In its heyday – Emma Peel era, shot on film, in colour, with the Laurie Johnson theme music – The Avengers became famous, notorious even, for its plots taking place in a nearly depopulated world. All very necessary, the better to maintain the suspension of disbelief – the outrageous storylines and arch characters simply wouldn’t stand up to exposure to the cold light of reality, so the theory goes.
There’s nothing like that going on in the 11th broadcast episode of series two, Traitor in Zebra, which is thick with characters and stiff with “real life” situations.
Patrick Macnee goes undercover as Commander Steed, a naval shrink investigating whether one of her majesty’s men (Michael Danvers-Walker, son of Bob Danvers-Walker, voice of the British Pathe newsreels for decades) has been passing secrets about British cryptography to the enemy, and if so, how. Meanwhile, down at the local boozer, Honor Blackman’s Cathy Gale is inserting herself into local village life, drinking with the lads and playing darts when she isn’t passing herself off as a scientist working up at the lab where the secrets have been stolen. It’s all very chummy.
The plot is a basic whodunit, with Steed and Gale meeting regularly at the pub to swap theories about who the mole could be. Possibles include Danvers-Walker himself, a young William Gaunt as a go-getting rising naval star, Richard Leech as Franks, an amorous local reporter, pipe smoker and tweed wearer. There’s also John Sharp, a familiar TV face particularly good at playing devious characters. Could this shifty villager or local shop girl Linda (Katy Wild) be involved somehow too?
For all the superior supporting players, and a decent cliff-edge finish, this episode is actually a rather humdrum affair, with flat direction by Richmond Harding and too much exposition in John Gilbert’s screenplay. On the upside the Steed/Gale dynamic of flirting, bickering and bantering is by now well established and saves the too-often pub-based action from becoming terminally static.
The Avengers is at its best when the exotic beasts hold sway. There’s not even the slightest sign of that happening here. But, in a studio not far away, and shot around the same time, Sean Connery’s James Bond was borrowing about 50 per cent of John Steed – debonair, eye for the ladies, Jermyn Street apparel, superior attitude, natty hat – and was about to upend British film-making.
The traffic was not to be all one way.