Peter Sallis hasn’t yet developed the voice that would make him the ideal Wallace (of Wallace and Gromit fame) in his outing as an amnesiac spook on the run in The Wringer, an episode in which a string of spies have been killed and Steed has been brought in to find out why, which prompts Sallis to then dob Steed in as the one doing the killing.
It’s one of the best stories in this series, perhaps because The Avengers had long ago given up all pretence that Mrs Gale is an amateur helping Steed out – she’s now as clued in as he is – or that Steed is essentially the Man Friday of the law enforcement world with a “no job too small” remit. And there’s the relatively unusual “spooky tech” element, a trope The Avengers would increasingly rely on as the years went by.
International espionage is the name of the game here, and in Martin Woodhouse’s bleak script, heavily into the idea that there’s a moral equivalence between Soviet and Western authorities, the influence of John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In from the Cold – published a few months earlier to instant acclaim – is clear. It’s an unusual position for The Avengers to take, too. Normally, Steed’s lot are obviously the good guys.
Reinforcing the impression of a Le Carré influence on the plot is what happens after Steed is fingered by Sallis – he’s handed over to British Intelligence’s department of interrogation, where the Wringer (Terence Lodge) and his sidekick (Neil Robinson) get to work with mind-scrambling techniques that also seem influenced by what happened to Le Carré’s antihero Alex Leamas (a sonic/visual attack on the psyche).
“Time is what you care to make it, baby,” the hipsterish Wringer says to Steed after they’ve been first introduced, before going on to quote Wittgenstein while he gets ready to mess with the still relatively dapper chap’s head.
The casting here is brilliant, with Lodge an excellently creepy torturer – the horrible Manfred Mann combed-forward haircut and beard really help – and Robinson adding to the sense of seediness with faint suggestions by both actors that these colleagues perhaps share other interests in common. That idea – the deviant gay villain – comes right out of James Bond.
Mrs Gale, meanwhile, in a change up in importance for her as a member of whatever spying organisation she and Steed belong to, is loudly protesting Steed’s innocence, is calling out his control (Paul Whitsun-Jones – a pre-figuring of the Mother figure) and is working to prove that there’s more to this interrogation team than meets the eye.
It is all in all an excellent episode, thanks to Woodhouse’s intelligent script, director Don Leaver’s determination to get cameras into tight spaces, his team’s skilfull dolly shots back and forth and the very well executed special effects sequences and “outdoor” sequences that belie the meagre TV budget – though it looks to me like the spend on this episode was considerably more than the series was used to.
Also, if you fancy it, The Wringer contains the kernel of the idea for another of the 1960s most cult TV series – The Prisoner, which was entirely about efforts to debrief spies, and built on the morally relativistic notion that maybe the good guys and bad guys are one and the same.
© Steve Morrissey 2019