Mixing it up yet again, episode five of series two – Mission to Montreal – introduces yet another sidekick in a story set on board a cruise liner heading for Canada.
Jon Rollason plays Dr Martin King and brings the number of Steed’s accomplices in this series to three (Honor Blackman and Julie Stevens being the other two). King is an echo of Ian Hendry’s Dr David Keel in that he’s a doctor, and also one only too happy to indulge in a bit of espionage and rough stuff if necessary – not exactly what you’d expect from a well paid follower of Hippocrates, but there you go.
In fact he’s more than an echo – he is Dr Keel in all but name, Rollason’s three appearances in this series all coming about because there were three unfilmed scripts left over from the first series, which were hastily repurposed after Hendry left.
Again, as in episode one (Mr Teddy Bear) of this series, there is a little bit of blindsiding meta-business as we’re introduced to key character Carla Berotti (Patricia English), killed off in her first scene, only for the camera to pull back and reveal that Carla is an actress and this is a film set. And then we’re hit again as Carla’s stand-in actually gets murdered, less than a minute later.
The action then shifts to the liner, where fragile, sexually loose, drunk, pill-popping but most of all ageing Carla is in a full tyrannical funk as the ship sets off on its voyage from Liverpool to Montreal and the star sets about falling apart while her entourage try to keep her together. Enter Dr King as a medic (and Steed’s placeman) who can give her something for her nerves, or a slap across the face if she gets hysterical, which she does.
Quite what Carla has to do with a piece of missing microfilm secreted somewhere on board, and quite why Steed is in disguise as the ship’s steward is all revealed in the fullness of time in a screenplay by Lester Powell that gives plenty of air time to the handsome Rollason and presses heavily on the noir pedal. There’s even a villain with an eye patch.
Money has been spent on the set. You could almost believe that this episode wasn’t shot in a studio at times, and director Don Leaver understands how to pace a drama by using close-ups to add a bit of va-va-voom. Noir, again, is the inspiration.
The woozy wonky actress trying to get her leg over is another echo of the 1940s but there are some very 1960s exchanges – talk of “squares”, the focus on having a good time and in particular a little speech by the chief engineer about tolerance and how “it can become a vice if not guided by a strong moral sense”. The chief engineer, spoiler alert, turns out to be a baddie in an episode that, really for the first time, moves The Avengers culturally into the 1960s. Somewhere out in the zeitgeist, Swinging London is warming up for its moment.
Nice to see John Bennett in his pomp as Carla Berotti’s minder, this heavy-lidded always busy character actor adept at playing intelligent serpentine tough guys more likely to cut you up with a sneer than reduce you to a pulp with his fists.
And nice, too, to see Steed at the end, now out of disguise, restored to his bowler hat, the headgear becoming increasingly his signature and a sign that all is right in the world.
© Steve Morrissey 2017