Skip to main content

Now you're here, you must certainly stay.

The Avengers
4.1: The Town of No Return

The Avengers as most of us know it (but not in colour) arrives fully-fledged in The Town of No Return: glossier, more eccentric, more heightened, camper, more knowing and more playful. It marks the beginning of slumming it film directors coming on board (Roy Ward Baker) and sees Brian Clemens marking out the future template. And the Steed and Mrs Peel relationship is fully established from the off (albeit, this both was and wasn’t the first episode filmed). If the Steed and Cathy Gale chemistry relied on him being impertinently suggestive, Steed and Emma is very much a mutual thing.


One might even construe an almost pre-emptory meta-quality to The Town of No Return, anticipating as it does a welter of strange small villages, unfriendly locals and loveable eccentrics. Terence Alexander’s “Piggy” Warren is his impostor’s perception of an eccentric English flight lieutenant come pub landlord complete with ridiculous moustache, while Jeremy Burnham’s vicar is a bit daft because all vicars are, aren’t they (“I’ve got bats in my belfry, you know”)?


If the episode opens with one of the series’ most indelibly daft and memorable images – a plastic bag comes ashore (very The Prisoner), only to unzip itself and reveal a fully-suited gent who walks up the beach and asks directions for Little Bazeley by the Sea – it also sets out the cart for unforgivingly studio-bound close-ups and inserts, as does the subsequent fencing fight between Steed and Emma, obviously stunt doubles with a patchy voiceover from the stars, and the inevitable day-for-night filming. All this is much more unforgiving on spangly Blu-ray, of course, but such brazen sloppiness is part of the series’ distracting charm – the budgets grow exponentially higher (everything here is more elegant and suave, from the classy titles and iconic new theme to the playful incidental music that makes the repetitive score dumps of the previous era seem coarse and clumsy), but the joins still show.


Steed: Have you ever fancied yourself as a teacher?

Steed and Emma are flirty in their first scene too, with Steed slapping her arse, and again later, after he has his attempts to snoop curtailed (“Isn’t it time you were in bed? You have to be up early tomorrow”). The former has also had his gentility stacked up, if that’s possible, in one of those scenes that tend to make the plot itself incidental to the incidentals, as on the train down to Little Bazeley – to investigate where four agents have been lost – Steed announces “No restaurant, I’m afraid. We’ll just have to rough it” before revealing an endlessly deep carpet bag from which he produces a tea set (“India or China?”), a steaming kettle and a cake holder (“Are you sure you won’t have a marzipan delight?”)


Steed: They don’t exactly seem to welcome visitors.

Because, truth be told, the plot of The Town of No Return is fairly unremarkable once you get past the trappings. It’s a mysterious and deadly village (town), with fake locals and dodgy doings down below. It’s almost an archetypal Avengers plot, which makes it seem a little too familiar. 


Steed and Emma are dissuaded from exiting the pub at night (marching can be heard, the windows are nailed shut, and upon their seeing several patrons exiting with shotguns, Piggy informs Steed and Emma “Just off to do a spot of badger hunting. It’s er, more fun at night”), there’s a church apparently filled with choral voices but which is actually a tape recording (The Time Meddler had the run on that ruse by over a year), and some exposition both good (Steed discovers the real Piggy’s memorial) and lousy (a man lathered in clay announcing “Below, below!” to Emma before passing out).


But there’s a lot of fun being had at key points too. Emma smiles when held at gunpoint, rather than reacting with alarm, as would be traditional elsewhere. When it comes to unveiling the villain’s plot (they plan to take over the country piecemeal, “the next town and then the next and the next and the next”), she adopts the mode of the teacher she is posing as, with Steed sat at a much-too-small school desk. (Speaking of schooling, one has to respect the very blood-thirsty artistic verve of the nowhere-to-be-seen children.)


And in the climactic fight, while Emma has rough and tumble with villains including the head teacher (Juliet Harmer, of Adam Adamant Lives!), Steed is trapped with heavies behind a descending steel door; when it rises again, they’re all in a state of subdued disarray, Steed’s steel-capped bowler having proved devastatingly effective.


Piggy Warren: Jar or two of jolly old splash, what? Ha-ha.

Alexander is having a lot of fun with his silly old major impersonation, while Patrick Newell (The Android Invasion) essays his first of two guest star spots in the show before assuming the regular mantle of Mother. Here he’s the outsider fated to be charged by bloodhounds and found semi-buried on the beach the next morning.


