Steed Drives Off Into History



What a crap year it’s been for losing my heroes. Now Old Etonian actor Patrick Mcnee has died, albeit at the ripe old age of 93. He played the young Marley in the definitive ‘A Christmas Carol’, and was terrific in ‘The Howling’, but of course he’ll be remembered as Steed in The Avengers, for me the single most influential TV show in history.

To explain to the Youngs, before The Avengers there was The Avengers (although of course your Avengers is actually as old as my Avengers, if you get my drift).

Macnee was pro-feminist, anti-gun, posher than posh, and stayed with the sci-fi-spy show for decades, through five leading ladies and cast changes. When the series began with Ian Hendry it was shot live, and the early episodes now look positively Victorian. Honor Blackman changed all that as the badinage got racier and pacier. Crucially, though, John Steed played opposite Diana Rigg’s Mrs Peel (1965-68) and the series reached a peak as it burst into colour with increasingly deranged plots.

The best episodes were the strangest, with tales of killer rain, robots and murderous grannies, and endless shots of eerily deserted airfields and villages. The most amoral and fantastical episodes were written by Philip Levine and Brian Clemens, who also conjured the show’s marvellous lineup of eccentric cameos, from deranged colonels to railway fanatics. Best of all, every episode had a simple hook that suckered you in – the town that loses an hour, the man who is killed by an invisible winged creature, the church with no parishioners and a graveyard full of coffins. The episodes were virtual blueprints for budding writers.

Of course it was de rigeur to own Steed’s Bentley (toy version of course) and Emma Peel’s Lotus Elan, both of which came with figurines. In 1911 the whole set of shows was released on Blu-Ray, and stand the test of time very well indeed.

I have a story to share that I heard first-hand. Christopher Lee got into a hotel lift in Canada to find Macnee standing inside in full Steed country gentleman gear and said in surprise, ‘Patrick, what are you doing here?’ Macnee said, ‘We’re filming The Avengers’. To which Lee replied, ‘You always are, dear chap, you always are.’ Coming from a bloke who didn’t want to be typecast as Dracula, I find this most amusing.

Here’s an Avengers mash-up to conjure a few memories.

14 comments on “Steed Drives Off Into History”

  1. Alan says:

    According to the BBC obit, “At the age of 11, he acted in Henry V opposite a young Sir Christopher Lee”

  2. Alan says:

    “Deranged plots”. Yes, this is what we want! I’d be interested in your assessment of ‘The Prisoner’.

  3. Jo W says:

    I enjoyed reading his autobigraphy- Blind in One Ear- some years ago now. What a great age he got to. The youngs have missed so much. Btw Chris, did you mean 2011?

  4. Ian Smith says:

    I was too young to see the original Avengers and only caught up with the series when Channel 4 repeated it in the 1980s. But as a lad of nine or ten, I clearly remember the New Avengers, where Patrick Macnee / Steed was partnered by Gareth Hunt’s Mike Gambit and Joanna Lumley’s ballerina-cum-martial-expert Purdey, being on TV. In particular, I can remember seeing the Purdey Effect in the school playground the day after each episode was aired. Schoolgirls who’d formerly burst into tears when obnoxious schoolboys stole their packed lunches or pulled their pigtails would suddenly turn around and karate-kick their tormentors in the balls.

    The New Avengers is less fondly remembered than the Avengers because, I think, it suffered from financial problems, with the result that more expensive, fantastical episodes like ‘The Eagle’s Nest’ and ‘Last of the Cybernauts’, which were in the same spirit as The Avengers in its glory days, were gradually phased out in favour of cheaper, more generic, espionage-themed ones. But I loved a scene in The New Avengers episode ‘House of Cards’ (which guest-starred Peter Jeffrey as an enemy assassin) where a visitor to Steed’s home notices framed photographs of Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson on his shelf. When she asks the distracted Steed about them, he mistakenly thinks that she’s looking at three other pictures, of three horses that he once owned. He says of Blackman: “We went through some tricky situations together. Faithful. Reliable.” Of Rigg: “Very spirited and very special. Fantastic creature. Had to take a whip to her though, sometimes.” And of Thorson: “Liked her oats too much. I sold her to an Arab prince. I think he eventually had to shoot her.”

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Very good indeed. Mrs. Peel was very definitely The Avengers for me. We had an interview with Patrick Mcnee on our radio last night, from the archives of the time referred to above when The Avengers was filming in Toronto. It ws a pleasant visit to the past but no deep info we were previously missing. It was posted to the internet on CBC’s As It Happens website for anyone wanting to hear him.

  6. admin says:

    Yes Jo, the shows first came out in the Edwardian era!

  7. keith page says:

    Sadly missed.My favourites were the late Honor Blackman/ early Diana Rigg episodes.Great suits as well!

  8. Jo W says:

    Of course, Chris! (Smacks forehead) that’s why Steed dressed as a rather posh Teddy Boy!

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Surprised you didn’t realize that, Jo. Such a long run he had.

  10. Gaz says:

    Every other version of that story that I’ve heard has Peter O’Toole rather than Christopher Lee (and it was often Macnee that told the story, so it seems likely that it was Lawrence of Arabia rather than Dracula). It does sound rather more like O’Toole.

    I think one of the big mistakes that Macnee made was making everything look so easy. If you appear to be bloodily tearing every line from the depths of your soul, then people are impressed. He had a way of making everything that he did look so effortless that people assumed that it was, and it’s only when you see an actor like Ralph Fiennes making a complete hash of playing Steed that it becomes obvious that it isn’t.

  11. DebbyS says:

    Adored the Avengers as a child.

    Best episode ever: The House that Jack Built.

  12. Alan Morgan says:

    Indeed, and to all.

    The venn diagram of Fowler fans and Avengers fans is, I suspect, a single circle.

  13. chris hughes says:

    I’m old enough to remember his first outing with Ian Hendry when his (Hendry’s) wife was murdered and Patrick Macnee turned up as some faceless ‘spook’ – it was something very different from much of tv drama. Then it morphed into The Avengers and I do remember being made fairly uneasy of a Saturday evening by some of the plots – mind, I was fairly young:) Great series and great to remember an actor who made a character that lives on.

  14. mike pitcher says:

    another 2 of my heros gone Patrick macnee and Christopher lee,still mourning peter cushing all of them starred in Sherlock holmes movies back in the day.

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