Whether The Avengers is or isn’t a spy series depends very much on the episode you watch. The Outside-In Man very much is, right from the opening scene, in which Steed is seen walking into a butcher’s shop. Then, Man from Uncle style (which was in development when this episode aired in February 1964), he walks from the front of the shop and into the walk-in fridge with the butcher, who immediately drops his Cockney accent to brief him on his job.
Butcher/control Quilpie (Ronald Radd) is an M-like figure and has a secretary (Virginia Stride) called Alice but in demeanour and function her name might as well be Miss Moneypenny. It’s all very James Bond, in other words, and since Honor Blackman would be heading off in that direction in just a handful of weeks to work on Goldfinger, which was already being filmed when this episode was shot, a couple of weeks before transmission, the traffic is clearly two-way.
But, the plot the plot. This actually is rather good, being the work of Philip Chambers, who’d scripted the similarly spytastic episode The Nutshell. Good because it turns on realpolitik – rogue spy Mark Charter (James Maxwell) is trying to kill a former colleague who defected to the other side, because that’s the mission Charter was given some years earlier. The thing is, Sharp (Philip Anthony), the defectee, has since gained a miraculous promotion and is now a general in the enemy power’s army. On top of that, the general is now in the UK with full diplomatic immunity to seal an arms treaty on behalf of “his” country. So Steed’s mission is not to thwart baddies on the other side, but to stop someone from our side doing what he was once asked to do, to someone who in any other circumstances would be a justifiable target.
It’s a neat concept and it powers the episode along smoothly, the spy-gone-bad being a fairly bulletproof formula, case-hardened in this instance by the added detail that poor Mark Charter has spent years in a jail in Abarainia (third Iran, third Azerbaijan, third Bahrain?) being tortured after getting caught trying to pull off his assassination.
So we have Steed sitting inside his own organisation, trying to locate and neutralise the once-benign, now-possibly-bonkers agent; Gale meanwhile has been installed within the general’s organisation, trying to work the same trick there, just in case someone from that side of the fence is trying to scupper the talks.
There’s a very tidy and entirely apposite subplot, too, set in the gentlemen’s club Charter belongs to, and where, after five years away, he still expects “his chair” to be ready for him when he turns up out of the blue – and is outraged when it’s occupied. This trope – people being in the wrong chair – is repeated throughout the episode and is a nice analogue for the breaking of the social code.
The details of the case of the Cambridge Five weren’t fully known at the time this episode was written, and yet in the story of the spy who’s defected and become some high-ranking somebody for the other side, we see various echoes of what happened to 1960s spies Burgess, Maclean, Philby et al – most of whom weren’t actually, it turned out, heaped with any of the honours they were widely supposed to have received (unless you count booze).
As befits a brain-not-brawn episode, the whole thing dénoues – if there is such a word – in what will be for action fans a bit of an anticlimax. But, until then it’s been a fascinating story, ably brought to the screen by director Jonathan Alwyn. But most of the plaudits must go to writer Chambers, whose pacy script also switches location frequently, a tactic that injects energy into what could easily have been a collection of too many talky scenes.
© Steve Morrissey 2019