3.18: Dressed to Kill
Before The Avengers unwrapped its Christmas episode (Season Four’s Too Many Christmas Trees), it saw in the New Year. Both are inventive, but Dressed to Kill has the edge, a fancy dress whodunnit set on a train (well, mostly a station; Badger’s Mount, no less), in which Steed and Cathy Gale attempt to root out a typically far-fetched plot to instigate the apocalypse.
Steed’s “very good” Christmas party is interrupted when business calls; Britain’s early warning radar stations picked up a missile which then faded away (“The third World War broke out… Another few seconds and you and I would be mutating now”). The beyond tenuous strands of plot contrivance enable Steed to be in on the situation in advance, such that he has already purchased a plot of land adjoining the sole unaffected radar station, at Smallwood on the Cornish coast (he later recounts the whys of this; it was realised land was being bought up strategically close to early warning radar stations).
It turns out this is also where each of the guests on the train (barring two, Cathy and the perpetrator) have purchased a plot of land, albeit the deeds are not to be signed until the following day, and, if they can be prevented from turning up, the land will become available to whomsoever claims it first.
Mrs Gale: Committing the world to atomic war? You call that a mission?
Preston: There will be destruction, yes. But there will also be the defeated and the victors. I intend to be among the latter.
And the purpose of this dastardly scheme? Steed notes it is the ideal spot for a transmitter or jamming device, and the motive is suggested as the nerve-wracking effect of such incidents and the doubt resulting from causing false alarms. It turns out to be the rather more prosaic starting of World War III. Written by Avengers supremo Brian Clemens (and directed by Bill Bain), who rejigged it four years later as The Superlative Seven, the deficiencies in nefarious logic take a back seat to the fun of what is both a hugely entertaing whydunnit (the staging of the party) and whodunnit (knocking the attendees off).
The scheme soon goes awry when the guests figure out there are too many of them for the portions of land (to many plots for the plot), which is when the instruction is given to pile up the bodies (although, John Junkin’s Sheriff has already been bumped off – “It certainly wasn’t cupid” observes Steed of the arrow in his back – and both Anthea Wyndham’s highwaywoman (AKA Dorothy Wilson) and Richard Leech’s policeman are fortunate enough only to get boshed on the head). Leech featured in two other Avengers episodes and one New Avengers, and also played the garrulous Gather Hade in The Sun Makers.Leon Eagles (Jabel in The Face of Evil) is suitably unscrupulous as henchman Newman (posing as the conductor, then just bashing and topping guests).
Steed (dressed as a cowboy) and Cathy are locked up for an interval (his handcuff course takes time to produce results), on account of both choosing Steed’s plot No.4 (Cathy picked a plot with no stream, owing to comments Steed had made earlier about fishing; “You might have known I’d be poaching” he admonishes lightly). Prior to this, Cathy, following the introductory scene, is absent until after the halfway mark; she disguises herself as a monk, out of sight, and then takes the place of the highwaywoman when the latter is laid out. If one were being rigorous regarding the plotting, one would question how Cathy got away with posing as someone who looks nothing whatsoever like her (it’s that old wearing a mask trick) but, as we have seen, that’s something of a fool’s errand with this script.
Of the attendees, Leonard Rossiter’s vulgarian Robin Hood (William J Cavendish) creates the biggest splash, boorishly making lewd remarks about the ladies (“I wouldn’t mind being helped up by her” he says of Dorothy Wilson), drinking a lot, being the first to get hit on the head when he attempts to leave, and accusing Steed of being a “ruddy lounge lizard” after the latter professes to be gentleman of leisure (he rides, shoots a little, and casts a creditable dry fly). Rossiter was a decade from becoming universally known for Rising Damp, but this was arguably the year he began to break out in film and television, with a recurring role in Z Cars, an appearance in This Sporting Life, and perhaps most memorably Mr Shadrak in Billy Liar.
Steed: She’s fascinated by me. It’s my winning smile.
Mrs Gale: You took a smile course?
Steed: It’s a natural attribute.
It’s a close thing between Rossiter and Anneke Wills’ Manic Pixie Sloan Ranger (Pussy Cat/Jane Wentworth), though. Wills, three years before her signature role as swinging ‘60s Polly in Doctor Who, is at her most alluring, and also swinging, here; “Don’t you think it’s just fabby?” she says of the train party, before attaching herself ornamentally to Steed. “You’ll make me purr” she advises when he touches her tail (when Cavendish does likewise she dismissively tells him to stop as it will come off).
Her flirtatiousness with Steed (who certainly appears to be disarmed; Wills called Macnee “a very witty, sweet man”) leads to a series of amusing responses from Cathy. When Steed attempts to persuade Jane that she will be in greater danger the longer he remains locked up, she replies “I would have though it was completely the opposite” to which Cathy knowingly smiles. “So much for the homme fatale” she then quips, when Pussy Cat leaves Steed locked up.
Steed: A little party I had last night. I had a few friends in for a few drinks.
Steed indulges some flirting of his own with Cathy earlier, looking suggestively at her when informing her of his little bungalow on the coast. He clearly makes a habit of heavy Christmases, although in the instances of this and Too Many Christmas Trees he isn’t to blame for the state of his house and his addled brains respectively. Also of note, Cathy spent a quiet Christmas (“In Marrakesh?” responds Steed in mock surprise), Post-party, Steed has a teddy bear x2 (unclear if either is from the Mr. Teddy Bear), a saddle, and a trombone containing a French loaf, while his tiger skin rug sports an eye patch. Also, the man he “believes” invited him to the party (he knows it was a fake request) made a fortune out of fertiliser.
Newman: A Merry Christmas to you.
Preston: And A Happier New Year.
The reveal that Napoleon/Preston (Alexander Davion) is behind it all at least isn’t obvious, although none of the assembled are screamingly likely culprit; it would only have really been a shocker if Pussy Cat or Robin Hood had been responsible. The showdown, with Steed engaging in High Noonpistols with Preston on the platform and Cathy shooting Newman (having already knocked out Frank Maher’s barman during her expected bout of judo chopping) is more than satisfying.
Dressed to Kill is close to ideal Avengers; eccentric but also intriguing (sometimes, later in the show’s run, the former was considered more than enough, to its detriment), with a strong cast and an inimitable setting. The episode was first broadcast 28 December 1963, and appropriately concludes with Steed and Cathy toasting the new year with a bottle of 1945 bubbly. Both this and Too Many Christmas Trees are fine examples or the way to approach holiday season instalments; the setting is the icing on the cake rather than its underpinning (Steven Moffat, with his penchant for plastic Santa spectaculars would do well to take notice. That is, if all hope for him were not long since lost).