Saturday, June 23, 2012

Are John Steed & Emma Peel SNOBs in The Correct Way to Kill?

Steed Changes Partners, Emma Joins the Enemy
Since writing regular articles for this blog, I have been citing such programs as Monty Python’s Flying Circus, All Creatures Great & Small and of course Doctor Who as my earliest memories of watching British television. It wasn’t until I started to think about things for this week’s article that I opened up an unused storage room in my brain and remembered something that had been long since forgotten. Let me set the stage….

In the earlier part of the 1980s I was young. I mean grade school young. All the TV channels in my area were sort of showing the same thing all the time. My parents are big TV watchers and suddenly out of nowhere they were telling me about a new TV station that they were watching out of St. Cloud MN, KXLI. Now, I just want to give a shout out to the Internet because I thought this portion of the article was going to be vague but it is in fact going to be remotely interesting. I lived in the Twin Cities of Minnesota and St. Cloud was quite a far way away. So much so that we had never received any TV transmissions before from that city. Suddenly, out of nowhere was KXLI. Well, that is because KXLI started broadcasting in 1982. On the UHF channels, it was channel 41. In fact, XLI is the roman numeral for 41 thus KXLI. Now, what does this have to do with anything? Well, we started to watch, as a family, KXLI around that time. They were showing a lot of older programs and at around 10:30 or so weeknights there would be this amazing program I got addicted to called The Avengers. In fact, after thinking about it and figuring out the chronological order of viewing in my life, I came to the realization that The Avengers is the first British television series I ever watched on a regular basis. I was between 7 and 8 when I started to watch it on KXLI. I had never seen anything like it in my life.
Perhaps what grabbed my attention to the series was Emma Peel. That probably is too easy of an observation. How about this? John Steed grabbed my attention. There is something extraordinarily debonair, gentlemanly, old school Victorian yet pulling it off to be modern. He treated ladies very well but he could be a bad ass when the occasion arose. I guess I didn’t know that I liked all things British until I saw him. From the bowler hat to the car he drove; Steed was nothing but a class-act. Watching it on KXLI was really special. I felt I watched it every night but I’m sure I missed a bunch of it. Like I said, it was on every night at 10:30pm. I was in 3rd grade. Sure, I had a black & white TV set in my bedroom, it didn’t mean I was allowed to stay up and watch it all. I had to sneak it on to watch. One that really sticks out for me was Quick-Quick Slow Death especially the end of it. I really appreciated it and for many years it was kind of difficult to get a hold of episodes. I’ll talk about that in a bit. I think I will probably be going against popular opinion about the colour era of Steed and Mrs. Peel but I am probably getting ahead of myself. Before we get started, for those of you who lived in the Twin Cities area, here is a reminder of how the station ID looked for KXLI:

The Correct Way to Kill TX: 11/03/67
This is a fairly straightforward story and I will not bore myself with too heavy of a plot description. Someone or a group of someones are killing Soviet spies. I think them being Soviets is implied as I do not believe it has ever been stated in the episode that they were Soviets. Steed and Mrs. Peel are called in to investigate. They get in contact with Nutski who is from “the other side” and it is decided the best way to find out what is going on is to have Steed team up with comrade Olga and Mrs. Peel to team up with comrade Ivan.  One reason why I love this series so much is that it is British. I mean the series wears a sash across it that says “We are proud to be British!” I say this because the Soviet agents are being killed by gentleman who wear bowler hats and carry umbrellas. Not too dissimilar from Steed. They are part of a group called SNOB (Sociability, Nobility, Omnipotence, Breeding, Inc.) On the outside, SNOB is what it looks like. A group that exists to train men to have manners but also have an upper-class snobbery sort of feel to them. In fact, they exist to kill agents. In an amazing twist that everybody saw coming, the man who is responsible for the entire organization is non-other than Nutski. He was having his own agents killed.