Steed: All this is supposed to go on the horse, you know.

But it’s the effortless rapport between Macnee and Rigg that really sets this opener off so splendidly (this is most likely accounted for by being shot twice; Rigg replaced Elizabeth Shepherd and it was completed some way into the season). There’s Emma’s amused response (“What happened to pussy-footed pussy?”) to Steed’s pronouncements of surreptitious spying skills (“I can move like a cat in carpet slippers”) when he returns empty handed and in turn his to her being tied up in a stable (“Have to cut down on the oats”).


And then there’s the advent of the (admittedly variable) larky, whacky coda scene, invariably involving doubling or back projection, and here finding them on a scooter, Steed holding on to Emma, as it recedes into the distance. The Town of No Return isn’t the best of Season Four by a long chalk, but it’s very much the shape of things to come.


















Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Farewell, dear shithead, farewell.

Highlander II: The Quickening (1991)
(SPOILERS) I saw Highlander II: The Quickening at the cinema. Yes, I actually paid money to see one of the worst mainstream sequels ever on the big screen. I didn’t bother investigating the Director’s Cut until now, since the movie struck me as entirely unsalvageable. I was sufficiently disenchanted with all things Highlander that I skipped the TV series and slipshod sequels, eventually catching Christopher Lambert’s last appearance as Connor MacLeod in Highlander: End Game by accident rather than design. But Highlander II’s on YouTube, and the quality is decent, so maybe the Director’s Cut improve matters and is worth a reappraisal? Not really. It’s still a fundamentally, mystifyingly botched retcon enabling the further adventures of MacLeod, just not quite as transparently shredded in the editing room.

In a way, that’s good, as there can be no real defence that the fault lies elsewhere. What was Russell Mulcahy thinking? What was anyone thinking? Th…

So, you want to go overseas. Kill some Nazis.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
(SPOILERS) I suppose you have to give Kevin Feige credit for turning the least-likely-to-succeed-in-view-of-America’s-standing-with-the-rest-of-the-world superhero into one of Marvel’s biggest success stories, but I tend to regard Steve Rogers and his alter ego as something of a damp squib who got lucky. Lucky in that his first sequel threw him into a conspiracy plotline that effectively played off his unwavering and unpalatable nobility and lucky in that his second had him butting heads with Tony Stark and a supporting selection of superheroes. But coming off the starting block, Captain America: The First Avenger is as below par as pre-transformation Steve himself, and I’m always baffled when it turns up in best of Marvel Cinematic Universe lists. The best I can say for it is that Joe Johnston’s movie offers a mildly engaging opening section and the occasional facility for sharp humour. For the most part, though, it’s as bland and impersonal as…

I once fought for two days with an arrow through my testicle.

Kingdom of Heaven Director’s Cut (2005)
(SPOILERS) There’s an oft-cited view that Kingdom of Heaven, in its unexpurgated as-Ridley-honest-to-goodness-intended director’s cut – in contrast to some of his other, rather superfluous director’s cuts, in which case – is a goddam masterpiece. It isn’t, I’m afraid. First and foremost, Orlando Bloom is not miraculously transformed into a leading man with any presence, substance or conviction. But there are other problems, more than evident, mostly in the form of the revisionist pose William Monahan’s screenplay adopts and the blundering lack of subtlety with which his director translates it.

Definitely the perfect prisoner’s friend.

The Avengers 1.20: Tunnel of Fear
(SPOILERS) As Alan Hayes observes (in the booklet accompanying the DVD release of this recently discovered Season One episode), there’s a more than passing kitchen sink element to Tunnel of Fear. You could almost expect it to form the basis of a Public Eye case, rather than one in which Steed and Dr Keel get involved, if not for the necessary paraphernalia of secrets being circulated via a circus fairground.

I apologise for Oslo's low murder rate.

The Snowman (2017)
(SPOILERS) Maybe Morton Tyldum made Jo Nesbø adaptations look deceptively easy with Headhunters, although Tyldum hasn’t show such facility with material since, so maybe Nesbø simply suits someone with hackier sensibilities than Tomas Alfredson. It’s a long way down from the classy intrigue of John Le Carré to the serial killer clichés of The Snowman, and I’m inclined to think that, even if Alfredson had managed to film that 15% of the screenplay he says went awry, this wouldn’t have been all that great.

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…