And so, drum roll, The Town of No Return and the beginning of series 4. And with it the arrival of Diana Rigg as Mrs Emma Peel, the story going that the new partner for Steed would have to have “man appeal” or M-appeal for short. Hence the name.
She’s not the only new arrival – more money has clearly turned up, allowing the series to be shot on film and on location much more often. So no more studio-bound “as live” episodes rehearsed one day and shot the next. John Dankworth’s theme music has also been retired. Its jazzy plangency was fine for a 1950s style noirish detective series featuring Steed in trenchcoat with turned-up collar but it was becoming increasingly out of place as The Avengers became kookier. Instead, in comes Laurie Johnson’s glam, jaunty, upbeat, panto-dramatic theme, which still manages to find a placing in “greatest TV themes” polls over 50 years later.
This episode was originally shot with Elizabeth Shepherd as Mrs Peel, but was then reshot after it was decided that Shepherd wasn’t quite what was required. This might explain the confusion over who wrote and directed – the imdb tells us that Roy Ward Baker and Peter Graham Scott directed but the screen credits say it was Sidney Hayers. As to writers, the screen says Philip Levene, most other sources claim it was Brian Clemens.
It certainly feels like Clemens, with his bizarro hallmarks evident from the very first shot – a man in a big waterproof envelope walking out of the sea, unzipping himself and then heading off inland in tweeds and carrying a brolly, to the complete disinterest of a local fisherman fixing a basket.
And then it’s the Steed-meets-Peel moment, in her apartment, a Swinging kind of place with a gigantic winking eye on the door, inside which Mrs Peel is fencing. Her action-woman credentials asserted and the baton successfully passed from Honor Blackman to Diana Rigg, the very comfortably paired duo (not least because they’d already shot 13 episodes together by the time this one was shot/reshot) head off to a seaside town where agents keep going missing.
En route we get a lift from Mary Poppins, as Steed offers Mrs Peel tea and pulls the works – China and Indian tea, crockery, a cake stand with petits fours – from his capacious carpet bag, as they travel on the train together.
A fellow traveller is Jimmy Smallwood, played by Patrick Newell, who would later become a significant part of The Avengers formula as Mother, Steed and his sidekick’s control, but here is playing a timid man visiting his brother, unaware that he’s going to become the latest victim of the mysterious disappearances.
The town itself, and particularly its pub, the Inebriated Gremlin, is a grim and unwelcoming place, in spite of the hail-fellow-well-met of mine host Piggy Warren (Terence Alexander perfectly cast as an ex RAF chap whose kept all the mannerisms and even the handlebar moustache). There, Steed and Peel go to work, she posing as a new teacher, he as a property scout, while the tally of victims keeps rising.
In many respects it’s Gale era Avengers – bantering dialogue, sexual tension, a mystery and a pub – but in one important regard it’s different. The town is pretty much deserted, as is the local RAF base. Everyone the duo meet – landlord, vicar, blacksmith, village school teacher – is a new arrival. This deserted set-up idea would propel The Avengers right through until it ended and it’s more evidence of Clemens’s hand, as is the ridiculous plot which I won’t give away but makes absolutely no sense – Clemens is more your character and dialogue man.
All in all it’s a great introduction to Mrs Peel – she’s smart, tough, fun and funny, looks a million dollars (and some of her outfits are quite extraordinary even by the Swinging standards of the day). And if there is the odd duff continuity moment, we can probably put that down to the fact that, where possible, outdoors footage shot almost a year earlier when Elizabeth Shepherd was still Mrs Peel, has been reused.
© Steve Morrissey 2019