3.18.2015

The Avengers: A Touch of Brimstone

Season 4, Episode 21 of:

Definitely one of the most popular episodes of the series, it was originally banned in the United States. Not, as many people think, exclusively for Emma Peel's Queen of Sin costume (designed by Diana Rigg herself) but also for an open-mouthed kiss early-on, and the climactic fight between Peel and a whip-brandishing Lord Cartney. The full uncensored episode was not shown in either the US or the UK until the 1980s, a month before A-and-E began releasing the series on videocassette.

Let's see how my Avengers episode template holds up.

1) PROLOGUE INTRODUCES THE MYSTERY

A man wheels an ornate chair into a large room with only a television and table in it.
He settles in to watch a speech by a Russian delegate, visiting the UK in the hopes of increasing understanding between East and West.
But only moments into his speech, the cigar he has lit explodes in his face - a childish prank designed, he assumes, rightly, to embarrass him. The man watching the screen pops a chocolate into his mouth and chuckles rakishly to himself. Hell-fire!

2) STEED VISITS MRS. PEEL TO DISCUSS SAID MYSTERY

Instead of interrupting Mrs. Peel at her flat as he often does, Mr. Steed accompanies her to a gala at the theater. He brings her up to speed on a series of bizarre pranks being played on visiting dignitaries. 

One such prank is played out before their eyes when a sheikh of an oil-rich nation sits down on a collapsing chair after receiving his standing ovation for the crowd.

"So much for the oil treaty."
Afterwards, we learn that the Honorable John Cartney is always observed in the vicinity before, during, or after these pranks. 

Mrs. Peel is dispatched to investigate Cartney, while Steed takes a more peripheral approach, focusing on one of Cartney's friends, Lord Darcy.

3) STEED AND MRS. PEEL CANVAS THE SCENE

For Steed this means snooping around Darcy's house (and helping himself to his brandy)
Then, under false pretenses, getting loaded with him at Darcy's club.
For Mrs. Peel, it means posing as the head of a charity for wayward girls.
About a year ago I did a post on the X-Men Hellfire Club storyline and noted the influence of both this episode and the actual Hellfire Club from the 18th century. I won't go over the real-life history again for this post - outside of again recommending you read Daniel Mannix's The Hellfire Club, if only to educate yourself on certain aspects of the American Revolution not mentioned in school - 

Hell-fire!
but it's worth mentioning that one of the brothels that supplied the prostitutes for the Mad Monks of Medmenham posed as a Home for Wayward Girls. (I suppose it wasn't just a pose.)

This scene is notable for its fun dialogue. "I've come to appeal to you, Mr. Cartney." "You do that already." And my favorite pick-up line in the universe but only if you say it the way Peter Wyngarde does: "Your eyes have remarkable depth - will you dine with me this evening?"

Peel notes this odd appointment for later that afternoon.
4) THE AUDIENCE IS PRIVY TO A PRIVATE CONVERSATION BETWEEN THE ANTAGONISTS WHICH REVEALS DETAILS OUR PROTAGONISTS HAVE YET TO LEARN.

Shortly after Mrs. Peel leaves, Lord Darcy arrives and says everything is all set for later.
Later - as Peel and Steed helplessly watch on the small television in Steed's car - turns out to be a ceremony where a pair of rubber scissors has been swapped out for stainless steel ones. Result: 


5) EITHER STEED OR MRS. PEEL GO UNDERCOVER

Not so much undercover, as they use their real names, but both of them infiltrate the gang in different ways.

Peel as Cartney's date to The Night of All Sins and other occasions, and Steed as a potential member of the club.
As they gain Cartney's confidence, they learn about his group. 

5.5) HELL-FIRE!   

Modeled after the real-world Hellfire Club (aka The Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe) their goal is to embarrass England's leaders and disrupt all negotiations and treaties, etc. Alongside this aim? Saying "HELL-FIRE!" while toasting as often as possible.


A few years back, the ladies with whom I worked had a girls-only book club that met in the conference room near my desk. I mentioned to a co-worker we should form our own men-only book club, and I mentioned the Hellfire Club, with whom I was familiar both from seeing this episode dozens of times and from reading Mannix's book. He loved the idea, and we recruited a couple of other guys and before we knew it, we had business cards printed - my favorite was a "THE HELLFIRE CLUB DEMANDS SATISFACTION" card, with crossed pistols, that we'd leave around the office, around town, wherever - official titles, a logo and even a facebook page, for a brief period of time. As with the men in this episode, basically it became an excuse to get together, make elaborate toasts, and say "HELL-FIRE!" over and over.

"Hell-fire!"
It was all great fun. The girls-only book club did not survive, but the Hellfire Club lives forever! (Incidentally, a few ladies defected to our side and formed THE SISTERS OF SIN, our official Ladies Auxiliary.)

Back to "Brimstone," though. The official toast of the club is something like the following, delivered as theatrically as can be:

"May it scorch and singe, burn and boil, seethe and scald, combust and crackle, until we are inflamed! roasted! toasted! grilled! AND CAUTERIZED! Until our bones crumble (something something) in demoniac heat!"

