A couple of years before Marvel brought forth a comic book featuring Thor, Iron Man, Hank Pym the Ant Man and The Hulk facing off against a puny god by the name of Loki, there was a TV series in Britain called The Avengers. Now, if you’re nostalgically thinking about Patrick Macnee with Diana Rigg or Honor Blackman (or even Linda Thorson), forget it — at least at the beginning! This particular series, debuting in 1961, starred the late Ian Hendry (Figure 2) as Doctor David Keel, and had an “also starring” for Patrick Macnee, who came into the episode only after the initial 15 minutes (which is all that survives of episode 1). They were called “The Avengers” because Dr. Keel’s fiance, Peggy, was killed by a drug ring, and John Steed (as a government agent of some kind) was assisting Dr. Keel in finding those responsible. Steed doesn’t even wear a bowler or carry a brolly (Fig. 2) in the first season; in fact, both men wore trench coats!
Because the whole first season was filmed “live on videotape,” only a couple of episodes survive, because the studio (as was the custom) recorded over the old episodes, as tape was expensive. I’ve seen the 15-minute portion of episode 1, but have been unable to get either of the two surviving complete episodes. (According to Wikipedia, Steed doesn’t even appear in two episodes of the original season.) But, although I haven’t missed much — neither have you — by what Wikipedia says, it’s still too bad from a “completist” view that I haven’t seen more of the first season. Partway through that season, however, there was a strike, which disrupted filming, and Hendry quit the series to pursue a film career (which never made him as famous as Macnee became, just sayin’.) Macnee was given the lead in Season 2, along with a couple of substitutes, but it was his second female costar, in the person of Honor Blackman, who really helped the series take off.
Season 2, which introduces costar Honor Blackman as (Dr./Mrs.) Cathy Gale, brought a new look to the show; gone are the trenchcoats and the “avenging” motif, but the name remains. As you can see from Figure 3, John Steed (still working for some unnamed government-type agency) is working his way out of the previous “look,” but still not in the bowler-hatted Edwardian-suited look so familar to Avengers fans. Dr. Gale is described as an “enthusiastic amateur” and an anthropologist; skilled in unarmed combat, she (and in the early Season 2 videos you can see clearly that she has no stunt double and is performing these stunts live) uses Judo to throw her opponents around with abandon (a feat she would later perform on James Bond as well, in the person of Sean Connery, in Goldfinger [“I must be dreaming,” Connery muses, as he lies on his back in the straw after being thrown by Honor’s Pussy Galore.]). (In later life, Blackman complained that all these judo moves were hard on her lower back; she said she had to land on the base of her spinal column on hard surfaces and didn’t have much padding on her bottom.) When performing throws and action sequences, Dr. Gale’s favourite outfit was a black leather suit (Figure 3), which probably influenced a whole generation of British young men, and helped boost The Avengers’ popularity.
Although the storylines in the next two years, during Blackman’s tenure as costar, weren’t yet those lighthearted “break the fourth wall” op-art romps that most people think of when they think of The Avengers, the series was ramping up; and it was fun to see people fluff their lines and recover — up until halfway through the second season, when they moved from videotape to actual film. Another odd thing was the relationship between Dr. Gale and John Steed. There was an actual tension there that didn’t seem to be sexual — and at times Dr. Gale seemed to resent being told to help Steed; Steed was not yet the urbane, witty person we came to know later — in fact, he was (at least to my eye) somewhat unpleasant at times. Perhaps a hangover from his original character, methinks. There was also a pair of secondary characters, but they didn’t last. At the end of Series 2, Cathy Gale became Steed’s only partner.
At the end of Series 3 (1964), Blackman got the aforementioned role in the Bond film and, since she was unable to film in Britain and the U.S. at the same time, left the series. To replace her, the producers auditioned dozens of young female actors, and finally settled on the one actor who was more responsible (I believe) for bringing the series into the public eye than any other — I am, of course, referring to Diana Rigg. As Mrs. Emma Peel, she had a younger, more feminine look than Honor’s Cathy Gale, and there appeared to be a certain sexual tension between Steed and Peel that to me, at least, had been lacking between Gale and Steed. Of course, Mrs. Peel was married, though we knew nothing about her husband until her last episode. Also, Steed — wearing Pierre Cardin suits — had transformed into the witty, urbane gentleman we Avengers watchers are all familiar with; the sixties, with all their op art and funky boutique clothing, were transforming the series too, into a more light-hearted romp than previously.