I love this series but I was pretty bored with this episode. In fact, I will be honest and say Series 5 (the colour Emma Peel series) is my least favourite series of the lot. Now, it’s not that I fell out of love with The Avengers (it’s not you, it’s me) because prior to watching The Correct Way to Kill, I took a look at Death at Bargain Prices for the first time in years and I absolutely loved it. To be honest, it is my favourite episode from probably my favourite series, the 4th Series. Maybe with Series 5 it starts to get too fantastical for my tastes. Though I think mostly is that the episode is just sort of flat. I know this is a remake of The Charmers but since I don’t off-hand remember it, that isn’t what is spoiling it for me. I am not able to make a comparison of the two episodes. It’s just the flatness of the episode. One thing I noticed about Death at Bargain Prices is how rich the photography is being filmed in black & white.
The Avengers started out as a live program, moved to being recorded on 2” video tape. When the fourth series started, it was switched to black & white 35mm film and then to colour 35mm film for Series 5 & 6. There is a huge contrast between the ways the series was filmed between Series 5 & 6. I feel both of them take advantage of either the black & white spectrum or the colour palette. The colour series seems to me to have a bright colour palette but that does not seem to be in this episode. Everything feels drab to me. Possibly my problem may not be how it was made but perhaps with its two stars.
John Steed and Emma Peel are the iconic duo for The Avengers. It is amazing that there have been some great characters that have partnered with Steed before such as Dr. Keel, Venus Smith, and of course Cathy Gale. Sorry Dr. King, you don’t register with me at all! Yet, in Series 4 the public fell in love with Mrs. Peel. Not to take anything away from Diana Rigg but if Series 2 & 3 were filmed like Series 4 and exported to the US, would Cathy Gale be as popular? It’s hard to say. I love the Steed and Mrs. Peel in Series 4. The series feels fresh and Mrs. Peel balances sexy and espionage expertly. Even when she fights that enemy it is almost playful. Now, this is my opinion, by Series 5 it doesn’t feel fresh anymore. Steed and Mrs. Peel are too familiar and it sometimes feels like they are experiencing a joke that they only know about and not letting us in. Dare I say it but it reminds me of The Tenth Doctor and Rose. It feels like the threat isn’t taken very seriously and there is a lot of tongue and cheek dialogue. I expected to find out the episode was directed by Roger Moore’s James Bond. Suffice to say, I got all excited to watch an episode of The Avengers but found it to be an OK experience instead of an amazing one. That’s too bad.

Of course some things I thought were great were the guest stars. Michael Gough played Nutski and Philip Madoc played Ivan. The list of credits to these actors is immense. It was a treat to see them be in the same scenes together. It is sad that we lost Michael Gough in 2011 and really unfortunate to lose Philip this year. We also get a chance to see the great Peter Barkworth in this episode. He has been in many series such as Doctor Who, The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, Colditz, Dead of Night, and Armchair Theatre. As I am researching this article, I am a little sad to see that Peter had died in 2006. I must have forgotten that, I thought he was still with us.

For me, there was a time when getting episodes of The Avengers were very difficult. When I watched this series on KXLI, I didn’t have a VCR nor ever gave the thought to recording programs. Recording programs would be silly says the man who have thousands of recordings in his collection. The series was re-ran on A&E in the late 1980s. At that point I got disenchanted with the series (a story for another time) and I didn’t record or watch it then. In the mid-1990s, my hunger to acquire more British television was ramping up. I was still a few years away from buying my PAL TV and VCRs but I knew I wanted to pick up my love affairs with The Avengers and find a way to get episodes.
At this point, I thought no TV stations were running the series or so I thought until I came home to visit my parents. I came home on a Friday evening and they were watching The Avengers episode Who’s Who??? I couldn’t believe it! I have been trying to get a hold of the series and here my parents have been watching at home the whole time plus I still lived at their home! Well, as it happens, that was the first time they watched it as they ran across it by accident. It was a part of the Encore Channels. Encore Channels were pay per view channels with each one devoted to a different genre such as Love, Action, Drama, and Mystery. My parents did not have the Encore package but what they did have was an Encore channel that each day was a different theme. Friday was Mystery and every Friday they showed an episode of The Avengers. I started to tape The Avengers every Friday, the prints looked better than I had ever seen. The problem was that it was never shown in order. One week would be a colour Emma Peel episode and the next would be an early Venus Smith episode. At least I got an off-air recording of The Frighteners from Series 1 which was pretty rare at the time. Everything was about to change in 1998.
A&E was one of the first DVD distributors to really get into releasing archive television in the US. They brought us The Avengers on DVD. Although the series was being released in the UK on VHS since the early 1990s, there had never been a release here in the US like this. Previously, there had been some bootleg VHS releases here but that was it.  I thought their strategy of releasing episode was really good. Instead of releasing the series in chronological order, they started with Series 5 which are the colour Emma Peel episodes. They released those in order and for the time, I think they looked great. At least they were being released! I snatched those up as soon as they came out. My collection of The Avengers on DVD grew really fast. There were no extras but I didn’t care as I finally was able to get a complete collection of episodes on DVD. It seemed like things started to run in reverse between the US and UK from the 1990s. Whereas in the 1990s the UK had a steady release of The Avengers on VHS with nothing being released in the US, now the US market was getting a steady stream of releases of the series on DVD but there were no DVD releases for the UK.  People in the UK were very excited when they heard about the Optimum releases.
The bootleg VHS cover for The Correct Way to Kill. Notice the badge of quality on the cover that says, "This tape recorded at Standard Speed on high grade tape, using a licensed shell". Sounds good to me!
In 2009 there was an announcement that fans of The Avengers had been waiting years to hear. Optimum in the UK was going to be releasing the episodes of the series on DVD starting with existing episodes from Series 1 along with all of Series 2. The highpoint of this announcement was that not only were they going to be re-mastered but also include extras. One problem started crop up with these releases. Almost on all the sets there was DVD authoring problems. This was a real shame especially as I know people who worked on these sets and put a lot of time to give us the best possible product they could. These should be definitive sets. I bought the boxset for Series 1 & 2 and Series 3. I had to send a disc back for the Series 1 & 2 sets but Series 3 was fine. I know a lot of people started to get turned off with these defects on the discs. I don’t know how many people stopped buying the sets because of those issues. I know I stopped buying them but it wasn’t because of the DVD authoring issues.

