Saturday, 26 October 2013

Saturday 26 October 1963

The script for tonight's Sentimental Agent is provided by a suitably urbane figure: aristocratic Irish wit and TV personality Patrick Campbell (what other show I've featured here could've had an episode by Patrick Campbell?).  Like a lot of his work, it's a charming piece of Irish whimsy of a kind which, five years later, would have seemed badly out of touch.

Carlos Varela is distracted from refitting a vintage car for a rich Sheikh by a visit from the extravagantly behatted Shelah Connery of Dallas, Texas (future Monty Python star Carol Cleveland, who gets an "introducing" credit here, though she'd done a Dixon of Dock Green a couple of years before).

Shelah claims that she's the last of the Connerys (clearly Sean's no relation), and as such has an unusual proposition for Carlos: she wants him to ship the family's ancestral castle from Ireland to Dallas: "When I want something, I ride it hard," she warns him to forestall any objections.  Establishing that money's no object, and clearly taken with Shelah's abundant charms, Carlos has no objection to heading to Ireland with her for a preliminary survey straight away.

The pair take the same plane as Sylvester O'Toole (Brian Phelan), supposedly Ireland's greatest living playwright, but also a rowdy drunk whose recent altercation with a pair of police officers has seen him kicked out of the UK - meaning he'll miss the London opening of his latest play.  Waiting in Ireland to greet O'Toole is his most fervent champion, the fearsome Mrs Alice Mahoney (Peggy Marshall) along with her significantly less fearsome associate Mr Hogan (Liam Gaffney).  Mrs Mahoney is convinced that O'Toole's the victim of a plot to prevent him speaking the truth about British involvement in Ireland.  The Irish police are completely uninterested in the playwright: they're on the lookout for a man escaping from France after a failed assassination attempt on Charles De Gaulle (a reference to Jean Bastien-Thiry, who tried to kill the French president in 1962.  By the time this episode was broadcast he'd been tried and executed: some viewers may have perceived an unflattering comment on the Irish police force in the fact they're still trying to catch him).

Leaving O'Toole to the tender mercies of Mrs Maloney, Carlos and Shelah head for the village of Mountconnery, where they book in to the local inn.  Landlord Burke (Patrick McAlinney) and his slow-witted porter Larry (Donal Donnelly), clam up suspiciously when Castle Connery's mentioned.  The local police sergeant (Godfrey Quigley), like all his colleagues, is devoting all his energies to catching the sinister Frenchman.  Foreigner Carlos immediately seems a local suspect.

Carlos thinks the reason for the landlord's disquiet over their plans for the castle is obvious: he's got a still there where he makes the whiskey served at the bar.  Shelah, a connoisseur of Texas moonshine, is charmed by the idea.  The local brew proves a little too heady for Carlos, who practically collapses after a sip.  Shelah proves to be far more robust.

Shortly, Hogan and Mrs Maloney turn up at the inn - and despite Carlos working his Latin charm on the lady, they join with Burke and Larry in trying to put the visitors off the castle.  Mrs Maloney comes up with a load of hokum about a curse placed on it by Elizabeth I, which Carlos easily sees throughh, while the men tell Shelah the tale of the castle's ghost: a bat-eating dwarf, peculiarly enough.  Shelah's overjoyed, and just hopes she'll be able to transport it with the rest of the building.  Carlos confronts Burke with his suspicions about the distillery and offers to find buyers for his dodgy product: "What better cause could there be than providing the over-taxed drinkers of England with good Irish whiskey at, say, ten shillings a bottle?" But Burke's only reaction is anger with himself that he'd never thought of having the idea.  So what's really going on?

When it comes to actually visiting the castle, Shelah's nerve nearly fails her.  As she and Carlos enter its centuries-old portals we're in prime old dark house territory: the shadows of bats flutter about, and various eerie noises can be heard.  A banshee even manifests itself briefly.

