Sixty Years Of Eccentricity
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.