The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 4 (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 6 July 2018 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 4 (Credit: Big Finish)
Written by: James Mitchell, Lewis Davidson, Richard Harris, and Eric Paice
Adapted by: John Dorney and Justin Richards
Directed by: Ken Bentley
Starring:
Anthony Howell (Dr Keel), Julian Wadham (John Steed), Lucy Briggs-Owen (Carol Wilson), Dan Starkey (One-Ten), Adrian Lukis (Major Harrington), Elizabeth Morton (Stella Preston),  Karina Fernandez (Margarita)
Producer David Richardson
Executive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs
Music: Toby Hrycek-Robinson
Cover Art: Anthony Lamb
Duration: 4hrs
Originally Released June 2015 

This fourth volume of Steed and Keel’s adventures paddles more in the dark crime drama end of The Avengers pool before suddenly veering into wild fantasy towards the end.

 

Kill the King

In many ways a re-tread of last time’s The Yellow Needle, we again have a foreign leader (this time from an oil rich far eastern country rather than a newly independent former colony in Africa) being subject to repeated assassination attempts. Again it creates headaches for his security detail that he doesn’t care much about his own safety, and again there’s a tight deadline for an important treaty some forces in his own country don’t want signed. And unfortunaely again there’s a slight non-ending where we never even find out if the treaty is signed.

Where it distinguishes itself is in the tone set by original scriptwriter James Mitchell, who went on to create Callan, itself subject to a Big Finish revival these days. As indicated his later work, Mitchell has a much more cynical view of spy work than the average Avengers writer. Here that shows through in plot elements like Steed not genuinely giving a damn about King Tenuphon’s life or the oil he controls, but simply fearing demotion or worse if he fails in this high profile assignment. Tenuphon himself is a mean, arrogant man that Steed disdains, while the old boys network within British Intelligence coming in for the same scorn that Callan brimmed over with.

Mitchell also presents a rather more rounded and human version of Steed and Keel. He’s one of the few Avengers writers to remember Keel’s murdered fiancé too. Though it’s in what amounts to little more than a cameo for the good doctor (Ian Hendry clearly being on holiday the week this was originally filmed). Even Steed comes as close as he can to speaking of concern and caring for Keel, and pondering if working with Steed is what’s best for Keel, even if it’s to Steed’s advantage.

 

A Change of Bait

A Change of Bait is the first of these adaptations where I’m not entirely sure the originally intended tone has been captured. The combination of the story description of minor villain Potts having a very bad day, and the surviving telesnaps of the panicked performance of John Bailey (who’d later go on to play Victoria’s father in Evil of the Daleks) as Potts, makes it sound like the TV episode was a format busting comedy episode.  Instead the audio is very much a standard crime drama and while all the plot beats remain the same little is done to play up the more fanciful elements.

After all, this is a plot in which Carol’s landlord (given to having fainting fits in response to bad news) slightly accidentally ends up the owner of an entire cargo ship of bananas and the race to get them offloaded and up the length of England before they turn black. And it involves Steed doing his best impression of Peter Sellars in I’m Alright Jack and bamboozling dock workers with a bunch of pseudo-union jargon. It just feels like it’s meant to be played more ironically than it is here, where it all seems as serious as their cases about prostitution rings and heroin dealers.

It does get a huge thumbs up, however, for featuring an actual ending – rather than simply a punch up or Steed more or less shrugging that the details of wrapping up the case will be handled later. In fact, it’s a rather elegant bit of confidence trickery from Steed that winds things up in a nice sting ending.

 

Hunt the Man Down

Hunt the Man Down, meanwhile, is another rare case in terms of the challenges in adapting it. The original TV episode is lost. Very lost. Totally lost. In a case that should make Doctor Who fans consider just how lucky they are, there is no video, audio, or even script surviving from this instalment of The Avengers. You could argue that this gave Justin Richards, coming aboard The AvengersBig Finish team with this release, more freedom. But the Behind the Scenes extras give a window into just how hard he worked to make the script he worked up from the surviving single page synopsis as loyal as possible to the original TV show. Right down to calculating how much location filming they could have afforded and restricting the number of outdoors scenes accordingly. Similarly, Richards takes care that the length of any given scene kept to those typical of the time.

