Looking Back at The Avengers (the TV Series)

Alex pays a fond return revisit to 1960s classic TV series, The Avengers, which starred Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg...

Stylish crime fighting, despicable evil masterminds, a bowler-hatted old Etonian gentleman spy, and a series of beautiful leather cat-suited, kinky-booted, no-nonsense heroines. The Avengers had all this and more. What began as a monochrome tape series in January 1961 ran the whole of the 1960s, becoming a colourful slice of period hokum, full of flair, wit and sophistication, yet with its tongue firmly in its cheek.

Always the perfect gentleman, John Steed was played by Patrick Macnee. Originally billed second to the late Ian Hendry, Macnee was still playing Steed over 15 years later when he was teamed with the youthful duo of Joanna Lumley and Gareth Hunt for The New Avengers in 1976. In the 1998 film, the role of Steed was given to Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman played Emma Peel. I will say no more about the film. We will be looking back at the original landmark ’60s drama. From a geek point of view, the last four seasons are, arguably, the most interesting. But let’s start at the beginning and put pay to one of the series’ biggest myths.

Creation and Early Years

Contrary to popular folklore, The Avengers, which began on January 7 1961, has no real link to Police Surgeon, which was a short-lived series broadcast on ITV in the autumn of 1960. Police Surgeonwhich starred Ian Hendry as Dr. Geoffrey Brent, was cancelled after a poor public reception, although viewers had expressed an appreciation for Hendry himself. The creator of The Avengers was Sydney Newman (who would later initiate Doctor Who for the BBC – indeed, Who shared many of The Avengers’ writers: Terry Nation, John Lucarotti, Dennis Spooner, Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks – to name but five). Having also created Police SurgeonNewman wanted to give Hendry a better star vehicle. In the new show, Ian Hendry played Dr David Keel, avenging the murder of his fiancee Peggy (Catherine Woodville) in the first episode, “Hot Snow,” with the help of a slightly enigmatic character in a raincoat called John Steed. The two men were later assisted by a nurse – Carol Wilson – played by Ingrid Hafner, who had also appeared in Police Surgeon.

Five months into the first season, the episode “The Frighteners” saw John Steed develop a taste for Savile Row tailoring and Macnee cultivated a more gentlemanly approach to match. The raincoat was replaced by a well cut, three-piece suit. Sydney Newman felt the character needed better definition to counterbalance Ian Hendry’s more downbeat approach and thought Patrick needed to smarten up his image. Macnee remembered the attire of his father, a well dressed racehorse trainer in the 1930s and also took inspiration from the dandified (yet still shadowy) figure of the Scarlet Pimpernel. He reworked the character’s whole appearance, with extremely satisfying results. Steed’s new ensemble undoubtedly influenced Adam Adamant, played by Gerald Harper (in the Verity Lambert produced BBC homage to the series) and in part set a template for Jon Pertwee’s dandy characterisation and vintage vehicle loving third Doctor Who.

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Such was Patrick Macnee’s popularity, when Hendry unexpectedly quit the show, Steed became the main focus, joined on occasion by Julie Stevens (whom older readers may recall was later a Play School presenter) playing nightclub singer Venus Smith. Yet, the second series had begun with the introduction of a new kind of heroine: Cathy Gale. As played by the dignified Honor Blackman, Cathy, an anthropologist, was able to match Steed for witty verbal interplay and enjoyed a passion for judo and leather clothes. Cathy Gale was a real breath of fresh air, shaking up the established storytelling techniques. Blackman actually played lines originally written for Ian Hendry and gave as good as she got, often knocking out henchmen – in one case literally – when Blackman accidentally felled a stuntman with a spade.

