Thursday, 1 October 2015
The Avengers: 'A Touch of Brimstone' (James Hill, 1966)
Another of this notionally cinematic blog's occasional detours into the realms of the televisual here, just to coincide with my current marathon of The Avengers hitting one of the series' most notable and controversial highlights - Brian Clemens' and James Hill's gleeful and infamous "A Touch of Brimstone".
When i began this Avengers-athon a few months ago i found myself enjoying the early 'gritty' phase of the series, the time when this was a show about Ian Hendry's Dr David Keel avenging the murder of his fiancee, of Keel and Steed stalking through noir-ish stories in raincoats, of the ineffectual Martin King, of Venus Smith and her chansons and of Honor Blackman as Catherine Gale of the judo throws and the kinky boots (oh, and now i have that song stuck in my head). In fact, i was enjoying the neglected early phase of the programme so much (how hipsterish of me) that i found myself approaching the much lauded, much repeated 'Steed and Mrs Peel' phase of the show with something approaching dread. It just wasn't going to be the same - it was going to throw away the verisimilitude of real world settings and believable characters for quips and a lighter touch and fairytale and i probably wouldn't like it. And then i realised that i was beginning to sound like a bitter old Doctor Who fan mumbling into his real ale darkly of Moffat and murder and bring back RTD, and a quick self-delivered headsmack later i stopped.
What on Earth was i worried about? This era of the show, wherein it went from ABC (Associated British Corporation) to the ABC of the Yoo-Ess of Ay, and escaped the videotaped claustrophobic confines of Teddington Studios for the filmed vistas of Elstree - all overseen by the new producer Julian Wintle (with Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens as executive and associate producers) - is viewed by fans both hardcore and casual as a golden age for a reason. And this particular nugget of dark sulphuric wit, written by Clemens (later to be the scriptwriter of And Soon the Darkness , Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde , The Golden Voyage of Sinbad , Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter  and The Watcher in the Woods ) as he was approaching the height of his powers as a writer of witty fantastique, and ably helmed by Hill (A Study in Terror , Born Free , Black Beauty ) with the leading duo of Patrick Macnee's John Steed and Diana Rigg's Emma Peel in the full bloom of their witty / flirty / sexy charm.
Opening with an arch statement of intent performance from guest villain Peter Wyngarde (The Innocents , Night of the Eagle , Flash Gordon  as well of course as television's Department S [1969 - 70] and Jason King [1971 - 72]) as the debonair, decadent and distinctly dis-Honourable John Cleverly Cartney the scene is soon set for foxy flirting betwixt the carnal Cartney and an icily imperious investigating Emma ('I've come here to appeal to you, Mr Cartney' says Mrs Peel undercover as a charity collector. 'You certainly do that...' he rogueishly replies).
Cartney, along with a cabal of upper-crust rakes, rogues and reprobates, has revived the Hellfire Club - the infamous 18th century society dedicated to decadence and 'Do what thou wilt' (a motto later expanded upon the The Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley) founded by Philip, Duke of Wharton and later made (in)famous by Sir Francis Dashwood before the decline of the cult of carousing. Cartney and his henchmen have resurrected the rituals of the Club in raucous and Rabelaisian meetings spent in 1700s period dress indulging in the gratification of the senses in orgies of wine, women and cries of 'Hellfire!' that may qualify as song. A sideline of pranks played on visiting dignitaries (such as the opening scene's exploding cigar causing the humiliation of a Russian ambassador) leading to governmental embarrassment have lately escalated into murder, leading to Steed and Peel getting on the case and infiltrating the Club.
Paradoxically both the highest-rated episode during The Avengers' original television run, and the story the was notoriously banned in the USA and remained unscreened during it's American network run (though stories of TV executives gathering in hotel rooms for 'private viewings' of it have abounded for years), much of "A Touch of Brimstone"'s reputation hangs not only on its artfully debauched air of decadence but on That Costume worn by Diana Rigg when Mrs Peel is put on display by Cartney for his roistering chums as The Queen of Sin. The outfit of corset, knee-high boots and leashed collar studded with the three inch spikes (oh, and a snake: tres Santanico Pandaemonium!) may not quite be gentleman's relish for the palate of today's internet-jaded public, but at a time when television censors went snippety-snip double quick at the word 'Hell' in dialogue or an exposed belly button, those American network chiefs gathered around their flickering screens in seedy hotel rooms must have been having palpitations.
Oh, and if you'll pardon my problematic Male Gaze, it still works for me - especially since the indomitable Mrs Peel remains unbowed and not cowed throughout the cracks and lashes of Cartney's whip (another controversial element, which was cut for both domestic and international release, and the scene remaining unseen in full until its pristine DVD restoration).
Also starring Colin Jeavons, Jeremy Young and Monty Python's Carol Cleveland "A Touch of Brimstone" is a fine example of a television series and its confident pomp and prime, wittily written, artfully directed and fronted by a trio of superlative performances from Macnee, Rigg and Wyngarde.
'Mrs Peel, we're needed.' You certainly are. Who's Ian Hendry again?