The Avengers was a spy-fi British television series created in 1961. The Avengers initially focused on Dr. David Keel (Ian Hendry) and his assistant John Steed (Patrick Macnee). Hendry left after the first series and Steed became the main character, partnered with a succession of assistants – the most famous of these being Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman), Emma Peel (Diana Rigg), and later Tara King (Linda Thorson). Later episodes increasingly incorporated elements of science fiction and fantasy, parody and British eccentricity. The Avengers ran for six seasons between from 1961 until 1969, and amassed a total of 161 one hour episodes.
The Avengers began with episode “Hot Snow”, in which medical doctor Dr David Keel (Hendry) investigates the murder of his fiancée and office receptionist Peggy by a drug ring. A stranger named John Steed, who was investigating the ring, appeared and together they set out to avenge her death in the first two episodes. Afterwards, Steed asked Keel to partner him as needed to solve crimes. Hendry was considered the star of the new series, receiving top billing over Macnee, and Steed did not appear in two episodes.
As the first series of The Avengers progressed, Steed’s importance increased, and he carried the final episode solo. While Steed and Keel used wit while discussing crimes and dangers, the series also depicted the interplay—and often tension—between Keel’s idealism and Steed’s professionalism. As seen in one of the two surviving episodes from the first series, “The Frighteners”, Steed also had helpers among the population who provided information, similar to the “Baker Street Irregulars” of Sherlock Holmes.
The other regular in the first series was Carol Wilson (Ingrid Hafner), the nurse and receptionist who replaced the slain Peggy. Carol assisted Keel and Steed in cases, without being part of Steed’s inner circle. Hafner had played opposite Hendry as a nurse in his previous show Police Surgeon.
The missing television episodes are currently being re-created for audio by Big Finish Productions under the title of The Avengers – The Lost Episodes and star Julian Wadham as Steed, Anthony Howell as Dr. Keel and Lucy Briggs-Owen as Carol Wilson.
Production of the first series was cut short by a strike. By the time production could begin on the second series, Hendry had quit to pursue a film career. Macnee was promoted to star and Steed became the focus of the series, initially working with a rotation of three different partners. Dr Martin King (Jon Rollason) (a rewritten Dr. David Keel) saw action in only three episodes produced from scripts written for the first series. King was intended to be a transitional character between Keel and Steed’s two new female partners, but while the Dr. King episodes were shot first, they were shown out of production order in the middle of the season. The character was thereafter quickly and quietly dropped.
Nightclub singer Venus Smith (Julie Stevens) appeared in six episodes. She was a complete “amateur,” meaning that she did not have any professional crime-fighting skills as did the two doctors. She was excited to be participating in a “spy” adventure alongside secret agent Steed (although some episodes—”The Removal Men”, “The Decapod”—indicate she is not always enthusiastic). Nonetheless, she appears to be attracted to him and their relationship is somewhat similar to that later portrayed between Steed and Tara King. Her episodes featured musical interludes showcasing her singing performances. The character of Venus underwent some revision during her run, adopting more youthful demeanor and dress.
The first episode broadcast in the second series had introduced the partner who would change the show into the format for which it is most remembered. Honor Blackman played Dr Cathy Gale, a self-assured, quick-witted anthropologist who was skilled in judo and had a passion for leather clothes. Widowed during the Mau Mau years in Kenya, she was the “talented amateur” who saw her aid to Steed’s cases as a service to her nation. She was said to have been born 5 October 1930 at midnight and raised in Africa. Gale was early-to-mid 30s during her tenure, in contrast to female characters in similar series who tended to be younger.
Gale was unlike any female character seen before on British TV and became a household name. Reportedly, part of her charm was because her earliest appearances were episodes in which dialogue written for Keel was simply transferred to her. Said series script writer Dennis Spooner “there’s the famous story of how Honor Blackman played Ian Hendry’s part, which is why they stuck her in leather and such—it was so much cheaper than changing the lines!” In “Conspiracy of Silence” she holds her own in a vociferous tactical disagreement with her partner.
