A Sense of History
"A Sense of History" is a well-written and interesting episode that easily makes my top ten list. Even though it does not fare as well upon repeated viewing as some other shows—mostly because it is such a good mystery that knowing the identity of the evil mastermind is a real spoiler—it exhibits a rare combination of character development, humor and style.
Steed and Mrs. Peel display much more depth of character in "History" than in the typical episode. Their charm, wit and class are there, of course, but tempered by glimpses of less palatable traits. For example, when Professor Henge walks into the classroom where Emma and Steed are discussing the newly discovered thesis, Emma interrupts Steed and almost knocks him over in her ardor to take charge of the conversation with Henge. She certainly wants to get the professor's attention! Could Emma have been a grade-grubber? Also, Steed shows a more dangerous, edgy side that is reminiscent of the Cathy Gale era. He really seems to enjoy wrenching DuBois' arm and smacking Petit on the head with the thesis. (Incidentally, the role of John Petit is well-developed and well-acted, especially considering that he's the "red shirt" who dies halfway through the episode to show that Steed and Emma are on the right track.)
Despite the few dark overtones, there are some very funny moments in this episode. Steed's remark about his droopy sword is first class, and Carlyon's revelation that he doesn't want to die for his country, although he'd be willing to "suffer a bit" for it, is wonderful. The fight at the end with Grindley and Carlyon going around in circles slapping each other is extremely gratifying to anyone who has ever sat through a faculty meeting.
Finally, the costumes are great. Of course, Emma's Robin Hood outfit is famous, but Steed's Sheriff of Nottingham is also terrific. In fact, I think he looks a lot more like the Sheriff of Nottingham than did the fellow who played the role in the Kevin Costner film. Now, if someone could only explain to Steed that the Sheriff is a baddie...
All in all, even after you know the ending, "A Sense of History" is worth a second or third try.
A Sense of History
All in all (and this episode is still fresh in mind; I watched it for the first time last night) I liked this one a lot better then everybody else. The plot is interesting and different, and I loved the little twist at the end, although I do think it was a bit odd that the students were so involved with the club (if that's what you'd call it). The swearing in blood and piercing each other with the sword was somehow a bit too occult and intense.
I live for the scene in which Steed was smothering the fire with his robe, and trying to save his bowler hat (I feel sorry for the poor thing; it goes through quite a lot.) It wasn't one of my favorite episodes (it's not even in my top 25), but I do think it should have gotten more than 2 bowlers.
A Sense of History
For some reason, "A Sense Of History" remains as one of the most underrated episodes of The Avengers. As far as I am concerned, however, it's quite a gem to enjoy throughout. Not very often Avengers scripts were centered on the world of higher education and its impact along the 60s, reflecting if somewhat tangentially, the generational conflict between stubborn professors with traditional ideas and rebellious students with revolutionary thoughts. "School for Traitors" could be an antecedent, but I'm unable to find other successors within my memory.
The concept of the destruction of European economies and the radical change in history emerging from an evil thesis of some diabolic mastermind seems to have some parallels with the threatening words the less than perfect Hitler's "Mein Kampf" contained. Was this the purpose writer Woodhouse had in mind? After all, the villain of this episode (utterly unpredictable, by the way) found his followers amongst a group of students who constituted an idolatrous, chauvinistic and intolerant elite.
All the cast members give excellent performances in general. The young Duboys (played by Patrick Mower, whom years later we'd see again along with Patrick Macnee in a dreadful film, The Bloodsuckers) is a smug fanatic with good flair for leadership. In watching such a cocky character who easily commands the student body of St. Bodes, one can't help but recall Sydney Poitier's legendary role in the hit Hollywood movie of 1955, Blackboard Jungle ("One, two, three, four..." remember the rock music soundtrack?) Professors Henge and Acheson are two stereotypes of university life, although I must admit the latter falls more exactly into the eccentrics category rather than the models. Now, speaking of eccentrics, what to say about Carlyon? One doesn't get to understand why this hilarious character has set campground in a comfortable wagon in the middle of a woodland near St. Bodes. Wasn't it a lot safer to stay at a hotel instead of camping there, knowing he could be a perfect target for the marauding Robin Hoods? Well, in such a case, where would the quirkiness of a character like this have been?
The sublime Mrs Peel does not have in "A Sense Of History" a decisive role, at least concerning the plot development. She rather devotes her time to the search of the infamous thesis in question. But may the devil take my soul if I didn't say she is the protagonist of a splendid interplay with Steed, revealing suggestive looks, innocent leg-pulls and double entendres aplenty. Emma, pointing at the sword of Steed's Sheriff of Nottingham costume: "That looks a bit droopy." Steed: "Wait until it's challenged." And while we're on the subject of period outfits, those whose eyes popped out of their heads at the sight of Miss Rigg in her Robin Hood costume surely will have much more to add than myself.
