MRS. PEEL AND MR. STEED
Remembering the Original Avengers
Jun 29, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 41 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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.