5.6: The Winged Avenger
Maybe I’m just easily amused, such that a little Patrick Macnee uttering “Ee-urp!” goes a long way, but I’m a huge fan of The Winged Avenger. It’s both a very silly episode and about as meta as the show gets, and one in which writer Richard Harris (1.3: Square Root of Evil, 1.10: Hunt the Man Down) succeeds in casting a wide net of suspects but effectively keeps the responsible party’s identity a secret until late in the game.
Peter Roberts: He’d been clawed to death, as though by some bird. Some huge, obscene bird.
The first victims are ruthless publishers Simon Roberts and Son ("Hit him, and hit him hard" instructs old man Roberts of a longstanding senior employee about to get the push). Simon (William Fox) is the first victim of a savage clawing, followed by Peter (Donald Pickering, of The Faceless Ones and Time and the Rani), but not before the trail has led to Sir Lexius Cray (Nigel Green, Major "Now listen to me" Dalby in The Ipcress File: also Hercules in Jason and the Argonauts), who has motive (being fiddled out of royalties of his book The Mountaineer). They could have shown a posher exterior for Roberts' luxury penthouse building; it looks like a bog-standard block of flats.
Poole: It’s imperative I see you tonight. Now. At once. Right away.
Mrs Peel: You mean immediately? Alright, I’ll come right now.
There's a co-director credit for Gordon Flemyng (5.1: The Fear Merchants) and Peter Duffell (the Internet frequently, and the Blu-ray box, manages to reverse the writer-director credits fro this one), it seems a result of Flemyng being a poor fit for the series (Michael Richardson's Bowler Hats and Kinky Boots suggests he got the boot quite early on for being too slow). One must assume then, that the lion's share of this very stylish episode is down to Duffell, a relative newcomer who’d go on to such disparate projects as a couple of ITC series, assorted features including The House That Dripped Blood, The Famous Five, The Far Pavilions, Inspector Morse and Space Precinct.
I'll come to the strip cartoon motif, but before that we have our first reality check. Recalling The Gravediggers, but offering the fake out first, Emma is found crouching on a peak of the Eiger with Cray ("There’s nothing like authenticity"); it's actually the corner of a room in his mansion, complete with blizzard effect. It isn't perhaps the most layered part, but the positioning of Green suggests a likely candidate for the villain of the piece, which he isn't. ]
Cray also has a rather unfortunate "Sherpa" manservant, Tay-Ling ("I wouldn't feel right tucking into old Tay-Ling" he admits, of what he'd do if starvation beckoned and he didn't have a dog). To portray the character's ethnicity, John Garrie dons very evident false teeth and acts humble; fulfilling his appointed task of introducing the next suspect, he is then unceremoniously offed. Ee-urp!
Oddly, his master doesn't suffer this fate, although he's the instigator. There's also the superfluous death of industrialist Edward J Dumayn (Hilary Wontner, Silent Dust). Well, he is there to underline that Steed and Emma are on the right track, right down to identifying him (amazing that, of all the ruthless businessman in Britain the Winged Avenger could have chosen, he picks their pick), and also to announce the comic strip plot/conceit (the photo of his body is taken at exactly the same angle as the illustration found at Winged Avenger Enterprises, a scarcely credible occurrence, if you're following any internal logic, which this isn't).
Mrs Peel: According to the professor, when you put them on, you could walk up the side of a house.
Poole (Jack MacGowran, The Fearless Vampire Killers, Wonderwall, Age of Consent, The Exorcist) turns out to be an unassuming and very eccentric professor. Unlike previous episodes flirting with the fantastic, there's never any doubt the Winged Avenger is a man in a suit, and this time, the professor comes armed with unlikely inventions that actually work (see The See-Through Man). Poole is batty for flight, hence flapping his cape-like wings as he runs through the grounds and hanging from the ceiling in gravity-defying boots ("Magnetic fields, you know"). His book shelves are also upside down. Steed doesn't approve of the idea ("Ah, takes all the romance out of it"), while Emma merely falls back on quips when she confirms his invention is real ("Do I assume that before long, everyone will be hanging on the ceiling? It'll ruin the carpet trade"). Ee-urp!
Steed: Poole was lying.
Mrs Peel: To be strictly accurate, he was hanging. Upside down.
But the professor too ends up dead. Hanging from the ceiling. These early sections of the episode are all agreeable and diverting, but it's with the events at Winged Avenger Enterprises that the material really comes into its own. Steed arrives there unobtrusively, observing an entire drama unfolding before he’s noticed:
Packer: Julian, your swooping in on this beautiful girl, carrying her off to your nest, and what do you say?
Julian: Oh, I say "Ah!"
Packer: You say "Ah!"? Well, for heaven's sake, feel it.
Julian: Ahhh! Oh, I can' somehow.
Packer: Stanton, he can't say your lines.
