Skip to main content

What I have tried to show you is the inevitability of history. What must be, must be.

The Avengers
2.24: A Sense of History

Another gem, A Sense of History features one of the series’ very best villains in Patrick Mower’s belligerent, sneering student Duboys. Steed and Mrs Peel arrive at St Bode’s College investigating murder most cloistered, and the author of a politically sensitive theoretical document, in Martin Woodhouse’s final, and best, teleplay for the show (other notables include Mr. Teddy Bear and The Wringer).


If you cast your eye over reviews of the series, positions seem to be about as varied as the number of episodes (Avengers Forever and dissolute.com are in stark disagreement on this one, for example). My preference tends towards the wackier episodes over the more serious ones, although if they’re done well (as opposed to standard-issue spy fare), I’m easily swayed. While this one plays straight in terms of threat, there’s still a lot of fun to be had along the way. I have to admit to not being entirely convinced by the premise, however.


In the teaser, James Bloom, renowned economist, receives an arrow in the back from masked Rag Week students in merry men outfits. Bloom held a vision of Europia, to “unite the financial resources of Europe and banish poverty forever” (a fine sentiment… in theory). Suspicion naturally focuses on the nearby St Bode’s College, which boasts the finest economics department in the country. The scrutiny becomes all the more acute when Broom’s colleague Richard Carlyon (Nigel Stock) retrieves a thesis Bloom had hidden in his car, Economics and a Sense of History. Carlyon characterises it as full of ideals and dogma. “With the faintest whiff of jackboots” observes Steed (so not so far from the reality of a united Europe, then).


Henge: What I have tried to show you is the inevitability of history. What must be, must be.

The crux appears to rest on the notion that “History can be created to order” (“Poppycock” responds Carlyon to the idea, much as Professor Henge (John Barron, CJ in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin) claimed in his opening lecture, for which he was duly mocked by his class. Grindley (John Glynn-Jones), who has faked his own death, believes he can change the entire face of Europe, and that, as Pettit (Robin Phillips, Altos in The Keys of Marinus) suggests to Henge, “One man in the right place at the right time could change the course of history”.


If Grindley’s thesis is indeed seen as nonsense, there’s little threat attached to it (aside from his student fanatics killing those who disagree with his position). But it seems like a rather nebulous concept anyway, since the position surely comes down, more or less, to semantics (circumstance or chance, the unforeseen, will play a factor in any plan, but it doesn’t mean individuals haven’t set out expressly to make their mark on history and done so, albeit it isn’t history, obviously, until it has happened; one can, in theory, manipulate any present event to create a desired outcome, with sufficient leverage; Europia would be one such case of “changing” history, as would Grindley’s “economic snowball”). Or maybe it’s simply philosophical disposition (is this about fate and determinism for Henge and Carlyon?)


Besides this, A Sense of History succumbs to a similar problem to What the Butler Saw; there are numerous skilfully-paved red herrings, but the reveal of the villain is distinctly underwhelming. Throughout, suspicion falls on Professor Acheson (John Ringham, Tlotoxl, The Aztecs), who is just too much of a bumbler to be true, with his obsession with isometrics and near-miss arrow fired at the Avengers, and giving Duboys knowing looks.


Steed: By all accounts, Duboys is exceptionally brilliant. And exceptionally nasty.

If doubt isn’t falling on Acheson, it’s falling on Henge, whose public feuding with Duboys makes an excellent cover and who continually hampers Emma’s archival investigations, questions Steed’s graduate authenticity (with good reason) and erupts from the archive soon after Pettit has been crushed beneath one of it’s bookshelves (“There’s been an accident, a terrible accident”).


So, two prime suspects hampering progress, yet the ringleader is actually “dead” Grindley; it’s a bit of a cheat, really, and more disappointing as he’s markedly less convincing as a mastermind than as a doddery archivist. More still because you absolutely can’t see the vitriolic Duboys sitting at the foot of such a man.


Duboys: I think what Petit was trying to suggest, sir, is that for the past… 53 minutes you have assaulted our ears with a load of stupid, pretentious old rubbish.
Henge: Mr Duboys, you have the manners of a guttersnipe!
Duboys: You are entitled to your views, sir. As I am to mine.

Because, in A Sense of History, the greatest enjoyment comes from the palpable tension Mower’s performance elicits and his wholly venomous and malignant manner; you’re itching to see his come-uppance. As such, his most notable besting comes earlier, in a couple of showdowns with Steed and Emma, rather than the more perfunctory manner in which the latter dispatches him in the finale proper.


