A&E // 1964 // 312 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // February 20th, 2000
The original British TV cult classic.
A well-matched pair of smart, stylish secret agents do battle against a never-ending array of fiendish felons and assorted evil-doers in The Avengers, the original British television series. Of most interest to fans and collectors, the sharp wit and intelligent characterizations unfortunately come hand in hand with the deficiencies of thirty-five year old source materials.
Before you can honestly judge the original TV series, it is best that you erase from your memory the spectacularly disastrous feature film The Avengers which died a horrible death despite the notable talents of Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, and Sean Connery, primarily due to the lack of a script. For a TV series which made do with very modest staging and no special effects, it seems very odd that the makers of that bomb tried to dress The Avengers up into a spectacular special effects extravaganza. The premise for some episodes may have been audacious in its implausibility, but that only serves to heighten the gusto with which its main stars dig into their roles.
The center of The Avengers is John Steed (Patrick Macnee -- A View to a Kill, This Is Spinal Tap, and "Battlestar Galactica") and his partner, the first of which was Mrs. Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman -- Tale of the Mummy, Goldfinger). Notable for its time, this pair of secret agents is the very model of equality, mutual respect and loyalty. Steed and Gale approach their missions with aplomb, dividing the work according to their own talents, keeping each other well apprised of events, and always ready for timely backup when things get sticky. Patrick Macnee as Steed is the quintessential English gentleman, smooth and refined, yet ruthless and brilliant in pursuit of his prey. Honor Blackman exudes cool confidence as Gale, every inch a woman and adventuress, always ready with sharp claws and swift kicks to get her point across.
This pair is dropped with little or no preamble into wildly varying stories, the common thread being some sort of threat to the security of the West or merely the United Kingdom. The nature of their employment is never made entirely clear, nor how they are assigned many of their missions, though it seems that their spy agency is prone to harsh measures and disinclined to allow voluntary retirement. Their involvement simply is, without any detailed build-up or subtle explanation. This allows us the leisure of exploring the full motives of Steed and Gale's opponents, as well as the slowly unfolding plot. This sort of television could never be made today, what with hair-trigger critics and short-attention span viewers ready to surf away at a moment's notice.
The Avengers is an acquired taste, for on first viewing you may find the pacing far too casual to sustain your interest, but try to hang in there. The wit and intelligence in the writing and acting may not hit you over the head or dazzle your eyes, but rather slowly charm you with its worthy substance. How could you not appreciate an episode about the theft of an elephant that shows you many animals, but never the elephant, or the bizarre sight of career criminals posing as priests and holding a very odd sort of sleep-over? Would you also deprive yourself of the delight of seeing Lois Maxwell (the original Miss Moneypenny of James Bond fame) as a machine-gunning nun ("The Little Wonders"), or former Bond villain Philip Locke (Largo's henchman Vargas in Thunderball) as a murderous would-be Romeo? I should think not!
Three episodes are presented on each disc. Disc One begins with "The White Elephant," where Steed and Gale endeavor to round up a pack of ivory smugglers implicated in the inexplicable disappearance of a rare albino elephant. "The Little Wonders" is a sheer delight, what with Steed infiltrating a criminal racket, clothed in clerical garb, just as a critical religious conference (err, meeting of the criminal bosses!) is underway, while Gale investigates how a rare doll repair shop fits into the whole enterprise. "The Wringer" is a psychological thriller, as Steed is accused of turning traitor and subjected to harrowing interrogation even as Gale fights tooth and nail to clear his name.
Disc Two sports "The Mandrake," when Steed and Gale probe the affairs of a murderous conspiracy that gives the heirs of the wealthy rapid access to their inheritances, thanks to a pliable doctor, sufficient supplies of arsenic, and a quirk of geology. "The Secrets Broker" finds the dynamic duo fighting to uncover a plot to sell military secrets through a blend of false front stores, a seance con-artist, and a healthy measure of blackmail. "The Trojan Horse" looks into the turf of organized crime, gambling and the horse set, when notable politicians begin closing out their accounts. Steed mingles with the wealthy, horse-loving set, while Gale's wiles land her on the inside as a bookie!
Even allowing for the age of the TV series, the video of The Avengers was a decided disappointment, though by the looks of it this is a fault of the source materials and not the transfer itself. The picture is very soft, more so than anything else I can recall in recent memory, with a severe loss of detail. Aggravating the situation is the lack of proper contrast and shadow detail in the black and white video, which makes even the brightest scenes dark and moody at best, and when the light dims, well, your eyes may strain in vain. With the soft blurriness being so obvious, you may miss the moderate level of dirt and film defects, so that's at least one small blessing.
However, I must report one totally astonishing flaw. During the early stages of the first episode ("The White Elephant"), a fly walks around on the video transfer. I was so shocked that I had to make sure it wasn't on my TV. It wasn't. I can only shake my head in wonder at this astonishing contribution by an anonymous insect.
The audio is perhaps as expected. While dialogue is only slightly muddy, it is still quite understandable. The music is rather flat and devoid of highs and lows, but it is not a terribly important part of the series.
The lack of any substantive extra content borders on the criminal. I think it should be a given that if a television series is to be released on DVD, it should give its viewers (old and new) a basic grounding in the mythology of a series. The basic premise, characters, actors and actresses, guest stars, and so on deserve some attention, otherwise it's not that much different from putting a series out on VHS. I would be more generous if the only extra content on each disc was not merely an exceedingly sparse photo gallery. A&E can do much better (as in their very good Monty Python TV series box sets), and I would hope that they make a better effort next time out.
One more minor point is the oddity of having the first disc in the preferred Amaray keepcase, but the second in a knock-off that uses six small plastic teeth to hold the disc in place. I have had poor luck with this latter sort of keepcase, which seems very prone to having the plastic teeth break off during shipping, in turn leading to scratched discs. Maybe A&E's supplier ran out of Amaray keepcases during the production run and figured one is as good as the other? I must emphatically state that this is not so.
The low-key, crisp dialogue and characters are worthy of your attention, but the average viewer should be content with a rental. Each two-disc set is not exactly cheap ($45), so given the low quality, a purchase is likely to be of interest only to confirmed fans of the Avengers. Thankfully, A&E had the good sense to put three hour-long episodes on each disc (Paramount, are you listening?) so that the collectors don't run out of space or funds.
The Avengers are acquitted, my dear sir, most certainly acquitted, and released to continue keeping the world safe from evil. A&E is placed on probation and admonished to handle classic TV series with more care.
Review content copyright © 2000 Nicholas Sylvain; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Bottom 100 Discs: #97
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 312 Minutes
Release Year: 1964
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Photo Gallery
* Elan (The Avengers Online)