Monday, April 30, 2012

 

The Avengers – My Wildest Dream

Someone in the office you want to kill? Aggresso-therapist Dr Jaeger offers a harmless way to relieve your frustrations. What could possibly go wrong? The Avengers – My Wildest Dream gives you The Manchurian Capitalist, a disorientating, violent thriller of board members killing each other in dreams, all witnessed by Steed and Tara. Guest stars include Peter Vaughan, Edward Fox, John Savident and the mighty Philip Madoc, who sadly died last month, as did stylish director Robert Fuest, who gives the episode real (or is it hallucinatory?) punch: dizzyingly shifting points of view; stunning fight sequences; showing off striking sets…
“It’s a – dream! It’s all a dream!”
My Wildest Dream was one of the episodes that first got me into The Avengers when I discovered the series in the middle of Channel 4’s mid-’80s repeats (even taping the thrilling fight and car chase after Vengeance On Varos and The Mark of the Rani to fill up one of my precious Betamax tapes), and for me it’s still a favourite. You can find it on Disc 3 of The Avengers – The Complete Series 6 DVD Box Set, or Disc 32 in The Avengers Complete 50th Anniversary Collection – I’ve previously offered tips on which The Avengers DVDs to buy – while original viewers in 1969 had a slightly harder job: because of concerns about the violence having too much oomph, it was shown on a different day than usual and much later in the evening. Even though there’s only one tiny spot of blood (the BBFC now classifies it a PG). Surprisingly, this was made quite early in Tara King’s season of The Avengers but held back until close to the end, despite being one of her best – Linda Thorson is at her most mature and confident, looks cool, has great timing and gets a fantastic fight, so this fits right in with her later episodes, generally her best and a fabulously strong run.

Though he remained as consultant for a while longer, My Wildest Dream was the final script by Philip Levene, one of The Avengers’ most prolific and defining writers, his scripts known for their humour, teasingly science fiction elements and general outrageousness. This, however, while witty in places, is uncharacteristically down to Earth and tense – while for me Tara King’s season of The Avengers is one of the two that best balance the silly and the sinister, this threatening psychodrama weighs heavily at the sinister end and is easily Levene’s darkest, revisiting his Death’s Door drugs and dreams but with considerably more palpable danger (plus a dash of Brian Clemens’ Honey For the Prince). And that’s greatly boosted both by Robert Fuest’s vividly in-your-face direction and Philip Madoc’s unsettlingly bipolar performance…

Robert Fuest and Philip Madoc

Artist, designer and director Robert Fuest started off on The Avengers as a set designer right in the early days, on Ian Hendry episodes that no longer exist – though you can see his designs in the surviving episode The Frighteners, and pictures of some of his work in the photo galleries for the Season 1 and 2 DVDs – and came back with a bang at the other end of the ’60s as a director in his own right, instantly becoming the best of the Series 6 helmsmen across the seven Tara King stories he directed. He returned for The New AvengersThe Midas Touch and The Tale of the Big Why, though he’s probably most famous for the two Dr Phibes films he directed in between. Yes – they were his idea. Marvellous!

My Wildest Dream was actually Fuest’s first Avengers episode in the director’s chair, though the first of his to be broadcast was Game, a story so highly regarded it was chosen to launch Tara King, and which I’ve previously raved about for its Op-Art inventiveness and superb eye for colour. My Wildest Dream is less quintessentially Avengers, not having the same immediately joyous wacky appeal, but for me it’s even better. The cinematography is simply outstanding, with lessons learned from those 1961 Avengers taped in poky sets – watch for those inventive camera angles that liven up, say, Nurse Owen talking by showing her in her own desk mirror, or his instinctive affinity for shadows – but getting every advantage from the bigger budget, whether it’s roving cameras inside cars on location or the rapid cross-cutting stabbings that still make you jump even if what you see is rarely what you think you see. That other most prolific, defining Avengers writer Brian Clemens clearly loved Hitchcock as an influence on his scripts, but if ever there were a Hitchcockian Avengers director in his pace and energy, his inventiveness, and his gleeful black humour that nearly but not quite goes too far, it was Robert Fuest.


