MRS. PEEL AND MR. STEED
Remembering the Original Avengers
Jun 29, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 41 • By BRIAN MURRAY
For Macnee, The Avengers offered "a surrealistic Grimm's fairy-tale sort of terror." Clemens himself described the show as a "Doris Day comedy" and "a spoof with dramatic overtones." In The Avengers, a new book about the series, Toby Miller offers fresh facts about its evolution and amusing anecdotes about its stars. He notes, for example, that Macnee modeled Steed's character in part on a "foppish but strong" figure played by Ralph Richardson in a 1939 film, Q Planes; that the no-nonsense Rigg sometimes ditched annoying admirers by noting "it's illegal to sign autographs in the street"; that in 1963 Macnee and Blackman, performing as a duet, released the single "Kinky Boots," a musical satire of fashion that has been variously described as the first example of Marxist rap and -- more plausibly -- as one of the ten worst records ever made.
As Miller points out, The Avengers made frequent use of fairly sophisticated cinematic techniques: Dutch angles, hand-held cameras, and worm's-eye shooting. It also "fractured" stories, sometimes "knitting them into other ones"; it grew increasingly mannered and ironic, "often making style into content." The series parodied itself, and the spy genre generally, and winked knowingly at Goldfinger, Batman, Mission: Impossible, and other popular films and television programs of the day. The Avengers, in other words, was postmodern before postmodern was cool.
But as Miller also shows, the series stood as well for what are, in the end, sturdy British values and beliefs. The would-be autocrats it portrays are invariably humiliated and dispatched. Its mad scientists always get their come-uppance; egotism takes its fall. Miller, indeed, suggests that The Avengers was "all about common sense in place of the grand narrative of scientific progress." Certainly, politically, it endorsed nothing more radical than the workable virtues of democracy, civic responsibility, and political moderation. Calmly, collectively, Steed and Peel restore order from chaos -- and then crack open the champagne.
Steed, the show's mainstay, is in Macnee's own words," a hero dressed and accoutered like a junior cabinet minister." The character, we're told, attended Eton. Later he trained at Sandhurst, and served as an army officer in World War II. He knows books, food, wine. In fact, although his wardrobe is strictly British, Steed's palate -- and much of his style -- is decidedly continental, as befits a hero at work in the era of the Common Market and the devalued pound.
Thus in Heil Harris! -- one of several "official" Avengers novels published in the late 1960s -- we find Steed physically and mentally exhausted after a particularly tough case and considering anew the restorative powers of "a bottle of 1947 Barolo" placed beside some lasagne al forno Piemontese.
But, being a good Brit, the unflappable Steed never takes himself too seriously. Self-importance, of course, has long been a cardinal sin in Britain, and a prime target for comic artists from Shakespeare to Dickens to Monty Python. Even as he's bashing the bad guys Steed leaves the impression that, all things considered, he'd much rather be doing something else -- a bit of gardening, perhaps. Miller cites a scene at the close of one Avengers episode in which Steed, facing a firing squad, is asked to name his last request. "Would you," he replies, "cancel my milk?"
As Miller notes, The Avengers has inspired a host of spin-offs and imitations, beginning in the mid-1970s with The New Avengers (a short-lived series that even Macnee, one of its principals, describes as "an extremely bad retread of Kojak") and culminating with the new Hollywood version of The Avengers. (Miller's book has been published just in time to provide this summer's reviewers with all the information they need to compare the movie to its television original.)
But the influence of The Avengers is not just in nostalgia. Its influence is visible, for example, in the 1990s television blockbuster The X-Files, another "cult" favorite that has triggered its own share of fan clubs, critical commentaries, and related product lines. Like The Avengers, The X-Files features two government agents -- male and female -- whose relationship is professionally close but personally unclear.
Each week agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully find themselves in bizarre and deadly situations, dealing with vampires, paranormal pyromaniacs, and mysterious mutants posing as any number of things, including Renaissance scholars and computer geeks. So too, like The Avengers, The X-Files mixes wit with suspense; it's intelligent, allusive, and full of parody.