Skip to main content

Someone began his Christmas celebrations early.

The Avengers
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.














Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018)
(SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop.

Look, the last time I was told the Germans had gone, it didn't end well.

1917 (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I first heard the premise of Sam Mendes’ Oscar-bait World War I movie – co-produced by Amblin Partners, as Spielberg just loves his sentimental war carnage – my first response was that it sounded highly contrived, and that I’d like to know how, precisely, the story Mendes’ granddad told him would bear any relation to the events he’d be depicting. And just why he felt it would be appropriate to honour his relative’s memory via a one-shot gimmick. None of that has gone away on seeing the film. It’s a technical marvel, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography is, as you’d expect, superlative, but that mastery rather underlines that 1917 is all technique, that when it’s over and you get a chance to draw your breath, the experience feels a little hollow, a little cynical and highly calculated, and leaves you wondering what, if anything, Mendes was really trying to achieve, beyond an edge-of-the-seat (near enough) first-person actioner.

The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.

Repo Man (1984)
In fairness, I should probably check out more Alex Cox’s later works. Before I consign him to the status of one who never made good on the potential of his early success. But the bits and pieces I’ve seen don’t hold much sway. I pretty much gave up on him after Walker. It seemed as if the accessibility of Repo Man was a happy accident, and he was subsequently content to drift further and further down his own post-modern punk rabbit hole, as if affronted by the “THE MOST ASTONISHING FEATURE FILM DEBUT SINCE STEVEN SPIELBERG’S DUEL” accolade splashed over the movie’s posters (I know, I have a copy; see below).

This is one act in a vast cosmic drama. That’s all.

Audrey Rose (1977)
(SPOILERS) Robert Wise was no stranger to high-minded horror fare when he came to Audrey Rose. He was no stranger to adding a distinctly classy flavour to any genre he tackled, in fact, particularly in the tricky terrain of the musical (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) and science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain). He hadn’t had much luck since the latter, however, with neither Two People nor The Hindenburg garnering good notices or box office. In addition to which, Audrey Rose saw him returning to a genre that had been fundamentally impacted by The Exorcist four years before. One might have expected the realist principals he observed with The Andromeda Strain to be applied to this tale of reincarnation, and to an extent they are, certainly in terms of the performances of the adults, but Wise can never quite get past a hacky screenplay that wants to impart all the educational content of a serious study of continued existence in tandem w…

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.