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Avengers on the Radio designed, maintained and Copyright © by Alan and Alys Hayes.

The Avengers is Copyright © CANAL+IMAGE UK Ltd. No attempt to infringe this copyright is intended. 

THE AVENGERS TELEVISION SERIES

The 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.

The 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.

TV Times Listing Magazine, 12-18 March 1961

Grim 'n' Gritty... 
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 The Frighteners, plus a portion of the series opener, Hot Snow, remain today to represent the genesis of The Avengers.

HELL FOR LEATHER...

Meet The Avengers - Star Special

The 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.

THE 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.

The Avengers Jigsaw Puzzle

The 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.

AND MOTHER MAKES THREE...

The Drowned Queen, a US-only Avengers novel

Pulp Fiction 
Tie-in novels were de rigeur in the late Sixties! Mind you, they were dreadful!

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 The 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.

THE AVENGERS RISE AGAIN

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.

The New Avengers Annual

Three's A Crowd? 
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...

SILVER SCREEN... BLACK MARK...

The Avengers Movie Soundtrack Album

Avengers or Pretenders? 
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 The Avengers eStore).

As we pass the 42nd anniversary of the first UK broadcast of The Avengers, renewed interest for this wholly unique television phenomenon has deservedly blossomed.

by Alan Hayes