Nobody anticipated in the 1960s that the medium of television would be considered anything other than ephemeral. It wasn’t unusual for recordings of much-loved TV shows to be junked, wiped over or otherwise lost from the archives, leaving behind tantalising enigmas for the aficionados to mourn and wistfully hope that one day, something missing may be recovered and enjoyed by new generations.
Doctor Who, Dad’s Army and Adam Adamant Lives! are all examples of much-adored incomplete shows. But it wasn’t only the BBC who were careless with their legacy: virtually nothing remains of the first season of ITV’s iconic series – The Avengers. Yet in 2016, a complete episode called Tunnel of Fear was recovered in pristine condition and returned to the archives. Now, fans of cult TV can enjoy this previously lost episode for the very first time – almost sixty years since it was first recorded!
Everyone knows The Avengers: the series where the dapper gentleman Steed, immaculately dressed in bowler hat, umbrella, and carnation buttonhole, solves a left-of-field puzzler with the help of a sexy female partner. Well, that’s not quite how the series started… Tunnel of Fear is both familiar and yet a strange defiance of expectations to the casual viewer who may not have researched the series’ mostly absent first year.
At the genesis, Patrick Macnee wasn’t even the star – that fell to Scottish character actor Ian Hendry. Remember him? The fascinating tale of Hendry’s star that burned brightly, briefly, and caved in against a life of self-destruction and notable supporting roles before a premature death was vividly told in Gabriel Hershman’s biography Send In The Clowns – The Yo Yo Life Of Ian Hendry. Aged only thirty at the time of The Avengers, there’s little hint of the trouble to come in his performance as Dr David Keel, the physician who enters a strange second career as an investigator after the murder of his fiancé. And there’s no sexy female sidekick in sight – just two young men. It could not be more different in tone to the rest of the series.
Tunnel of Fear sees Harry, a young man who works at a fairground (played by Anthony Bate, best-remembered as Oliver Lacon in the definitive 1970’s TV adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) escape from prison, determined to clear his name for the crime that had him sent down. At the same time, top secret British intelligence is being intercepted and leaked. Keel and Steed settle upon helping the young man, and investigate the funfair, uncovering more than they bargained for.
The chemistry between the lead actors is what’s so alien and yet so fascinating about this glimpse into the birth of a TV phenomenon. It’s obvious from the start that Hendry is forced to play the straight man to Macnee, who gets all the best dialogue. While Hendry has a dry line of questioning at the funfair, finding the young man’s mother, Macnee gets to dress up in Turkish regalia and act the part of carny soliciting passing trade – which Macnee does brilliantly. There’s a twinkle in his eye and a camp delicacy to his delivery – even though he’s the second fiddle, he’s the one that captures the imagination. There’s a post-Avengers interview with Hendry on the extra features in which he is slightly snappy and taciturn when asked about the show – perhaps he was wise enough to realise it was Macnee’s baby and move on rather than try to compete? As with Peter Wyngarde making himself the unlikely star of Department S, Macnee pulled off the same feat some years earlier: the hallmark of a great actor who knows how to seize the part of a lifetime.
The leads aside, the episode features some great guest turns. Doris Rogers adds more comic relief as Harry’s loveable rogue of a mum, and look out for Morris Perry as an embarrassed police officer.
As a piece of television, Tunnel of Fear is, as you would expect for an early 1960s production, cheaply and, by today’s standards, crudely made on black and white videotape, with all of the action split between just a few sets and recorded more or less as live (with very little editing required, episodes aired only a few days after production in those days). It relies heavily on coincidence (Anthony Bate happens to look for medical help from the only GP who would link his story with the larger problem of British secrets being leaked abroad). The story also doesn’t quite go far enough. Bate’s character has served in the Korean War and become susceptible to hypnotism – all very The Manchurian Candidate (Condon’s novel was only two years old at the time), but perhaps to avoid a blatant homage, the subplot isn’t fully developed. Despite these reservations, Tunnel of Fear, which was only ever intended to be watched once, is enormous fun. The theatrical nature of it (by which I refer to the relatively static camera techniques and dialogue-led drama rather than suggesting the performances are too large) lends it a freshness and an immediacy. You can feel the adrenaline of the actors, shooting the episode more or less as live, with no luxurious retakes to cover mistakes. Television drama of the era is way more exciting than the over-polished fayre we’re offered now.
This is a must-buy for all fans of The Avengers, and a great piece of TV from the swinging Sixties for more casual viewers. It’s Macnee’s charming, deft, clever, funny performance that lives in the memory afterwards.
Extras on the disc include archive interviews with stars Macnee and Hendry, who respond very differently when asked about The Avengers… There’s also an audio version of the episode by Big Finish, which features Julian Wadham as Steed and Anthony Howell as Keel. An interview with the writer John Dorney explains where his version (which was pieced together without a script) deviated from the play as broadcast, as well as surviving clips, such as the first act of the very first episode, Hot Snow, and reconstructions and scripts from the episodes that remain missing. Hours of fun for the devotee.
Cast: Ian Hendry, Patrick Macnee, Anthony Bate Director: Guy Verney Writer: John Kruse Released By: Studiocanal Running Time: 52 mins Release Date: 9th April 2018