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

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…

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…

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.

I don’t need to be held together, I’m fine just floating through space like Andy.

Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (2017)
Or, to give it its full subtitle, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – The Story of Jim Carrey & Andy Kaufman Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton. Carrey’s in a contradictory place just now, on the one hand espousing his commitment to a spiritual path and enlightened/ing state, on the other being sued in respect of his ex-girlfriend’s suicide and accompanying allegations regarding his behaviour. That behaviour – in a professional context – and his place of consciousness are the focus of Jim & Andy, and an oft-repeated mantra (great for motivational speeches) that “I learned that you can fail at what you don’t love, so you may as well do what you love. There’s really no choice to be made”. The results are consequently necessarily contradictory, but always fascinating.

Nothing in the world can stop me now!

Doctor Who The Underwater Menace: Episode Three

Episode Three is pretty much 25 minutes of filler, revolving around a kidnap attempt on Zaroff and Sean encouraging the fish people to engage in industrial action. But, laughable (intentional or otherwise) as the plot mechanics may be, this is never dull. Smith keeps the action zipping along. She has limited space at her disposal, but ensures the action scenes are tightly shot and well-edited. This means that, even when the staging isn’t especially convincing (the crowded market square, all 30 feet of it, the fight between Jamie and Zaroff), it’s a million times better executed than any comparable studio action set piece from the Davison era that isn’t directed by Graeme Harper.

No, by the sky demon! I say no!

Doctor Who The Pirate Planet
I doubt Pennant Roberts, popular as he undoubtedly was with the cast, was anyone’s idea of a great Doctor Who director. Introduced to the show by Philip Hinchliffe – a rare less-than-sterling move – he made a classic story on paper (The Face of Evil) just pretty good, and proceeded to translate Robert Holmes’ satirical The Sun Makers merely functionally. When he returned to the show during the ‘80s, he was responsible for two entirely notorious productions, in qualitative terms. But The Pirate Planet is the story where his slipshod, rickety, make-do approach actually works… most of the time (look at the surviving footage of Shada, where there are long passages of straight narrative, and it’s evident Roberts wasn’t such a good fit). Douglas Adams script is so packed, both with plot and humour, that its energy is inbuilt; there’s no need to rely on a craftsman to imbue tension or pace. There is a caveat, of course: if your idea of Doctor Who requires a straig…

For a special agent, you're not having a very special day, are you?

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
(SPOILERS) Guy Ritchie would evidently have liked to make a Bond film as much as his former producer Matthew Vaughn, and either would undoubtedly add more spark to the franchise than current darling Sam Mendes (lush cinematography or no lush cinematography). While Vaughn brokered his fandom into a patchy but violent and vibrant original earlier this year (Kingsman: The Secret Service) and won considerable box office as a result, Ritchie picked up Steven Soderbergh’s discarded menu items and went with refashioning an existing property, one he had no yearning interest in. Sometimes that shows in the result, but mostly The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a breezy, playful exercise in period spyfare. As such, it’s a shame this looks destined to remain a one-time only outing.

Which isn’t to say there’s necessarily much else left to do with it (one can imagine desperate approaches like throwing them into the ‘70s a la Austin Powers and X-Men), but the amount of fun Ritchi…

You can’t be in England and not know the test score!

The Lady Vanishes (1938)
(SPOILERS) Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate UK-based picture, The Lady Vanishes can be comfortably paired with The 39 Steps as a co-progenitor of his larkier suspense formula (watch these two and then jump to North by Northwest and the through line is immediately obvious). Part of its great blessing is Hitchcock being handed a screenplay by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, latterly directors themselves, and knowing to make the most of the very funny dialogue, including arguably the picture’s greatest gift (well, other than Hitch himself): Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as ultimate English cricket enthusiasts – to the exclusion of all else – Charters and Caldicott.

This place sure isn’t like that one in Austria.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Brawl in Cell Block 99 is most definitely cut from the same cloth as writer-director-co-composer Craig S Zahler’s previous flick Bone Tomahawk: an inexorable, slow-burn suspenser that works equally well as a character drama. That is, when it isn’t revelling in sporadic bursts of ultraviolence, including a finale in a close-quartered pit of hell. If there’s nothing quite as repellent as that scene in Bone Tomahawk, it’s never less than evident that this self-professedchild of Fangoria” loves his grue. He also appears to have a predilection for, to use his own phraseology, less politically correct content.

This is how we do action in Uganda.

Who Killed Captain Alex? (2010)
Uganda’s first action movie”, Who Killed Captain Alex? is a cheerfully ultra-low budget, wholly amateur picture made by Nabwana Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey. It’s the kind of thing you and your mates would make and (rightly) expect no one else to ever watch (aside from a few hundred hits on YouTube). But stick a frequently hilarious running commentary over the top from VJ (video joker) Emme, and it this home-ish move takes on something approaching the spoofy quality of What’s Up Tiger Lilly?