REVIEW: The Avengers – Epic

  • Broadcast: April 1st, 1967
  • Character: Stewart Kirby

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PETER as Stewart Kirby.

As the story opens, the camera focuses upon a life-size movie promotional poster for “The Bad, Bad Lady” starring actress Damita Syn, shown dressed in glamorous, but long outdate attire. Standing beside the poster is Miss Syn in the identical dress and elegant pose. The camera pans to an immense and impressive trophy, which had been awarded in the past to film director/producer Z. Z. von Schnerk, and then to another old promotional poster for a movie starring Stewart Kirby, entitled “Sophisticated Scoundrel.” Stewart Kirby (PETER WYNGARDE) is seated on the couch–a rather distinguished, laid-back looking fellow, with flowing silver hair, dressed in a smoking jacket and passively enjoying his pipe and a glass of wine. A third gentleman is standing before Z.Z. von Schnerk and Damita who appear to be sizing him up for a movie part. When they ask Stewart for his opinion of the actor for the “non- speaking” part, he sedately steps up to the man, puts on his glasses, peers directly into the actor’s eyes, and agrees, although he drolly comments that the actor is “a bit tall.” A “screen test” is called for, and without a word, Stewart pulls a pistol, s hoots and kills the actor with one shot. “Non-speaking,” chides Damita as the moaning actor falls to the floor.

Across town, dapper investigator John Steed arrives at Mrs Emma Peel’s home just in time to find her leaving to meet an unknown contact. She explains to Steed that she has just received a phone call whereby an anonymous caller has asked to meet her on Fitzroy Lane, stating that it was urgent.

Parked on a rural country lane, Steed and Mrs Peel await the rendezvous with the mysterious caller. Soon an old Preacher comes peddling along on a bicycle and politely tips his hat as he passes the car. “False alarm,” says Mrs Peel, who does not see the Preacher stop to make an adjustment to the parcel in his basket–a parcel that appears to conceal a camera. Returning to her apartment, she plays the tape of the mysterious caller for Steed. The voice is strong and masculine; the words spoken with the eloquence, articulation and enunciation of a trained Shakespearean actor. The caller insisted that he had to see her, to meet him five tenths of a mile down Fitzroy Lane . . . it’s life and death, Mrs Peel . . . I must see you.” Since Mrs Peel is about to go visit a friend, Steed makes a dinner date with Mrs Peel for six o’clock that evening.

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At the derelict von Schnerk studios, the three “has-beens” view a film–the one just taken by the Preacher (also known as Stewart Kirby) of Mrs Peel and Steed on Fitzroy Lane. Z.Z. is ecstatic–he has found his “leading lady” for his newest film endeavour, to be titled “The Destruction of Emma Peel.”

A mysterious gloved hand is seen cutting a wire in Mrs Peel’s car engine, and when it next fails to start for her, a taxi coincidentally pulls up at the same time. Conveniently, Mrs Peel directs the moustachioed, bespectacled cabbie (a.k.a. Stewart Kirby) to her destination, but soon realizes she is being kidnapped as gas seeps into the rear compartment. Behind locked gates and an electric fence, Stewart unloads Mrs Peel w ho eventually awakes on a living room floor. Puzzled, she begins to explore what turns out to be a movie studio set.

In a scene of deja vu, she stumbles upon what looks like her own car, which still won’t start; and the same taxi reappears with the familiar cabbie politely tipping his hat to her as he drives past. Next a black limousine, the peeling of wedding bells, a contrived gale-force wind, a blowing a wedding vale, and an engraved invitation to the wedding of Mrs Peel set the stage for her next, almost dream-like encounter. She ponders the invitation with some amusement until she spies a familiar-looking Preacher, standing at the top of a hill, beckoning her onward. When she reaches the top of the hill, the Preacher pushes her over backwards and she rolls down the hill where she finds herself in a graveyard. Each headstone is inscribed with her name–R.I.P Emma Peel. Behind the wheel of a hearse, the undertaker (a.k.a. Stewart Kirby), who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Preacher, calls out, “Mrs Peel . . . we’re waiting for you,” then slowly drives away.

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Continuing her exploration of the studio, Mrs Peel discovers the body of the unfortunate actor killed by Kirby–propped up in a director’s chair marked “John Steed.” She hears a woman’s voice and soon finds Damita, dressed like a Queen, seated on a throne, and knitting. In a dramatic entrance, a gladiator bursts onto the scene and shouts to Mrs Peel, “Leave her alone . . . I told you before, stay away from Mother!” In a touching scene of reunion, Damita calls to him, “Alexander.” Alexander (a.k.a. Stewart Kirby) falls before her, “Mother, mother,” he cries. When she asks him how went the war, he exclaims, “It was hell, Mother, the noise, the people . . . and how has my wicked little sister been behaving, Mother?” “She’s evil,” replies the Queen. “Shall we be rid of her, Mother?” “Yes,” she responds, and Alexander attacks and tries to strangle Mrs Peel. Emma Peel, however, is playing for real, and gets a few good licks to her opponent before the Queen hits her with a sword and knocks her unconscious. Stewart is looking slightly frazzled from his pounding by Mrs Peel.

