While it’s undoubtedly the case that The Avengers hit peak form with the Diana Rigg era (well, her first season anyway), there’s a lot of quality to spread round throughout. Which is why five of the six seasons make a showing in the Top Ten. You can find 139-71 here.
The Living Dead
(5.7) Another of the Season 5’s fake SF/fantasy episodes. Admittedly, the Bond villain plot to take over the country via an army beneath a sleepy rural town, complete with Julian Glover in a Fahrenheit 451 hat, goes some way to compensating for the absence of actual ghosts. Particularly notable for an extreme burst of ultra-violence on Mrs Peel’s part.
The Golden Eggs
(2.19) Steed and Mrs Gale are on the trail of deadly virus contained in the eggs of the title. Cathy shows off her dazzling scientific knowledge (of course). Peter Arne appeared four times in The Avengers, but his best roles are both from Season 2. Here, he delivers the goods as the clockwork-loving bad guy.
(6.14) A really daft plot, one that gets into all sorts of deep water with its logistics, embrace of opposites, double negatives and communications, via a drug that compels one to indicate the opposite of one’s intentions. Despite all this, it’s often quite amusing (especially the butter gags).
You’ll Catch Your Death
(6.10) The villainous scheme involving a deadly cold virus is on the pedestrian side (and that’s despite the giant nose prop). Nevertheless, the proceedings are considerably enlivened by an array of eccentric supporting players, including Charles Lloyd Pack, Ronald Culver and Valentine Dyall.
(1.15) Steed, in a bowler, up against a criminal gang. That’s the way it should be in his first surviving Season 1 appearance. Strong performances from Willoughby Goddard as gang boss the Deacon and Philip Locke as a cocker-nee henchman. This one is wittier, tighter and pacier than the other surviving first season entries.
School for Traitors
(2.20) That rare (as in sole) quality Venus Smith episode. School for Traitors features a university setting (see also the later, superior 4.19: A Sense of History) as Steed investigates a blackmail ring. Notable for several of the victims behaving surprisingly rationally in the face of ruin.
(2.5) Steed and Cathy chase a flask of Chinese rocket fuel around Marseilles airport and arouse security’s suspicions very quickly. The proceedings are enlivened by competing factions.
(3.9) An eccentric ruse to avoid death duties doesn’t really bear up under scrutiny, but The Undertakers boasts numerous incidental pleasures, not least the delightfully dippy Mrs Renter (Lally Bowers).
The Big Thinker
(2.14) A scene-stealing Anthony Booth (Til Death Do Us Part) in a plot concerning the sabotage of the titular super computer. The card sharp subplot feels superfluous but is nevertheless engaging.
(3.21) A quite clever murder scheme utilises a Cornish village burial plot and a strong supporting cast in John Le Mesurier and Philip Locke; perhaps a little short on the idiosyncrasy one would expect from this kind of set up, though.
(6.19) I know she has a fan base, but Jennifer Croxton’s Lady Diana isn’t actually all that special in the might’ve-been-Steed-partners department. Still, this deadly episode is generally very well done, with a particularly effective, trap-laden finale requiring Steed to show his mettle. It also includes the occasional amusing detour, courtesy of Michael Ward’s amazing camp Freddie (“packager extraordinary”).
(6.25) The original Master (Roger Delgado) and the Rani (Kate O’Mara) team up to baffle Steed. Tony Williamson perhaps doesn’t make the most of the Groundhog Day/hypnosis element, but there’s a highly effective villainous turn from Gary Bond, haunting Steed’s peripheral vision.
The Hidden Tiger
(5.8) Killer cats played out surprisingly persuasively, thanks to Sidney Havers’ stylish attack sequences. Notable too for Ronnie Barker’s comic relief, Diana Rigg’s catfight with Gabrielle Drake and some shameless wordplay (“Mrs Peel! Pussies galore!“)
(5.17) Very trippy dream sequences (those faceless reporters) support an intriguing if ultimately implausible how-did-they-do-that. “That” being an attempt to disrupt a European peace conference (if you can imagine such a thing). Includes a tense scene where Steed ends up as target practice. That would be Sidney Havers directing again.