Certainly Steed doesn't fall short of merits. He not only enjoys picnicking along with the timorous Carlyon, but also becomes a discus thrower making his "debut" with a casserole cover. Amazing! He also returns to old "torture" methods that send us back to his tough guy times of the Gale seasons, as Terri pointed out in her review above. Like Emma, insolent kids evidently make him nervous, and he does not hesitate at all to chastise both Duboys and Pettit with an undeniable air of satisfaction. However, at the same time he seems to project himself to The New Avengers Steed, when he acknowledges his mistake once Pettit is killed, admitting he should have cared for the young fellow.
As always, in The Avengers' hands, all preposterous theories succumb to the power of reason. And maybe the most allegorical note of this great episode is the title of the book appearing next to the unconscious Duboys, once Emma got rid of him with one of her trademark karate blows: "How To Develop A Winning Personality." Such counterpoint!
A Sense of History
"You're a fraud, Steed."
A friend's visit allowed me to dust off a monochrome episode; what a joy to revisit this one. Everyone is having so much fun! Even debonair Patrick Mower manages to bring some malicious glee to his student ringleader role. Barely recognisable is the very young Jacqueline Pearce, who would later go on to play 'diabolical mastermind' villainesses in other British fantasy television; but here she is Marianne, an ingénue who gradually wises up to the boys' plot.
Best of all are the 'old' gents: John Barron a picture of pomposity as a reviled Professor, John Ringham playing a bemused Don who constantly bends, flaps and capers ("isometrics — exercise without apparatus") — his attempts to be 'helpful' to Steed and Emma are a joy, including absent-mindedly firing an arrow at them! Nigel Stock is the brave/cowardly aide to Steed, sheltering from the outlaws' arrows with a tin colander on his head, serving coffee underneath a gypsy caravan; and John Glyn-Jones is the muttering bespectacled archivist Prof Grindley who gets an arrow in the back just before he begins class — or does he?
Despite posing as a professor, Emma's feminism is mocked a little too much — "I prefer my students wide-eyed and... innocent" as she uncovers a very daring (for TV in the 60s) 'pin-up' stuck underneath a desk lid. And she poses in that rather revealing Robin Hood costume — but I have to say she is stunning in it. Stunning in three ways: beautiful (as always), secondly with her usual wit (most notably when gently ridiculing Steed's "Sheriff of Nottingham" costume and floppy sword), and thirdly by literally stunning the enemy (and a few passers-by!) unconscious in the archive library. This very amusing scene has Emma asking Steed whether it would be better to brain a villain with Historical Memoirs or an "Encyclopedia of Erotica"! Steed (in mid-struggle): "The memoirs — they're heavier." In the end she gets the wrong man, and so needs the erotica too!
Steed sneaks in a quip or two (and even a double-entendre) and his repartee keeps up with Emma. He also has two of those lovely Steed-steel moments, as he threatens the villain with a broken arm in the College quadrangle. You can tell he means it — and all said through a smile. Whilst interrogating the youths earlier, he also bopped Pettit over the head with a thesis — quite firmly!
A three bowler (out of four) knockabout romp. It loses a point for its uneven pacing, bad dubbing of "St Bode's" for "St Bede's", and villains who are not really in Steed and Emma's league (i.e., irritatingly easily-led students).
A Sense of History
I love this episode, but I was never quite sure why until recently. I think it lacks some pace until the party scene, but its saving grace is definitely the villainy. It might be possible to divide Avengers villains into two categories: the "mystery" villains who appear at the end with a charmingly implausible plot to wreak destruction, and the smooth, charming but evil from the beginning villain, who ends by revealing a similarly charming and implausible plot. Examples are perhaps Angus in "Castle De'ath", compared to Cartney in "A Touch of Brimstone". This episode does both brilliantly, and I can't think of any other episode that combines the two types of villain so effectively. DuBoys is a brilliant "smiling villain" and slightly unnerving, whilst Grindley is a total surprise as Head Villain (but just plausible enough, watching the episode over again). First-class episode, perhaps just short of the top ten, but very very good indeed.
A Sense of History
Plot: Very Good. Nice twist having Grindley as the diabolical mastermind—he fooled me—I was sure it was Professor Acheson. I liked the fact that he won over the students to his beliefs, and I also liked the twist of him being killed.
Humour: OK. Best line: "Old wound, you know." "Really? German bullet World War II?" "Umbrella. January Sales. Damned stupid woman!"
Acting: Very Good. Wonderful performances by Patrick Mower, Robin Philips, Nigel Stock, and John Ringham.
Music: Very Good. I like the music during the ending fight.
Miscellaneous: I don't really have much to say about this episode. I found it a rather mundane affair altogether. It really just didn't suit my tastes, except Mrs. Peel as Robin Hood. My favorite line from this episode doesn't fit under humour: "Well, if Duboys gives you any more trouble, just report him to the proctor." "I'll do better than that, I'll break his arm."
