Skip to main content

Kill the earthworm, Steed, and ultimately you kill everything. Soil, birds, animals, man.

The Avengers
4.13: Silent Dust

Revisiting Season Four, several episodes have fallen slightly in my estimation, but Silent Dust (along with Dial a Deadly Number) is one that has gone up. The plot isn’t all that, continuing the horticultural (and pesticide) theme of Man-Eater of Surrey Green, but it has a great supporting cast, and in Avengers terms that’s often the difference between a hit and a dud.


Juggins: And what if they don’t pay up?
Omrod: Oh, they will. After we destroy Dorset.

The prologue shows birds dropping dead (so decisively, they look taxidermied, although much more convincingly than the plastic bat on a wire that menaces Emma later), meaning Steed and Mrs Peel are called on to investigate rural crimes in rural climes, she posing as a representative for the British Trust for Ornithology and catching the eye of local rich landed fellow Omrod (William Franklyn, Quatermass 2, Cul-De-Sac, GBH). Who, of course, is up to no good, planning to hold the country to ransom with his three accomplices. They want £40m, or they will release a failed-and-deadly-to-all-plant-life organochlorine fertiliser.


A very definite environmental theme can be found in this one, much as in the earlier The Grandeur That Was Rome (the very visible hunt protesting also signposts current themes in Roger Marshall’s teleplay). Steed is informed “Kill the earthworm, Steed, and ultimately you kill everything. Soil, birds, animals, man”. If Sir Manfred Fellows (Charles Lloyd Pack, father of Roger and grandfather of Emily Lloyd) had changed worms for bees, he’d be remarkably topical. Sir Manfred, of Fellows Fertilisers, meanwhile, reliably informs Steed regarding marketing that “If it smells like peaches, people won’t believe it does any fertilising. We had a winner last year. Smelled like old socks”.


There's a subplot concerning Claire Prendergast (Isobel Black), the daughter of the man who developed Silent Dust, that fails to go anywhere very interesting (aside from Mrs Peel posing to have her bust sculpted. No, not that bust). Omrod brought the scientist to the village (Manderley, but there are no du Maurier references).


Omrod’s cohorts, who will get £10m a piece, are thuggish Juggins (Jack Watson, Edge of Darkness), Miss Snow (Joanna Wake), whose family has lived in the area for centuries and whose land recently turned sour (Omrod has only been there 14 years, so is considered a newbie) and Croft (Norman Bird, Mr Braithwaite in Worzel Gummidge, amongst many others), who is out of sorts over not receiving royalties for the roses he bred.


Juggins: I just slit a sow’s throat. You could hear the squeal three mile away.

All these characters are memorable, with Juggins a “bloodthirsty brute” keen on slaughtering bullocks and knocking back scrumpy by the flagon. He also has a hankering to breed cows (“You’ll be able to cross an Aberdeen Angus with a cottage loaf” Omrod tells him of his prospective fortune). When he hears Steed is looking for land to buy, he’s forthright with his threats (“I’ll give him some free, for nothing… Ay, six foot of it for nothing”). 


Juggins particularly relishes the hunt (“Tally ho. Tally bloody ho”), announcing “I’ve got a brand-new cleaver that needs christening”, so it’s particularly fitting the he should be dispatched in embarrassing fashion by Steed, on horseback, with a hunt sab “Down with violence” placard smashed over his head.


Croft is less notable (“His roses bloom but he got the blight”), although one must assume that, during the hunt climax, he gets as far as he does attempting to do for Steed with a sickle because Steed has already taken a bit of wear and tear previously.


Steed: Raging drunk.
Miss Snow: I beg your pardon?
Steed: If it’s a man, raging drunk. If it’s a horse, raging colic.
Miss Snow: You think so?
Steed: All the classic symptoms.


Wake, who has something of the Joan Greenwood about her delivery, is one of the episode’s great delights, her indulgent interaction with Steed (putting on the extra-posh gentry pose) proving laugh-out-loud funny. Steed furnishes her with advice on her horse’s symptoms (“Fire the vet. Don’t let the horse lie down. Keep him walking”), leading to the following exchange:

Miss Snow: Tell me, do you know a lot about horses, Mr Steed?
Steed: Do a bit of steeplechasing.
Miss Snow: Oh? I’d have thought you were a little too tall in the saddle.
Steed: Oh, I don’t know. Comes in handy. Pop the old feet down. Help the animal over the sticks.


Besides Snow’s amused response, there’s Emma’s reaction to “too tall in saddle” and as is her initial one to Steed going to talk to Snow (“I’ll see what I can pick up here”: “Mmm, I’m sure you will… Pick up something”). Later, when it’s decided Steed must be rid of, Miss Snow comments “Such a pity, he’s just the sort of risk I fancy”. 


There’s further innuendo when Emma and Steed are sussing out the suspects: “Miss Snow? She’s got a good seat” observes Mrs Peel. “She’s got a good seat” concurs Steed. Miss Snow later beckons Steed aside on the pretext of further horse problems: “Can’t keep him away from the trough. Just seems to want to keep on drinking all the time”. “Oh dear. Once had an auntie like that” he replies. Appropriately, its Emma who takes her down during the hunt.


Omrod: Ever done any hunting, Mrs Peel?
Mrs Peel: A little.
Omrod: Fascinating. Pit your wits against a master of craftiness and deception. Point and counterpoint, finally cornering him. And killing. It’s a wonderful day spent. Well, what about it?
Mrs Peel: I’ll let you know.