Steed: I object to having my word doubted. I object strongly.
Duboys: Take your hand off me.
Steed: Very strongly indeed.

The scene with Steed has him surrounded by masked Rag Weekers and told “You have to pay a toll to walk these cloisters at night”, before Duboys casts aspersions on his bona fides. Steed takes commendable offence at this and puts Duboys in a delightfully casual hold while fending off his rabble. When Acheson arrives and breaks up the altercation, he advises Steed “If Duboys gives you any more trouble, just report him to the proctor”. “I’ll do better than that. I’ll break his arm” replies Steed.


Duboys: Mrs Peel, we seem to be in competition. Two Robin Hoods. That will hardly do. One will have to be eliminated, don’t you think?
Mrs Peel: I don’t think we need bother. In a situation like this, a gentleman would bow to a lady.

Later, at the Rag Week party (“Quite mad, a rave”) Steed interrupts Duboys and gang just as they are leading Carlyon away, much to the undergrad’s ire. Also provoking his animosity is Emma, very fetchingly turned out as Robin Hood. Again trying to provoke a situation, Duboys, also dressed as Robin, finds himself forced to capitulate when Mrs Peel suggests such behaviour would be ungentlemanly. It’s a more satisfying rebuke than the later chase, even given the copy of How to Develop a Winning Personality that lands on the stunned student.


Nigel Stock is far more suited to his silly duffer sidekick than attempting to pose as Number Six the following year, be it wearing a colander on his head following a circling-the-wagons raid on his caravan or talking about an old wound he received (“Umbrella, January Sales” he responds to Steed’s “German bullet, World War II?”) He’s entirely unnerved at any intimation of danger, which Steed enjoying baits him with (Steed suggests Carlyon tells his boss he can’t return yet as the entire future of Europe is in his hands, and that if they haven’t heard from him in a week it will be because he died for his country; “That’s a bit strong, isn’t it?” comments Carlyon. Later, his reaction is similarly unenthused when told he has been invited to the Rag Week ball – dressed as a crusader – as live bait).


Mrs Peel: What on earth are you doing here, Steed?
Steed: Advanced research into the co-relationship of the lesser-crested newt and Mrs Sybil Peabody.
Mrs Peel: Mrs Sybil Peabody?
Steed: An aunt of mine, drinks like a fish.

Steed is on peerless form throughout, effortlessly bringing students to book (when a masked undergraduate accosts him on his arrival, he bops him in the face with his brolly before giving him some coins: “I’m terribly sorry, young fellow. All in a good cause”). He makes short work of Pettit too (“Last night, you severely damaged my bowler hat. Incidentally, you nearly killed me. Why?”) His idea that he’ll fit right in wearing a tattered gown (“A sign of experience, belonging”) doesn’t seem to work, but he’s undeterred and ever-ready with a quip (“An awful lot of theses” he notes when Grindley attempts to work out how many have been produced since the college’s inception in 1642).


Mrs Peel (regarding Steed’s sword): This looks a bit droopy.
Steed: Wait until it’s challenged.

The set piece finale sees Steed and Emma liberally boshing friars thanks to Marianne’s suggestion that the big man is dressed as Tuck (Marianne is a strikingly doe-eyed Jaqueline Pearce, all but mute until the final act). They take out Henge (“Back to the party?”: “Back to the party”) and then Acheson (“So much for isometrics”) with the Encyclopaedia Erotica. And Steed, dressed as the Sheriff of Nottingham (his riposte to the suggestion that the Sheriff is generally a baddie: “Beneath this doublet beats a generous heart”), discovers his prop sword is indeed a bit droopy, bending as it does backwards when used to fend off students (“Mrs Peel was right!”).


Steed: Let’s feel the wind in our faces.
Mrs Peel: Steed, you’re a fraud. An unmitigated fraud.

The laugh-off finds Steed and Emma in a motorbike and sidecar, the former in the latter, shielded from the elements. For all its flippancy, there’s an appealingly macabre undercurrent to A Sense of History that might be recognisable from the later likes of Dead Poet’s Society and The Secret History; Duboys’ gang’s oaths have all the trappings of a satanic cult (“With blood, we bind, and in blood we advance”) and Emma notes the frivolousness with which death on campus is regarded (“They certainly do, don’t they? Bury and forget”). It’s only the less-than-first rate mastermind preventing this from getting top marks, then.















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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

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…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).