Sixty Years Of Eccentricity

Media

Right now, deserted London looks like every episode of ‘The Avengers’.  

It’s the sixtieth anniversary of the series and by way of celebration TV is currently awash with old episodes. Why would such an early TV show continue to exert an influence, or is it pure nostalgia?

This year we lost the marvellous Diana Rigg, an actor I would credit with bringing cynicism to our TV screens. Few of those involved in the original are left now. I talked with writer Brian Clemens about plotting and he pointed out that the series, which ran from 1961 – 1969, caught the public mood because it stood on the fault line between old and new Britain.

Steed was the Edwardian past, a vintage variety act of British tropes in his weekly disguises, playing exporters, generals, air aces, captains of ships and industry, his apartment awash with plaster busts and stag heads. Diana Rigg was the future in her white Lotus Elan, fashion accessories and op-art flat, kick-boxing, sarcastic, arch and bemused.

‘The Avengers’ were 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.

The most famous were intelligent, stylish and assertive women. Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman) was unlike any female character seen before on British TV and became a household name. In  her earliest appearances dialogue written for Ian Hendry was simply transferred to her, neatly excising sexism. Blackman arrived with a sharp wit and a black leather catsuit, and left to be in ‘Goldfinger’ (intriguing that the two best Bond girls were both ex-Avengers). She was replaced by Emma Peel (Diana Rigg in designer two-pieces and berets, before she and Tara King (Linda Thorson, frillier) crossed on the stairs in Rigg’s final episode. Chasing American sales, episodes increasingly incorporated elements of science fiction and fantasy, parody and British eccentricity. 

‘The formula was to set the stories against a tongue-in-cheek panorama of the picture-post card Britain illustrated in tourist brochures,’ said Dave Rogers, author of ‘The Complete Avengers’. ‘Every aspect of British life was incorporated as it was promoted overseas: from atom stations, biochemical plants and modern industry on the one hand to fox-hunting, stately homes and the Olde English Inn on the other.’

The speed with which the show was turned around meant that certain plots 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 cavalier, amoral attitude to death – usually half a dozen people were knocked off in each episode, and rather a lot of bondage was involved. Rigg pointed out that she spent many an episode tied up.

The Emma Peel monochrome episodes were the most smartly written, the meaty character acting and strangely surreal atmosphere making up for plot 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 storylines involved killer nannies, killer robots, killer dreams, killer houses, killer plants and killer scientists, as well as chains of eccentric cameos from mad botanists, railway enthusiasts, potty brigadiers and deranged dance instructors. Guest stars included Donald Sutherland, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and a Who’s Who of British character actors.

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 endlessly callous dialogue and deserted locations (all those country roads and London mews) worked in The Avengers’ favour. The fewer people there were on the streets, the more strangely their suspects behaved, the odder the conversations, everything worked to make a more original show. This was the time of non-realism; Shows like ‘The Strange World Of Gurney Slade’, ‘The Prisoner’ and ‘Adam Adamant’ would have been classed as risky experiments now. The Avengers felt like a waking dream full of disconnected logic and unsettling images – no wonder, then, that so many episodes featured dream states and hypnosis.

To the writer, what’s most memorable now is the extreme narrative shorthand used in each episode. Viewers were left to fill in motivation, background and detail because the storyline (there was almost only ever one storyline, the exception being ‘The House That Jack Built’) stripped every other element away. Three dimensional characters were reduced to cyphers, and it was assumed that viewers would join the dots to work out why someone would use killer butlers as assassins.

The show was regularly censored in the US due to its fetishistic, decadent tone. A disastrous Hollywood film version failed to capture the tone of the show. Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg remained lifelong friends.

 

34 comments on “Sixty Years Of Eccentricity”

  1. Roger Allen says:

    “Censors had endless trouble with the show’s cavalier, amoral attitude to death – usually half a dozen people were knocked off in each episode”
    Didn’t many – I haven’t seen them all so I can’t be sure – open with a prequel where the villains kill someone in complicated ways for unknown – and usually unexplained – reasons before Steed and Mrs. Peel appear?

