Country: United Kingdom
Director: Sidney Hayers (although my print suggests it was James Hill)
Starring: Patrick Macnee, Diana Rigg, Peter Wyngarde, Colin Jeavons, Michael Latimer, Jeremy Young, Bill Wallis, Carol Cleveland, Steve Plytas
Music: Laurie Johnson
A Touch of Brimstone is an Avengers fan favourite, primarily due to the outlandish ‘Queen of Sin’ costume, that Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) adopts, or has thrust upon her for the final fifteen minutes of the show. The costume is sensational – barely more than a black corset, knee high boots, coarse black stockings, and a spiked black dog collar around the neck. But we’ll talk about that a bit more later, once I have settled down. Because of its suggestive content, and a hint of violence, this episode was banned in the United States, and even the English censored the climax where the villain of the piece, attacks Emma with a whip. The villain is played by Peter Wyngarde, who is the epitome of evil in this episode, able to switch from utterly charming to icy malevolence with the subtlest intonation. Wyngarde, of course, is no stranger to spy fans, having appeared on The Saint, The Baron, and returning to The Avengers a year later in the episode ‘Epic’. He then went on to star in Department S, where he continually stole the show from under the nose of its American star, Joel Fabiani. Wyngarde’s character was so popular in Department S that he was given his own spin off series, Jason King.
The episode starts with a hypnotic visual. From a lit doorway, a large patterned square object moves towards the camera. It moves closer and closer until it almost fills the screen, and then it is swivelled around and it is revealed to be a large armchair, and the gentleman pushing into into position near the television set is John Cartney (Peter Wyngarde). Cartney sits down in the chair and begins to watch television. On the screen is a Russian diplomat, Boris Kartovski, and he has been spending time in the UK brokering a peace deal between the two countries. As he speaks positively about the experience, he reaches for and lights a large cigar. As he continues to speak (and smoke), the cigar explodes in his face. Humiliated, Kartovski packs his bags and leaves the country – the peace negotiations off!
Other practical jokes have been and continue to be played out on other visiting dignitaries as well. John Steed (Patrick Macnee) and Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) witness an Arabian oil sheik as his chair breaks as he sits down. This too has political consequences, as the Sheik was negeotiating oil concensions with the UK. The pranksters must be stopped, and it is Steed and Emma’s job to find out who is behind it and why.
Very little detective work is required. There are two main suspects – Lord Darcy (Colin Jeavons) and John Cartney. Steed is to investigate Darcy, and Emma is to investigate Cartney.
When a diplomat is electrocuted cutting a ceremonial ribbon it seems like the joke has gone too far. Darcy is distressed that he may have inadvertently taken part in a murder and hits the bottle. That’s when Steed catches up with him. Darcy tells him that the practical jokes are a part of a club that he belongs to called the Hellfire Club, which is run by John Cartney.
According to Wikipedia, the Hellfire Club was the popular name for a number of supposed exclusive clubs for high society rakes established all over Britain and Ireland in the 18th century. These clubs were rumoured to be the meeting places of “persons of quality” who wished to take part in immoral acts, and the members were often very involved in politics.
Cartney’s club has modelled itself in the same style, adopting the motto, ‘Fais ce que tu voudras‘ – Do what thou wilt! It too is filled with drunken, lecherous men of quality. Steed and Emma proceed to look into The Hellfire Club. Steed tries to join as a member, and Emma uses her feminine wiles to latch onto Cartney.
To join Steed has to pass a few initiation tests. The first is to down a large goblet of wine (well it’s a bucket really!) He does this easily. His next task is more of a challenge – he has to remove a dried pea from beneath a falling axe. If he is too slow, he’ll lose his fingers. Naturally Steed outwits the Hellfire Club’s pranksters and is admitted to the club. His timing is good too, because the following night there is a special celebration taking place – it is called ‘The Night of All Sins’.
The following night, Steed and Emma turn up at the Hellfire Club, for the special night. When Cartney sees Emma, he has her spirited away to be dressed in clothing more appropriate for the theme of the evening. Later, Cartney presents Emma to the drunken crowd as the ‘Queen of Sin’, draped in a black silk cloak. Cartney removes the cloak to reveal Emma in the costume described in the opening paragraph. Added to this, she is wearing lurid eyemakeup, with jeweled eyelids, and has a python wrapped around her arm – I am sure the snake symbolism isn’t wasted on anyone. Even though censorship laws have changed over the last forty years, Emma’s appearance as the ‘Queen of Sin’ is still provocative and sexually charged. Cartney urges the crowd to ‘do with her, what you will’. The crowd lunges at Emma and hoists her into the air like a trophy, and then they carry her off to a room for their pleasure as a shower of rose petals falls down on the procession.
An interesting observation on the tilting of the sexual stereotypes comes from the book, ‘Saints & Avengers’ by James Chapman – Published by I.B. Tauris – Reprint 2005 (Pg 81)
‘The episode achieved notoriety through Emma’s appearance as ‘The Queen of Sin’ at an orgy. Rigg’s outfit of high healed leather boots, tight black corset and spiked collar alluded specifically to the fantasy figure of the female dominatrix from pornographic subcultures such as the ‘bondage art’ of John Willie. But although she is visually coded as a dominatrix, it is Emma who is at the receiving end of Cartney’s whip as she fights with him…’
Below is one of the more suitable (for this website) examples of The Bondage Art that Chapman was alluding to – Image taken from Retro Xotique. More of John Willie’s art can be found on the website (NB: The images are of an ‘Adult’ nature – NSFW).
As you can clearly see, the Emma’s ‘Queen of Sin’ costume could (and would) sit very comfortably next to Willie’s images of the girls above. A brief overview of Willie’s career can also be found on Erotica Bibliophile: (once again – images of an adult nature – NSFW)
John Willie is a pseudonym used by John Alexander Scott Coutts, who was born on December 9th, 1902 in Singapore, Japan (his family moved to England a year later in 1903). From 1925 until 1945 Willie lived in Australia, then for about a year in Canada before finally moving to New York sometime in 1946 or 1947….during which time the magazine (and the artwork) he is best known for, ‘Bizarre’, was born.
But back to the story – Emma has been carried away by the drunken rabble, but she is woman in control. It is safe to presume that this whole ceremony is just a bit of fantasy role playing. She wasn’t raped by the drunken rabble. In fact, when we next see her, she is sitting alone watching the festivities, clearing bemused and bored by the whole event. She is there to solve a mystery, not to participate in the sexual fantasies of a few rich drunken men.
Meanwhile, working underneath the Hellfire Club in a network of tunnels, Cartney and his cronies are transporting a shipment of TNT to a location underneath where a sitting of parliamnet is taking place. Emma engages some of Cartney’s minions and stops the transfer of the TNT only to be confronted by Cartney who is brandishing a whip.
It isn’t all beer and skittles for Steed either. His deception has been discovered too, and he is forced into a duel with the Hellfire Clubs leading swordsman. A Touch Of Brimstone is one of the premiere Avengers episodes, and one that must be seen if you are a fan of the show, enjoy spies on television, or sixties culture. Above, I may have touched on some of the ‘seedier’ elements of this episode, but don’t get the wrong idea – this is first and foremost a rip-roaring adventure series and I doubt that too many people could be offended by the content in this day and age.
For an in depth look at the fashions featured on The Avengers, and how they filtered through into the mainstream, read ‘Peeling off the Trenchcoats’ at Jason Whiton’s Spy Vibe.
The screencaps used in this post have been taken from the website Hellfire Hall: A tribute to Peter Wyngarde.