The Avengers - The Lost Episodes, Volume One
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Think of The Avengers, and most likely it’ll be Marvel's collection of super heroes that springs to mind. For others though, it’s the dynamite pairing of John Steed and Emma Peel, bowler hats and bizarre cases that memories of The Avengers awakens.
Few are aware that The Avengers was originally a male duo, and that Macnee was was second fiddle, and not main billing. Conceived as a replacement for Police Surgeon, an ailing procedural drama, The Avengers was the brainchild of Sydney Newman who would go on to be instrumental in the creation of Doctor Who.
Popular on Police Surgeon, Newman realised he wanted to keep rising star Ian Hendry and devised the character of Dr. David Keel on the new show. Keel’s fiancee is killed in the opening moments of The Avengers first episode, 'Hot Snow'. Enter Patrick Macnee as John Steed who has the means and the contacts to help Keel ‘avenge’ his lover. Here Steed is far from the cuddly, genial figure seen in later years of the series. In these opening instalments he is a calculating amoral figure. Steed’s machinations and Keel’s sometimes unwilling help and assistance go on to form the basis for The Avengers.
You'd be forgiven for knowing little about this era of the show. Of the 26 episodes broadcast in the first season, not only was the series transmitted erratically (episodes were not neccesarily transmitted in the same order, or even in the same regions), but like many other series of its time, the videotapes were reused meaning the majority of episodes from the Keel era no longer exist.
Fresh from the conclusion of their Doctor Who ‘Lost Stories’ range, Big Finish and John Dorney, have adapted the missing episodes (or at least where scripts are available for episodes to be adapted from) for a series of box sets to be released throughout 2014.
At the grand age of 92, Patrick Macnee could hardly be expected to appear, so Big Finish have wisely recast Julian Wadham (The English Patient) as Steed. Charming, quick witted and refined, Wadham quickly steps into Steed's shoes and simply oozes sixties cool. Any doubts you might have had about enjoying the series are quickly cast to one side as Wadham swishes his bowler hat through the script.
Reconciling Hendry's performance is trickier. With so little remaining of his performance to go on, Anthony Howell (Foyle's War) has free reign. But Howell is helped and hindered by Keel's stoic, and at times icily hard character. It's clear that Howell enjoys the investigative opportunities offered Keel, but Keel's remoteness is often hard to transmit via audio. Indeed, such is Keel's lack of reaction to his fiancee's death, that it initially felt like all concerned had made a mistake in not giving him some kind of depth.
The four episodes included in this first collection include the opening two parter 'Hot Snow' and 'Brought to Book'. At times tough and uncompromising, they are a long way from the surreal plots of later Avengers stories. With drug dealers, casual executions and reminders of London’s gangland past, it's a very dark opening to a famously entertaining series. It also sows the seeds of the conflict between Steed's professionalism and Keel's idealism as Keel is effectively blackmailed into helping Steed.
Third episode 'Square Root of Evil' concerns Steed's efforts to bring down a counterfeiting ring. And whilst it sidesteps the specifics of counterfeiting in favour of a fairly standard, if nonetheless entertaining story, it is the first chance to see Steed in action. Further delving into his shadowy background, it also begins to cement his roving eye for the ladies.
Listening to the extras included with this episode, the rather abrupt ending is explained away by adapter John Dorney through the lack of detail contained within the camera scripts. But this to me highlights a problem with adaptations - perhaps the Big Finish team might have benefited from being a bit fast and loose with their reinterpretation of The Avengers. An ambitious and bold experiment might have been to rewrite these stories for more modern sensibilities, who knows?
The final episode, 'One for the Mortuary' sees Keel taking a much-needed holiday. But a visit to a World Health Organisation conference carries its own risks as he becomes an unwitting courier. With a conclusion set in a rather quirky taxidermists, it is the most Avengers-y episode of the four on offer.
I've been left with an obvious question when considering whether to recommend this box set - who is this aimed at? It's competently performed with the usual exemplary production values, and gentle Afternoon Play fodder - but are there that many Avengers fans who wanted to see this gap filled?
The drive for authenticity is at times frankly irritating. The bombastic theme music recurs at 18 minute intervals to ape the commercial breaks. A Chinese character in ‘Brought to Book’ is recreated, one assumes authentically, but it comes across as rather patronising to put it mildly. The absolute adherence to authenticity also compromises Keel’s character. His lack of reaction to events perhaps needed to be dealt with in a different manner to make it more obvious to audio listeners. The style is also stilted when compared to modern day television/plays. The strive for authenticity perhaps undermines a point that could be made about why The Avengers is still relevant.
Personally, I'm conflicted, whilst I actually am interested in hearing further adventures between Steed and Keel, I'd like to have seen something more ballsy, original and perhaps willing to take a chance. As it is, the sixties twee of this release is pleasant enough, but feels like it is playing it safe. Ultimately, it is a nice, but hardly, essential purchase.
The Avengers - The Lost Episodes, Volume One is available to buy now from Big Finish.