09 April 2018 (released)
13 May 2018
This 1961 episode (Tunnel of Fear) from the very first series of what, for many, was best TV series ever has only recently 'come to light' from a private film collection. It should be pointed out, for those who don't know, that when people refer to the series being the best they are invariably referring to the series that began in 1965 with Diana Rigg and a completely different production ethic.
Patrick Macnee was, however, involved from the beginning although his character of John Steed became considerably smarter and far more polished in the later series. This first series is quite frankly not a patch on the later Albert Fennell/Brian Clemens episodes and it must be said is really for completists or AVENGERS ‘geeks’ only. One can only imagine this series produced by Leonard White was ahead of it's time in '61, now it looks pretty amateurish indeed and in many respects quite hard going. The writing has nothing of the quality of Clemens or Philip Levene. In fact, it may as well be a different series. Macnee played second fiddle here to Ian Hendry's Dr. David Keel although Steed is working for the government and Dr. Keel is invariably roped in.
Keel has a rather abrupt client rushing into his surgery, an emergency case who informs him his been knocked down by a hit and run driver. Keel administers a knockout sedative and finds a letter in the pocket of the injured man, one Harry Black (Anthony Bate), addressed to his mother. It would appear that Black has just escaped from a prison work gang by jumping out of a window. In the letter he states that he was framed for a robbery he didn't commit. Enter Steed who promptly makes a call to his pompous boss (not quite 'Mother') and gets the lowdown on Black. He was working at an amusement ground in Southend (of all places) and was imprisoned for stealing the takings. Keel is sent by Steed posing as a 'prison friend' unbeknownst to Keel, Steed is already 'working' there as an unconvincing turbaned barker for a scantily clad girlie show. Just how did Steed get a ‘job’ working as a barker at a fun fair so quickly? Harry's mum (Doris Rogers) also works there on a fruit stall. The place is under investigation – it would appear that secret information has been leaking out of the place and it all has to do with espionage. We need look no further than Harry's shady partner Maxie (a spivy Stanley Platt) operating the Ghost Train, a ‘red under the bed’ if ever there was one. Suffice to say it doesn’t take long for Keel and Steed – aided by Harry Brown – to infiltrate the subversive activities of the Communist spy ring… Maxie, is in fact, a member of a gang of enemy spies, headed by man called Wickram (John Salew) who looks and dresses like a high ranking civil servant. Harry was in Korea with this man who was captured by the enemy and in all probability 'brainwashed' and their friendship then ended. Inside the 'Tunnel of Fear' is a highly sophisticated computer used for collecting and transmitting messages - we know from the opening sequence when Wickram disappears there is something fishy going on in the Tunnel (the umbrella was a nice touch). Quite why Harry was framed is not altogether clear nor is it properly explained.
Hendry showed more depth than Macnee as an actor but his career was to be a tragic one cut short and ruined at an early age by alcohol. It is also ironic that during a fairground scene in this episode a fortuneteller reveals to Hendry’s character Keel: “Your future isn't worth this much”, holding up the note he's just given her.
Easily the most interesting of the Bonus material is the interview with John Dorney. A few years ago Dorney found himself in the position of adapting most of the 'lost' Hendry/Macnee episodes for audio productions. In most cases he had the original scripts to work from (he explains the difficulties here as regards Camera scripts and not having a great deal to work from). In the case of 'Tunnel of Fear', he actually had no script to work from at all, just a few storylines - but he did have a huge amount of photographic stills and he pieced together his audio script mainly from these. As this episode only recently turned up from a technical point of view it very interesting to compare Dorney's radio script (also a featured extra) to the original aired episode.
The interviews from the time with Hendry and Macnee are somewhat disappointing. The usually excellent Johnny Dankworth's theme music is not one his better scores. Laurie Johnson's stuff hit exactly the right note in the later series. Interesting but really for collectors only.