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The 'home invasion' thriller has become a staple of pop culture since
the sixties. Hollywood alone has spun out as many variations on the
theme as it can collectively imagine, from the classy (Panic Room) to
the risible (Firewall). Frank Sinatra in 'Suddenly' arguably initiated
the recognisable sub-genre - with Michael Haneke's 'Funny Games', it
reached a horrific climax.
The conventions are easily identified. A gang of ruthless criminals break into the home of a happy family, disrupting their lives and taking them hostage. As a rule, they are told t sit tight and behave themselves whilst the villains get on with their scheme - often involving the expertise of one of the parents (usually Daddy). However, the family fights back and overcome their opponents (The horror of Haneke's film is the way it undermines almost all of these conventions). The form may be the principle modern morality play about the need for family unity and the repulsion of outsiders.
'The Avengers', inevitably, has its own particular twist on this familiar tale. The gang in this case are a cultivated bunch, scrupulously polite and tasteful. They don't use violence to gain access to the house - in fact, they don't even use outright trickery. Instead, they rely on the good manners of their prospective hosts and a little verbal ambiguity. They know that this upper-middle class couple and their faithful servant will comply with them up to a certain point rather than rudely demand to know who they are - in fact, they will help them carry in their luggage.
This is very much a tale about snobbery and etiquette; Bill and Laura are the middle class victims of upper class killers, and the killers know it. Just as the villains utilise politeness to gain access to the house, they threaten and order their hostages about in the manner of an etiquette lesson. When Steed arrives unexpectedly and starts causing trouble, they take him out on a game shoot (arranging for an accident to occur, of course), the sport of the upper classes, not the nouveau riche. The criminals waste no time in finding fault with their hostages' taste, determined to prove themselves superior to their helpless victims. Does it trouble their consciences less to terrorise the tasteless? Sexton can barely contain his contempt for the coffee he finds in the house - surely such a rich couple could afford something better? Circe doesn't like the curtains, and Grenville criticises Bill's terror itself - hysteria is hardly the correct behaviour for a man. In every way, this rich couple are found to be 'non-U', and thus fair game for the impeccable Grenville's team. This is why Steed's victory over Grenville in the party game is so provocative - he has proved himself more discerning in an important field (classical music)than his opponent. Being able to distinguish whale bone from ivory by sound alone sets Steed above Grenville - hardly surprising, as Steed has always been depicted by the series as the ultimate gentleman. Grenville seems loathe to admit any flaws in his own character - note the way he stresses that leaving out Steed's bowler and umbrella where Tara could see them is less of an error than her letting him observe that she has seen him.
Circe, a sorceress who bound men to her will by turning them into pigs, is reconceived here as a surgeon, who binds men to Grenville's will by inserting bombs into their throats. Hillary Pritchard's ostentatiously eccentric performance (matched perfectly to an ostentatiously eccentric character) marries the two, as she floats around after dinner in a blue dress. She uses plastic surgery to change her own form, growing bored with her own noses. As motivations go, it's certainly unique.
Elizabeth Sellars is at the other end of the scale, perhaps the most realistically written and played character since Honor Blackman left the series. She must have a hidden sense of whimsy, however - the vintage car in the hallway she decorated is a surreal touch.
There are no children in this family, a fact that is never alluded to. Sergeant Groom is the closest thing that Bill and Laura have, and he's bumped off ten minutes in. Most 'home invasion' stories rely on threats to the children to both subdue parents and ultimately motivate them to fight back. There can be no fighting back here, however - not with a bomb inside the hostage's body; a new level of invasiveness, a microcosmic reiteration of the main plot. There is a real and unique sense of violation in this episode.
If there is a flaw amid all these new found hard edges, it's that they make the tag scene seem rather tasteless. By this point, however, the series seemed to have forgotten how to leave our screens each week with a charming grace note any way, so this is par for the course. Certainly, it doesn't take much away from the best latter-day episode of the series.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
'Take-Over', written by Terry Nation, is without doubt one of the
finest episodes of the Thorson series, even though poor Linda hardly
features in it! It begins with a Rolls Royce moving through open
countryside. No, it is not Steed's, but belongs to one Fenton Grenville
( Tom Adams ). Also in the car is a man with a gun trained on him. The
car stops, both Grenville and the driver leave. The man tries to get
away. Grenville casually takes a lighter from his pocket, and flicks it
on. The running man stops, clutching his throat in agony. A wisp of
smoke pours forth. He drops down dead. Looking pleased with themselves,
the villains drive off.
