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…

Espionage isn’t a game, it’s a war.

The Avengers 3.3: The Nutshell
Philip Chambers first teleplay (of two) for the series, and Raymond Menmuir’s second (also of two) as director, The Nutshell is an effective little whodunit in which Steed (again) poses as a bad guy, and Cathy (again) appears to be at loggerheads with him. The difference here is how sustained the pretence is, though; we aren’t actually in on the details until the end, and the whole scenario is played decidedly straight.

Set mostly in a bunker (the Nutshell of the title), quarter of a mile underground and providing protection for the “all the best people” (civil servants bunk on level 43; Steed usually gets off at the 18th) in the event of a thermo-nuclear onslaught, the setting is something of a misdirection, since it is also a convenient place to store national security archives, known as Big Ben (Bilateral Infiltration Great Britain, Europe and North America). Big Ben has been stolen. Or rather, the microfilm with details of all known double agents on bot…

This is no time for puns! Even good ones.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014)
Perhaps I've done DreamWorks Animation (SKG, Inc., etc.) a slight injustice. The studio has been content to run an assembly line of pop culture raiding, broad-brush properties and so-so sequels almost since its inception, but the cracks in their method have begun to show more overtly in recent years. They’ve been looking tired, and too many of their movies haven’t done the business they would have liked. Yet both their 2014 deliveries, How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Mr. Peabody & Sherman, take their standard approach but manage to add something more. Dragon 2 has a lot of heart, which one couldn’t really say about Peabody (it’s more sincere elements feel grafted on, and largely unnecessary). Peabody, however, is witty, inventive and pacey, abounding with sight gags and clever asides while offering a time travel plotline that doesn’t talk down to its family audience.

I haven’t seen the The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, from which Mr. Peabody & Sh…

Ah yes, the legendary 007 wit, or at least half of it.

The World is Not Enough (1999)
(SPOILERS) The last Bond film of the 20th century unfortunately continues the downward trend of the Brosnan era, which had looked so promising after the reinvigorated approach to Goldeneye. The World is Not Enough’s screenplay posseses a number of strong elements (from the now ever present Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, and a sophomore Bruce Feirstein), some of which have been recycled in the Craig era, but they’ve been mashed together with ill-fitting standard Bond tropes that puncture any would-be substance (Bond’s last line before the new millennium is one Roger Moore would have relished). And while a structure that stop-starts doesn’t help the overall momentum any, nor does the listlessness of drama director Michael Apted, such that when the sporadic bursts of action do arrive there’s no disguising the joins between first and second unit, any prospect of thrills evidently unsalvageable in the edit.

Taking its cues from the curtailed media satire of Tomorr…

I know what I'm gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
It’s a Wonderful Life is an unassailable classic, held up as an embodiment of true spirit of Christmas and a testament to all that is good and decent and indomitable in humanity. It deserves its status, even awash with unabashed sentimentality that, for once, actually seems fitting. But, with the reams of plaudits aimed at Frank Capra’s most enduring film, it is also worth playing devil’s advocate for a moment or two. One can construe a number of not nearly so life-affirming undercurrents lurking within it, both intentional and unintentional on the part of its director. And what better time to Grinch-up such a picture than when bathed in the warmth of a yuletide glow?

The film was famously not a financial success on initial release, as is the case with a number of now hallowed movies, its reputation burgeoning during television screenings throughout the 1970s. Nevertheless, It’s a Wonderful Life garnered a brace of Oscar nominations including Best Picture and…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

Perhaps I am dead. Perhaps we’re both dead. And this is some kind of hell.

The Avengers 5.7: The Living Dead
The Living Dead occupies such archetypal Avengers territory that it feels like it must have been a more common plotline than it was; a small town is the cover for invasion/infiltration, with clandestine forces gathering underground. Its most obvious antecedent is The Town of No Return, and certain common elements would later resurface in Invasion of the Earthmen. This is a lot broader than Town, however, the studio-bound nature making it something of a cosy "haunted house" yarn, Scooby Doo style.

Dirty is exactly why you're here.

Sicario 2: Soldado aka Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018)
(SPOILERS) I wasn't among the multitude greeting the first Sicario with rapturous applause. It felt like a classic case of average material significantly lifted by the diligence of its director (and cinematographer and composer), but ultimately not all that. Any illusions that this gritty, violent, tale of cynicism and corruption – all generally signifiers of "realism" – in waging the War on Drugs had a degree of credibility well and truly went out the window when we learned that Benicio del Toro's character Alejandro Gillick wasn't just an unstoppable kickass ninja hitman; he was a grieving ex-lawyer turned unstoppable kickass ninja hitman. Sicario 2: Soldadograzes on further difficult-to-digest conceits, so in that respect is consistent, and – ironically – in some respects fares better than its predecessor through being more thoroughly genre-soaked and so avoiding the false doctrine of "revealing" …

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…

The Worm is the Spice! The Spice is the Worm!

Dune (1984)
(SPOILERS) Dune was (still is?) one of those movies that seemed to be a fixture in student houses of “a certain disposition”, frequently played and part of the furniture, but not really absorbed. Easier to stare at rather than fully engage with. Unless, I presume, you were already an aficionado of Frank Herbert’s gargantuan novels. I’ve seen it said of the Harry Potter movieverse that you really need to have read the books to get all you can from them, but the only one where I really felt that was the case was The Prisoner of Azkaban, which seemed to have some whacking great narrative holes in need of filling. David Lynch’s Dune, the source material of which I also haven’t read, most certainly suffers from such a malaise, the measures taken to impart the dense plot overwhelming the challenge of making an engaging motion picture. It’s just too stuffed, too conscious of the need to move onto the next sequence or barely-defined character, such that it ends up simultaneously sha…