“Steed puts out a light; Emma takes fright” runs the subhead to The Fear Merchants, second episode of the fifth series of The Avengers, and its belly-flop rhythm makes it apparent that this novelty is already not a good idea.
But on with the episode, which starts well with a man who stands alone inside an empty football stadium, frightened to the point of insanity though there is nothing there to terrify him.
He’s not the first, either, apparently. In fact he’s the latest in a line of top British ceramics experts driven to the edge of reason by nothing in particular – a mouse in the case of Fox (Bernard Horsfall), who gives Steed a lead to the top-end ceramics outfit he used to work for.
What’s going on? And is an organisation called the Business Efficiency Bureau (BEB) involved? Well it’s headed by Pemberton, played by the silken Patrick Cargill, a man who wears sunglasses indoors. And he’s ably assisted by the Rosa Klebb-like Dr Voss (Annette Carell, a specialist at these sort of roles)… so there’s a good chance.
Also working at the BEB is Gilbert (played by Garfield Morgan, later of The Sweeney), a psychologist (dodgy) who wears those nicotine-tinted shades beloved, in screen dramas, of child murderers, war criminals and sexual deviants.
A large flashing sign bearing the word “villain” would be less subtle but at least we know where we are.
Also in the mix is Raven (Brian Wilde, later of Porridge), a go-getting industrialist of Elon Musk stripe who has called in the BEB to help him streamline the industry (put it entirely under his control, in other words) using Gilbert’s psychological profiling to get the measure of his rivals and scare them off (or to death).
It’s a welcome return of an Avengers standby subject – shaky British manufacturing struggling to come to terms with open markets after the loss of its empire – given a paranoid Brian Clemens update (the excellent script is by Philip Levene, though Clemens’s tweaks are evident – Mrs Peel’s take-up of avant-garde sculpture looks like one of his).
It’s a very techy episode – gadgets abound, with sliding doors, lie detectors and a box that prefigures a 3D printer featuring prominently.
Production values are high, in other words, with the whole thing much more in keeping with glossy shows from later in the decade (The Prisoner, Randall and Hopkirk, The Champions). Cinematography (by Wilkie Cooper and Alan Hume) is more dynamic, while the overall direction (by Gordon Flemyng) aims for the visual drama of cinema, with an increased use of Laurie Johnson’s incidental music particularly effective.
This all culminates in a tense finale, where Steed (or Patrick Macnee’s body double, to be more accurate) is menaced by a digger in a quarry.
A word about German-born Annette Carell, who is particularly effective as a sadistic henchperson. She’d be dead of a barbiturates overdoes only months after making this episode and I suspect that her menacing presence, as well as the super-suave Cargill, is what drives Diana Rigg’s particularly perky, snarky, bright and blasé performance this time out.
Cargill and Carell as a Blofeld/Oddjob combo – what might have been.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020