Starring: Patrick Macnee, Diana Rigg, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee
The Avengers in colour! The fifth season of this seminal ’60s spy show saw the series moving away from old school black and white into the verges of psychedelic fantasy, with sophisticated, playful send-ups of science fiction and horror – UFOs, shrinking rays, time travel – all delivered in a cheeky Mod-meets-mock-Edwardian aesthetic. Highlights include “The Living Dead”, an exhilarating concoction with gorgeous Gothic production values in which Steed and Emma investigate a haunting and encounter eccentric ghost hunters and a sinister conspiracy; “Return of the Cybernauts,” with Peter Cushing on top form injecting a note of steel as the villain (just one of many excellent scripts penned by Philip Levene for this season); and “The Joker”, a stylish old dark house mystery with Emma as the damsel in distress and art design that wouldn’t look out of place in an Italian giallo.
As ever, the stories are packed with memorable characters and lovable eccentrics, and Season 5 is particularly notable for the brilliance of its supporting cast. Christopher Lee, Charlotte Rampling, Donald Sutherland, Julian Glover, Freddie Jones, Roy Kinnear, Arthur Lowe, Jack MacGowran and Peter Barkworth are just some of the names involved, and there’s a wonderful turn by Warren Mitchell as a flustered Soviet ambassador in “The See-Through Man,” a tale about an invisibility potion that shifts into frothy comic operetta territory. Throughout, the one-liners sparkle (“Do you take me for a perfect idiot?” “No one’s perfect.”) and sprightly editing ensures that the souffle of suspense and humour is always on the rise.
At the heart of it all, though, is the easy chemistry between Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg. The traditional English gentleman and the capable modern woman working together in perfect harmony, even today, over four decades on, Steed and Emma represent a kind of ideal of a male-female partnership, blending affection and respect, independent, each working on their own initiative, yet able to count on each other.
Beautifully crafted and shot on 35mm film, The Avengers was forward-looking in other respects as well. Whereas so many of shows of the era can only be enjoyed if you make allowances for poor picture quality and sluggish pace, this fifth season still retains all of its freshness and bounce, especially on this stunning Blu-ray box set. It’s a genuine, perennial TV classic, as well as being the forefather of all of today’s quirky, heightened reality shows such as Fringe, Bones and Sherlock. 10/10
This is a stunning set of HD transfers from the original film elements, which makes the most of the show’s cinematic sensibility. There’s no grain or blemishes, colours are vibrant and subtle, and the level of detail is simply astounding. The red carnation that goes into Steed’s buttonhole in the famous title sequence now has a marvellous pop of colour, and there’s a lifelike shimmer to Emma’s lipstick, as well as a vivid kick to her array of brightly-hued jumpsuits. Just a few more examples – there’s a lovely, fine-textured silkiness to the cobwebs in the creepy chapel in “The Living Dead”; in “The See-Through Man”, the ornate pink, crimson and gold décor of the Russian embassy looks remarkably rich, as does Moira Lister’s glittery frock; Barbara Shelley’s midnight-blue office in “From Venus With Love” is captured with a crystalline depth of field; and the moment in “The Joker” when Emma discovers a hallway filled with flowers has an hallucinatory, hyper-real, almost Powell and Pressburger-esque quality. This is simply one of the best sets of vintage colour transfers that you’re likely to see, and fans of the show are sure to be thrilled. 10/10
Mini Killers – a bizarre little series of four 10-minute episodes, made for German TV without dialogue, in which a bikini-clad Diana Rigg takes on a gang of villains on the Costa Brava who assassinate people with a doll that squirts poisonous tears. Rather soft, murky picture in 4:3 aspect ratio, but well worth watching for its weird, outre vibe and for its sizzling beach fashions. ~ An hour long compilation of plum moments from the TV show, introduced by Macnee. ~ 8-min interview with Diana Rigg – the actress explains how she and Macnee would sometimes improvise their dialogue, and talks about how her Mini filled up with fan mail as she struggled to cope from going from working for the RSC to experiencing instant fame. ~ Odd and unwieldy 9-min contemporary interview for German TV with Rigg and Macnee, that starts off with the interviewer slumped on the floor pretending to be a corpse. You can see Macnee’s eyes glazing over. ~ Seven 2-3 minutes intros by writer/producer Brian Clemens, in which he supplies some snippets of background info to various episodes. For instance, we learn that “The Joker” and “The Correct Way to Kill” were revampings of earlier episodes, and that “Epic” – in which a mad director casts Emma as the star of a snuff movie – was conceived in response to some budgetary problems as a way of utilizing Elstree Studios as a location. ~ Reconstructions of four lost episodes, with narration and stills. ~ A few minutes of extra footage, without sound, for a couple of episodes. ~ A set of four audio commentaries: “Epic” with Peter Wyngarde – slightly rambling, but it’s lovely to listen to his silky voice. “Return of the Cybernauts” with Cyd Childs, Diana Rigg’s stunt double – she explains how she got into the business, discusses Riggs’ costumes and says that apparently the audience were unhappy that there weren’t more leather catsuits in this series. “Murdersville” with Brian Clements – he talks about storyboarding the iconic title sequence, and reveals that they decided to cut back on Riggs’ catsuits because the creaking of the leather caused problems with the sound. “The Winged Avenger” with scriptwriter Richard Harris, who talks about his involvement with the show, going back to the very first series. 10/10