2.11: Death of a Great Dane
Death of a Great Dane’s opening suggests a much broader episode than proves to be the case, the kind of eccentric set up one would expect of later period Avengers; Gregory (Leslie French) attends a rain-lashed funeral, reminiscing that he was with the deceased for four years, at which point it is revealed this is a pet cemetery. If the remainder is straighter, the teleplay by Roger Marshall and Jeremy Scott is nevertheless replete with witty plotting and dialogue, superbly delivered by a fine cast.
Mrs Gale: Did he always travel on a full stomach?
After the discovery of an “indigestible breakfast” in the stomach of a car crash victim (£50,000 in uncut diamonds), Steed and Mrs Gale embark on the trail of funds of the bed-ridden (since his heart attack) Mr Litoff, who managed to build up up one of the world’s largest financial empires over the course of 25 years. It seems his personal assets have been converted to cash and illegally transferred offshore during the previous six months. Mr Litoff was known for his philanthropy, but “turned off the tap” at the time he was laid low. Cathy finds this development unlikely; it isn’t so surprising, then, that we eventually learn Litoff’s no longer in the land of the living, and it’s hisbody lying in the pet cemetery.
The plot is engineered by a typically eccentrically formulated trio, led by a particularly young and dashing Frederick Jaeger as Getz (quite unlike his Doctor Who appearances a decade or so later, in Planet of Evil and The Invisible Enemy), Litoff’s unsung assistant. His co-conspirators are Gregory, the servile butler, and Sir James (John Laurie on typically magnificent form; not for nothing would he appear three more times in the series), a crucial key to the deception as Litoff’s personal physician.
Along the way, we take in some colourful locations and scenarios. For no particular good reason, but very Avengers, diamond smuggler Miller was a keen magician, leading Steed to interview his wife (Clare Kelly) at the Big Laugh joke shop (“I hope he’s better at it than you are”, Cathy critiques of Steed’s sleights of hand; Steed then meets with her customary disapproval when he jokes he may see how he goes with the widow).
Sir James: Our dreams have betrayed us.
We are also invited to a wine tasting, a particularly exuberant showcase for Laurie, who has great chemistry with Macnee. Sir James dreams of founding a clinic in Asia, where he can be honest with his patients (“Madam, your heart flutters because you’re a gross and greedy overeater” would be a sample line), and feigns indulgence of Steed’s suspicions of Getz.
Mostly, though, the scene is about Sir James’ amazement at Steed’s perceptive palate (“You’re wonderful!”), although Cathy, despite being well-versed in pretty much anything and everything, doesn’t know you aren’t supposed to drink the wine at a wine tasting (Steed instructs her to imbibe milk before hand, though, “Keeps your palate perceptive and stops you getting sloshed” so which is it?) and goes home tipsy for an altercation with a lackey (at the event, she smiles in superior fashion when an old duffer complains “I don’t know why they allow women down here”).
Gregory: It’s the power that excites me, sir. I want to be rude, and ill-mannered, and order people about! And then I look forward to an association with a considerable number of good-looking women.
If Sir James’ motivation is clinics of his own (rather than wealth), Gregory’s is “rebellion against subservience”. As winning and larger-than-life as Laurie can’t help but be, French’s character is the most engaging, observing due etiquette and diplomacy but nursing adverse ambitions beneath his mild exterior. French plays Gregory as an appealing worm intent on turning, even when we learn of his motives (neither he nor Sir James were in on the murders of Mitchell and his wife); we’re almost sorry when Steed shows no clemency (“You will be wanting me?”), and Gregory opines “Sad about all my beautiful women”.
As with Sir James, the best Gregory scenes match him with Steed, comparisons between the two made visually through similar hats and umbrellas, and general geniality. They both like dogs too (“I bet you haven’t seen a decent tree in years” Steed greets the “surviving” hound), of course. As it seems did Miller, who could not bring himself to have Bell Hound put down to complete the deception (about which, alas for her, Mrs Miller knew). Gregory isn’t greedy, happy with a smaller cut of the fortune than Getz (“I’m quite content with eleven million pounds, sir”)
Jaeger makes for a particularly strong opponent, perhaps not furnished with as many memorable exchanges as his other co-stars, but enough to deliver a worthy villain of the piece. He also indulges much temple rubbing. For him, motivation is simply “dissatisfaction with a role of faceless service”.
Death’s plot is constantly moving, making every scene count, especially noticeable when in a season with its fair share of sluggish episodes. Sir James reveals himself at the end of Act Two, leading to Steed’s imprisonment (in luxury) until Cathy arrives in the following act. In common with her luck of late, she’s almost immediately identified as Steed’s accomplice, and both end up locked in Litoff’s bedroom (at which point her leather ensemble makes an appearance).
Her sending the message that Litoff’s body has been exhumed triggers a standard hasty resolution, but that’s not a drawback on this occasion; Death of a Great Dane follows The Mauritius Penny as another first class episode, one of the best of the season.