Long before the Warner Bros feature film of 1998, moves were afoot to revive The Avengers for a new generation. J. Ferguson casts a critical eye over The First Avengers Movie, one of Brian Clemens' unsuccessful attempts to bring back a TV classic.

The First Avengers Movie is one of several Avengers revivals/reinventions mooted over the years (keeping company with the likes of The Avenging Angel, Avengers International, the mid-nineties Purdey/Gambit reunion movie, and the proposed Cathy Gale film) that sparked a brief blip of publicity before sinking without a trace and never making it to the screen (as opposed to Escapade, which, against all odds, actually managed to produce a pilot before dropping into oblivion). This particular revival made it as far as the script stage, the script itself dated January 1981. The screenplay is credited to Brian Clemens, and the story to Clemens and Avengers stalwart Dennis Spooner, who, along with Clemens, had a hand in the bulk of the scripts for The New Avengers a few years earlier. Coming in at just under 130 pages, it's definitely movie-length (if the old rule of thumb of one page equals one minute of screentime holds), and was clearly conceived as such, though there's nothing so ambitious about it that it suggests it was written for a massive, movie-size budget (even the billed "cast of thousands" turns out to be a misdirect).

The first question that no doubt comes to mind is, "Is it Avengerish?" And the answer is, to a large degree, "yes". The trademark Avengers strangeness is alive and well. If you've read about the script at all in one of the Dave Rogers guides, you'll know that the plot revolves around a diabolical mastermind who commands a vast army of killer ants (the aforementioned "cast of thousands"), who do the deed by stripping their victims to the bone (faithful to the Avengers rule book, we never see them in action, just the skeletons they leave behind after the fact. In true Avengers tradition, not a drop of blood is spilt). Their leader, one General Cavalo, plans to augment their power by equipping them with teeny, tiny ant-sized guns (if this is starting to sound all a bit "out there", even for Avengerland, need I remind you that this is a universe where Steed has already successfully defeated a man-eating plant from space. In comparison, an army of machine-gun toting ants seems entirely plausible). Because of the diminutive nature of his army, Cavalo and all his (human) commanding officers travel around their base suspended by wires, so as not to accidentally decimate the numbers while walking down the hall. This gives rise to some scenes that would have looked suitably bizarre onscreen, with Cavalo and company exchanging dialogue while suspended in mid air (and making this possibly one of the only movies where the audience is actually meant to see the wires). In another nice touch, Cavalo trains his troops to destroy targets by creating tiny scale models of important targets (Windsor Castle, the White House) constructed entirely out of cream cake (with the side-effect that the audience would probably crave cream cake by the end of the movie. I know I did!). It should be said that, while I recalled that the army was constituted of ants due to reading the aforementioned Rogers books, the audience is kept (quite successfully) in the dark as to the army's true nature for some time through the use of music cues and sound effects to signal their approach. All we actually "see" of the attacks is their victims fleeing from them in terror, much the same way the attacks were portrayed in The Hidden Tiger, or Cat Amongst the Pigeons before the audience learned the identity of the killers.

There's also the requisite supply of eccentrics: an extraordinarily tall miniaturist by the name of Bernard Igg (or "B. Igg" as it reads on his door, leading to his being repeatedly misidentified as "Mr Bigg", as the dot after the "B" is too small, but he can't bring himself to make it bigger!); a hypochondriac determined to avoid infection by living in a tethered hot air balloon (and spraying his few visitors with vast quantities of disinfectant); and a flea circus trainer who keeps his the members of his act at bay with whip-wielding skills that would put a lion-tamer to shame. There's also something to be said for the fact that a hospital corridor is described as "Avengers style", and any Avengers fan reading it could instantly picture it, even before Clemens elaborates long, completely white, with no adornment but a single door at one end. It serves to reinforce the Avengers mood.

That said, there's a fair amount of recycling going on as well. There's Steed and company bathing, fully clad, in insecticide, calling to mind the method of applying the invisibility potion in Get-A-Way (the result of Steed's Gnaws-ish research into the enemy, having worked out what's going on long before the evidence starts pouring in). One character dies after his head is encased in cement, a la The Bird Who Knew Too Much. And death by insect isn't far removed from man-manipulated killer animals (The Hidden Tiger, Cat Amongst the Pigeons). Even the villain of the piece, General Cavalo, owes more than a little to past Avengers villains. Imagine the post-accident Kane from The Last of the Cybernauts..? combined with the military zeal of Dirtier by the Dozen's "Mad Jack" Miller, and in possession of a destructive non-human army on par with Zacardi from Cat Amongst the Pigeons, and you'll come very close. (Incidentally, there is another, completely unrelated character called Kane elsewhere in the script, as well as a Vance, calling up associations from the Keel era, and further exemplifying Clemens' habit of recycling names).

