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

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

Welcome to the future. Life is good. But it can be better.

20 to See in 2020
Not all of these movies may find a release date in 2020, given Hollywood’s propensity for shunting around in the schedules along with the vagaries of post-production. Of my 21 to See in 2019, there’s still Fonzo, Benedetta, You Should Have Left, Boss Level and the scared-from-its-alloted-date The Hunt yet to see the light of day. I’ve re-included The French Dispatch here, however. I've yet to see Serenity and The Dead Don’t Die. Of the rest, none were wholly rewarding. Netflix gave us some disappointments, both low profile (Velvet Buzzsaw, In the Shadow of the Moon) and high (The Irishman), and a number of blockbusters underwhelmed to a greater or lesser extent (Captain Marvel, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Terminator: Dark Fate, Gemini Man, Star Wars: The Rise of the Skywalker). Others (Knives Out, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum) were interesting but flawed. Even the more potentially out there (Joker, Us, Glass, Rocketman) couldn…

It’s like an angry white man’s basement in here.

Bad Boys for Life (2020)
(SPOILERS) The reviews for Bad Boys for Life have, perhaps surprisingly, skewed positive, given that it seemed exactly the kind of beleaguered sequel to get slaughtered by critics. Particularly so since, while it’s a pleasure to see Will Smith and Martin Lawrence back together as Mike and Marcus, the attempts to validate this third outing as a more mature, reflective take on their buddy cops is somewhat overstated. Indeed, those moments of reflection or taking stock arguably tend to make the movie as a whole that much glibber, swiftly succeeded as they are by lashings of gleeful ultra-violence or humorous shtick. Under Michael Bay, who didn’t know the definition of a lull, these pictures scorned any opportunity to pause long enough to assess the damage, and were healthier, so to speak, for that. Without him, Bad Boys for Life’s beats often skew closer to standard 90s action fare.

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…

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

How many galoshes died to make that little number?

Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)
(SPOILERS) Looney Tunes: Back in Action proved a far from joyful experience for director Joe Dante, who referred to the production as the longest year-and-a-half of his life. He had to deal with a studio that – insanely – didn’t know their most beloved characters and didn’t know what they wanted, except that they didn’t like what they saw. Nevertheless, despite Dante’s personal dissatisfaction with the finished picture, there’s much to enjoy in his “anti-Space Jam”. Undoubtedly, at times his criticism that it’s “the kind of movie that I don’t like” is valid, moving as it does so hyperactively that its already gone on to the next thing by the time you’ve realised you don’t like what you’re seeing at any given moment. But the flipside of this downside is, there’s more than enough of the movie Dante was trying to make, where you do like what you’re seeing.

Dante commented of Larry Doyle’s screenplay (as interviewed in Joe Dante, edited by Nil Baskar and G…

Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.

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 …