For the uninitiated, The Avengers is a stylish blend of espionage, fantasy and quasi-science fiction that appeals to Anglophiles who enjoy witty, sentimental, slightly off-beat television, and don't mind terribly dated plots. While this British production acquired quite a global following back in the late sixties, it has until its recent cinematic debut been nearly forgotten, kept alive as a cult favorite by some of the baby-boomers who grew up with it.

The Avengers is pure magic, as light as a feather yet quite unforgettable, a timeless classic that shall live forever in the hearts of hopeless romantics of all ages, cultures and eras.

Airing in Great Britain from January 1961 through September 1969, and comprising 161 episodes, The Avengers became one of the most popular television series of all time, eventually reaching audiences in 120 countries, a record that still stands today. Much of the show's international popularity was due to the eventual pairing of Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg as uber-agents John Steed and Emma Peel.

The Steed/Peel episodes have a formula as familiar and comfortable to fans as their favorite bathrobe. 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 transport. 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.

The Avengers followed the golden rule of role-playing: Men want to be Steed and want Emma; and, remarkably, women want to be Emma and want Steed. Yet it is doubtful that all of this was planned—some of it just happened, which is all part of the magic.

What makes all of the absurdity so endearing is the wonderful chemistry between Steed and Emma, and their droll observations on their circumstances, no matter how dire. Interestingly, some of their clever banter was written by Macnee and Rigg, who virtually invented their characters themselves, since the producers were—almost literally—making things up as they went along. Indeed, one of Macnee's favorite recollections is of an early script that said, "Steed stands there." But the director demanded he do something more than that.

John Steed is the common thread of the series, during the course of which he had six different partners. When the series premiered, his partner was physician Dr David Keel (Ian Hendry). Then came two seasons of anthropologist Catherine Gale, played by Honor Blackman (perhaps best known by Americans as Pussy Galore of 007 fame). She was not always Steed's partner during the show's second season; occasionally he was accompanied by physician Dr. Martin King (Jon Rollason) or jazz singer Venus Smith (Julie Stevens).

The Avengers broke the mold not once but twice, with two successive female leads who were strong, intelligent and independent. That it predated the feminist movement makes it all the more extraordinary. Add to this a male lead who treated his female partner as his equal, and we see that celebrating anti-stereotypes created part of the magic.

The Cathy Gale episodes were not seen in the U.S. until 1991 when A&E ran them on cable, and so very few Americans are familiar with them. They contrast markedly with those of the filmed seasons to come—Steed was quite a different fellow, and he came across as much more "raw." So, too, did the episodes themselves, as they were shot on videotape and almost entirely on studio sets. While sprinkled with wry humor, the stories were generally more serious as compared with the purely fanciful shows to come.

It wasn't until his third full-time partner, the brilliant Mrs. Emma Peel, that Steed became the highly sophisticated, ultra-British gentleman spy for which he is best known. And while some regard Steed as something of a James Bond knock-off, The Avengers in fact predated the 007 films. (Macnee has remarked that he hated Ian Fleming's stories, in particular the way James Bond treated women.)

Of course, there is no question that (Dame) Diana Rigg was a strong draw, especially for male viewers, but there's much more to appreciate than the eye candy she provides. Mrs. Peel is highly intelligent, strong, capable, cool and sophisticated, all of which makes her intensely interesting and an ideal role model for like-minded women. And considering the era of the show, she was way ahead of her time—somewhat ironic since, after leaving the show, both she and Honor Blackman went on to appear in Bond films.

Following the incomparable Emma Peel came Tara King. Endless debate surrounds Linda Thorson's attempt to fill the shoes of her predecessor; while some blame a young and inexperienced actress for the show's loss of popularity in some quarters, it's probably fairer to say the producers failed to maintain the "magic formula." But she didn't kill the show; in a sad ironic twist, the Americans—who had previously saved the show—doomed it by placing it against mega-hit Laugh-In.

Can The Avengers magic ever be re-captured? Doubtful, as a part of it was created by a special pair of actors, and part of it by a special place in time. We have, at least, the videos to enjoy over and over, and therein lies proof of the magic: its effect is not diminished with age or repetition.

By 1976, one of several attempts to resurrect the program resulted in 26 episodes of The New Avengers, a show muddled by stylistic disagreements between the French and Canadian backers and the British producers. Macnee's misgivings about the show are perhaps well-founded—heavy on action and violence, it has virtually none of the original's wit and charm. However, it is not without its merits, and the episodes are enjoyable if one does not view them with great expectations.

The story didn't end there; twenty-one years after The New Avengers made its brief appearance, The Avengers became a motion picture that was, sad to say, a cinematic disaster by most accounts. But whatever may yet happen to it, and long after many other popular shows fade into oblivion, The Avengers will live on, immortalized in the hearts of millions—hence this website's name.

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This website Copyright 1996-2017 David K. Smith. All Rights Reserved.
Page last modified: 5 May 2017.

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