In October, 11 missing episodes of “Doctor Who” were found in Nigeria. I mention this not in passing, but because it’s directly relevant to the subject in hand today: “The Avengers”. No, not the Marvel ones. This is the 1960s series starring Patrick MacNee, and heavily influenced by Sydney Newman, creator (not entirely coincidentally) of “Doctor Who”. But I’ll come back to that in a moment.
“The Avengers” began life in 1961, airing on ABC television in the UK (part of the ITV network). Starring Ian Hendry as Dr David Keel and Patrick Macnee as John Steed, the pair initially teamed up to investigate the murder of Keel’s fiancee. A strike meant the first series was cut short, and by the time they were ready for a second, Hendry had left to pursue a film career (spoiler: not a wise move), leaving MacNee as John Steed to hold the show.
Keel’s amateurism, combined with Steed’s eccentric professionalism, had been a good combination. In the second series, Hendry was replaced by three new characters – Dr Martin King was a clear rename of his own character and stayed for three episodes; nightclub singer Venus Smith managed better with six, but it was Dr Cathy Gale, played by Honor Blackman, who would prove to be the most durable. It was clear early on that there hadn’t been a character on British TV like Cathy Gale before – leather suited, self-assured and adept at judo, she became the role model for the female assistant on the Avengers.
Honor Blackman stayed with the series for the 19 appearances in series 2, and all 26 of series 3. By this time, a movie adaptation was in the works, but Honor Blackman was cast as Pussy Galore (a character not entirely dissimilar to Cathy Gale) and had to leave the series.
The movie adaptation idea was dropped, however, when American network ABC paid the then-unheard of sum of $2 million for the first 26 episodes of series 4. Cathy Gale was replaced by Emma Peel, who was named – in a dreadful pun – for ‘m. appeal’ – ‘man appeal’, geddit? Elizabeth Shepherd was the original choice for the role, but after an episode and a half were filmed, she was replaced by Diana Rigg.
Despite apparently using a tabloid subeditor for character naming, the Emma Peel era saw the series go on to greater heights. Starting with 1966’s series 5, it moved to colour – clearly with the export market in mind, as the ITV network wouldn’t start transmitting in colour until 1969.
Of course, it couldn’t last. Diana Rigg left after series 5, after a series of arguments with producers (basically, they wanted her to be exactly the same as Honor Blackman, only for less money. It didn’t go down well.)
Series 6 could safely be termed a bit of a nightmare. With Rigg’s departure, management decided a “return to realism” was in order and sacked the old producers. The new producer hired his then girlfriend, Linda Thorson, to replace Diana Rigg. And then the new producer was replaced with the old producers after 3 episodes were shot, and those episodes were recut, because studio execs didn’t like them.
If you think that sounds like a recipe for strapping water skis onto John Steed’s Savile Row togs so he could ramp over a Carcharodon carcharias, you might not be too far from the mark. The series limped along for another thirty episodes, battling internal problems and money issues all the way. Probably what killed it as much as anything was being up against Rowan And Martin’s Laugh In, and if Diana Rigg had still been on board, it might have stood a chance, but Linda Thorson was an untried commodity, and with all the format changes… it was a perfect storm of fail, and despite continued good ratings in Europe and the UK, without the US sales, the show couldn’t afford to go on.
But The Avengers wasn’t dead yet… Due to the continuing popularity of the Thorson episodes in France, 1976 saw the commissioning of The New Avengers, featuring Gareth Hunt and Joanna Lumley. Two series of 26 episodes followed, although the money dried up towards the end (hence the four episodes titled “The New Avengers In Canada”), and this time, the shark was well and truly jumped. The saving grace, really, is Lumley, who, while she could be considered an amalgam of all the female Avengers past, wouldn’t be out of place in any of the “classic” series.
Speaking of the classic series, it would be nice to see the approach taken in the Ian Hendry era and compare it to the later ones… but we can’t, not all of it. You see, most of the episodes are missing. Only “The Frighteners” and the first 15 minutes of “Hot Snow” (the very first episode), are known to exist… except for “Girl on the Trapeze”, found in the early ’90s in UCLA’s archives. Which is odd… given that it was (a) never sold abroad, and (b) not even thought to have been telerecorded, but just transmitted live. So maybe there’s hope we’ll find others yet.
But that’s not the only odd happening with the Avengers – in a bizarre twist in the 90s, Macnee and Blackman’s 60s novelty single “Kinky Boots” became a hit again, even appearing on Top Of The Pops (the BBC’s equivalent of the Billboard Hot 100, only with less Casey Kasem…)
For the purposes of the Columbo index, I’m really considering both shows, but mainly focusing on The Avengers. That said, a lot of what can be said about one show can be said about both. Very little of it can be said of the 1998 film starring Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman, however. Despite Thurman’s Kill Bill attitude, and Fiennes being… well, let’s just say that as much as I dislike comic book adaptations, the best part about the new Marvel film called “The Avengers” is that people might forget about the 1998 Fiennes/Thurman debacle (it has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 16%, so not the worst movie ever, but not that far off)
Ahead Of The Game: they always have someone on the inside. Or inside information. Either way, you always feel they know a little bit more than they’re letting on. But it’s not deductive work, nevertheless. Still… Score: 5/10
Car: 1930s Lagonda, Rolls Royce, Bentleys… Steed had style. Classics, all. Still, a touch more expensive than Columbo’s classic, but I’m sure he’d approve… Score: 7/10
Catchphrases and ambience: The “Mrs Peel, We’re Needed” stings were only used for 16 episodes (and the previous clue), mainly because they became more and more elaborate and cost more money (not to mention I’d imagine they were pretty hard to think up!). But there were a lot more Steed eccentricities to enjoy, not to mention supporting casts including such luminaries as Peter Cushing, Annette “Jeannie Hopkirk” Andre, Alun Armstrong, Ron Moody, Charlotte Rampling, Christopher Lee, Jacqueline “Servalan” Pearce, Nigel Stock and countless others. Score: 8/10
Investigative style: at the end of the day, they’re spies, really, not detectives. Although you can argue that most of their cases involve criminal activity rather than true espionage, they’re still more Baker Street Irregulars than Hill Street Blues. Score: 3/10
Personality: Steed has to be the focus here, and he’s as eccentrically British as you’d want. Minus one point for the early series though, as he started as a more hard-boiled agent – and essentially, as the sidekick himself. Score: 9/10
Sidekick: Here I’m considering Cathy Gale, Emma Peel and Purdey primarily. And they’re all eccentric in their own way. In series 4, there are some clear moments where Emma Peel is in danger that lead to thoughts of “why are you trying to kill Mrs Peel? You’ll just upset her and she’ll hurt you”… Score: 8/10
Violence: There are a lot of fights. Usually with Honor Blackman or Diana Rigg taking on a room full of mean and dishing out savage beatings without getting a hair out of place. Probably as many murders as Columbo, but less onscreen deaths, and more fights. Score: 6/10
Mrs Peel, We’re Close…
- Touch Of Frost – 48.5 points
- Morse – 48 points
- Avengers – 45 points
- Randall & Hopkirk – 40 points
- Lovejoy – 39 points
OK, I’m surprised. I actually didn’t think The Avengers would hit the top 5. But then, I never thought Lovejoy would either. So it just goes to show, you never can tell. I suppose I better put a bit of Deep Thought into the next one…