The Town of No Return
(4.1) The Season 4 opener is full of iconic imagery and ideas – an overgrown plastic bag emerges from the sea and unzips to a reveal a man in a business suit; an all-but-empty village conceals mysterious goings-on after dark; Terence Alexander sports a ridiculous moustache – and establishes the increasingly daffy tone of the show as Steed unpacks an entire tea set, kettle and cake display from a voluminous carpet bag.
Something Nasty in the Nursery
(5.14) Like 5.17: Death’s Door, there’s more messing with subjective reality for devious ends here, as politicians are reduced to infantile states in order to persuade them to offer up secrets. Particularly unnerving amidst the regressed adults is Dudley Foster’s Nanny Roberts.
Dial A Deadly Number
(4.4) Death by bleeper in an episode that enters the realm of stock-market manipulation but really scores during a wine-tasting duel: “Chateau Laffite-Rothschild… 1909, from the northern end of the vineyard”.
From Venus With Love
(5.4) Space visitors killing members of the British Venusian Society? A bright selection of supporting players (Jon Pertwee, Jeremy Lloyd’s chimney sweep Bert Smith – “Actually, it’s Bertram Fortescue Winthrop Smyth. To be absolutely accurate“) and a mastermind whose identity isn’t unveiled until quite late in the game add to the appeal.
Small Game for Big Hunters
(4.18) Crumbling colonialism retires to the home counties in an inventive plotline that makes yearning for the lost Empire the stuff of diabolical masterminds.
Honey for the Prince
(4.26) A little less light on its feet in treading the line between irreverence and racial stereotypes than 4.18: Small Game for Big Hunters, but nevertheless possessed of a winning self-awareness, Ron Moody and Emma’s show-stopping Dance of the Six Veils.
The Curious Case of the Countless Clues
(6.3) Peter Jones’ Sir Arthur Doyle takes the literal at the expense of the intuitive in an effective blackmailing scenario that even manages to imbue genuine suspense at times (Tara laid up with a sprained ankle, set upon by villains). The best of the brief and generally rather disdained John Bryce-produced run.
(5.11) Emma under pressure and Brian Clemens working with what’s on hand at Elstree result in a mostly inspired riff on the motion picture business. Jason Wyngarde takes full advantage of the opportunity to devour scenery at every turn.
The Gilded Cage
(3.15) A great Cathy Gale showcase episode. She’s banged up for a fake murder and then has to join a team of bank robbers; Steed, meanwhile, spars with a very witty butler (Norman Chappell).
The Murder Market
(4.2) Murder by marriage as Steed and Mrs Peel sign up to Patrick Cargill’s Togetherness Inc and Steed is soon required to kill her. It’s occasionally evident how early this one was made in the season due to a certain Mrs Gale-ishness to Emma’s attitude.
(2.15) Infiltration of a syndicate of international criminals – a solid fall-back plotline during the early years – finds Cathy incarcerated in order to stage a breakout and join a crew about to pull off a heist. The crew are memorably cast, and writers Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke service the proceedings with a tight structure.
The Master Minds
(4.3) Brainwashed boffins stealing secrets, as Emma succumbs to their spell and Steed needs a little help in hitting his pass marks.
The White Dwarf
(2.21) More Malcolm Hulke, providing an unlikely – at this stage in the show’s run, at any rate – doomsday scenario of a white dwarf re-entering the solar system. But then, given that it is this early in the show’s run, you wouldn’t be wrong to assume that’s not really what’s going on. Amusing incidentals include Steed studying the Boys’ Book of Astronomy for tips and an eccentrically-run Cornish guesthouse.
The Secrets Broker
(3.14) Plonk features heavily here, often a good sign for the series. If the plot’s rather a grab-bag of spuriously connected elements (spying, murder and a spiritualism scam), it boasts the estimable Jack May amongst its many virtues.
(3.24) Remade as the vastly inferior 5.9: The Correct Way to Kill, this charm school for villains (knocking off Russian agents) has Steed in his much-admired element while paired with a suitably OTT Fenella Fielding. Oh, and Warren Mitchell proves good value, which isn’t always the case with his comic turns (step forward, Brodny).