Bizarre encounters with a variety of characters continue for what are now obviously scenes for Z. Z. von Schnerk’ s newest film extravaganza. Armed with a six-shooter, Emma’s next showdown is with a gunslinger (a.k.a.–you guessed it, Stewart Kirby!) in an Old West saloon. After downing a shot of whiskey, he drawls, “Tell you what . . . give you three seconds . . . get out of town. “Catching on to the game, Mrs Peel anticipates the action, and guns down her opponent. “Beautiful, perfect . . . this picture will be my ultimate masterpiece” proclaims Z.Z.. Wiping the sweat from his brow, Stewart staggers off the s et, exhausted.

“Meanwhile, back at the ranch,” John Steed arrives to pick up Mrs Peel for their date, and finding her gone, again listens to the voice on the tape recorder. Back at the von Schnerk studio, over a glass of wine, Stewart and Damita listen half-heartedly as Z.Z. proclaims that this picture would restore them to their former pedestals of glory.

Mrs Peel’s next encounters are with a German soldier (a.k.a. Stewart Kirby of course) wielding a machine gun, a horseman brandishing a sword (ineptly played by Damita), and Indians! As an Indian warrior rushes towards Mrs Peel, she shoots three times, and he falls three times, before she realizes she’s shooting blanks. The Indian (a.k.a. Stewart Kirby) physically attacks Mrs Peel who knocks him senseless before escaping into the back reaches of the studio. “You were supposed to win, Kirby,” shouts Z.Z. to a most dishevelled, exhausted and obviously frustrated Stewart. “Why didn’t you tell her that!” pants Stewart, his rich British accent out of character with his Indian costume. “Time for the climax . . . the real death of Emma Peel,” Z.Z. proclaims.

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As the wayward trio views the film thus far, it is obvious that Stewart Kirby has always gotten the worst of it during his encounters with Mrs Peel. “She’s an Amazon,” he exclaims . . . “I’m not a stunt man!” Meantime, Mrs Peel encounters a policeman patrolling the studio grounds and she leads him to the body, still in the director’s chair; however, the policeman turns out to be a film extra, an “artiste,” and not a real bobby. When Z.Z., Damita and Stewart discover the intruder, Z.Z. exclaims that the script didn’t call for a policeman. “Well, you’ve got one now,” states Stewart as he placidly sips his wine. “We’ll write him out, permanently,”announces Z.Z.

Soon the policeman and Emma Peel come face to face with a most sinister looking gangster armed with a machine gun. After some amusing banter, the gangster (yup, right again, a.k.a. Stewart Kirby) blows the cop away, permanently.

Back at Mrs Peel’s apartment, Steed finally remembers where he has heard the mysterious voice before as he recalls the famous “To be or not to be, that is the question” Shakespeare line as spoken by the once-famous actor Stewart Kirby.

Again Mrs Peel encounters Damita, now dressed as a southern belle, again sitting on her throne, knitting. A wounded Confederate soldier (yessuh, a.k.a. Stewart Kirby) staggers onto the scene and mustering his best southern accent, addresses Mrs Peel, “I told you before, stay away from Maw!” “Edgar . . . home from the war . . . was it so awful?” Damita asks. He replies, “It was hell, Maw, the noise, the people . . . those darn Yankees. How’s my baby sister been?” “She’s evil,” replies Damita. “I’ll kill her for you Maw . . . they taught me Maw, those darn Yankees, they taught me.” Emma Peel stands by in pleasant anticipation of yet another chance to whip her inept opponent in an almost identical scene as with the gladiator. Again Damita appears to knock out Mrs Peel with a sword, and the rumpled, bedraggled Stewart drags Mrs Peel off to prepare her for the final scene.

With Mrs Peel tied to a chair, Z.Z. introduces himself and reveals his intent, explaining that he is making a movie, perhaps a bit “down beat” but highly authentic because the heroine dies. “I will make you a star . . . posthumously,” he exclaims.

Having put the pieces of the puzzle together, John Steed arrives at the studio and carefully makes his way over the electric fence. He finds a copy of the movie script, “The Destruction of Emma Peel,” and then the body of the actor who is dressed in a suit and hat identical to his own.