However, the most problematic aspect of the script is, oddly enough, the Avengers themselves. First off, there are four of them, one up from The New Avengers' threesome. This is a somewhat surprising development, as, in the aftermath of TNA, the post-mortem comments of the people involved in the series indicated, rightly or wrongly, that one of the problems which plagued the series was the fact that it had been expanded from two to three lead characters with the addition of Gambit. Stunt arranger-turned-director Ray Austin commented that Gambit became the third wheel, and that his presence slowed down the pace of the episodes as it was difficult to find things for him to do. Even Gareth Hunt himself, who was always quite forthright about the fact that Gambit's role was cut down in the second series of TNA, stated that, "[It] was very difficult to write for that threesome." (Starlog, March 1990). Whether Brian Clemens shared that opinion is unknown his reasons for cutting down Gambit's screentime were ostensibly to appease Patrick Macnee, who felt Steed had been "put out to pasture" in the show's first year, and wanted his character to play a more active role in the series but considering that there was some question about the wisdom (and success) of writing for three lead characters, it seems strange that, rather than return to the classic Avengers format of a duo, he would instead go one step further, and expand it to four lead characters. Interestingly, in the same interview, Gareth Hunt suggested that either two or four leads would have been preferable to three: "I agree with Patrick totally that it should been Patrick and another Emma Peel, or Patrick and another Emma Peel and two younger agents." This comment begs the question as to whether Gareth himself had read the script for The First Avengers Movie, or at the very least was aware of the set-up (considering he was meant to be in it, it would not be particularly surprising if he was), as this is essentially the movie's set-up, with Steed and Suzy Stride filling the Steed/Emma roles, and Gambit and Carruthers as the "younger" agents, serving as a variation on the Purdey and Gambit dynamic.

While the success of The New Avengers' triumvirate is up for debate, the wisdom of expanding the cast to a foursome is questionable. Three characters added an extra dimension to the dynamic, with three possible combinations of twosomes (with each given their chance to shine in the course of the series) in addition to the collective dynamic of the group as a whole, a format that had never been fully explored in the original series. The closest comparison would probably be the John Steed / David Keel / Carol Wilson dynamic in the original series' debut season, though Carol was always quite clearly written as a secondary character to the men, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes relegated to the background, but definitely not achieving an equal placing on the bill in the way Gambit or Purdey later did. However, if three was company, four is definitely a crowd, and my reservations regarding how four characters of equal status could all successfully share screentime, and play a significant role in the plot, proved to be well-founded. After Steed, Gambit, and Carruthers initially touch base, they split up for their investigations, with Gambit and Carruthers following one line of enquiry, and Steed branching off on his own. His investigations lead him to cross paths with Suzy Stride, and the pair of them work together for the rest of the movie. The result is that, for the most part, the characters are split into two groups of two, operating more or less independently of one another. Occasionally, they reunite to swap information, but that's about all they do swap information without much in the way of the amusing or clever exchanges that were a staple between the leads in the original series. This may be due, in part, to the pace of the movie in order to ensure the plot was kept moving, there may simply not have been time to indulge in witty repartee if Clemens was to keep the film within a certain running time. It's as though there's simply not enough time for everything, and to keep everything moving along, the great back-and-forths that were an Avengers trademark were cut. But it leaves the reader wanting, and there are very few memorable exchanges that would stick in the mind after viewing.

On the occasion that an exchange does have a modicum of humour and life to it, it comes from an interaction within one of the duos. Indeed, any interaction of any note takes place within the duos in one scene, despite all four leads sharing lunch at the same table, Steed interacts mainly with Suzy, while Gambit carries on a completely separate conversation with Carruthers. The result is that, even when together, the two duos feel like separate entities, who may as well be occupying completely different movies. The result is that we never get a sense of what the Gambit / Suzy dynamic is like, for example, or Suzy / Carruthers, or even Steed / Carruthers. Even Steed and Gambit don't have much to say to one another, instead interacting with their respective female partners. The reason for this is fairly obvious. If the characters were going to be split into two partnerships, it would be easier for the audience if each new character (Suzy, Carruthers) was partnered with a familiar one (Steed, Gambit) to "anchor" her as she was introduced to the viewer. Equally, the classic Avengers format requires a male/female partnership, so the chances of having the two women partnered up, leaving Steed and Gambit to form the other duo, was always going to be unlikely. But, given that they are the only link to any previous Avengers series, it's hard not to lament the lack of Steed/Gambit interaction, particularly since Patrick and Gareth had proven to be a good double act in TNA. Here, there's no sense of them having a connection that runs any deeper than the ones they share with Suzy or Carruthers, respectively, which is a shame.