How to Succeed… At Murder
(4.14) Like 4.26: Honey for the Prince, this creaks a bit at times in its of-its-era sensibility, hoisting as it does “silly old feminism” by its own petard. Nevertheless, How to Succeed… At Murder also sports an engaging line in absurdity, not least Christopher Benjamin’s perfumier JJ Hooter (“My nose is in great demand… I have smelled all over the world…”)
The Thirteenth Hole
(4.17) Once The Thirteenth Hole gets going, the dirty tricks on the golf course make for a highly engaging episode. Steed, with Emma’s assistance, first outwits Patrick Allen and then Peter Jones; just don’t ask why a golf club (beyond the “bunker in a bunker” gag).
(4.13) Emma joins the hunt while Steed gets shot at; an episode more rewarding for its colourful cast than plotting, including a wonderfully amused Joanna Wake and a convincingly brutish Jack Watson.
(6.20) A Season 6 episode very much in the Rigg-era tradition, with the titular characters – Gerald Sim and Jerome Willis – using dry-rot guns and veneer of gentility to achieve their ends. The highlight finds Steed playing nice with the duo whenever Amy Dalby’s elderly lady is in the room, leading to the sorry remains of a piano.
(6.13) Like 6.19: Killer, Game really comes into its own during the climax, as Steed must face the formidable Peter Jeffrey’s traps. The early sections are also diverting, though, as Jeffrey does for those he perceived did him wrong via a series of deadly games. Strong visuals from Robert Fuest help to make this a memorable one – despite the forgettable title – including Tara trapped in a giant hourglass.
(6.21) Christopher Lee is awarded a decent role as recompense for the dual duff ones in 5.10: Never Never Say Die. Some amusing plays on stiff-upper-lip-under-duress attitudes feature, and Steed comes to the rescue in a very cool manner. Only the less-than-convincing method of persuading the test subjects to give away their secrets lets the side down.
(6.32) The Avengers equivalent of a Michael Haneke film, in which Steed intrudes on a particularly unpleasant home invasion. The only thing preventing this from being top notch is the decision to lay Steed low, rather than constantly matching a villain who clearly isn’t in his league.
(5.16) Body-swap tales can be a desperate fall-back option for creatively-bereft staff, but this one’s largely successful thanks to the performances of Freddie Jones and Patricia Haines. Only Macnee as Jones doesn’t quite convince (see also other Steed doubles episodes 3.6: Man with Two Shadows and 4.11: Two’s a Crowd).
The Hour that Never Was
(4.15) A fine “What is going on?” setup, as Steed and Mrs Peel arrive at his old RAF base for its closing party only to find it strikingly Marie Celeste-like. If the second half reset is a little less rewarding, The Hour that Never Was still gets by on that early attention to atmosphere.
The Superlative Seven
(5.12) The familiar Agatha Christie structure can’t diminish this one, thanks to a vibrant supporting cast (Brian Blessed, Donald Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling, John Hollis – who ROCKS!) And unlike Season 5’s other remakes that engage in straight and stodgy retellings, The Superlative Seven rewardingly reinvents 3.18: Dressed to Kill.
(6.23) An outstanding dowdy/beauty dual performance from Veronica Strong is the key to Love All‘s success. Writer Jeremy Burnham has huge fun with his love potion device, be it a the expense of traffic wardens, Terence Alexander, or mostly, Tara.
Wish You Were Here
(6.18) Steed-lite as Tara re-enacts The Prisoner in a guest house. Except that Wish You Were Here is played very much for laughs, particularly in the case of Mother’s prattish nephew (Brook Williams), sent along to help out but mostly doing anything but.
(3.3) There’s a great premise and establishing location here: a bunker a mile underground holding database “Big Ben”, which comprises details of all double agents on both sides. Steed is “revealed” as a seller of secrets while Cathy is placed in opposition to him; a tip-top interrogation ensues.
A Funny Thing Happened…
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station
(5.13) Always welcome Avengers guest star John Laurie (this was his third of four appearances) steals the show as a railway enthusiast, but the episode chugs along very pleasingly in all departments; particularly winning are the exchanges between a captive Steed and James Hayer’s Ticket Inspector.
(4.16) John McSteed flashes his nobbly knees in a haunted highland castle that inevitably isn’t all it seems. Gordon Jackson ably presides over the venue, while Mrs Peel shows off her deadly aim with a crossbow.
