Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Avengers: "A Touch of Brimstone"

"Extraordinary crimes against the people, and the state, have to be avenged by agents extraordinary. Two such people are John Steed, top professional, and his partner Emma Peel, talented amateur. Otherwise known as The Avengers."
(the prologue added to episodes of The Avengers aired in the United States on ABC-TV)

Emma Peel: "I've come here to appeal to you, Mr. Cartney."
The Honourable John Cleverly Cartney: "You certainly do that."
  (an exchange between Emma Peel and the Honourable John Cleverly Cartney from The Avengers episode "A Touch of Brimstone")

Worldwide it is quite possible that The Avengers is the most famous spy show to emerge out of the United Kingdom in the Sixties. In fact, short of Doctor Who, it might be the most famous British show of all time. For all its fame, however, in many respects the premise of The Avengers is very simple. When the show began in 1962 it centred on Dr. David Keel (Ian Hendry), a surgeon who takes to fighting crime following the murder of his fiancée. Dr. Keel's partner in fighting crime was a mysterious figure known as John Steed (Patrick Macnee), who apparently had ties to British Intelligence.

While Ian Hendry would leave the show after its first series, the show's premise of a "top professional" and "talented amateur" fighting crime together would remain.  Of course, from there on out John Steed's partners would be a succession of beautiful, intelligent, and independent women: Mrs. Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman), Mrs. Emma Peel (Dame Diana Rigg), and Miss Tara King (Linda Thorson). John Steed's female partners were women as never seen before on television, either in the United Kingdom or the United States. It was not enough that they were intelligent,  independent, and competent, but they could easily defeat most men in combat. 

A popular show in its first series, The Avengers became a phenomenon all its own in Britain with its second series, when Cathy Gale became one of  John Steed's partners. With its fourth series, the first to feature Emma Peel, the show finally came to the United States. The Avengers became even more successful in the United Kingdom and developed a cult following in the United States, where it was even nominated for Emmy Awards.

Despite its relatively simple premise (a professional spy teamed with an amateur crime fighter), The Avengers was unlike any show that had ever aired before, even beyond Steed's liberated female partners. At least from the second series onwards, John Steed and his partner of the moment fought a number of bizarre opponents and over time the tone of the series became very tongue in cheek. In the second and third series John Steed and Mrs. Gale faced such diabolical masterminds as a group plotting to re-enact the Gunpowder Plot with nuclear weapons and a conspiracy to restore the Stuarts to the throne of the United Kingdom. With the arrival of Emma Peel, the plots became even more outré, as Steed and Mrs. Peel faced remote controlled robots ("The Cybernauts") and even a sentient, man-eating plant from outer space ("Man-Eater of Surrey Green"). Among the strangest episodes of the entire run of The Avengers was "A Touch of Brimstone", in which John Steed and Emma Peel face a modern day version of the Hellfire Club. "A Touch of Brimstone" would also prove to be perhaps the most controversial episode of The Avengers, as well as one of the most popular.

"A Touch of Brimstone" begins innocently enough, with the British government suffering embarrassment as a number of juvenile pranks are played on important, international figures: an exploding cigar, a collapsing seat in a theatre's box, and so on. John Steed determines that the Honourable John Cleverly Cartney (Peter Wyngarde) may be linked to the various pranks, as he is always present before, during, or after they occur. Of course, as might be expected, the pranks soon turn to murder, and Steed and Mrs. Peel find themselves facing Mr. Cartney and his modern day recreation of the notorious Hellfire Club. Naturally, this modern day Hellfire Club has much more sinister plans afoot than simple pranks or even murder. Today "A Touch of Brimstone" may be best remembered for its climax, in which Emma Peel is named "the Queen of Sin" by the Hellfire Club and clad in a spiked collar, a black Edwardian corset, and stiletto heeled boots.

For those unfamiliar with the historical Hellfire Club, there were actually a number of exclusive clubs that went by that name in 18th Century Britain and Ireland. The best known of these clubs, and the one that Mr. Cartney obviously wants to emulate, was founded by Sir Francis Dashwood and  John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, who met as part of a Hellfire Club in the 1730's at the the George and Vulture Inn before founding the Order of the Knights of St Francis in 1746. The Order of the Knights of St Francis, later given the name "the Hellfire Club", was devoted not only to parodying Christianity, but to drunken orgies and debauchery as well. Some very powerful men belonged to Sir Francis Dashwood's Hellfire Club, including John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich; Thomas Potter (MP for Aylesbury, Okehampton and St Germans in Cornwall), jurist Robert Vansittart; and satirist Paul Whitehead. In addition to founding the best known Hellfire Club, Sir Francis Dashwood was also well known for his pranks, including the publication of an abridged version of the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer.

As might be expected, recreating an 18th Century gentleman's club devoted to debauchery for a television show episode in the mid-Sixties would not meet with approval from all quarters. Rediffusion London, the ITV contractor who transmitted The Avengers in the London area, demanded cuts to "A Touch of Brimstone", particularly the climactic scene in which Cartney menaces Emma Peel with a whip. Associated British Corporation, who produced The Avengers, had no real objections to the episode. Ultimately Associated British Corporation cut the scene in which Cartney threatens Emma Peel from twelve cracks of the whip to only two, but absolutely refused to make any other cuts. The fact that "A Touch of Brimstone" was cut by censors was acknowledged by the British press at the time. The February 18 1966 issue of the Evening Standard even devoted an article to the episode with the headline, "What You Won’t See on The Avengers Tonight".

