Welcome to Feather Dusters at 400 Yards, my blog about the British television series The Avengers. There’s a lot of cool stuff to explore in this groundbreaking series that spanned the entire decade of the 1960s: the characters, the performances, scene and episode analysis, technical aspects of the production, and more. Plus there are Avengers music videos and fanfiction and now even fan art! So click on a tag or a category or something in the navigation menu, or just keep scrolling, and explore along with me.
In “Dial a Deadly Number,” Mrs Peel goes to visit the undertaker who is dealing with the victim of the murder she and Steed are investigating. When she asks if the undertaker remembers handling matters for the dead man, Mr Tod-Hunter, the undertaker says he does, and then rattles off the specs for the coffin and talks a bit more about coffin handles.
Emma: The late Mr Tod-Hunter … he was brought here, wasn’t he?
Undertaker: Tod-Hunter? In mahogany and walnut, velvet lined. Sold brass handles, Gothic style. I prefer the Corinthian fluted myself. Tasteful. Tod-Hunter. Yes, he’s with us.
What I find most compelling about this little scene is the way Mrs Peel treats the undertaker. She doesn’t interrupt him or tell him to get to the point and answer her question. She’s not mocking or contemptuous of him. She doesn’t think he’s weird for being so interested in coffin handles. She smiles at him because she likes him and she thinks he is delightful.
When she listens to him and watches him at his work, Mrs Peel sees a craftsman, someone who is dedicated to his work and wants to do it well, someone who wants to do right by the people he serves, and who is unashamed to take pride in the service he provides.
Emma Peel really sees this man. She embraces who he is, and honors him for it.
And the thing is: Diana Rigg didn’t have to play it that way. She didn’t have to play that scene with delight and appreciation. She could have rolled her eyes, or raised her eyebrows, or sneered at the man, but she doesn’t. Rigg honors the undertaker’s character too, and she honors Mrs Peel by playing that scene with respect and an undercurrent of joy.
⊕ Content notice for discussion and analysis of ableist themes and disabled-as-villain tropes
Here I am bouncing off celluloidbroomcloset’s idea about a blocking of Steed and the Major with a statue of Wellington, and what that shows about their relative personalities.
Harold Long, aka “Apollo,” is an evil psychiatrist who has gathered around him a group of military men who feel that peacetime is bunk and that their lives are insufficiently action-packed. Long has discovered that these men have a kind of physical and mental addiction to danger and violence, so he gets the men to perform random stunts in order to satisfy their craving and to prove their bravery to themselves and to each other. Long also plans daring crimes for them to execute. And the penalty for cowardice or failure? Death.
But after a highly decorated, well-respected general plays chicken with a moving lorry and loses, another officer drowns trying to cross the Atlantic in a canoe, and the serious injury of yet another officer who falls while trying to climb the side of St Paul’s, Steed and Mrs Peel are brought in by the War Office to find out what the heck is going on and to put a stop to it if they can.
In an earlier post, I dealt with issues of gender and combat roles for Steed and Mrs Peel, including an extended discussion of how those things play out in “The Danger Makers” in particular. Here I want to discuss a different aspect of that episode, the depiction of the contrast between the true courage and moral virtue of Steed and Mrs Peel on the one hand, and the depravity of the Danger Makers on the other.
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But famed Odysseus’ men already crouched in hiding —
in the heart of Troy’s assembly — dark in that horse
the Trojans dragged themselves to the city heights.
Now it stood there, looming …
— Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fagles
Another in an occasional series about Steed as trickster.
Going under cover is one of the most important things that Steed does in his quest to capture the bad guys. Sometimes he goes under relatively deep cover, assuming an entire identity complete with back story and profession, sometimes even with an assumed name. He does this kind of cover most frequently during the Cathy Gale era, for example in “Death a la Carte,” where he poses as chef Sebastian Stonemarten in order to prevent the assassination of a Middle Eastern Emir, or in “Mission to Montreal,” where he pretends to be a steward called “Jim” on a cruise line while trying to stop the transfer of top secret material to the opposition. Most of the time, however, he goes under his own name, even if he is pretending to be something other than an agent of the Ministry, as he does in “Surfeit of H2O,” where he assumes the persona of a loopy, extravagantly gallant wine merchant in order to gain access to the baddies’ lair.
