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AVENGERS '66
Set 2, Volume 3

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Patrick Macnee, Diana Rigg
Director: Charles Crichton, James Hill, Bill Bain
Audio: English mono
Subtitles: none
Video: Black & white, full-screen 1.33:1
Studio: A & E
Features: stills gallery
Length: 170 minutes
Release Date: August 31, 1999

"I'm looking forward to meeting this major.  How should I play it?"

"Show him your bumps."

"Hmm?"

"He's a part-time phrenologist."

Film *** 1/2

Most anyone who grew up in the 1960's will be immediately familiar with the cult TV series, The Avengers.  American audiences embraced this witty British import not only for its charming spoof of the spy genre but also for the deliciously coy rapport between co-stars Patrick Macnee (as the debonair super-sleuth John Steed) and Diana Rigg (as his delectably jocular accomplice, Mrs. Emma Peel).

Fans of the show will know, of course, that the name "Emma Peel" is really a wordplay on "M-appeal," or man-appeal.  And Diana Rigg certainly was that!  For two seasons, Rigg and Macnee thrilled British and American audiences alike, and Rigg was even nominated for an Emmy Award.  Alas, as all good things must come to an end, Diana Rigg left the show after two seasons to return to her true calling, the theater.  Without Rigg, The Avengers slumped in its ratings, and the American sponsor, ABC, eventually pulled its financial support, especially in face of the overwhelming competition from NBC's very popular "Laugh-In" comedy show.  With insufficient funding, the British producers had little option but to end production of The Avengers.

Now however, thanks to A & E, the classic Diana Rigg episodes of The Avengers can be seen on DVD.  A & E has also made available many other episodes, too, as the show had a broadcast history that spanned much further than just the Diana Rigg episodes.  The series actually started out in 1961 as a live-audience spy series featuring Ian Hendry as a popular doctor-detective, Dr. David Keel.  Patrick Macnee's John Steed was merely a supporting character at the time.  After Hendry left the show to pursue a film career, Macnee assumed the lead spotlight with a revolving platter of various co-stars.  Among them was Honor Blackman, whose Cathy Gale emerged from the pack to join John Steed in becoming The Avengers' first legendary duo.  When Blackman also departed to pursue a film career (as Pussy Galore in the James Bond thriller Goldfinger), Elizabeth Shepherd was cast as Steed's new partner, Mrs. Emma Peel.  That's right, Elizabeth Shepherd.  Producers quickly realized, though, that she was not right for the role, and so, in a superb re-casting decision, Diana Rigg was offered the role.  The rest, as they say, is history.  Though Diana Rigg appeared only in 50 out of 161 total original episodes, they were the most celebrated ones and forever immortalized the show in the minds of its American fans.

American audiences, however, only saw 49 of those episodes.  As for the missing episode?  Well, it was banned from American television for moral reasons and was never broadcast in America during the series' initial run.  The reason was a shockingly risqué dominatrix costume worn (and designed by) Diana Rigg for the episode.  Even today, it is quite an eye-opener.  Fortunately, that legendary episode, along with two other classic Diana Riggs episodes, is presented on this particular DVD.

This DVD contains three episodes, of which the first is The Danger Makers.  As with most Avengers episodes, it starts with a teaser around the opening credits.  A motorcyclist attempts to chicken run with a big truck.  The truck wins.  When the rider's helmet is removed after the predestined crash, he is revealed to be an elderly man, a decorated general!  The mystery deepens, for Steed and Mrs. Peel discover that the general was a member of a secret society of high-ranking thrill seekers with a devious plot against the very crown of England.  It's up to our Avengers to save the day!  As with most Avengers episodes, this one also concludes with a slam-bang actionfest, featuring Steed in a fencing match and, in the episode's tense highlight, Mrs. Peel navigating through two lethally high-voltage steel bars.

The second episode is What the Butler Saw.  It's a fun and purely tongue-in-cheek twist on the old mystery cliché - the butler did it!  This time around, there is a suspected double agent in the midst, and he is one of either an admiral, a brigadier, or a group captain.  Steed puts his sleuthing skills to the task of discerning the true villain and recruits Mrs. Peel's talents for the job at hand.  Our hero and heroine soon learn, however, that perhaps the actual spy is one of those men's butlers, each of whom has been referred from a mysterious society dedicated to the training of butlers.  It's up to Steed and Mrs. Peel to uncover the nefarious derring-dos and to save the country once more!