The character split also has implications for the movie's tone, which oscillates between the lighter, flippant mood of the colour Emma Peel episodes, and the darker, grimmer atmosphere of TNA. While there's an element of both in the two separate plot strands, the Steed / Suzy investigations carry more of the Emma era lightness, while Gambit and Carruthers occupy the TNA territory. This creates a degree of dissonance in the feel of the movie, to the point that it feels as though Clemens couldn't settle on a mood, and decided to flip between the two instead, wrongfooting the reader / audience in the process. Just when it seems like the Avengerland of old, complete with the requisite eccentrics, we get a reminder of the grim realities of mercenary life. It's entirely likely that Clemens was trying to appeal to both audiences: the ones who'd been weaned on Emma Peel and had never taken to TNA, and those who had come onboard starting with TNA, and had only the vaguest sense of what had gone before. As a viewer, it likely would have been disconcerting, and it only serves to reinforce the sense that the two duos are isolated from one another.

To the characters themselves. Unsurprisingly, Steed is Steed is Steed. Twenty years after first tackling the character in Brought to Book, Brian Clemens could probably write Steed in his sleep, though not every piece of dialogue is framed in a way that rings true. Still, the bowler is put to good use in more than one fight, and Steed instructs Suzy, in typical Steed fashion, on the three appropriate occasions to drink champagne (only three?). The umbrella is still there, though it's now been fitted as a gun (.303 calibre, if you're interested), apparently at "the department's" behest, despite Steed's continued aversion to firearms (it gives him the opportunity to repeat his "this umbrella is loaded" line, last used against Turner in Cat Amongst the Pigeons, though this time the threat is genuine!). Strangely enough, Steed is also driving the Bentley again, despite it being blown to smithereens in Dead Men Are Dangerous. Whether or not this is meant to be the original Bentley (and Clemens has simply forgotten about that episode, or chosen to retcon it out), or Steed has gone and gotten himself another one, is never made clear. We get a little bit of backstory as well, with Steed's military career brought up (he served in the Guards), and his parents are named (Joshua and Araminta). He also gets one or two good scenes, the best of which is probably his conversation with Mr B. Igg, conducted entirely in a crouch, and consisting of the sort of exchanges that gave Patrick, in the original series, the opportunity to feign a serious, sympathetic understanding of the his interviewee's area of interest, while simultaneously trying to hide his bemusement (and amusement). It's a scene that could have been quite easily transported to an Emma or Tara era story without anyone noticing the joins.

Gambit, meanwhile, is the first Avenger to appear onscreen. Four years on from The New Avengers, Gareth Hunt was a month shy of 39, and had the script gone into production, likely would have been pushing forty by the time he reprised the role. It's possible this may have influenced the way Brian Clemens wrote the character. There's an added world-weariness to Gambit that wasn't present in TNA, and it paints a portrait of a man who, at this point in his life, really has seen it all, both on and off the job. When Steed tries to reassure Carruthers about their seemingly-impossible assignment by saying, "When a case begins for us in a such a bizarre and mysterious way it usually...", Gambit cuts in with a knowing "escalates and starts to get really weird." Later on, Gambit's mercenary background comes to the fore, something which, though sketched out in the character's biography, never garnered much screentime during TNA. Not so in the script. Gambit catches out one character's lie when the latter claims his brother was a mercenary in Angola: "I was in the last detail out of Angola," Gambit shoots back, much to Carruthers' surprise. Further on, Gambit pays a visit to an ex-colleague named Ferret from that same chapter of his past. Now blind, Ferret identifies his old cohort, not by the fact that Gambit knows they served together in St Paulo, but by evaluating measuring the damage Gambit does to his overenthusiastic bodyguard (who fails to inflict so much as a scratch in return). The same background also gives Gambit a working knowledge of Cavalo, whose supposed death he questions as the investigation proceeds. This focus on Gambit's military background lends grimmer edge to the character, who was often serious, but not normally for a sustained period of time, and definitely not at the expense of the lighter moments that so often typified Gambit's character (and which Gareth Hunt personally preferred).

