For the uninitiated, The Avengers is a stylish blend of espionage, fantasy and sci-fi that definitely appeals to Anglophiles who enjoy witty, sentimental, slightly off-beat television, and don't mind terribly dated material. While this British production acquired quite a following in the United States, today it is largely unknown, having been reduced to a cult favorite of older baby-boomers. It still survives, perhaps because the shows withstand repeated viewings better than most.
Airing from January 7, 1961 through September 14, 1969, and comprising 161 episodes, The Avengers was one of the most popular television series of all time. Wonderfully written and produced, much of the show's popularity was due to the pairing of Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg as super-spies John Steed and Emma Peel. With The Avengers, tongue is always firmly implanted in cheek--goofy mad scientists and fiendish enemy spies abound, and their frequent plots to take over the country/world are often downright silly.
Every episode has a pat structure: Curious events take place (usually involving murder), Steed and Emma investigate, there is a big fight, and at the end our heroes ride off into the sunset, each time via a different mode of transportation. What makes all of the absurdity so endearing is the wonderful chemistry between the lead characters, and their droll observations on their circumstances, no matter how dire. Interestingly, much of the clever banter between Steed and Emma was actually written by Macnee and Rigg.
John Steed is the common thread for the entire series. When it premiered, he had a male partner, Dr. David Keel (Ian Hendry). Then came two seasons of Cathy Gale, played by Honor Blackman (perhaps best known as Pussy Galore of 007 fame). She was not always Steed's partner during the first season; occasionally he would be accompanied by Dr. Martin King (Jon Rollason) or Venus Smith (Julie Stevens).
The Cathy Gale episodes were not broadcast in the U.S. until just a few years ago, and so very few Americans are familiar with them. They contrast with the Rigg/Thorson series markedly; Steed was quite a different fellow, coming across as being much more "raw." So did the shows themselves, as they were shot on videotape and almost entirely on studio sets, with just a few bits of location work done on film when absolutely necessary. While sprinkled with wry humor, the stories were generally to be taken seriously, as opposed to the purely fantastic shows to come later. It is intriguing to watch the development of the program and its characters.
It wasn't until his third full-time partner, Emma Peel (whose name is derived from the term, "man appeal") that Steed became the highly sophisticated gentleman spy for which he is best known. And while some regard Steed as something of a James Bond rip-off, 007 was in fact influenced by the show. Of course, there is no question that (Dame) Diana Rigg was a strong draw, especially for male viewers, but there's much more to enjoy than the eye candy she occasionally provides. Besides being physically attractive, Mrs. Peel is highly intelligent, strong, capable, cool and sophisticated, all of which makes her intensely interesting. And considering the era of the show, she was way ahead of her time. Curiously, after leaving The Avengers, Diana Rigg went on to appear in a Bond film (OHMSS, my favorite of the lot), just as her predecessor had.
Following Emma was the generally forgettable Tara King. While the producers attempted to make her as intelligent and resourceful as her predecessors, Linda Thorson did not quite have the wherewithal to pull it off, and IMHO she wound up more of a super-bimbo than a super-spy. Although there are plenty of Tara fans, there weren't enough of them to keep the show from slipping into oblivion after one last season.
An attempt to resurrect the program in 1976 resulted in 26 episodes of The New Avengers, a show muddled by stylistic disagreements between the British, Canadian and French backers. Despite having too many cooks, the results were nevertheless enjoyable, at least for hard-core fans, and while Macnee was not in his best form, as the actor himself has admitted, his two new sidekicks were appealing and the stories were generally engaging--but apparently not enough viewers thought so at the time they aired.
There have been numerous discussions, plans, offers, deals, etc. to revive the series over the years, but obviously nothing has ever come to fruition. There was, curiously enough, a very short-lived stage play based on the series. And now there is talk of a major motion picture. Advance rumors have it that Nicole Kidman (?) may be tapped to play Mrs. Emma Peel... Well, I was convinced that Michael Keaton was wrong for Batman, and my wife was certain that Tom Cruise could never play Lestat. Shows you what we know. Since we mere mortals could never hope to influence Hollywood, we'll just have to wait and see.
By the way, you may be surprised to learn that Patrick Macnee figured prominently in the short-lived science fiction series Battlestar Galactica. While his performance was anything but Emmy material, it is still curious and fun seeing him in something so completely different.
End of page. Copyright ©1996 David K. Smith