The Avengers: “The Hour That Never Was” (1965)

I was a teenager when I first discovered The Avengers in reruns on BBC America. As I recall, it aired in the late afternoon, shortly after I came home from school, and it wasn’t long before the series — which initially ran from 1961 to 1969 on the British network ITV — became part of my weekday routine. Ordinarily, I’m not sure that I would have had much interest in a show about secret agents, but I could tell from the start that this particular show was something unique, something special. Menacing wheelchair-bound nannies, men repeatedly getting hit by cars with no ill effects, mind-swapping machines, training schools for proper English gentlemen, nods to the Adam West Batman, quaint villages where murder could be overlooked for the right price — I never knew what to expect, but I did know that it would be fun and entertaining and probably more than a little quirky. In the midst of all that, there was always a mystery to be solved, and it was sure to be solved with wit and style (as well as a fight or two) by the dynamic duo of John Steed (Patrick Macnee) and Emma Peel (Diana Rigg). Emma would eventually be replaced by Tara King (played by Linda Thorson) following Rigg’s departure from the series, and although I didn’t dislike Tara and enjoyed quite a number of the episodes that featured her, nothing could match that Steed and Mrs. Peel pairing.

From what I remember, BBC America exclusively ran the color episodes of The Avengers; at any rate, those were the only ones I ever saw there. It wasn’t until several years later that I encountered the black-and-white portion of the series, including the early episodes that teamed Steed with Honor Blackman’s Cathy Gale and, better yet, a slew of new-to-me Emma Peel adventures. There were a lot of gems among them, and one of my favorites is an episode directed by Gerry O’Hara and written by Roger Marshall that premiered in November 1965: “The Hour That Never Was.”

Frequently, it seems, The Avengers opens with a scene of a person running, usually in an effort to evade someone (or, on occasion, something) intent on killing them. This time, for a change, the figure racing through an otherwise peaceful and idyllic rural landscape is a small dog. Whether it’s fleeing an offscreen threat, pursuing an offscreen quarry or simply having fun is unclear for the present, but whatever the case, it nearly meets a untimely end when it darts into the path of an oncoming car. Fortunately for the dog, it manages to escape unscathed thanks to the quick reflexes of the driver; the car, which swerves off the road and crashes into a tree, isn’t quite so lucky. From the front seat of the wreckage, a very sore Steed sits up with a groan. His first thought is for his companion. “Mrs. Peel! Mrs. Peel!” Two stylish white shoes appear in the back seat — she’s all right, if somewhat confused as to what just happened. “Strange behavior for a dog,” she remarks after she and Steed have gone over the events, both agreeing that the animal didn’t seem to be chasing anything.

Even a car accident isn’t enough to keep the largely unflappable duo out of commission for more than a minute or two. Once Steed fixes a dent in his trademark bowler hat and Emma changes into a more practical pair of shoes, they leave the damaged vehicle behind for the time being and set out on foot for their destination: a farewell party at a soon-to-be-closed air force base. Steed spent a significant amount of time there some twenty-odd years earlier during World War II, when it was used as launching pad for agents — though most of his memories revolve around visits to the pub and shenanigans like packing fifteen people into a car built for four and sneaking in late through a gap in the fence. “Amazing, really, we had time to win the war,” Emma quips. In spite of the recent crash, there’s a rather light and playful air to their journey, with Steed waxing nostalgic and Emma walking along the top of a wall and holding her nose when she jumps off, as if she’s plunging into water. The scene isn’t without a touch of melancholy, however. “RAF Camp 472 Hamelin. As from tomorrow, it won’t exist,” Steed says. Out of the thousands of men once stationed there, only about thirty remain, and they’re to be separated, sent to British air bases all over the world. “Sic friat crustulum,” says Emma. Steed gives her a puzzled look, so she translates: “That’s how a cookie crumbles.”

