I'm happy to report that this new globetrotting (in terms of the stories, rather than the filming locations) action-adventure series from ITC has a lot of things to recommend it. Not least among these is its splendidly kitsch, bossa nova-inflected theme tune by Johnny Keating (complete with catchy vocal harmonising). The accompanying title sequence introduces us to the glamorous world of roguish import-export agent Carlos Varela, played by Argentine actor Carlos Thompson (an intriguing character who was also a respected writer on the Second World War) and first seen in a Man of the World episode also called The Sentimental Agent.
This week Varela's handling a visit to the UK by top American jazz group the Arthur Rogers Quintet. Young Arthur himself is played by Summer Holiday star Jeremy Bulloch, and none of the other members are played by real Americans, either: they are archetypal 60s dolly bird Anneke Wills (spelling her name Annika at this point in time), Hugh Futcher (seen this time last week in Sergeant Cork), someone called James Luck, and best of all, TV Minus 50 favourite Stewart Guidotti, the endearingly over-enthusiastic juvenile lead of Secret Beneath the Sea. Hooray!
This lot are met at London Airport by Carlos's diminutive, ineffectual assistant Bill (the curiously named Riggs O'Hara), and questioned at some length by customs officials including a very young Brian Cant. Hooray again!
While his latest charges are being held up, the almost parodically suave Carlos himself is getting ready to attend Royal Ascot, his buttonhole having been couriered over especially from Covent Garden. His Chinese manservant Chin (Burt Kwouk, of course) makes sure he looks immaculate, and gives him some tips into the bargain. His secretary Miss Carter (Clemence Bettany) provides the dosh.
But Carlos's plans for a day at the races are spoiled when an eccentric, snuff-snorting MI5 man, Major Nelson (Anthony Bushell) informs him that the musicians are under suspicion, having left a trail of leaked secrets behind them wherever they've toured. "These jazz wallahs get about a bit, you know," Nelson observes, "I don't understand it meself, but then being tone deaf I can't tell one note from another. Still, mustn't grumble!" (All That Jazz is another script from the wonderful Julian Bond, and features dialogue just as splendid as that he's previously provided for Ghost Squad and Sergeant Cork).
There's no hard evidence pointing to the quintet, though - so Varela is charged with keeping an eye on them to ensure there's no trouble. He'll be accompanying them to a gig at an enemy embassy - where Nelson's laid on a contact for him: "One of our very best girls." "Girls?" "36-24-34. Don't say we don't have your best interests at heart."
Varela looks especially swish wearing an opera cape to the embassy do - presumably its this get-up that leads practically every other attendee to drive Varela to distraction by uttering his contact's code-phrase: "I'd have thought Classical music was more in your line." It turns out that the agent Carlos is due to meet is in fact Tania (Dora Reiser), niece of embassy official Stirink (Peter Arne). They find a novel way to distract her uncle's attention when he walks in on them discussing top secret stuff.
The quintet go down a storm at the party, especially the mean vibes playing of Sarah (Wills).
Gosh, even the servants find their way-out sounds irresistible!
While the music's playing, Carlos and Tania do some investigating and discover a specially tuned clavichord which Stirink uses to decode messages hidden in the notes Sarah bashes out! The jazz musicians seem oblivious to the secrets which are hidden in their music - it seems the culprit is their shadowy, New York-based arranger, who refuses to let Sarah play the same solo twice.
Carlos steals the tape recording Stirink's made of the quintet's latest gig, which eventually leads to Tania being kidnapped - her dastardly uncle clearly not seeing family ties as a reason not to harm her.
Carlos explodes at Major Nelson for his seeming indifference about what happens to his agent. The no-longer jocular Major's response: "The day this job can be done by machines I for one will give three rousing cheers." On confronting Stirink, Carlos finds he's packing up his current racket - now it's been exposed there's no point carrying on with it. But he intimates there's a terrible fate in store for Tania if Carlos doesn't hand over the tape. Carlos is unimpressed with Stirink's threat to shoot him though: "Think of the problems involved in getting rid of a corpse at this time of day," he smoothly counters.
Carlos offers to have the quintet play the secret message at the open air jazz festival where they're due to appear. He even offers to find a buyer for Stirink's clavichord.
Wonderfully, we're treated to footage from a real jazz festival, : though the bizarrely attired attendees we see appear to be fans of trad rather than the Arthur Rogers Quintet's modern jazz noodlings.
We're also treated to the thoroughly odd sight of Stirink sitting in the front row at the quintet's performance (were there really seats at these festivals?) with a massive reel-to-reel tape recorder indiscreetly sat on his lap.
This is followed up by a ding-dong in the woods, with Carlos showing us he's just as much of a fighter as a lover by swiftly getting the best of Stirink and his henchmen, rescuing Tania in the process.
