Epic has something of a Marmite reputation, and even as someone who rather likes it, I can quite see its flaws. A budget-conscious Brian Clemens was inspired to utilise readily-available Elstree sets, props and costumes, the results both pushing the show’s ever burgeoning self-reflexive agenda and providing a much more effective (and amusing) "Avengers girl ensnared by villains attempting to do for her" plot than The House That Jack Built, Don't Look Behind You and the subsequent The Joker. Where it falters is in being little more than a succession of skits and outfit changes for Peter Wyngarde. While that's very nearly enough, it needs that something extra to reach true greatness. Or epic-ness.
ZZ von Schnerk: A beautiful performance. You were right. Absolutely right, my dove. He makes an excellent corpse. Excellent.
With only five guest stars (including 3.23: The Outside-In Man's Anthony Dawes as the actor dressed as Steed in the teaser – "He's absolutely gorgeous. Just look at those nostrils"), Clemens' teleplay puts the emphasis on performance, although James Hill, in his first of four for the season, again illustrates why he was one of the most consistently inventive and reliable directors on the show.
ZZ von Schnerk (Kenneth J Warren, 1.6: Girl on a Trapeze, 2.15: Intercrime, 3.20: The Little Wonders) is a Von Stroheim-esque out-of-favour auteur delusional that his snuff movie – with Mrs Peel as both star and victim – will grant him immortality as a filmmaker; while there's no indication of how his magnum opus "The Death of Emma Peel" is going to fit together – obviously, as he is quite mad – there's something of a Peeping Tom-by-way-of-Sunset Boulevard about the episode, as deaths on camera are punctuated by past-it stars of yesteryear slumming it for their director (von Stroheim was of course, in Sunset Boulevard, but acting, long since unable to command a directing gig) thanks to a clause in their contract.
ZZ von Schnerk: The destruction of Mrs Emma Peel, conceived by ZZ von Schnerk. Written by ZZ von Schnerk. Directed by ZZ von Schnerk. A ZZ von Schnerk production!
They're Damita Syn (Isa Miranda), who starred for Schnerk in The Bad Bad Lady, and Stewart Kirby (Wyngarde, 4.21: A Touch of Brimstone, of course). The former put me slightly in mind of Madeline Kahn in Mel Brooks' '70s movies, while Wyngarde embodies the louche old luvvie to a tee. The thing is, though, once we've been set up (Emma is lured into a trap, gassed in a taxi – Wyngarde is the driver, having earlier filmed her while posing as a clergyman – and awakes on set), the encounters with the duo, while Schnerk is surreptitiously filming her, rely on the quality of the "set pieces", which are variable and/or repetitive. There's a great opening number of the wedding of Mrs Emma Peel, as Kirby embodies a nightmare vicar, one part chinlessly ineffectual, the other vicious, pushing her down a hill in giddy slow motion. She rights herself only to see a hearse and "RIP Emma Peel" – the accompanying gravestones all bear her name.
Policeman:He's very good, I'll give him that. Specialises in corpses, does he?
Mrs Peel: He can't do anything else.
There's then a succession of altercations with Kirby: as Alexander to Emma’s "wicked little sister" (Syn's mother coshes an initially bemused Emma on the head after she makes short work of Alex), a bandit who "dies" bloodily to her gunshot in a western saloon, a WWI German brandishing a machine gun who causes her to hightail it, an American Indian with a tomahawk, and a gangster with a tommy gun. The latter kills David Lodge's policeman extra, whose presence is equivalent to that of Kenneth Colley and Ronald Lacey in the earlier and later house trap episodes, particularly so since he meets a nasty end.
Lodge is a likeable presence (he previously played policemen in The Naked Truth and After the Fox, as well as Jelly Knight in Two Way Stretch), and as in those, we initially wonder if he's part of the plan, although it turns out not to be so ("Very well. I will write him into the script, and then write him out"). The policeman is needed, as there's never a danger of a true weird-out or surrealism in Epic, a point where you aren't quite clear what is going on; during the plod scenes, until Lodge reveals who he is, there's a welcome swing towards obscurity.
ZZ von Schnerk: You are not feeling the part, Mrs Peel.
Mrs Peel: I have a feeling I will be feeling it.
The Wyngarde costuming & overacting business is pretty much exhausted by this point, as his confederate soldier proves, so it's as well that the scenery shifts for the grand climax, a Poe-esque affair complete with advancing pendulum (Emma is tied down, naturally) and Kirby and Syn – well, more Universal horror than Poe – planning to "experiment on living tissue".
Curiously, Emma doesn't appear to be taking it very seriously ("Gloat all you like, but just remember, I'm the star of this picture"), almost as if she expects to be rescued. Which she promptly is, by Steed, who aside from sussing who Kirby was (he recognises his voice from a Hamlet performance) has, like those other Cathy/Emma-centric episodes, been relegated to an offscreen role (as the pan to a "Meanwhile Back at the Ranch..." sign on set, before the cut to Emma's apartment, suggests). He's given some nice moments, though, such as posing as his stand-in's corpse and having Emma break a "fake" chair over his head.
Steed: And luckily, I got here in the nick of time.
Mrs Peel: Otherwise, did you enjoy the picture?
Steed: Oh, not bad. At least it had a happy ending.
I also rather liked that Steed removes Kirby's wig and glasses before plugging him. At one point, Emma, having been told "I will make you famous, Mrs Peel. I will make you a star… posthumously", is surrounded by an animated logo and elicits an MGM lion "Rowrrr". As inspired as these moments are, one rather wishes there were more of them, instead of Wyngarde’s frantic mugging.
Steed: Unbridled passions… Why don’t we just spend the evening at home?
Mrs Peel: Why not? Let’s get back to my apartment.
The coda is easily the best of the season do far, reeling off a list of movies to see on a night out (I was Napoleon's Nanny), including a nod to Fellini (Lasagne 6 ½ ), a critique of the same ("I walked out three-eighths of the way through"), and reference to an old Kirby movie (Nights of Abandon), before opting to stay in. Except that they aren't in Emma’s flat; she kicks – breaks – the fourth – second – wall, as they're actually on the set where she awoke earlier. Which is obviously actually her standard set at Elstree (they missed a trick not having his place next door); this sleight also occurred with the street set outside her house earlier, only at night. Another neat touch is the break with Steed doing the summoning at the outset ("Sorry Steed, I'm needed – elsewhere"), culminating in him glancing at the camera. There's a lot of fun to be had with Epic then, but it isn't quite von Schnerk's, or Clemens', masterpiece.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.