Behind the Scenes: Emma Peel Era
In December of 1963, three months prior to the completion of the second Cathy Gale series, an American film producer made ABC (Associated British Corporation, not to be confused with the American Broadcasting Corporation) a tempting offer: turn The Avengers into a major motion picture. Around the same time, yet another American film producer suggested making The Avengers a Broadway musical!
But before ABC could respond to any of these offers, they had to deal with a much more urgent issue: Honor Blackman had decided to leave. Stories vary as to her reasons, but the outcome was the same. She had accepted a role offered her in the James Bond film, Goldfinger. READ MORE
With no female lead to offer any prospective investors, ABC pulled the plug on The Avengers altogether in order to regroup. After spending six months in limbo, the studio decided to turn the property over to Telemen Limited, headed by Julian Wintle, who recruited Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens to continue the series for television on film.
Their first challenge was not simply replacing Honor Blackman, but replacing Cathy Gale; since Honor had made the character what she was, there was no point in trying to find another actress to assume the same role. From their drawing board emerged Emma Peel (the name derived from the term "man appeal," shortened to "m-appeal," a brainstorm by the producers' press officer—READ MORE). While different from Cathy Gale, Mrs. Peel's similarity to Cathy was mission-critical: she was to be every bit as emancipated as her predecessor.
After months of searching, Elizabeth Shepherd was signed on for the role. However, after completing "The Town of No Return" and half of "The Murder Market," the producers concluded that, while talented, she was not right for the part.
Further casting searches led to an actress who had recently appeared in an Armchair Theatre play, "The Hothouse." Convinced she wasn't right for the part, Diana Rigg, then (a very mature) 26, nevertheless agreed to audition "for a giggle," unaware that she was about to make television history.
It couldn't have been a better choice, particularly in the minds of male fans. As one chap put it, "Give a man a pudding and Diana Rigg during the lunch hour and experience shows he will be a thing of slobbering contentment from start to finish." (New York Newsday, 3 April 1994)
In addition to a new
female lead, The Avengers received a complete stylistic overhaul. The new producers
realized the tremendous value in attracting an international audience, so they essentially turned
the show into a tourist promotion. The move from videotape to film allowed them to move from studio
to countryside, providing everyone with the best views England had to offer.
John Steed was also re-tooled: He became excruciatingly Anglicized,
playing to the hilt every upper-class British mannerism known, which was appreciated by fans both
at home and abroad. Clemens
Clemenslaid down a few ground rules that were to shape the new series: No extras on the streets, no policemen, no killing women, no blood and others (READ MORE), although each of these directives was broken at one time or another. Clemens' stated purpose was to create a "fantasy land" setting for the stories, so that any story, no matter how bizarre, could be told—although the roots of this style were based in "real-world" budgetary restrictions.
Indeed, the stories shifted from slightly fanciful espionage yarns to wildly fantastic, quasi-science fiction tales about mad scientists, man-eating plants and killer robots. The fighting became an intelligent caricature, as exemplified by Patrick Macnee's own ground rule of refusing to carry a firearm. "I'm not going to carry a gun," he asserts, "I'm going to carry my brain."
ABC also turned the fashion aspect of the program into a franchise, hiring top-drawer designers and filling the boutiques of Europe with Avengers clothing and accessories.
The world would never be the same.
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