In cases like “Death a la Carte,” Steed doesn’t want to give away anything about his own true identity. Protecting the Emir depends on Steed staying well under cover, so he uses an assumed name and behaves entirely as though he were a normal chef. In other instances, as in “Surfeit of H2O,” it’s unclear the degree to which he wants to misdirect the baddies: his behavior in that particular instance is odd enough to make the secretary a bit suspicious, but it’s hard to tell whether or not Steed wants her to wonder what he’s really up to.
And then there are the episodes where he is working in a grey area between being under cover and tipping off the bad guys that he’s on to them, places where he hides in plain sight. Steed seems to have more than one reason for doing this: partly it’s just fun to tweak the villains’ noses and watch them flail as they try to figure out what he’s really after; but also he’s dropping hints along the way that he’s on to them, that their schemes are about to be exposed, thus giving them an opportunity to stop their bad activities and turn themselves in before he has to actively fight with them. Of course they never do stop, they never do turn themselves in, and I doubt very much that Steed expects them to even if on some level he hopes that they will.
One of the cool things about the Season 3 episode “November Five” is Steed’s little pair of Irregulars. Evidently he has recruited these two old ladies to shuffle around the Houses of Parliament and scoop up information for him. They make perfect spies: nobody will ever suspect a pair of sweet old ladies of being up to something.
When we first see Steed, he is hanging out in the Houses of Parliament, waiting to talk to an MP, Major Swinburne, who is a suspect in the case he’s working. The two little old ladies walk up to him and start a cheerful conversation, asking Steed if he is an MP himself. They exchange some banter about this. Then the man Steed has been waiting for shows up, and the women make themselves scarce.
Once the MP is gone, the ladies come back for further instructions, the whole time gushing about how cool it is to be visiting Parliament. Then Steed goes all serious. “Follow the Major,” he tells them, and off they go to tail the guy Steed talked to earlier. So now we know that they’re more than just two voluble old women: they’re working for Steed.
L: The little old ladies mistake Steed for an MP. They have a nice chat.
R: After Steed talks to the Major, he tells his Irregulars, “Follow him.”
Later, the women find Steed again, this time on the terrace. They have more conversation about how wonderful Parliament is. And the taller woman shakes hands with Steed before she and her friend leave. This wasn’t a benign little handshake as among friends, though. The woman has passed Steed a note with important information on it.
L: One of the women shakes hands with Steed as she and her friend are leaving.
R: Once they’re gone, Steed reads the note the woman passed him.
This is the only episode that I can recall where Steed actively employs Irregulars a la Sherlock Holmes. It’s rather sweet how he plays spymaster to these women, and how well and enthusiastically they play their role in the case.
Originally published at sparklywaistcoat.tumblr.com
Are you strong enough to be my man?
In the Season 2 episode “Warlock,” Steed has to track down the person who murdered Peter Neville, an important British scientist who was working on a top-secret formula, and who also later murders Mrs Dunning, Neville’s housekeeper. With the help of Cathy Gale, Steed discovers that Neville was involved with a black magic circle, and that the members of this circle are implicated in his murder, having been hired by an enemy agent to use occult means to coerce Neville into handing over the formula to the opposition.
This episode was first broadcast in the second half of Season 2 (it’s the eighteenth episode, out of 26, and the twelfth to feature Mrs Gale), although it was originally intended to be the first of the Cathy Gale stories.* Even though it was reworked to function as a later case and appears later in the lineup, it still makes more sense if “Warlock” is construed as Steed and Cathy’s first case rather than one that comes later in their partnership, especially much later. In “Warlock,” they’re clearly still getting to know one another: Steed really has absolutely no idea what to do with Mrs Gale, who is unlike any other woman he’s ever met, and she is herself still trying to decide whether she likes working with Steed or not.
*Thanks to celluloidbroomcloset.tumblr.com for bringing this to my attention.