The Ingrid Pitt column: celebrating The Avengers

Ingrid looks back at a classic show that should be left alone and remembered as it is...

Ingrid Pitt

It is said that the price of the humble Mars Bar is the standard against which all financial transactions can be measured. Which means if you were earning 33,000 Mars Bars in 1940 you should be munching your way through 33,000 a year now. It is nice to know that some things remain constant.

We’re always being bombarded with shows and films which ‘break all box office records’. What does that mean? Surely it is only bums on seats that count? Does the fact that Star Wars rakes in millions of dollars mean it is better than Gone With The Wind when today’s devalued currency is taken into account?

And what about series such as The Avengers? The Avengers first hit the screens in 1961. Since then there have been 161 episodes (and one unfortunate film) Only Mission Impossible beats it. During that time it metamorphosed from a more or less straightforward detective series to a kinky sci-fi pastiche with restrained sexual overtones. Its generation was initiated by the waning fortunes of another show, Police Surgeon. What that show had going for it, and not much else, was Ian Hendry. At this time he was free of the demons that stalked him in later life. The BBC didn’t want to lose him so producer Leonard White and Sydney Newman, Head of Drama at the BBC, dreamed up a new show and slotted Hendry in as Doctor David Keel, out to exact revenge on the person or persons who murdered his girlfriend, Peggy. He was joined by the mysterious hard man, played by Patrick MacNee, (John Steed) in regulation gumshoe Trench coat and attitude.

Although MacNee was a good actor he didn’t have that extra something needed to get viewers summoning up the sinews to make the arduous journey across the carpet to switch channels. (This was in the early 60s and remote controls were few and far between.) The answer was ‘Crumpet’.

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Children’s programmes presenter, Julie Stevens, was shunted in as a nightclub singer with a bit of a thing for Steed. It didn’t work out. Enter Honor Blackman as the revolutionary female sidekick. Twin sets and sensible shoes were out. Blackman’s Cathy Gale took to the leather like a Dominatrix born. As Cathy Gale’s energy level rose there was nothing for it but to take Steed with her. Tweed jackets, blazers and the occasional Tuxedo were fine when he was just a ministry man but when the quips began to flow he metamorphosed into the bowler hated, Saville Row suited man-about-town with the handy umbrella.

Steed and Gale worked up a relationship based on double-entendre and suggestive asides. There was also the fact, never dwelled upon, that Gale seemed to live in Steed’s apartment.

The early Avengers was only one short step away from being shot ‘live’. The episode you finished shooting in the morning was sometimes aired the same evening. TV in the US had left that sort of circus a long time since. Also British TV was viewed as a mite risqué. There were moves to tame down the Britishness and suck in some Americans. Dynamic Honor Blackman was after bigger poisson and went off and got herself measured for a different cat suit as Pussy Galore In Goldfinger. Which left the way open for the appealing Emma Peel.

Cathy Gale was a hard act to follow. Elizabeth Shepherd was pulled in as the replacement. After a couple of episodes she was thanked for her efforts and let go. Writers Clemens and Fennell beavered away at the rock face without coming up with anyone remotely suitable until they happened to see Diana Rigg in a TV drama. Instant rapport. Diana was named Emma Peel and re-shot Shepherd’s half finished episode, The Murder Market. American distributors were still warding off all attempts to get The Avengers Networked. In 1966 colour was still in its infancy. Realistically the hierarchy at the BBC knew that if they were to make inroads into international TV they had to get the paint box out. Sportingly ABC took the 26 episodes of Series 4 in the despised monochrome. After this it was colour all the way.

When The Avengers is mentioned it is usually the lithe and enigmatic Diana Rigg who fills the mental frame. But, like Morecombe and Wise, it is doubtful if Rigg would have breathed without the support of MacNee. As a journeyman actor he was happy to come to rest as Steed. Unfortunately Diana Rigg was not so happy. For one thing, it is said, she was chatting to one of the cameramen and he mentioned how much he was earning. He was getting more than she was able to pull. The discovery soured her relationship with the producers and at the end of series 5B she refused to renew her contract and headed off for the inevitable James Bond movie. It was back to the chaos and mayhem of the search for a star. What they got was Linda Thorson.

Although Emma Peel’s exit hadn’t been anticipated, Rigg did the decent thing and agreed to come back and hand on the baton to the new character. In many ways Thorson was on a hiding to nothing. Cathy Gale had steered the series in the right direction, Emma Peel put on more sail and corrected any deviation in navigation and Tara King was left to flounder.

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Maybe if Linda had more time to work out who she was things might have worked out better for the show. Even after a couple of dozen episodes or so she was still playing the gauche ingénue with a bit of a suppressed lust for Steed. Worse luck came with the returns on the US ratings. Aired in the time slot already occupied by the phenomenal Rowan and Martin Laugh-in the show didn’t stand a chance. As the new kid her head was on the block and she usually gets the blame for the eventual demise of the much-loved show. But the reality is that the show had run its course and had nowhere to go. The TV show became increasingly frivolous and unable to compete against other prime time shows blessed with larger budgets like I Spy, Man From Uncle and The Prisoner. The accountants at ABC shook their collective heads and pulled the plug.

Without the financial backing of the States the show couldn’t go on and wrapped for the last time on an episode called Bizarre. As Tara and Steed toasted themselves with champagne and accidentally launched themselves into space. The last line, fed to the camera, was a none too subtle variation of the Terminator’s departing line, “They’ll be back.”

While Tara King was being scorned by the Americans the show was picking up a load of kudos in France. This led to Linda starring in a commercial for Champagne. The Champagne company agreed to put up the finance and The New Avengers was born. But without Linda. The difference was that the Steed character, now rather portly but still immaculately clad, had two partners off which he could bounce. Purdey, the regulation Avengers style crumpet, played by Joanna Lumley, and Mike Gambit (Gareth Hunt). Purdey, the purveyor of feminine wiles and a devastating fighting action and Gambit a wannabe Steed. The set-up was pleasant enough and some of the stories passably interesting but became so off the wall that they were hard to follow. In all, 26 episodes were shot before it was decided that the idea to pull the series, back in May 1969, had been the correct one. There was no optimistic “We’ll be back.” tag line when the last episode, Emily, made in Toronto, faded from the screen on the 17th December 1977.

That was then but now I’ve heard a rumour that someone has been at the Mars Bars again and is ready to finance the pilot for a new series. At least that was before the current fiscal atmosphere when Mars Bars seem to be heading for the Red Planet. Why they can’t just leave the old series to decay in peace I’ll never understand. It appears that even the old style Mars Bar has been pensioned off.

Read Ingrid’s column every Tuesday at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.

 

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