Overall Rating: 6/10
A Sense of History
Understandably, Diana Rigg gets most of the praise and comments when people recall The Avengers ("the show with Mrs Peel, right? She was cool"), but it's worth remembering how very good Patrick Macnee was. In this episode, we get just a glimpse of a hard and ruthless side to Steed. He was after all a top secret agent who routinely dealt with killers and enemy spies. The increasingly goofy aspects of the show caused these traits to lose emphasis but we see a bit of it here. These black & white episodes are more thrillers with comic relief than the cheerful spoofs of the next season.
Our avenging idols go to the University of St Bodes to deal with the threat of a thesis on economics. (What? Yes.) A politician working on a plan to unite Europe's resources ("Eurotopia" – ending poverty) is murdered, in a characteristically bizarre opening scene – he is stopped by masked students in Merry Men outfits, which demand money for Rag Week. After he cheerfully complies and turns back to his car, twang goes an arrow right into his back. Well, that's odd. (The little heraldic fanfare is a nice touch.)
John Steed investigates and naturally asks Mrs Peel if she's interested in furthering her education. They arrive at St Bodes and begin digging around. Soon our heroes are knee-deep in a good old-fashioned mystery. An unknown mastermind is planning to disastrously disrupt European economics through an ingenious scheme found in one of the college's theses. There are several professors giving Steed and Emma suspicious stares after being asked pointed questions, some rather nasty and irritating students, a secret society with oaths sworn in blood and all that, and a few murders of likely suspects just when things start seeming too clear. There is much skulking and lurking in darkened corridors and shadowy rooms. It ends in an elaborate costume party, where Mrs Peel makes quite an impression in a Robin Hood outfit, and all is revealed (well, the murderer's plan, that is, not Mrs Peel.)
Some eccentric characters turn up, as you might expect. (This is not something new with The Avengers, of course; detectives back to Raymond Chandler's stories had been meeting whacky folks during their investigations.) One professor is enthusiastically performing isometrics everywhere, although he's doing them all wrong; another is for some reason camped out in the nearby woods with a gypsy wagon (but no sign of a horse?). Then there are the students.
I have to say the class we see at St Bode are an unlikable lot. You have to expect a certain amount of insolence and know-it-all pretensions from college students – it's part of the process – but these kids carry it without charm. Their ringleader is a hateful bully named DuBoys. He is played by Patrick Gower with so much arrogance and rudeness that I was really disappointed Emma didn't give him a thorough thrashing.
Steed seems to be barely restraining his dislike when dealing with the students. Surrounded by a circle of them in rubber masks (that Rag Week business again), he then has DuBoys insultingly question his claim to be an ex-alumnus. When DuBoys lays a hand against his chest, Steed says, "I object to having my word doubted. I object very strongly," and seizes it in a painful-looking lock under his own arm. Before releasing the young thug, he gives the hand a vicious little twist to make his point. What really makes an impression is how self-assured and firm Steed is during this (and when later questioning another student). He keeps a slight smile on his face. This would be much more unnerving than any fierce scowling could match.
It all comes to the climax during the costume party ("Quite mad. A rave.* Great fun"). Everyone is dressed in Merry Man-themed outfits. (Steed is the Sheriff of Nottingham, with a rather disappointing prop sword.) Emma wears a striking Robin Hood costume, notable because the short jerkin reveals nearly all of her backside in what amounts to a wide thong. I actually didn't think this outfit was all that flattering to Diana Rigg. She was a lovely woman indeed, but I liked her best in those soft catsuits which were sexy in a casual, unstressed way. Mrs Peel doesn't get to accomplish all that much in this episode (aside from shooting a sword out of someone's grip with an arrow...!). She spends much of her time in the dusty archives, searching for the infamous thesis. Every time she manages to bring some order out of chaos, something makes a shambles out it again (much like efforts in my own bookroom).
There are a few odd things here I'd like to mention. The university seems almost deserted. The show had a limited budget, of course, and the cast had to be kept to a minimum. But it does seem rather eerie how quiet and abandoned the campus is, with none of the establishing shots of crowds milling about we usually get in a story like this. One of the characters fakes his death with the arrow in the back bit. It's one thing to plant a substitute corpse in a burning car or explosion, where the dead man's identity would be assumed, but this technique makes me wonder how the fellow managed the autopsy, coroner's report, burial and so forth so easily. Quite a trick.
Then there's the death of one of the students in the archives. A bookcase is shoved over on him, but it's open (that is, there's no back to it) and the space between shelves is wide enough to climb through. There are not all that many books on it, either. A reasonably fit and active young man would have plenty of time to get out of the way, block the falling bookcase or at least protect himself with his arms. Yet he just cries out, "Look out you fool!" and obligingly lets it bang down on him. This could have been staged better. Maybe having the student unaware of his danger until the shelves came down and hit him across the neck? At least that would be convincing. It's a neat touch, though that Steed feels a twinge of remorse at not preventing the death ("I should never have let him go it alone").
*This usage back in 1966 rather surprised me.
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