Best Of…No.1: British TV – The Avengers

The Arts

The arrival of The Avengers comic ‘Steed and Mrs Peel’, set firmly in the 1960s, shows once again the groundswell of interest that remains in this now very old TV series. What keeps it going? Few of those involved can possibly remember it first time around, but here they are reviving the Hellfire Club and reproducing the tropes of the middle episodes to perfection.

The Avengers concerned intelligence officers (as we would call them now) and initially focused on Dr. David Keel (Ian Hendry) and his assistant John Steed (Patrick Macnee). Hendry left after the first series and Steed became the main character, partnered with a succession of assistants.

Steed’s most famous assistants were intelligent, stylish and assertive women: After Venus Smith (Julie Stevens), Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman) arrived in a black leather catsuit, and was replaced by Emma Peel (Diana Rigg, designed two-pieces and berets) before she and Tara King (Linda Thorson, frillier) famously crossed on the stairs.

Later, as Steed aged, Purdy (Joanna Lumley) arrived with a newer, younger Steed sidekick, but this series is largely dismissed by fans. Episodes increasingly incorporated elements of science fiction and fantasy, parody and British eccentricity. The Avengers ran from 1961 until 1969, screening as one hour episodes through its entire run.

The speed with which the show was turned around meant that certain episodes were recycled. I lost count of how many murderous fancy dress parties Steed and Mrs Peel went to on planes and trains. Censors had endless trouble with the show’s peculiarly cavalier attitude to death and amorality – usually half a dozen people were knocked off in each episode, and rather a lot of bondage was involved.

The Emma Peel monochrome episodes were the most smartly written, and if some of the scenarios now seem more familiar, the meaty character acting and strangely surreal atmosphere made up for any deficiencies. The first episode I remember seeing was ‘The Hour That Never Was’, in which Steed and Mrs Peel lose an hour on a deserted airbase and keep finding dead milkmen. The plot involved dental drills, pilots and brainwashing.

Other plots involved killer nannies, killer robots, killer dreams, killer houses, killer plants and killer scientists, as well as chains of eccentric turns from mad botanists, railway enthusiasts and bonkers dance instructors. Guest stars included Donald Sutherland, Christopher Lee and a Who’s Who of British character actors, including regular appearances by Peter Jeffrey, the father of the leading lady in my play.

Nobody saw through Steed when he turned up as a supposed representative of the Tree Preservation Society, although they usually pulled guns on him when he started snooping around. But not before they’d offered him a snifter of brandy. Only then could they be dispatched with a few desultory karate chops.

The non-realism of the dialogue and locations worked in The Avengers’ favour – the fewer people there were on the streets, the more strangely their suspects behaved, the odder the conversations, all worked to make a more original show. And this was the time of non-realism; Shows like ‘The Strange wold Of Gurney Slade’ and ‘Adam Adamant’ would have been classed as highly risky experiments now.

The show was regularly censored in the US due to its fetishistic, decadent tone, but now all episodes are fully restored. A disastrous Hollywood film version failed to capture the smarts of the show and proved a flop.

Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg remained lifelong friends.

16 comments on “Best Of…No.1: British TV – The Avengers”

  1. FabienneT says:

    One of my favourite series of all times! I am trying to get my hands on the complete boxset, if indeed it exists…

  2. keith page says:

    As you say, they don’t make them like this any more.TV seems to relentlessly flog certain themes to death.One bright note is the reincarnation of Red Dwarf on Dave, although most people seem to love it or loathe it.

    Patrick Macnee’s suits were great!

  3. keith page says:

    As you say, they don’t make them like this any more.TV seems to relentlessly flog certain themes to death.One bright note is the reincarnation of Red Dwarf on Dave, although most people seem to love it or loathe it.

    Patrick Macnee’s suits were great!

  4. David Read says:

    Peter Jeffrey was always brilliant, and ‘The Joker’ is one of my favourite Avengers episodes.

