The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 6 (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 24 August 2018 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 6 (Credit: Big Finish)
Written by: Berkley Mather, Ian Potter, John Dorney
Adapted by: Rae Leaver
Based on storylines by: James Mitchell and John Kruse
Directed by: Ken Bentley
Starring:
Anthony Howell (Dr Keel), Julian Wadham (John Steed), Lucy Briggs-Owen (Carol Wilson), Michael Lumsden (The Deacon),John Culshaw (Sir William Bonner),Dan Starkey (One-Ten), Pete Colins (Harry Black)
Music by: Toby Hrycek-Robinson
Cover Art by: Anthony Lamb
Duration: 180' approx
Originally Released July 2016

Big Finish’s exploration deep into the darkest heart of the missing Avengers episodes was always going to be a finite journey. There are, after all, only so many adventures for Steed and Keel to reconstruct.  And so this penultimate boxset sees the usual number of instalments reduced from four to three.

As with Volume Five, we’re also exploring some of the most missing of episodes where only a couple of typed pages of outline – of the type Terry Nation might have delivered to Dennis Spooner’s doorstep before vanishing into the night in his sports car – survive. And ironically this again creates a consistency and characterization the more complete episodes sometimes lacked. It was an inevitable reality of sixties television production that many writers would only have seen a handful of episodes of the show they’d been commissioned for. The difference in having a Steed and Keel crafted by people who’d followed this endeavour all the way through is notable.

 

The Frighteners

One of the key problems in any crime-of-the-week drama is the insertion of the regulars into the case. Some shows make this straightforward by having their leads be police detectives simply assigned to the investigation. Others almost made such a feature of the improbability that, Murder She Wrote style, audiences began to wonder if the lead was actually a serial killer and each episode a meticulous frame job. The Avengers has pinged back and forth from Steed recruiting Keel to help with a mission of national security that he’s been assigned, and Keel begging a return favour from Steed to help some patient or friend in need.

Of the former, The Frighteners is a bit of an oddity. It never quite convinces that “the Department” that Steed works for would trouble itself with a ‘frighteners service’ – a criminal enterprise renting out experts in intimidation and warning beatings. In fact, this particular case of a millionaire attempting to have a lothario gold digger warned off his daughter seems like something Steed would firmly file under “Not My Problem.” It may have worked better with the beaten lothario one of Chelsea doctor Keel’s patients and Steed dragged in that way.

It is, however, wonderfully daft. One of the frighteners gets his neck broken in a fight with Keel and Steed and is then extorted into helping them – led around town as their informant on the threat that they otherwise won’t bring him to the hospital to get his broken neck fixed before his spinal column gets cut by the jagged bone.  And the final resolution is so completely left field that adapter Rae Leaver suggests that it’s the result of someone fluffing their line in the original television recording and then the entire case winging an entirely new ending off the top of their heads.

 

Death on the Slipway

Our second case in this boxset is much more up Steed’s alley. A shipping yard responsible for construction of the Royal Navy’s latest experimental nuclear submarine is suspected of being targeted by the usual Unnamed Eastern European Foreign Superpower. Steed’s assigned to keep an eye on things, undercover as an metallurgist from the Admirality but immediately finds himself helping the police investigate a suspicious death. Very few Avengers stories are whodunnits but present themselves as games of cat and mouse between our heroes and their targets and this is no exception. But it’s an exceptionally satisfying one as we follow the two strands in parallel – Steed following the clues to identify the mole at work on the site, and the foreign agent trying to evade him and his increasingly fraught relationship with the British asset he’s blackmailed into helping him. Steed may be approaching Peak Flirt in these scripts but there’s rarely been the sense of danger and high stakes as is to be found here.

 

Tunnel of Fear

It’s hard to identify exactly what makes Tunnel of Fear so relatively forgettable for an Avengers episode. Whatever the reasons, the end result is a rather by-the-numbers story. It does stand out in featuring one of Steed’s other assets – a wrongly convicted man whom Steed has gotten out of prison in return for infiltrating criminal gangs for him. It’s a wonder Keel isn’t jealous as that’s usually the sort of work he gets landed with. The use of hypnotism feels very weak though, even if it gives Julian Wadham the opportunity to have fun playing Steed’s complete refusal to be hypnotized.

One unique point of interest, though, is that since this audio was released the original TV episode has actually been found. Allowing us a unique opportunity to compare and contrast the story John Dorney had to write almost from scratch to the actual end result.

 

A slimmer volume than most, The Avengers Lost Episode Volume 6 still contains enough drama, action and wit to satisfy any fan of our heroes. With Tunnel of Fear it also provides that rare opportunity for fans to get an insight into how close to the 'real thing' the other reconstructed scripts may have come. That alone makes it an essential purpose for the most devoted.