This foul spectre is, of course, Mrs Maloney - who along with her chums is trying to scare Carlos and Shelah away.  The reason soon becomes apparent: they're hiding Sylvester O'Toole in the castle dungeons prior to smuggling him to the North (Castle Connery stands slap bang on the border), and thence back to London to attend the premiere of his play.

Although O'Toole himself isn't keen on the plan, Carlos thinks it's admirable and agrees to help out by enlisting local labourers (they're working on a hotel in London but are currently "taking evasive action from English income tax") to unblock a tunnel leading under the castle.  He grants himself the cushy task of acting as a decoy, numbering stones in order that the castle can be put back together in the right order.  "Are you sure you're doing right, digging out the foundations first?" asks the police sergeant.  "It's the modern American method!" replies Carlos, breezily.

O'Toole suffers the ultimate indignity of having the scruffy beard it's taken him years to cultivate removed - after a hasty restyle it's used as a disguise by Carlos to distract the police into thinking he's the French assassin while O'Toole escapes.  The plan works perfectly, leading to fierce dispute over which side of the border he was caught in.

Carlos is able to get away by explaining he was trying to see how vigilant the customs men were, and makes off with the escaped O'Toole.  The playwright, pining for his beloved Dublin, makes to get back over the border - though the sight of an ardent Mrs Maloney chasing after him soon changes his mind.

May the Saints Preserve Us is great fun, with Campbell's script and the performances of the guest cast ensuring an authentic Irish feel.  In a few short years, however, Ireland's north-south divide would seem far from a laughing matter.  The highlight of the episode, with nothing to do with the main story, sees Carlos echo my own thoughts from last week on his manservant, Chin: "He's quite capable of saying Rolls-Royce, you know, but he thinks Lolls-Loyce makes him more insclutable."

After the last couple of weeks' tales of enemy doppelgangers and underground nuclear shelters, the plot of this week's Avengers seems pretty mundane.  Fortunately the same definitely can't be said of the script: from the pen of the brilliant Roger Marshall, it sparkles with wit throughout, and despite a storyline at times impenetrable for those (like myself) with a complete lack of financial acumen, it remains totally enagaging throughout.

We begin with an old man on his deathbed, tended to by his devoted wife.  As he breathes his last the camera pans across the framed photos in the room: one of them is of a rather familiar face...

Yes, the man we saw expire was Clarence Wrightson, who served as Steed's batman (not the superhero kind) in World War Two.  At the time, Steed's job was to spy on a suspected coffee bean smuggler: "Well, we all have to start somewhere..."

After attending Wrightson's funeral, Steed accompanies Mrs Wrightson (Kitty Attwood) and her son John (David Burke) back to their home for the reading of the will.  Also in attendance is financier Lord Teale (Andre Morell), who Wrightson batted for in the first war.  Steed and Teale receive token legacies, but there's shock all round when it turns out the old mans estate was worth £180,000.

But when Lord Teale meets up with his business partner Eric Van Doren (Philip Madoc), it quickly becomes clear he wasn't shocked to find Wrightson had so much money - in fact, he helped him make it - but the fact that he was so indiscreet as to mention his fortune in his will.  It's clear there's something dodgy going on. 

The question of what, exactly, Teale and Van Doren are up to is, I must admit, one I found myself baffled by - even once the answer was presented.  It seems to involve them selling off all the shares of their rich clients in order to invest in electronics firms, and then buying those shares back when they've made money from their new investment - leaving the clients none the wiser (answers on a postcard from anyone who understands it better than me, please).  Teale - who it's increasingly evident is quite loopy - sees himself as Britain's saviour, aiding the development of technology that can make this little island great once more.  The far more cynical Van Doren's just in it for what he can get.

Morell and Madoc give the kind of hugely entertaining performances you'd expect from - Van Doren splendidly droll and Teale initially the picture of suavity but increasingly swivel-eyed as the episode progresses.  Death of a Batman's most memorable character, however, is their eccentric client Lady Cynthia Bellamy (Katy Greenwood).  Vastly wealthy (funnily enough, her father sold the family's ancestral home and had it shipped out to America), she nonetheless likes to keep herself occupied with an endless stream of undemanding jobs ("I have jobs like other people have colds!").  At the moment she's a florist, though she admits to knowing nothing about flowers - "People point! You say 'How many?' and you wrap them up."