  5. Ken M says:

    Curious side effect of living quite near Elstree.
    Spouse: Do you know Shenley at all?
    Self: Yes, John Steed once battled a man-eating plant there.
    Spouse: That isn’t really the same as “knowing it” is it?

  6. Ken M says:

    For those who care, some obsessives have helpfully tracked down many location filming sites from the period.

  7. Dan Terrell says:

    I was out of TV range for many of the episodes, and I’m not certain all of them ran in the States, but what I did see mainly with Diana Rigg were great. Since you mentiom bondage, I always heard that ethos running through Steed and Peel’s dialogue, as well as the action. Just John Steed’s and Emma Peel’s names were an invitation to ponder, or should that be pander?
    I greatly enjoy writing that contains really clever cross-currents, which is far removed from the “Take that!” of the Three Stooges.

  8. Gary says:

    You’re right that the best written of the Peel episodes are the monochrome ones. The colour episodes look lovely but they do get repetitive very quickly. The Tara King episodes are great, and tackle an enormous variety of different types of story, but were ignored by a lot of fans for many years because they didn’t have Diana Rigg in them. The same goes for THE NEW AVENGERS, which deserves to be viewed as a series in its own right, rather than simply as a continuation. Jo Lumley’s Purdey is an iconic figure, and the story DEAD MEN ARE DANGEROUS is one of the best episodes of any incarnation of the series.

  9. Lee Van says:

    For me, the (Mrs.) appeal was the other-worldliness frisson where there was with that “anything goes” approach. Surrealist or just the scriptwriters having a ball? Apart from The Prisoner/the inferior The Corridor People and the lovely The Strange World Of Gurney Slade I don’t think there’s been anything to touch it since tv wise, apart from the work of Dennis Potter.

    Watched the newly released blu ray of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service last night and the moment Diana Rigg turned around after the bull-fight created a tear in my eye that i managed to hold back. And then the denouement …


  10. Lee Van says:

    Btw, the second promo page from the new The Avengers comic posted above has been bugging me. Emma Peel’s boobs and hips are far too big/wide (obviously catering for an American Kardashians market) which has had an obvious effect on the odd enlargement of Steeds head.

    Or is it just me?

  11. admin says:

    Mrs Peel had proper sixties hips – in the same way, Ralph Fiennes’ head was the wrong shape for a bowler in the film – (and the director was the wrong shape for the film, period)

  12. John Howard says:

    Oh yes….

  13. glasgow1975 says:

    They did get a minor revival in the bbc2 teatime slot when I was growing up and the Patrick Macnee/Honor Blackman song Kinky Boots was re-released to top5 chart success 😛
    That being said the colour picture up there is disturbingly more like Posh Spice (the early years) to me . . .

  14. Bob Low says:

    The original Avengers was one of the greatest TV shows ever made-and the film was a bitter disappointment. What made it worse was the fact that there were actually some elements in the film that were almost worthy of the original. The plot was definitely consistent with TV show, and I seem to remember a scene where the baddies get together for Board meeting, dressed as Teddie Bears, which was very in tune with the original. The major problem was some quite heinous mis-casting. Poor, deeply uncomfortable looking Ralph Feinnes in a bowler looked more like Freddie ‘Parrot Face’ Davies than John Steed.

  15. Karin says:

    I was lucky enough to meet Mr. Patrick MacNee when he was in Toronto for a play. The one thing that struck me was the enormous size of his head!
    When I told him that the only tv show, other than Walt Disney, our parents let us watch was the Avengers, he looked a bit perplexed. It is only now that I realize what it says about my parents!

  16. Reuben says:

    I loved The Avengers, the quirkier the better.
    I think BOOM! started their new Avengers comics by using the Hellfire club episode for inspiration because it inspired The Hellfire Club’s appearance in The Uncanny X-Men back in the 1980s, so a good way to grab comic fan’s attention I guess.
    More details can be found here

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