The surprise return of any archive television – especially presumed-gone-forever episodes of cult TV favourites from the 1950s and 1960s – is always a cause for celebration. Doctor Who fans rejoiced and danced a merry jig (probably) back in 2013 when nine previously-lost episodes were found in Africa and subsequently made available to a salivating public. Fans of The Avengers, the classic espionage/adventure series starring Patrick Macnee, long frustrated by the fact that only two full episodes existed from their show’s first twenty-six episode season, were equally jubilant when, against all reasonable odds, a season one episode came to light in a private film collection in 2016. Recovered by the British television preservation group Kaleidoscope the episode – ‘Tunnel of Fear’ – is now available on DVD at last supported by a host of bonus content.
‘Tunnel of Fear’ is a fascinating flashback to British television production in the very early 1960s and a handy reminder that The Avengers in its embryonic form was a very different series to the fast-paced, high concept and often surreal adventure series it would become as the decade wore on. In this first series Ian Hendry plays Dr David Keel (Hendry had played a vaguely similar role in the short-lived series Police Surgeon which finished its run just a month before The Avengers debuted) whose fiancée is murdered in opening episode ‘Hot Snow’ and whose death is ‘avenged’ by Keel alongside mysterious Government agent John Steed (Macnee). The two form an occasional and often uneasy partnership throughout the series but while Hendry was the nominal star of the show, it gradually became apparent that Macnee’s flashy, witty Steed was the more interesting character with more dramatic potential than the dour and rather straight-laced Keel. ‘Tunnel of Fear’ demonstrates this beautifully. Wounded escaped convict Harry Black (Bate) bursts into Keel’s surgery, claiming he’s been framed for a crime he didn’t commit and begging not to be handed over to the Police. Steed is quickly on the scene and establishes a connection between Black and an espionage case concerning the leaking of top secret Government information which has unlikely links to, of all places, Southend-on-Sea. Black escapes their clutches and heads to Southend and a reunion with his estranged Mum who’s working at the funfair but Keel and Steed aren’t far behind. Steed somehow manages to nab himself a job at a belly-dancing show – cue much racy bottom-slapping and Macnee’s nails-down-a-chalkboard turn as a carnival barker – and the ill-matched pair eventually discover the sinister secrets of the fair’s ghost train.
‘Tunnel of Fear’ is terrific fun and while it’s tonally worlds away from the style of the more outrageous series it would become later in the decade, the seeds of its future are self-evident in Macnee’s lively turn as Steed. Here he’s not the familiar urbane umbrella-and-bowler figure generally associated with The Avengers; here’s he’s depicted as a bit of a wide boy, a chancer and a wheeler-dealer good with a quip and handy with a double bluff. The story itself is mundane espionage stuff, ambitious beyond its resources (the Southend funfair where the action takes place is realised on a handful of cramped studio sets with just one quick filmed London location insert earlier in the episode) and, recorded on videotape, is directed with none of the panache of the later glossier filmed episodes. Stagey and talky, ‘Tunnel of Fear’ is obviously a product of its time, the era when British television was just starting to flex its post-War muscles at the beginning of a decade which would see an explosion of creativity and imagination with The Avengers itself still recognised as one of the trailblazers of the medium. This episode, entirely uncharacteristic of what was to come, is an important and exciting find and fans of The Avengers and cult TV in general are unlikely to be disappointed by the opportunity to dip back into the earliest days of a genuine television legend.
Special Features: Archive TV interviews with Hendry and Macnee / Interview with Big Finish writer John Dorney / Reconstructions/Surviving scripts
THE AVENGERS – TUNNEL OF FEAR / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: DON LEAVER / SCREENPLAY: JOHN KRUSE / STARRING: IAN HENDRY, PATRICK MACNEE, INGRID HAFNER,ANTHONY BATE, JOHN SALEW / RELEASE DATE: APRIL 9TH