My Wildest Dream – Philip Madoc Having A Bad Day in 1969
 
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While Bob Fuest has always been one of the most outstanding contributors to The Avengers for me and here hits his stride so perfectly that it’s difficult to believe it was his first time, on the other side of the camera there’s the final Avengers performance from another of my favourite irregulars in the series, Philip Madoc of the gorgeous voice and predatory grin. While in his five Doctor Who screen roles he was usually the guest-starring villain, in his five Avengers episodes he was usually a little lower down the cast list, but still making a memorable impact. I love his understated Dutch banker who quietly realises when the game is up in Death of a Batman and his scene-stealing Soviet agent in The Correct Way to Kill (for which, when I reviewed it, I was for very personal reasons particularly sad that fellow actor Peter Barkworth had just died; since then, tragically, all that episode’s male guest stars have passed away), but it’s his first and his last appearances in The Avengers that are his most striking for me. Startlingly young and smooth in 1962’s The Decapod, he unleashes that fabulously wolfish grin as an ambassador who may or may not be the villain – while in 1969, his uncanny, unhinged business executive Slater persistently steals the show (and is framed on probably my favourite Avengers set just to make sure you can’t ignore him).

For my other favourite series, in Doctor Who it’s strangely Philip Madoc’s first and last TV roles that are his least impressive, while in between this great actor created two utterly terrific but unrecognisably different villains (as Jack Graham suggests in his tribute on Shabogan Graffiti). Both The War Games with Patrick Troughton and The Brain of Morbius with Tom Baker are outstanding stories, with Time Lords the ultimate villains in each but Madoc’s roles more memorable still: the War Lord, the cold alien conqueror who comes in after his junior villains have been fighting to outdo each other and dominates with underplayed, deadly, quiet wit; and egotistical surgeon Mehendri Solon, determined both to bring his master back from the dead and to establish himself definitively as the maddest scientist in history greatest doctor in history, enjoying every word as he declaims, sneers and insults his way through a horrible but very funny Frankenstein pastiche.
“Your name will also go on ze list! What is it?”
“Don’t tell him, Pike!”
I’d provide an overview of Philip Madoc’s career, but he’s been in everything. A champion of and the definitive portrayal of The Life and Times of David Lloyd George; DCI Noel Bain in his own detective series, A Mind to Kill; a long-running lead role as Cadfael on the radio (and, like his TV counterpart, the Master – or is he?); probably most famously for an actor famous for his guest roles, the U-Boat Captain in The Deadly Attachment, Dad’s Army’s finest episode, who visibly almost corpses as he rejects the idea of nasty, soggy chips, wanting them “Crisp – unt light brown.” I wish Channel 4 would show again or release 2003’s eerie Y Mabinogi, for which he provided a (Welsh) voice of legend and which I’ve only seen once, in the middle of the night. And it’s telling that, on the joyous news last month that Alan Garner was at last to return to his Alderley Edge tales – the first two being such a major part of our childhoods – the first thought for both Richard and I was that, sadly, Mr Madoc would not be around to record Boneland for CD in the gorgeous way he’s read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, each of which we’ve recently listened to together.

