“An old enemy lures Emma to a deserted house for a deadly game of cards.”
That’s how the Internet Movie Database describes the setup for “The Joker,” my favorite episode of “The Avengers.”
And for our purposes, that’s pretty much all you need to know.
Except, maybe, that the enemy is deadly, crazy and, in an odd way, pathetic.
And very weird.
Emma Peel figures this out pretty quickly when, while alone in the house, and not having seen her host, she finds a picture of herself cut up. And someone is playing an old phonograph record of a German song that is sweet and haunting – think “Lili Marlene” – yet somehow threatening.
I admit that when I watch the episode these days on YouTube I mainly watch the last few minutes, which epitomize the show and the relationship between Emma Peel and John Steed. (And you might successfully argue that this relationship was the show.)
The villain has revealed himself, and he comes after Emma as an organ on the sound track frantically covers the action. Emma can usually take care of herself very well, thank you, but this time the bad guy gets the upper hand, and the hand is holding a knife, and he has every intention of doing to her what he’s done to her picture when….
From out of nowhere, that song starts playing again; someone – who? – has turned on the phonograph.
The bad guy gets up and then sees, coming toward him, a giant playing card that, as it approaches, is swaying in rhythm to the eerie song. I’m still not sure whether the giant card hits the villain or if he just faints, but it doesn’t matter – he is disposed of.
Emma, now armed, points her gun warily at the giant card.
Then the card falls to the floor and the gentleman who was behind the card looks down at the villain.
“Oh dear,” says the dapper gent in the bowler hat. “I hope I didn’t frighten him.”
“Steed!” Emma says, her voice and face showing her relief – and great affection.
If anyone who wasn’t around in the 1960s and has read the tributes to the late Patrick Macnee and “The Avengers” ever asks you what all the fuss was about, just show those last few minutes of “The Joker.”
It’s almost amazing that “The Avengers” caught on in the U.S. It’s everything that most American TV shows of that era weren’t – subtle, classy, made for viewers who, it was assumed, were smart enough to get the humor.
You might have noticed that I said it was “almost” amazing that it played well here. I think the main reason it did was the chemistry between John Steed and the character that he almost always called “Mrs. Peel.”
Or, if you want to put it another way (and I sure won’t argue with you), it was the chemistry between Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg.
I suppose there are still fans today who debate the all-important issue of “Did they or didn’t they?” I like to think they didn’t; I like to think that Steed was too much a gentleman to do more than playfully flirt with a woman who, as far as everyone knew, was still married, even if her husband was missing somewhere.
And in Rigg’s last episode, he did turn up, and that was the only time that Steed, saying his final goodbye to her, called her “Emma.” Whereupon he watched from an upstairs window as she got into a car that was occupied by her husband – whom we couldn’t really see, though he was wearing (you guessed it) a bowler hat.
Aside from the sterling work of Macnee and Rigg, I think two other key reasons for show’s success were the scripts by Brian Clemens (he seemed to write most of the episodes) and the music of Laurie Johnson. The two of them also collaborated on that eerie German song.
One thing that I have found truly amazing about “The Avengers” is how the show developed. I read many years ago that in the original version, not shown in the U.S. in the 1960s, Steed was a guy who helped a doctor avenge the death of his fiancée. After that was accomplished, the doc disappeared from the show (an extended house call, I assume) and Steed, who in those days dressed more casually, went on to fight crime with a series of partners before settling on Cathy Gale, played by Honor Blackman of “Goldfinger” fame.
I always figured these episodes would be great to see. I mean, John Steed and James Bond’s Pussy Galore? How could they miss?
It turns out that they could and they did – by several country kilometres.
Because some years ago, A&E announced it would be running the original Avengers episodes, and I eagerly awaited them.
Boy, was I disappointed.
I don’t mean that the show was awful -- it’s just that, well, it wasn’t “The Avengers.” It was typical hardboiled stuff that wasn’t helped by being shot on videotape, which meant that, given the technology of the times, you wound up with a lot more indoor scenes compared with the later, more expansive version. I couldn’t fault Macnee and Blackman, but I couldn’t get excited about their characters, either.
I don’t know what led the producers to totally make over the show, but they somehow took a run-of-the-mill thriller and turned it into something that’s at least pretty near a classic.
I suspect that most of the credit goes to Brian Clemens, who had written episodes of the original version. Maybe he saw the show’s special potential, and Macnee and Rigg were only too happy (or just needed money enough) to go along with it.
By all accounts, Macnee was as classy as his most famous character.
And I suspect he was the main reason that I was allowed to watch “The Avengers.”
Because I don’t think my mother liked Emma Peel very much. But I do think she had a little crush on Steed.
And though I’m saddened to hear about Macnee, I’m glad that for at least a few days, any young people who do a Google search for “The Avengers” might learn that marvels don’t always start with Marvel.