The Sentimental Agent looks set to be a hugely fun show, and a brilliantly silly one - the word "quirky" is a horrible one that's vastly overused these day, but if there's any show it fits, it's this one. The programme's makers were clearly so keen on the opening credits shot of Carlos Thompson with cigarette holder clenched in his teeth (looking like the model for Burgess Meredith's Penguin) that they reuse it in the end credits, rather sinisterly distorted and floating around the screen.
Here's the single version of the theme tune:
Next tonight it's the welcome return of Steed and Mrs Gale, who are boasting a brand new title sequence:
Brief for Murder is a perfect episode to kick off a new series with. Written by Brian Clemens, who was rapidly establishing himself as the show's key creative force, it's packed with everything the show stands for: wit, action, and sheer oddness. The latter element's especially prominent, as for much of this week's episode we're left wondering just what exactly's going on between our two leads. The episode begins in a pub opposite the Old Bailey, where Ronald Wescott (Alec Ross) is enjoying a drink with his showgirl girlfriend Dicey Hunt (June Thody). A pair of extras are watching, fascinated (I especially like the elderly man peering round Dicey's boob). Shortly before the police arrest Wescott on charges of treason and conspiracy, he hides a piece of paper in a newspaper on the bar, where it's found by none other than John Steed...
Despite a seemingly cast-iron case against Wescott, he manages to get off at the last minute, after defence barrister Barbara Kingston (Helen Lindsay) points out there's no evidence that the man he was supposedly supplying secrets to, a shadowy figure named "Johnno" really exists. Chortling away behind Kingston are the aged Lakin brothers, Jasper (John Laurie) and Miles (Harold Scott), who provided her brief. They've toiled away in the legal profession for decades without distinction, but have recently supplied a string of remarkable briefs that have turned the tide in favour of several plaintiffs who looked certain to be convicted.
The verdict against Wescott is Not Guilty, and he happily celebrates outside with Dicey and his friend Steed - nicknamed Johnno.
But also present in court is Mrs Cathy Gale, who overhears their conversation and makes it loud and clear to everyone present that she knows who Johnno is. Steed angrily tells her "I'll stop your blasted lies for good if you're not careful."
Has Steed really gone to the bad? Are he and Cathy really now mortal enemies? The signs aren't good, particularly after the pair have an enormous row in the pub.
Later, Steed pays a visit to the health club frequented by both Cathy and Dicey, and run by the ethereal Elizabeth Prinn (Alice Fraser), whose ever so slightly ahead of its time interest in Eastern mysticism makes her a prototype of the wacky eccentrics who'd become a regular feature of the Clemens-masterminded Avengers.
While Steed's there, a burly chap enters and shoots at Cathy, before swiftly departing. Fortunately he just misses. Cathy claims to have never seen him before - and well she might, as he's actually a henchman of the Lakins', sent to divert suspicion away from Steed after he finally carries out his dastardly deed.
We don't learn much about Miss Prinn, but she's clearly quite close to Cathy, as the pair go on an outing in a boat together. It's here that Steed tracks down his former helpmate and cold-bloodedly shoots her.
A traumatised Miss Prinn finds an abandoned bowler hat in the mud...
...and later overhears Steed asking Dicey to provide him with an alibi.
The police arrest Steed, and the Lakins visit him in his cell, where there's some interesting graffiti.
Everything's going according to plan - Barbara Kingston will be defending Steed in court, and the Lakins are convinced he'll walk free. And this is exactly what happens, when it's revealed that the bowler hat, monogrammed "JS" and a key plank of the case against Steed, turns out not to even fit him.
All this is being watched from the gallery by a strangely familiar looking brunette...
Of course Cathy's not dead, she and Steed have been in it together all along, plotting to bring the Lakin brothers to justice. Now Steed knows exactly how they operate, Cathy puts the next phase of their plan into action, paying the brothers a visit (in the guise of "Miss Patchett") and requesting their services in helping her evade a charge of fraud and business conspiracy - but at the same time securing a conviction for the two innocent men she's supposedly in partnership. At first the Lakins think this is simply an impossible task, but Jasper - clearly the more megalomaniacal of the pair - quickly warms to the notion, seeing it as a step in comprehensively manipulating the justice system to get all his old enemies in the legal profession behind bars on trumped-up charges.
While the Lakins are lured to Miss Prinn's health club by Steed, Cathy manages to get hold of the mounds of incriminating evidence in their safe (after a big fight with their henchman, of course).
Hooray! It's good to have you back, Mrs Gale! The Lakins are initially crestfallen at the idea of being brought to justice ("Mr Steed! I am deeply disappointed in you"), but soon get childishly excited about conducting their own defence. It's no wonder Steed and Gale end the episode talking about how much they'll miss the pair of old rogues.