I think there was only one event I knew of at which I might have met Robert Fuest, and I wasn’t well enough to go; there were a handful at which I could have met Philip Madoc, and though I was too ill to make most of them, I’m so glad I made it to a shonky pool hall in Barking in 2008 on the DVD release of The Brain of Morbius. Though he was pleased to recall praise from other actors for his sinister War Lord, he was very clear that Dr Solon was his favourite Who character, for the script, for how much he had to do, and for how much fun it all was (miming dropping and picking up an evil brain). I remember him being presented with his own copy of the DVD, and saying sotto voce to fellow guest Cynthia Grenville as she passed him hers,
“Now, Cynthia, if I sign that, it’ll rub straight off.”
“Oh? Why?”
“Because you haven’t taken the wrapping off.”
Asking which one it was when presenting him with an earlier DVD release of My Wildest Dream, I told him:
“You go a bit mad in this one. Peter Vaughan had been injecting you with new drugs.”
“Ah, yes. He was always doing that.”
But what I most remember was when I apologetically passed him our DVD of Doctor Who – The Power of Kroll to sign, knowing his opinion of it, and all the backstory why (and why he was much happier that his real final Doctor Who roles, many years later, included classier audio dramas like Master and Faction Paradox). Philip bared his teeth at it and asked, carefully enunciating each word, “Is this the one by the sea-side?” as if not quite actually saying ‘Why do you wish me to autograph a turd?’ Though he perked up mildly at the feature about him, A Villain For All Seasons, I felt I had to justify myself:
“I know you don’t think much of this one, but I always find your performance very entertaining. It’s the way you look permanently pissed off – you seem to be playing someone who’s looking at his boss and thinking he could do a much better job of it.”
I was rewarded with that full, dazzling, dangerous, wolfish grin.
“Just very good acting.”
That Golden Moment
“I feel so much better, Doctor. I feel so much better.”


My Wildest Dream – Drenched in Red
 
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From the disturbing, disorientating teaser to the charming, funny tag scene, My Wildest Dream brims with superb moments, taking in Tara’s most breathtaking fight sequence and probably my favourite – and one of the most barking – of all Avengers sets along the way. But the scene that sums up this episode for me may just help explain why some censors and schedulers took fright. It’s less a golden moment than a crimson one, with two brilliant guest stars and stunning direction that both surprises and shocks.

Boardroom tensions have been just a little edgier than usual at Acme Precision Combine Ltd; undergoing unconventional treatment from the sinister Dr Jaeger, one board member has already stabbed a rival then fallen to his own death while apparently believing himself to be in a dream, and now Philip Madoc’s Slater seems to be going down much the same path to conclude his own clashes with Henry Winthrop. And, as they did the first time, Steed and Tara have had a mysterious tip-off and dashed to the scene in Steed’s Great Gatsby yellow Rolls (ahead of being incredibly fashionable in the ’70s, and tipped to be so again this year). Winthrop’s home, The Lodge, is a great find – like a giant witch’s hut, it’s very distinctive, a memorable setting for a murder. We hear Howard Blake’s swirling music and sinister bass beat, as we did the first time, as Madoc explains in gleeful voiceover how Winthrop lives alone, the camera cutting from him in Jaeger’s surgery, reflected in his own knife, to his legs striding up to the house, to viciously guillotining Winthrop’s picture in his red-lit darkroom – an inspired piece of substitute violence – before he stabs, Winthrop dies, our heroes burst in —! Only for Winthrop to turn, developing film in hand, surprised but very much alive, Slater’s attack being just another drug-induced fantasy acted out with his aggresso-therapist. Or is it?

Of all the five members of the Acme Board, Slater and Winthrop are by far the most entertaining, thanks to Philip Madoc’s superb turn as a man who, doped out of his head, is the one who most enjoys it all and then is most miserable in withdrawal (only in being separated from his dreams and his doctor, of course – what do you mean, ’60s drug metaphors? It’s not a metaphor, he’s just drugged to the eyeballs) and, as his main rival for direction of the company, the marvellous John Savident. Another man of many memorable guest parts, he’s probably best-known for Coronation Street – never mind – and here he grabs the camera in just one scene, surprised by the intruders, shocked by news of deaths in the company, but preeningly confident that it’s just a false alarm and, if not, he can handle anyone with the gun he keeps to hand.

