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.