Venus Smith did not return for the third series and Cathy Gale became Steed’s only regular partner. The series established a level of sexual tension between Steed and Gale, but the writers were not allowed to go beyond flirting and innuendo. Despite this the relationship between Steed and Gale was progressive for 1962–63. In “The Golden Eggs” it is revealed that Gale lived in Steed’s flat; her rent according to Steed was to keep the refrigerator well-stocked and to cook for him (she appears to do neither). However, this was said to be a temporary arrangement while Gale looked for a new home, and Steed was sleeping at an hotel.
During the first series there were hints Steed worked for a branch of British Intelligence, and this was expanded in the second series. Steed initially received orders from different superiors, including someone referred to as “Charles,” and “One-Ten” (Douglas Muir). By the third series the delivery of Steed’s orders was not depicted on screen or explained. In “The Nutshell” the secret organization to which Steed belongs is shown, and it is Gale’s first visit to their HQ.
Small references to Steed’s background were occasionally made. In series three’s “Death of a Batman” it was said that Steed was with I Corps in World War II, and in Munich in 1945. In series four episode “The Hour That Never Was” Steed attends a reunion of his RAF regiment. Since the ties he wears are either cavalry or old school, he apparently had attended a number of leading public schools.
A film version of the series was in its initial planning stages by late 1963 after series three was completed. An early story proposal paired Steed and Gale with a male and female duo of American agents, to make the movie appeal to the American market. Before the project could gain momentum Blackman was cast opposite Sean Connery in Goldfinger, requiring her to leave the series.
In 1965 the show was sold to a United States network, the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). The Avengers became one of the first British series to be aired on prime time U.S. television. The ABC network paid the then-unheard-of sum of $2 million for the first 26 episodes. The average budget for each episode was reportedly £56,000, which was high for the British industry. The fourth series aired in the U.S. from March to December 1966.
Mrs Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) debuted in this series in October 1965. The name of the character derived from a comment by writers, during development, that they wanted a character with “man appeal.” Her husband had gone missing while flying over the Amazon. Peel retained the self-assuredness of Gale, combined with superior fighting skills, intelligence, and a contemporary fashion sense.
A prologue was added to the beginning of all the fourth-series episodes for the American transmissions. This was to clarify some initial confusion audiences had regarding the characters and their mission. In the opener, a waiter holding a champagne bottle falls dead onto a human-sized chessboard; a dagger protruding from a target on his back. Steed and Mrs. Peel (dressed in her trademark leather catsuit) walk up to the body as the voiceover explains: “Extraordinary crimes against the people, and the state, have to be avenged by agents extraordinary. Two such people are John Steed, top professional, and his partner Emma Peel, talented amateur. Otherwise known as The Avengers.” During this voice-over, Steed pours two drinks from the wine bottle and Mrs Peel replaces her gun in her boot. They clink glasses and depart together. Fade to black and then the opening titles proper begin.
In contrast to the Gale episodes, there is a lighter, comic touch in Steed and Peel’s interactions with each other and their reactions to other characters and situations. Earlier series had a harder tone, with the Gale era including some quite serious espionage dramas. This almost completely disappeared as Steed and Peel visibly enjoy topping each other’s witticisms. The layer of conflict with Gale—who on occasion openly resented being used by Steed, often without her permission—is absent from Steed’s interaction with Peel. Also the sexual tension between Steed and Gale is quite different from the tension between Steed and Peel. In both cases, the exact relationship between the partners is left ambiguous, although they seemed to have carte blanche to visit each other’s homes whenever they please, and it is not uncommon for scenes to suggest Steed had spent the night at Gale’s or Peel’s home, or vice versa. Although nothing “improper” is displayed, the obviously much closer chemistry between Steed and Peel constantly suggests intimacy between the two.
Science fiction and fantasy elements (a style later known as spy-fi) also begin to emerge in stories. The duo encounters killer robots (“The Cybernauts”), telepaths (“Too Many Christmas Trees”) and giant alien carnivorous plants (“The Man-Eater of Surrey Green”).
In her fourth episode, “Death at Bargain Prices,” Mrs Peel takes an undercover job at a department store. Her uniform for promoting space-age toys is an elaborate leather catsuit plus silver boots, sash and welder’s gloves. The suit minus the silver accessories becomes her signature outfit which she wore primarily for fight scenes in early episodes and in the titles. Some episodes contain a fetishistic undercurrent. In “A Touch of Brimstone” Mrs Peel dresses in a dominatrix outfit of corset, laced boots and spiked collar to become the “Queen of Sin.”