It’s to Richards’ credit then that this sounds so thoroughly authentic and doesn’t stick out at all on this boxset. It’s a nice little tale of cross, double cross and triple cross, with Steed, Keel and Carol trying to insert a little quadruple cross of their own. All in pursuit of a hidden stash of stolen money. It plays with the trope of the decent career criminal in conflict with out of control maniacs – but never losing sight of the fact a criminal is still a criminal.

 

Dead of Winter

It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say that this is The Avengers’ take on They Saved Hitler’s Brain, but it’s not that much of an exaggeration either. When the frozen corpse of an escaped Nazi turns up hidden inside a beef carcass being shipped from South America, it creates a bewildering mystery for Steed. It also gives Dr. Keel the opportunity to show off his German as he infiltrates a group of former Nazis plotting the rise of the Fourth Reich. (As usual, when in doubt The Avengers gives Keel some previously unrevealed skill to justify Steed’s need for him).

It’s only the conviction with which is everything is played that stops this from being an episode that would fit in perfectly in the colour era. With (distinctly half formed) plans to wipe out all life on Earth in a nuclear apocalypse while the Nazis wait out the radiation in a fridge. It’s all delightfully daft and also shows off Steed’s more comedic side. This most Bondian of stories start in typical Bondian style, Steed having to console his newest conquest, a Contessa no less, that he has to go as his country needs him. While later he also has to negotiate, for the second time in this set, with union workers at the docks for their help. It’s a world away from the grim civil servant fed up with the seediness of his assignment in Kill the King.

 

These Lost Episodes releases have always had a bit of a split personality. There’s little here for those that like their Avengers light and witty, but the one story that does fit that mould is so bizarre it might be irresistible.

 





The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 3 (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 14 June 2018 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 3 (Credit: Big Finish)
Written by: John Whitney, Geoffrey Bellman, Patrick Campbell, Gerald Verner, Bill Strutton
Adapted by: John Dorney
Directed by: Ken Bentley
Cast
Anthony Howell (Dr Keel), Julian Wadham (John Steed), Lucy Briggs-Owen (Carol Wilson), Dan Starkey (One-Ten), Miranda Raison, Sarah Lark, Geff Francis
Producer: David Richardson
Executive Producers: Jason Haigh-Ellery, Nicholas Briggs
Cover by: Anthony Lamb
Originally Released January 2015

At times, The Avengers feels almost like the work of two separate writing teams, working to very different series guidelines. Earlier boxsets in this Big Finish range included contributions from Brian Clemens himself, who’d go on to be the architect of the more whimsical and witty Avengers of later seasons, and the likes of Donald Tosh, known to Doctor Who fans as of that show’s more humourous writers. But this third set is by a completely different group, one who wholly embrace the original conception of the show as a dark, almost sordid series. It also moves Keel firmly back to centre stage. So much so, in fact, that Steed spends fully half his time running around on Keel’s behalf rather than the other way around.

 

The Springers

Our first story pulls the narrative trick of dropping us straight into an adventure already in progress. Keel is in prison, using his status as a disgraced former doctor to win over the members of a criminal gang. It’s only at visiting time we learn the real situation – Keel’s genuine medical knowledge has left him perfectly placed to work for Steed as a replacement for a jailbird medic Steed has temporarily gotten out of the way. That criminal is suspected to be next in line for an escape route that has mystified the authorities and Keel’s undercover work is designed to expose it.

Despite the novel setup, this is really one of the lesser Avengers episodes, with the secret of the escape route run out of a nearby finishing school for young ladies being rather pedestrian and not really deserving of Steed and Keel’s skills. It tries its best to make up for its slight plot by dialling Steed’s flirtatiousness with every woman to come within twenty feet of him but it fails to lift it out of the ordinary.

