Monday, June 24, 2013

A Surprising Faith in Gentlemen’s Agreements (Mr. Teddy Bear)

location:  Avengers ’62, vol. 1
airdate:  29 September 1962

The tv show begins with ... the shooting of a tv show:  a man is about to be interviewed in a studio; he opens his mouth to speak, and falls to the floor, dead.  The cameras – both those we see and those we don’t – close in on his dead face.  Cue the credits, after which we start with a closeup of an anatomical cutaway of a human face.  Pan right, and we see a living face – Steed’s.  And throughout the episode, Steed and Gale are constantly being watched by cameras. 

Thus series 2 starts with the surrealism and self-awareness that was not much in evidence in series 1 but will become the norm later in the series.  And our main duo is now Steed and Gale, not Keel and Steed; for this is the first episode of the Cathy Gale era (to be specific, the first to air, not the first made; but here, as in my Danger Man and Star Trek blogs, I’m going through the episodes by airdate, not production date).

Whereon hangs a tale.  The gap between the first and second series was nearly a year, the delay being due to an industrial dispute. (As I’ve explained elsewhere, I prefer not to say “due to a strike,” since to treat workers’ unwillingness to meet employers’ terms, rather than employers’ unwillingness to meet workers’ terms, as the cause of the delay is to acquiesce in the normativity of employers’ getting their way as the default, that which stands in no need of explanation or justification.)  According to Patrick Macnee:

The dispute was between the British Actors’ Equity Association and Independent Television.  Before the birth of ITV in 1955, acting on television – BBC television – had been accepted as an extension of straight theatre work or film work.  When ITV came into being the situation changed.  Viewing figures (ratings) became a consideration.  As programmes began to reach a larger audience, the ITV companies saw their profits increase dramatically and Equity decided that its membership should receive a bigger slice of the cake. ... [T]hey were demanding an increase in the minimum fee paid to artistes for programmes seen on the network, additional increases for shows that were partially networked and a much higher rehearsal fee.  (The Avengers and Me, p. 29)
In any case, by time the industrial dispute was over the following year (a compromise was reached), Ian Hendry was gone – whether quit or fired is disputed.  It appears to have been Sydney Newman who suggested that the new partner should be a woman; but the distinctive, role-reversal combo of action heroine and dandy male seems to have emerged – gradually – at least in part from the initiative of the actors themselves (though the fact that Honor Blackman’s dialogue was written as though for a man obviously helped).  Paul Cornell writes:

Patrick Macnee, at this point, makes one of a series of wonderful decisions.  At the same time as Cathy is being empowered, he starts to put aside elements of his own power as a hero (his gun, his fisticuffs, his wisdom) in order to give Mrs Gale more of the spotlight.  I say Macnee rather than Steed, because, from interviews, it becomes obvious that Macnee had very definite and laudable aims in mind, ones that were sometimes utterly at odds with the show’s producers. (Avengers Dossier, p. 346)

And according to Macnee (Blind In One Ear, p. 223), he and Blackman developed the idea that their characters should address each other by their last names.  (Macnee – like that other spy-fi Paddy Mac, Patrick McGoohan – would also eventually refuse to have his character use a gun, at least regularly.)

The show’s much-vaunted “feminist” aspect (such as it is, of course) begins not with Emma Peel but with Cathy Gale (and actually recedes a bit with Peel, as we’ll see to say nothing of Diana Riggs own antifeminism).  Gale quickly establishes herself as determined, competent, and unflappable; in one scene, she evades a man who’s been tailing her by disabling his motorcycle in a manner that displays a working knowledge of motorcycles that few 1960s tv shows would have given a woman character.

Honor Blackman describes her character as “the first feminist to come into a television serial; the first woman to fight back.”  (quoted in Kathleen Tracy, Diana Rigg: The Biography, p. 49)  And Macnee reports a fan letter from a feminist thanking him for his efforts to “further our emancipation” via the “unusual degree of intelligence and civilization” with which he treated his female co-stars.  (Blind In One Ear, pp. 268-9)  Though one has to say that Steed’s air of mocking superiority toward Gale through most of this episode doesn’t fit that picture terribly well; through most of the episode he seems to be enjoying their banter a good deal more than she is.  Still, it’s early days yet.  (And since I haven’t seen many episodes from the Gale era, I don’t really know what to expect in the future.)

TOP:  Good.   BOTTOM:  Not good.
Gale is introduced without preamble, as though she and Steed have been working together for some time (and we are free to imagine that they were, in between Steed’s adventures with Keel); and her status as “Mrs.” Gale is initially unexplained.  The sexual-or-not nature of their relationship is teased with a scene in which Steed and Gale are rolling in the floor in one another’s arms – which turns out to be martial arts practice.  Steed’s attempt (forcefully rebuffed) to kiss Gale during this practice suggests that the attraction may be real but one-way.

To viewers of the 1998 Avengers movie, the title “Mr. Teddy Bear,” and prospect of a villain using a teddy bear disguise, will inspire fear and dread.  But be of good cheer:  what the movie handled execrably, this episode manages well.  The eponymous Mr. Bear, a professional assassin of unknown appearance, leads our leads on a cat-and-mouse chase through a surreal landscape of Scooby-Doo houses filled with weird props (including cigarettes with chimpanzee fingerprints on them).  

The feel of a “romp” is encouraged by the cheerful, indeed gleeful, almost amoral way that Steed revels in the ingenuity of Bear’s crimes.  But the episode has darker moments, especially toward the end with the tense strategy game between Steed and Gale (which will remind Sherlock fans of a similar scene in “A Study in Pink”).

This episode gives us our first look at Steed’s supervisor (codenamed 110 – perhaps a nod to 007?), as well as of Steed’s dog (a Dalmatian named Freckles, who incidentally proves to be utterly useless as a watchdog).

Budget constraints – particularly the no-retakes-unless-absolutely-necessary policy – show themselves when Agent 110 – or rather the actor playing him – accidentally calls Gale “Jail” (well, “Gaol,” I suppose).  I also suspect that the automatic cigarette case was supposed to open before, rather than after, Gale refused the cigarette.  

Until next time, keep the champagne cold and your bowler on!

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