Peel’s avant-garde fashions, featuring bold accents and high-contrast geometric patterns, emphasize her youthful, contemporary personality. For the 1965 season, some of her most memorable outfits were designed by John Bates, including graphic black and white Op art mini-coats and accessories, and a silver ensemble comprising a bra bodice, low-slung trousers, and jacket. She represents the modern England of the Sixties – just as Steed, with his vintage style and mannerisms, personifies Edwardian era nostalgia. According to Macnee in his book The Avengers and Me, Rigg disliked wearing leather and insisted on a new line of fabric athletic wear for the fifth series. Alun Hughes, who had designed clothing for Diana Rigg’s personal wardrobe, was suggested by the actress to design Emma Peel’s “softer” new wardrobe. Pierre Cardin was brought in to design a new wardrobe for Macnee. In America, TV Guide ran a four-page photospread on Rigg’s new “Emmapeeler” outfits (10–16 June 1967). Eight tight-fitting jumpsuits in a variety of bright colours were created using the stretch fabric crimplene.
Another memorable feature of the show from this point onwards was its automobiles. Steed’s signature cars were vintage 1926–1928 Bentley racing or town cars, including Blower Bentleys and Bentley Speed Sixes (although, uniquely, in “The Thirteenth Hole” he drives a Vauxhall 30-98), while Peel drove a Lotus Elan sports car (convertible) which, like her clothes, emphasized her independence and vitality. During the first Peel series, each episode ended with a short, humorous scene of the duo leaving the scene of their most recent adventure in some unusual vehicle.
After one filmed series (of 26 episodes) in black and white, The Avengers began filming in colour for the fifth series in 1966. It was three years before Britain’s ITV network began full colour broadcasting. This series was broadcast in the U.S. from January to May 1967. The American prologue of the previous series was rejigged for the colour episodes. It opened with the caption The Avengers In Color (required by ABC for colour series at that time). This was followed by Steed unwrapping the foil from a champagne bottle and Peel shooting the cork away.
The first 16 episodes of the fifth series begin with Peel receiving a call-to-duty message from Steed: “Mrs Peel, we’re needed.” Peel was conducting her normal activities when she unexpectedly received a message on a calling card or within a delivered gift, at which point Steed suddenly appeared (usually in her apartment). The messages were delivered by Steed in increasingly bizarre ways as the series progressed: in a newspaper Peel had just bought, or on traffic lights while she was out driving. On one occasion Steed appeared on her television set, interrupting an old science-fiction movie (actually clips from their Year Four episode “The Cybernauts”) to call her to work. Another way Steed contacted her was in the beginning of episode 13, “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Station” when she enters her flat and sees a Meccano Percy the Small Engine going around a circular track with a note on one of the train cars that says “Mrs. Peel” in bold letters, she then walks over to Steed who says, “You’re needed.” At the start of “The Hidden Tiger” Peel is redecorating her apartment (wearing a jumpsuit and drinking champagne); she peels off a strip of wallpaper, revealing the words “Mrs Peel” painted on the wall beneath. She turns to see Steed in the apartment removing another strip of wallpaper, revealing “We’re needed” painted underneath on another wall. In another instance Emma enters Steed’s flat to find he has just fallen down the stairs, and he painfully gasps, “Mrs Peel, you’re needed.” Often the episode’s tag scene returned to the situation of the “Mrs Peel, we’re needed” scene. “The Hidden Tiger” returns to the partially redecorated apartment where Steed begins painting a love heart and arrow and the initials of two people on the wall, but paints over the initials when Peel sees his graffito. In “The Superlative Seven” the call to duty and the tag both involve a duck shooting situation where unexpected items fall from the sky after shots are fired.
The series also introduced a comic tag line caption to the episode title, using the format of “Steed [does this], Emma [does that].” For example “The Joker” had the opening caption: “Steed trumps an ace, Emma plays a lone hand.” (“The Joker” was to a large extent a re-write of “Don’t Look Behind You”, a b/w episode with Cathy Gale. A few other later colour episodes were re-writes of b/w episodes.)