 

The Yellow Needle

If Steed’s giant libido can make for innuendo and seductive banter that would likely be seen more as sexual harassment this century, The Yellow Needle is possibly the first Avengers episode that feels like it would be entirely impossible to get made today. But for entirely different reasons.

Continuing the trend of new elements of Keel’s history and skillset randomly popping up out of nowhere, we now learn that he spent a year working in a poorly funded hospital in a desperately poor African country. And, for good measure, became best friends with his mentor – the then doctor and current Prime Minister Sir Wilburforce. Now in the midst of negotiating the nation’s exit from the British Empire he’s the target of assassination attempts and while Keel watches his back in London, Steed sets off to stereotypical Darkest Africa to try and root out the leaders of the conspiracy. It’s Steed’s side of the story that’s the real issue, with witch doctors, death cults, torture and tribal leaders distrustful of democracy.

It’s against a problematic backdrop too, with the divide between ‘good’ Africans who want to maintain close ties with the British Commonwealth and ‘bad’ Africans who want nothing to do with the British anymore. Added to this is a remarkably abrupt ending. I had to re-listen to three times to confirm that, yes, it really ends with Keel in mid-fight to save a victim’s life without ever telling us if he lives or dies or what the conclusion of the independence talks actually were. All in all, it adds up to the first genuinely poor episode Big Finish have yet adapted.

 

Double Danger

One of those episodes which inverts the typical formula of Steed recruiting Keel to a mission, here it’s Keel that finds himself up to his neck in trouble but with the good fortune to know a dashing bowler hatted secret agent who owes him a favour or three. At this stage though, Keel being recruited a gunpoint by a criminal gang to treat a dying man’s wounds feels like a bit of a cliché though we do get the neat moment of Keel sending one gangster off with a list of medicine to retrieve from Carol which includes the mysterious drug “Phonus Equus.” Though that’s mainly because, when Steed does answer Carol’s call we get to hear him dryly note what a terribly clumsy clue it is.

Perhaps never before have we seen the two halves of The Avengers’ personality as a show bump against each other so obviously – as Keel sweats it out in his tense and dramatic situation, and Steed wittily and humourously tracks him down. A scene in which Steed has to interview an old man who’s deaf as a post is terrific fun, and sounds like they had almost as much fun recording it. And Whadham sparkles in those scenes were, as in the previous boxset’s Dance with Death, Steed seems to be treating dealing with ‘ordinary’ criminals as a nice day off. He’s entirely inappropriately delighted, for instance, when a cornered gangster’s moll prepares herself for a visit to the station to stonewall the police and he gets to tell her he was actually thinking of perhaps entombing with some rats for company until she talked.

As is a recurring weakness in these episodes, the secret of this week’s McGuffin (stolen diamonds this time) is too easy to guess and requires the bad guys to be really quite thick, and the conclusion is little more than a fight scene followed by the end title music. But, as usual, it’s hard to care when the journey there is as nice as this.

 

Toy Trap

Probably the darkest story so far in The Avengers, Toy Trap deals with a prostitution ring scooping up teenage girls straight off the bus to London. Seduced first with attention and gifts the young girls joining the toy department of a major store are one by one inducted into the ring. Because after the initial seduction comes a suggestion to have sex for money, just once or twice to help set themselves up in London, then the incriminating photographs, and the blackmail threats to tell their families back home, and finally the iron fist of the pimp in charge of the gang and virtual slavery.

When Keel is tasked by an old friend with keeping a fatherly eye on the friend’s daughter while she establishes herself in London he quickly becomes alarmed by goings on among her circle of friends at the hostel for girls where she’s staying. So once again he calls on Steed for help in an area where Steed really has no official mandate or motive beyond doing a favour to keep one of his best assets sweet.