Avenging Music

The original Avengers theme, which was used to accompany the first three series, was a jazz standard by Johnny Dankworth, a popular musician in the early ’60s, often in partnership with his wife Cleo Laine. Dankworth was much in demand and later devised the original theme to Tomorrow’s World. The most distinctive Avengers theme was composed by Laurie Johnson, however, his familiar jaunty tune didn’t arrive on screen until 1965. Johnson also composed a wonderful incidental theme, Chase That Car, often heard when Steed used his vintage Rolls Royce in pursuit of an evil mastermind. Johnson was later invited to compose the theme to The New Avengers. He updated the theme with a definite ’70s funky groove. Such was the early success of The Avengers that Patrick MacNee and Honor Blackman released a novelty single “Kinky Boots” for the Christmas market of 1964. The song had originally been commissioned by Ned Sherrin for That Was The Week that Was and extra lyrics were added. Ironically, the single wasn’t a success until re-released many years later – reaching the fifth spot in the charts of December 1990 after the then Radio 1 Breakfast Show host, Simon Mayo championed it.

“Mrs. Peel We’re Needed!”

Honor Blackman, to the great disappointment of Macnee, left to become a film star in the Bond movie Goldfinger. Diana Rigg was eventually cast as Steed’s new leading lady, Mrs. Emma Peel. The name was suggested by the phrase “M appeal” short for “Man appeal.” Rigg wasn’t the original choice for the role, however. Elizabeth Shepherd (who had a resemblance to Blackman) was contracted and shot several scenes as Emma Peel for the episode “The Town of No Return” before it became obvious she had little chemistry with Macnee, and Diana Rigg was drafted in as a replacement, Shepherd’s scenes were later reshot.

Rigg was an instant hit with the viewers, yet, as she revealed in a later interview, some critics felt she had “let the side down” by doing television. She had a promising theatre career before The Avengers, but she acknowledged she could bring in a much bigger audience to the classics because of her fame as Emma Peel, than if she’d remained purely a stage actress.

So, the most familiar double act had arrived and to “seal the deal” from 1966, the show was made in color and introduced by a memorable, and much imitated title sequence.

Perhaps the most notable parody was by comedian Bob Mills, who appeared as both Steed and Mrs Peel(!) Mills had already given similar treatment to The Prisoner title sequence, for his late night comedy show In Bed With Medinner.

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Of course, filming the show in color was a masterstroke. At the time it was to encourage more sales in America, where color television was well established by the 1960s. British television was still monochrome and as ITV wouldn’t be a colour service until November 1969, the initial run of the show would have been seen in black and white, however all subsequent repeats over the next 40 years would be in color. Various ITV regions would use the show as a “repeat filler” after News At Ten throughout the ’70s, then Channel Four occasionally repeated the series in the ’80s, finally treating it with some respect and giving it a full rerun in the mid-90s. More recently the show has enjoyed a revival on BBC Four.

The Cybernauts

The Cybernauts, The Avengers chief villains, were created in 1964, a couple of years before Doctor Who’s Cybermen. Not unlike a cross between Cybermen and crash test dummies, The Cybernauts were the creation of Dr. Armstrong, a creepy performance by Michael Gough. A year later “The Return Of The Cybernauts” saw them reappear in color, this time with Peter Cushing as guest star. Other classic episodes of this era include the sight of Mrs. Peel in a kinky choker with knee-high leather boots and a whip in “A Touch Of Brimstone,” which featured Peter Wyngarde as the leader of the notorious Hellfire Club. Wyngarde would later turn up in the movie-obsessed episode “Epic.” “The Maneater Of Surrey Green” is also a terrific tale in which Steed and Mrs. Peel are menaced by man-eating plants, it may well have inspired the Doctor Who story “The Seeds of Doom.”