Cynthia's also a complete tart, with a penchant for men lower down the social scale.  Misty-eyed, she reminisces to Lord Teale about an affair with a Swedish air steward: "That blond hair... and all those opened sandwiches."  When he advises her to invest in a mail order firm she perks up: "Do you think they could order me one?"  Katy Greenwood plays Lady Cynthia with such verve that it's surprising to find her screen career consists of just a handful of TV appearances.  Very little information is forthcoming on her - what I'd especially like to know is whether she's any relation of Andre Morell's wife Joan Greenwood.  If anybody knows, do write in.

There's an especially wonderful scene where Steed and Mrs Gale, on the hunt for clues to Teale and Van Doren's link to Wrightson's fortune, scour a pile of society magazines to find information on Lady Cynthia.  "Ascot, Newmarket, Kempton Park," muses Steed, "No wonder so many of them look like horses."

Steed eventually visits Lady Cynthia's shop: "That's what comes of biting your fingernails," he reflects on seeing a mini Venus De Milo.

Despite Steed mocking the upper classes his own blue blood means he and Cynthia are a perfect match.  He manages to convince her they met at a society do (thanks to her tendency to get utterly blotto at such dos she's willing to accept she could have met anyone).  Asking Cynthia out, he explains that the Mrs Gale he's buying flowers for is in fact his old nanny, 69 today.

Said old nanny, remarkably sprightly for her age, is getting into all sorts of trouble.  Sneaking into Wrightson's house to photograph his share certificates (which he in fact worked on drafting, meaning he was able to give Teale and Van Doren information about them in advance), she tussles with a chap who had the same idea.

On obtaining a job as Teale and Van Doren's secretary, Cathy's embarrassed to find that the man she beat up is a fellow employee...

It's all right though, he turns out to have been secretly employed by Steed all along.  Speaking of Steed, who's now got quite a thing going with Lady Cynthia ("She didn't think the green carnation suited me," he tells Cathy in reference to his elaborate new buttonhole).  After their date she shows up at his flat, kissing him and exclaiming "You darling! You absolute darling!"  "What did I do?" a startled Steed ponders to himself.

After Steed and Gale are found out by the rogue bankers their plan to kill them and make it look like they killed each other fails miserably, and they're brought to justice for... well, whatever it was they were up to.  Answers on a postcard from those less dim than myself please.  Oh, and before we move on to the next show, here's a brand new Avengers star, Steed's latest dog, the rather naughty Katy (what happened to Sheba from the previous series is not revealed: I'd like to hope Steed gave her to Venus Smith, who was obviously very fond of her).

And now to tonight's final show, which is perhaps more thoroughly a product of its era than anything else I've yet covered here.

The Gentle Spies of the title are the members of the Disarmament Moveement, an anti-nuclear protest group clearly analagous to the CND, even down to their most venerable member, Nobel prize-winning biologist Lord Kemble (Alan Webb), an obvious stand-in for Bertrand Russell.  Recently they've been giving out pamphlets which reveal top secret information about the country's preparations for nuclear attack.  Unsurprisingly the government is in turmoil about these revelations, and gung-ho intelligence man Gerry Paynter (Barry Foster) has been enlisted to locate the source by a parliamentary secretary played by Godfrey Quigley, his role and accent very different from in tonight's Sentimental Agent, but his irascibility much the same.

Paynter's quizzed on how he intends to carry out his task by security minister Harry Forsythe, who has a personal axe to grind against Lord Kemble, who tutored his son at university and, he believes, filled him with all sorts of dangerous philosophical notions (although he eventually died in combat).  Michael Hordern's wonderful as the outstandingly grumpy as is Joan Hickson as his tipsy wife Sarah - the moment where she guiltily returns a drink to the study after initially heading up to bed with it is especially great.

