Friday, June 29, 2007

Review: The Avengers on Radio


By Wesley Britton

(Note: To obtain the full series discussed below, your best source is Jon Foulk at OTRCAT.COM. He also has MP3s of many other spy radio shows listed elsewhere at this site.)

In 1969, one of the most beloved and longest lasting spy series on television ended its original run. The Avengers, which had introduced Patrick Macnee as John Steed, Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, Diana Rigg as Mrs. Emma Peel, and Linda Thorson as Tara King seemingly rode off into the syndication sunset. But some epics don't just fade away in reruns or become simply immortalized in video and DVD releases. The Avengers, for example, were re-born in novels, comic books, as The New Avengers on television, and, ah, in a film about which the less said, the better. Other series from the '60s can claim the same, but in most cases, new versions rarely captured the magic of the originals.

Uniquely, as discussed in my Spy Television (Praeger, 2004), The Avengers also became a stage play in 1971. Few fans ever saw it. In 1972, Sonovision Ltd. Went one better and produced The Avengers for radio in 15 minute episodes broadcast daily, Monday through Friday. Unless you lived in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, or New York during that year, you likely haven't heard these "new Avengers starring Donald Monat as John Steed and Diane Appleby as Mrs. Emma Peel. After its 18 month run, the show was the stuff of legend and it was thought only 13 episodes survived.

Luckily, this wasn't the case. Thanks to efforts by South African broadcast companies, radio series of the era are available now and The Avengers are again ready for your listening pleasure. The question is--are these stories worthy of your time and cash? How do 15 minute serialized cliff-hangers fare against other incarnations of the show?

Judging from the 22 stories I’ve heard, one important point is that most of The Avengers radio scripts are re-workings of original TV broadcasts. But this isn't to say nothing new was added to The Avengers legacy. True, only two adventures, including the first five-part drama, "Getaway," were the only original stories. "Getaway," a tale of prison inmates drinking special potions that made them invisible was never a televised drama. "Straight from the Shoulder," the last of the series from the set I purchased, was a yarn with a long car chase, an extended duel on a target range between Emma Peel and a one-shot crack killer, and the end of an arms-for-sale ring. All other yarns were adaptations of stories both from the Steed-Peel years and many more from the Steed-King season.

This means over half of the scripts were slightly altered to have Peel saying and doing things Tara King had done back in 1968 and 1969. For the most part, little change was needed in the plots or dialogue to accommodate the switch in the female role. However, as the radio Avengers used the character of "Mother"--who appeared only once in a Peel story, her last, writers added new scenes to include the oafish boss in tales in which the character had not been part of before. Sometimes, this added new twists as in the radio version of the Steed-Peel "Escape in Time." In the spirit of the King season, during which "Mother" popped up in unusual places, the head of this section of British Intelligence set up his headquarters in the Tower of London. This allowed for some historical commentary on old weapons that fit in with the time travel motif.

Some alterations provided other new settings as in "Too Many Oles," a re-telling of the Steed-King television story, "They Keep Killing Steed." In the radio version, this took Steed and Peel to Spain and we heard the final battle in a bullfight ring. This shift in setting and character accents gives the script a freshness that would add new interest for even the most knowledgeable fan. In addition, many stories restructured the plots to emphasize, or cut, scenes from the TV productions. For example, "Nothing to Sneeze At," a re-working of the Steed-King "You'll Catch Your Death," spent more time in the laboratories of the germ clinic than in the original King outing. Writer and director Dennis Falby made many such changes to create new circumstances for our heroes. Steed didn’t speak while wearing a gas mask on television, and neither Mrs. Peel nor Tara King were forced to wear straight-jackets or sneezed just before falling through an air duct. The ladies were tortured in many ways, but the televised episodes never had either suspended from a beam tied to one hand. Looking for such differences, of course, is a sport for the most die-hard of fans. Are there other pleasures?

Of course, radio drama is a different medium from television, and we gain insights into this from Donald Monat's short introduction taped for the new release. He said that, normally on Thursday or Friday afternoons, a cast of seven or eight actors gathered to record a week's worth of episodes in the Johannesburg studios. He claimed the actors didn't see the scripts beforehand, that 7 or 8 actors played up to 20 roles between them, and that the taping took only 3 to 4 hours including speaking the parts and adding the sound effects. Editing would later pull the process together. One noticeable difference between the TV outings and these remakes were the added lines for the uncredited narrators. Happily, the writers provided more than plot exposition and we heard both wry commentary on the character's actions as well as comic warnings about what was about to happen. One example: Steed "followed the shapely form of the nurse down the corridor. Steed privately decided that he quite liked women with ample flesh on their bones. When the matron appeared, Steed wondered if quite so much flesh was necessary." Supervised by producer David Goodan, the production qualities were quite good,
so the music, sound effects, and editing were all first-rate. This remains true in the new
releases. So the series works simply on the level of listenable entertainment.