Perhaps the most superlative episode was “The Hidden Tiger,” which featured an entertaining cameo from Ronnie Barker as a feline obsessive called Cheshire, who is even seen to lap up milk. Barker said later he allowed himself “to go slightly over the top,” believing such an arch performance suited the show. “Escape In Time” saw Emma face to face with Peter Bowles as Thyssen, a man with a fondness for historical ways of death. “From Venus With Love” is of note to Doctor Who fans, as it features Jon Pertwee as a Brigadier. “The Brig” himself, Nicholas Courtney turned up in a suitably military-based episode, “Mission Highly Improbable,” wherein a shrunken Steed and Mrs Peel investigate the sudden disappearance of top secret military hardware. For comic book aficionados, there was the wildly inventive and well-realised “The Winged Avenger,” which featured Colin Jeavons. A clever pastiche of the hokum of Batman (which was just beginning stateside) mixed with a generous helping of gaudy Pop Art.

Some great guest stars cropped up as the series progressed: Edwin Richfield and Neil McCarthy starred alongside Arthur Lowe (as a sports car racing eccentric) in “Dead Man’s Treasure,” an excellent episode full of tension as Steed and Mrs. Peel (in a very effective racing simulator) complete a high speed treasure hunt. There were cameos by Paul Eddington, Clive Dunn and a young Penelope Keith in “Something Nasty in The Nursery,” whilst “A Funny Thing That Happened On The Way To The Station,” actually a rewrite of an early Roger Marshall script, is set on a train and featured another Dad’s Army star to be – John Laurie. The sixth season was the last to feature Diana Rigg and marked a turning point for the series. The episodes seemed a touch more serious, although ostensibly they continued the conceits established over the previous two seasons.

Tara For Now…

The departure of the popular Diana Rigg in 1967 also saw long-term producers Albert Fennel and Brian Clemens replaced by John Bryce. It was Bryce who signed up his then girlfriend, the twenty-year-old Canadian actress Linda Thorson as Emma Peel’s replacement, Tara King. The first few episodes with Thorson were in the can before financial and internal problems beset the series. Bryce was fired and replaced with his predecessors, Fennel and Clemens. The seventh series opened with “The Forget Me Knot,” a story which some sources suggest had been originally shot several months beforehand but abandoned.

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Fennel and Clemens persuaded Diana Rigg to return in order to give Emma Peel a proper send-off. Emma memorably tells Tara King, whom she meets on the stairs to Steed’s apartment: “…he likes his tea stirred anti-clockwise.” Steed observed Mrs. Peel driving off with her husband, who had re-emerged after being presumed dead. He seemed remarkably like Steed in the brief look the viewer is given of him. In truth Patrick Macnee played him in close-ups and Macnee’s stunt double, Peter Weston played Peel in longshots as an in-joke, all the more reason for “Mr. Peel” to meet with Steed’s approval!

The end of the 1960s saw some of the most colorful and psychedelic episodes. Macnee is seen sporting sideburns in a rare nod to fashion. The final episodes saw the introduction of Mother, a wheelchair-bound boss figure, played by Patrick Newell, who had previously appeared as a different character in “Something Nasty In The Nursery.” Despite all the problems that surrounded the series at this point there were still some very fine episodes in the final run: “Look – (Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One) But There Were These Two Fellers” – which must surely hold the record for the longest episode title in the history of TV drama – was a particular highlight. It depicted clowns as killers. The subject is always a fascination for those who find clowns creepy at the best of times. The very well-mounted and effective “Fog” followed with its Jack the Ripper-style tale, wherein Steed and Tara hunt the seemingly reanimated Victorian killer. The aptly titled “The Rotters” concerned the deaths of members of the Institute for Timber Technology, their assassins being able to destroy wood by very quickly reducing it to dust, was another clever story.

They’ll be back, you can depend on it…

The Avengers ran for 161 episodes, ending in May 1969. “Bizarre” brought the series to a close as Steed and Tara were accidentally launched into space, a whole two months before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. Mother broke the forth wall and told the viewers “don’t worry… they’ll be back, you can depend on it…” Prophetic words as just six years later, Macnee and Thorson reprised their roles for a drinks commercial, such was its success, plans were made for a new series: The New Avengers, which arrived the following year. But that’s another story!

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