Diana Rigg was not happy with the leather suits bequeathed to her character by Cathy Gale, and was soon wearing slinky cloth outfits in various “mod” colours and patterns (Figure 4); science-fictional elements such as robots and various futuristic technologies began appearing in the stories, along with a tendency to play with the fourth wall a bit. Rigg was a bit more “elfin” than Blackman; and although Cathy Gale’s “kinky boots” had figured in the dreams of many a young man, the more slender figure of Mrs. Emma Peel swiftly overtook the older dream. Incidentally, when auditioning actors for the role, it was decided by writer and associate producer Brian Clemens that they needed an actress with “man appeal,” or “M” appeal, which soon informed the character’s name.
The “Steed and Mrs. Peel” era lasted from 1965 to 1968. Rigg left the series in the late fall of 1967 — coincidentally, to be another James Bond co-star (with George Lazenby in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) as had happened with Blackman — and series originator/producer Brian Clemens and his co-producer Albert Fennel were replaced by John Bryce, who had produced most of the Cathy Gale episodes. A “return to reality” was announced; the series’ more fanciful elements were to be downplayed, and Bryce’s then-girlfriend (according to Wikipedia) Linda Thorson became the new female face of The Avengers.
At the beginning of the 1968 series, in an episode called “The Forget-Me Knot,” Steed met agent Tara King who, in a nod to Honor Blackman, tossed him over her back in a Judo throw at “Mother’s” headquarters. “Mother,” the first senior officer we’d seen in Steed’s secret agent world, was a large man in a wheelchair, who appeared in several other episodes. Before this episode was filmed, Bryce was fired and Clemens and Fennel rehired due to budget overruns and studio politics (reading between the lines); and Rigg was brought back (although filming on the Bond movie was over, her film career was taking off) to film interstitial scenes and a “farewell” scene. Steed and Mrs. Peel keep getting hit with a dart containing a memory eraser, and constantly forget who they are and what they are supposed to be doing; Tara King, as a new agent, is sent to find — and kill — Steed because Mother’s policy is that an agent who disappears is obviously an agent who has defected. Tara doesn’t believe this is true of Steed (who simply doesn’t know who he is), and manages to rescue him and Mrs. Peel.
At the end of the episode, Mother phones Steed to tell him to read the newspaper; we see the story that Mrs. Peel’s husband, a famous aviator who disappeared over Africa, has been found! Steed tells Mother that he (Mother) will have to find him a new partner — “You know what I like,” Steed says — and Mrs. Peel reappears in Steed’s apartment to tell him goodbye; her husband is outside to take her away. As Mrs. Peel descends the stairs outside Steed’s apartment she meets Tara King coming up, and tells her “He (Steed) likes his tea stirred anti–clockwise!”; Steed watches from the window as Mrs. Peel gets into a sporty convertible driven by a man who is dressed identically to himself — bowler and brolly and all! Mrs. Peel blows him a kiss as they drive off.
Tara King is the first agent partner Steed has had — both Cathy Gale and Mrs. Peel had been described as “talented amateurs” — but since Clemens was back as producer, the promised “return to realism” didn’t happen (as far as I can tell; I haven’t seen every one of Tara King’s episodes). Instead, it seems that Clemens and Fennel just went on doing what they had been doing; there were episodes with clones, robots, underwater headquarters for Mother and Ghu knows what else. Like many other watchers, I was less than thrilled with the substitution of Thorson for Rigg. Frankly, I still am — and have had a comparatively hard time watching the Thorson episodes.
As far as I can tell, the Thorson episodes doomed the show; viewers departed in droves. Thorson — who had what I would consider amazing eyes (I’m a sucker for pretty eyes) — was not as svelte as either Rigg or Blackman, nor as “skilled” in unarmed combat; in the episodes I’ve watched where she is performing the Judo throws she appears as amateurish as can be, where Blackman actually practiced Judo. In addition, her wardrobe was not as flattering as either of her predecessors’ clothing, and she didn’t seem to wear it with the same grace as the other two women. Her acting can best be described as adequate. I realize all this is unfair to Ms. Thorson; she did the best she could, but the show basically died after two years.