For many reasons, new audiences don't need to be familiar with the original Avengers to enjoy these stories. While one reason The Avengers remains timeless is its fantasy elements, avoiding topical issues which can date more grounded efforts, some stories were unintended prophecy. In both the TV and radio versions of "Who Shot George XLR40," for example, we saw and heard a scene any contemporary audience should respond to with an ironic smile--that of cybernetic doctors desperately laboring at an operating table to keep a computer alive, a computer shot by a ruthless assassin. Well, computers still have one limitation. As Mrs. Peel observed, "They can't duck." In the aforementioned "Nothing to Sneeze About," The killers mailed empty envelopes laced with deadly germs, a foreshadowing of the anthrax terrorism that occurred in the same fashion in fall 2001. Even listeners not born when either the TV or radio versions were produced can draw parallels between strange fiction and the post-9/11 world.

But what of actors playing roles so identified with Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg? Admittedly, this call is a matter of taste. For my money, Donald Monat comes off as a very credible Major John Steed. As we're talking radio, it's easy to hear a new voice and still see the face and mannerisms of Patrick Macnee. It takes a bit to get used to, perhaps, but Monat seems to be Steed and not merely an actor standing in for the real McCoy, er, maybe McSteed. I wasn't so convinced with Appleby's version of Emma Peel. Perhaps she lacked some of the sauciness of Diana Rigg, perhaps she seems too proper and upper-crust in her vocalizations. Again, this is a matter of preference, but this Mrs. Peel sounds like a good detective but not quite full of the vitality that suggests a woman of action.

Well, as Patrick Macnee's dandified Steed prove to a wide variety of televised adversaries, appearances can be deceiving. So can voices. To be fair, Appleby's Emma Peel "wheed" with delight while sliding down a banister to join the fray and, as one narration put it, "Kicks like a mule, and moves like lightening, does our Mrs. Peel." Perhaps Applyby was simply underused in many stories. In these Avengers, Steed is frequently the star of the show and Mrs. Peel a supporting character knocked out, gassed, imprisoned, or with simply less to do. Perhaps Falby was more comfortable with the male point-of-view. We hear much about what Steed is thinking and looking at, less so for Peel. However any listener responds to the inflections of Monat and Appleby, it was a smile to hear one scene that clarified one point debated in Avengers circles--indeed Steed and Peel were amorous. I leave it to new listeners to find the evidence.

Beyond this incident, the set I purchased included an additional live, on stage comic scene in which Steed and Peel were retired, clearly living together, and called into action one more time. Mostly, the short scene--unexplained as to when and why it was made--allowed for sexual jokes. For example, Mrs. Peel learns Steed has been wearing his bowler all those years in bed and she'd been fingering his brim at night.

Of course, 15 minute episodes with cliff-hangers are not suited for much character development of any kind to begin with, so these adventures are more plot driven, trying to build mysteries to keep listeners tuning in to discover what all these clues and murders add up to. By comparison with the original TV broadcasts, these incarnations are often on the thin side. Some stories translate better than others, and this often depends on how good the original scripts were in the first place. Still, while fans of the original show have the pleasure of comparing and contrasting what changes were made, or not, listeners less familiar with the first broadcasts can enjoy the stories just like the first South African audiences with one decided advantage--you don't have to wait to hear each episode over the period of five or six days.

If there's one major disadvantage, it's the fact most of these episodes include the original commercials. At first, it's quaint to hear ads that explain how over a million South African housewives live better with the wonders of Cold Water Omo in their wash. We hear how well "Shield for Sportsman" deodorant actually works for men whose only sports are changing tires and trimming hedges. For those who didn't know, "lovely actress Jill St. John" loves creamy Lux soap in her bath. We learn South Africans need toothpaste to fight tooth decay and the candies that cause it. After awhile, the charm wears off. Well, this affliction is edited out of the later episodes and that's one way to spell r.e.l.i.e.f.

So, alongside the DVDs of the series that started it all, these clever artifacts of a more innocent time are more than worthy of joining your spy collection. Fans of The Avengers now have an opportunity to enjoy old friends and old stories performed and produced in a different mold retaining much of the flavor and spirit of what made the concept so popular in the first place. One of the pleasures of radio drama is allowing the mind to fill in the pictures that go with what we hear. In this case, we get to plug in visuals firmly part of our memories into something like an alternate universe. I was glad to go there.

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