The Avengers is a British 1960s television series featuring secret agents in a fantasy 1960s Britain. The programmes were made by TV company Associated British Corporation, and the series was created by their then Head of Drama Sydney Newman.
Programme premise and overview
Patrick Macnee played secret agent John Steed throughout the series, complete with bowler hat and umbrella (both of which turn out to be full of tricks). In the first series in 1961, Steed was himself a secondary character, the protagonist being Dr. David Keel (Ian Hendry) - all but two of these episodes are now lost. The Avengers was a successor (but not, as sometimes stated, a direct sequel) to Hendry's earlier series Police Surgeon, in which he played a similar character. Hendry was considered the star of the series, receiving top billing over Macnee and Steed did not appear in several episodes.
Production of the first season was cut short by a strike. By the time it was settled and production could resume, Hendry had quit to pursue a film career. Macnee was promoted to series star and Steed became the focus of the series, working with a rotation of different partners such as nightclub singer Venus Smith and Dr. Martin King, a thinly disguised rewriting of David Keel.
One of these rotating partners was Mrs. Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman), who was self-assured and good with her fists and quick witted. She was unlike any female character ever seen on British TV. Reportedly part of her charm came from the fact her earliest appearances were episodes in which dialogue written for David Keel was simply transferred to Cathy. In short order, she became Steed's only regular partner.
Honor Blackman became a television superstar in Britain with her leather boots (nicknamed 'kinky boots') and her high-kicking fighting style. It was not surprising that she would be picked to appear opposite Sean Connery in the Bond film, Goldfinger, but this required her to leave the series.
A new female partner appeared in 1965: Mrs. Emma Peel (Diana Rigg). The name of the character derived from the phrase 'M Appeal' or 'Man Appeal'. Rigg's character retained the self-assuredness of Cathy Gale, combined with superior fighting skills and fashion sense.
The classic Avengers episodes are generally considered to be those featuring Macnee and Rigg. This era was characterised by a futuristic, science fiction bent to many of the tales, with mad scientists and their creations causing havoc in their wake. However, earlier eras of the show had a much more hard-edged tone, with the Blackman episodes including some surprisingly serious espionage dramas (when viewed through the prism of the later, better-known period). Steed and his associate were charged with solving the problem in the space of an hour-long episode and thus preserved the safety of 1960s Britain on a regular basis.
There was also a notable fetishistic undercurrent in many episodes (most notably the B&W Rigg episode 'A Touch of Brimstone', in which Mrs. Peel, dressed as a dominatrix, becomes the 'Queen of Sin'), and Macnee and Blackman released a novelty song called 'Kinky Boots'. (Some of the clothes seen in The Avengers were designed by the clothing designer John Sutcliffe, who also published the AtomAge fetish magazine).
The relationship between Steed and Gale differed noticeably from that of Steed and Peel, with a layer of conflict in the former that was rarely seen in the latter -- Gale on occasion openly resenting being used by Steed often without her permission. There was also a level of sexual tension between Steed and Gale that was absent when Emma Peel arrived. In both cases, the exact relationship between the partners was left ambiguous, although they seemed to have carte blanche to visit each other's homes whenever they pleased and it was not uncommon to see an episode in which Steed spends the night at Cathy Gale's/Emma Peel's home, or vice versa, although nothing 'improper' is ever suggested.
The arrival of Rigg coincided with the show's sale to US television. Previously the series had been shot on 405-line videotape, with very little provision for editing and virtually no location footage. This meant that to all intents and purposes the Blackman episodes were shot live in the studio. A number of these episodes were wiped; those that survive are in the form of 16mm film telerecordings (see below).
The US deal meant that the producers could afford to shoot the series on 35mm film. In any case, the change was essential because British videotapes were incompatible with US standards. The transfer to film meant that episodes could be shot like movies, giving the show much greater flexibility. After two filmed seasons in black and white, The Avengers began filming in colour in 1967, although it would be two years before British viewers could see it that way.
In 1967, Rigg left the series to pursue her own film career (which included her following Blackman's footsteps into the Bond movie arena), though she came back for a farewell episode in 1968. Her replacement was an inexperienced agent named Tara King, played by young Canadian actress named Linda Thorson. Thorson played the role with more innocence in mind and at heart; and unlike the previous partnerships with Cathy and Emma, the writers allowed subtle hints of romance to blossom between Steed and Tara.