But outside, in another car among the daffodils, Jaeger’s cool, calm orderly Dyson is losing his cool and his schedule as he frustratedly tries to bring the lurching, incoherent Slater round just enough to prod him out of the car and into the Lodge. Tara sees him go, just too late, and the hallucination plays out all over again, Winthrop gasping horribly and lurching right into our faces like – sorry, I’m quite fat, too, but it’s an irresistible simile – a harpooned whale just as our handily unimpeachable witnesses burst in once more and, satisfied at acting out his fantasy again, Slater thanks his doctor, smiles, and offers his knife to them to put away for his next go…

The Avengers has always shown death, and frequently great violence, often of a fantastic nature, which the directors imply rather than present in gory horror – people shredded, bloodlessly, in The Hidden Tiger (with which this has a twist or two in common) or The Winged Avenger spring to mind – but while those make you fill in the blood, the sheer speed and savagery of the stabbings in this episode, the way the camera plunges around, even when most of the time it’s only dummies that the knives are plunging into, makes this far more startlingly visceral than earlier stories that should, in theory, have been more gruesome. And of all the scenes, this one’s the most striking, in part because all four actors are compelling, but also because in the darkroom everything already looks like it’s drenched in blood – and it’s the only moment when Fuest really pushes it as we see a splash of proper blood on Winthrop’s beached front and Slater, fascinated, pokes his finger in it for a moment to look at it before turning to Steed and Tara. He’s going to have a hell of a comedown…

Steed and Tara

I love The Avengers and, unlike some, in particular the sixth series with Tara King – that glorious fanfare opening with knights, roses, running along the bridge in sunshine and colour to open every episode, and with mysteries solved by Patrick Macnee at his most urbane and authoritative and Linda Thorson wide-eyed but winning through. Both lead actors are on top form in My Wildest Dream, with Linda Thorson especially giving one of her best performances: here, Tara is resourceful, witty, stunning in one of the series’ most physical fights and puts off an unwelcome admirer with considerable style (and a cheer from me when she throws him flying). She even gets to do such effective detective work in following leads that Steed gives her twelve out of ten.


My Wildest Dream – Pop Art Fight
 
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It’s a great day for Steed and Tara’s outfits, too. Tara’s given two looks with culottes, which really suit her, a pleasant pale blue and white ensemble and a terrifically cool one with a leather jacket that she looks far more comfortable in than if she was forced into one of Cathy Gale’s old catsuits (something Diana Rigg never liked). That’s what she wears when checking out Slater’s optical workshop at Acme, when Fuest’s direction really lets rip in a massive Pop-Art punch-up between her and Dyson, as both hurl each other across an enormous room filled with blue, red and yellow glass, framed through jagged broken glass and targets and then finally leaping out through the door and into an almost as kinetic car chase, all to the accompaniment of some of Howard Blake’s most exciting music and then Laurie Johnson’s (which I remember from the likes of Something Nasty in the Nursery). Outstanding. The follow-up fight’s briskness is a bit of a let-down, not to mention showcasing unsafe taste in decoration, but you can almost hear her saying, ‘Well, haven’t we done this?’

Steed, too, looks good – particularly in grey with a striking copper tie, but also in his dark blue suit, blue shirt and maroon tie or rich chocolate-brown suit with trademark deeper brown collar and matching tie. He can even get away with a yellow shirt and olive-brown suit, just as she manages to look businesslike in a bright kimono, though both of them have brief bad moments (ironically, the only outfit she’s complimented on on screen is a green tartan best left to a Scottie dog, while it’s a good job that the closing tag scene has such wit and warmth to distract you from his hideous brown striped trousers and roll-neck). His best scene here, on the other hand, is far more laid-back than Tara’s physicality – once she’s tracked down Dr Jaeger, he goes in for the kill. Or, far worse, the piss-take…

Bad Therapy
“You’re not in my dream. Go away.”