The “Mrs Peel, we’re needed” scenes and the alternate tag lines were dropped after the first 16 episodes, after a break in production, for financial reasons. They were deemed by the U.K. networks as disposable if The Avengers was to return to ITV screens. (Dave Rogers’ book The Avengers Anew lists a set for every Steed/Peel episode except “The Forget-Me-Knot”.)
Stories were increasingly characterized by a futuristic, science-fiction bent, with mad scientists and their creations wreaking havoc. The duo dealt with being shrunk to doll size (“Mission… Highly Improbable”), pet cats being electrically altered into ferocious and lethal “miniature tigers” (“The Hidden Tiger”), killer automata (“Return of The Cybernauts”), mind-transferring machines (“Who’s Who???”), and invisible foes (“The See-Through Man”).
The series parodied its American contemporaries with episodes such as “The Girl From AUNTIE”, “Mission… Highly Improbable” and “The Winged Avenger” (spoofing The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Mission: Impossible and Batman, respectively). The show still carried the basic format: Steed and his associate were charged with solving the problem in the space of a 50-minute episode, thus preserving the safety of 1960’s Britain.
Humour was evident in the names and acronyms of the organizations. For example, in “The Living Dead”, two rival groups examine reported ghost sightings: FOG (Friends Of Ghosts) and SMOG (Scientific Measurement Of Ghosts). “The Hidden Tiger” features the Philanthropic Union for Rescue, Relief and Recuperation of Cats—PURRR—led by characters named Cheshire, Manx, and Angora.
The series also occasionally adopted a metafictional tone, coming close to breaking the fourth wall. In the series 5 episode “Something Nasty in the Nursery” Peel directly references the series’ storytelling convention of having potentially helpful sources of information killed off just before she or Steed arrive. This then occurs a few minutes later. In the tag scene for the same episode, Steed and Peel tell viewers—indirectly—to tune in next week.
Rigg was initially unhappy with the way she was treated by the show’s producers especially when she discovered she was being paid less than the camera man! She demanded a raise, to put her more on a par with her co-star, or she would leave the show. The producers gave in, thanks to the show’s great popularity in the US.
At the end of the fifth series in 1967, Rigg left to pursue other projects. This included following Honor Blackman to play a leading role in a James Bond film, in this case On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
When Diana Rigg left the series in October 1967, the British network executives decided that the current series formula, despite resulting in popular success, could not be pursued further. Thus they decided that a “return to realism” was appropriate for the sixth series (1968–69). Brian Clemens and Albert Fennel were replaced by John Bryce, producer of most of the Cathy Gale-era episodes.
Bryce had a difficult situation in hand. He had to find a replacement for Diana Rigg and shoot the first seven episodes of the new series, which were supposed to be shipped to America together with the last eight Emma Peel colour episodes.
Bryce signed his then-girlfriend, 20-year-old newcomer Linda Thorson, as the new female costar and chose the name “Tara King” for her character. 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 King. King also differed from Steed’s previous partners in that she was a fully fledged (albeit initially inexperienced) agent working for Steed’s organisation; his previous partners had all been (in the words of the prologue used for American broadcasts of the first Rigg series) talented amateurs. Bryce wanted Tara to be blonde, so Thorson’s brown hair was bleached. However the process badly damaged Thorson’s hair, so she had to wear wigs for the first third of her episodes, until her own hair grew back. Her natural brown hair was not seen until the episode “All Done with Mirrors”.
Production of the first seven episodes of the sixth series began. However financial problems and internal difficulties undermined Bryce’s effort. He only managed to complete three episodes: “Invitation to a Killing” (a 90-minute episode introducing Tara King), “The Great, Great Britain Crime” (some of its original footage was reused in the 1969 episode “Homicide and Old Lace”) and “Invasion of the Earthmen” (which survived relatively intact except for the scenes in which Tara wears a brown wig.)
After a rough cut screening of these episodes to studio executives, Bryce was fired and Clemens and Fennel were summoned back. At their return, a fourth episode called “The Murderous Connection” was in its second day of production. After revising the script, it was renamed as “The Curious Case of the Countless Clues” and production was resumed. Production of the episode “Split!”, a leftover script from the Emma Peel colour series, proceeded. Two completely new episodes were also shot: “Get-A-Way”, and “Look (Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One) But There Were These Two Fellers”.