Stanton: Try that.
Julian: Ee-urp? Eee-urpp! Oh, that's much better, Mr Stanton. Much better.
Arnie Packer (Neil Hallett, previously in Dead of Winter, later in UFO, two New Avengers – poor guy, Time Lash – poor guy – his last screen role was Seppings in the first season of Jeeves and Wooster) is the illustrator of the Winged Avenger (actually, it's Frank Bellamy, best known for his evocative Dan Dare and Doctor Who work – he also designed the costume). Stanton (Colin Jeavons, 4.21: A Touch of Brimstone) writes the stories. Julian (Roy Patrick) models the feathered freak.
More misdirection from Harris here: Stanton comes across as unstable, losing his grip ("I'm sick of your insinuations!"), rambling about how the Avenger should be envisaged like a man possessed, or obsessed ("… should be omnipotent, a law unto himself – seeks out wicked men, men without pity. He seeks them out and he swoops down and he, and he…") They are also arguing over who is the key to the cartoon strip, the writer or the illustrator. Packer just laughs when the idea of the gravity boots is presented, while Stanton looks disturbed. And then there's Julian, who certainly has the bulk to carry out winged avenging.
Mrs Peel: One, or both together.
Steed: I don't think so. The Winged Avenger definitely works alone.
It's the least likely, of course, that being Packer ("He's mad. Power mad!" exclaims Stanton). And while, at a stretch, one might explain away the crime scene photograph of Dumayn, the tale diverts into delightfully self-reflexive territory when Steed and Stanton head off to head off Packer pecking Mrs Peel to pieces. Ee-urp!
Packer: It won’t do you any good, Mrs Peel. I am the eradicator of all evils, I deal out justice and vengeance to those whom the law cannot touch. And to those who stand between me and my purpose… I am the Winged Avenger, Mrs Peel.
Mrs Peel: Just a myth. A cardboard character.
Packer: Cardboard, Mrs Peel? Cardboard? (shreds some climbing rails) Creator and creation fused into one being. Indivisible. Omnipotent, unstoppable. Nothing, nothing stands in my way. Least of all you, Mrs Peel. Least of all you.
Stanton flips over art board after art board (it quickly becomes evident he's looking through more than he brought with him), each one showing a new simultaneous development at Plum's house – a storyboard of a claw in frame and the professor's startled reaction signals his demise – as Emma realises the Winged Avenger has arrived. One wonders if some inspiration wasn't drawn from Jack Lemmon's cartoonist turning his life into a strip cartoon in How to Murder Your Wife only a year or so earlier.
Mrs Peel: Hey, I’m coming down.
Steed: Err-urp (Emma laughs).
The upside-down fight between Emma and Packer is a nice idea that would have worked a whole lot better if the Winged Avenger wasn't wearing a remarkably gravity-defying cape to complement his gravity-defying boots. Once Steed arrives, we're in full-on Batman territory, complete with very reminiscent theme tune and comic strip sound effects accompanying Steed hitting the Winged Avenger with a storyboard ("POW!") followed by a "SPLAT!" And a decisive "BAM!" as the Winged Avenger is sent flying through the window ("Packer's really got his wings clipped"”).
Steed: I have two possible alternatives. The murderer inflates a small balloon. He rises up the nearest building. He fires a rocket line across to the penthouse. He drops a trampoline. He bounces on it, in through the window. Possibility Number One.
Mrs Peel: And Possibility Number Two?
Steed: He bribes the doorman.
It scarcely needs stating that Macnee and Rigg are on sterling form, fully supported by the material, from Steed obsessing over his model tower block made from a shoebox, to his informing Emma of the creature’s cry: "Ee-urp! Ee-urp! Probably the bird equivalent of goodbye, nice to have met you" In response Emma announces "Well, I’m off to make a return visit to Professor Poole's" to which both "Ee-urp" goodbye to each other. Then there's the typical Steed response to Emma informing him that at the studio, there were "Well, a number of girls in various stages of exposure". "Ah, yes" he sighs wistfully. She snaps her fingers, and then goes on to note of Julian "I must say, the Winged Avenger outfit fits him very well" to which Steed snaps his at her. Equal-opportunities lustiness there.
Mrs Peel: Well, it’s nice to be right way up for a change.
Steed: At least you know where you stand.
The ending is probably the best of season so far too, running with the art theme (in the opening, Steed had written "Mrs Peel" on her oil painting, before announcing "We're needed"), with Steed's sketch of the three-course meal he's preparing, including champagne (Rigg adlibs "It just went with a wallop" as she opens a 1959 Chablis) and Whitstable oysters. As Steed unveils the feast itself, a "PING!" appears. The Winged Avenger is surely as irreverent as the show has been up to this point, an approach that can draw a mixed response from fans, but it's one of my favourite episodes of the entire run. Ee-urp!
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.