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DVD Review

DVD cover

The Avengers
Tunnel of Fear


Starring: Patrick Macnee and Ian Hendry
Distributor: StudioCanal
RRP: £9.99
Certificate: PG
Release Date: 09 April 2018

Harry Black, an escaped convict, bursts into Dr David Keel’s surgery, badly wounded. He claims to have been framed for a crime that he did not commit – and begs the doctor not to hand him over to the police. Steed arrives and ascertains that Black has links to Southend-on-Sea, which might well tie in with an investigation currently being undertaken by his department. They are aware that top government secrets are being leaked from a funfair in Southend, and Black’s story, if true, could possibly lead them to the source of the operation. Can Steed and Keel bring down the villains’ scheme, prove Harry’s innocence and get out of Southend with their lives…?

Tunnel of Fear is the 20th episode of the first series of the 1960s cult British spy thriller The Avengers, hailing from a time when Ian Hendry had top billing and Patrick Macnee’s Steed was the sidekick. Originally broadcast on ITV on 05 August 1961, it is one of only three complete Series 1 episodes known to have survived. Lost for 55 years, it came to light in a private film collection in late 2016 and was recovered by the television preservation group Kaleidoscope. This recovery was more exciting to me than a Doctor Who episode being found – and I say that as a long-time Doctor Who fan!

Though Doctor Who gets the lion’s share of media attention on the subject of missing television, in fact that series is relatively well off, despite the fact that 97 of its episodes from the 1960s do not exist as moving images. Scripts survive for each of those instalments (thanks to the BBC Written Archives), as do off-air audio recordings (owing to the efforts of dedicated fans with reel-to-reel tape recorders). Many are also represented by copious off-screen stills, known as tele-snaps, which were the work of professional photographer John Cura.

By contrast, though a smaller number of Avengers episodes (23) are currently missing as complete programmes, the stock of supplementary materials that Doctor Who fans tend to take for granted is somewhat patchy. Ten of the lost episodes were never ‘tele-snapped’. For eight instalments, not even scripts have come to light. No off-air soundtracks have been commercially released – the only such recording rumoured to exist is, ironically, of Tunnel of Fear, an episode that is now no longer missing.

When episodes of the Doctor Who serials The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear were recovered in 2013, it was great to see them, of course, but it’s not as if I didn’t already know the stories in detail. I’d listened to the soundtracks. I’d seen the tele-snaps. I’d watched reconstructions that united the two.

Before Tunnel of Fear emerged into the light, there was a lot I didn’t know about it, despite having researched the subject extensively. Though there were plenty of photographs to look at, there was no script, just some rather scant plot summaries. This has resulted in a lot of guesswork in recent years during attempts to retell the story, first as a narrated reconstruction by Alan and Alys Hayes (which is among the special features on this release), then in prose form in books (The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes and the first edition of Two Against the Underworld) by Alan, Alys and yours truly, and finally in an audio adaptation by Big Finish Productions (which can also be found on this DVD).

Inevitably, some of those guesses have proven to be incorrect – such as the identity of the person who disappears from the ghost train at the start of the story. In one tele-snap, it looks like Harry Black (Anthony Bate), but it isn’t. Later we learn that the surgery of Dr David Keel (Ian Hendry) is situated in Pimlico, not in Chelsea as the Hayeses and I had supposed (based upon the location used for exterior filming on an earlier episode). The paperwork that Carol Wilson (Ingrid Hafner) consults in another tele-snap is not a surgery record card, as had been theorised in prose and on audio, but an envelope containing a letter. No one knew that Mary Black (Doris Rogers) worked at the funfair in Southend (though we’re kicking ourselves now, as one photograph used in the reconstruction clearly shows a stall bearing the legend “Black’s Snacks”) or that Harry and the villain Jack Wickram (John Salew) had seen action in the Korean War.

Watching Tunnel of Fear now, a couple of aspects seem to mock our earlier attempts to reimagine the episode. When Carol first looks at the envelope, she sees that it is addressed to a Mrs Mary Black, and theorises, “His wife, I suppose.” This is akin to the surface level of detail that was available to researchers prior to the programme’s recovery. However, as soon as Carol beholds the letter within, like us watching the actual episode, the very different truth of the matter immediately becomes apparent: “Dear Mum…” There’s a cautionary message in there somewhere about the dangers of basing theories on insufficient evidence! Later in the story, Keel and Harry re-stage the robbery that Harry cannot remember carrying out – you might call it a missing episode from his life. His girlfriend Claire (Miranda Connell) has sincere doubts about this approach, and asks, “Do you really think it’s a good idea to reconstruct the crime?” She has a point…

So much for the episode’s significance as a piece of television history – but is it actually any good? Why, yes, it is.

