by Max Pemberton
Whilst the series epitomised the style and flamboyance of sixties Britain, a style copied by other series as Department S and its spin-off Jason King, and now spoofed by the likes of Austin Powers (though how you can spoof what was already a spoof is beyond me), it cannot be doubted that The Avengers was helped enormously by the musical contribution of the great Laurie Johnson.
The first series featuring Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman) was introduced by a rather blaring, staccato theme by jazz maestro Johnny Dankworth, which was dramatic enough but it did not capture, nor did the series at that point to be fair, the light, glamorous and comedic feathery touch we would come to expect from the antics of our crime fighting duo(s). Enter Laurence Reginald Ward Johnson.
The immortal theme we all now know and love was originally called "The Shake," a one-off composition written basically for the fun of it (and presumably some cash) and was a lovely, melodic blend of percussion, harpsichord, brass and lush, sweeping strings. Harpsichords were obviously "in" at that time. The original half-hour series of Danger Man (Secret Agent US) had another stark brassy opening theme but when it went to the hour long format it was graced with Edwin Astley’s great theme (High Wire), again heavily featuring a harpsichord, unless you were in the States of course where you got Johnny Rivers crooning Secret Agent Man to an unashamedly "Bondian" base line. Monty Norman or John Barry should sue.
Anyhow, "The Shake" (which is available on various CD compilations), with a slight variation in the middle eight, or "the bridge," became the theme to The Avengers and was an immediate success. It was brassy, fun, sexy, powerful, but also suave and cultured, like the show's protagonists.
Laurie was no newcomer to writing for the screen. In 1959 he had written the theme for the successful British police TV series No Hiding Place and scored Tiger Bay, a thriller starring John Mills, his then young daughter Hayley and Horst Buchholz. Aside from writing for TV in the sixties he would score The First Men in the Moon, Ray Harryhausen and Charles H. Schneer's cinematic working of the H.G. Wells novel, Michael Winner's comedy You Must Be Joking, Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (or – How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb), starring, in several roles, the late, great, Peter Sellers and Hot Millions featuring a bizarre cast which included Peter Ustinov, Bob Newhart, Dame Maggie Smith, Caesar Romero and Karl Malden. He also composed the themes for the British TV series Animal Magic, Echo Four-Two, Freewheelers, Whicker's World and This is Your Life.
In the seventies Laurie scored the movies Hedda, Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter and The Belstone Fox plus TV series such as the aforementioned Jason King, Thriller and The Adventurer (although its main theme was by John Barry). Then of course came The New Avengers. Laurie had already re-worked his original theme, three times in fact, when you consider it had already been re-worked from "The Shake," and then rearranged for the "shooting the cork off the champagne bottle" opening for the colour Emma Peel series and then again for the Tara King era of the show, throwing a trumpet solo into the second riff (known as the "Tara King extention" and available on various recordings if you want to look out for it), and a few "pa-pa-da-pow" strokes to differentiate it from the Emma Peel era, but now of course he had to re-invent his classic theme yet again. He in fact didn't. Instead he came up with a completely new theme, but gave it his classic Avengers intro, giving the new show the appropriate gravitas and continuity, but which then led into a funky, militaristic, jingoistic melody matching the red, white and blue British Lion graphics and the new look and style of the show perfectly. One of the New Avengers episodes, "Obsession," teamed up two actors, Martin Shaw and Lewis Collins, as bad guys. At the end of the episode, having been captured, they suggest they made a good team and should "do it again sometime." They of course went on to portray The Professionals, an Avengers Mark 1 production, a company Laurie co-founded and a series for which he also wrote a memorable theme and incidental music.
In 1987 Laurie scored the third, and arguably best, segment in Larry Cohen's It’s Alive movie series, Island of the Alive, and in 1989 he composed the score for The Lady and the Highwayman which featured an all-star cast including Gareth Hunt and Gordon Jackson, was written by Terence Feely and produced by, amongst others, Albert Fennell and Sir Lew Grade, names that are all well known to fans of The Avengers and The Professionals.
It must also be remembered that Laurie didn't just write the themes for these shows, but all the incidental music as well, and the Avengers series probably feature some of his best and most imaginative work. Obviously, as with any TV series, some music was tracked repeatedly from show to show where appropriate, to cover a chase, a fight, or the comedy "epilogue," but some music would be composed specifically for a particular episode, examples are the haunting "Pandora" and the suspenseful "The Joker" from The Avengers, and the Herrmannesque "Cat Amongst the Pigeons," the aforementioned "Obsession" and the lively cross-country vehicle romp from "Tale of the Big Why" from The New Avengers.
At the time of writing Laurie, now in his 80th year, is still going strong and enjoying great success with his "London Big Band."
Also See: Original Soundtrack Recordings CD Review
Max Pemberton is the Associate Editor of Films In Review, New York, NY.
materials copyrighted per their respective copyright holders.