Skip to main content

Have you ever committed an ultimate sin, Mr Steed?

The Avengers
4.21: A Touch of Brimstone

An episode that sings from start to finish, and certainly a contender for the all-time-best Avengers. Also one with a wee bit of infamy attached, as its sadomasochistic elements precluded it from a screening in America (it wasn’t banned), and ITV trimmed it slightly before showing it. It still carries a frisson, and not only because of Diana Rigg’s “Queen of Sin” costume; Brian Clemens’ teleplay is a perfectly formed descent into risky business, just suggestive enough without going over the deep end.


As is more commonly the case than not, our duo are onto the villain from the word go, as the Hon John Cleverly Cartney (Peter Wyngarde, Jason King of course, as well as Klytus in Flash Gordon – the best part of the movie – and Timanov in Planet of Fire) is suspected of being behind a series of “very childish, but very damaging” pranks that have disrupted trade deals and damaged political affiliations.


As such, we first see Cartney having a good laugh as Boris Kartovski (Steve Plytas, Wigner in The Tenth Planet) suffers from the effects of an exploding cigar while waxing lyrical about “a union of friendship and finally of peace” during a TV broadcast. The scene is an almost meta take on Avengers viewing, with Cartney settling back with chocolates and a decanter for a delightful evening’s eccentric viewing.


Steed: Well, there have been other incidents. Sneezing powder at government receptions, plastic spiders in an ambassador’s soup and something quite outrageous in a diplomat’s bed. Nowhere seems to be sacrosanct now, not even the House of Lords.

Goodness knows what was in the diplomat’s bed (poo?) The House suffered the effects of a whoopee cushion under the woolsack (“Some of them took it as a vote of censure”). When Emma and Steed show up at in important diplomatic meeting, a sheikh takes a tumble thanks to a collapsing chair (“So much for the oil treaty”), but things turn decidedly deadly when a VIP is electrocuted at the opening of the Hall of Friendship, watched by the duo on in-car TV (“Well, it’s no joke anymore”).


Mrs Peel: I’ve come to appeal to you, Mr Cartney.
Cartney: You certainly do that.

While The Avengers is stuffed full of memorable characters, often a procession of them in an episode, truly great villains are less frequent, but Wyngarde really is that. Debonair, forceful and witty, he’s the anti-Steed, which may be why he looks so put-out when our hero passes the initiation tests to join The Hellfire Club with flying colours.


The Hellfire Club has been quite frequently mined by fiction, of course, and it was this story, and its characters’ appropriations of the Sir Francis Dashwood’s eighteenth century club devoted to debauchery and abandon, that inspired Chris Claremont’s X-Men storyline (complete with a Jason Wyngarde as member of the club). Which was partly adapted into Matthew Vaughn’s (best) X-Men movie, First Class.


Mrs Peel: What sort of club?
Cartney: Well, it’s slightly unusual.

Clemens is thus continuing the show’s affectionate jibing at, and simultaneous embrace of, nostalgia for past eras (a kind of Russian doll effect, as Steed himself is out another era); here, rather than the majesty of the Empire, it’s an era of wanton licentiousness by the aristocracy, unfettered by trifling concerns over decency and propriety (not that that’s of paramount importance to them in any era, mind). It also, however, feels very ‘60s in a fashionista sense, predicting the trend for pop icons donning period garb and groovy antediluvian gents (Adam Adamant Lives!) We see it in Steed and Emma’s response to their outfits for the Night of Sin (“First time I’ve had to wait for a man to get ready”; “This what the well-dressed rake is wearing this year”).


Steed: May I say, you’re uncommon handsome, madam. Uncommon handsome.
Mrs Peel: Thank you, sir.

While it fits into the classic Avengers villainy, one might also see the paraphernalia of nefarious secret societies here, with their employment of women as chattels and the embracing of darkness (Crowley got his “Do as thou wilt” from the original club). Mostly, though, this lot are here for drink and misogyny (“Let the wenching begin!”)


It’s all too debauched for Emma, even after her early morning revelries in The Girl from Auntie. Cartney tells her they are attempting to recreate “some atmosphere, excitement and pleasures”. Asked about the women, he adds “Oh, we have vessels of pleasure”. When we saw him earlier, via an overhead bed shot with Sara (Carol Cleveland of Monty Python’s Flying Circus) draped over him, he’s accusing her of being insatiable and then getting all brutalist (“I told you darling, when I say we do something, we do it!”).


As for his plan to blow up Culverstone House via the catacombs, toppling the government, I wonder if not only Chris Claremont but Alan Moore was conscious of the episode, with his Guy Fawkes-inspired intent to do likewise in V for Vendetta?


Steed: Seen anything suspicious?
Mrs Peel: No, not “suspicious”.

One or other of the leads can easily draw the short straw, but on this occasion, both are well-catered for. We all know about Emma’s outrageous costume, but the highlight plot wise is Steed’s initiation ceremony.


Steed found out about the Club from Lord Darcy (Colin Jeavons – Damon in The Underwater Menace, and Lestrade to Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes – on great put-upon form), interjecting himself into the latter’s company by making up an “excruciating house party given by Lady­– (inaudible due to a SWIG)”, and mentioning how “Six of her ladyship’s corgis savaged Horace Plumtree as he tried to coax some bees out of the asparagus bed with his flute”. As such, we’ve been primed for how flippantly on-form he is, and his entirely unflustered responses to what the Club members clearly regard as the height of deviancy is a delight.


