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