Like a classic album that warms us up with an opening track before hitting us with a doozy, episode two of series four of The Avengers, The Gravediggers, is vintage entertainment that gets just about everything right.
The plot is a mix of proper spy stuff and the eccentric, the macabre and the mad, and gets off onto its twin-track course with an opening shot of a newly filled grave out of which – after some ominous movement of the soil – an antenna pops.
Over on the North York Moors at Fylingdales early warning system (it’s not named as such, but those white golfball domes look very like it), a techie is having trouble with the tech – “It’s on the blink again,” he complains, while looking at a light that is literally blinking.
Since the security of the country is at stake, Steed and Peel are soon on the case. The trail leads to a Hospital for Ailing Railwaymen, a benevolent institution funded by philanthropist Horace Winslip, played to bufferish perfection by Ronald Fraser, eyes brimming with booze as usual.
Winslip is an eccentric to such a degree – he takes Steed on a “train journey” which consists of a stationary carriage being rocked by a flunkey while outside a scrolling diorama gives the impression of movement – that we can only assume that story editor Brian Clemens has been at work on Malcolm Hulke’s original script.
Mrs Peel, meanwhile, is posing as a nurse in the hospital, where top doc Paul Massie and matron Caroline Blakiston are up to something involving the post-mortem supplementation of the normal contents of the funeral casket – which gives rise to the episodes best line, “Forceps. Scalpel. Blow torch.”
Needless to say, the antenna poking out of the earth on a freshly dug grave, the hospital, the doctor and matron and the UK’s compromised missile-detection system are all intimately connected.
Quentin Lawrence brings a properly cinematic feel to his direction of the episode, which is also really lifted by some very interesting performers: Fraser’s dignified pantomime routine made him a highly sought-after character actor in countless TV shows; there’s a young Steven Berkoff (still with lots of hair) as a thug at the hospital; Wanda Ventham (looking very much like Benedict Cumberbatch. Well, she is his mother) is remarkably fresh as Barbara Windsor-alike chirpy Nurse Spray (amazing to think that only seven years later she was a convincing seen-it-all blowsy semi-wreck in the BBC’s The Lotus Eaters); and fans of Get Carter and Coronation Street will enjoy Bryan Mosley’s brief appearance as an orderly.
Leather fans, on the other hand, will be waiting for Mrs Peel to climb into her fighting gear in Cathy Gale style. Though the second to be broadcast, The Gravediggers was the seventh of this series to be filmed, and Diana Rigg was already tiring of shooting combat sequences in sweltering hot and not particularly limber animal hide – she’d later switch to crimplene – so make the most of her in action here. And for those who equate leather with S&M, the scenes where Mrs Peel winds up tied to the track of a miniature railway, while Steed is involved in a fist fight on the top of a carriage, should tick a few boxes.
This finale on the railway track makes for great viewing, and thanks to Lawrence’s nimble direction it cleverly manages to be faithful to action movies, silent films and comedy all in one go – Buster Keaton would approve.
All in all a fitting crescendo to an episode balancing the silly and the thrilling with real flair.
© Steve Morrissey 2019