The only episode today of the Dr. David Keel era still publicly screened is an interesting relic. Assuming this episode is representative of the first season, it provides an interesting insight and added awareness to the evolution of the show.
As our illustrious webmaster has noted, the mission of the story would fit in with the Cathy Gale era since it often involved standard criminal goings-on. An organization that deals in scare tactics for hire would be a typical opponent to overcome. However, the course of the plot does not completely conform to the majority of Gale episodes. The Gale era, with its greater emphasis on realism, tended to have stories and characters that were morally gray. In particular "The Frighteners" seems to highlight this. More noticeable is the focus on the characters as opposed to the mission. We have a rich father hiring this group to scare off a fortune hunter who is after his young daughter. More attention is drawn to them and their conflict. A fair amount of time is devoted to showing the father as a cold and ruthless man and the suitor as a mercenary predator. By the end of the episode, the girl is in absolute misery despite being saved from a cad.
On the other hand, dealing with the organization is surprisingly straightforward and relatively quick. What's also unusual is Dr. Keel's involvement. From the progression of the script, we see why Steed wants Keel on the case. The particulars of the mission rightly appeal to Keel's profession and character. Steed knew there would be a fight and he needed the help of a physician with one of the henchman. But Steed only wants him to help acquire information; he is not interested in having the doctor help him round up the ring, despite the fact Keel is shown to be a capable fighter and resourceful. Steed uses the regular authorities to capture the head of the gang and does so swiftly. Further, Steed gets upset with Dr. Keel when the good doctor went out on his own to confront the villains. He even comments on the danger he put himself in.
The above observations bring up two aspects concerning the evolution of the show. First, this early version of Steed, although bearing his signature charm and even a bowler some of the time, is much less manipulative and exploiting than the one who deals with Cathy Gale, Venus Smith and Dr King. There is definitely more care and concern to use Dr. Keel, at least in this case, for no more than required. That indicates a little more professionalism. The story also presents Keel as having a more independent relationship from Steed as well. He coerces one of the goons on his own and confronts the main villain without first checking with Steed. He also resolves the situation with the girl without any real help from Steed. One wonders if Steed would have bothered to help her. The second issue is the overall direction of the show. Again, if "The Frighteners" as well as the Dr King episodes exemplify the Keel series, then there is a definite line of progression from a gritty crime thriller to a surrealistic adventure satire. The Keel episode seems to possess a greater sense of realism than even the Gale series. It begs the question what initiated the eventual shift in this direction. Might it have been sparked by the introduction of Cathy Gale herself?
The technical quality of the episode is typical of a "taped live" shows, with its camera errors. The touches of Peter Hammond come through clearly though. It is worth commenting that he exercises much more restraint in using reflections than in some of his Gale episodes. The two times he uses that trademark is very effective in the narrative as well as a shot through a birdcage. What's more striking and atmospheric is the application of lighting in some close-up scenes in the villain's headquarters and in the first scene with Steed and Keel in a taxi.
The episode is not without its flaws. Hendry does mumble his lines on occasion and could use better enunciation. There are also times when the microphones don't seem to be working in certain spots. Not to mention the camerawork, which results in close-up shots being too close and parts of the actors' faces get cut off.
As stated earlier, the show is morally very gray and sad. While the frighteners are out of business and lives are saved, the girl is left hurt and her perceived chance at happiness ruined. We can only hope Keel and his nurse Carol can be a source of comfort, since she really has no one else she can turn to.
It is frankly a pleasure to appreciate The Avengers at a time wherein fantasy, charm and sophistication were yet to come, and Steed's female partners existed only in the dreams of creators Newman and White. Those were the times of the plain cop-spy show, starred by the gentle doctor and the licentious spy—although this spy, already sporting his trademark bowler hat and umbrella, still was the eternal "second best" in the cast list.