This is not to say that Gambit is completely humourless throughout the entire script he spends the whole of one scene hanging on a ladder just outside the basket of a hot air balloon, and is forced to question the balloon's owner from his precarious position on the pretence that there's only enough room for two in the basket, and Carruthers is taking up the rest! The mental image this conjures up is completely in keeping with the sort of predicament Gambit would find himself in in TNA. Later, he shares a bath with Carruthers in one of the best and (funniest) scenes between the characters (both fully clothed, though Gambit makes it clear he wouldn't mind if they weren't!), and he generally lightens up as the script goes on, but there seems to be a definite intention to sober his character up. Interestingly, heavy emphasis is placed on both Steed and Gambit's military backgrounds (Steed attributes his proficiency at crouching to his time in the war), but whether this was simply a consequence of the military nature of the plot, or something that Clemens felt was more relevant in the 1980s, is unclear.

Besides being older, Gareth would also eventually start to pay for his stuntwork on TNA. By 1983 he was visiting an osteopath (and running into Joanna Lumley, also suffering from her stuntwork, at the same clinic in the process!), and later undergoing back surgery. How much he was suffering from the after effects of his stunts by 1981 is unclear, and at first the script seems to take that into consideration and make allowances, with his action sequences being relatively undemanding. At the movie's climax, though, Gambit has a fairly active fight while suspended by wires, so perhaps Gareth was still up for the stunts at this point after all.

The first of the two new characters is Carruthers, who replaces Purdey as the third part of the TNA-established triumvirate. Carruthers is an ex-trapeze artist from a circus family, and the script, to its credit, makes the most of her skill set. Carruthers, quite frankly, gets all the best fights, one solo on some scaffolding, and another where the joins Gambit against four opponents while suspended from wires, one of the best sequences in the script which could have looked amazing onscreen if executed properly. (Interestingly, it bears some similarity to a fight in the 1998 Avengers movie between Uma Thurman's Emma Peel and Eddie Izzard's Bailey, also while suspended from wires. Whether or not the movie took that idea from this script is unknown, but it's a notable coincidence). There's also something to be said for an Avengers girl who, when cornered, can simply topple backwards out of the nearest window to get herself out of a tight spot.

Other than her skill set, Carruthers owes a lot of her character to her predecessor. Like Purdey, she's an official agent, as opposed to a "talented amateur," and fairly new to the job (shades of Tara King, as well as Purdey). Since she spends the majority of her screentime with Gambit, she's also inherited the Purdey / Gambit dynamic, or at least a watered-down version of the same. Gambit flirts with her, though fairly infrequently, and Carruthers' comebacks warn him off, but not with Purdey's biting humour (or her insinuation that "no" wasn't quite the final word on the matter no "one of these days" here). As a result, their relationship isn't very engaging, and neither character seems particularly invested in it, with a definite lack of any real, persistent interest on Gambit's part (which makes it difficult to reconcile with the script's closing scene, in which it's blatantly implied that both Gambit and Steed will bed their respective partners, completely eschewing the series' trademark ambiguity as to what went on between the leads once the screen went dark). Any decent exchanges are sprinkled, quite lightly, over the course of the movie, as though inserted to fill some sort of quota. It would have been better to create a completely new dynamic between Carruthers and Gambit, as opposed to occasionally raising, then dropping, the ghost of his relationship with Purdey.

In addition, it's revealed that Carruthers' full name is "C.C. Carruthers", which, improbably, stands for "Carruthers Carruthers Carruthers". This smacks of another take on Purdey's insistence on being called "just Purdey" (indeed, knowing Purdey, it wouldn't be surprising to learn her name was, in fact, "Purdey Purdey"!), and Gambit and Steed refer to her, similarly, as just "Carruthers," with no "Miss" or "Mrs" to be seen. Carruthers even echoes one of Gambit and Purdey's exchanges from TNA. In one scene, Carruthers kills Gambit's assailant in the process of saving his life. Gambit chastises Carruthers, saying he wanted the man alive. "Conflict of interest," Carruthers replies. "I wanted you alive." This exchange is taken, verbatim, from K is for Kill (although the roles are reversed, with Carruthers taking on Gambit's half of the exchange), but another, very similar exchange in The Midas Touch covered similar ground, where Purdey defended killing Gambit's would-be killer: "difficult decision him or you". For all that Purdey was meant to be a combination of her three predecessors (Cathy's iciness, Emma's wit, and Tara's femininity), she always felt like her own character, with her own personality and quirks. Anything that was borrowed was given a twist to the extent that only the germ of the idea remained. She certainly wasn't given second-hand dialogue to parrot, something no Avengers girl had to endure outside of a straight episode remake, and which weakens Carruthers' ability to establish herself as a character in her own right.