Back inside the studio, the set is fitting of the finest horror movie classic–a torture chamber, buzz saw and Poe’s swinging pendulum. Mrs Peel helplessly awaits the final act, as a Dracula-like character, “Herr Doctor,” (a.k.a. Stewart Kirby) and his assistant, Natasha (a.k.a. Damita) approach their victim. “(I must) experiment on living tissue” proclaims the good doctor, “her death must have more poetry . . . it will take time and yet be inevitable. What do you think of that?”

“I think I’m in danger of becoming a split personality,” she calmly replies. Z.Z. stops the action. Stewart is now showing obvious signs of great physical stress and strain from the rigors of this movie; and, never being far from a bottle, thankfully takes a long swig from his pocket flask. Z.Z. orders the two out to fetch the corpse–unaware that the ” body” is now actually the very much alive John Steed. “You’re not feeling the part, Mrs Peel,” says Z.Z. as her chair moves closer to the blade. “I have a feeling I will be feeling it,” she says, eyeing the saw. Z.Z. calls for music then jumps to the nearby piano and strikes up a tune in the melodramatic style of a silent movie. The two wheel in the “live” body of John Steed who leaps into action. Stewart dons his glasses and aims a chair at Steed’s head, but it hits Damita instead. Steed catches Stewart, rips off his wig, removes his glasses, and knocks him out cold. Unfortunately, Z.Z. has a real gun; but during the brief struggle, he accidentally shoots himself and gasps with his dying breath, “Cut, print!”

The story has a happy ending, and Mrs Peel tells Steed the part she liked best in the movie was when Kirby tried to hit Steed over the head with a fake chair, and then demonstrated the act. Problem was, the chair she used was a real one, and Steed is k nocked out. The closing scene shows Mr s. Peel and Steed in a living room, trying to decide which movie to see that evening. Mrs Peel nixes the old Stewart Kirby flick, and they opt instead to go over to her place. With that, Mrs, Peel kicks down the wall of the living room, revealing that they are still on a movie set.

IN RETROSPECT:

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I had no pre-conceived expectation about my newest video acquisition–I’d never seen The Avengers, and the video sleeve gave little insight about the premise behind the series. Therefore, it was “cold turkey” for me as I settled down to view my first PETER WYNGARDE performance since Checkmate. (OK, I’ll confess I had seen Flash Gordon just three days before receiving Epic, but it’s hard to study a man in a mask!).

The opening credits led me to believe Epic was going to be a straightforward, private-eye sort of adventure story featuring a rather stuffy, proper Englishman and the obligatory attractive, rather passive, wimpy female assistant. Naturally, I was drawn immediately to Peter’s character, Stewart Kirby, a ” has-been” of the silver screen. His tasteless dark-framed glasses, smoking jacket, pipe and silver hair were befitting of an actor who had been put out to pasture–a man content to while away his days with his compatriot “has-been,” Damita Syn and a bott le of wine. Unfortunately, mad director/producer Z.Z. von Schnerk had other plans for the two–he would make a movie to restore them all to their former glory, “The Destruction of Emma Peel.” It soon became evident that the fun was about to begin.

There was no end to my pleasure and amusement as I watched Stewart Kirby try again and again to out-manoeuvre and conquer the crafty Mrs Peel (he reminded me of “Wile E. Coyote” of “Roadrunner” cartoon fame). In 53 minutes he portrayed ten different characters, including a preacher, cabbie, undertaker, gladiator, gunslinger, German soldier, Indian, gangster, Confederate (rebel) soldier, and a mad doctor. Some characters were played more seriously than others, with my personal favourite being the Confederate soldier. Being a “darn Yankee” that has spent the last twenty-five years in the Deep South (Mississippi), I was especially amused by PETER’s “Southern” accent–it was delightful. With each encounter with the far-from-wimpy Mrs Peel, Stewart became more and more bedraggled and haggard, a condition which may have been exacerbated by his obvious affinity to drink–like between every scene–I counted nine!

Patrick MacNee plays John Steed, a man who obviously entertains some personal feelings about his attractive cohort, but never calls her anything but “Mrs Peel” (played by Diana Rigg). His role is relatively insignificant in the story until his final daring rescue of Mrs Peel from von Schnerk’s buzz saw and the murderous mad doctor (who is dressed like Dracula and bears an uncanny resemblance to another rogue known only as No. 2) and his trusty assistant, Natasha. Of course, in the end, the dashing hero Steed foils the villains, and the heroine is snatched from the jaws of death just in the nick of time.

With the multitude of costume changes and the wide variety of characters, I suspect the filming of this episode really was an epic and just as physically demanding for MR WYNGARDE as it was for the fictitious Stewart Kirby. Overall, I found Epic to be wonderfully entertaining, face-paced and a delightfully charming way to become better acquainted with PETER’S acting versatility; and I am proud to add this video to my collection.

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The Hellfire Club: The OFFICIAL PETER WYNGARDE Appreciation Society: https://www.facebook.com/groups/813997125389790/

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