We all know The Avengers.
You know, that television show Marvel thought we would confuse their big superhero movie with so they changed its name?
The Avengers is a staple of British culture and was one of the most popular shows on ITV since its inception back in 1961. It has the distinction of being one of two famous programs created by legendary producer Sydney Newman. That other show was a little known affair about a time travelling doctor or something like that.
Ask about The Avengers and for many what comes to mind are the adventures of bowler hatted secret agent John Steed and cat-suit wearing Mrs Emma Peel. These were full colour escapades and a shining example of the swinging sixties in all it’s camp and surreal glory.
What you may not be familiar with is the earliest incarnation of The Avengers, when the show was in black and white and a little bit more grittier. Mrs Peel was far on the horizon and John Steed was a secondary character in a program that would become synonymous with actor Patrick Macnee’s defining role.
The original star of the The Avengers was a Dr. David Keel played by Ian Hendry who becomes embroiled in solving crimes with the mysterious Steed after the murder of his fiancée. This incarnation of the program lasted 26 episodes before Hendry left and was replaced by Honor Blackman’s character Cathy Gale, with Steed becoming the lead.
Like many of the early episodes of Doctor Who, the first series of The Avengers was recorded on videotape and were subsequently wiped from the BBC archive sometime in the 1970s.
Only two episodes of that original series exist.
So it was of real interest to many Avengers fans when Big Finish announced in 2013 it had acquired the licence to recreate those lost episodes on audio using the original scripts and a brand new cast.
The first box-set of stories was released in 2014 to great critical acclaim and this new fifth volume is another excellent piece of work.
Over four-hour long episodes, Dr Keel and Steed investigate the disappearance of an eminent scientist, nefarious deeds at a Russian circus, a kidnapping on a Caribbean Island before finally breaking up a murderous diamond smuggling ring.
It is hard to imagine that there was a time when Steed was not the star of the show, so iconic is the character but in these early stories he works just as well as a secondary character.
Actor Julian Wadham has wisely decided to play his own interpretation of Steed and not simply an impression of Patrick Macnee. Wadham’s performance is uniquely his but also true to the character. Steed is still the debonair and witty gentleman spy we have always known which compliments Anthony Howell’s calm and world-weary Dr Keel.
For two stories the characters are surprisingly kept apart with Steed making no appearance at all in the episode Girl on the Trapeze. This works though at it shows both characters’ strengths independently of each other with Steed becoming the central figure of the third story Crescent Moon.
All four stories are surprisingly dialogue heavy and limited to a few locations, betraying the television roots of the scripts but the whole thing works just as well on audio and lends itself an air of authenticity. Early television dramas were very much short stage plays in a new medium, and Big Finish have done an admirable job to preserve that style in these productions.
In addition to the format, Big Finish have retained as much period detail and turns of phrase in the dialogue as possible. There are many “chaps” and “chums” scattered throughout and a rather jarring moment when a police officer searching for a Russian suspect is told to consult the “alien list”.
It is these little details that show how much care has been taken with these recreations. I imagine the temptation to update the time period or squeeze in extra action scenes may have crossed their minds, but Big Finish have done an excellent job of restoration to preserve the stories as they were.
The Avengers – The Lost Episodes is a highly recommended listen and one I urge you to check out.
Publisher: Big Finish
GS Blogger: Matt Davis @DecadentGent