle slow-burn comedy, such as Steed’s time-wasting at the tee and Mrs Peel’s many devious ways of helping Steed win his tournament match against a cheating opponent. Happily there are a few fist fights to liven things up for the younger viewers as well, while the underlying story contains a genuine mystery as our heroes try and work out exactly what is going on here. For once Steed and Mrs Peel have to solve it through genuine detective work rather than by serendipitously happening to walk in on things at the right moment, as was often the case in these stories which were rarely inclined to work too hard for narrative robustness.
Best of all, the single setting of the golf club means that the majority of scenes feature both of the principals, rather than splitting them up and sending them on different tasks as the majority of episodes tended to do. Seeing Macnee and Rigg working together is a chance to enjoy at length their seemingly effortless light banter and interplay, demonstrating the boundless chemistry between the pair that is really quite the best thing single thing that the show ever had going for it.
There’s also a great final tag scene to the episode in which Steed cracks open a bottle of champagne and pours out a glass of bubbly each for himself and Mrs Peel, and they toast themselves before then driving off into the sunset on a golf cart. It’s a lovely finish to the episode, and I can’t imagine a better or more apt way for Patrick Macnee himself to sign-off as well. A man of true class, his laid-back warmth on screen sometimes made it look like he was doing the easiest job in the world: but he wasn’t, and the fact that there’s been no one quite like him before or since shows just how unique a talent he possessed. Our world is just that significantly little bit poorer for no longer having him in it with us today.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
The Avengers is available on DVD from Studio Canal and season 5 has just been released in newly restored high definition format on Blu-ray. Episodes are also being shown on the Freeview digital channel True Entertainment on weekdays at 8pm.