(4.8) A plot involving a missile jamming signal is strictly secondary to the steam-age nostalgia of Sir Horace Winslip (Ronald Fraser). The scene in which he takes his meals in a mock-up “travelling” train carriage is only topped by the silent-movie finale with Emma tied to the tracks of a miniature railway.
Quick-Quick Slow Death
(4.20) A dance school as a front for infiltrating foreign agents into the country is no sillier than… using a golf club to send secrets to the Russians, I suppose. And there’s much silliness to take in here, including David Kernan’s fake Italian foot fetishist – the foot fetishism is real, the nationality isn’t – and a knockout dance-off finale.
Death a la Carte
(3.24) Much amusement to be had as Steed is required to fall in with a selection of chefs preparing meals for a picky Emir. Macnee is in his element, and there’s a very solid murder plot too.
Build a Better Mousetrap
(3.11) Reads like a bizarre mash-up – biker gang vs a couple of old witches – but that’s exactly why Build a Better Mousetrap works so well. Athene Seyler and Nora Nicholson are a delight as the seemingly Arsenic and Old Lace-esque sisters, while Cathy – naturally, despite being positively geriatric – joins the bikers.
Death of a Great Dane
(2.11) Don’t let the inferior 5.20: The £50,000 Breakfast remake put you off. That one only succeeds in diminishing a first-rate Roger Marshall teleplay involving the fate of a bed-ridden businessman’s fortune. Includes some fine performances from Frederick Jaeger and the peerless John Laurie.
Too Many Christmas Trees
(4.6) The Avengers goes all Dali-in-Spellbound, but with a festive spin, as Steed has his mind probed. A rare excursion into supernatural (or, to be overly generous, pseudo-scientific) and if you really must do a Christmas-themed story, this is how to do it (in contrast to Doctor Who, which managed to churn out consistently lousy ones for more than a decade).
Esprit De Corps
(3.25) Sterling performances from a very young John Thaw (23 going on fifty) and the ever-loveable Roy Kinnear distinguish a tale involving a “rightful” heir to the throne (eat your heart out Joseph Gregory Hallett). Making it even better, Steed has to face a firing squad. Eric Paice’s last, and by some distance best, contribution to the series.
Brief for Murder
(3.2) Marvellous work from John Laurie and Harold Scott as brothers legally-versed in getting criminals off the hook through… well, you have to see it. Steed decides to kill Cathy, which is always good for a laugh.
The Mauritius Penny
(2.10) Another enjoyable Dicks and Hulke teleplay. On the surface (and in the title), The Mauritius Penny relates to the less than scintillating subject of stamp collecting. Beneath which is a plot by Richard Vernon and Alfred Burke to create a “new Britain”. Quite evergreen, then.
(3.19) Another episode with Steed under suspicion (see 3.3: The Nutshell), but this time not by his own instigation. He’s accused of activities leading to the deaths of six spies and subjected to psychotropic conditioning by Terence Lodge’s titular interrogator. Tense stuff.
Death at Bargain Prices
(4.5) Undoubtedly the most bonkers scheme of Season 4 – and by far the most devastating if it had succeeded – is effectively juxtaposed with the incongruity of a department store where shop assistant Mrs Peel dodges predatory superiors while Steed is forcibly ejected from the premises.
(6.28) Tara has her mind messed with by a nefarious – is there any other kind? Okay, perhaps not in 6.4: Split! – Julian Glover, attempting to convince her she’s the titular character. Pandora is another of the series’ occasional Avengers-girl-menaced-in-an-isolated-house stories and by leaps and bounds the best. Something of a marmite episode, it seems, but it’s expertly told and offers at its core a masterful two-hander between Glover and James Cossins.
(2.16) A bit of a one-off, Warlock features genuinely supernatural happenings. At any rate, you’d be hard-pressed to explain the events entirely rationally. Which means it’s a no-no for some Avengers fans. The diabolical streak is as memorably delivered as in the later 4.22: A Touch of Brimstone, and Peter Arne is superb as the head of the black magic circle that Cathy – naturally, knowing all about the dark arts – must join.
