"No man is free who works for a living . . . but I am available." (-- Illya Kuryakin, "The Bow-Wow Affair")

These reviews/commentaries on the show's 105 episodes originally appeared in slightly different form on the Yahoo! Groups website Channel_D, from 2008 to 2010. If you're new to MfU fandom, these may give you some idea of the flavor of the series, which is still famous and beloved more than 50 (!) years after its premiere in 1964. Enjoy!

News: Decades Channel is running a "Weekend Binge" of MfU episodes on July 2, 2017. Check the schedule here.

(Except where otherwise noted, images are used with permission of the exhaustive site Lisa's Video Frame Capture Library. Thanks to Lisa for all her work!)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"The Mad, *Mad* Tea Party Affair" (ep. 1/18)

In the '80s, Glenn Magee and John Peel commented in their "U.N.C.L.E. Files" review that this was possibly the best single episode of the series. The 21st episode filmed defines the U.N.C.L.E. dichotomy of insane/comic events side by side with real danger, and of an innocent everyday person tangled up with professional agents. Both story lines (Waverly's testing of his unaware agents, and the Thrush plot) are delightful, plausible, and mesh well.

Remember the Ellery Queen detective novels? The authors often threw mystery writer Ellery into bizarre situations like this for the fun of watching him make logical sense of them. The climax here, in which Solo gathers all the suspects in the conference room, harkens back to that tradition.  (In fact, EQ produced a classic short story in the Thirties called "The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party.")

"Mad, Mad Tea Party" also has an uncredited guest star: U.N.C.L.E. Headquarters itself, rather like a "Star Trek" episode set entirely aboard the Enterprise.  Part of what makes this story go is the contrast between the "chrome and gunmetal madhouse" and the workaday people of Manhattan.  On top of that, the entire story takes place in one day, from about 10 in the morning to 6 or so at night.

There is suspense in the Hitchcock manner (as distinguished from surprise) here. We know what Solo and Illya do not, that Technician Riley is a Thrush and that the conference table is topped with plastic explosive. I question whether a bomb-disposal expert such as Morgan, or someone with explosives training such as Illya, would bring a match so close to a suspicious object -- how do they know heat won't detonate it? -- but it does bring you to the edge of your chair.

Other edgy moments include Riley's swift replacement of the regular ashtrays with the detonators when Solo and Illya may walk in at any moment; and the conference room climax as Kay lights a cigarette.

Surprise, however, abounds. See the rude noise made by the dying toy airplane; Hemingway biting off the barrel of his licorice gun; and most especially when he pops into Waverly's office, only to be greeted casually by Alexander himself.

Morgan's pipe is, I believe, the style known as a "pot" pipe.  (Because of the shape, people! The shape!)  Waverly's appears to be a more traditional billiard.

You'll note Solo and Illya consider the woman radar technician to be a pro; they don't second-guess her or talk down to her -- and she sticks to her post until the last minute and doesn't panic.

Was it true that Richard Haydn was considered to step in for Leo G. Carroll, in case Carroll became ill?  If so, would they have recast Waverly with Haydn, brought Haydn back as Hemingway, or created still a third character?  Hemingway's somewhat persnickety and old-maidish persona, something like Clifton Webb's Mr. Belvedere on Valium, would certainly have been a change . . . but the tag scene in Reception with Hemingway, Solo, and Illya somehow looks very very right.

Clearly Riley is the supervisor of his section, and has been around for a while; Solo knows him and his habit of punctuality.  Was he a Thrush who infiltrated U.N.C.L.E.?  Or did he join the Command first and was subverted by Dr. Egret?  I lean toward the former; see how calm he is when he kills Morgan, calmer than you'd expect of a technician suddenly asked to kill an enemy.  He shows little nervousness until he's stuck in the suite with the table bomb, and only panics as Solo and Illya run him to earth.

Stashing Morgan's body in what appears to be a laundry hamper wasn't exactly brilliant.  On the other hand, HQ seems to lack closets suitable for body-stashing, and Riley probably didn't have time to drag the corpse down to the boat launch.

From Thrush's perspective, having the detonator ashtray take so long to ignite the table explosive was a mistake.  Once it began to smoke and sizzle, the world leaders would stampede for the door, and some of them at least would get out.  Two seconds would be about right.  As soon as Kay stubbed out her cigarette (which today would have been filmed in slo-mo), Riley should have swept it off the table, and it should have detonated before it hit the floor.

Solo is right not to wait for reinforcements when Riley is trapped in the elevator.  But his line should have been, "He's desperate, Illya. And we don't know what other surprises he might have up his sleeve."

By the way, Dr. Egret spreads her wings again to good effect in Michael Avallone's well-done Girl from U.N.C.L.E. novel "The Birds of a Feather Affair."

Nice Touch Dept.: As Riley fires his gun, the spent casings clatter to the metal floor -- and that low-level shot, as if the cameraman were lying on the floor, is excellent.

Verdict:  A dazzler.  Maybe it is the best single episode of the whole 105 at that.
Great Lines:
Illya (aghast as the tiny remote-control airplane closes in on HQ):  "We can't stop it."

Kay (about Illya's "Rasputin" act):  "And the way he talked to me -- like I was a criminal --!"
Solo:  "It's a streak of sadism.  Illya's always been a little . . . unstable."

Illya (with relish):  "Ah, you've discovered [the guppies], I see.  They're coming out of every tap in the building."

Solo (wryly):  "By the way it's going, we could have half of Manhattan in here by nightfall."

Riley:  "Wouldn't want the leaders of the free world to be presented with a dirty ashtray, would we?"
Illya (retrieving his match from the detonator ashtray):  "If we can't impress them with our security, we can at least show them that we are neat."

Hemingway: "Do you think she'll tell him what happened . . .?"
Solo: "I'd bet on it.  I'd also bet he won't believe a word of it."  (With the Solo grin) "Would you?"

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