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.
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.