THE AVENGERS: A TV FACE-OFF
by Michael Shonk
Season Three v. Season Four


“Don’t Look Behind You.” (Season Three) Honor Blackman as Mrs. Catherine Gale and Patrick Macnee as John Steed. Guest Cast: Maurice Good as Max, Janine Gray as Ola, Kenneth Colley as Strange Young Man Written by Brian Clemens. Produced by John Bryce. Directed by Peter Hammond.

“The Joker.” (Season Four) Diana Rigg as Mrs. Emma Peel and Patrick Macnee as John Steed. Guest Cast: Peter Jeffrey as Max, Sally Nesbitt as Ola and Ronald Lacey as Strange Young Man. Teleplay by Brian Clemens. Produced by Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens. Directed by Sidney Hayers.

   In today’s culture virtually everything from politics to entertainment is examined as if it is a sporting event. Which team will win the election? Which is better Star Wars or Star Trek? Sherlock versus Scooby Doo?

   So in this spirit we look at the TV series The Avengers. It is a battle between Season Three and Season Four. A fight to the finish, a duel between Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg, between Cathy Gale and Emma Peel, between Steed and Steed, between production values, and between leather jumpsuits.


   Representing Season Three is the episode “Don’t Look Behind You” with Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale.


   Representing Season Four is the episode “The Joker,” a remake of “Don’t Look Behind You” with Diana Rigg as Emma Peel.


THE PLOT:

   Heroine in jeopardy in the “Old Dark House.”

   Both begin with a scene where an unknown pair of hands cuts up and mutilates a close up photo of Gale/Peel. Next we learn a famous reclusive expert in Gale/Peel’s field of interest has invited her to spend a weekend alone with him in his remote mansion.

   At the mansion Gale/Peel meets an odd young woman named Ola and learns her host has been called away but hopes to return soon. Ola leaves Gale/Peel alone and mind games begin.

   A strange young man appears at the mansion’s door claiming his car is out of gas and he needs to use the phone. They discover the phone line has been cut. More mind games follow until the villain reveals himself and (spoiler alert) the villain is defeated.

WINNER: The plot is a better fit for the third season hardboiled thriller style than the fantasy adventure era of Emma Peel. DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU


THE SCRIPT:

   Some of the rewrites changes were minor and not always best for the mood of the story, such as switching Gale’s fan from being an expert in medieval history to that of Peel’s being an expert in the less serious subject of card game Bridge.

   The main problem with heroine in jeopardy stories for weekly TV series is the audience knows the heroine will survive thus eliminating any real jeopardy. Clemens’ two scripts handled that challenge differently.

   The Gale version was a better than expected suspense thriller worthy of the man who gave us the TV series Thriller. Because you don’t know whom or why this is happening, there is an increasing uneasiness and a feeling of tension typical in “Old Dark House” maniac killer thrillers.

   In the rewrite episode “The Joker,” Clemens made a major mistake by revealing too early who the killer was and his motive. This removed much of the uneasiness and suspense that worked well in Season Three version. The best change Clemens made in the rewrite was with the motivations of Ola and the Strange Young Man. These changes made the characters more believable and the villain’s plan much more credible. However, Clemens most unforgivable mistake with the rewrite dealt with John Steed.

WINNER: Both scripts had flaws but DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU worked the best with the plot and story.


JOHN STEED:

   In both scripts Steed’s role was minor but important. Steed drives Gale to the mansion then continues on his way. During the trip Steed flirts with receptive Gale, even stopping to pick some wild flowers for her. While Steed would leave Gale alone in the mansion he would arrive to help her as soon as he learned a certain bit of news.

   In Peel’s version Steed falls down the stairs and hurts his leg, but he is more clueless than clumsy. Steed is given the news that made it obvious to third season Steed that his partner was in danger. This time he doesn’t notify Emma of the news because it would spoil her weekend with the Bridge expert. It takes dimwitted Steed too long to realize Mrs. Peel is in danger. Steed’s arrival in this version is a letdown for Steed fans compared to his heroics in Season Three.

   The Gale version also featured a great reaction by Macnee when Cathy asks him if he had known she was in danger and used her as a decoy (something earlier Steed was fond of doing to his partners). Steed’s reaction of hurt disbelief that she would ask him that showed just how much he had changed and how much Gale meant to him.

WINNER: For the third season’s moment revealing Steed’s growth and the fourth season episode turning Steed into an idiot… DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU.


THE DIRECTOR:

   The person who captured that Steed moment was Peter Hammond. Hammond was one of the series first directors and known for his fondness of odd angles and points of view. His camera work added to the uneasiness and strangeness of the story without getting in the way of the story. And boy did he have fun with the camera in this episode especially taking advantage of the odd stairs that went in a variety of directions.

