Just as the keel of the series had started to lift, floating at last in its own water, episode nine of series two plonks it back on the sea floor. The Sell-Out is a throwback to series one, which itself harks even further back – to the film noir genre which originally originally inspired the series. The trenchcoats, the respect for authority, the sense of white knights in a dark world.
As The Avengers moved away from this founding idea, noticeably less and less actual avenging got done.
In a plot set at the United Nations, Jon Rollason is back as Macnee’s sidekick, displacing Honor Blackman as the producers use up another of the episodes originally written for Macnee and original star Ian Hendry. After a quick one two – a killing done hitman-style followed by a briefing in a museum, where John Steed meets handler One Twelve (an excellent Arthur Hewlett) and is dressed down for his flippancy – the plot revolves around Steed guarding a UN big noise (Carleton Hobbs) while at the same time being watched like a hawk by his own side. Is he on the take? Is he “losing his grip”, as the dubious and shadowy senior spy Harvey (Frank Gatliff) insinuates?
The Sell-Out is still good spy stuff, though there are two main problems with the episode. I’ve already alluded to the first, which is that the show itself has moved on into fanciful territory and Dr Martin King is far too meat and potatoes – no slight against actor Jon Rollason, by the way. The other is more technical, and concerns the use of outside broadcast footage, which is of a shockingly bad quality, is clearly shot by a second unit director and lacks the intimacy which director Don Leaver brings to the scenes shot in the studio.
These grumbles aside, it’s again notable how good Macnee is, physically aware that he can compensate for trundling studio cameras by moving on to his marks with speed and adding little flourishes to deliver at least a simulacrum of action – that brolly comes in handy. His voice, in the days of terrible sound, also seems pitched right into the the sweet spot of generally cruddy studio microphones; Macnee is almost crooning his lines.