It’s not until they approach the officers’ mess hall where the party is being held that things start to take a curious turn. The first hint is nothing so strange, really, just a bicycle lying in the middle of a road with one of its wheels still spinning. After giving it a slightly quizzical look for a second, Emma hops on, rides it over to a rack and parks it, and then she and Steed (still musing on his booze-soaked antics during the war) proceed to the mess. Even before they enter the building, they can hear a jolly tune being played on a piano, and between that and the crates of alcohol outside it appears that the party is already in full swing — and yet when they walk through the doors, there isn’t a soul in sight. To say that there’s no sign of life wouldn’t be entirely accurate. Almost everything about the room suggests that a number of people have been in it quite recently: half-empty glasses scattered about, an unfinished cigar in an ashtray, a pinball machine and a player piano (the source of the music) both running. Steed and Emma are surprised and perplexed but not overly concerned at this point. (Certainly they’re not so disturbed that they can’t take a moment to serve themselves from the punch bowl.) She wonders if they have the right day; he verifies it by checking the invitation and suggests that everyone is probably out looking at an old training plane used for stunts. As they leave the mess hall, the camera zeroes in on a detail that neither one of them appears to have noticed: two goldfish floating at the top of a bowl on the bar. From this shot, the camera pans up to a clock indicating that it’s eleven in the morning — not only the hour when the party was scheduled to begin but also the time on the clock in Steed’s car when the accident took place. Since then, he and Emma have taken a leisurely half-mile walk from the site of the crash to the base and traversed the base itself, yet this would seem to imply that virtually no time has passed. Is it mere coincidence, a case of mechanical failure or human error, or is there something more bizarre and quite possibly more sinister going on?

Outside, the oddities continue. Right away, they find further signs of abruptly abandoned activity, similar in nature to what they had encountered in the mess: a car hooked up to a gas pump with the gas now spilling out all over the ground, a cake with an unfinished inscription in a cook house that still has smoke pouring out of its chimney. Then the unsettling noises begin. From some unknown and unseen source comes a sound like a large machine powering up, accompanied by a persistent rattling of glass or metal. By this stage, even the self-possessed Steed and Emma are clearly starting to become uneasy, despite the fact that they continue to banter in their characteristic manner and, in Steed’s case, to share more wartime anecdotes. There’s something deeply eerie about this sprawling air force base from which all human life seems to have vanished in an instant, something almost post-apocalyptic — and yet the inexplicable noises suggest that perhaps they aren’t alone there after all. Whether or not that’s preferable to the alternative remains to be seen.

And then, in the midst of this growing tension, they find… dairy products?

From here, the situation grows stranger by the minute. Everything seems to be a clue, a piece of the puzzle that Steed and Emma have unwittingly stumbled into, but how these clues connect to one another and add up to some sort of logical explanation for all of this is anyone’s guess. In fact, each one only seems to deepen the mystery: hundreds of milk bottles stacked haphazardly in the middle of a road, shattered stemware and a running electric razor in the squadron leader’s house, every clock still set at eleven. From the heights of the control tower, they finally spot another human being — not a member of the air force, but a milkman (Ray Austin) racing on foot, seemingly desperate to escape something. Within seconds, a gunshot rings out, and he collapses to the ground. Though Steed thinks he has a general idea where the shot came from, neither he nor Emma can find any sign of life there except for a senseless rabbit.

“Razor still running, petrol gushing, unconscious rabbit, one dead milkman,” Steed itemizes the evidence.

“Ten thousand bottles of milk,” Emma adds, waving her hand as if making a political speech.

“Thirty highly trained technical men just up and dance away from, uh…”

“…Hamelin,” she finishes grimly, evoking the story of the Pied Piper driving away the rats and then the children from the German town of the same name.

So surreal and inexplicable is this scenario that an irrational solution almost starts to seem more likely than a rational one. After all, a number of episodes of The Avengers involve rather out-there science fiction premises — the aforementioned mind-swapping machine, for instance, or the shrink ray in the aptly named “Mission… Highly Improbable” — and even the paranormal, as when a group of psychics tries to break into Steed’s brain in order to steal top secret information. (The latter is a Christmas episode, no less.) There’s also the matter of the car accident in the opening scene to consider. Physically fit though Steed and Emma appear to be, is it possible that one or both of them is suffering from a hallucination? Have they entered some sort of time warp? Steed had noted, early on, that the stretch of serene rural road where the accident takes place hadn’t changed in years. At the time, it gave the place a dreamlike quality; now it’s an outright nightmare.

During this conversation, while Steed and Emma aren’t paying attention, the milkman’s body vanishes from the spot where it fell. Baffled, they split up to investigate. Emma soon finds the corpse lying on the back of a milk float, but before she can do anything about it the noises heard earlier start up again. This time, they’re accompanied by a shrill alarm tone and an earthquake-like tremor that sets everything from milk bottles to hanging metal chains to open windowpanes shaking. Steed, off on his own, covers his ears and staggers about as if the effect is unbearable, and the canted camera angles, the zooms in and out on the sun and the ominous, overbearing music give the sequence an air of madness. Eventually he makes his way to a fallout shelter for protection from… well, whatever it is. Soon, however, the cacophony ceases, silence reigns once more and Steed recovers his old aplomb. Though curious and perhaps a bit worried about where Emma might be, he takes the time to return to the mess hall and have a drink. This time around, the dead fish and the unchanging clock do catch his eye, and the perplexing sights prompt him to throw his glass at the wall in frustration. Now he’s really alone and no closer to an answer — until the clang of a trash can lid catches his attention.

