To anybody who is familiar only with Emma Peel era Avengers—arguably the high-point of the series—watching an episode from its second season can be disconcerting. Although it still has greater warmth than many spy series from the early-1960s, the whimsical—even surreal—elements which truly distinguished the Peel episodes are missing; the focus is more on espionage than eccentricity. Nonetheless, even at this early stage the series captured an archetypal imagined “Englishness” which—like that evoked by The Prisoner—is hard to beat. The episode “Warlock” is a fine example in this respect, featuring a very English perspective on the dark arts.
The episode revolves around the plot by a Russian agent to steal technological secrets from British scientists by exploiting their connection with an occult group led by the charismatic Cosmo Gallion. Needless to say—mesmerism and poppets are involved. Such plots would become a staple of British telefantasy over the next decade but this was an early outing—broadcast in January 1963—and the occult underground had not yet received the publicity generated by the likes of Alex Sanders and the rise of the psychedelic counter-culture. Indeed, Cosmo Gallion may very well have been based on Sanders, who made his first press splash in September 1962.
Western esotericism was not wholly absent from popular media at the time—the black-magic novels of Dennis Wheatley remained bestsellers after all—but most portrayals of the practice were negative: occultists were characterised as either devil-worshippers or cranks. “Warlock” is quite unusual in taking ritual-magick very seriously and adopting quite an ambivalent—rather than a wholly hostile—attitude towards its morality. Peter Arne plays Dr. Cosmo Gallion as a fiercely intelligent and almost sympathetic character; although he may take Russian money to ensnare a government engineer through mesmerism, he remains contemptuous of the agent’s petty motives and personally aims at higher knowledge.
Equally, the script does not appropriate the motifs of occultism unfaithfully and evidently proceeded from a familiarity with the principles of the Left Hand Path. There are references to the interface between occultism and parapsychological research, whilst Steed and Cathy Gale show a healthy respect for the “psychological” effects of magick. The creed of Thelema—do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law—is correctly deployed and there are nice touches like Gallion’s occult bookshop being in Bloomsbury—home to the revered Atlantis Books since 1922—and a possible reference to the Lower Quinton pitchfork murder.
Interestingly, “Warlock” was originally written to introduce the character of Cathy Gale but the order of the episodes was changed before transmission. As such, much more is made of Gale’s anthropological background than was later the case; indeed she likens the effects of ritual-magick to vodoun and obeah, which she’d witnessed first-hand in Africa. Gale makes a fine character through which to explore the philosophical underpinning of the episode and provides a parallel with Gerald Gardner, who incorporated his anthropological experience of folk-magic into his fledgling Wiccan religion.
The episode culminates with the Ritual of Asmodeus—an evocation which we are told involves considerable risk. It is suggested the rite has not been successfully performed in over a century; a caveat which is possibly meant to recall the disastrous attempt to summon Choronzon performed by Aleister Crowley and Victor Neuberg in the Sahara Desert on 6th December 1909. Asmodeus was regarded as a demon of lust; hence Gallion regards Ms. Gale as the perfect candidate with whom to perform the invocation. Although the episode portrays the climactic ceremony as a relatively chaste affair—The Avengers was a pre-watershed series after all—it is well-choreographed nonetheless.
Nobody is going to trumpet “Warlock” as a top-tier episode of The Avengers or even a lost classic in the occult-horror genre any time soon; indeed Cosmo Gallion and his acolytes are amongst the least-terrifying Thelemites ever portrayed on screen. However, it is precisely this permissive attitude that makes the episode so fascinating to anybody interested in the cultural history of Western Mystery Tradition. Poised chronologically between the success of Dennis Wheatley’s black-magic novels and the publicity-seeking antics of self-professed Wiccans such as David Farrant, “Warlock” is a rare example of an early televisual drama that depicts ritual-magick with a degree of integrity and respect.
Produced by ABC Television : originally transmitted on 27th January 1963