Charlotte Rampling, Donald Sutherland and Brian Blessed are the standout names in The Superlative Seven, a title suggesting this episode is going to borrow heavily from The Magnificent Seven of seven years before. In fact it’s more a reworking of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, with a bit of Hunger Games thrown in (appropriately, since a five-decades-older Sutherland would be prominent in that).
Blessed was probably the best known of the three at the time, having been a key cast member of the hit UK show Z Cars, though Rampling was close behind, Georgy Girl having made her a name the year before. Sutherland? More a familiar face than a big name, TV shows on both sides of the Atlantic making up much of his CV.
The Superlative Seven has cinematic ambition, though, and director Sidney Hayers does as much as he can in the confines of a studio to suggest scale, movement and the passing of time in a plot that sees the action move from a fancy-dress party on a plane to a big old house where the seven invitees are set against each other, six oven-ready coffins indicating the ultimate destination for most of them.
The introductions are done swiftly – Sutherland on a technicolor red set as the dojo of a martial arts school, Steed in an admiral’s uniform, full red (again) jacket and cockaigne hat, Rampling one of the other guests Steed meets when he first gets on the plane where the party is taking place.
“I’m Wild,” she purrs. “Hana Wild.” Rampling looks anything but, a slip of a girl at 19, she looks half afraid of the camera, but it’s a decent enough attempt at corny humour by writer Brian Clemens.
Last man on the plane is Blessed, dressed as an executioner, complete with big chopper – a gag Clemens leaves in his box. This rum gang – a pretend bullfighter and big game hunter among the generally not-very-PC partygoers – soon learn that each has been invited to this party by a different host. When they go to ask the pilot what’s going on… there is no pilot. The plane is being flown automatically. Hi-tech whizzbangery to impress the 1967 viewer.
Soon the plane has touched down on a mystery island, where Steed and fellow invitees have to kill each other in order to avoid death themselves – that’s the Hunger Games bit. Sutherland, he’s the bad hat controlling the “game”, and watching everything play out via CCTV (more whizzbangery).
Diana Rigg has clearly been given the week off, with Mrs Peel only turning up right at the end, in the nick of time as luck would have it, to save the day. She’s also dressed in red actionwear (athleisure, we’d probably call it today), this being the key colour of the episode.
This is the sort of plot that Clemens could churn out in his sleep – eccentric characters in a half-borrowed scenario with a sprinkling of paranoia to add spice.
That it works so well is largely down to director Hayers, who’s determined to keep things moving, helped by art and costumes departments who are all pushing in the same cinematic direction.
That’s reinforced when you watch the episode on the Canal Plus restored discs I’ve got. The colours zing, the image is pin sharp. Too sharp at times – Patrick Macnee is replaced by a stunt double every time the action gets going. It’s something you wouldn’t have noticed on TV at the time, but 50+ years on, on a big high-resolution TV, it’s glaringly obvious.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020