5.13: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station
Continuing a strong mid-season run, Brian Clemens rejigs one of the dissenting (and departing) Roger Marshall’s scripts (hence “Brian Sheriff”) and follows in the steps of the previous season’s The Girl from Auntie by adding a topical-twist title (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum came out a year earlier). If this is one of those stories where you know from the first who’s doing what to whom, the actual mechanism for the doing is a strong and engaging one, and it’s pepped considerably by a supporting cast including one John Laurie (2.11: Death of a Great Dane, 3.2: Brief for Murder).
Helping things along is director John Krish (5.2: Escape in Time, 5.7: The Living Dead), in his last contribution to the show. He makes the most of the episode’s solitary location sequence, a teaser that finds Lucas (Michael Nightingale) – “rather corpulent, not much hair” – pursued through railyard sidings before hiding himself on a carriage. The surprise here is that the hunted man turns the tables, strangling one of his assailants with an old school tie.
The inventiveness of the set up carries onto the studio set (very much in keeping with the manufactured Englishness of the season to date, although it’s difficult to believe it’s supposed to be a mere four years since the Chase Halt station was last used), with Lucas en route for Norborough. He disembarks at what he assumes is the correct stop, only to find a derelict station, the Chase Halt hidden beneath Norborough’s. Inevitably, this means curtains for him.
We assume his gentlemanly decision not to remain in a carriage with newlyweds will contribute to his demise, and this is merely underlined when the Groom (Drewe Henley, Red Leader in Star Wars) and Bride (Isla Blair, who should need no introduction, but was celebrated for her appearance in The Final Cut and less so for The King’s Demons; she also played adjudicate Sinofar in Blake’s 7 Season One story Duel) turn out to be in cahoots with his pursuers. The Ticket Collector (a marvellously convivial James Hayter) too, culminating in the Groom shooting Lucas in the back as a train rushes by. Indeed, Henley gives a particularly enthused performance when it comes to killing, and more especially Tommy-gunning.
Cartney: After all, your women readers really want the same thing as the Admiralty.
Mrs Peel: They do?
Cartney: More able-bodied men.
The villains’ ethos is obscure (a “splinter group” of “fanatics“: say no more) and their methods not that fascinating, with Salt (Tim Barrett, 1.25: Change of Bait) photographing top secret documents held by Admiral Cartney (Richard Caldicot, Commander in The Prisoner‘s Many Happy Returns) and delivering them to The Ticket Inspector on microdots stored in his ticket.
Hence, a rather suspicious collection of stubs in his desk drawer at work. They plan to blow up the Prime Minister when he uses the line, via a bomb under his chosen seat (4/7/67), which is a little more memorable.
Ticket Inspector: It’s for me, really. A coup is not a coup without someone to see it.
Steed: Well, I shan’t be able to applaud.
Ticket Inspector: The look in your eyes is enough. We, that is I, am going to blow up your Prime Minister.
Steed: How do you know which way I voted?
Of which, one assumes Harold Wilson wasn’t too popular with Brian Clemens (tax man issues, no doubt), as he makes several pops at him via Steed – well, he could hardly be expected to vote Labour – who disappears around the halfway mark, having been held at gunpoint by Salt. The coda rather rubs this in, with Steed and Mrs Peel forgoing the chance of honours (an OBE, or Sir John Steed and Dame Emma) when the PM shows up outside, on the basis that he’s a bore:
Steed: A speech. A long speech.
Mrs Peel: Did you vote for him?
Steed: Did you?
Mrs Peel: Let’s… pretend we’re out?
Steed’s captivity is spent principally with the Ticket Inspector (“Never mind. You may be losing a carriage, but he’ll be gaining a bomb“), who makes a very affable terrorist:
Ticket Inspector: Another five miles, Mrs Steed, and then…
Steed: Pop goes the diesel?
Ticket Inspector: Very droll.
Mrs Peel is mainly paired with Crewe (Laurie), and Rigg seems genuinely enthused to be sharing screen time with the old rascal. Crewe is a train buff, living in signal box just down the line and behaving as if the abandoned station is his (he dreams of having his own, bigger station). It turns out he was looking for an 1892 Jubilee edition water cistern, which caused him to miss the last train on the night Lucas went missing (“Had to take a bus. A bus!“).
Crewe: Dear Mrs Peel. It’s terribly dangerous, you know, to lean out of a train while it is in motion.
Later, he’s incensed by the Groom’s destructive tendencies (“If I can just lay my hands on the villains who shot up my signal box!“), and in the best part of the episode, he joins forces with Emma aboard the train to foil the assassination plot. Laurie is comedy gold, acting casual while the Ticket Inspector approaches, or tailing him and ducking into a cabin when he turns, where sits on the lap of an old lady. He also rescues Emma from toppling out of a carriage with the defeated Groom, and later allows Emma to engage in the majority of the fisticuffs – more of an exercise in hurling crockery – as he cowers and eats a cracker from the restaurant car cart… before obligingly hitting a bad girl on the head with tea tray (afterdisabling her with a table cloth).
Ticket Inspector: Salt’s camera had a film in it.
The Bride:Very practical place to keep film, I’d say.
Everyone here gets nice little moments. Even nondescript Bart (John Doye), whose attempt to kill Steed backfires somewhat, leaving him dead on the living room floor (“You really must have a word with the cleaning lady” tuts Emma, entering moments later). The Bride delivers several witticisms and has an inevitable tussle with Emma (she ends up on the topmost luggage rack). Warren (Dyson Lovell) from the Special Branch shows up at Chase Halt all “need to know” but identifies the noises recorded by Steed’s umbrella – it seems a good agent always leaves behind an item to identify themselves when they’re in perilous circumstances – as the Mark V tapping code (cue lots of “diddly dums” and “chaddley dahs”).
Steed delivers a dreadful pun when he disconnects the pipe to which he’s handcuffed and the room is duly fogged (“There’s no need to get steamed up“). And, in conclusion, Emma accidentally presses the button to detonate the bomb… but Steed has already removed the wires. Crewe’s desire to pull the communication chord (“I’ve always wanted to do this!“), meanwhile, meets with disappointingly no response. As for the invitation to action, a trainset carries a “MRS PEEL” card, with Steed appearing to announce “We’re needed“.