  2. Liz Thompson says:

    Strange World of Gurney Slade. I loved that show.

  3. Peter Dixon says:

    Great theme tune and title sequences. But lots of shows at the time had truly memorable themes; Man in a Suitcase, The Saint, The Persuaders, Z Cars and from America the fantastic Mission Impossible and Peter Gunn. Most of the best ones were by jazz musicians like John Barry who knew what they were doing.Hard to tell one TV theme from another these days except for the bloody awful Eastenders and Corrie.
    The Hellfire Club from The Avengers inspired a whole bunch of baddies in The X-Men, X-Force and Captain Britain Marvel comic books – one of whom was named Jason Wyngarde!

  4. Peter T says:

    I was quite young to appreciate it at the time, but Honor Blackman’s Mrs Gale dominated those very early series like no other female before and very few since. The character changed attitudes and set a path for the 1960s.

    Doctor Who arrived about the same time and was about as revolutionary. TV was something special in the early 60s.

  5. Brian Evans says:

    My favourite TV of all time. As Admin says, the monochrome ones were the best. I realise that though in hindsight because we didn’t have a colour TV at the time, so they were all in black and white.

    Brian Clemens was both brilliant and prolific. He wrote much of the “Thriller” series of the mid 70’s. If anyone has a few quid/dollars to spare, I can recommend the box set as a great lockdown pastime.

    He also wrote some stage plays. One of which I have read but not seen, “The Edge of Darkness” is a thriller set in 1900 and has lots of rather good twists. It’s a good contrast the “The Avengers” as it is a period piece.

    “The Avengers” theme tune really has the “tingle factor” for me.

  6. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    I loved the early Avengers, not so keen on the later ones.
    Adam Adamant was another favourite, but didn’t quite match Steed somehow.
    I don’t think I watched The Prisoner at the time, but have watched and loved it since.

  7. Jo W says:

    Ah yes,The Strange World of Gurney Slade! My parents didn’t understand it but as it was on when my Mum went out with her friend and Dad was working overtime, I got to watch it, provided I completed my homework of course. Oh the dear long,long ago.
    I too preferred the Avengers in black and white,but then again,I prefer black and white films too. Hooray for the Talking Pictures channel! Anyone else seen that from 6th February they are having “Saturday Morning Pictures” from 9am to 12. I’ll have to get in supplies of Kia-Ora, ice lollies and Percy Dalton peanuts!

  8. Roger Allen says:

    The Russian film director Anatoly German said that the problem with films was that sound was invented a hundred years too soon and colour film two hundred years too soon, JoW.

  9. brooke says:

    Missed 1961-64 Avengers episodes but was immersed in shows after that, due to philosophical logic professor who corralled us to watch. Although he drove a RR Silver Wraith, he thought Steed was right to prefer Bentleys.

    We loved Emma Peel’s clothes as the simple, mod designs were easy to copy—back then high quality wool, silk and cotton cloth could be purchased in local department stores at reasonable prices. And her low rise bell bottoms were all the rage.

    My last adventure with the Avengers involved a male colleague phoning me from London at some ungodly hour to rave about seeing an unclothed Diana Rigg during a theatre performance (Follies??). Can’t recall how I punished him for that.

    The “disconnected logic and unsettling images” follow a very English tradition of allegorical literature, I think.

  10. Peter T says:

    I’ll agree with Roger (and Anatoly German) on colour. I’d add a load of special effects and clever camera work. Before they arrived, there were excellent films that consisted mainly of a series of scenes of a few people talking to one another. And, excluding salaries, they probably cost about tuppence to make.