(For those who are wondering, Purdey does not feature in the script at all, and no reference is made to her, even obliquely or in passing. When and why the character is meant to have departed is not addressed at all she's simply gone. It's unclear whether Purdey is absent due to Joanna Lumley being unwilling, or unable, to participate. Certainly by 1981, Joanna was involved in the series Sapphire and Steel, which may have made committing to more Avengers difficult. Or perhaps she was simply sick of running around performing stunts in high heels and earning bruises a mass of bruises for her troubles!)

The last of the foursome to be introduced is CIA agent Suzy, or Suzanne Amelia Stride, to give her full name. Crossing paths with Steed early on in his investigations, he recognises her from her file, and gives a condensed biography: born in Philadelphia to a French mother and American father, educated at Vassar, and, predictably in Avengerland, widowed four years previous. Whether "Stride" is her maiden or married name isn't clear, but it hardly matters as Steed, rather uncharacteristically, calls her "Suzy" throughout, something he last did with Tara, though only intermittently (Purdey, with her one-name alias and instructions for everyone to address her as "just Purdey" doesn't really count). Carruthers and Gambit follow suit, though they have so little to do with her, it hardly matters. Sadly, there's not much to distinguish Suzy from any other female character, so her go-to identifier quickly becomes her nationality. I can tell you that she has beginner's luck at snooker. And that she's American. And that she's beautiful. And that she's American. And that she usually reports to a fellow named Lipsky, who happens to be on vacation, and she that doesn't get on with his replacement.

Did I mention that she's American?

It's possible all Suzy really needed to strengthen as a character was the right actress to breathe life into her. After all, most Avengers characters are, by design, fairly thinly drawn. Reading unmade scripts for Series 5 or The New Avengers, it quickly becomes clear how much the words on the page owe to having Diana Rigg, or Gareth Hunt, or Joanna Lumley, interpreting them, fleshing them out, tweaking the delivery, and improvising the appropriate body language. Without an actor in mind to enliven a part, any character seems flat. So perhaps with the right piece of casting, an American actress of the same quality of the same quality as the American actors cast in the series that served as The Avengers' contemporaries such as Richard Bradford, Stuart Damon and Tony Curtis could turn Suzy into much more than the token American character introduced to guarantee American funding. But as written, there's not much about her to latch onto, and her nationality alone isn't enough to base a whole character on, certainly not if the viewer's meant to become attached to her. To make matters worse, like Carruthers, Suzy also borrows from her predecessors, mainly Emma Peel. Not only is she a widow, but she also re-enacts the scene from Too Many Christmas Trees in which Emma argues that Steed ought to ditch the Bentley and get himself a new car. There's something mildly ridiculous about the idea of Steed being partnered with yet another widow. If the fact that she's available is important (and Steed makes quite clear that it is, at least as far as he's concerned!), then why not simply make her single, like Carruthers? Or, at the very least, find some other creative marital status. By 1981, The Avengers ought to have been progressive enough to introduce its first divorcee. As it is, making her a widow only serves to draw comparisons between Suzy and Emma, weakening Suzy's character in the process. It would have been better to forgo that aspect of her character entirely, or to simply recast the Emma Peel role, as opposed to trying to take on a bit of both.

In the end, the recycled plot points can be forgiven after all, The Avengers was known to remake whole episodes, so the script can hardly be faulted for borrowing but combined with the recycled character traits, there's a real sense of diminishing returns, as though the freshness of the series is fading away in favour of trying to recapture past glories. The Avengers was always about moving forward, about reinventing itself with each new incarnation. Even though it had a natural life cycle oscillating from gritty spy drama to far-flung fantasy, and back again it always approached older concepts from a new angle. The New Avengers is often accused of looking too much to the past, and not enough to the future, but when it referenced what came before it, it did it explicitly, drawing from the rich universe of continuity that had come before, and using it to tie the entire history of the series together. But in this case, the script isn't just looking back fondly on what came before it's trying to bring it back, in place of developing its own identity. Maybe Brian Clemens had simply been associated with the show for too long, and it needed a pair of fresh eyes. Or maybe the Avengers formula only had so much life left in it before the rot started to set in. Either way, it's probably for the best that this script never made it to the screen. For the most part, we've seen it all before.

Written by J. Ferguson

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