Eight years later, Clemens revived it as The New Avengers, giving John Steed two new sidekicks: Purdey, played by the gorgeous Joanna Lumley, and Mike Gambit, played by Gareth Hunt. The picture in Figure 6 is from the first episode, “The Eagle’s Nest,” in which a monastery on an island off the British coast is full of ex-Nazis who are planning to revive the frozen body of Adolf Hitler. After Our Heroes foil the wicked ones, they walk away from the monastery whistling the “Colonel Bogey March” from Bridge Over the River Kwai. Although it was well done, the magic — even with Purdey (surely the first character in British TV named after a shotgun!) and Gambit for eye appeal to both genders — didn’t seem to be there; the final four episodes of the second, and final, season were filmed on location in Toronto as The New Avengers in Canada.
Oddly enough, all the male leads in The Avengers have since died — Patrick Macnee died last year (2015) at 93; Ian Hendry died in 1984, and Gareth Hunt died in 2007 — but all the main female leads — Diana Rigg, Linda Thorson, Honor Blackman (Figure 7), and Joanna Lumley — are alive and, apparently, well. Lumley has just appeared in the AbFab (Absolutely Fabulous) movie; and Rigg was a regular on Game of Thrones last year. Thorson is still doing movies, with one coming out this year (The Second Time Around), and producing plays. There have been paperback adaptations and spinoffs/offshoots of The Avengers, as well as comic/graphic novel adaptations; there have also been radio plays — some original, some adaptations of the TV scripts — and a stage play!
In addition, Big Finish Studios has announced (and possibly produced) full audio adaptations of the missing episodes from Season 1; they also have announced plans to do 26 episodes altogether. And, finally, we come to the movie The Avengers (1998). No, not the Marvel movie. This was an entirely forgettable something which starred Ralph Fiennes as John Steed and Uma Thurman as Emma Peel, plus — if memory serves — Sean Connery as a villain. Oh, yes, there he is in the poster (Figure 8). Although Thurman fills a pleather jumpsuit nicely, it was so bad I can barely remember it and — not even for you, dear readers — I won’t rewatch it if I can help it. The movie bombed; it didn’t even make back production costs.
So ask me: did I like The Avengers? Actually, all things considered, I did — rewatching the old episodes has been fun. It’s been fun watching them go from live/tape to film; from black-and-white to colour; from serious to light-hearted; and the characters and roles as they developed have been fun to watch — yes, even Tara King. (By the way, during her “reign,” I watched an episode called “Invasion of the Earthmen,” which has been described by one blogger as “Star Trek meets Plan 9,” and which starred a young Warren Clarke, whom you may know as Inspector Dalziel (pronounced “dee-ell” — it’s a Scottish name) from the TV show Dalziel and Pascoe, originated by Reginald Hill. Not genre, but fascinating character work; it was a shame when Clarke died. If you haven’t watched Dalziel and Pascoe, perhaps you remember Clarke as “Dim,” one of Alex’s droogs, from A Clockwork Orange. It wasn’t till I saw this episode that I realized that Dim and Dalziel were one and the same person!) So, I don’t know how people who don’t have that nostalgic connection might view The Avengers and The New Avengers, but if you watch all but Season 1 (which is mostly unavailable anyway), you might actually have fun! I know I did. (Oh, and as regards the Pierre Cardin Edwardian suits: partway through the Tara King episodes the end credits say “Patrick Macnee’s suits by Himself”! Thought you might be interested.)
Last Words: In all the verbiage above, I’m not sure I actually talked about what The Avengers do (or did), so let me say this: although I’ve only seen the 15 minutes of the first episode that’s available, it seems clear that the first few (perhaps four) episodes were Dr. Keel trying to avenge his dead wife Peggy with the aid of Steed—who was there as the government’s agent to clear up the drug-dealing ring; then Keel and Steed probably rounded out the first season clearing up other criminal groups and/or conspiracies. After Dr. Keel left, Steed and his part-time partners Venus Smith (Julie Stevens) and Dr. Martin King (Jon Rollason)—until Cathy Gale came along—weren’t really “avenging” at all; they were going after higher-level crime or espionage on a wider scale. I should also talk about the opening sequences and theme music a bit, I think. The well-known theme by Laurie Johnson didn’t actually begin until 1965, when Emma Peel joined the team; there were several different openings prior to then as well. With the Diana Rigg era, the “mod” 60s, The Avengers settled into the lighthearted science-fiction-tinted “spy-fi” that’s so well known today.
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