Dennis Spooner said of the event that “Brian left The Avengers for about three episodes, someone took over, and when Brian came back, it was in a terrible state. He was faced with doing a rewrite on a film they’d already shot.” The episode had a story error where Steed leaves for a destination. The villains then realise this and pursue him – yet arrive there before Steed does. It was fixed by having a character ask Steed ‘What took you so long?’, to which he replies ‘I came the pretty way’. “You can only do that on The Avengers you see. It was just my favourite show to work on.”
Clemens and Fennel decided to film a new episode to introduce Tara King. This, the third episode filmed for the sixth series, was titled “The Forget-Me-Knot” and bade farewell to Emma Peel and introduced her successor, a trained but inexperienced agent named Tara King. It would be broadcast as the first episode of the sixth series. Tara debuts in dynamic style: when Steed is called to Headquarters, he is attacked and knocked down by trainee agent King who mistakes him for her training partner.
No farewell scenes for Emma Peel had been shot when Diana Rigg left the series. Rigg was recalled for “The Forget-Me-Knot”, through which Emma acts as Steed’s partner as usual. Rigg also filmed a farewell scene for Emma which appeared as the tag scene of the episode. It was explained that Emma’s husband, Peter Peel, was found alive and rescued, and she left the British secret service to be with him. Emma visits Steed to say goodbye, and while leaving she passes Tara on the stairway giving the advice that “He likes his tea stirred anti-clockwise.” Steed looks out the window as a departing Emma enters the Bentley driven by Peter – who from a distance seems to resemble Steed (and was played by Steed’s regular stunt-double, wearing a bowler hat and umbrella).
Bryce’s original episode introducing Tara, “Invitation to a Killing”, was revised as a regular 60-minute episode named “Have Guns Will Haggle”. These episodes, together with “Invasion of the Earthmen” and the last eight Peel colour episodes, were shipped to America in February 1968.
For this series the government official who gave Steed his orders was depicted on screen. Mother, introduced in “The Forget-Me-Knot”, is a man in a wheelchair. The role was taken by Patrick Newell who had played different roles in two earlier episodes, most recently in series five. Mother’s headquarters would shift from place to place, including one episode where his complete office was on the top level of a double-decker bus.
Added later as a regular was Mother’s mute Amazonian assistant, Rhonda, played by uncredited actress Rhonda Parker. There was one appearance by an agency official code-named “Father”, a blind older woman played by Iris Russell. In one episode, “Killer”, Steed is paired with Lady Diana Forbes Blakeney (Jennifer Croxton) while King is on holiday.
Scriptwriter Dennis Spooner later reflected on this series. “When I wrote ‘Look (Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One) But There Were These Two Fellers’, that was definitely the last series. They were going to make no more, so in that series we went right over the top; we went really weird, because they knew there weren’t going to be any more.”
Spooner said the series “worked because it became a parody on itself, almost. You can only do that so long.” Overall he attributes the success of the show to its light approach. “We spoofed everything, we took Mission: Impossible, Bad Day at Black Rock, High Noon, The Dirty Dozen, The Birds… we took them all. The film buffs used to love it. There were always lines in it that people knew what we were talking about.”
Vehicle-wise, Steed continued to drive vintage green Bentleys in the first seven episodes in production. His regular transport for the remainder of the series were two yellow Rolls-Royce cars. Mother also occasionally appeared in silver Rolls-Royces. Tara King drove an AC 428 and a Lotus Europa. Lady Diana Forbes Blakeney drove an MGC Roadster.
The revised series continued to be broadcast in America. The episodes with Linda Thorson as King proved to be highly rated in Europe and the UK. In the United States however, the ABC network that carried the series chose to air it opposite the number one show in the country at the time, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. Steed and King could not compete, and the show was cancelled in the US. Without this vital commercial backing, production could not continue in Britain either, and the series ended in May 1969. The final scene of the final episode (“Bizarre”) has Steed and King, champagne glasses in hand, accidentally launching themselves into orbit aboard a rocket, as Mother breaks the fourth wall and says to the audience, “They’ll be back!” before adding in shock, “They’re unchaperoned up there!”
Categories: Cult TV