I’m of an age that my Avengers classic era was that occupied by Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson along with Patrick Macnee. Although I’ve always understood that these shows developed out of a radically different Avengers that proceeded them.
The arrival of Series 3 (1963-64) DVD collection on my desk introduced me to the point in the evolution of this classic series where Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, who, along with Macnee’s Steed, developed this eclectic TV franchise from its Police Surgeon roots.
While there are many commonalities between this second and last season by Blackman, who would then get propelled into film work with Goldfinger, there are also many subtle differences between this and the Avengers that I knew. The trademark Avengers theme isn’t here, instead a rather odd Johnny Dankworth jazz number is used, and there are no card graphics or even prosaic role-playing in these simplistic titles. These episodes were shot exclusively in black and white, and have that distinctly odd live studio feel, something American shows of the period had lost back in the fifties. Yet they also threw in some 16mm filmed location shoots, which serve to elevate the perceived production values.
Another element that gives this series some umph is the outfits they got Honor Blackman to wear, which range from the sublime to the frankly ridiculous. She wears all manner of leather ensembles and even formal riding attire; those with fetish predilections need look no further. More than fifty years on it’s hard to relate to an era where the idea of women as sexual independent creatures who didn’t need a man to protect them was entirely new, but if it started anywhere, then this is it.
Blackman’s Gale was all woman, but brutally tough with it. It often appeared that Steed would stand back and allow Gale to assault the bad guys purely for the entertainment factor. And based on the audiences the show generated, there was plenty of entertainment here.
But the biggest difference for me is the foundations of what Steed and Gale are doing, which is something subtly different from the spy-centric activities of the later seasons. Some of the stories have them engaged in activities that have no part in national security or anything like it. It would be another year before ‘Mother’ would make an appearance and the formality of that relationship was defined. This is all rather ad hoc adventure with little overriding purpose or plan. Steed and Gale come over as cerebral vigilantes, getting off on outwitting those who think they can buck the system.
A classic example is the first season 3 episode, Brief For Murder, which has them ensnaring a couple of devious old lawyers who’ve realised that getting people to commit crimes in particular ways can guarantee to get them off even murder.
This is one of five stories that have accompanying audio commentaries, this one by Brian Clemens, himself. Director Don Leaver, script editor Richard Bates, and scriptwriters Roger Marshall and Jonathan Alwyn contribute the others.
That’s not an especially high density of audio tracks, but given that this material is over 50 years old, I guess we should be thankful for what we receive.
The disc collection comprises of seven DVDs and all 26 episodes from season 3, when a UK season of a TV show wasn’t six or less episodes. They’ve also kindly thrown on here PDF scans of the scripts, and also dug out some documentary material in the form of ‘Avenging the Avengers’ (extended version) and Gail Force (part 2), an interview with Honor Blackman.
There is also some newsreel and promotion footage, an image gallery and some introductions for a few episodes with Macnee and Blackman. Some of the documentary content was created before the abysmal film version sullied the franchise, as at one point they ask Patrick Macnee if he’ll be the only person to play John Steed. If I could make it so again!
But a word of warning about this set, as nostalgic as it made me. This is the season before the Avengers transferred to being shot on film, and the quality of the video tape production is very poor in places. It’s not really even DVD quality, and the contrast levels in some scenes obscure all the fine details. If anything, the sound is even worse than the video in places, as it seems remarkably directional in some scenes. Unless the actors are stationary and pointed in the right direction, it’s often difficult to hear precisely what they’ve said. I can see why they liked Macnee, because his diction is remarkably clear, and punches through the poor recording technology.
The box proclaims that it’s ‘digitally restored’, but, to be brutally honest, the base data on which they’ve worked is pretty horrendous, so don’t expect anything magical in these episodes.
One other curious point is the very strange order they chose to put them on the discs. On the first disc the first screened episode of season three, the aforementioned Brief For Murder, is actually the second episode with episode 24, Concerto, being the first! Why? Wouldn’t it have just been simpler to have them in the order they were shown?
This oddity aside, this is actually a really nice set that gives a valuable insight into an important crossroads in British TV drama and a revolutionary show.
The Avengers Complete Series 3 will be released on February 15 and can be pre-ordered from The Den Of Geek Store.