  11. Barbara Boucke says:

    Brooke – I was lucky enough to see Diana Rigg in “Follies” and I don’t recall her being minus her clothes. However, she was the original Heloise in the 1971 (I think) production of “Abelard and Heloise”. I don’t know what year your colleague woke you up – but he may have been referring to that production. I did see it during the summer of ’71, but with another actress in the lead. There was – via my foggy memory – a scene with Abelard in what was a bed in that time period. That may have been the minus clothes moment. I was also lucky enough to see her in “Pygmalion” but she had clothes on in that production as well.

  12. Jill Q. says:

    Narrative shorthand is a good word for it. When I mentioned it to my father-in-law he said “Well, they’re called the Avengers. Not the Explainers.”

  13. Brian Evans says:

    Barbara and Brooke, it was Abelard and Heloise. I saw this with my school friend at the Royal Court in Liverpool 1971, and we only went to see Diana Rigg and Keith Michell get their kit off. During the rest of the play we were bored into a coma as it was all about nuns, monks and religion. I have just been looking at the programme, which, being an anally retentive obsessive, I kept. Natch. This was either a pre or post West End run. Oddly, when it came to the West End run, the production had two different leads.

    Just to bore everyone a bit more, let me bang on about the author. It was written by Ronald Miller, who some years later was knighted by Margaret Thatcher for writing her speeches, in particular the “Lady’s not for turning” one.

    I was listening to a short talk this morning on Radio 4 (I forget who by-or by whom) about writing and how to do it. She said the secret about writing good fiction is to show, not tell. Obviously, I thought about Mr F, and a light bulb went off in my head. Yes, that’s it. That’s just what he does!!

  14. Peter T says:

    One year BBC and ITV managed to show The Avengers and Adam Adamant at the same time. What a difficult decision – not really, Diana Rigg beats Gerald Harper, even if he’s fresh from deep freeze.

  15. Jonah says:

    Great to read the appreciation of “The Avengers”. Diana Rigg, Keith Michell and “Abelard and Heloise” came to Broadway for a brief run. The nude scene was nastily immortalized in his review by the critic John Simon (infamous for criticizing performers’ looks, particularly actresses): “Diana Rigg, the Héloïse, is built, alas, like a brick basilica with inadequate flying buttresses”. This is the quote that inspired Rigg to collect their worst reviews from other actors and publish them in a book “No Turn Unstoned”. Incidentally, after her death, copies of this book were priced at a hundred dollars or more, even yellowing worn paperbacks.

  16. Barbara Boucke says:

    Thank you Brian and Jonah – I’m glad to see that my faulty memory of 1971 is not as faulty as I thought it was!! Also Brian, you aren’t the only person who has saved theatre programs. I not only have them from all the London productions I saw, but from a touring company doing the musical “Carnival” who came to the small town where I grew up. That was in the early 60’s!! I like the term packrat, or to borrow from George Carlin, “Stuff, stuff, stuff!”.

  17. Helen Martin says:

    How an actor looks! It only matters if there is a major plot point that involves something that the actor is lacking (great height, a massive growth, or wings).

    Whenever I saw Diana Rigg (since we have to use the past tense now. alas) I thought Avengers and she had that little twist to her mouth that screamed “cynic” every time. Loved her style.

    Loved The Prisoner, too, with its cartoonish scenes and voice overs.

  18. admin says:

    I have a first edition hardback of ‘No Turn Unstoned’ – it’s a delight!

  19. Roger Allen says:

    James Agate in his Ego series was concerned about how the actor looked,
    In the 1930s actors swapped roles in the course of a play – Romeo & Mercutio, Henry IV & Bolingbroke (never Anthony & Cleopatra, unfortunately) etc. – it still goes on, of course – didn’t it happen with Frankenstein and the monster in a recent production? – and there’s a section where he discusses how the way Olivier and Gielgud looked affected them in opposing parts and changed the balance of the play.

  20. brooke says:

    Took another look at the image — those sporrans–what a laugh!

  21. Paul C says:

    I like Diana Rigg as Vincent Price’s daughter (sporting a moustache at one point) in ‘Theatre of Blood’. Her filmography is disappointing considering her talents – a shame.

