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Friday, 23 October 2009

The Avengers Guy

I had to miss last month's UK Fantasycon, but I'd already been asked to write an appreciation of Guest of Honour Brian Clemens for the Convention's programme book. Here's what I said.

It was one o'clock in the morning and I had stuff on my mind. I turned on the TV for distraction. In a '60s Geneva created from library footage and a crisply-photographed studio backlot, an international security agent who'd been missing for two days walked into his headquarters building and calmly shot one of his superiors. For the next hour, the stuff on my mind ceased to trouble me and the world was young again.

(Except, of course, when my world was young, there was no TV or much of anything else going on at one in the morning)

I hardly needed to look at the credits to know who'd written the episode. Brian Clemens was always the master of the arresting story hook, a Sensei among warriors in the screenwriting ranks. There's hardly a piece of classic British 'cult' TV that doesn't either have his fingerprints on it, or his DNA somewhere in it. Even The Prisoner, a show in which he had no actual hand, can be traced back to the Clemens-scripted Danger Man pilot in which both Patrick McGoohan's secret agent persona and the Portmeirion location made their first TV appearances.

For many people Brian Clemens will be, forever and above all else, the Avengers guy. But The Avengers is really just the most prominent peak in a career characterised by prodigious energy and inventiveness, coupled with an impeccable professionalism. In a field that can so easily be colonised by journeyman work, his writing always has a voice, an angle, an attitude.

Born in 1931, Clemens grew up in Croydon. After service in the army and work in advertising, he sold a single play to BBC Television which led to a stint as house screenwriter for the Danziger Brothers. Depending on your prejudice or your point of view, the Danzigers were low-rent exploitation producers or resourceful low-budget entertainment providers in the Roger Corman style. They supplied second features for British cinema bills and half-hour filmed series for UK and US television. While in their employ, Clemens developed a proficiency in writing to deadline around available resources, as the brothers seized opportunities to get some extra use out of sets, props and sometimes even paid-up performers from other, more expensive productions.

Those skills were widely used by Clemens in such series as Mark Saber and Richard the Lionheart for the Danzigers, while also moonlighting scripts for Sir Francis Drake, Ivanhoe and HG Wells' The Invisible Man. He once said, "At one time, all of British episodic television was written by about ten writers, and I was one of them." He credits the Danger Man pilot as his big break; renamed Secret Agent, the show was picked up for network screening in the US by CBS and blazed a trail for all of UK international production throughout the '60s.

Although Sidney Newman is often credited as the creative force behind The Avengers and other classic TV including Armchair Theatre and Doctor Who, his role was more accurately that of a godfather. Newman came up with the Avengers title, and the idea of doing something new with Ian Hendry's Police Surgeon character from an underperforming series. Clemens was again brought in at the pilot stage, and three seasons later took over full creative control of the series as it moved from electronic production to film. The mix that had been brewed up in the creaky and low-res live-action studio now exploded with the application of top-drawer production values. The result was unique and confident. It didn't so much mirror the swinging sixties, as play a major part in defining them.

Season four was the 1965 black-and-white season, with such classic episodes as The House that Jack Built, The Town of No Return, and the glorious and notorious A Touch of Brimstone. Season five went to colour and hit the same level of triumph with knobs on. But it's those episodes in 'sparkling black and white', as the American trailers described them, with their stark op-art world and King's Road sensibility, that made the first and deepest cut for me. There is a place forever in my heart where the door to Emma Peel's flat has a big eyeball on it.

Although Clemens freelanced scripts for just about every high-profile action show from Adam Adamant to The Persuaders, after The Avengers he was also a force as a producer. When he was making The New Avengers a TV Times profile made reference to "his sixth Ferrari" and "the exclusive privacy of his four acres in Bedfordshire". With the suspense anthology series Thriller he became that rare thing for a screenwriter, a marquee draw with his name linked to the title. The Professionals made as much of a mark on the '70s as The Avengers in the decade before it, and the sitcom My Wife Next Door brought him a BAFTA award.

When Brian Eastman's Carnival Films wanted a high-concept, pacy action show for BBC1 on Saturday evenings, they turned to Clemens for Bugs. The show ran for four series and gave me the opportunity to write the kind of TV I'd grown up on, and later to share the role of series consultant with one of my biggest professional heroes. Imagine that! Though we'd met at festivals by then, we never actually met on the show. I'm told that half the time our feedback was 100% in agreement, while the other half of the time our comments were in complete opposition. Which I suppose sounds kind of healthy.

But back to that late hour, a few nights ago. My one o'clock diversion did exactly as its author intended. It gave an hour's pleasure, and a valued respite from the ordinary. It was an episode of The Champions, the Heroes of its day. I understand that it was written during the brief period when Clemens was out of The Avengers (after Diana Rigg's last season, and before Linda Thorson's first) and before he had to go back in and sort out the mess they got into without him.

The Champions episode was typical of Clemens' contribution to other people's shows. It's as if he examined the underlying concept and set out to nail it just a little bit better than anyone else, in this case taking the main characters and setting them, Marvel-style, to use their powers against each other.

There's much I've missed out. I've said nothing about his sales to American TV and I've been skipping over feature work that includes See No Evil with Mia Farrow, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad for Ray Harryhausen, an excursion into writer/director territory with Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter for Hammer, The Watcher in the Woods for Disney. But check out his Internet Movie Database page; it lists over a hundred entries, many of them for multiple series writing credits, and it's still growing. The films are as eclectic a selection as the TV work, but all have the same stamp on them; Hitchcockian technique, with an irreverent light touch.

And if you were thinking of asking: no, he had nothing to do with that Avengers movie.

The loyal and eagle-eyed may have spotted a couple of paragraphs recycled from an earlier Avengers piece. And speaking of recycling, The Champions has been slated for a feature remake by Guillermo del Toro, and despite his current involvement with the Hobbit movie it's said to be still on the cards. Last I heard he was going to write, but not direct.

6 comments:

Gail Renard said...

Thanks for doing justice to Brian Clemens, who shaped my TV life too... and not only in viewing and writing. To this day, like Emma Peel, I still kick open doors whenever possible.

I never realised Brian wrote for My WIfe Next Door. I usually associate it with Richard Waring. From what I remember, another splendid series. Anything Brian Clemens has turned his hand to has been first class.

Piers said...

Dammit, you've covered this so comprehensively I have nothing useful to add.

Yes. Brian Clemens. What He Said.

Tom Murphy said...

Thanks Stephen - that's a great article on one of my absolute writing/TV heroes

Hoppy Uniatz said...

Lovely piece.

Aside from sheer enjoyment of his work I also am desperately trying to adopt his attitude, or as he says;

"The Danzigers taught me so many things. One thing they said was 'there's no mystique to writing, it's just ‘arse to chair, and pen to paper’ and I've never forgotten that."

Chris said...

Missed FCon too, but got the programme: spot-on appreciation.

Will you be in Brighton for World Horror, Steve?

Stephen Gallagher said...

I'd planned to make a special effort for Brighton, but it'll depend on where I find myself when March rolls around. After the rollercoaster of the last 18 months, I daren't anticipate anything.