Initially, Emma Peel was a man. When The Avengers debuted on British television in 1961, John Steed's crime-fighting partner was a male physician played by Ian Hendry. The actor Patrick Macnee was -- as he remained through the nine seasons of the program -- Special Agent Steed. But in most respects the early, low-budget version of The Avengers bore little resemblance to what the show became. Shot in kinescope, its noir look and grimy backstreet sets recalled the early thrillers of Graham Greene: Steed and Hendry wore bulky trench coats and smoked.
Mrs. Peel, played by Diana Rigg, was Steed's most famous female partner. But she wasn't the first. Honor Blackman replaced Hendry in the show's second season, and her character, Catherine Gale, was a proto-Peel: a vivacious, educated, leather-wearing widow who sent thugs flying with a bit of ju-jitsu. The show's early creators fancied her the likely combination of Grace Kelly, Margaret Bourke-White, and Margaret Mead.
Rigg joined the series when, in 1965, Blackman moved on to more exalted things -- playing Pussy Galore in the James Bond film, Goldfinger. With Blackman, The Avengers became one of Britain's most successful programs: an international hit and the most profitable export in the history of British television. The Avengers ended production in 1969, one year after Rigg's exit brought Steed a new partner, Tara King, played by Linda Thorson. But the program remains in wide syndication, attracting new viewers and sparking a growing number of websites, articles, and books. Long in the works, a big-budget movie version of The Avengers -- featuring Ralph Fiennes as Steed and Uma Thurman as Mrs. Peel -- is now set for late-summer release.
In the 1960s, the show's wide appeal owed much to Rigg's chic good looks and Macnee's aristocratic panache. Its producers -- Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell -- very cleverly met American expectations by mixing nostalgic images of Merry Old England with products and symbols meant to underscore Britain's post-Beatles place as the center of European fashion and style. Thus Steed sports a bowler, totes a brolly, and drives a Bentley. Mrs. Peel favors catsuits and modish boots and speeds around in a power-blue Lotus Elan. Steed, Macnee has noted, "was eighteenth century. But the woman was essentially twenty-first century."
Over the years many fine screen actors took roles on The Avengers, , Peter Cushing, Donald, Sutherland, and John Cleese among them. Episode directors included Charles Crichton, whose Dead of Night and Lavender Hill Mob rank among the most noteworthy British films of the 1940s and '50s. But the persistent appeal of The Avengers derives even more from the high quality of its writing. At its best during the Rigg-Macnee years, the series was consistently witty, suspenseful, and fun. It was smart too, demanding from its viewers what Kingsley Amis, a devoted admirer, termed "mental agility." If Ian Fleming, Lewis Carroll, and Roald Dahl had teamed up on a television series, the result would have looked very much like The Avengers.
In fact, from its start, The Avengers enlisted some highly imaginative scriptwriters, including Tony Williamson, Philip Levene, and Dennis Spooner, who later contributed to another legendary British series, Dr. Who. But Brian Clemens -- acting as producer, writer, and story editor -- probably did most to define and refine the show's urbane style and uncluttered look. It was Clemens who insisted that "no woman should be killed" and that "no extras should populate the streets."
All the show's scripts have been summarized by Dave Rogers in The Complete Avengers, a hefty 1989 reference guide, recently republished. Read chronologically, the plots show the series moving steadily from urban grit to high camp. The Avengers had always faced up to the reality of the Cold War; but, by the mid-1960s, Soviet agents are likely to be faintly clownish figures bearing names like Ivan and Nutski. As the show grew more whimsical, its villains became colorful cranks with dotty but dangerous schemes to rule Britain or destroy the world. Thus, in one episode, Steed and Mrs. Peel contend with a band of female fitness instructors bent on cleansing the planet of men. In another, a demented cartoonist stalks and kills his victims costumed as "The Winged Avenger," his own comic strip creation, a monstrous bird of prey. At other times, the hero and heroine faced man-eating plants, deadly robots, and house cats programmed to kill.
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.
The X-Files, however, is also portentous and dark, owing more to Oliver Stone than Oliver Hardy. Mulder and Scully -- a humorless pair -- are forever mucking about in swamps and sewers, tracking a vast, endless conspiracy that appears to involve nearly everyone: space aliens, Pentagon generals, cigarette smokers, and the guy next door.
The Avengers -- created only two decades after the defeat of Nazism -- belongs to a world that still believes in its bones that the forces of evil lunacy can be bested by the combined forces of courage, civility, and good cheer. And that, more than ever, is the real secret of its charm.
Brian Murray teaches in the department of writing and media at Loyola College, Baltimore.