If you look at the screen grabs from this article, you will see these are from the A&E sets. You don’t have to look too hard to find screengrabs from the Optimum sets for the colour series. They are superb. The image is no longer zoomed and the colour levels are vibrant and blemishes removed. Obviously, these are hand over hand a massive improvement on the A&E sets, so why haven’t I bought these? It’s simple. Ever since I got a Blu Ray Player and HD set, I made a very simple rule. If it was shot on film, I want an HD version of it. The Avengers is not a series of few episodes. It is a ton of episodes. I have all the episodes on DVD already. If I am going to invest money to upgrade quality on a filmed series, I want the option to buy it in HD. I think there is no reason why they couldn’t have tested the waters and released a Blu Ray sampler set while they released the Series 1 &2 and Series 3 box. It would have given some indication of whether or not there was demand for further Blu Ray sets.
Did Optimum mock up this cover for the Blu Ray release of Series 4 that is on the site?
Now, this is where the “fan” comes in to tell me why my suggestion is wrong. They would go on to tell me there are multiple reasons why my idea couldn’t work and I just don’t “get it.” Possibly but I spent the last 16 years working in Marketing and Advertising where if you want to sell something badly enough you can. I also work in production where I have a good idea of the costs it takes to make a Blu Ray release.  The Avengers isn’t as well-known as it used to be but the prints were re-mastered in HD. I can’t believe there was no way that Optimum (Studio Canal) couldn’t have partnered with someone else to make such a release happen. That’s what is going on with Space 1999. Studio Canal is a world-wide entity. Now, I do know that Studio Canal prefers to keep everything close to their hip so even if these ideas were do-able, they probably wouldn’t want to partner with anyone. I feel like they should have pushed Blu Ray. I do not want the filmed episodes of the series on DVD. Even if these are new transfers, it’s too much money for me to sink in when there is always the possibility of Blu Ray releases at some point. I am sick of buying everything multiple times. My collection is already gigantic.  It’s a lesson I’ve learned from collecting Doctor Who episodes. It stops becoming collecting and more of a monthly payment (like a mortgage) to Doctor Who. It never ends. Once again this is where the “fan” comes in to remind me that I am not forced to buy them. This is true. I let my wallet speak. I have not bought any of the filmed episodes of The Avengers that were released by Optimum nor have I bought any of the Doctor Who DVD releases for over a year. That being said, I have bought Series 1 & 2 and Series 3 because they were made on 405 line videotape and they look the best I have ever seen them. That being said, I hope we get a Blu Ray release of these episodes some day! I think they would sell really well.
I got information on The Correct Way to Kill from two very good sites: The Avengers Declassified and The Avengers Forever. If you have never been, please do yourself a favour and click on the links to go to those sites.