The revised series continued to be broadcast in America. The episodes with Linda Thorson as Tara King proved to be highly rated in Europe and England. In the United States, the ABC network which carried the series, chose to air it opposite the number one show in the country at the time, Laugh-In. Steed and Tara couldn't compete with Rowan and Martin, and the show was cancelled in the U.S. Without this vital commercial backing, production could not continue in Britain either, and the series ended in 1969.
The New Avengers
In the 1970s the series was revived as The New Avengers, with Macnee reprising his role as Steed, this time with two new partners, Mike Gambit (Gareth Hunt) and Purdey (Joanna Lumley). This time the series was produced independently by original series producers Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell, with French and later Canadian backing. Two seasons totalling 26 episodes were produced. Fans are divided on the merits of the revival, with many suggesting the show lost its magic in the 1970s, and the final half-dozen episodes, titled The New Avengers in Canada as they were filmed and produced there, are generally considered extremely poor.
A recent newspaper report suggested that Macnee himself was responsible for tracking down the original negatives of both series for remastering, because he was tired of seeing inferior copies. If this is true, he is to be congratulated, especially since there seems to be no financial incentive.
North American audiences saw the Cathy Gale episodes of the series for the first time in the early 1990s when they were broadcast on A&E. No David Keel episode of the series has ever been shown outside of Britain, and to date only one complete episode from the show's first season is known to exist, the rest having been 'wiped' years ago (a copy of a second episode was recently found in the United States but it is not known if it is complete). Most of the Gale-era episodes survive and have been released to DVD, as have the complete episodes of Emma Peel, Tara King, and The New Avengers.
The final four episodes of Season 2 were aired under the title The New Avengers in Canada.
A number of original novels were based upon the series in the 1960s, including two that were co-written by Patrick Macnee himself, and one 1990 release, Too Many Targets by John Peel that featured appearances by all of Steed's partners. The first three novels were only published in the UK, while the 1968-69 novels were only released in the US. Several of the 1968-69 novels feature Tara King, however the covers often featured Emma Peel instead.
- The Avengers, Douglas Enefer, 1963 (only 1960s original novel to feature Cathy Gale)
- Deadline, Patrick Macnee and Peter Leslie, 1965
- Dead Duck, Macnee and Leslie, 1966
- The Floating Game, John Garforth, 1967
- The Laugh Was on Lazarus, Garforth, 1967
- The Passing of Gloria Munday, Garforth, 1967
- Heil Harris!, Garforth, 1967
- The Afrit Affair, Keith Laumer, 1968
- The Drowned Queen, Laumer, 1968
- The Gold Bomb, Laumer, 1968
- The Magnetic Man, Norman Daniels, 1968
- Moon Express, Daniels, 1969
- John Steed - An Authorized Biography Vol. 1: Jealous in Honour, Tim Heald, 1977 (UK release only)
- The Saga of Happy Valley, Geoff Barlow, 1980 (An unauthorized novel, with character names changed to John Steade and Emma Peale, and sold only in Australia)
- Too Many Targets, John Peel, 1990
- The Avengers, Julie Kaewert, 1998 (film novelization)
In addition, a short story by Peter Leslie entitled 'What's a Ghoul Like You Doing in a Place Like This?' appeared in The Television Crimebusters Omnibus, edited by Peter Haining, 1994.
The New Avengers spawned a series of novels mostly based upon episode teleplays (sometimes more than one per novel). Only a few were published in the US:
- House of Cards, Peter Cave, 1976
- The Eagle's Nest, John Carter, 1976
- To Catch a Rat, Walter Harris, 1977
- Fighting Men, Justin Cartwright, 1977
- The Cybernauts, Cave, 1977
- Hostage, Cave, 1977
Plans for a motion picture based upon the series circulated during the 1980s and 1990s, with Mel Gibson at one point being considered a front-runner for the role of Steed. Ultimately, a 1990s movie, The Avengers, based on Rigg and Macnee's characters from the TV series, starring Uma Thurman and Ralph Fiennes respectively, received poor reviews from critics and fans alike. The original British poster showed Fiennes and Thurman accompanied by the caption: 'He's Steed. She's Mrs. Peel.'
Between 1971 and 1973 the TV series scripts were adapted (in English) for South African Radio SABC, the Tara King episodes had the character effectively renamed Emma Peel. Donald Monat played Steed, and Diane Appleby, Mrs Peel. The stories were adapted into between 5 and 7 episodes of approximately 15 minutes each (including adverts) and stripped across the week.
Currently 19 complete serials survive, all from original reel-to-reel off-air recordings, as well as three episodes of 'Escape In Time', from a mixture of sources.
There was also a stage version of The Avengers at one point.