(5.22) A visit to Little Storping In-the-Swuff finds Emma at the mercy of a murderous free-for-all, including a particularly unedifying Colin Blakely. Indeed, if not for his lack of comeuppance – a pie in the face hardly counts – this would receive full marks.
What the Butler Saw
(4.12) John Le Mesurier fits the butler bill perfectly, and Steed is naturally welcomed with open arms as a major domo, having adopted an array of facial appliances en route. Emma, meanwhile, is unleashed on Dennis Quilley’s celebrated lothario and possible secrets spiller. He doesn’t stand a chance.
Take Me To Your Leader
(6.23) Terry Nation’s trail-of-clues yarn undoubtedly treads closely in the footsteps of 6.16: Legacy of Death, but it’s still immensely funny and enormously satisfying. Steed and Tara must play pass-the-talking-suitcase-to-its-source, intercepting each party on the way. It’s more about the gag rate than the plot, but even that is highly inventive.
The Girl from Auntie
(4.25) Season 4’s only experiment proper in mixing up the line-up, with Steed teaming with Liz Fraser’s gorgeous Georgie Price-Jones when Emma is put on sale to the highest bidder. The result is a deliriously energetic succession of murders and mishaps as Steed and Georgie track down the kidnapper.
A Sense of History
(4.19) Emma returns to her studies while Steed poses as an old boy at St Bode’s College. Where Patrick Mower is on marvellously malevolent form as an especially self-assured student.
The Morning After
(6.24) Pretty much a solo outing for Steed, with Tara suffering the effects of knockout gas (several times). Instead, he’s teamed with Peter Barkworth’s quadruple agent Jimmy Merlin, exploring a mysteriously deserted town. A superbly-written odd-couple episode, with effective location work from John Hough and a suitably menacing turn from BRIAN BLESSED!
Mr. Teddy Bear
(2.6) There have been quite a few Avengers episodes where the leads are assigned to kill each other. In this early example, Cathy arranges a hit on Steed, courtesy of the titular assassin who takes jobs via his talking bear. Writer Martin Woodhouse ensures Mr. Teddy Bear is very witty, and Bernard Goldman takes full advantage of one of the series’ very best villain parts.
The Winged Avenger
Dressed to Kill
(3.18) An “easy” episode, yes – a New Year’s Eve fancy-dress murder mystery set aboard a train – but Dressed to Kill is so well done that it’s irresistible. It also boasts a cast including Leonard Rossiter’s Robin Hood and Anneke Wills’ Pussy Cat (getting very chummy with Steed). With Too Many Christmas Trees, the ideal Avengers festive period double bill.
Look – (Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One)…
Look – (Stop Me If You’ve Head This One) But There Were These Two Fellers…
(6.7) Dennis Spooner lets rip in the series at its most unapologetically lunatic. Killer clowns on the loose, cameos from John Cleese and Bernard Cribbins (also 4.25: The Girl from Auntie), and Steed going undercover as “Gentleman Jack. A smile a song and an umbrella”. If it feels like an escapee from the previous season, apparently it was.
Legacy of Death
(6.16) Terry Nation riffs on The Maltese Falcon. Despite his rather dour Daleks and Blake’s 7 rep, it’s very easy to see how he came to write for Tony Hancock on this evidence; Legacy of Death deals such a rapid-fire succession of gags, it scarcely matters that some go astray. Stratford John and Ronald Lacey are memorable as the principal pursuers of a deadly dagger, a trail of corpses accumulating wherever they go (most especially in Steed’s flat). And underlining its pedigree, it also features John Hollis (who, of course, ROCKS!)
Dead Man’s Treasure
(5.19) An infectiously frivolous, summery jaunt as Laurie Johnson provides an indelible musical accompaniment to a race round the English countryside. Emma and Steed and are mixed and matched with guest co-drivers as dirty tricks abound. Dead Man’s Treasure reeks of effortless ’60s cool.
A Touch of Brimstone
(4.22) Controversial but also brilliant, A Touch of Brimstone reignites the Hellfire Club under the guidance of a tremendously charismatic Peter Wyngarde; Steed’s audition takes some beating (it’s so damn cool), but Mrs Peel’s Queen of Sin pips him.