He hurries outside and, at long last, meets another human being who doesn’t immediately get killed: one Benedict Napoleon Hickey (Roy Kinnear), a presumably homeless man with a penchant for air force base refuse (“Best dustbins in the business. Surprising what they’ll throw out,” he says, showing off his boots) and an aversion to stamp collectors (“Filthy habit, collecting stamps. All that old saliva.”). Steed invites him in for a drink and attempts to get some information out of him. He isn’t much help at first, but he does recall seeing the flag raised that morning, after which he had a strange sensation: “I felt funny. My ears. I… I felt funny — dizzy, as though I’d had a few drinks. I hadn’t had a few drinks, though.” He adds, too (after a good deal of rambling), that the clocks suddenly stopped striking at eleven. Just as Steed is puzzling over these details, there’s a scratching at the door. He walks over, opens it and looks down; sitting at his feet is the very dog that he almost hit earlier. According to Hickey, who saw it run away that morning, the animal belongs to the guard at the main gate. Steed immediately rushes off to see if he can find any clues there, but as he’s bending over to pick up a set of keys on the ground, the gate comes down on his head, knocking him out.

The next thing he knows, he’s waking up in his own wrecked car.

“Mrs. Peel!” he calls out as he had before. This time, she’s nowhere to be seen, though everything else is as it was at the start of the episode. The smashed clock in the car still reads eleven; when he reaches the air force base, the bicycle that Emma had parked is lying in its original spot; the player piano in the mess hall is churning out the same tune. It’s not until he steps inside that he finds something really unexpected: a room full of RAF men and a few women having a farewell party. Despite the bittersweet nature of the occasion, everyone seems to be having a grand old time, and they greet Steed warmly. The squadron leader (Gerald Harper), an old friend, mixes his favorite drink for him. “There you are, you see, I remember after all these years. How’s your memory?” — a question that gives Steed pause. He thinks he sees Emma and taps her on the arm with his hat. As it turns out, it’s actually a woman with a similar hairstyle who’s busy feeding the now-very-much-alive goldfish. Emma, Steed is told, phoned about an hour earlier to say that she was unable to attend the party. He also receives a quick evaluation from the base dentist (Dudley Foster), who’s responsible for first aid in the absence of the medical officer. “Well, there is a slight bump there, but there’s no abrasion,” he says after examining Steed’s aching head. “Made you feel a bit groggy, did it?” Steed admits that it did a little. “Well, there’s a chance of mild concussion. Might get a bit of giddiness, mind a bit hazy. Might even get the odd hallucination,” he says. “Oh dear,” Steed replies. It seems reasonable enough, and no worse than any other explanation. Besides, everything appears to be just as it should be, just as he expected it to be, save for Emma’s absence — but that won’t last.

This post is part of The 9th Annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon, hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.


11 thoughts on “The Avengers: “The Hour That Never Was” (1965)

  1. mercurie80

    The Avengers is my favourite TV show of all time. I first discovered the series when I was all of six years old and on a rainy Sunday afternoon one of the Kansas City stations (which we could sometimes pick up) was rerunning The Avengers. I was hooked. I’ve seen the entire run several times (well, the surviving episodes, anyway) since then. Anyway, “The Hour That Never Was” has always been one of my favourites and you did a great write-up on it! Thanks for taking part in the blogathon.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I greatly enjoyed this write-up! And I learned two things — I didn’t know that Diana Rigg left the show, or that it was ever in color. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen an episode of The Avengers (I’m pretty sure I haven’t), but I’m so familiar with the opening, and it always seemed like such a cool show. Your post definitely makes we want to seek it out now!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it is, and your Twilight Zone comparison is spot on! I think there are at least a couple of Twilight Zone episodes with similar set-ups — people wandering through strange places with no one else in sight.


  3. Michael Eugene Wilson

    I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never seen any episodes of The Avengers, although I’ve heard so many good things about the show over the years. Your review makes me want to start watching the show. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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