But the result creates conflict between them unlike anything since Keel was first investigating his fiance’s murder. Steed pursues it as just another case (and one he’s somewhat ambivalent about and wants dealt with quickly rather than neatly) and Keel sees it as a battle to save his surrogate daughter figure from rape. In a range where the resolutions are perhaps the biggest weakness, this leads to one of their best endings, as the two come to actual blows and the Keel/Steed partnership almost ends forever. Indeed, since Big Finish have shown a willingness to fiddle a little with the running order of these episodes, it’s almost a shame Toy Trap wasn’t moved to being the series finale. With only a small bit of tinkering it would have created a dramatic and effective exit for Keel.

 





The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 2Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 3 May 2018 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 2 (Credit: Big Finish)

Written By: Peter Ling, Dennis Spooner and Fred Edge
Adapted by: John Dorney
Directed By: Ken Bentley

Cast
Anthony Howell (Dr Keel), Julian Wadham (John Steed), Lucy Briggs-Owen (Carol Wilson), Terry Molloy (Jacques Beronne/Cafe Owner/Barman), Martin Hutson (Felgate/Porter/Clerk), John Banks (Marko Ogrin/Peter Somers/Policeman), Jacqueline King (Mrs Marne),Rachel Atkins (Olive Berrone), Richard Franklin (Inspector Tudor), Richard Hope (Kollakis/Sleeping Car Attendant), Dan Starkey (Phillip Anthony/Trevor Price/One-Ten/Watchman/Tough)

Producer David Richardson
Executive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

As Big Finish’s recreation of the missing, believed wiped, episodes of The Avengers’ first season continues into its second volume it provides almost a mirror image of the progression seen in the first boxset. While the original batch of adventures are hardcore crime dramas into which a steadily increasing sense of the strange and avant-garde is injected, the four which follow are high concept spy fun which occasionally veers into more gritty corners as if one or two writers on the staff missed the memo.

 

Ashes of Roses

One of the interesting developments of this box set is its willingness to play with the Keel/Steed formula. In this episode Keel takes a backseat to his own secretary, as its supporting cast member Carol (Lucy Briggs-Owen) whose help Steed is eager to recruit. It does feel comically unlikely that Keel is so cynical that things will go as smoothly as Steed promises, and keenly aware of how many near-death experiences Steed has led him into but still ultimately adopts an attitude of ‘oh, go on then,’ when Carol basically pleads to be let have an adventure of her own. This time out Steed’s been assigned to chase down a professional arsonist who left a dead victim in his wake at his last fire and his best lead is the exclusive hairdressers that potentially the next target. If using Carol as his ‘woman on the inside’ is a throw-forward to the plot of about half the Mrs. Peel stories, Ashes of Roses is distinct in that Carol’s lack of guile and weak explanations mean she effectively has “I AM A SPY” on her forehead and a target on her back from the moment she arrives. As is usually the case in these early stories, it all climaxes strictly to the formula (one part Hercule Poirot drawing-room explanation, one part Harry Hill “FIIIIIIIIGHT!”) but is livened up by a bit of business with an escape by train.

 

Please Don’t Feed the Animals

As you might guess from the title, this is most definitely one of the stories on the forward edge of The Avengers’ evolution, with a plot that could have been adapted to almost any era, right up to the days of Tara King, by adjusting the mix of silliness and drama accordingly. From the clanking typewriter of Dennis Spooner, always one of early Doctor Who's must fun and gifted writers, what grounds it firmly in Series One territory is the entry point of civil servants being caught with their pants down, quite literally, in honey traps with prostitutes and then being blackmailed into handing over first cash, and then state secrets. What suggests the series to come is the use of a private zoo run by a typically Avengerish eccentric as the handing over point, and the hapless victims being disposed of via crocodile once they’ve reached the end of their usefulness.  As with most of these stories were essentially introduced to the villains at the start, but there’s an additional level of ‘whodunnit’ at work here – though with so few suspects, you’d be hard-pressed not to guess the solution. But the real joy is the banter between Steed and the zoo owner as the two big personalities try to out-eccentric-Englishman each other. Splendid fun.

