AVENGERS TELEVISION SERIES
Avengers was a totally unique television series that graced British
television screens from 1961 to 1969. It debuted as a tough
espionage thriller, transmitted in glorious black and white from cramped
television studios which today would be considered unsuitable for drama
production. The programmes were somewhat rough and ready, and for
the first three seasons, were videotaped 'as live', with no recourse to
retakes. There are moments in the early seasons where actors trip up
over lines, cameras practically fall over or at the least, miss the action
completely, but it has to be understood that in the early 1960s, unless a
series was shot on film, this was to be expected. It certainly didn't
prevent the series becoming massively popular long before The Avengers
would be made on celluloid.
Avengers predated the James Bond
phenomenon which would grip cinema audiences worldwide, and predicted its
early style. This modest ABC-TV series caught the public's
imagination, and The Avengers began to build a loyal audience. Once
it transferred to film, it would enchant a global audience just as
successfully as Ian Fleming's hero.
In its earliest days, The
Avengers was a very different animal.
This first series of The Avengers centred upon the character of Dr. David Keel (played by Ian
Hendry). Hendry was fresh from starring in another series,
Police Surgeon, and was very
much an up and coming star. His character in
The Avengers, a general practitioner, would be drawn into undercover work for the British
Government, following the brutal murder of his fiancée, Peggy.
Keel's contact in this shady world was John Steed (Patrick Macnee), a debonair, efficient and often
unscrupulous government agent. Ingrid Hafner, portraying
Keel's secretary, Carol Wilson, would occasionally join them in their exploits.
The partnership was to last for twenty-six programmes, but regrettably the vast majority of these
episodes have not been preserved. Only two episodes,
Girl on the Trapeze and
Frighteners, plus a portion of the series opener, Hot Snow, remain today to represent the
genesis of The Avengers.
New Girl in Town...
Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale
redefined the role of women on television.
The Avengers returned in September 1962
following a long-running actors' strike against ITV. Hendry took the
strike as a sign that he should move on and left the series to pursue film roles. This
development saw Patrick Macnee promoted to series lead, though choosing a partner for him was not
straightforward. First, the producers tried Dr. Martin King (Jon Rollason), who was effectively a Keel
clone. Rollason only figured in a scant three episodes and was not deemed a success. Next up was Julie
Stevens, playing nightclub diva, Venus Smith. Venus was a move in the right direction, though viewed
with hindsight, she was not in the
Avengers mould (which of course had yet to be defined!). Third on the roster was Honor Blackman
as Cathy Gale. Finally, the
Avengers girl had arrived. Blackman left audiences gasping in awe as she threw herself
into a role which showed women in a new and positive light - Cathy Gale was most definitely not
tied to the kitchen sink!
Painstakingly choreographed (and painful!) fight scenes between Blackman and the villains left several
stuntmen very much the worse for wear. Her leather outfits (a necessity for the fight sequences)
started a fad, and she laid the foundations for every
Avengers girl who followed. The series soared to new heights of popularity, and the stars
received many plaudits for their work. Blackman left after two years to become one of the most
memorable James Bond girls, Pussy Galore in Goldfinger.
AVENGERS CONQUER THE WORLD!
Following Blackman’s departure, ABC decided the time was ripe to sell
The Avengers to the global - and particularly American - market. The first move was to
produce the series on film rather than videotape - and within a year, colour beckoned. After a false
start with actress Elizabeth Shepherd as Steed's replacement sidekick, Emma Peel - her appearances were
never screened - ABC bosses chose a talented and bright young actress, Diana Rigg, to take over. If
Honor Blackman defined the Avengers girl, then Diana Rigg added the polish. Possessing an
on-screen chemistry with Macnee that transcended even that which he had enjoyed with Blackman, Diana
Rigg as Emma Peel became nothing less than a Twentieth Century icon. With the increased freedom
that the film process allowed, location work became a staple of the show’s format.
Avengers Go To Pieces...
One of a series of Avengers
jigsaws issued in the 1960s. Of course, precious few of the illustrations
had anything to do with the series!
Gradually, The Avengers began moving away from stories set in the real world and into a
fantasy 'Avengerland', populated by a seemingly endless supply of bizarre companies,
organisations, and a variety of wonderfully eccentric characters. Plots became progressively more
and more outlandish, but rather than alienating its audience, the series was gaining new followers,
not least in America, where it was one of the few British television programmes ever to gain a
regular network slot. The financial input from the United States allowed for
The Avengers to be shot on colour film for the first time, commencing with Diana Rigg’s
second season. British viewers, however, were unable to see the benefit straight away - in 1967,
ITV's transmissions had yet to be offered in colour.
