Three Bond movies had been released and a fourth was just around the corner, when Castle De’ath was broadcast on an autumnal Saturday night in 1965. It’s a mini-me version of Bond, with Scotland standing in for myriad exotic locations, a mini-sub standing in for all the 007 tech and Steed and Peel doing their best to quip for England as the plot takes them north of the border.
Things kick off with a pre-Steadycam handheld tour of the castle – every heartbeat of the cameraman registering – which winds up in a dungeon where a man is being tortured on the rack.
He’s an agent and soon dead, and the fact that he is taller in death than in life has rung a lot of alarm bells. Enter Steed and Peel, she pretending to be from some government agency specialising in helping old families open their stately piles to the public, he claiming to be a historian by the name of Jock McSteed, researching the McSteed family story.
Soon both are ensconced at the castle, where the De’ath family are at odds over what to do. The family is broke – but as is often the case in British drama (as in British life), they’re not so broke that they actually have to go out and work for a living – with dour clan chief Ian (Gordon Jackson) reluctant to open the place up to the great unwashed, while his progressive, gregarious brother Angus (Robert Urquhart) is all for it.
Thrown also into the mix, almost as an afterthought, is a subplot about disappearing fish, “one of the mainstays of our economic life”, one of the De’aths warbles helpfully.
And between the competing brothers, the precarious fish stocks, some historical nonsense about Black Jamie, the disgraced laird who has been walled up in the east tower for the last 500 years, and a bit of low-level haunting, the plot winds towards a conclusion which, Bond-style, suddenly is all about submarines, ultrasonic waves and a seditious political plot.
It’s a bit overstuffed, in other words. But if it’s John Steed in a kilt you want to see, or Mrs Peel in a tartan trouser suit, plus acres of fine tweed on the rest of the cast, then this is the episode for you. And Urquhart is particularly fine as the more go-getting, populist brother, easily putting Jackson into the shade with acting that’s simply more limber. For all Jackson’s merits, his beautiful voice couldn’t disguise the fact that he isn’t very good at playing against another actor, and in a long career he often came across as a man impatient to say his lines and get on to the next bit.
The relationship between Steed and “Mistress Peel”, as laird Ian (Jackson) curtly addresses her, has now settled down. Steed’s Cathy Gale-era lechery has been replaced by something more subtle – he’s still sexually in pursuit but really it’s more about giving it the old college try than expecting any results.
As for which one of the two brothers is the baddie – the go-ahead populist or the stuffed shirt – John Lucarotti’s script does a good job of keeping us guessing.
And did I mention the amphibious car?
© Steve Morrissey 2019