There are terrific performances from the cast, in particular Patrick Macnee, Ian Hendry, Anthony Bate and Doris Rogers. In contrast with his darker performance in The Frighteners, the only other surviving Steed episode from Series 1, Patrick Macnee’s suave secret agent is immediately identifiable with the whimsical womaniser familiar from the extant Series 2 and 3 (with Honor Blackman and Julie Stevens), though he has yet to evolve into the refined English gent epitomised by the filmed era of the show (co-starring Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson). Here he pinches and swats the bottoms of dancing girls left, right and centre, fixes his predatory gaze upon Rosie (Julie Samuel) in particular, and even turns his rakish charm on the no-nonsense Mrs Black (who is having none of it). Writer John Kruse gives Steed some of the best lines, such as his comment that his dog’s excellent judgement of character makes her “very unpopular around Westminster” and the way in which he indicates that he has noticed Harry’s prison clothes: “I thought I knew his tailor.”

Hendry plays the straight man to Macnee’s jocular spy and the equally eccentric character of the fortune teller Madame Zenobia (Hazel Coppen) – who, as though predicting the actor’s imminent departure from the series, tells Keel, “Your future isn’t worth this much,” as she tucks away his pound note. However, the last laugh is Hendry’s, as he delivers the final light-hearted line of the adventure. Keel’s interaction with Harry Black affords Hendry plenty of opportunities to portray the doctor at his most compassionate (his urging of the escaped prisoner to give himself up to the authorities being strongly reminiscent of Hendry’s previous starring role, in the short-lived Police Surgeon) and his most intense (when he snaps Harry out of his trance in the fairground office). And is there just a hint of jealousy in his voice as Keel discusses his nurse’s date with an unseen “young man”?

Smaller but significant roles are played by the semi-regular performers, Ingrid Hafner as Carol, Douglas Muir as Steed’s boss One-Ten, and Juno as the agent’s dog Puppy. Hafner doesn’t get as much to do as she did during her active role in Girl on the Trapeze, but she gets more screen time than she had in The Frighteners, enjoying a good rapport with Hendry. There are some lovely touches to her performance, such as the brief flash of moral outrage when Keel asks her to open Harry’s private correspondence, and the very natural way in which she reads the letter as though seeing it for the first time (as opposed to having gone over it several times during rehearsals). Muir is a familiar presence to Avengers fans from his appearances in Series 2, but this is his earliest existing performance as One-Ten, in what is his only surviving Series 1 story. In her only extant (and final) episode, Juno makes a big impression, at one point upstaging One-Ten by politely but firmly passing him her bowl, demanding to be fed!

Meanwhile, Anthony Bate conveys Harry’s bewilderment perfectly as the convict finds himself instinctively, almost robotically, re-enacting his earlier crime, then comes close to hysterics when Keel brings him back into the here and now. His quick-witted girlfriend Claire is played with intelligence and spirit by Miranda Connell.

There’s glamour aplenty, with scantily clad belly dancers and Claire doing the ironing in her underwear. These aren’t just salacious moments, but are handled with humour. Witness Rosie stifling a yawn as she performs her routine for what is evidently the umpteenth time that day. In another amusing scene, the cunning Claire thoroughly disconcerts a policeman (Morris Perry) with the sight of her half-dressed state.

The fairground setting is an ideal Avengers location, inhabited by fantastically attired characters such as the piratical Maxie Lardner (Stanley Platts), the hypnotist Billy Flowers (Douglas Rye) and Steed himself, who masquerades as a showman from the “Mystic East”, complete with turban and kaftan. Far from the hard-boiled quality that is often associated with Series 1, Tunnel of Fear has a true spy-fi plot involving hi-tech wire-tapping (the main computer that Steed discovers looks not unlike a giant microchip) and an explosive cigarette.

Based on the evidence of the handful of episodes that remain from Series 1, it seems easy to chart the evolution of The Avengers from a gritty thriller with Hendry as the lead to a more offbeat show with Macnee dominating the proceedings. Steed is completely absent from the opening act of Hot Snow (episode 1) and the entirety of Girl on the Trapeze (episode 6), appears as a fairly shadowy figure in The Frighteners (episode 15) and steps out into the spotlight in Tunnel of Fear (episode 20). However, the full story is less straightforward, as becomes clear when one examines the scripts and reconstructions of intervening episodes, which reveal that Steed had foreground roles in early adventures such as Square Root of Evil (episode 3) and Ashes of Roses (episode 9), but was absent again from The Far Distant Dead (episode 21), a much more sober and down-to-earth story than this one.

As a piece of archive television from the days of ‘as live’ videotaping (when retakes were rare and editing next to impossible) there are, of course, some shortcomings to the production. Keel’s bag of snacks is quite obviously empty, while Claire’s baby (a surprisingly ‘kitchen-sink’ element of the drama, even by Series 1 standards) is clearly a rigid dummy in Doris Rogers’ arms. Macnee fumbles a line and has Steed claiming that the villains’ computer “records, decodes and receives top-secret information”, when surely it must receive before it records, and his accent as the funfair barker (which wanders from the Middle East to the middle of the East End) has to be heard to be believed! Certain aspects of John Kruse’s plot feel contrived, such as Mrs Black suddenly deciding to show her photo album to Steed, and within seconds arriving at a page that proves relevant to the plot. Keel’s plan to re-stage the break-in seems very ill-advised – and he might not have been captured if he’d descended the steps facing forwards! The limited size of the fairground set is occasionally apparent – though most of the time a large complement of non-speaking players make the place seem vibrant and well attended. The imperfections are fleeting, and on balance this is one of the most exciting and enjoyable episodes from The Avengers’ videotaped era.