Set in the typical scenery that soon would become so familiar to us, "The Frighteners" in fact does not differ much from the Mrs Gale seasons, at least, in terms of music, sounds, set-ups, poorly arranged fights and archival footage of the streets of London. The videotape did its best, and everything else, without any doubt, lay in the scripts and the actors' performances.
It is not necessary, at this point, to speak in detail about Patrick Macnee's role when for so many people, Steed is an icon to The Avengers. Suffice it to say that Patrick's participation in the show deserved an encouraging comment as early as in 1961, making his total competence to remain in the sets during the subsequent years, if it was the case, utterly unquestionable. The most clever, sharp lines of dialogue already belonged to his character: "I'm suffering from the disability of public school education," declares Steed as he rushes into the shop where the crooks hid their headquarters. And of course, he not only discusses the case with his partner in a taxi, but also ends the episode having a drink, although this time it's only a brandy and soda...
In fact, Ian Hendry does not remain in the background. With his soft voice that at times sounds a little monotonous, Dr Keel makes it obvious that he enjoys his spy or detective work (according to the case) as much as medicine. Also, he proves he's able to successfully use extortion methods to get information out of his "victims"—from brandishing a hypodermic filled with anything but acid, to lying to a killer patient assuring his neck is broken. This confirms that Keel also boasts of "his" technique. Far from his performance in The New Avengers' "To Catch a Rat," in which he acted the role of a tired, amnesiac man, Ian Hendry plays a character who leaves us eager to watch many more of his episodes. Pity reality cannot please us for the moment. But one thing is certain—Keel and Steed made a remarkable duo, that obviously didn't have the glamour the heterosexual pairs would have in the coming years, but indeed seemed to make of both a perfect male team in the vein of I Spy, The Wild Wild West or The Persuaders.
It is interesting to note that during the Keel season, the "rules" that would govern almost every episode of the following seasons (Peel and Tara King's, particularly) were not exactly observed—or possibly they weren't set yet. We were accustomed to not seeing dead women, black people or police officers. However "The Frighteners" shows these two latter with no trouble at all, and despite we never saw it, we should remember that Keel's fiancée was killed in the very first episode, "Hot Snow."
All performances in this clearly well rehearsed and directed episode, are also worthy of praise. No one, either from the cast or the crew, seems to make those bloopers that we would spot recurrently during the Cathy Gale era. And it is indeed "The Frighteners" one of the episodes where Dr Keel's secretary, played by actress Ingrid Hafner, makes an appearance in a role of frequent participation along this first season.
A true collectors' item for all genuine fans of the series, "The Frighteners" is an excellent proposal to immerse ourselves in that mysterious Dr Keel's world and to learn a little bit of it, if only for 50 minutes. An episode with no magic, no colors, no Avengerland... but a very good one, displaying its own brightness.
Forget-me-not?: After several viewings on scratchy VHS, it is good to see this on DVD at last. Some dialogue remains "grittily realistic" (i.e. mumbled and near-inaudible), but that is how it was acted. Steed and Keel's caustic asides shine through. Some flubbed lines and colliding cameras remind us this is 1961, but the story moves at an unexpectedly cracking pace and the plot crams in incident and twists, requiring a repeat viewing. This is not television for the hard-of-thinking; the audience is never talked down to.
The Avenged?: The only innocent in all this is Marilyn Weller. Her father, Sir Tom, wants to bestow 'the real frighteners' (a lengthy beating from hired thugs) on her would-be fiancé. Sir Tom is said to want the Deacon's boys to go as far as murder if necessary. This dark scenario allows Steed and Keel to revel in 'gallows humour': "Do you get a pension in your job?" smirks Keel as Steed contemplates returning to the fray.
Diabolical Masterminds?: There is viciousness behind the villainy, occasionally erupting. Philip Locke convinces as sinister razor-wielding gangster Moxon. At one point though, Steed brilliantly unnerves Moxon by faking sadism, and apparently threatens to use the hood's own razor to "shiv his blithering ear off" as soon as Keel leaves them alone together! One almost feels Steed means it... In turn, Keel gets tough with The Deacon, then spoils it by grilling misguided Sir Tom, who has already cut his ties with the Deacon and his kind.
The Avengers?: Steed has a bizarre string of informers; a flowerseller, a street-sweeper, a bus conductor, a restaurateur (Steed speaks fluent Neapolitan/Italian in two separate scenes). These help explain how he knows things which we never see him learn — such as the fact someone's hired The Deacon to beat up Jeremy in the first place, the "dirt" on Jeremy's past, and exactly which escort agency to infiltrate to take Marilyn to the ball! Steed must have a big budget for so many 'helpers', and for hogging the same taxi all evening.
Umbrella, Charm and a Bowler Hat?: The brolly is scarce or missing. Steed gets little chance to flirt; he pretends to be an ineffectual male escort, but only to get past Sir Tom. He whisks Marilyn off to a small party in Keel's garishly-decorated surgery, for her planned elopement with Jeremy. Steed charms the old flowerseller: "I'll bet you get off before you get home, with this in your buttonhole" she tells her 'real gentleman' as she bestows a carnation. Almost everyone gets called "ducky" at some point — seems to be an early 1960s thing. Finally, Steed gets convivial with "the Forces' Sweetheart of two World Wars", to Keel's wry amusement.
Bizarre?: There are one or two silly moments (Steed asking the parrot for a racing tip for "the Derby", rather too early to be a bowler-hat joke) but mostly they aid, rather than detract from, the 'thriller' atmosphere. And Steed's final gambit (sorry) is rather daft. For all its technical faults, this forms a good introduction to the videotaped shows. Three bowlers.
This is a piece of television history, isn't it? Season one Avengers, the real McCoy, the foundations for a legend. I should be kind, shouldn't I?
Sorry, can't do it. "The Frighteners" is rubbish.
How can I say that? Well, for a start, I'm afraid this is simply so far from the show I know and love, I can hardly believe its the same series. Even if you can overlook that, and just look at it as a production in its right, it's still no good.
The script is staggeringly corny (was this really made only four years before "The Town of No Return"? It feels more like forty years) and Ian Hendry is surprisingly lacking in any sort of charisma. Even Patrick Macnee is so low key as to be almost off the graph. Why do they mumble all their lines like that? There's simply no chemistry here.
On the plus side, designer Robert Fuest works wonders with an obviously tiny budget and director Peter Hammond shoots it well, demonstrating the eye for a neat camera angle which would become the hallmark of The Avengers and would cement his own career as one of British TV's great directors. Unfortunately, that's about it. For the most part, this is just a bore.
Something to be endured rather than enjoyed.
Plot: Good. A well-paced and intriguing story, but there was little to no element of suspense. Although everyone knows neither Steed or Keel will die, it is television, and it is nice to have them in such a situation where one loses oneself to believe they actually are in danger.
Humour: Good. "So, Keels rush in where Steeds and Angels fear to tread!"
Direction: OK. No one could have excellent cinematography under these conditions. One mistake I noticed was near the beginning of the episode when the camera bumps into something.
Acting: Good. Nice performances from Philip Gilbert, Doris Hare, Philip Locke, and Neil Wilson.
Music: Good. Although I like the Laurie Johnson theme slightly better than the Johnny Dankworth, the Dankworth theme fits these episodes wonderfully.
Miscellaneous: I was surprised to see a black man in a speaking role. Dr. Keel has a phone call near the beginning of this episode, which has no point as far as I can see. Steed's three contacts in this episode were interesting. Dr. Keel appears to be rather good at this business; for instance, the broken neck and witch-hazel scenes. It was a privilege to see this episode. It is well worth watching just for its rarity and historical value, as far as The Avengers is concerned.
Overall Rating: 8/10
materials copyrighted per their respective copyright holders.