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Roger Marshall    

Roger Marshall

Writer, The Avengers, 1963 to 1967

Introduced by David K. Smith

Of all the writers to contribute to The Avengers, Roger Marshall likely has the distinction of having become something of a lightning rod. It's no secret that he and Brian Clemens did not see eye to eye on the direction of the show. But while Clemens left his creative stamp all over the series (after it went to film), it was Marshall who arguably gave The Avengers some of its sharpest wit.

Born March 1934 in Leicester, Leicestershire, England, Roger has an impressive CV that extends from 1959 through 1994. Although he penned several films (What Became of Jack and Jill?, 1972 and Attack Force Z, 1982 to name a couple), his focus has been almost exclusively on episodic television, from No Hiding Place (1960) to Lovejoy (1991), with The Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre (1962), Armchair Theatre (1970), The Sweeny (1975) and Travelling Man (1984) in between. Naturally, most Avengers Forever visitors want to focus on his tenure with The Avengers, and to provide the most authoritative voice, here is what Roger himself has to say:

The Avengers: A Threnody
by Roger Marshall

Last week I had to call my credit card company; some problem regarding my account. Having been assured that my call was important, I was put on hold and given some music to while away the time. It wasn't Mozart, wasn't Bach, wasn't even Gershwin. It was the theme from The Avengers: forty-two years on and still sounding great. The show may be dead—the feature film nailed the coffin—but it won't lie down. Somewhere in the world an episode will be playing this afternoon or tonight, you can depend upon it.

It is impossible to watch a segment of The West Wing or NYPD Blue and not know who devised it. Not so with The Avengers, which wasn't created; it evolved, rather like fossils become oil. It is hard to believe now that there were four years of studio-bound video production before the show saw the light of celluloid. Steed started life as a trench-coated secret agent with a cigarette drooling out the corner of his mouth; all the allure of a Soho pimp. The bowler, the brolly and the natty Old Etonian elegance were yet to come. Everything was done off the cuff. One director, Jonathan Alwyn, recalls arriving to direct his first episode with a short list of actors to play "Gale," only to be told it was already cast and that it was not Charlie Gale anymore but Cathy. A woman! No confusion possible once he met up with Honor Blackman.

The first Avengers were unbelievably poor. In today's unforgiving world it wouldn't have lasted six weeks. So, how did it survive? The competition was thin, it had a late night Saturday slot and it did have two supremely gifted young directors, Don Leaver and Peter Hammond. It is no exaggeration to say that they made bricks without straw. In fact, they directed fifteen of the first twenty episodes. The studio traditionally budgeted "design" more highly than any rival company. So, however weak the plot and banal the dialogue, it invariably looked good. It also had great title music by Johnny Dankworth. Sadly, the scriptwriters were not of the same quality. The first day's rehearsal invariably began with the actors binning their new scripts and saying, "All right then, what's this one going to be about?"

I arrived on the scene at Episode 36. I was so apprehensive of the potential damage this shambles could do to my fledgling career, I decided to work in partnership with a friend who was a part-time writer and executive of a company producing TV commercials. I worked on the theory that a credit shared could only attract half the blame. With our second effort we struck gold. Peter Hammond turned "Death of a Great Dane" into the template for the future. My friend, being a lot savvier than me, was soon keeping the story editor well supplied with top of the range cannabis. Our joint future looked assured. Just as we were negotiating to sell him a script based on book one of the London telephone directory, he was promoted to producer. His part in the saga is only small, but he did launch the kinky gear and Honor's leather suits. His replacement, Richard Bates, came with a respect for the written word. Refreshingly old fashioned, he believed a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end; and preferably in that order. The corner had been turned and after years of drudgery the show became an "overnight success." It took its rightful place as a facet of Swinging London, along with King's Road, Twiggy, Carnaby Street, Mary Quant, Charlie Cooke et al.

Comparisons between the various ladies are invidious. Diana Rigg was, without doubt, the best actress of her generation. The fact that she came with a sharp wit and a sense of fun added to the package. Nevertheless, when asked for a preference, I usually plump for Honor because the show then was at its freshest. Sadly for Joanna Lumley the game was over by the time she got there. A tired concept had become positively arthritic.

For my money the last Honor Blackmans and the early Riggs saw the show hit its peak. The day after Jackie Pallo (wrestling's "Mr. TV") was knocked out by Cathy Gale in a graveside fight ("Mandrake"), every London newspaper carried the story on its front page. Even Macnee and Blackman's awful Kinky Boots record couldn't stop the show.

Film was the logical step. As the world knows, a big success became an enormous one. No doubt about it, it was good. Equally, I have no doubt that it could and should have been better; a whole lot better. Some of the film people who replaced their TV counterparts were too old and not up to scratch; too many veterans broken on Lew Grade's mid-Atlantic wheel. Peter Hammond directed a James Mason film but never set foot in the Elstree studio; Don Leaver only directed a couple. And would you believe that the most sophisticated show of its day had episodes directed by a stuntman?

The name of the fecund and indefatigable Brian Clemens is all over the show. No exaggeration to say his influence pervades almost every scene. Lead writer, associate producer and story editor. In my book that was at least one job too many. I wrote six episodes for the first Diana Rigg series—Clemens and I wrote 50% of the series between us—only two of which... three at the most... I can view with pride and pleasure. Working on the show had started to become a chore. No longer was a writer able to write what he wanted and in the way he wanted. Wit and style were being squeezed out. It was time to say goodbye. I offered to break my contract. That wasn't deemed convenient, so I rewrote "Death of a Great Dane" as "The 50,000 Breakfast." It is an acceptable episode but, Cecil Parker apart, nowhere near as stylish as the original.

Ending on a happy note, the first couple of years were the most fun you can have and still call it "work." I was once heard to say that I would have written for The Avengers for nothing. Come to think of it, we damned nearly did.

Roger Marshall
London
November 2007

With thanks to Rodney Marshall for allowing Roger to connect with The Avengers Forever. —David

 Avengers Scripts (sole credit)

Conspiracy of Silence

Death of a Batman

The Gilded Cage

Mandrake

The Hour That Never Was

Dial a Deadly Number

Silent Dust

Room Without a View

The Girl from Auntie

The Danger Makers

The 50,000 Breakfast

  

 Avengers Scripts (as co-writer)

The Removal Men (with Jeremy Scott)

Death of a Great Dane (with Jeremy Scott)

The Golden Fleece (with Phyllis Norman)

A Funny Thing Happened... (re-written by Brian Clemens, credited as Brian Sheriff)

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