Roger: We believe in the power of evil, Mr Steed. We believe in the power of ultimate sins. Have you ever committed an ultimate sin, Mr Steed?
Steed: No, but I’m always open to suggestions.


Presented with a huge goblet, filled to the brim, he is instructed to down it. He does so without pause, impressive enough in itself, but then, on finishing, beckons for more (“Do you mind? The drive down seems to have given me quite a thirst… Thank you”).


Cartney: Do you think you could beat him? Do you think you could remove the pea before the axe falls? There is the test.

Then, obliged to take the ultimate test, required to remove a single, solitary dry pea from a bread board before Roger (Michael Latimer) brings the axe down and splits it in twain, Steed demurs at the suggestion he may wish to withdraw and sits silently, waiting for the countdown before simply blowing it out of the way at the crucial moment. Willy (Jerome Young, Kal in An Unearthly Child, Lowery in Mission to the Unknown, Count de Ricordeau in The Tripods) wasn’t so lucky on his attempt, which is why he nurses several metal fingers.


Steed casually takes the pea (“Do you mind? I could use this in my whistle”) and withdraws with some snuff before listening to their plans at the door. The suspicious/jealous Cartney hears something and going to the door, opening it as Steed knocks on it, is presented with his snuff (“Your box, save for a pinch or two”). The whole sequence is absolute peak Steed.


Cartney: Tomorrow is the Night of All Sins.

The depraved orgy is as expected, with Emma not a little put out by the objectifying, libidinous goings-on. At one point, a pair of arms caress Steed from behind, and Mrs Peel pours a drink over the invisible interloper. It isn’t long before she’s pressed into the swing of things, however, obliged to don fetish gear complete with whip and spiked collar.


Cartney: Midnight approaches, the witching hour. As a sign of that hour, as a symbol of all that is evil, as the epitome and purveyor of this night of sins, I give you the Queen of Sin, Mrs Peel!

The camera man is all-but crawling up her leg for the full reveal of an outfit designed by Rigg herself, and Steed is understandably agog, as she arrives complete with snake (it is left, symbolically aroused, as she is carried off by the crowd of lusty members who, despite being told “She’s yours to do with what you will”, appear not to have gone heavily into violation. Well, it's less tasteless to assume so, at any rate (I note some assume she has been drugged during this sequence, on account of her slightly hazy expression when she’s unveiled).


The overall effect is sinister/bizarre, as off-kilter in its own way as the masquerade ball in the Dance of the Dead episode of The Prisoner. When it comes to the showdown, it’s appropriate that Emma despatches her would-be tormentor with some whip-on-whip action (“Very impressive. Now, what are you like with the big boys?”); Cartney is hoisted by his own Circle of Justice, dropping through the hole in the floor that earlier claimed Darcy (prior to this there’s an oddly sped-up sequence in which she sees off Pierre (Art Thomas) after demolishing Alf Joint’s Big Man).


Horace: ‘Ere that’s the man!
Cartney: What man, Horace?
Horace: The man who broke into Lord Darcy’s flat.
Steed: He’s right, you know.

There’s more casualness from Steed when Horace (Robert Cawdron, Tatalian in The Ambassadors of Death) makes him, and Steed’s stunt double takes on Willy at swordplay (the latter with knives revealed beneath his fake fingers). This might be seen as a little perfunctory after the prior wall-to-wall class action but makes for passable climactic fisticuffs.


Perhaps appropriately, there’s no mention of these unseemly goings-on in the laugh down, merely the folly of living in the past as the duo ride off on a coach and four while Steed observes that the motor car can’t possibly last.


For those noting digital minutiae, Cartney’s diary gives the date of Wednesday 12 January 1966, whereas The Evening News is November 10 1965. Someone’s confused. Perhaps Cartney keeps an idiosyncratic diary?






















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…

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…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Must the duck be here?

The Favourite (2018)
(SPOILERS) In my review of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I suggested The Favourite might be a Yorgos Lanthimos movie for those who don’t like Yorgos Lanthimos movies. At least, that’s what I’d heard. And certainly, it’s more accessible than either of his previous pictures, the first two thirds resembling a kind of Carry On Up the Greenaway, but despite these broader, more slapstick elements and abundant caustic humour, there’s a prevailing detachment on the part of the director, a distancing oversight that rather suggests he doesn’t feel very much for his subjects, no matter how much they emote, suffer or connive. Or pratfall.

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

I'm a sort of travelling time expert.

Doctor Who Season 12 – Worst to Best
Season 12 isn’t the best season of Doctor Who by any means, but it’s rightly recognised as one of the most iconic, and it’s easily one of the most watchable. Not so much for its returning roster of monsters – arguably, only one of them is in finest of fettle – as its line-up of TARDIS crew members. Who may be fellow travellers, but they definitely aren’t “mates”. Thank goodness. Its popularity – and the small matters of it being the earliest season held in its entirety in original broadcast form, and being quite short – make it easy to see why it was picked for the first Blu-ray boxset.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.