My Wildest Dream – Observation
 
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Madoc is outstanding as he’s pulled from one reality to another, always told what to think by forceful medical figures, confused but sullen and resisting – and never more memorable than once he’s been whisked away after killing Winthrop, to be discussed by Steed and Tara with pompous Dr Reece, who believes everything in the world can be dealt with by “New drugs, you know,” and who keeps confronting him with the nasty reality. It’s a good scene in itself, as everyone simply insists on their own point of view and has no interest in listening to the people they’re talking to, but it’s elevated to brilliance by Fuest’s direction and Robert Jones’s hilariously untherapeutic set design. Yes, rather than being put in a comfy bed on a friendly ward with flowers round a little window, Slater has been put in the Observation Room. And I can never help but hoot as Reece stalks away from Slater, both of them still talking across each other, and the massive white space with a threatening red stripe down the middle, pointing to the patient, is revealed, the word “OBSERVATION” picked out in large, unfriendly letters along the whole back wall. Just to perfect it, it doesn’t have a door, but another wall, which simply glides in front to snap shut and leave poor Slater stranded. Walls just shouldn’t move like that. And Reece’s moving phone mounted on it does strange things to your head, too.
“A catharsis! A release of all repressions and hatreds! A man lives out his dream – his wildest dream!”
Peter Vaughan is another of my favourite actors, another I’d love to meet, and another with a list of roles as long as your arm. Probably best-known as Porridge kingpin Genial Harry Grout, today (like top Avengers guest star Julian Glover) he’s reaching a whole new audience in Game of Thrones, though not so far in its sexposition scenes, high fantasy’s answer to the Topless News Channel. And his Jaeger here is utterly compelling, a self-confessed quack who genuinely believes that he’s ahead of his time, a pioneer. He is a real doctor, too – but of what (perhaps Valeyard is a German title)? Intense, mesmerising, vaguely Germanic, he’s My Wildest Dream’s other outstanding performance, in a role that has much in common with Ronnie Barker’s Mr Cheshire in fellow Avengers classic The Hidden Tiger – an obsessed, focused, brilliant technocrat (and a bit round-faced and in Porridge)!

While Laurie Johnson does a splendid job taking over the music for The Avengers once it goes into film from Series 4 onwards – not least in providing the main title them with that perfect fanfare – for some of Series 6 he was busy with a musical and recommended new composer Howard Blake, later of Flash Gordon and The Snowman fame; this was the first of ten episodes for which Blake provided much of the score in a similar but sharper style, and arguably his best (up with Who Was That Man I Saw You With, which provides the opposite bookend to his Avengers soundtrack CD release).

Between them, it’s Peter Vaughan, Howard Blake and of course Robert Fuest who seize our attention from the first here in a gripping teaser sequence as the first member of the Acme Board narrates his stalking his ideal victim to a harsh jazz beat, up the fire escape, into his room, a vertiginous spin and plunging his poniard in to stabbing brass – then reeling out into reality, disorientatingly now set to floating, dreamlike music, where it’s only a dummy with the man’s face that he’s knifed, egged on by Jaeger’s shouting and injections. After which he’s picked up for work by none other than the man he’s just ‘killed’… Dr Jaeger believes so passionately in himself that he’s the centre of the episode for most of the way through, dominating members of the Board and the voice that keeps urging, compelling. Madoc’s scenes with Vaughan crackle with conviction as two superb actors spur each other on – one sweating, sullen, in denial, then finding release; the other lashing out with sheer charisma to force Slater into accepting his point of view, revealing his innermost fears and hatreds, then delighted as he makes a breakthrough:
“Excellent! That’s really excellent, Mr Slater! ‘Kill’… ‘Destroy’… And ‘erase’! I particularly like ‘erase’!”
And as his ‘patients’ stab and stab again the dummies with the faces of their tormentors, though you know it’s only a dummy, though you know no-one’s really being murdered – this time – you can’t help feeling queasy at the violence with which sawdust gouts out onto the glass table through which we’re seeing Jaeger’s rapt face.