 

The Radioactive Man

Doctor Who fans are well aware of the necessity of the punishing 1960s filming schedule meaning a need for regular time off for the series regulars, but simultaneously a never-ending treadmill that leaves no gap in the schedule for it. In this case, even in my mind’s eye listening to the audio, it’s hard not to imagine Steed’s handful of very brief appearances featuring a sudden jump from videotape to pre-recorded film inserts – while Patrick Macnee no doubt surrounded himself with a bevy of adoring ladies while on holiday on the south coast of France. Instead, Keel moves further centre stage than he has since Hot Snow and gains his own sidekick in the form of no nonsense Inspector Tudor (played by the wonderfully distinctive voice of Richard Franklin, formerly Captain Mike Yates of UNIT). If the emphasis on Keel is a throwback to the start of the season, so it the plot. Okay, so it features a ‘radioactive man’ of sorts, but the case of an illegal immigrant, accidentally exposed to radiation at a hospital, and who goes on the run when spooked by the authorities’ desperate race against time to save his life, would barely be outside the mandate of Z-Cars.  It is however, very well done, and radioactive man Marko’s fear and anxiety, matched by Keel’s increasingly stress and determination to find him, makes for some genuine tension. Marko’s burgeoning romance with his landlady Mary too presents us with some of the most real, unironic, emotion found anywhere in the show’s canon.

 

Dance with Death

A story that bounces us almost all the way back to the start of the season, this is firmly an adventure for Keel, in which Steed plays a firmly supporting role. The long lost Dr. Tredding even gets a mention! It also reflects the sort of low seediness of the earliest episodes, with women getting electrocuted in the bath with heaters, and much of the episode touring the suspects with motives as mundane as wanting to seize control of her half of a dance school. Steed only shows up at all in the latter third of the tale, and then seems to treat the whole thing as a jolly holiday from his more important and stressful work. By the point he’s caught in a hotel, boring a hole in the door to an adjoining bathroom (“there’s a girl in the bath, you see”) he’s clearly having the time of his life. Dragged into things by a Keel frustrated by the lack of action by the regular police, our bowler hatted agent quite rightly points out that Keel’s supposed to be at his beck and call, not the other way round. And in a neat, but distinctly unAvengerish, touch of realism he notes the restriction that he can’t act with the usual blank cheque of authority to do whatever he deems necessary to crack the case. It’s both slightly unfortunate, though, and a testament to how well Julian Wadham has settled in to the role, that this is the first time for ages that as a listener you find yourselves wishing we still had Patrick Macnee’s interpretations of these scenes.

 

All in all, Volume 2 illustrates just how far we’ve come in a short space of time. Underlined by how even as the plots ping and pong back and forward between two genres, Steed is now distinctly Steed in both.

 





The Avengers - The Comic Strip Adaptations Volume Two (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 28 February 2017 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
The Avengers: The Comic Strip Adaptations Volume Two (Credit: Big Finish)
2.1 Playtime is Over by Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky
2.2 The Antagoniser by Paul Moris and Simon Barnard
2.3 The Mad Hatter by Matt Fitton
2.4 The Secret Six by John Dorney

Starring Julian Wadham and Olivia Poulet
with Lizzie Roper, Michael Keane, Kiruna Stamell,
Andrew Wincott, John Banks, Richard Earl,
Michael Lumsden, Paul Kemp, Eve Webster,
Maggie Service, Paul Chahidi, John Voce,
Terry Molloy, Ozzie Yue, George Asprey,
Jonathan Telfer, Anita Booth

Directed by Ken Bentley
Producer: David Richardson
Script Editor: John Dorney
Executive Producers: Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

Released in November 2016 by Big Finish Productions

Big Finish’s The Avengers ranges offer not only an opportunity for listeners to imagine themselves visiting the 1960s, but for the 1960s to visit them. In this case four stories originally published in D.C. Thomson’s girls’ comic Diana are developed for Big Finish’s older audience and for the auditory instead of visual medium. In doing so they acquire an extra level of knowingness while remaining aware of their roots.

