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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Avengers '64, Sets 1 and 2
The Avengers '64, Sets 1 and 2
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Review by Chris Hughes | posted May 23, 2000 | E-mail the Author
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Features:Full Screen (Standard) - 1.33:1. Available Audio Tracks: English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono). Episodes Set 1: The White Elephant, The Little Wonders, The Wringer, Mandrake, The Secrets Broker, The Trojan Horse. Episodes Set 2: Build A Better Mousetrap, The Outside-In Man, The Charmers, Concerto, Esprit De Corps, Lobster Quadrille. Bonus: Gallery of Production Stills.

The Movie:
An impeccably dressed secret agent pits himself against an endless string of super villains, each with fantastic plans for world domination. His intelligent dialogue is interspersed with clever quips and he surrounds himself with beautiful women in alluring clothing who just happen to have a knack for Judo. You'd think from the description that I was talking about James Bond but by the time Dr. No (Bond's first outing with Sean Connery in the lead role) hit screens in 1962, Patrick Macnee had already taken more than twenty five turns as the original gentleman spy John Steed on episodes of the British TV show The Avengers.

Though the spy genre was still relatively new on both big and small screens in 1961 The Avengers was already taking it into territory that could be considered artistically baroque. The show was suave, action packed, funny and very self-referential but even the high level it achieved in the first season was just a taste of things to come.

In 1962 Honor Blackman was cast in the role of Cathy Gail. Blackman's character was a liberated and self-sufficient woman who, though not connected with Steed's agency (sometimes referred to as MI-5 1/2), was an instrumental part of the team. Cathy Gail was one of the first truly independent female characters on British television where she was portrayed as Steed's equal. Gail was an amateur anthropologist, a good shot, knew her way around a car engine and had extensive training in hand to hand combat. Though most men my age will always think of Diana Rigg playing Emma Peel as the definitive Steed companion (and the archetypal image of female sexual power), Honor Blackman paved the way and set the tone. She even wore that black leather cat suit from time to time!

The Emma Peel era was The Avenger's classic period but the third and final season of Cathy Gail episodes often achieved a level of quality that was comparable with what was to follow. A&E's Avenger's '64 Collection gathers together the final twelve Honor Blackman installments (three episodes per disc) into a set that, though a little inconsistent, delivers plenty of the groovy style that we fans came to expect from the show.

I won't synopsize all twelve episodes in the collection but here are my impressions of three of the more memorable selections:

When one of Steed's associates turns up dead under mysterious circumstances and is buried in a small Cornwall town the Avengers leap into action. Soon they discover that a good number of wealthy Londoners have been buried recently in the same cemetery, which is located near an abandoned Tin mine. This episode features reams of cool dialogue, an unforgettable bad guy and a number of other classic elements including the cracker factory front for the law breaking villains.

Build a Better Mousetrap
This episode could have easily been an Emma Peel. It opens with Cathy Gail joining a teen motorcycle gang who, in their youthful revelry, cause a couple of eccentric crones to threaten them with witchcraft. No sooner do the youngsters laugh off the threat than a mysterious force renders their motorcycles unstartable. Naturally this event attracts the attention of John Steed and raises questions about a rumored secret weapon. Build a Better Mousetrap is filled with memorable supporting characters and features a solid and engaging plot.

The Charmers
Both British and foreign agents are being assassinated and its up to John Steed to get to the bottom of it. Steed forms an alliance with the enemy in which he and Gail pair with their foreign counterparts to solve the mystery. It becomes apparent very quickly that the foreign agents aren't up to Steed and Gail's level of competence, which raises a number of disturbing questions. Of all the episodes in the collection this is the most Emma Peel like. It has humor, action, an engaging plot and superbly maniacal foes. The Charmers was so much a precursor of the Emma Peel era that it was actually remade with Rigg as The Correct Way to Kill.

Some of the twelve episodes on Avengers '64 are duds but the good far outweighs the bad. I found it particularly interesting to see Macnee and Blackman feeling their way around their roles as they defined a series that would become a lasting part of British and American culture.

The Picture:
The first three seasons of The Avengers were shot on videotape some were even broadcast live. Most of the first season episodes are lost to us now but seasons two and three were transferred to 35mm film using a scope. If you've seen scoped television programs you'll know what to expect here. The images are very dark and lacking in shadow detail. Good contrast goes a long way towards redeeming that problem though and the images are far from unwatchable. The soft nature of the images apparently required some digital enhancement as you can clearly see a good deal of edge shimmer and banding.

The Sound:
Given the nature of the video source material I expected the sound to be much worse than it is. The dynamic range is predictably limited but the dialogue is very crisp and clear. Music fares a little worse, fading at times into the background and jumping to the front at others. Most notable is the general lack of hiss and other distracting age artifacts.

The Extras:
The only extra content on these discs is a small collection of about a half dozen production stills. Given the rabid following that The Avengers experiences it's too bad that A&E couldn't have come up with a little more ancillary content but at least they put three episodes on each disc (are you listening Paramount?).

I was very impressed with these DVDs and found them eminently enjoyable. The picture and sound quality are both a cut above what I expected and the episodes themselves are very entertaining. Hardcore Avengers fans will probably already own this set or have it on their wish lists. More casual fans may want to rent the discs first before buying. Make no mistake, these episodes show nowhere near the technical competence of the Emma Peel installments (which were shot direct to film for release in the US) so don't set your expectations too high. That being said I highly recommend The Avengers '64 Collection.
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