On Saturday 5 October 1963, a day after the US Joint Chiefs of Staff had updated their plan to invade Cuba the following July (President Kennedy’s assassination would intervene) and while the JFK’s wife Jackie was enjoying the company of shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis in Greece (she would later marry him), TV audiences in the UK got their own kicks by sitting down to watch the second episode of series three of The Avengers, altogether a camper, more knockabout affair than series two.
And there was nothing camper in the 1960s than death, there being a positive Joe Orton-esque quality to the superb opener to The Undertakers – one member of a coffin-carrying team of pallbearers peels off from the group, draws a gun and shoots a man, whereupon the group doff their top hats, the coffin lid is removed and… instant takeaway.
We cut to the apartment that Steed and Gale seem to share, where Steed is flirting with Cathy Gale in a manner bordering on the needy, while Gale entirely ignores his pleading comments and continues cleaning and re-assembling the rifle she’s working on, this scene-setting bit of business-plus-badinage being part of the Avengers formula.
Steed is meant to be off on a trip to New York, accompanying an important scientist. But before he can make the trip, the man is dead and a double seems to have been recruited to take his place. What is going on? Actually, you could ask that question about every ten minutes during this episode, as Steed first stumbles, seemingly by accident, on the funeral parlour from where this death-and-double scheme operates, then Gale arrives at the door of the people who are masterminding the whole operation, also seemingly by accident. What scriptwriter Malcolm Hulke is doing is something you’d never get nowadays – he’s withholding important details about the investigative process, forcing us to assume that Steed and Gale know far more than they’re letting on. Does this work? Not at all. Nor does the rather mundane reveal as to what, ultimately, this death-and-double scheme is really all about – no spoilers, but tax avoidance is involved.
Coherence isn’t really the prime concern here – Gale, posing as an assistant at a home where millionaires are stacking up like planes over an airport gets into her leather gear at one point, as care assistants the world over do for no particular reason. Though of course we know the reason – there’s a fight scene coming over the brow of the hill.
Stopping it all from being a bit of a yawn are the superb actors involved, particularly Lally Bowers, a proper British character actress who could give Margaret Rutherford a run for her money when it comes to the eye-roll and the swooping flute.
And its far-from-flattering portrait of the super-rich adds some grit, too – the 1% long before the term existed. But then the 1960s, as well as being fascinated by death, as the young are, also rejected money, this being a time of more or less full employment, rising living standards and a country that had, in the words of Harold Macmillan, the prime minister of the time, never had it so good. Unlike the PM himself, who had resigned on health grounds within two weeks of this show being transmitted.
© Steve Morrissey 2019