 





The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 5 (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 18 August 2018 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
The Avengers: The Lost Episodes Volume 5 (Credit: Big Finish)
Written by: Dan Starkey, Dennis Spooner, Phil Mulryne, and John Dorney
Adapted by: Rae Leaver
Based on storylines by: Terrence Feely, Geoffrey Bellman, John Whitney and Max Marquis
Directed by: Ken Bentley
Starring:
Anthony Howell (Dr Keel), Julian Wadham (John Steed), Lucy Briggs-Owen (Carol Wilson), Stephen Critchlow (Doctor Jones),Chris Porter (Stefan),Faye Castelow (Carmelita), Alice Haig (Stella Creighton
)Music by: Toby Hrycek-Robinson
Cover Art by: Anthony Lamb
Duration: 240' approx
Originally Released January 2016

Steed and Keel are back for a fifth set of adventures. This time it feels like the show has finally settled into a groove midway between the more fantastical episodes and the dark and brooding crime investigations. In part that may be down to a solid three quarters of this set being based on some of the most lost Avengers stories of all. Only storylines survive from the original production of three of these episodes, resulting in more freedom for the adaptors to build a more consistent tone and characterization into their scripts.

 

Nightmare

The first of these, Nightmare, has been worked up from Terence Feely’s scant outline by the multi-talented Dan Starkey. Known to Doctor Who fans as the Sontaran butler Strax, he also appears in these episodes as Steed’s boss One-Ten and various other parts. But for Nightmare he sits behind the scenes and crafts an almost original tale of a missing scientist and Keel adopting the missing man’s identity to smoke our his abductors. It’s a story which nicely merges two sides – the nightmarish effects of the pscychoactive drugs Keel unwittingly gets exposed to, and the finely ratcheted tension when a doctor involved in the conspiracy finds Keel at his hospital’s A&E.

Starkey does a fine job with a potentially difficult task – working with fixed plot points without, perhaps, the supporting plot gubbins that made them make sense and having to put his own supports in place. Certainly, a bit where the villains essentially post themselves to Keel in a package feels like something Feely had now lost reasons for. Overall, though, Starkey’s created a perfect blend of modern storytelling standards and the old school Avengers spirit. If he did his own, completely original, Avengers scripts in the future it would be no bad thing.

 

Girl on the Trapeze

You’d be mistaken for thinking Girl on the Trapeze was a similar case, but here is the only instalment in this set where adaptor Rae Leaver had Dennis Spooner’s complete script to work from. It’s an atypical story from Spooner, who was always one of sixties Doctor Who’s most ironical and witty writers. But there’s little levity or humour here, in a story that begins with Keel witnessing a young woman throwing herself from a bridge into the Thames, and follows on into a Soviet plot where teenage girls are being drugged up to the eyeballs and smuggled across Europe. Well, I say ‘Soviet’, but of course in typical Avengers fashion the exact identity of the superpower to the east of Europe with its vast, and ruthless, intelligence apparatus goes unnamed. Presumably ABC were worried about getting letters of complaint from the Soviet Ambassador if they said the obvious out loud, which seems positively charming to modern eyes.

Nevertheless, the general tone is very much of the Spy Who Came in from the Cold mode and sits nicely in the Avengers canon as one of the rare stories to deal with spycraft and counter-espionage with the same grittiness as the crime stories about heroin and prostitution.

 

Crescent Moon

Phil Mulryne’s Crescent Moon deserves a lot of credit for its authenticity when it must have been tempting to expand it. Another case where only an outline remains of the original, Mulryne keeps the Caribbean island setting restricted to what the show could actually have accomplished. So there are lots of scenes indoors, where you could imagine the location being nodded to by a ceiling fan and wooden shuttered windows, and the exterior scenes full of back projection and a couple of bushes on a set.

Where Mulryne possibly does take advantage is in easing back on the slight edge of Imperialist nationalism that’s shaded previous jaunts by Steed abroad. Yes, we’re again in a former British colony, and, yes, we’re again in a situation where the ‘good’ local leader (ie the one friendly to British interests) needs help fighting off the machinations of the ‘bad’ local (ie the one who wants the British kept out). But there feels like a better balance at play here and all the characters have their own agendas and motives beyond national stereotypes. It also helps that Steed is treating it all like a jolly holiday rather than, as on previous adventures, actively trying to leverage some nation into signing away its resources.

 

Diamond Cut Diamond

I’m trying to imagine what Steed actor Julian Wadham’s face looked like when he opened this script and saw that Steed adopts a broad Australian accent for much of it, but I’d say it was a picture. In fact, is was probably an echo of whatever passed over Patrick Macnee’s features opening the original, now lost, script.

Fortunately, subtlety doesn’t seem to be the intention here and setting vocals on “Putta notha shrimp onda barbie,” seems perfectly in character for what Steed would actually do while going undercover as a womanizing (of course) Australian air steward with a history of unproven accusations of smuggling. Balanced against this, though, is some of starkest and best acting Wadham has been called upon to do. Finding himself blackmailed for killing a woman in a drink driving hit and run, Steed’s blacked out memory means he can’t be sure if it’s also a frame job or if he actually has killed someone. His raw horror and angst at the possibility makes for an usually, and satisfyingly vulnerable Steed beyond the flippancy and wit he usually shows the world.

 

Volume Five is possibly one of the strongest Avengers sets so far due to the comparative free hand the adaptors have been given by fate. Ironically that’s likely due to the tonal inconsistencies of the original show from week to week being ironed out to create a vision that feels more like The Avengers that lives in our memories than the actual show often did. With relatively loose continuity between all these sets, you could do worse than make this one your first purchase in the Lost Episodes range.





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.