The four stories all draw on familiar girls’ story concepts. Playtime is Over draws on the mystique of the circus and the possibility that some children might not be who they say they are. The Antagoniser is a story about doing harm to animals. The Mad Hatter is about a princess in danger. The Secret Six is about a fancy dress ball which gets very out of hand. All these settings suit the exaggerated, boldly-drawn and brightly-coloured world of the Steed and Peel Avengers, as well as source material where Emma Peel is presented very much as an aspirational heroine for a child readership.

Julian Wadham is a more earnest, straighter Steed than the role’s television originator Patrick Macnee, and similarly Olivia Poulet is a less wry Emma Peel than Diana Rigg, with a tendency to sound a little more exasperated by her experiences. However, these changes arise not only from casting different performers but from the change of medium. Listening to the Big Finish adaptatins, one realises how visual an experience The Avengers was, particularly once it was on film and the budgets seemed to increase every year. There’s no point in a raised eyebrow when the listener can’t see it. The challenge is to find a new way of communicating the tone.

These adaptations succeed to varying levels. Playtime is Over launches the set, but is the most awkward, perhaps because of its subject matter, adults of restricted height masquerading as children to commit crimes. They are generalised in the script as ‘dwarfs’ but one is played with a high voice slightly reminiscent of popular 1960s comedian Jimmy Clitheroe, suggesting a different condition. The effect is disturbing on more levels than perhaps intended. I’m not sure whether it was a good idea to draw attention to nominative determinism as an eccentric feature of one family in this story, when it clearly prospers in other families too elsewhere in the set. However, there is a pleasing reversal towards the end and several performances to enjoy too.

The other three stories are less troublesome. The Antagoniser is at first reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, as domesticated animals turn on humanity, but broadens into satire on familiar 1960s targets such as the television personality and the possibilities of mind control. The Mad Hatter and The Secret Six are both reliant to a great deal on that mid-60s Avengers staple, the comedy foreign accent, which can also make one wince. However, the vocal talents of the cast are impressive. Particularly evocative of time and place is Richard Earl’s Dr Verbatim in The Antagoniser, in a part which one could imagine Colin Jeavons playing in a similar fashion in the 1960s; and Maggie Service as Princess Helga in The Mad Hatter embodying – envocalising? – assumptions of mutual incomprehension and struggles with English, but also bewitching hints of sexual freedom, which seem to have peppered the British view of continental Europe between the Second World War and entry into the European Economic Community.   

The bane of fan reviews, I once read, was the paragraph towards the end which began ‘As for the sets and costumes…’ and I fear that where modern audio productions are concerned the equivalent phrase is ‘As for the sound design…’ Writing of which, there are several highlights, from the Steed and Mrs Peel’s apparent sabre duel (actually attacking a champagne bottle) in Playtime is Over; to the escape in The Antagoniser from angered, stampeding Ayrshire cows (though surely given where the comic strips were originally published they should have been Angus cattle?); to the horse chase in The Secret Six. Most of the music is cheerily Laurie Johnsonesque though not all, and this is just as well for these stories are not strictly speaking in Brian Clemens’s Avengerland but a place close enough to it for there to be policemen and working class characters. Then again, the (literally) highly-flown praise for British engineering (with of course appropriate sound effects) in track four of Playtime is Over made me think the writers were selling 1960s British industry to a 1960s American audience via the ABC network rather than remaking 1960s pop culture through the downloads and CDs of the 2010s.

The Comic Strip Adaptations Volume Two is a self-aware box set, scattered with jokes about the medium and the producers’ other wares. It’s mostly pleasant listening so long as one recognises that this is its own The Avengers and can’t be a recreation of the best of the Steed and Mrs Peel era. I hope that this isn’t the end and that the rights to the TV Comic strips are also available.