4.6: Too Many Christmas Trees
Festive celebrations take a sinister turn in this fourth season episode, as Steed is haunted by uncannily predictive dreams. It is, of course, a nefarious plot, but less lightweight than many a series’ seasonal indulgence, despite featuring its fare share of gags and meta-referencing.
Most celebrated is the Christmas card Steed receives from Cathy Gale, offering him best wishes for the future (“Oh, how nice of her to remember me”), followed by “What can she be doing in Fort Knox?” Albeit, Too Many Christmas Trees was broadcast 15 months after the release of Goldfinger, in which Honor Blackman’s Pussy Galore visited Fort Knox.
More pertinent to the story, in which a man suffers eerie premonitions of the surroundings and guests he is visiting, Mervyn Johns is cast as Brandon Storey, the publisher mastermind (and Santa) behind the scheme to plunder Steed’s brain for top secrets. Johns played the outwardly inconspicuous Walter Craig in horror classic Dead of Night 20 years earlier (spoilers for the film follow). Craig visits a weekend gathering in the country where the guest regale each other with spooky tales and a psychiatrist delivers rational explanations for anything odd. Ultimately, Craig is revealed as the shrink’s strangler, at which he awakes, and a cyclic narrative is shows him embarking for the retreat for the first time.
Slightly less essentially, Johns, here playing a Dickens obsessive, had also appeared in several Dickens adaptations, including A Tale of Two Cities (referenced by Steed’s fancy dress costume) and (the 1951, definitive) Yule tale of dreams and visitations Scrooge (as Bob Cratchit).
Dr Teasel: Clearly he’s on the verge of a complete nervous breakdown.
The mood of Steed’s dream, an expanse of white with Steed rocking his PJs, cardboard cut-out Christmas trees, sinister sleigh music and Santa sporting a grotesquely ill-fitting mask and announcing himself with an ominous “Ho-ho-ho”, vaguely recalls the unreality of another two decades old film, Hitchcock’s Spellbound, with its dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali (the only really good part of it, truth be told).
Appropriately, Mrs Peel launches into an amusing cod-analysis of why Steed is dreaming the dreams he is dreaming (particularly so, since it is later revealed that she has also been manipulated). She considers it “a simple case of childhood regression, dating back to the time you realised there isn’t a Santa”. To which, a classically cheerful Steed ripostes; “Oh dear. Isn’t there?” Emma’s articles on psychoanalysis are remarked upon by Dr Felix Teasel as “Very good, for the lay public”.
The finale, set in a darkened room of distorting mirrors, in which the villain mistakenly shoots at Emma’s reflection, recalls Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (and presages The Man with the Golden Gun).
Emma: Wake up! You’ve been drugged.
Steed: I haven’t, you know. I poured it all down the sink. There’s enough there to knock out a herd of buffalo.
The general structure, in which scheming types manipulate our hero’s subconscious in an effort to elicit truths from him, would be used again two years later in The Prisoner episode A. B. & C. To better effect, it has to be said (not that Too Many Christmas Trees isn’t a worthy episode in itself). Tony Williamson wrote nine instalments of The Avengers and contributed to a number of ITC serials including The Champions, Jason King and The Persuaders (he also wrote half of Adam Adamant Lives!), but not the Patrick McGoohan series. Both plots feature the hero deducing the villains’ plan, and they are revealed a crucial moment as having faked a lack of control. Steed suspected as soon as entering the house and saw the Christmas trees. Too Many doesn’t have anything in its arsenal as satisfying as Six’s “reveal” of Number Two as the contact, however, resolving itself with a simple unveiling of Storey.
Additionally, some of the elements are rather inelegant; Edwin Richfield’s doubting Thomas Dr Teasel turns out to be on the side of the angels (“Oh, oh the War Office won’t like that” comments Steed after Emma reveals she has knocked him out). So too Emma (who has been suspicious all along) being manipulated to bring Steed to the party, and Steed couldn’t let her know as “You might have given the game away”. When it’s really for the purposes of a neat Steed reveal (her concertedly joining in Steed’s hearty refrain at this point very nearly makes up for it, and is a lovely example of the chemistry between the two stars).
Mrs Peel: Do you believe in telepathy? Supposing a group of people, each of them telepathic, thought as one?
Dr Teasel: Nothing you’ve said to me so far is feasible.
While the whyfors of Steed’s dreams take a while to be laid out, the architects of the scheme are identified fairly early on (Storey aside), and one can’t help feel this might have been sustained for longer. Once we know there are several culprits, some with mixed feelings, there’s slightly less intrigue. Indeed, the explanation for how they engineered this, when it comes, is something of a cheat. Rather than with mirrors, or a pseudo-scientific explanation as in The Prisoner, the truth is extra-sensory. The diabolical masterminds telepathically were invading Steed’s mind, as illustrated by the round table and Janice Crane (Jeanette Sterke) predicting the cards held up by Steed (in what would typically be a magician’s sleight of hand).
Mrs Peel: What kind of nightmare?
Steed: A Christmas nightmare.
Film director Roy Ward Baker stages the proceedings with appropriate flair, from the tree and guillotine dream sequences to the overhead shots of the séance-esque sessions where the villains work on their subject (previously having picked on Steed’s friend Freddie Marshall, whom Steed knew had been giving away secrets; in a sign of the scientific slack granted this one, Freddie “died of a brainstorm”).
A fine supporting cast has been assembled, although the performers are generally rather more impressive than their characters. Edwin Richfield had previously appeared in The Girl on the Trapeze(and his notable appearances include two Doctor Whos, The Owl Service, and The Strange World of Gurney Slade). Robert James (as Jenkins) showed up in Hot Snow, the very first Avengers, as well as playing Lesterson in the first Patrick Troughton Doctor Who, The Power of the Daleks. On the Dickens front, he played Newman Noggs in Nicholas Nickelby a decade later. Alex Scott (Martin Trasker) has Our Mutual Friend and Martin Chuzzlewit on his Dickens score card while Barry Warren (Jeremy Wade) has none, although his fancy dress is – suitably, given his fate – Marley’s Ghost.
Steed: It’s a bit uncomfortable, isn’t it? Someone poking around in one’s innermost thoughts.(Looking up) Mmmm. And you can put that in your crystal ball.
Macnee had, of course, like Mervyn Johns, appeared in the Alastair Sim Scrooge, as young Jacob Marley. No A Tale of Two Cities, alas, as that would be a very tidy costuming reference. Rigg, who appears rather fetchingly as Oliver Twist (“My word, you have filled out!”), went on to appear as Lady Dedlock in the BBC’s acclaimed 1985 Bleak House.
Amid the usual fighting and dodging skills, she has an artful little bit of business adjusting her bowtie, and the rapport between the two co-stars, complete with light innuendo, is a reminder of why theirs is the most-celebrated Avengers partnership. Reading out Christmas cards (“Who is ‘boofums’?”), to speculation of intent (“Is he still after your first editions?” Steed asks Emma of Jeremy Wade), to four poster beds (Emma has always fancied herself in one; “So have I” says Steed, before clarifying “I mean, I have, too”)
The send-off gag is set up earlier in the episode, as Emma ponders why Steed doesn’t get rid of the Bentley (I’m sure Macnee would have loved to), to which he replies “The quality of a lady’s performance is measured not by her years” In the final scene they have a horse and trap, complete with Prancer and some judiciously-placed mistletoe. A seasonal outing that doesn’t eschew plot for indulgence, Too Many Christmas Trees might not be top tier Avengers, although it was one of Macnee’s favourites, but it’s a fine example of Steed and Mrs Peel at play in what many regard as the best season of the show.