If ever there was a Golden Age of British television, there’s no finer exemplar of it than The Avengers. The series originally ran from 1960 to 1969, and created indelible images of Patrick Macnee’s uncannily suave John Steed, Honor Blackman as leather-clad Cathy Gale, and Diana Rigg as cool, feline Emma Peel.
If Linda Thorson’s Tara King couldn’t recreate the Rigg mystique, Ian Hendry’s appearances in the first 26 Avengers episodes are often forgotten altogether.
Painstaking research for Lumiere Pictures’ launch of the series on video this month unearthed only one episode with Hendry in it. The early shows were 58 minutes of live television, fuelled by terror and raw adrenalin, and it was only when the episodes were made on film that their preservation became practical.
Anyway, it was the male/female leads which made The Avengers an international TV phenomenon. Apart from making stars of Macnee, Blackman and Rigg and giving a break to a host of about-to-be-discovered guest performers (like Peter Bowles and Donald Sutherland), it’s still the only British series which has ever been aired on American prime-time television. It also used a plethora of British talent which either came from, or was heading towards, the movies.
“All the people involved were film-makers, all the directors and lighting cameramen,” remembers Brian Clemens, Avengers co-producer and writer of nearly 50 episodes.
“We had Charlie Crichton, who directed A Fish Called Wanda. Gil Taylor went on to light Polanski’s movies, and Alan Hume does the James Bond films. We didn’t make a series, we made little films, and each film was scored separately by Laurie Johnson.”
An extravagant claim, but the pristine prints from which the video releases have been prepared offer some corroboration. “Lumiere have got beautiful uncut copies,” says Clemens.” And they have the special teasers and announcements that were part of the mystique of The Avengers.”
Technical considerations aside, an unprecedented cocktail of televisual flavours was stirred together to create the series. Patrick Macnee helped himself to buts of Ralph Richardson’s performance in the movie Q-Planes for his portrayal of Steed, while his bantering insouciance perhaps owed something to his stint aboard motor torpedo boats in the Channel during the war.
“You have to be cool and you have to have a sense of humour,” Macnee thinks, “otherwise life is very difficult.”
Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg each struck a chord with a nascent women’s movement: “I became an icon for the feminist movement in America,” recalls Diana Rigg. “I still get people writing to me or coming to see me and saying ‘you were a role-model for me when I was a girl’ and all that. It’s very sad that they had to take their role models off the television. But originally, when Ian Hendry dropped out, they replaced him with Honor Blackman without changing the script.”
So, quite literally, Cathy Gale adopted a man’s role when she joined up in 1962. When Diana Rigg subsequently stepped in opposite Steed, she’d never seen Honor Blackman’s work because she didn’t own a television. Macnee remembers: “I saw Diana at Paul Scofiled’s Cordelia at Stratford, she was formidable in that. Then she was one of the three standard-bearers at Paul Robeson’s Othello with Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave. And suddenly, she turned up on The Avengers. She was wonderful.
It was love at first sight.”
But as Steed, he wasn’t allowed to express his emotions so forthrightly. Crucial to the show’s mood of teasing suggestiveness was to keep the nature of Mrs Peel’s relationship with Steed a matter for conjecture.
“There were certain things that were already tacit in the script,” says Rigg. “Emma was an independent, accomplished woman. She had a technical brain, she could take care of herself. Patrick had already established a style, and then between us we developed a style of our own. It was a very intimate relationship without the patent gestures of intimacy ever being shown.”
Rigg’s stardom in the (for the time) somewhat saucy Avengers provoked derogatory comments among the tights-and-soliloquies fraternity, who failed to appreciate that she was striking a blow for the emancipation of thespians everywhere. Casting aside her dowdy Shakespearean drapes, she was often in leather, sometimes in bondage, once played a belly dancer and achieved fetishistic status as the barely-clothed Queen of in in the episode A Touch Of Brimstone. Fans still send her Queen of Sin postcards to sign.
“The power of television was undervalued, and as a result it was considered that I was wasting myself on TV,” she says.
Could The Avengers rid again? Rumours have abounded of a Hollywood movie version starring Mel Gibson, but efforts to launch revivals on TV or on celluloid have been sucked into a quicksand of copyright chaos. Nobody knows who owns what. Perhaps it’s for the best.
An Avengers fan remembers
Autumn 1962, our inept local TV programme magazine bannered new schedules with this smudgy photograph of a blonde woman in odd, stiff, clothes. She was looking at the camera, amused, challenging. Not like any female image I’d seen. And I thought, that’s it, that’s the attitude I want later in life – much later, I was a fat countrified schoolgirl. Meanwhile, I’ll watch this for inspiration. (Missed the first one – I was hospitalized for appendicitis, but discharged myself and walked out, that was what cover lady would have done.)
And so for four years I used the series as many a naff little auto-didact did in that much narrower world. Not only as an addictive entertainment, a fashion show, a dialogue coach, but as an access point – an episode would refer to a subject – T’ang ceramics, maybe, or Dicken’s novels – and I’d be up the public library first thing Monday morning in pursuit of further information. And it prompted bruised decades of thumping on dojo mats fascinated by martial arts. Life-changing, as they say. V.H.