Franklyn also makes the most of enjoying his villainy, be it putting the moves on Mrs Peel or engaging in an exchange with Steed, now up and about after being shot by gamekeeper Mellors (Conrad Phillips, also seen as a doctor in The Prisoner episode The General). Neither shakes hands when Steed arrives unannounced. “Sorry, oil” comments Ormrod, who has been seeing to his shot gun. “Sorry, buckshot” replies the slinged Steed.


Steed: He mistook me for a partridge. Seriously ruffled my, eh, wing feathers.
Omrod: Oh, I must speak to him. Tell him to be a little more–
Steed: Accurate?
Omrod: Careful.


The incident with Steed and Mellors takes place after the former has been earlier warned off (“I have orders to shoot poachers”. “That’ll keep them down” Steed ripostes cheerfully). He’s then winged by Mellors (there’s no visible blood, however) and steps in an animal trap, hiding from the gamekeeper, before later stumbling in on Emma in one of the farm buildings.


The scene in which she extracts the bullet finds Steed hallucinating himself as a sheriff, along with Wild West wanted posters for Omrod and Mellors. Emma’s a quack doctor, sporting a moustache, mutton chops and an over-sized bottle of Red Eye, extracting an enormous bullet (“I prefer you clean shaven” he comments, when he comes around). Perhaps the dream sequences in Too Many Christmas Trees went down so well they thought they’d have some more of that.


Quince: Oh, you shouldn’t have done that. You gave me quite a turn.
Mrs Peel: Why were you watching me?
Quince: Watching you? You’re mistaken. I was watching for the birds.
Mrs Peel: Oh? Any particularly one.
Quince: The black-capped pectral.
Mrs Peel: The black-capped pectral hasn’t been sighted in England for a hundred years.

Also worthy of mention is the great Aubrey Morris (The Wicker Man, The Prisoner’s Dance of the Dead, The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Deadwood) as birdwatcher Quince, who is concerned about the missing martlets and ends up strangled by Juggins and buried under a pile of apples (“Cut off in mid-warble?”). 


Steed: As you know, in this estuary there used to be all sorts of lovely martlets. ‘The temple-haunting martlet.’
Mrs Peel: Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 2, Banquo.

Steed and Mrs Peel as should be evident, are on fine form. There’s an amusing opening scene in a punt, with Steed chilling a rosé in the river (“Ah, I like a wine that fights back”) and advising Emma why they should be concerned over the absence of feathered friends (“Think of the poor bird watchers. Their gumboots and disappointed faces”).  


Mrs Peel obliges with much of the action work, as per usual, although it has to be said common sense deserts her on several occasions, most notably when Omrod confronts her with a gun; she overcomes him, then leaves it to flee from Juggins.


The coda is one of the most heightened yet, with the duo in a balloon, Emma concerned over whether he knows how to control one of these things; Steed giving a puzzle look in response to “And what happens when we run out of ballast?





















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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

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.

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…

Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh?

Altered Carbon Season One
(SPOILERS) Well, it looks good, even if the visuals are absurdly indebted to Blade Runner. Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon is a disappointment. The adaption of Richard Morgan’s novel comes armed with a string of well-packaged concepts and futuristic vernacular (sleeves, stacks, cross-sleeves, slagged stacks, Neo-Cs), but there’s a void at its core. It singularly fails use the dependable detective story framework to explore the philosophical ramifications of its universe – except in lip service – a future where death is impermanent, and even botches the essential goal of creating interesting lead characters (the peripheral ones, however, are at least more fortunate).

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.

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

Like an antelope in the headlights.

Black Panther (2018)
(SPOILERS) Like last year’s Wonder Woman, the hype for what it represents has quickly become conflated with Black Panther’s perceived quality. Can 92% and 97% of critics respectively really not be wrong, per Rotten Tomatoes, or are they – Armond White aside – afraid that finding fault in either will make open them to charges of being politically regressive, insufficiently woke or all-round, ever-so-slightly objectionable? As with Wonder Woman, Black Panther’s very existence means something special, but little about the movie itself actually is. Not the acting, not the directing, and definitely not the over-emphatic, laboured screenplay. As such, the picture is a passable two-plus hours’ entertainment, but under-finessed enough that one could easily mistake it for an early entry in the Marvel cycle, rather than arriving when they’re hard-pressed to put a serious foot wrong.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You think I contaminated myself, you think I did that?

Silkwood (1983)
Mike Nichol’s film about union activist Karen Silkwood, who died under suspicious circumstances in a car accident in 1974, remains a powerful piece of work; even more so in the wake of Fukushima. If we transpose the microcosm of employees of a nuclear plant, who would rather look the other way in favour of a pay cheque, to the macrocosm of a world dependent on an energy source that could spell our destruction (just don’t think about it and, if you do, be reassured by the pronouncements of “experts” on how safe it all is; and if that doesn’t persuade you be under no illusion that we need this power now, future generations be damned!) it is just as relevant.

We’re going to find that creature they call the Yeti.

The Abominable Snowman (1957)
The Abominable Snowman follows the first two Quatermass serials as the third Hammer adaptation of a Nigel Kneale BBC work. As with those films, Val Guest takes the directorial reins, to mixed results. Hammer staple Peter Cushing repeats his role from The Creature (the title of the original teleplay). The result is worthy in sentiment but unexceptional in dramatic heft. Guest fails to balance Kneale’s idea of essentially sympathetic creatures with the disintegration of the group bent on finding them.

Nevertheless, Kneale’s premise still stands out. The idea that the Yeti is an essentially shy, peaceful, cryptozoological beastie is now commonplace, but Kneale adds a further twist by suggesting that they are a distinct and in some respects more advance parallel branch in the evolution of hominids (the more extravagant notion that they are in some way extra-dimensional is absent, but with the powers thy sport here wouldn’t be such a leap). Cushing’s Rollason is…