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Looks as though vaudeville may have just decided to fight back.

The Avengers
6.7: Look – (Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One) But There Were These Two Fellers…

Well, it took a while, but The Avengers finally rediscovers the sparkle of the best Rigg era episodes thanks to a Dennis Spooner teleplay (his first credit since the first season), one that spreads itself just about as broadly as it’s possible for the show to go – Look – (Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One) But There Were These Two Fellers… was purportedly rejected for the Rigg run for just that reason – but which is also nigh on perfect in pace, structure and characterisation. And guest spots.


Mr Punch: You carelessly left your makeup at the scene of the crime.
Maxie Martin: Oh, no I didn’t…

Like Epic, also directed by James Hill, this being his final work for the show, Look – (Stop Me...) elicits polarising opinions, although I find it much more difficult to appreciate how this one could leave someone cold. There’s just too much to love here. As such, it was a crying shame Spooner wasn’t called upon to bring similar comedic gusto to his work on The New Avengers (his most notable Doctor Who contributions, on which he served as script editor, also exhibits the flair that comes from being a former stand-up comic and gag writer).


Tara: Cupid. Who’s he?
Steed: What’s it. In the event of war, where would the government go?
Tara: The Moon?
Steed: Underground.

There’s such surfeit of business here, it doesn’t matter too much that little circumspection is required to work out the prime suspect; there have been arguments at the Caritol Land and Development Corporation over the fulfilment of the contract for Project CUPID (Cabinet Underground Premises in Depth), providing a refuge for government in the event of war, and someone is bumping off members of the board. Since the most recognisable face is John Woodvine’s Seagrave, we naturally assume it’s him. And lo and behold. His motivation is something about selling out to a foreign power and sabotaging the project. 


Most disappointing is that it seems it was John Styles rather than Woodvine who performed the Punch and Judy, itself rather recalling the ringleader vent’s doll issuing orders in 4.14: How to Succeed… at Murder (the motivation of the variety acts for following said instructions is that Caritol has been buying up and knocking down theatres; Caritol also owns Vauda Villa, where they congregate).


Mr Punch: Are you sure?
Maxie Martin: Absolutely sure. There was no one about. It was like the first house on a Monday.
Jennings: (HONK)
Maxie Martin: A wet Monday.
Jennings: (HONK HONK)

Doing the dirty deeds are Merry Maxie Martin (Jimmy Jewel, who had his own variety act) and Jennings (magician Julian Chagrin; Bowler Hats and Kinky Boots notes that Thorson subsequently became his assistant for a time), dressed in full clown regalia and dancing “off stage” with music hall accompaniment. 


Victims include Sir Jeremy Broadfoot (Richard Young) in the teaser, shot for real after the first blast produces only a flag with "BANG!" on it, the Hon Thomas Randolph Cleghorn (Bill Shine) being hit over the head and falling into a lake while on a duck hunting expedition (Jennings impersonating a duck), and most creative of all, poor Lord Dessington (William Kendall) having the rug pulled from under him and plummeting out of window many stories up.


Dessington: I don’t suppose you were ever in the army.
Tara: No.
Dessington: Of course not. Middle East – lots of sand. I was in charge of camels. I don’t suppose you...
Tara: I was once in North Alaska.
Dessington: North Alaska? No camels in North Alaska.
Tara: Oh, I believe it’s one of the main features of the place.
Dessington: What is?
Tara: The absence of camels.

Dessington’s death is preceded by a particularly likeable little sequence as the socially awkward Lord attempts to find something in common with bodyguard Tara, but comes up short until they’re able to agree about music.


Tara: Can I come in?
Rugman: Come in?
Tara: Yes.
Rugman: It’s most unusual.
Tara: You are a public office.
Rugman: Yes, that’s the trouble.

Further delights come with the episode’s two principal comic attractions, the first being future Python John Cleese as Marcus Rugman, who records clowns’ copyrighted makeup on eggs (this element is based on fact, it seems) and is rather pained to have Tara intrude upon him (“You’ve read the notice? You must be very very careful”). Thorson found Cleese very funny, it seems, but this was, to be fair, a good twenty years before he gave up that particular goal in life. Being able to identify the clowns responsible, he meets an untimely demise.


Steed: Bradley Marler?
Marler: Well, if I’m not Bradley Marler, I’m having a great time with his wife. Great time with his wife. Ha-ha. That was a joke! I’m not even married. Great time…

Then there’s Bernard Cribbins (4.19: The Girl from Auntie) as Bradley Marler, with the better scene-stealing role as a gag writer who also has a history with the assassins. Cribbins is infectiously funny here, laughing away as he types with a room full of discarded, crumpled jokes; even when he’s been offed (stabbed) he has the wherewithal to call Steed and include a chuckle (“I don’t know what you’re going to make of this – hee – but they killed me”). He even has a contented expression on his face once expired.


Steed: There was a young lady from Gloucester. She met a young…

Our regulars are on fine form. There’s less of the playing them up as a couple that’s so squirm-inducing elsewhere (Tara leans coquettishly on Steed at one point, but the dinner date coda is played for laughs, even if dissolute.com feels the need to point out Tara’s “white satin fuck-me minidress and black choker” in its otherwise diligent plot summary), and each is given good material, at least until Tara is kidnapped. At one point they’re in a car examining a walking stick from the crime scene that becomes “One bunch of… bananas? It was a walking stick when I found it” and also turns into a sword, daffodils and a hat. Steed is stuck looking through papers at Bradley’s, occasionally overturning a blue joke, before finding the Vauda Villa address and arriving there himself as “Gentleman Jack. A smile a song and an umbrella”.


Maxie Martin: Young man, you're sitting on my washing.

Their subsequent dispatching of the villains, meanwhile, includes Tara searching a magician’s cabinet for Jennings, and Maxie embarking on a dazzling array of quick changes as Steed thumps him each time (ballerina, cowboy, boxer, pirate, Cyrano); something about this put me in mind of Michael Keaton facing Jack Nicholson's Joker in Batman, where he’d laugh in response to any degree of pummelling. 


Also of note; when Steed bashes a ventriloquist, he’s sure to hit his doll too. And the Vauda Villa entourage includes Talfryn Thomas (4.10: A Surfeit of H₂O)  as a particularly unsettling showman (“Let me have her, Mr Punch… It’s me, Fiery Frederick” before telling Tara she’ll be “the very first woman to be burnt in half”) while Steed runs into Merlin (Robert James of 1.1: Hot Snow, 1.2: Brought to Book, 3.5: Death a la Carte and 4.6: Too Many Christmas Trees), who tries to put him off by telling him “They’re all eccentric. All of them. All of them. Except for me of course” as ping pong balls pop out of his mouth.


Steed: Well, you can’t work on a case like this without learning something. Shall we go?

The aforementioned coda finds Steed practising the quick change, donning Mandarin, Wellington and Indian outfits before leaving with a dinner jacket bearing a neon "Eat at JOE’s" sign on the back. We also see how much he likes Tintin – Le Lotus Bleu. The highlight of Season Six, and bounding into the Top Ten of the series overall.





















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