on 9 June 2014
For the small handful of those who don’t know The Avengers, here’s a brief overview:
A legendary British TV Series from the 1960s (and one of the only to get a main US Network prime time slot), The Avengers centred around the increasingly bizarre and outlandish adventures of mysterious Government Agent John Steed (played by Patrick MacNee), most famously accompanied by Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) and Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman, who quit the series to do Goldfinger). They would solve the baffling, the impossible and the downright weird in consummate style, drifting from crime drama to fantasy to dark comedy. The wit was always sublime, the innuendo never naughty and the mix of drama and humour blended to perfection. The series continues to be a hit with viewers worldwide, but few know the actual origins of the series or the reason the for title, mainly because the first series was never really sold overseas and the tapes have long been wiped.
Enter Big Finish Productions…
Already known as skilled professionals at producing authentic original dramas based on popular TV shows, they were the obvious ones to bring these stories back. Unusually for them, these are not new stories, but adaptations of the original scripts from those lost episodes. Each has been carefully tweaked by John Dorney, who has refrained from updating and altering the scripts beyond the minimal amount of changes required to make a comprehensible audio version of the story. Outstanding casting and an excellent soundscape that uses original music cues and period styling complete the package.
But are they any good?
In short, outstandingly so. They sound exactly as you would expect a series from this time to, with the characters and action leaping into your mind with such clarity that you feel you must have actually seen the story before. The cast is simply stunning, Anthony Howell (Foyle’s War) and Julian Wadham (Downton Abbey) bring Keel and Steed to such life that you cannot imagine anyone else playing the parts, with both wisely avoiding the trap of trying to copy the original performers. The supporting cast is also consistently excellent, a variety of both well and less known actors all throwing themselves into each story with great aplomb.
The soundscape is also outstanding, period music cues helping to create the perfect atmosphere. There are a couple of occasions where tweaks have obviously been made to make the action clearer on audio (and one where this wasn’t done!), but these don’t detract from the whole and each story shines.
And now, onto the episodes themselves:
1: Hot Snow
Written by Ray Rigby
This is where it all began, before Emma Peel, before the kinky boots and even before the bowler hat.
Dr David Keel is without a care in the world, planning his upcoming wedding to his beautiful secretary… when out of the blue, she is brutally gunned down in broad daylight on a London street. Devastated and confused at this apparently motiveless crime, Keel is compelled to solve the mystery and ‘avenge’ her death. As he digs deeper, he encounters a mysterious stranger, who might be able to help…
Setting up the premise for the whole series, this episode needed to cover a lot of ground, which it manages to do effectively and economically. Instead of the modern trend to have acres of anguish, self-recrimination and descent into nightmares, Keel simply locks his emotions down and focuses the energy into quiet determination and stoicism. Anthony Howell manages to present Keel as a very British Everyman: no unnecessary moping or self-doubt here, the upper lip is indeed stiff, as are the fists when necessary.
Julian Wadham on the other hand, is given a much less obvious role in this episode, his character isn’t even named and his motives are as clear as mud. Just who is this man and whose side is he on?
Storywise, the plot manages to avoid being too convoluted, but the opening itself is rather confusing: it is a very visual scene that sounds somewhat strange on audio and it is only from comments made later on that we can actually understand fully what was going on. Barring this, a strong opening episode, with enough loose threads to bring you back for more.
2: Brought To Book
Written by Brian Clemens
Still on the trail of those responsible for hie fiancé’s murder, Dr Keel agrees to help his new associate bring down two warring gangs running wild in the gambling community. But with lies and deception the order of the day, can Keel really trust John Steed?
While still a little convoluted, this second outing makes a great deal more sense than the first episode, clearing up a number of outstanding plot points while settling down the basic premise of the show. While there is some sense of closure here, it is clear that Keel and Steed are going to continue working together.
Both stars are given plenty to do, with Wadham again keeping some of the mystery surrounding Steed. Importantly, while this does at times feel like the second part of a two-parter, it was written and presented as an entirely separate episode, just with some carry overs from previously. This was something the writers would go on to avoid, working hard to keep each story self-contained with little ongoing plot or character arc. This allowed for stories to be enjoyed without any prior knowledge of the series, ensuring casual viewers wouldn’t feel ‘lost’.
3: Square Root of Evil
Written by Richard Harris
Undercover in a forgery gang, can Steed find his target and avoid getting killed by ‘The Cardinal’? Maybe he needs a visit from his friendly Doctor…
Much more of a straightforward crime/mystery plot, Square Root of Evil carries itself lightly on the ears, with great characters and a rattling yarn that while mostly predictable, is great fun to listen to. I say ‘mostly’ as it was beginning to look as though Dr Keel wasn’t even going to make an appearance, but if he was, how was it going to be achieved, the plot didn’t make it obvious. When he does finally appear, it is plausible though and works to the strengths of both characters.
This has clearly been chosen as a vehicle to showcase Wadham’s Steed and the range he can bring to the role, as he needs to be several different people and handle some tricky situations. Mention shouldalso be made of the main guest character, The Cardinal: He is a fantastically nasty piece of work that while apparently Australian seemed to be channeling Christopher Ellison! I’m fairly sure he’s not the kind of person you would want to meet in broad daylight, let alone after dark!
4: One for the Mortuary
Written by Brian Clemens
Taking a well-earned busman’s holiday to a WHO conference in Geneva, Dr Keel is surprised to be approached by Steed for help. And when that help results in a deadly game of cat and mouse across Switzerland, Keel begins to wonder if he’ll even survive this holiday.
If the previous episode was Wadham’s, this one is very much Anthony Howell’s. Dr Keel is given the lion’s share of the plot, with a beautiful femme fatale to rescue and one or two fantastically odd characters. This feels much more like The Avengers we would go on to recognise and love, with overtones of the bizarre and downright surreal. This is a definite caper, with a surety of plot and writing that ably demonstrates Brian Clemens skill at producing great entertainment without dumbing down. Despite Steed’s assertion that there would be ‘no witty sallies’ this time, they definitely are there and are most welcome; the script positively sparkles.
So, a good run of episodes, beautifully presented and chosen to showcase the ongoing series. I’ve already pre-ordered the second volume, available from bigfinish themselves at a sensible price. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys good stories and real entertainment, with just a touch of nostalgia for a simpler time and style that seems to have all but vanished.