Finally: News broke this week that Actor Caroline John passed away on June 5th. This is very heart-breaking news especially as she was only 71 and had passed away from cancer. From my point of view, I knew her best as Liz Shaw from Doctor Who and recently watched her in the 1982 production of The Hound of the Baskervilles. I know that down the road I will be watching Inferno as a tribute to her and I hopefully will write something up about that. Ms. John will be very much missed.

Next week: Let’s take a road trip to Darrowby and drop in on James, Siegfried and Tristan as we look at All Creatures Great & Small with an episode from Series 2 Ways and Means.

Have a great week!
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Sextonblake said...

At least in the UK, the reputation of the colour Diana Rigg episodes being the highlight of the series comes from seventies. The show was not on TV, and the few episodes that turned up at film society screenings were season 5.

When the show began to surface again in the mid-80s, I got the opportunity to make up my own mind. Season 5 gets repetitive very quickly. It's an object lesson in the importance of script over style. Season 4 has a much wider variety of stories, and is generally far moodier (THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT is genuinely unnerving). The Tara King stories were rejected by a lot of fans because they didn't have Diana Rigg in them, but viewing them now, they show a willingness to take a chance that is very refreshing (TAKE OVER and BIZARRE are so fundamentally different in style from one another that it's hard to believe that they are part of the same series).

My favourite still remains THE NEW AVENGERS, although this remains a terribly heretical opinion amongst some fans. I just can't help it!

The recent AVENGERS dvd releases have been very disappointing to me. The first box-set contained one disc that wouldn't play at all, so I returned it. The replacement had the same problem. They're far too expensive to have to put up with these sorts of glitches.

Greg said...

Hi Sextonblake,

I don't think it's too different over here. When the series was shown locally for me it was always the Riggs (b&w/Colour) or Thorson episodes. I think people just gravitated towards Peel. It almost seemd like the accepted norm to not like the Thorson episodes.
That being said, I couldn't agree more with your assesment of Series 4,5,6. Series 4 & 6 are both captivating and fresh but for different reasons where Series 5 is Avengers by numbers. Of course there are some good ones in there but not that series does very little for me.
I have yet to fully get into The New Avengers. Should I start from the beginning or do you think there is a good episode I should look at first?
Take care,

Sextonblake said...

With THE NEW AVENGERS it's probably as well to start with THE EAGLE'S NEST and carry on. Even with only 26 episodes the show tries out a wide variety of styles, and it's fun to see how they work out. They generally manage to balance the more realistic feel of the new series with the more traditionally fantastic elements of the old. I do like TALE OF THE BIG WHY? because it takes a sort of John Le Carre type of spy yarn and then gives it a tongue in cheek Avengers makeover.

Dave G said...

Argh! I wrote a long comment but lost it when I went to preview and forgot to deselect Google Account.

I am not going back to rewrite it, so we will have to live without my insightful analysis of the first three series of The Avengers. Perhaps it is best since this blog post was about later episodes anyway.

Oh well, could be worse.

Greg said...

That's too bad, I would have liked to have heard your insightful analiysis of the first three series.

Anonymous said...

Ah, The Avengers. Once again, a classic series from my schooldays. It was the highlight of the week and the whole family sttled in front of the TV, ready to be entertained. I never saw much of the original video-tape productions and probably would not have liked the dull, studio-bound appearance, but when the series went to sparkling 35mm film and the delectable Mrs Peel joined up it was a fantastic piece of TV.
The Emma Peel series was in black and white, but as the UK had not yet got colour TV it all seemed perfectly natural. Second Peel series was in colour, but we were still on black and white TV! None of this mattered - The Avengers was brilliant television with outlandish stories featuring fantasy, sci-fi and good old-fashioned spies.
The final series saw Mrs Peel leaving when her missing husband re-appearedand we got Tara King (played with a certain cheeky irony by Linda Thorson). It was widely agreed that she was no Emma Peel, but she did bring a certain something to the proceedings and some of the stories were better than the later Peel ones.
The New Avengers? Pah, fiddlesticks. I watched it out of a sense of duty really, but it just didn't ring my bell like the older ones did. As pretty as she was, Joanna Lumley failed to arouse my interest and Gambit (Gareth Hunt) seemed a bit forced. Steed did even less than in previous series, and that's saying something.
We now have the Diana Rig and Linda Thorson eps on DVD and mighty fine they look. Some good extras too.