By the time “The Avengers” premiered in the States on ABC on March 28, 1966, the stylish, mod British spy series had been fixture on television in its native Britain for five years — and it had gone through almost as many permutations as that other British favorite, “Doctor Who.”
“Avengers” fans are in for a real treat with a new coffee table book, “The Avengers: A Celebration,” by Marcus Hearn, featuring a foreword by none other than Patrick Macnee, who was the only constant on the series in his role as John Steed, the super-suave, bowler-wearing secret agent.
About 10,000 images that are in the care of the show’s current-rights holders, CANAL+, were perused until 350 negatives and prints were selected, scanned and digitally restored. In the case of the first season, the photos are a rare surviving record — just two episodes from that premiere year are known to exist on video.
Oddly enough, “The Avengers” actually was a stepchild of a short-lived British series called “Police Surgeon,” which promised “true-life drams from a life few know” and premiered in September 1960 with Ian Hendry holding the scalpel and Ingrid Hafner as his nurse. That show lasted only 13 weeks, but the head of drama at ABC Television, Sydney Newman, wanted to keep the Hendry-Hafner tandem intact, so a new series was launched called “The Avengers.” Hendry was on hand as Dr. David Keel, and Hafner was his nurse, Carol Wilson. Added to their world was Macnee’s Steed, the intelligence agent whose investigations pulled the medical duo into encounters with the criminal underworld.
After the first series, Hendry left for a film career, leaving the producers scrambling. Joe Rollason came on board in Season 2 as Dr. Martin King, but he only made it through three low-spark episodes. Enter Honor Blackman, who is best known as Pussy Galore in 1964’s “Goldfinger.” She became the perfect foil for Steed as Mrs. Cathy Gale, a widowed, tough-minded anthropologist. With the addition of Blackman, the series became more outlandish. It was Blackman’s idea that Gale should know judo to fight the bad guys rather than using a gun.
Blackman later said: “Patrick always used to worry like mad about the fight scenes. He used to say, ‘Why don’t you fight like me with an umbrella or a sword? But the whole point of ‘The Avengers’ was that she was sort of a butch character and he was her cunning companion. Never might the fights, to get Steed to even run anywhere was quite something.”
It was Macnee’s idea that Gale should wear more practical clothes than a dress and heels. So Michael Whittaker designed high boots and leather jump suits for her. Blackman left the series at the conclusion of 1964, and Steed got a new partner who was cut from the same cloth as Gale — Emma Peel. Blonde Elizabeth Shepherd landed the role of Peel, but she only made one episode, “The Town of No Return,” and half of another episode before she was handed her walking papers. “We saw the rushes and she wasn’t giving us anything,” was the terse appraisal of writer and associate producer Brian Clemens.
Enter Royal Shakespeare Company actress Diana Rigg, who auditioned with 10 or 12 other actresses. As Hearn describes in the book, Rigg was the “key” to this incarnation of the show’s success. Rigg managed to be “both kittenish and capable as the self-assured Emma Peel.” And she had the most mod wardrobe with her boots, tight black pants, turtlenecks and lots and lots of leather.
By the time the series hit America, it was outlandish fun. Less James Bond and more “Man from U.N.C.L.E” (there was even an episode called “Our Girl from Auntie“) it synched up in spirit with the winking-spy cinema of “Our Man Flint” with James Coburn and “The Silencers” with Dean Martin as agent Matt Helm. And the chemistry between the Macnee and Rigg was pitch-perfect; their characters weren’t lovers — her husband had been missing for a long time — but their dialogue was filled with sexual innuendos. More than a few female baby boomers will confess that they coveted the confident cool of Mrs. Peel, while male members of the audience kept their eye on her for different reasons.
But all good things have to come to an end. Rigg desired to leave the show for a film-and-theater career. Their final episode together aired March 20, 1968. The series literally became less “a-Peel-ing” after Rigg’s departure. In fact, it never recovered. A young Canadian actress named Linda Thorson was brought on board as Tara King, a bouncy, more girlish companion for Steed, but it just wasn’t the same.
“The Avengers” was revived in Britain in 1976 as “The New Avengers” with Macnee and a pre -“Absolutely Fabulous” Joanna Lumley and Gareth Hunt as two young agents. The series came America in 1978 as part of CBS’ late-night lineup. Then Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman starred in the horribly misguided feature film version in 1998, but the less said about that the better.
– Susan King
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