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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. 

REVIEW • SERIES OVERVIEW

The Avengers has enjoyed considerable success around the world since it hit British television screens in 1961. At its height, it was a major hit on the American networks and is still highly thought of to this day. In its time (and beyond it), the series gave birth to many spin-offs, including books, comics, a stage play and even a Hollywood movie. However, of these 'children' of the series, the brightest in the class for us has to be the South African radio series, broadcast in that country in the early 1970s.

Radio is a difficult medium - characters and narrative must be delivered in sound alone. On television, this is disseminated to viewers through dialogue, action and a wealth of visual pointers. We are shown home and work environments, modes of dress, mannerisms and so forth. On the radio, performers have just their voices and that of the narrator with which to impart equal detail. The consummate ease with which this was accomplished on The Avengers is the mark of a group of experienced and highly skilled radio performers and 'backroom' staff.

Donald Monat simply excelled as Steed, and is undoubtedly the nearest anyone has come to equalling Patrick Macnee's superb portrayal. From the very first scene you hear, Monat immediately stamps his mark upon the role. Any previously held notion that John Steed can only be played by one man is instantly disproved. Monat's interpretation, which gives the impression that his Steed is, perhaps, a little older than Macnee's, is highly effective. His distinctive voice lends John Steed an instant authority - a highly desirable piece of radio shorthand. Unlike with the unfortunate Ralph Fiennes in the 1998 Warner Brothers movie, The Avengers, the audience has no difficulty in accepting Donald Monat as John Steed. Just as with Macnee, Donald Monat is John Steed - no question about it.

Diane Appleby’s Emma Peel pales very slightly when compared to her television equivalent, Diana Rigg. However, to be fair to Ms. Appleby, the character of Mrs. Peel was never going to be as simple to transfer from the medium of television to the radio as that of her partner in crime detection. Steed is an archetypal figure, whereas Mrs. Peel was something very new, and much of her character was communicated on TV in visual shorthand.

In the surviving recordings - all Dennis Folbigge adaptations - Emma Peel often appears to be Steed’s assistant, rather than the equal partner she should be. The depiction of Emma Peel in these later scripts was patchy at best. Running out of suitable Emma Peel scripts to adapt, Sonovision looked to the later, Tara King series for further source material. The substitution of Emma Peel for Tara's part in these stories appears to have been executed without consideration to character variations between the two. Consequently, in one serial, such as Train of Events, Emma would be self-sufficient and practical, while in Stop Me If You've Heard This - another adaptation from the same period of the radio series - she is unable even to read a map the right way up! The character of Tara King seems not to have been rewritten for Emma Peel, merely renamed. Despite being served poorly by some scripts, Diane Appleby always did her level best with the role, and when required, as in The Joker, she could single-handedly carry the programme with great aplomb.

The contribution of Hugh Rouse, another regular performer, cannot be underestimated. As the narrator, Rouse provided an essential link between the other cast members and the audience, keeping the listener up to speed and ably filling the gap left by the absence of visuals. Hugh Rouse, every bit as much as Donald Monat, gives a unique and definitive performance, lending the radio series a unique identity. Rouse's delivery is superb, dealing with descriptive, dramatic or comedic passages with equal skill. Listeners who come to the series via the surviving episodes are sure to find that his narration will keep them interested in events as they unfold.

A most rewarding aspect of the radio series for fans of The Avengers is that in most cases, it would appear that Sonovision were sent early drafts of the scripts. Due to this, the radio versions are often at variance with what was televised. Obviously, some changes were made by Tony Jay and Dennis Folbigge because parts of scripts did not suit the radio, but others are clearly the result of working from scripts that were not the finished article. Clinching proof that this was the case is that Too Many Olés is set in Spain - the television episode was planned to be made there, but was eventually shot in Britain (with changes to dialogue, story title etc) for budgetary reasons. Therefore, the radio version is possibly the best record we now have of how They Keep Killing Steed was originally envisaged. From this, we can reasonably ponder whether the Cybernauts were originally called Pabulum Robots and would have appeared in a story called A Deadly Gift, rather than The Cybernauts.

Of the nineteen serials that survive complete, eleven have titles at variance with their television forebears. Could these have been working titles, or did Sonovision title the serials themselves? A matter for conjecture, and one that makes it doubly sad that the remaining serials are not believed to be in existence today. They could have been an invaluable reference tool for researching the finer points of the script-to-screen process, aside from their general entertainment value to fans of The Avengers.

It's a crying shame that there appears to have been no archival mechanism in place in South Africa in the 1970s to preserve material such as this for the benefit of future generations. The thirty hours of material that does survive merely leaves the listener hungry for more...

by Alys and Alan Hayes