6th December 1971 at 7.16pm, Sonovision's The Avengers made its radio debut in South Africa.
Those listening in would have heard the distinctive tones of Donald
Monat as he brought a fresh interpretation to that most refined of agents, John Steed. Monat
had carved out a career in acting, writing and directing on three continents prior to his time on
The Avengers, working in South Africa, Canada and his native Britain.
early Seventies, Monat had become a familiar voice on South African radio, having enjoyed considerable
success in the 1960s with a succession of hit comedy programmes, which he had co-written and performed
with his wife, June Dixon. He remembers the golden era of
South African radio, from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, as being an extraordinarily hectic, but
exciting, period: "The South African radio networks were producing an astonishing volume of
programming, broadcasting full services in English, Afrikaans and several African languages
including Xhosa, Zulu, Tswana and Sotho. In English alone, they were turning out some forty-five
hours a week of original drama and comedy programmes - which was probably considerably more than the
total output of BBC Radio Drama at the time."
New Steed and Peel...
Donald Monat as John Steed and Diane
Appleby as Emma Peel - South Africa's Avengers...
The extraordinary thing, however, was that
this massive volume of programming was actually made with a very small pool of actors. "Ninety percent
of the work was done by a group of less than forty of us who went from studio to studio all day
long, recording everything from Shakespeare to soap opera and, on a good day, a few commercials, which
were much better paid," recalls Donald Monat. "Some actors were on the staff of the South African
Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), but most were freelance. Many might also be working in the evening
in a stage production. Budgets were tiny - and so were the fees, which meant that you had to do a
great volume of work to make a living."
While playing John Steed in The Avengers,
Donald Monat found himself having to supplement his income by writing, directing and playing in
several other programmes.
Cold Water Omo, forever linked with The Avengers.
Radio, the station which broadcast The Avengers, was a commercial channel owned by SABC. In
addition to the regular commercials that aired on Springbok Radio, many timeslots on the channel were
held by sponsor advertisers, who would finance programme making in return for publicity.
It was not
unknown for sponsor companies to suggest programming which they felt would benefit the image of their
products. It is a possibility, therefore, that the germ of the idea of producing The Avengers
originated in the advertising section of Lever Brothers, the detergent company who were to become the
series' prime sponsors. Lever Brothers had held the 7.15-7.30pm timeslot on Springbok Radio for many
years and had funded many long-running serials (notably No Place to Hide, which ran from 1959
to early 1971. The serial that directly preceded The Avengers was That Strong Family,
starring Diane Wilson as Jody Strong). It is also worth considering that, in the early Seventies, a
great many professionals in South African radio and advertising were British expatriates, who
would have been likely to have seen the series while in Britain.
The Lever Brothers link, regardless of whether or not the credit for devising the series could be
laid at their door, brought The Avengers essential financial support and a constant supply of
recording media. In return, each night's opening announcement proclaimed that The Avengers came
"from the makers of Cold Water Omo" (the voiceover by
Denis Smith, and later, we believe, Malcolm Gooding). Omo
was Lever Brothers' major detergent of the day, and the cold water variety was their latest
innovation. While a detergent seems an unlikely product partner for The Avengers, the
commercials transmitted during the broadcasts - for beauty products, household detergents,
deodorants and iced lollies - suggest that a family audience listened to the series, with the
South African housewife being the major target of advertisers at this time of the evening.
Alan Hayes with Donald Monat
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