The two Emma Peel seasons are widely acknowledged to represent The
Avengers’ halcyon days, and many of the best-remembered episodes hark from this period. It is no
coincidence that almost every attempted revival of The Avengers - be it for comics, radio or
the silver screen - has gone back to this era for its inspiration.
MOTHER MAKES THREE...
Tie-in novels were de rigeur in the late Sixties! Mind you, they were
With Diana Rigg insisting she would leave at the end of the 1967 season, the producers had to cast the
net to find another new partner for their ever-present leading man. Linda Thorson, a young Canadian
actress, was the woman picked from the many prospective Avengers girls. Her character, Tara
King, being a highly promising trainee agent, was a refreshingly different take on the Avengers
girl. Tara's predecessors had been, despite their amateur status,
Steed's equals, and, as married (if widowed) women, slightly distanced from him. Tara was a
ministry-employed professional, learning from the master, and she enjoyed a closer, less complex
relationship with her mentor than had any of Steed's other partners.
Linda Thorson brought much to the series, and Tara enjoyed tackling adversaries with bricks, or other
such handy objects, rather than drawing upon the martial arts utlilised by her predecessors. Another
addition, unwelcome in theory, but delightful in practice owing to a beautiful characterisation
from the late Patrick Newell, was Mother, the character introduced as Steed's government overlord.
The 1968-69 season comprised thirty-three episodes, all told, commencing with
Forget-Me-Knot. This was the only episode in the history of The Avengers to feature
an on-screen 'hand-over' between leading ladies: Diana Rigg to Linda Thorson. Generally, the
emphasis now darted between the fantastic and the 'real' with reckless abandon, and this final
season featured several offbeat villains and organisations pitted against Steed and King - murderous
comedians, the 'gaslight ghoul', window cleaners who steal government secrets, and dairymen whose
milk is laced with a lying serum! Wonderful stuff - a sadly overlooked and underrated era of
The Avengers which deserves a reappraisal.
As the 'swinging' decade gave way to the 1970s, The Avengers also bowed out.
Bizarre, the final
episode, was broadcast in the United Kingdom on 30th May 1969.
Many other series have attempted to distill the Avengers formula and make it their own, but
none have come close to equalling their illustrious precursor. Even latter-day producers Brian
Clemens and Albert Fennell could not quite capture the essence of the series when they resurrected
it as The New Avengers in 1976. This revamped series can best be described as a stepping stone
between the original series and The Professionals, which Clemens and Fennell moved on to
directly after this new take on Steed and Co.
The New Avengers returned Patrick Macnee to the role of John Steed, aided and abetted by
Joanna Lumley. Lumley was superb as Purdey, a match for any of her predecessors and the inspiration
for thousands of 'Purdey Cuts' based upon her hairstyle. Completing the new team was Gareth Hunt,
dependable and engaging as (the now very dated) Mike Gambit.
Steed returns in a new decade with
two new partners.
Stories, excluding the latter comedic debacles shot in Canada, harked back to the earliest years of
The Avengers, being based more in the real world of espionage (with a few notable exceptions)
than in the fantasy England inhabited by Steed and Mrs. Peel. This was undoubtedly a good thing, as a
carbon copy of the original Avengers would always have looked a cheap imitation, rather than
something fresh for the Seventies.
The New Avengers survived for two runs of thirteen episodes before dwindling financial input
from international backers and poor scheduling in Britain - where the series was never networked - put
paid to this mostly enjoyable revival. The New Avengers was laid to rest in 1977. The
all-important American market was very slow to take The New Avengers on board, and finally
premiered the series in 1977, by which time the show was sadly dead in the water...
SCREEN... BLACK MARK...
The Warner Bros. movie opened to
scathing reviews, not entirely warranted. But bad publicity sticks.
Summer 1998 saw a further, and possibly final, installment in The Avengers story. The Warner
Brothers motion picture, The Avengers, cast Ralph Fiennes as Steed and Uma Thurman as Mrs.
Peel against Sean Connery's outrageous Sir August de Wynter. It was an unequal contest - and
Fiennes' and Thurman's involvement did their respective careers a great deal more harm than good.
Patrick Macnee figured in the proceedings in a wonderful cameo as Invisible Jones, but this
merely served to underline Fiennes as an imposter in Steed's shoes.
Due to a combination of studio mismanagement, casting howlers and Warner Bros. insisting on major
cuts to the film which rendered it practically incomprehensible, the movie was dreadfully received
by critics and audiences alike. Whether this has brought The Avengers to an end as a viable
on-going production remains to be seen.
On a more positive note, the movie's release heightened awareness of the original series. Several
excellent books have been published on the subject and many VHS and DVD video releases of The
Avengers have been (and continue to be) issued around the globe (for details, see
pass the 42nd anniversary of the first UK broadcast of The Avengers, renewed interest for
this wholly unique television phenomenon has deservedly blossomed.