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.