By Alec Deacon
‘‘Hold tight now, for the tunnel of a million thrills!’’
Rediscovered after 55 years and available from April 2018 for the first time on DVD, Tunnel Of Fear showcases The Avengers’ (no not those ones, the real ones) early days in the best way. Set in the fictional Belair funfair at Southend-on-Sea, a holiday town on the Essex coast, Dr. David Keel (Ian Hendry) and Ministry agent John Steed (Patrick Macnee) must infiltrate a funfair that is suspected of being involved in some nefarious deeds.
The Avengers, was a British 1960’s espionage adventure series that began in 1961 and ran until 1969, totalling 161-episodes across six series, it was later re-tiled and revived in 1976, as The New Avengers, and ran for a further two series.
Many viewers however are completely unaware The Avengers even existed prior to Dame Diana Rigg’s Golden Age, when as the super sophisticated lady of action – Mrs. Emma Peel, worked alongside the late Patrick Macnee, as the gentleman spy – John Steed, fighting diabolical masterminds at every turn, in service of The Ministry.
Linda Thorson would take over as Tara King after Rigg’s departure, while Joanna Lumley would go on to play Purdey in the 1970s revival alongside coffee ad man, Gareth Hunt as Mike Gambit. The Avengers leading ladies however, began with Honor Blackman and Julie Stevens as Dr Cathy Gale and nightclub singer Venus Smith during series two and three. Amazingly even Honor Blackman’s tenure was unknown to most, as her era was not broadcast outside of the UK, in some places until the 1990s.
It was also of no help whatsoever to the shows history when, The Avengers first series succumbed to the horrendous early television practice of junking recorded shows shortly after broadcast, a fate those fans of cult TV, no-doubt associate with that other famous British creation – Doctor Who. However whereas Doctor Who’s longevity and profile kept its fans searching for those prized lost episodes year after year, The Avengers first series almost became ‘missing believed wiped’ from public memory not just from the archives.
Thankfully, as all is not quite lost, because, Tunnel Of Fear, along with the episodes, Hot Snow (partial recovery) and Girl On The Trapeze, had 16mm recordings of the videotape broadcasts sent to the United States in the early 1960s. It took awhile but in 2016 due to the hard work of groups such as Kaleidoscope, an organisation dedicated to the locating of lost TV and film and returning it to the archives, we now have another new (or should that be old) episode from The Avengers first series to enjoy.
Tunnel Of Fear was broadcast late in The Avengers first series, number twenty of twenty-six to be exact and the series has defiantly hit its stride with shades of what was to come clearly evident in characterisation and style and just a hint of spy-fi.
The late screen actor Ian Hendry originally held top billing in The Avengers as Doctor David Keel with Patrick Macnee playing second fiddle as secretive Ministry operative John Steed. By the time of Tunnel Of Fear though they were very much a team and Macnee was defiantly beginning to outshine Hendry in his love for the show whereas Hendry made it no secret he was unlikely to return for a second season.
Of course this is not to say Ian Hendry is not committed and professional at all times when playing Dr. Keel, he is. His compassion for criminal on the run, Harry Black (Anthony Bate) in the opening moments of the episode, along with his brief back and forth with Keel’s receptionist Carol Wilson played by Ingrid Hafner showcases Hendry taking, what some would regard as, trivial introductory exposition and making it engaging and interesting.
The escaped convict lying on Keel’s examination table claims to be innocent, framed for a crime that he did not commit and cannot even remember carrying out, the theft of a amusement park’s takings where he worked in Southend. Steed informs Keel that government secrets are being leaked from somewhere in Southend, and if Harry Black’s story is indeed true, then it could possibly lead to the capture of the leak and a complete shutdown of their operation. Steed suggests Keel and he take a little trip to the seaside and visit the funfair.
While Keel takes on the role of investigator, Steed goes undercover at the funfair as a barker for the dancing girls attraction, would we expect anything less? Patrick Macnee is a joy to watch and he is clearly having a whale of a time adopting a crazy accent and occasionally getting lost in the role, chewing on the scenery in delightful fashion.
If the first series had ever made it to the United States for broadcast, one thing is for sure, the censors would have had multiple heart attacks, as Steed’s dancing girls certainly put on a show, it is navels galore! One suspects this episode would quite possibly have been banned!
Events then turn sore for our heroes when Steed is taken captive and lives are put on the line for what Harry Black knows. With the mission in jeopardy, Keel and Steed must use anything they can to make their escape or this could be the last seaside holiday they ever have!
Tunnel Of Fear was written by John Kruse, his only contribution to The Avengers although he would go on to write many episodes of The Saint. You do get a feel that Hendry’s role in this episode could be switched for Simon Templar at times as the snappy wry dialogue would be a perfect fit for Roger Moore.
Director Guy Verney’s work shines on his one and only episode for The Avengers. For a production shot ‘as live’ there is barley a misstep. Zoom-ins, quick-cuts and grand ensemble scenes with a rather large cast of extras for a studio-bound show, all adds to the experience and does feel more like The Avengers we all would come to know.
StudioCanal have put together an impressive package for Tunnel Of Fear’s release on home media. Not only do we get a wonderful original 4:3 black and white image from the 16mm film telerecording, the package also boasts a 64-page booklet of rare stills, with a foreword by Neil Hendry, nephew of Ian Hendry, and an essay by Alan Hayes, the author of Two Against the Underworld – Guide To The Avengers Series One.
Extras include, two rare archive interviews with Patrick Macnee and Ian Hendry, recorded for Ulster Television in the early 1960s. A brand new interview with Big Finish writer, John Dorney, with Big Finish‘s audio play reconstruction of Tunnel Of Fear included for good measure. To top it off StudioCanal have included all Series One episode reconstructions, presented in slideshow format with accompanying narration.
This really is, with the exception of a commentary track and the previously released, surviving first series episodes, the best Series One release of The Avengers a fan could wish for.