For all the fans of The Avengers familiar with the Emma Peel/Tara King era of the show, these early episodes featuring Cathy Gale and Venus Smith may come as something of a disappointment. In fact, fans of the later shows may find it hard to believe that they are even part of the same TV series!
After the initial run of 26 episodes featuring Police Surgeon David Keel and his cohort John Steed had aired in the UK in 1961/62, the producers of the program opted to bring Steed to the forefront of the action and give him a number of different "assistants." Thus, for season two, 26 further episodes were made and broadcast in 1962/63 featuring Steed abetted by Martin King, Venus Smith or Cathy Gale. Mrs. Gale turned out to be the most popular and successful foil for the suave agent, and the other characters did not return after season two. Unlike the later Peel/King stories which were all made on film, these studio based TV shows are much more reliant on dialogue and plot than visual elements, and can be somewhat heavy going as a result.
A&E is releasing these stories in a somewhat confusing order, and has started with season three. The first two sets released, Avengers 64 1 & 2, feature the LAST six episodes of season three. Next comes Avengers 63 sets 1 & 2 which comprises of the first half of the season. Next up in the release order is 63 sets 3 & 4 which precede 1 & 2 in running order and in fact feature the last seven stories from season two, plus the first from season three. Confused? Ultimately, it doesn't really matter, since thankfully there's no real reason to watch the stories in chronological order anyway.
What is interesting is the development of the production standards. 63 sets 3 & 4, featuring the latter stories from season two, are far more rudimentary in terms of production quality. The sets are extremely small and sparse; The direction very slap-hazard; Camera work shoddy; Sound is extremely poor; and the acting is negligible. With no budget for editing or reshooting, all the actor's fluffs and goofs stayed in. Steed's character is far less suave and sophisticated then he became later during his familiar role alongside Mrs. Peel, and the relationship with Mrs. Gale in particular is at first downright hostile with very little warmth between the two. He seems to get along much better with Miss Venus Smith, a night club singer who he engages at various gigs to act as his eyes and ears. Venus is a very odd character, and played strangely, but enthusiastically by Julie Stevens. She looks about 12, sings like she's forty, and dresses like anything in between. She also seems extremely naÃ¯ve and it's hard to imagine why Steed engages her to help him at all. The far more intelligent and elegant Mrs. Gale does eventually warm up to Steed, and in the season three stories where she is the exclusive companion to him, their relationship develops nicely and they become much warmer and closer to each other.
The production values on season three are also much better than the earlier episodes. The sets became larger and more elaborate. The direction, lighting and sound improved greatly and the acting was much less wooden. Some editing was clearly allowed on these later stories, whereas the earlier ones clearly were broadcast as if they were live. There's a terrific blunder in "Six hands across a table," where Cathy is called "Ros" in one scene, and both actors realize the mistake, but keep going. An even better goof comes in "Concerto" when Nigel Stock forgets his lines completely and a very audible prompt is given from off camera. Terrific stuff.
The quality of the DVD's is somewhat disappointing, even accounting for the age of the material and the production values mentioned above. It may not be the case, but it certainly appears that A&E have made no attempt whatsoever to re-master the original tapes, and the flaws, jumps, scratches and sound blips are too numerous to mention. Virtually every episode on 63 sets 3 & 4 are hampered by picture and sound flaws and defects. Things do improve for 63 1 & 2 and 64 1 & 2, but the quality is still disappointing. Mind you, it appears they have done nothing to clean up the Tara King episodes either!
As a big fan of the series, I wouldn't even consider not having these episodes in my collection, but if you're looking for the wacky camp humor and the tele-fantasy of the Peel/King eras, these stories may not be for you.