Between Emma Peel's costume as the "Queen of Sin" and the scene in which Cartney threatens her with a whip, "A Touch of Brimstone" would cause even more of  a furore at the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) in the United States than it had in Britain. American broadcasters being much more conservative than British broadcasters at the time, ABC found the episode wholly objectionable and simply refused to air it. Of course, here it must be noted that ABC was committed to only airing 21 of the 26 episodes produced for the fourth series of The Avengers. As to how they decided which five episodes of The Avengers not to air, it seems possible that it was based on any the content of the episodes (namely, was it objectionable or not). It seems notable that "Silent Dust", another one of the episodes not aired by ABC in the Untied States, contained a scene in which Emma Peel is threatened by a whip much like "A Touch of Brimstone". As to the other episodes not aired by ABC in the United States, "Honey for the Prince" featured Emma Peel in a harem outfit, and "Quick-Quick Slow Death” included a scene with a shoe salesman who is obviously a foot fetishist. Only “A Surfeit of H2O” contained little in the way of content ABC might have found offensive, unless one counts a villager building his own ark in anticipation of a second Great Flood.

For all the controversy the scene in which Cartney menaces Emma Peel with a whip caused on both sides of the Pond, it is worth noting that the whip never touches Mrs. Peel. It is also worth nothing that "A Touch of Brimstone", nor any of the other episodes not aired by ABC, was not banned in the United States. When The Avengers entered syndication in the United States in 1969, it was included as part of the syndication package. The sequences in which Emma Peel is threatened with a whip would later be fully restored when The Avengers aired on the cable channel A&E in the Nineties and released on DVD.

Of course, the scene in which Cartney threatens Emma with a whip was not the only sources of controversy with regards to "A Touch of Brimstone". According to the book The Complete Avengers: The Full Story of Britain's Smash Crime-Fighting Team by Dave Rogers, not only Rediffusion, but even studio technicians were worried about Emma Peel's costume as the "Queen of Sin". Curiously the "Queen of Sin" costume was designed by none other than Dame Diana Rigg herself.

Despite the controversy that has surrounded "A Touch of Brimstone" to this day, it remains one of the best loved episodes of The Avengers among its fans. There can be no doubt that this is not due simply to Emma Peel's appearance as "the Queen of Sin" or the episode's idea of a modern day Hellfire Club. Instead "A Touch of Brimstone" remains popular because it is simply a well done episode. Not surprisingly, the episode was written by Brian Clemens, the man who largely shaped The Avengers into the show we now know. It was directed by Sidney Hill, who also directed the feature films A Study in Terror and Born Free as well as episodes of  The Human Jungle, Gideon's Way, and The Saint. He also directed several other episodes of The Avengers.

"A Touch of Brimstone" also featured a top notch cast. Peter Wyngarde played the role of the Honourable John Cleverly Cartney, a role that has since become possibly his best known aside from Jason King from the TV shows Department S and Jason King. Collin Jeavons, who appeared in several adaptations of Dickens novels and later had regular roles in such shows as Billy Liar and The Return of Sherlock Holmes, played Cartney's stooge Lord Darcy. Carol Cleveland, later best known for her work with Monty Python, played Cartney's somewhat scatter brained lover Sara. Robert Cawdron, who had a regular role on Dixon of Dock Green, played Horace, Lord Darcy's housekeeper and a member of the Hellfire Club. With top notch performances and top notch writing, it is little wonder that "A Touch of Brimstone" remains one of the most popular episodes of The Avengers.

Indeed, in some respects it can be argued that "A Touch of Brimstone" is the quintessential episode of The Avengers. It features what might have been the most common premise for an episode during the show's run--John Steed and his partner of the moment fighting a bizarre conspiracy intent on toppling the British government.  It also featured, for lack of a better term, the prerequisite kinkiness associated with the show. In fact, given Emma Peel's appearance as the Queen of Sin, it might well have more than its fair share of kinkiness. Finally, "A Touch of Brimstone" could well be the most "English" episode of what was a very English TV show. Let's face it, not only are Steed and Mrs. Peel battling a gentleman's club that takes its inspiration from Sir Francis Dashwood's original Hellfire Club, but we even get to see John Steed in a sword duel.

Ultimately "A Touch of Brimstone" would have a lasting impact on both British and American pop culture. It is notable that, except for the 1961 film The Hellfire Club, the Hellfire Club was only rarely referenced in literature, films, or television prior to "A Touch of Brimstone". Since then it has been mentioned in several novels, as well as TV shows from Blackadder to Sleepy Hollow. The Hellfire Club in Marvel Comics' various "X-Men" series is obviously inspired by "A Touch of Brimstone". The Hellfire Club's Black Queen and White Queen obviously take their inspiration from Emma Peel as "the Queen of Sin". In the initial plotline featuring Marvel's Hellfire Club, the supervillain Mastermind even takes the identity of Jason Wyngarde, the name derived from Peter Wyngarde's surname and the first name of Mr. Wyngarde's most famous character (Jason King from Department S and Jason King).

Given the controversy surrounding the episode, it should come as no surprise that "A Touch of Brimstone" was the highest rated episode during the first broadcast run of The Avengers in the United Kingdom. It was watched by 8.4 million viewers, a very substantial audience for a television show in Britain in the Sixties. To this day it remains the most famous (or perhaps notorious, if you prefer) episode of The Avengers of all time. It also remains one of the most popular of the show's episodes, if not its most popular. Given the talent that made the episode, as well as its resulting quality, this should come as no surprise. Emma Peel's appearance as "the Queen of Sin" might have made "A Touch of Brimstone" famous, but it is the episode's quality that has allowed it to maintain its popularity over the years.

1 comment:

Caftan Woman said...

"The Avengers" aired late at night in my small Nova Scotia town when I was a teen. It was as much an adventure staying up to catch the program as it was watching the amazing goings-on.