The changes to the Ghost Squad format last week were a bit confusing, and this week's episode manages to be even more so. Our usual square-jawed hero, Nick Craig, is nowhere to be seen - instead we follow the exploits of two other agents, Tony Miller (Neil Hallett) and Sally Lomax (Patricia Mort). They're undercover in Cairo on the trail of diamond smugglers (if you were paying attention to my drivellings about last week's episode you might remember that one featured diamond smuggling as well). Below, you can see them being assisted by Warren Mitchell, last seen guest starring in this very show just a couple of weeks previously. Here he adds Egyptian to his wide repertoire of nationalities as friendly police chief Major Mahmood.
In the bar where the agents spend most of their time indiscreetly discussing Ghost Squad business, Miller spots a man he's convinced is the recently deceased sporting legend Spencer Deedes. He doesn't look or sound like him, but he walks in a similar way. Not surprisingly, Lomax isn't convinced, nor is Chief Superintendent Stark - who provesas talented as his predecessor Sir Andrew Wilson at being gruff down the phone. Also not surprisingly, Miller turns out to be right, Deedes having faked his death after becoming enmeshed with the smugglers. Miller's investigation leads us to more evidence of Saturday night ITV's strange insistence on showing men being massaged as he gets a rubdown from big Frank Olegario, who provided the same service for Steve Plytas in The Avengers a couple of weeks back.
For anyone familiar with ITC's 60s adventure series it's very much a business-as-usual runaround, but it's helped by some decent performances - Hallett and Mort are engaging, and as well as Mitchell there are top-notch guest stars in the shape of Patricia Haines as Deedes' daughter, and John Longden (star of Hitchcock's Blackmail back in 1929) as the very shifty sportsman himself.
The main insight Death of a Sportsman gives us however, is into the unfulfilling existence of a female Ghost Squad agent. While Miller spends the episode getting into various scrapes trying to prove a dead man's still alive, Lomax gets nothing to do but sit in the bar drinking, until she gets kidnapped in the last act in order to be rescued. It doesn't sound that bad a life really, but she's very mopey about it.
|It's Egypt. You can tell by the decor.|
The highlight of Arthur's show this week is another spectacular fit of corpsing. This time it's our eponymous star himself who's affected: he's come to visit landlord Nicholas Parsons in hospital (accompanied by his Uncle Les, whose hobby is visiting people he doesn't know in hospital and eating their chocolates), and unwisely attempts to deliver dialogue while eating an apple. The result is a few minutes of magnificent chaos.
Later, a tramp sketch is enlivened by the appearance of the great Patricia Hayes as Arthur and Dermot's unpleasant new landlady.
This week's musical interlude features the bongotacular sounds of popular folk-pop trio The Springfields.
I rather like their charismatic lady singer. Perhaps she should consider striking out on her own.
Now for this week's visit to Avengersland. Like last week's episode, this one features an excursion into the world of magic: but here we're in Dennis Wheatley rather than Ali Bongo territory.
Steed investigates after scientist Peter Neville's struck down by a mysterious, stroke-like attack. The fact he's clutching a hex symbol points to black magic, though personally I wouldn't rule out the wallpaper as a contributing factor.
|Trivia: Olive Milburne (left) played James Bolam's mum in The Likely Lads|
At this stage in its history The Avengers is generally far more level-headed and realistic than it would become in later years, but Doreen Lawrence's script for Warlock is, in its low key way, perhaps one of the show's most fantasticated ever, leaving no room for doubt that black magic works, at least on those who believe in it (including Cathy). The leader of the black magicians in question is suave bookshop owner Cosmo Gallion (Peter Arne). He's a memorable villain, as his recent cameo appearance in Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic series shows. The campaign against Neville has been commissioned by foreign agent Markel (John Hollis, the go-to man for sinister baldies). Said campaign features a charmingly primitive visual effect that looks like a bit of tinfoil being twirled about (accompanied by splendidly weird electronic music to heighten the spookiness) and ends with grim death.
Peter Hammond's direction of Warlock is nothing short of amazing. Bizarre paraphernalia looms in the foreground of many shots (Cosmo's stuffed black cat's a particular favourite of mine), and even the less occult-tinged scenes are imaginatively shot. The standard expository bits where Steed visits the mortuary then catches up with One-Ten are both kept interesting thanks to unusual angles and a bit of business with a pint of beer.
Warlock's an absorbing one-off fusion of the worlds of espionage and witchcraft, and it's so visually interesting that it's one of my favourite Avengers ever. And here's a spooky thing: who's the mysterious figure lurking in the background of this shot? Is it a member of the crew who got in the way, or could it be something more sinister...? (Hint: it's not something more sinister).
I strongly recommend you enjoy this splendid episode for yourself here if you haven't already seen it: