Girl on the Trapeze
The genesis of The Avengers has long been a matter for conjecture, as the vast majority of the first episodes have been lost, probably forever. Until recently, only a single entry, "The Frighteners" remained. This episode offered some detail on the relationship between John Steed and his first partner, Dr David Keel, but the other regular Season One character, Carol Wilson, the nurse at Keel's practice, barely featured. "The Frighteners" was intriguing, but left the viewer wanting more.
For many years, that's how it remained. Until one day in April 2001, when Dave Wood, a vintage television enthusiast, decided to conduct an online search of the various film and television archives, many of which are now published on the internet. In the archives of the UCLA in California, Wood tracked down an episode of The Avengers that was so rare that it was never even though to have been recorded in the first place (it was reputed to have transmitted live, without recourse to videotape or film). This episode was "Girl on the Trapeze," the sixth episode in the series, notable for not featuring John Steed, or even mentioning him. Instead, Keel is partnered by Carol Wilson.
Almost every year since 1993, the British Film Institute has hosted a "Missing Believed Wiped" event at the National Film Theatre in London, where recovered television material has been screened to audiences of vintage television enthusiasts. Hopes were high in 2001 that the event would feature the first public screening of "Girl on the Trapeze", but unfortunately, the print was not at that time available for the BFI to include in the programme of events. It is said though, that the best things are worth waiting for, and "Girl on the Trapeze" proved no exception, and it was shown in the 2002 "Missing Believed Wiped" event on 30th November. Along with my wife and several friends, I was lucky enough to get a ticket to the event, which was held in two sessions. The Avengers headlined the second session, which was completely sold out.
I won't go into detail about the content of the episode, as I'm sure that readers will want to discover the episode without too many preconceptions and there's nothing worse than having someone spoil something that you're really looking forward to seeing. I'll stick therefore to generalisations, and keep this review spoiler free. I'm sure that the first question anyone would ask me would be, "was it any good?" - well, I can honestly say that it was excellent. Anyone who tells you that The Avengers didn't get going until Season Two and Cathy Gale is now on very dodgy ground. The other existing episode, "The Frighteners" is extremely good, and this one is, if anything, even better. The action is pacy, the story compelling and well told. The fifty minutes of "Girl on the Trapeze" simply flew by, the first two acts gone in a blink of an eye, or so it seemed.
"Girl on the Trapeze" is of course fascinating from the point of view of the seasoned Avengers fan because Steed plays no part in it (although Patrick Macnee still receives his usual credit in the opening titles), and oddly, you don't miss him. Ian Hendry as Dr. David Keel is more than capable of carrying the show and it is easy to see why he was hot property at the time. He works extremely well in tandem with Ingrid Hafner, playing Carol Wilson, and it is great to see her get a bigger piece of the action than she does in "The Frighteners". In fact, there is one sequence which marks her out as something of a prototype Avengers girl, where she is involved in a bit of subterfuge, ending up in her having to fight and subdue one of the female villains. (And, in true Season One style, hypodermics play a major part!) My vote for Carol Wilson as an Avengers girl has definitely gone in now...
The relationship between Keel and Carol is particularly intriguing. There certainly appears to be more going on than a purely professional alliance. There is a chemistry and familiarity between the pair and the flirty, knowing looks they trade lead you to think that they have become closer since Keel's fiancée was murdered in "Hot Snow". Or maybe I was reading too much into two actors having what was clearly a terrific working relationship that flowed over into the production?
The circus setting is not particularly over-stressed (and, despite Hendry's circus background, he doesn't perform any circus stunts). There are a few stock-footage inserts of the action in the circus ring, but most of the action takes place "backstage". The episode doesn't suffer for this particularly, though the crowd sequences (shot in the studio, reacting to the filmed inserts) occasionally look a little forced. There is also some terrific night-time location footage early in the episode, shot on the Thames riverside and on one of the central London bridges. When the DVD comes out, I'm sure there will be many would-be location-spotters trying to work out which one! (And I'll probably be one of them!)
Acting is of a generally high standard, with notable performances coming from Avengers stalwarts, Kenneth J. Warren and Edwin Richfield. Also worthy of mention is Howard Goorney as Superintendant Lewis, on paper a stereotypical character, but played with insight and humour. Lewis seems in constant fear that he is coming down with the 'flu, and these little comic, real life touches give him more depth and appeal than your average 'second fiddle' character.
Don Leaver's direction is as slick as the production process would allow. Videotaped drama from the 1960s can, particularly from a modern standpoint, seem dreadfully slow and often slipshod, but "Girl on the Trapeze" is very deftly planned and executed. There are no unfortunate 'blooper' moments, and the potentially confusing plot is relayed effortlessly and in an entertaining fashion. A couple of extras don't seem to know what they're meant to be doing, but this is a minor point which distracts only for an instant. A reminder of the spontaneous nature of these recordings.
I'm sure that there was always the worry that because of the long wait since the episode was located and the level of expectation surrounding it, "Girl on the Trapeze" might have been a phenomenal disappointment once finally viewed. When a missing episode is recovered, there is no guarantee that it will actually have been worth finding. Fortunately, in the case of "Girl on the Trapeze", it is not only probably better than many of the later videotaped episodes of The Avengers that are currently available to buy, but it is also a fascinating historical document. It gives Avengers aficionados the chance to get to know David Keel and Carol Wilson so much better and gives a further insight into the first year of the series which until now has been shrouded, "The Frighteners" aside, in mystery. I feel privileged to have been among the first Avengers fans to have seen this remarkable episode and I hope that it will be available for all to see in the very near future. Bring on "Hot Snow"!
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