Steed is planning on spending a weekend in the country with a pair of old friends - Bill Basset ( Michael Gwynn ) and wife Laura ( Elisabeth Sellars ). He arrives to find Grenville in residence, along with two other men ( Garfield Morgan and Keith Buckley ) and a strange young woman called Circe Bishop ( Hilary Pritchard ).
Grenville shares Steed's love of music and art and hunting. Steed suspects something is wrong. Searching the house, he finds Sergeant Groom ( John Comer ) - the Basset's manservant - dead inside a cupboard. Grenville has planted phosphor bombs in the Basset's throats, which can be detonated by the gadget contained within his lighter. He has taken over the house as he wishes to assassinate foreign Ministers at a conference soon to take place at a nearby house...
The first thing to be said for 'Take-Over' is that it does not feel like your typical 'Avengers' episode - it is dark, claustrophobic, and lacks the camp humour the series was known for. The villains are a cultured lot - Grenville is as charming and sophisticated as Steed himself - and their verbal jousting is a joy to watch. Its hard to imagine them as Russian spies, one presumes they want to carry out the assassination out of misguided patriotism. Tom Adams is excellent as 'Grenville'; he had played British agent 'Charles Vine' in three low-budget Bond spoofs, and later appeared in 'Spy Trap' and 'The Enigma Files'. But stealing the show is the lovely ( and alas deceased ) Hilary Pritchard as 'Circe'. The woman is a genius, but also psychotic, not to mention rather vain. Pritchard gives Circe a beguiling child-like quality; for instance, when she overhears the Bassets plotting to escape, she sings: "I'm going to tell on you!". Later we see her cutting letters out of a newspaper so that when it is held up the word 'BANG!' can be seen. It is a shame the actress - used mainly as crumpet fodder in shows like Frankie Howerd's 'Whoops Bagdad' - did not get more roles like this.
Robert Fuest lets his imagination run riot, coming up with some extraordinary visuals, some of the best in the show's history.
'Take-Over' is a tour-de-force, brilliantly written, acted and directed. A pity the costume department did not find Garfield Morgan a better wig though. At times he strongly resembles Bernard Bresslaw.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Steed and Tara are due some holiday time so she decides to do a spot of
sailing in the Channel while he is planning to visit some old friends
in the country and get some shooting in
of course things don't go
quite as planned. A group of criminals have taken over the house of
Steed's friends and placed small explosive devices in their necks
they don't do what they are told the charges will be detonated. The
group, consisting of three men and a woman have not stated why they
have taken over the house but it is clear that it they intend to remain
there for some time. When Steed arrives he wishes everybody a happy
Christmas, which is a little odd as it is February
the reason is
explained though. He soon senses that there is something wrong with his
friends' other guests but nothing he can put his finger on. They are
keen to get rid of Steed so it isn't the local pheasants that will be
in danger when a morning's shooting is proposed!
This is a fairly atypical episode; there isn't the usual campness and for most of the episode Tara in nowhere to be seen. Instead we get a very claustrophobic feel as Steed's friends, Bill and Laura Bassett are held prisoner in their own home and after their servant is killed they realise their captors aren't to be trifled with. The tension rises further when Steed arrives and when they go out for their shoot Steed looks genuinely concerned for his safety and even a little ruffled. The villains are frightening; not because they are always yelling at their captors; indeed they are frightening because they are almost polite I say almost as it is clear that they are contemptuous of the Bassetts after all what sort of person drinks instant coffee?! Tom Adams is suitably unpleasant as Fenton Grenville, the leader of the villains and Hilary Pritchard in memorable as Circe Bishop; the inventor of the 'throat bombs'. When we learn of their intentions it isn't too far-fetched a plan to assassinate various dignitaries at a site visible from the Bassett's upper windows. Overall I really enjoyed this episode although people hoping for a typically surreal episode may be a little disappointed.
"Take-Over" is a curious episode, a throwback to the quiet intensity of earlier seasons, the last of 5 scripted by Terry Nation, and the last of 7 directed by Robert Fuest. This may explain the return of Tom Adams, not seen since 1961's first season ("Death on the Slipway" and "The Far-Distant Dead"), who toplines as cultured villain Fenton Grenville, whose entourage invades a quiet country home for the purpose of sabotage. Enter the unexpected presence of John Steed, who celebrates Christmas every February with his hosts, soon learning that both are in mortal danger, with Tara making her entrance late in the proceedings. Despite the distinct lack of humor (and music), the verbal sparring between Steed and Grenville make this the last truly great entry. Hammer veteran Michael Gwynn (1958's "The Revenge of Frankenstein" and 1970's "Scars of Dracula") plays the harried host, Elizabeth Sellars is his wife, and Garfield Morgan ("The Fear Merchants" and "Game") wears shades again as Grenville's culinary cohort.
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