My Wildest Dream – Even Stabbing A Straw Man Looks Disturbing
 
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Of course, it all falls apart. That’s what happens when Steed walks in.

From the moment Steed charmingly praises Jaeger’s receptionist, Janet Owen – “What a nice voice you have. Soothing” – and she’s one of the least charmed respondents in TV history, and Jaeger makes the mistake of letting this relaxed, charming man who claims to think he’s a horse into his consulting room, Jaeger’s galloping downhill faster than you can say ‘woo’. Suddenly, the Doctor is in need of some aggresso-therapy of his own. And the other big guest star you’re likely to recognise might just help…

Not Liking Steed, and Simply Not Like Tara
“Who is it you hate?”
“Steed.”
“Who is it you hate?”
“Steed.”
“Who is it you hate?”
“Steed!”
Oh, poor Teddy. No, scratch that – the Hon Teddy Chilcott is an utter git, a self-obsessed upper-class twit who’s clearly met Tara at one of the parties she hates and just will not leave her alone. It’s rare that any of the Avengers get a love interest, and here she’s very plainly not interested – even in Edward Fox. Handsome but querulous, he disapproves of her “cloak and dagger nonsense” and even more so of Steed. The impression is that he just doesn’t want a woman to work, but it is perhaps possible that he’s particularly pissed off by secret agents – might he afterwards be so scarred by this experience that he applies himself to the secret service in order to control them, and winds up M? Never! But, sexist git as he is, the way Tara simply keeps ignoring him is very funny, from her replying to his fishing for a compliment (“Persistent,” she suggests), to her priming Steed with excuses to get away, to the marvellous moment when he lies in wait to surprise her with flowers… And his despicable follow-up, where his sexism is notably only sustained by false advantage, the swine, and exactly how he gets his comeuppance. Then, satisfyingly, he’s beaten up for a third time, now by Jaeger’s nurse / receptionist, and deployed as a sinister pawn in which, at last, you can see Fox as the Jackal to be.

Nurse Owen is, though, the only element of My Wildest Dream that doesn’t entirely come off for me – and not just because I never warm to a sinister medic called Owen. She starts off as the intriguing voice on the phone that keeps propelling Steed into the plot, giving him tip-offs that are just too late to save the murder victims, and when called on to be cold and enigmatic, Susan Travers is perfectly decent. My problem with her comes when she gets to do the action scenes – also rather well – and also gets many costume changes: striking in dark blue with red stripes at collar and cuffs; all right in pale orange frock; nasty in pale mud; sofa-like in brown stripes. Paired with an older, authoritative man (ignore Dyson, who in his sharp suit and shades just wants to be Alfie), too, it suddenly becomes obvious who she’s meant to be – who else gets all those outfits, intelligence, and to knock men out? She and her partner are evil reflections of Tara and Steed. And though they’re both quite serviceable, they just don’t have an ounce of the charisma needed for those parts. He even has a fat, ugly car. Our heroes agree, too, as at the climax Tara wallops one villain in passing and the other’s easily carpeted. But that does make the ending a little unsatisfying; I like to imagine them recast with actors a little less dull and, once all is revealed, being something more of a challenge.


My Wildest Dream – At Last, Champagne
 
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The tag scene as Tara psychoanalyses Steed is, of course, light, frothy, bubbly – in a word, champagne. As a boy, little John confesses, he would creep to his father’s study for a splash of soda water. He really wanted lemonade, but his father wouldn’t have the palate-rotting stuff in the house. This tickled me when I saw it as a boy, because I remember similarly stealing into the kitchen by night to make some Andrews’ Liver Salts, not because I liked the taste, but because at least it fizzed! So, wonders therapist Tara, does that explain his liking for…?
“No, the insatiable craving, the perpetual desire, the uncontrollable urge to lay my hands on a bottle of champagne, that’s a very very different reason…”
“Dare I ask?”
The bottle pops.
“Because… I happen to like it.”
They drink, and cue the music!

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