   Sidney Hayers did a fine professional but standard job directing “The Joker.” He also made positive use of the surroundings, taking advantage of the large playing cards as doors to add some visual creepiness to the action.

WINNER: DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU – Peter Hammond.


THE GUEST CAST:

   The Gale version went for a theatrical style that matched the tone and style director Hammond set for the entire episode. The guest cast got to ham it up adding a sense of insanity to the characters.

   The Peel version used a more typical TV style of underplaying the roles, especially with the Strange Young Man. The increase in Steed’s role meant less of the Strange Young Man, which was a plus.

WINNER: In both episodes the performances of characters Ola and Strange Young Man seemed artificial. Both actors who played the killer were good but I found Maurice Good in “Don’t Look Behind You” better as he added a sense of tragedy to the character. DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU.


PRODUCTION VALUES:

   Oddly enough the limited production values in the third season version was a plus. The black and white videotape gave the thriller more of an “Old Dark House” feel than the filmed in color version.

   The sets in the Peel’s version were bigger and better. The interiors of the mansion looked real but marred by the rooms decorated with ludicrous playing cards that conflicted with the serious suspense of the story. The Peel era would learn to better balance its surrealism with story.

   The smaller sets in the Gale’s version designed by Terry Green gave the episode a claustrophobic feel that worked better. The design of the stairs with a hint of M. C. Escher added to the audience discomfort as it felt that anything could happen from any direction at any moment.

   Johnny Dankworth’s theme and soundtrack would be approved by anyone who admired jazz music during the fifties and sixties. But the Steed picks flowers for Cathy scene needed more and better music in the background. The record that would play a clue was misused in “Don’t Look Behind You.”

   Laurie Johnson’s theme was more stylish and in a pop style. It plays a major role in the famously popular opening credits. “The Joker” makes good use of the record of a song that is so important to the killer.

   Both episodes costume department failed to help establish the guest characters. The Strange Young Man’s sunglasses seemed to reflect his ego but had nothing to add to the story. Gale’s clothes seemed limited to conservative dress and black leather jumpsuit worn only during fight scenes. Peel had the larger more feminine wardrobe (and a scene where Peel is exposed in a bra as she dressed – a big deal for the young audience during a time when the Sears catalog was considered risque). Steed dressed much the same in both episodes.

WINNER: DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU in Sets and Look. THE JOKER in Music and Costumes.


   And now the battles you all have been waiting for…


MRS. CATHERINE GALE versus MRS. EMMA PEEL

   Cathy Gale was originally named Mr. Charlie Gale. Studio Press officer Marie Donaldson is credited for naming Emma Peel – a twist of the phrase “man appeal.”

   Oddly, the two female characters were more alike than the third and fourth season were. Both were strong kick ass women that looked great in leather jumpsuits. Both had the same relationship with John Steed, one of mutual respect, professionalism, and hints of romance. Gale, as with Season Three, was darker, more serious. She had a sense of wit but rarely smiled. However Clemens was showing signs in Season Three that he saw Gale differently than she was usually portrayed. The flower scene in “Don’t Look Behind You” was notable for softening Gale to the audience.

   Emma Peel had strength and confidence. She ran toward danger and kicked down doors to get at the killer. She was the near perfect image of the modern independent woman. While Peel was grateful for Steed’s coming to her rescue she didn’t need him to take out the villains.

   While much of what was right with Mrs. Emma Peel came from the development of Mrs. Catherine Gale, Emma Peel remains one of the most beloved female characters in all of television history.

WINNER: THE JOKER – Emma Peel


HONOR BLACKMAN versus DIANA RIGG

   Both co-starred in Bond films, both were offered a CBE (Commander). Blackman declined due to her political beliefs favoring a republic over royalty. Riggs accepted hers in 1988 and now is a DBE (Dame Commander).

   Website ‘Avengers Forever’ quotes an interview Blackman gave “Star Log” magazine where she confessed that director Hammond argued with her over how to play the final scene with the killer in “Don’t Look Behind You”. Hammond wanted her tough and ready to kill the bad guy. But Blackman felt so sorry for the villain she was unable to play the scene without tears running down her face. Diana Rigg’s performance during that scene would have made Hammond proud.

   Rigg had no problem with the tough part of Peel. She could break a man’s arm and still remain feminine. Perhaps the greatest difference Rigg brought to the role was the playfulness. The way she holds the gun in the opening titles is enough to drive a gun safety expert insane but adds a sense of genial fun that is irresistibly appealing,

WINNER: THE JOKER – Diana Rigg who made Emma Peel an iconic television character. But Honor Blackman was a better Bond Girl.


THE FINAL VERDICT:

   And the winner is… DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU. (7 to 4.)

   It really should be no surprise that a script written for Mrs. Catherine Gale and the third season of the series would turn out better than a rewrite done to speed up production time while Brian Clemens was still developing where he wanted to take the series.