Paynter's plan is to go undercover and infiltrate the Disarmament Movement.  How does he intend to do this? The answer, of course, is obvious: by donning a duffle coat and getting bolshy with a policeman.

This leads to him being carried off in a van with various protesters including young Sheila O'Hare (Angela Douglas), who he tries to chat up but simply gets preaching about non-violent protest in response.  Paynter's harassment of Sheila leads to him getting a whack from a young man who reveals "I'm a follower of Gandhi in international affairs only.  In private life I'm as violent as the next man."

Eventually, though, Paynter's insistence on his earnestness in wanting to join the group starts to thaw Sheila: "People keep confusing us with vegetarians, or nudists, or Communists," she grumbles.  "It's all very discouraging."  Paynter offers to help in any way he can: "I don't mind licking stamps, or turning your duplicating machine."  "In a couple of weeks we'll be putting out a new leaflet," Sheila tells him.  "If you're still interested, you can help us fold it."  The leaflet in question turns out to feature yet more leaked secrets.

In the evenings, Sheila performs satirical songs about nuclear war (seemingly inspired by Millicent Martin's numbers on That Was the Week That Was) at a beatnik coffee house.  Paynter notices her being watched with great amusement by the conspicuous figure of Eric Pohlmann (whose career of playing untrustworthy types had recently reached its zenith when he provided the voice of the unseen Blofeld in From Russia with Love.  Paynter recognises this chap, Willi Hausknecht, as an East German agent who specialises in leaked secrets.  Thinking he's found his man, Paynter has Hausknecht arrested, then prepares for a weekend away to celebrate his success.

His plans rapidly fall through though, when it turns out Hausknecht wasn't in the UK when the Disarmament Movement began publishing the secrets: "Goodbye St Tropez!"

The Gentle Spies is, for the most part, a fun romp (much needed after last week's particularly harrowing instalment of Espionage) with a greatly entertaining central performance from Barry Foster.  The schoolboyishly enthusiastic Paynter is hardly the sort of part he'd come to be associated with in his career, which makes it all the more cherishable.  There's satisfying depth to his character: starting off with nothing but bemusement for the protesters' antics, he comes, through his developing relationship with Sheila to appreciate what it is they stand for.  Though the protesters aren't presented in an especially heroic light, writer Ernest Kinoy seems more in favour of them than the government.

This becomes especially apparent when the source of the leak is revealed.  There's a palpable change of tone from comedy to tragedy in this scene.  As the signs increasingly point to someone in the minister's household being responsible, his wife quietly confesses it was she.  "I'm sorry it's over," she sighs, "I think I got quite a thrill out of it all.  Very cloak and dagger stuff."  She reveals she'd sneaked a look at top secret papers while her husband was in the bathroom: "You will read in there and stay so long".  Sarah's motivation for joining the fight against her husband's government's nuclear plans is quietly heartbreaking: "I think it was because of our boy Philip mostly.  I knew you were very upset when he was shot down, I suppose I've had more time to think about it, you've been so very busy these past years."  There's a world of sorrow in these words, and Joan Hickson delivers them perfectly.  She, Hordern and Webb are fantastic in this scene: Forsythe reels in stunned disbelief while the aged peer begins to accept how irresponsible he's been in publishing the information given to him.

The assembled characters decide that the revelation of Mrs Forsythe's indiscretion would do more harm than good, and decide it should be quietly covered up.  The story ends with Paynter still chasing after Sheila: having discovered he was a spy she's initially less than keen, though Lord Kemble's recommendation that they mate to help preserve the species seems likely to sway her.   And indeed, what could be more romantic?

Pop music now: Brian Poole and his Tremeloes are still belting out their brand of Fauxtown at number one; at number two this week, it's this little number:


  1. Interestingly enough, some of the locations of the Regional Seats of Government (i.e. the nuclear bunkers) did later get leaked through CND, IIRC.

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