  22. Derek j Lewis says:

    The older Diana Rigg was also perfectly cast as Gladys Mitchell’s ‘Mrs. Bradley’ in a series with a very clever sting in it’s tail.

  23. Michael Pitcher says:

    During the last 12 covid lockdown months ive regressed back to 70s and earlier tv, buying a box set of Adam Adamant [worse than i remember] The Mind of J G Reader [excellent] and now looking for the box set of the Avengers with Diana Rigg not keen on Honor Blackman but it is rather expensive. I suppose its wallowing in nostalgia like tea and cake with Miss Marple still in corona virus world any port in a storm

  24. Helen Martin says:

    Am looking forward to next week’s PBS episode of All Creatures… It’s a Tricky Woo episode so we’ll have Diana Rigg for an hour. It’s a waste of talent but she does a lovely job. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the new version although fields and barns are cleaner and brighter than I imagine they were then and the country roads are all black with paving.

  25. Penelope says:

    Diana Rigg was marvellous as Lady Dedlock in Bleak House. Her hauteur was perfection. Underrated! People seemed to think she was just a pretty face.

  26. SteveB says:

    I remember Brian Clemens explaining how he solved a problem with his story’s timeline when Steed’s car journey to rescue Mrs Peel had to take too long to make sense in context. He had Steed say, “I drove the pretty route”. He was a magnificent plotter, I remember one episode of Bergerac which was absolute genius in setting up and resolving a situation in the alloted 50 minutes, but he also wrote some great dialogue and eccentric characters

    “The Hour that Never Was” was also one of the first I saw, the absolute first was “The Masterminds” – and I still remember all these years later, they were that memorable in my childing imagination. And I remember at school the week after “A Touch of Brimstone” all talking about “that” challenge with the axe and the pea (we were obviously still too young to appreciate Diana Rigg in her snake outfit!)

    @Liz Thompson: Gurney Slade is coming out on bluray shortly

  27. SteveB says:

    @Penelope Oh yes Diana Rigg was brilliant as Lady Deadlock, and that version of Bleak House is in EVERY way far superior to the later one with Gillian Anderson.

  28. SteveB says:

    btw: That was “my childiSH imagination” 2 posts above. Don’t know what happened there and I don’t want to be quoted in some future collection of internet illiteracy!

  29. Jan says:

    I liked “The Avengers “and did n’t understand for ages that Mrs Gale + Mrs Peel had sort of swopped roles with Steed. I.e. he was the girl.

    Took me AGES to get it
    This is sort of an extension to what Peter T had to say I believe.

    Think I might t have said this b4. ( @ least once! ) Very cleverly written think I t all came a bit adrift with with the last female Tara somebody or another ….

  30. Brian Evans says:

    I agree with you there Jan. It was never the same with the Tara (King?) character.

  31. Ian Luck says:

    The very odd thing about that comment, Jan, was, that, for the first few years of his life, Patrick McNee (John Steed) was brought up as a girl by his mother, even to being dressed in girls’ clothes. As Steed often said:
    “How very extraordinary!”

  32. Helen Martin says:

    Somehow there was never anything odd about Mrs. Peel taking the lead role – she just did and that is also extraordinary. The other odd thing is that it was Mrs. Peel and Mrs. Gale with no suggestion of a “Mr.” to justify their liberty.

  33. Laura Hecht says:

    When i was a kid, I wanted to be Emma Peel. I still do.

  34. Jan says:

    I was totally unaware of that odd part of in Mcnees upbringing Ian. It’s sort of there written large though that Steed is the more passive character, perhaps more cerebral and away from the action whereas Peel + Gale (Peel being labelled as a widow I think) are cast in roles traditionally seen as being essentially masculine.

    It makes for an interesting dynamic adding to the air of total eccentricity of the show but it’s also a sort of signal that traditional male + female roles are changing. Interesting isn’t it ?

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