It’s 1967. The Cold War is chugging along nicely. Steed is driving a fellow agent and old school chum, Mark Crayford, to the border between East and West Germany. Uncharacteristically, Steed is wearing a flat cap instead of his usual bowler. Little does he know that his friend is about to turn traitor. Little does he know that his friend is about to try to kill him.
They get to the drop point. Steed goes towards the fence with Mark, who turns to announce his plans to defect. Then he takes a shot at Steed. Steed’s hat falls off as he flings himself the ground trying to escape Marks’ bullets. Steed shoots back, hitting Mark in the chest.
Flash forward to present day (1977). Steed, Purdey, and Gambit are playing cricket together. Gambit is bowling, Steed is at bat. Purdey is wicket-keeper. Steed wears the usual cricketing gear for a batsman: pads that protect his legs, gloves that protect his hands. His head is uncovered. The three of them are having fun playing together and enjoying one another’s company: Gambit even manages to get one ball past Steed, whereupon Purdey knocks the wicket for the out. Steed is relaxed and happy, as are Gambit and Purdey. But after the game is done, while they’re having a drink on the porch of the cricket club, Steed sees a man in a dark greatcoat at the edge of the pitch. It reminds him of his friend, Mark, who Steed thinks is dead. Purdey asks Steed what is wrong: he says, “Someone just walked over my grave.”
Steed and Purdey have had a nice dinner out. They drive back to Steed’s house, where he invites her in for a nightcap. They’re both dressed nicely, Purdey in a flowered dress, Steed in his green velvet dinner jacket with bow tie. As befits the attire for the evening, Steed wears no hat.
They walk into Steed’s house to find that it has been vandalized. Nothing seems to be missing, but Steed’s art and figurines and mementos have been slashed and broken, and are strewn all over the place.
This turns out to be the first salvo in a series of attacks against Steed by his old friend and school chum, Mark Crayford, who is very much alive. Mark is insanely jealous of Steed’s athletic prowess and success with women. Throughout their childhood and into their university careers, Steed always managed to beat Mark in every contest in every sport, and on one occasion, he even stole Mark’s date. This has been eating at Mark like a canker, so now that he has retired as an agent for the Eastern Bloc, he is trying to get revenge before the bullet that is lodged in his chest finally kills him. Steed doesn’t know who it is that’s after him at first, making the experience all the more frustrating and frightening.
During Act II, Mark leaves a casket and flowers in Steed’s driveway, with ribbons marked “RIP John Steed.” He shoots Steed not once, but twice, stealthily, from a distance, and with a hairs-breadth accuracy that leaves only grazes across Steed’s forehead. He has a bomb planted in Steed’s garage, destroying his beloved classic cars. He kidnaps Purdey with the intent to kill her; he plants speakers throughout the grounds of Steed’s estate to announce this and mock Steed about it.
And all through this, not once does Steed wear his bowler or carry his umbrella. He is open, exposed, vulnerable.
This vulnerability has been there since that day in 1967, symbolized by Steed wearing not his steel-lined bowler, but a soft flat cap, which he loses in the gun fight with Mark. And the last time Steed is armored against his old school chum, who is now a deadly enemy, is when Steed is wearing cricket gear, and sees Mark on the far side of the pitch. After that point, Steed’s head remains uncovered, he carries no weapon, he is unarmored against Mark’s assaults on himself, on his property, and on his friends.
Not until Act III, when he and Gambit go to the Victorian folly where Mark is holding Purdey, does Steed put on his bowler and take up his umbrella. He uses the latter to trip up Mark’s minion, and the former to prevent Mark from shooting Purdey.
Steed has arrived at the folly armed for battle. If there was ever any question that the bowler and brolly are Steed’s modern equivalent of a knight’s armor and sword, this episode puts it to rest pretty firmly.
Also it shows the depth of Steed’s courage and confidence in his skill. He knows he’s going up against someone who is a crack shot, who is armed to the teeth, who has access to explosives, and who has no scruples about using any of those things.
But Steed doesn’t carry a gun in return. He just has his bowler. And his umbrella.
And that’s all he needs.
PSA: Anyone who wants to make out that the bowler and umbrella are some kind of joke, or that Steed is a clown because he relies on them, can meet me with sabres at dawn so that I may teach them better manners.