A couple of years ago, the British papers carried a story to the effect that someone was being paid taxpayer's money to get a PhD on the subject of the view of Britain as portrayed in The Avengers. Patrick Macnee was quoted as saying that this was absurd and that the show appeared the way it did because it was aimed at the American market. While this is true of the later series, "November Five" is clearly a very British affair. British politics is dominated by two political parties, though not so completely as in the USA. The Conservative Party, or the Tories, traditionally represents employers, the middle classes, landowners and rural interests—Major Swinburne is an archetypal Tory MP. The Labour Party traditionally represents trade unions, the working classes and urban interests—Arthur Dove is an archetypal Labour MP.
Both Dove and Swinburne are ambitious backbenchers. (A backbencher is an MP who has no office in government and is not and is not an official party spokesperson). Swinburne is trying to use the story about the warhead to discredit the leadership of his party and put him in a position to become leader himself. Dove is trying to use the story to embarrass the government and enhance his standing in his own party. How either of them know about the warhead is never made clear.
Well, that's the political background. So why do Cathy and Steed go into politics? In a word, the fashion for satire.
This is not just another episode dripping with charming eccentrics haunting the venerable institutions of Old England—this show demonstrates that The Avengers were up with the latest trends and that "November Five" was a product of its time and place. And what timing—when "November Five" aired, Britain was spellbound by the biggest political scandal for half a century.
In the early 1960s, Britain was in the grip of the "satire boom." During the Fifties, the British maintained a respectful deference towards their political leaders (Sample TV interview question: “Prime Minister, may I ask you to remind us of your achievements over the past year?”) After a decade of Tory government, many saw Churchill's successors as out of touch, bungling incompetents. Besides, we were fast losing an empire and coming to terms with the fact that we were very much the junior partner in the "special relationship" with the USA. Change was in the air.
In the Cambridge University revue Beyond The Fringe (which later transferred to London's West End and then Broadway), Peter Cook broke a taboo by lampooning the Prime Minister at the time, Harold Macmillan, as a doddering old fool. Television interviewers began to lose their respect for politicians (Sample question: “Prime Minister, how low do your personal approval ratings in the polls have to sink before you resign?”) The appetite of the young for satire appeared to be insatiable. The magazine Private Eye was founded in 1961, followed by the launch of satirical club The Establishment and the TV show That Was The Week That Was.
In "November Five," all the politicians are portrayed as deceitful schemers. Dove uses St John to arrange and tape an off-the-record discussion about the warhead with Swinburne. Swinburne dissembles to Steed about the circumstances of Dyter's "death." St John manufactures Dyter's death for the press and public. Dyter fools St John by writing him out of the script at the end of Act Two. Steed uses his cover as an election agent to get to St John and his clients.
There are plenty of satirical references in this episode. Steed's draft speech is a pastiche of Peter Sellers's Party Politics, where an MP makes a meaningless speech full of political clichés. St John's office looks more like a design consultancy than that of a publicity agent—reminiscent of Labour's love affair with style since its unsuccessful campaign at the 1959 general election, Britain Belongs To You. The constant references to image, the transparent mask and the two-faced woman on the wall/door declare that, as what we now call a ‘spin doctor', St John is in the business of deceiving the public as to the true nature of his disreputable clients.
Swinburne's behaviour reflects a widespread satirical point about Tory MPs at the time in that while he proclaims his selfless interest in the defence of the realm, his real intention is to grab the leadership of his party. Dove enjoys the social whirl that goes with his position. He sends his wife on skiing holidays and dresses her in a mink stole – very unusual behaviour at the time when Labour leaders were anxious to parade their proletarian principles to the extent that seldom would party leader Harold Wilson be seen in public without his pipe and his Gannex raincoat.
More significantly, Dove admits to Mrs Gale that he has "an eye for the ladies." By the standards of the time, this was very dangerous territory for any politician. In 1963, Britain was scandalized by the Profumo Affair, in which Defence Minister John Profumo was revealed to have had a relationship with a "call girl" who was also seeing the Defence Attaché at the Soviet Embassy. The fallout from the affair eventually provoked the resignation of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan two weeks before production on "November Five" finished.
Other amusements for a British audience are the liberties "November Five" takes with the British political system.
To a British audience, "November Five" is a thrilling show with pace and humour without reliance on quirky characters characteristic of later shows. Perhaps it shows what The Avengers might have become had ABC decided not to sell the programme abroad.
By the by, Honor Blackman is still working to get things changed. Since 1962, she has been a prominent supporter of the Liberal Party and its successor, the Liberal Democrats, which is dedicated to constitutional reform. The only time The Avengers was banned in Britain, apart from 38 seconds from "A Touch of Brimstone," was during the 1964 general election campaign when she appeared in a Party Election Broadcast for the Liberal Party (British law is very strict on keeping politics and entertainment apart during election campaigns). Honor Blackman is still going strong—in the 2001 general election campaign, she was out electioneering with Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy in Kingston-upon-Thames. The papers the next day commented on how young, fit and attractive she looked for a woman of 75. The Blackman effect seems to have worked—the Liberal Democrats now have their largest number of MPs since 1929 and retained Kingston with a much increased majority.
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