Lastly, there is the infamously banned episode, A Touch of Brimstone.  A group of hoaxsters, members of the mysterious Hellfire Club, have in mind a devious plot which (surprise surprise) threatens the security of England.  Steed and Mrs. Peel must infiltrate the club and discover the insidious plans.  This episode is particularly enjoyable, and its highlight is a Hellfire costume party at which Mrs. Peel is separated from the other party-goers and "requested" by the host to change into more suitable attire.  When she re-appears, her new costume draws the attention of every man with a pulse at the party.  Hmm, now how to describe this costume?  Well, Emma Peel wears a spiked dog collar, high-heeled boots, a sheer corset, and lace panties.  Everything is very black, and she is introduced as the Queen of Sin.  She's chained, too.  Oh yes, and she's caressing a big long snake!  There's even a whipping sequence later on.  It paints a most provocative picture!

The faint-hearted American censors back then certainly did not desire any provocation, and there was no way they were going to allow this on network television!  Of course, nowadays on TV, anything goes, but networks back then did try to maintain some modicum of decency.  This was an era when even belly buttons were taboo on TV, after all!  Of course, in hindsight, this episode plays like any other typical Avengers episode, and does not contain anything truly offensive to a family audience.  At any rate, in the end, as always, the Avengers save the day, although American audiences would have to wait several decades after the series' conclusion to see for themselves.

Much of the appeal of the Avengers lies in the almost flirtatious camaraderie between Steed and Mrs. Peel.  Lest puritanical objections be raised over the propriety of such a relationship, let it be known that Emma Peel is merely awaiting her husband's return from abroad and is passing the time by helping the gentlemanly agent Steed to solve his weekly mysteries.  Of course, since Mr. Peel is off lost somewhere in some remote jungle or other nonsense, there is no telling when he will return!  So, while Mrs. Peel has a strictly platonic, working relationship with the suave Steed, they are practically an inseparable couple.  As the Avengers, Macnee and Rigg show such enchanting chemistry together that even when a scene requires of them nothing more elaborate than to stand and chat or trade witticisms, it is still great fun to watch.

Therein lies the secret of the success of the Avengers.  It is a formula that has been used quite often on television (most recently in The X-Files), but it originated with the incomparable Avengers and has never been topped.  This was a delightful and highly entertaining cult television show and now, more than thirty years after it concluded its original run, still has lost none of its charm.  A & E has been assembling the Avengers episodes for a while, so soon (if not already) most of the still-existing entire run will be available on disc.  Fans of vintage television shows or particularly of the Avengers should definitely check out this DVD and then any of the other classic fifteen Diana Rigg Avengers DVDs.

Video ** 1/2

Diana Rigg's first season on The Avengers was shot entirely in black & white, while her second season, after the show was imported to America, was filmed in color.  The episodes on this DVD are from the first season and thus are offered as black & white, full-screen presentations.  These prints have seen better days, but given the strictly imaginary British preservation efforts for these early broadcasts, significantly finer prints probably do not exist.  While the contrast and clarity of the black & white photography is generally okay, the images waver in their degree of sharpness and softness.  Fans may probably long for better than the frequent dosage of dust and scratch marks which permeate these prints.  Furthermore, the transfer itself also contributes some occasionally inconvenient compression defects, such as jagged edges and moiré effects.  Overall, the quality of the video image is still acceptable, if not particularly noteworthy.

Audio **

Yes, everyone speaks with British accents, and sometimes in rather colloquial English at that.  In Rigg's second season, the scripts were toned down specifically so that American audiences could understand them, but for her first season, The Avengers was decidedly British through and through.  This DVD contains the British-flavored episodes.  Since the DVD utterly lacks subtitles or close-captioning, some dialogue may fly over the heads of less attentive listeners (especially in the extremely British What the Butler Saw), to whom I can only advise to rewatch the episodes!  After all, one can never experience too much of this classic television show!

I should point out that the 2.0 mono audio is perhaps on the shrill side, with no low end at all.  Plus, there are occasional pops and scratches on the soundtrack.  Again, given that these were shoestring-budgeted British productions from thirty-odd years ago, this is probably about as good as it will get without a massive restoration.

Features 1/2 *

The extras herein are very representative of the typical Avengers DVD.  All of these DVDs have at least three episodes apiece, while a few even contain four episodes!  Since the episodes are each nearly one hour in length, that does not leave much room for extra features.  Consequently, the sole feature usually does not amount to much more than a stills gallery.  Such is the case here, in which the gallery holds a measly six production photographs.  It barely registers on the radar, but it is understandable, if begrudgingly so.

Summary:

Forget that atrocious Hollywood movie starring Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman!  Only Diana Rigg could ever portray the coquettishly-witty Emma Peel, and only Patrick Macnee could ever be the very definition of a suave, sophisticated British agent, John Steed.  Together, they were television's quintessential crimefighting couple!  Check out this DVD for some of the finest episodes of The Avengers!