3.24: Esprit de Corps
If the final Cathy Gale outing doesn’t make for the most indelible departing shot, this penultimate instalment is one that can stand proud. Although, while Cathy has a decent role (as the next in line to the Stuart throne, no less), it’s Steed who wins the best plot line, paired with the wonderful Roy Kinnear and presented to a firing squad.
Kinnear would show up three more times, including in the series finale, a sign that they were fond of a certain kind of comic turn that underlined the show’s inimitability (see also John Laurie). Here he’s the wayward Private Jessop, member of a Highland Guards regiment led by Brigadier General Sir Ian Stuart-Bollinger (Duncan Macrae, the Doctor/Napoleon in The Prisoner’s Dance of the Dead). The Brigadier General, in soon-to-be-classic Avengers nutter style, is planning to put a Stuart on the British throne by way of an armed insurrection. Unfortunately, his son, whom he has calculated is the rightful heir, has no interest in the job, content with life as a bookmaker in Halifax (“We never should have sent him to Eton”).
In what looks dire convenience but is revealed ultimately to be Cathy cooking the records, it turns out that Mrs Gale is runner-up for the throne (which rather begs the question, what of the coup plans if she hadn’t showed up?) and will be crowned Queen Anne the Second. Naturally, she also knows everything there is to know about the history of World War I. She must be really boring at parties.
Her best scenes find her playing against John Thaw’s Captain Trench (Thaw, a mere slip of a 23-year-old, could easily have passed for ten years older, even then). This is an episode of memorable performances, but Thaw, oozing menace and barely suppressed rage (“ruthless, ambitious, and completely untrustworthy”), walks off with the honours.
There’s a fair crackle of energy in his scenes with Blackman, and it makes you wish, at this late stage, she’d had more opponents with such presence and physicality that you’d wonder if she’d best them; as it is, there’s a memorable scene where they spar in the gym, and Trench begins to actually strangle her. While she disengages him (“Now that’s what I call the true Highland spirit, lass” applauds the Brigadier General), it’s a moment filled with real tension. Of which, in the climactic fight, it looks as if the squaddie who goes for her nearly takes her out as he tumbles on the staircase.
Thaw’s effective in a different kind of way against Macnee, his pugilistic fervour bouncing off Steed’s unflappable gentility. He’s questioning Steed’s cover from the off, on to his making things up about wartime exploits (“Were you there, young man?” Steed dismisses airily), and takes particularly relish in rumbling him, upon which he is summarily tried and sentenced. Albeit, the Brigadier General is more disposed towards Steed’s arguments than Trench’s during the trial, and Steed casually throws in mockery of Trench’s accent (“Now hold on, it hasn’t been proved that I did raise the ala-rum”) before the incriminating spy camera is presented.
Steed: When the bugle sounds, duty calls and there I am.
Cathy: Oh well, if you feel that way, you might as well reenlist.
Steed: No, I’m waiting for a national emergency for that.
Macnee’s having a grand old time, making a labour of hanging out at the launderette but then switching from charm offensive to steely when he confronts proprietor Mrs Craig (Pearl Catlin), whose husband was shot in the first scene; the further twist, in which she reveals she knows all about her hubby’s demise (“He was a traitor”) is also effective.
Steed: Look, if you’re going to open that, you’d better be quick. I’m going to be shot in half an hour.
The best interaction is with Kinnear’s Private Jessop, however, from sympathetically rolling his eyes during Steed’s trial, to apologising over the sorry menu for the prisoner’s last meal (“What sort of officer’s mess is this?” Steed complains, observing that the poor-quality champagne will ruin the pheasant), to Steed’s continued attempts at bribery (Jessop offers to merely wing Steed rather than execute him; the latter replies, ‘That’s very thoughtful of you’). Noting Steed is considering an escape attempt, Jessop comments “If you’re thinking of going through that window, sir. I’m fifteen stone. It’s electrified”.
That there’s no last-minute rescue is also an effective twist, although writer Eric Paice, in his last and best teleplay for the series, wisely doesn’t labour how Steed survived (he bribed all of them to miss; Jessop received his best diamond tiepin for his pains). There’s a further neat development as the Brigadier-General apparently gives up Trench, professing to have been working to expose a plot; this is itself a ruse to ensure the whole regiment is armed, with the full backing of the War Office.
Cathy: Those lineage charts were fake, general.
Steed: Thank goodness for that.
It appears that Steed wasn’t aware of Cathy’s ploy with the lineage, which makes a change since it tends to be him not apprising her; this also yields a number of amusing quips on his part (“Could have applied to you for a royal pardon” he suggests, having gone through the ordeal of a firing squad). One of the best of the third season.