The Avengers

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The Avengers

The Avengers (which appeared on ABC from 1961 to 1969) has the distinction of being the most popular British television series to run on an American commercial network, and was the first such series to do so in prime time. Sophisticated, tongue-in-cheek, but never camp or silly, The Avengers was also one of the first and best of the soon-to-be-popular television spy series, and varied in tone from crime melodrama to outright science fiction. Every episode starred John Steed (Patrick Macnee), an urbane British intelligence agent who heads a mysterious elite squad known as the Avengers, so named for their propensity to right wrongs.

The first four seasons of the show were not run in the United States, but were videotaped and aired only in Britain. The series began as a follow-up to Police Surgeon (1960), which starred Ian Hendry as a doctor who helped the police solve mysteries. Sydney Newman, the head of programming at ABC-TV in England, wanted to feature Hendry in a new series that would pair him as Dr. David Keel with a secret agent, John Steed, in a fight against crime.

Patrick Macnee had had a successful acting career in Canada and Hollywood, but when he returned to England, he was unable to find work as an actor. An old friend got him a position as an associate producer on The Valiant Years (1960-63) about Winston Churchill, and Macnee soon found himself producing the entire show. He planned on remaining a producer when he was asked to star in The Avengers (on which he initially received second billing) and asked for a ridiculously high salary, expecting the producers to reject it. When they didn't, Steed was born.

Though he initially used a gun, Macnee quickly altered the character, which he saw as a combination of the Scarlet Pimpernel, his father, Ralph Richardson, and his C.O. in the Navy. As the series went on, Steed appeared more and more as a well-dressed, upper crust fop with more than a soupçon of charm, dash, and derring-do. Apart from his fighting skills, with the third season his chief weapon became his umbrella, which he used variously as a camera, a gas projector, a sword case, and a tape recorder.

After two seasons, Hendry bowed out and Honor Blackman was hired to be Steed's first female sidekick, anthropologist Cathy Gale, whom Blackman modeled after Life magazine photographer Margaret Bourke-White with a dash of Margaret Mead. Initially, Gale was given a pistol which could be hidden in her make-up kit or under her skirt, but it was eventually decided this was too unwieldy. Miniature swords and daggers were briefly tried when Leonard White urged that Blackman take up judo seriously and arranged for her to be trained by Douglas Robinson.

The action-oriented series required that Blackman have at least one fight scene in every episode, and Blackman soon became adept at judo. White wanted Cathy to be pure, a woman who fought bad guys because she cared so much about right and justice, as a contrast to Steed's wicked, devilish, and saucy nature. Blackman added to the character by dressing her in leather simply because she needed clothes that would not rip during the fight scenes (at the beginning of the series, she once ripped her trousers in close-up). Because the only thing that went with leather pants were leather boots, she was given calf-length black boots and inadvertently started a kinky fashion trend. (In fact, Macnee and Blackman released a single celebrating "Kinky Boots" on Decca in 1964).

However, after two years, Blackman likewise decided to call it quits to concentrate on her movie career (she had just been cast as Pussy Galore in Goldfinger [1964]). The surprised producers searched frantically for a replacement, at first choosing Elizabeth Shepherd, but after filming one-and-a-half episodes she was replaced by Diana Rigg, who played Mrs. Emma Peel (named after the phrase "M Appeal" for "Man Appeal," which was something the character was expected to have). Rigg and Macnee proved to have tremendous chemistry and charm together, with their sexual relationship largely left flirtatious and ambiguous. Rigg, like Blackman, played a tough, capable female fighter who possessed both high intelligence and tremendous sex appeal. Her outlandish costumes (designed by John Bates) for the episodes "A Touch of Brimstome" and "Honey for the Prince" were especially daring (and in fact, ABC refused to air these and three other episodes of the British series, considering them too racy, though they later appeared in syndication).

The two years with Diana Rigg are universally considered the best in the series, which ABC in the United States agreed to pick up provided the episodes were shot on film. Albert Fennell now produced the series and served as its guiding light, with writers Brian Clemens and Philip Levene writing the majority and the best of the episodes. These new shows became more science-fiction oriented, with plots about power-mad scientists bent on ruling the world, giant man-eating plants from outer space, cybermen, androids and robots, machines that created torrential rains, personalities switching bodies, people being miniaturized, and brainwashing. The fourth season and all subsequent episodes were filmed in color.

Commented Clemens about the series, "We admitted to only one class—and that was the upper. Because we were a fantasy, we have not shown policemen or coloured men. And you have not seen anything as common as blood. We have no social conscience at all." Clemens also emphasized the Britishness of the series rather than trying to adapt it to American tastes, feeling that helped give the show a unique distinction.

Rigg called it quits after two seasons, and she also joined the Bond series, having the distinction of playing Mrs. James Bond in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969). The series limped on for a final season with Steed's new partner Tara King (played by Linda Thorson), also known as Agent 69, who always carried a brick in her purse. The last season also introduced us to Mother (Patrick Newell), Steed's handicapped boss, and his Amazonian secretary Rhonda (Rhonda Parker). The running gag for the season was that Mother's office would continually turn up in the most unlikely of places and the plots were most often far-fetched, secret-agent style plots.

The series later spawned a stageplay, The Avengers on Stage, starring Simon Oates and Sue Lloyd in 1971, a South African radio series, a series of novel adventures, a spin-off series, The New Avengers (starring Macnee, Gareth Hunt, and Joanna Lumley) in 1976, and finally a 1998 big-budgeted theatrical version starring Ralph Fiennes as John Steed and Uma Thurman as Emma Peel. The latter was greeted with universally derisive reviews and was considered a debacle of the first order as it served to remind everyone how imitators had failed to capture the charm, wit, escapism, and appeal of the original series, which has long been regarded as a television classic.

—Dennis Fischer

Further Reading:

Javna, John. Cult TV: A Viewer's Guide to the Shows America Can't Live Without!! New York, St. Martin's Press, 1985.

Macnee, Patrick, and Marie Cameron. Blind in One Ear: The Avenger Returns. San Francisco, Mercury House, 1989.

Macnee, Patrick, with Dave Rogers. The Avengers and Me. New York, TV Books, 1998.

Rogers, Dave. The Complete Avengers. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1989.