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.