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Review: The Avengers – The Lost Episodes Volume 1 / Author: Various / Publisher: Big Finish / Starring: Anthony Howell, Julian Wadham, Lucy Briggs-Owen, Colin Baker, Sophie Aldred, Terry Molloy, Tim Bentinck, Blake Riston, George Rainsford / Release Date: Out Now

Before the days of kinky boots and Emma Peel, The Avengers was a grittier, hard-edged drama series whose hero was a Dr Keel and John Steed was almost his assistant. Little survives of the original television broadcasts and Big Finish has adapted the original scripts for audio to bring the world of early 1960s espionage drama to a new generation.

This first volume consists of four separate stories. Hot Snow is a tale of mistaken identity and heroin. It introduces Dr Keel, a man who is desperate to make sense of an apparently motiveless crime, which he attempts to do with the aid of a certain John Steed, a mysterious figure on the grey side of the law. Keel joins a gang of drug sellers but will this be enough to allow him to get to the truth? Brought to Book closes off Hot Snow and once more Steed has Keel join the underworld. This time it is the world of London gangs and protection rackets. Keel risks his own life to bring the criminals to justice and comes close to crossing the line himself when he has an assassin at his mercy.

The third tale, The Square Root of Evil, starts as a pure Steed story. Complete with Irish accent, he joins a gang of forgers to stop them flooding Britain with counterfeit banknotes. Wounded, he gets help from Keel who is then roped into assisting Steed as he strives to escape the wrath of the violent thug known as the Cardinal. And lastly, One for the Mortuary takes the action out of London and into Switzerland. Keel has become an unwitting courier who must protect a medical formula from a range of villains. He becomes mixed up with the beautiful Yvette and the action reaches a climax in an unusually accommodating taxidermist's.

Once you adjust to Steed not being the hero, the quality of these stories shines through. They are a superb historical document capturing as they do the zeitgeist of early 1960s London. We have a respected Doctor striving for justice and the all-knowing Steed manipulating events and taking great risks himself. Each episode lets the listener understand exactly what the situation is and become a party to Steed’s plans, then listen as they unravel and the protagonists are forced to survive on their wits. Over the course of the stories, the relationship between the main characters gets established and by the fourth it has deepened enough that they can begin to rely on each other.

John Dorney, who adapted the scripts, has helped these stories to travel from screen to audio without any jarring moments. Director Ken Bentley pitches the acting where it needs to be to recapture the time without being a caricature, and all the cast are spot-on. The leads are faultless: Anthony Howell (Foyle’s War and various other Big Finish audios) plays Dr Keel as an intelligent man capable of making decisions and doing what needs to be done and every bit Steed’s equal. As to Steed, once you hear Julian Wadham (Minister of Chance, numerous film and TV roles) you can hear the bowler hat and umbrella and any doubt about recasting the character previously owned by Patrick Macnee is gone; he is everything you could want for Steed.

The production is up to Big Finish's usual standards and the music helps conjure up the period. The story even retains the episode breaks it would have had on commercial television and you can almost see the various credits in your mind’s eye as the end music plays.

If you were ever a fan of the TV series, are interested in the early 1960s or just want a few hours of cracking drama to listen to, this is a must buy.

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