The film print does not appear to have undergone much in the way of restoration, with dirt present on the picture and some distortion on the audio, though it’s perfectly watchable and the worst of the age-related damage is over once you get past the opening titles. In a significant improvement upon previous Avengers DVDs, there are subtitles for the hard of hearing.

In addition to the episode itself, this DVD contains a host of special features. These include recently unearthed Ulster Television interviews with Ian Hendry (3 minutes 50 seconds) and Patrick Macnee (3 minutes 30 seconds), from 1962 and 1964 respectively. In his interview, a rather uncomfortable-looking Hendry clearly wants to move on from his Avengers role, though the interviewer insists upon returning to the subject.

The aforementioned Big Finish audio adaptation of Tunnel of Fear (52 minutes 30 seconds – the same duration as the original, as it happens) was recorded and released several months before the recovery of the television episode, so the finer details of the story pan out rather differently, though many of the broad strokes of the plot remain the same. It is interesting to compare what was surmised then with what we know now – as well as hearing new interpretations of the characters, led by Anthony Howell as Keel and Julian Wadham as Steed. If you like what you hear, Big Finish have re-recorded the whole of Series 1 for your listening pleasure!

In an accompanying interview (14 minutes 15 seconds), John Dorney, the writer who developed this audio play and many others in the range, explains the process of bringing a mostly missing era of television back to life on audio, despite some of the original scripts being missing or decidedly enigmatic.

Visual reconstructions of 13 lost Series 1 stories (and the now recovered Tunnel of Fear), which were previously presented across StudioCanal’s entire range of Avengers DVDs, have been brought together in one place on this disc. Combining still photographs with a narrated plot summary, they vary in duration from 7 to 18 minutes, depending on the materials that were available at the time they were produced (2009 to 2010). They are a very viewer-friendly way to acquaint yourself with the content of the missing episodes. Confusingly, they are not presented in the original 1961 production or transmission order, but in order of which DVD they were previously presented on: Special Features Disc, Series 3 Disc 4, Series 3 Disc 5, Series 4 Disc 4, and so on. At least they have the first episode first! If you want to view the reconstructions in the original ITV transmission sequence, here’s a handy list: Hot Snow, One for the Mortuary, The Springers, The Yellow Needle, Death on the Slipway, Double Danger, Toy Trap, Tunnel of Fear, The Far Distant Dead, Kill the King, Dead of Winter, The Deadly Air, A Change of Bait, Dragonsfield. There are no reconstructions between Hot Snow and One for the Mortuary due to a dearth of photographic materials.

An even bigger blunder than the reconstruction mix-up is the omission of the surviving Series 1 script PDFs that were meant to be included as DVD-ROM content (and are still advertised on the back cover). This is a great shame, because several scripts have come to light since the handful that were included on the previous UK release of Series 1 material, and they would have added significant value to this product. The error may be corrected for future pressings. In the meantime, you can email for details on how to access the PDFs for download.

Another howler appears at the foot of the back-cover copy, which incorrectly credits Murray Hayne and Nancy Roberts as guest performers. The cast list used was evidently based upon the episode’s TV Times listing. The roles were recast (for reasons unknown), with Anthony Bate and Hazel Coppen stepping into the breach as Harry Black and Madame Zenobia after the magazine had gone to press. TV Times had no time to update its information back in the day, but StudioCanal has no such excuse!

Correct credits appear in a 64-page booklet that accompanies the DVD, which boasts a charming foreword by Ian Hendry’s nephew Neil Hendry and an in-depth essay by me old mucker Alan Hayes. The booklet is illustrated with stills from the set of Tunnel of Fear, from the original promotional photo shoot for The Avengers in Soho in December 1960, and shots of Ian Hendry and Patrick Macnee from the personal collection of Neil Hendry. There’s even a part illustration, part photographic Keel and Steed comic strip from TV Crimebusters Annual – see if you can spot the image lifted from Tunnel of Fear!

Though it’s quite exciting enough to be able to own Tunnel of Fear on DVD (there was a much longer gap between the recovery of Girl on the Trapeze and it being made available commercially), this product is far more than a single-episode release. When you take into account the reconstructions and the scripts (once you’ve emailed StudioCanal to claim the latter), this is a good all-round release of Series 1 materials. With only four of the missing episodes (Nightmare, Crescent Moon, Diamond Cut Diamond and Hunt the Man Down) not represented by either a script or a reconstruction, what you will have is an excellent supplement to the first disc of the previous DVD range.

So take your place now for the Tunnel of Fear!


Richard McGinlay

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