Apologies for the (something something) but I've had the devil of a time (ahem) finding the exact wording. But even incomplete, now that's a toast! It may even beat the "Gentlemen, to our mutual damnation" toast from "The Devil's Alphabet." (80s Twilight Zone, Season 1, Episode 22, Segment 2.) 

But in a pinch, a succinct "Hell-fire!" will do.
6) KOOKY ALLIES

Carol Cleveland (occasional Monty Pyton guest-star) plays Sara, one of Cartney's mistresses.
She's not quite an ally, but she ends up aiding Steed unexpectedly.
As for the episode's other ally:  

7) KOOKY ALLY GETS HIM-OR-HER-SELF KILLED

Poor Lord Darcy.
If he'd have familiarized himself with this here Avengers episode template, he might have been less gullible about this "Circle of Justice" business.
Incidentally, immediately prior to his being called to the Circle, he challenges Darcy in front of the other members and Mrs. Peel, and Wyngarde lets rip one of the all-time-best "SHUT UP!"s ever recorded.


8) MRS. PEEL CHANGES TO SOME KINKY GET-UP

The most memorable part of the episode - "Hell-fire!"s aside - is Mrs. Peel's "Queen of Sin" costume, revealed in suitably dramatic fashion at the aforementioned Night of All Sins. 

There's a great reaction shot from Steed after this reveal:

As noted by our friends at Avengers Forever, " it all looks rather tame by today's standards (as does Emma's Queen of Sin costume—Baywatch is more risqué), but back in the 60s, when the word "hell" could not be uttered on U.S. airwaves and navels could not be exposed, sensibilities were a bit different." 

"Diana Rigg recalls the worst part of filming the episode was spending an entire day holding a snake, and being told by the owner that it might pee on her at any moment."

9) THE FINAL ASSAULT

Having discovered that the Night of All Sins is scheduled to end with the detonation of an ungodly (ahem) amount of TNT under Culverstone House, where a cabinet meeting is taking place and accessible via the catacombs between it and Hellfire Hall, Steed and Mrs. Peel blow their cover to directly challenge Cartney and the gang. 

In the tradition of the best episodes of the series, this involves a rather ridiculously choreographed fight between Steed and one of the cardinal members while Mrs. Peel fights some kind of circus tumbler.


But the real fight is between Mrs. Peel and a whip-cracking Cartney:

Who rather stupidly allows himself to be maneuvered onto the Circle of Justice.
Oh! the irony. HELL-FIRE!

10) CRISIS AVERTED, STEED AND MRS. PEEL WRAP THINGS UP WITH CHEEKY DIALOGUE IN SOME MANNER OF MOVING VEHICLE.

Steed bemoans the advent of the horseless carriage, and away they go.
Even for a series like The Avengers, where eccentric turns from guest stars are the norm, Peter Wyngarde's performance as Cartney is truly something. I've mentioned the infectious way he enunciates "Hell-fire!" - and the script gives him generous opportunities to so enunciate - but special attention should also be given to the way he snarls "far!" every time that word comes round in his lines. Remarkable. If I could get away with talking like this all the time, I'd never stop.

It will likely always be remarked upon as "the one where Mrs. Peel dresses up in that dominatrix outfit," but if I had my druthers, I'd amend this with "and that guy from Flash Gordon who says "Hell-fire!" all the time." And a tip of the bowler to Macnee, as well - Steed's manner throughout this story is one of my favorite things about it. 

was
with

But wait! "A Touch of Brimstone" is actually directed by James Hill and written by Brian Clemens. When UK Lumiere remastered the episode for A-and-E, they apparently screwed up.

A publicity still from the production with Hill and Rigg.
I leave you with these left-over screencaps. Hell-fire! 


The TV Tomb of Mystery is an ongoing attempt to stave off acquisition of any more impulse-buy DVDs by taking better inventory of the ones already in hand. 

6 comments:

  1. Man, I wish I had worked someplace where the people were cool enough to form a Hellfire Club. Or even just a plain ol' book club.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Book clubs are tough for me. I like to manage my own queue too much, I think.

      Hellfire!

      Delete
  2. You know, from a social mores standpoint, it's interesting that it really does seem like only the 60s (and maybe a bit of the early 70s) were more uninhibited in terms of sexual politics.

    What's even more interesting is how it al amounts to only a very brief window of time. Afterward, it seems everything got a bit more conservative.

    What's sort of endearing about the way this stuff was portrayed back then is how it all has a sort of charming innocence about it as opposed to the way this stuff is handled today (and here I am thinking of Basic Instinct and the like).

    ChrisC

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. HELL-FIRE!

      I apologize, I can't help myself.

      Delete
  3. That reaction shot from Steed is priceless -- at least in still-image mode (and I'd imagine it's even better in motion).

    Carol Cleveland! They used her too infrequently on "Flying Circus," in my opinion.

    I wonder if somewhere there are legit Hellfire Clubs that watch this episode and think it's really charming and quaint. In the midst of sacrificing goats and deflowering virgins and plotting new wars or whatever, I mean. Strangely enough, I kind of hope so.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I would assume there are many variations of the Hellfire Club out there. Whenever I hear about Bohemian Grove or stuff like that, I can't help but think, "Amateurs!!"

      Delete