One of my favorite of the Cathy Gale series, "Concerto" has a strong plot, terrific guest cast, and also some of the best Avengers scenes. The plot is straightforward enough (perhaps it becomes too straightforward near the end)—a group of nasty types are discrediting the reputation of a visiting Russian pianist, which will affect some delicate trade talks between the two countries. My main problem is that it never reveals just what the talks will do to the bad guys. What exactly are they concerned about? Oh, well...
The teaser is memorable. A girl enters the Russian pianist's room, mussing herself up to look like she was attacked. I nodded, thinking I understood the plot. She calls for help, and a wimpy-looking hotel clerk enters. As she explains her problem, he calmly leans over and strangled her to death. About then, I wondered what was going on—and Chopin music plays. Sure, it got pretty easy to understand after that, but hoo-boy!
The guest cast is outstanding. Nigel Stock is great as the hulking Russian bodyguard of the pianist. He gets in a lot of witty jabs, and actually seems like a competent agent from the other side, not a caricature. He and Macnee have great chemistry, and one wishes he, not Brodny, would get to return. Sandor Eles is good as the pianist—he's got the right nervousness, and one is given the impression that, just maybe, he is not quite honest. Then there's Geoffrey Colville and Bernard Brown as the bad guys (the latter looking amazingly like George Sanders)—Colville makes a convincing sleaze. Rounding out the cast is Dorinda Stevens as the villains' assistant, who's not the smartest assistant in the world (was anyone surprised at what happened to her character?).
This, unlike some of the other Cathy Gales, was perfect for the third season. The more mature scripting allowed for some sleazy plot elements (e.g. the Stud Club with its strippers), and some less fanciful but still compelling "dangers" (the Russian Roulette game). I usually get distracted by the third season's less-than-polished look—sometimes great scripts get buried beneath clumsy direction and music. Not so—this episode is solid to the core.
"The evidence suggests it was an elaborate frame-up."
Season 3 marks The Avengers' transition from mundane spy-drama to sublime surrealist fantasy and comedy of manners. Watching in order of DVD releases (and production), this is the first Season 3 episode; the first made.
There are several trademark Avengers strands on display. Frequent switches between serious danger and delightfully dry repartee. Enemy agents collaborating with Steed to preserve the civilized status quo. Spacious, elegant sets. Flirting with the playboy lifestyle (Steed throughout, and 'Le Stud Club'), strong attractive women (Mrs Gale and Darleen, who share an intelligent scene with good dialogue).
The Avenged?: Nigel Stock will return to share similar fun scenes with Steed in "A Sense of History." They have two good ones here: plying each other with one another's favourite drink, and later on playing chess all night in Mrs Gale's apartment (one game!) before trying on each other's hats. The pianist, Veliko, strikes a genuine note (no pun intended), memorising scores to a metronome and soaking his fingers before performing.
Diabolical Masterminds?: The trade talk-disruption motive is not hard to understand (getting a bit mundane by now, though)—there is much money at stake from other countries and magnates who might be excluded. The "last successful political assassination" in Britain is stated as being in 1812—this was before Bulgarian defector and writer Georgi Markov was stabbed with a ricin-poisoned KGB umbrella in London in 1978, of course. Oh, for the certainties of the 1960s!
The Avengers?: Cathy, under threat, wears a baroque ruffled 18th-century style outfit for some unexplained (but gratifying) reason. This story seems to be set on 11 April (wall calendar). Steed kicks a man when he's down... after employing his umbrella inventively in a nicely-done fight. Thankfully, Johnny Dankworth more or less shuts up after the title music... appropriately considerate, in view of the episode's title. We get a twist in the introductory scene, played to a lengthy background of Chopin. Bliss.
Umbrella, Charm and a Bowler Hat?: Very much so. Steed and Cathy are most elegant in dress and wit, and share an enjoyable verbal fencing match over chess in her flat, which is a variant of the last one seen in season 2. Cathy is once again fond of Steed's dogs (this time another new one called Junia). Steed imbibes brandy at every opportunity—perhaps heeding Dr Johnson's epigram that it is the drink for those who aspire to be heroes.
Bizarre?: Although Cathy's outfits are frequently stunning (the striped blouse, the Scarlet Pimpernel look) for some reason when she spends the evening typing at the British Cultural Council she insists on wearing her cumbersome outdoor cloak, which looks very uncomfortable. Perhaps the heating was off.
What happened? The much-maligned Kim Mills directing, but with interesting camera angles, sets, pacing, actors? Terry Dicks and Mac Hulke writing, and it all hanging together, good characters and with effervescent dialogue to boot? What a difference a season makes. Three bowlers.
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