Few British spy thrillers have a more stellar reputation than the campy and often existential TV series The Avengers, starring Patrick Macnee as superspy John Steed and a number of different female leads as his variously amateur or equally skilled professional compatriots. The story revolved around topics of relevance in the 1960s, ranging from leftover Nazis taking over seaside villages to Cold War villains: The show had six seasons in its initial run, starting in 1961 and ending in 1969, and was adversely impacted by a writer’s strike and other contemporary events of the era.
I’ve been watching the original series from its first season and have to be candid; there’s not much to like in the muddled chaos of the first few seasons. The very first season – of which few episodes remain intact – actually had another actor as the lead, with Macnee’s Steed as a secondary character. Season two saw Steed move into the lead role and a rotating list of female leads as the show bounced between various actresses, notably Ingrid Hafner as nurse Carol Wilson, Julie Stevens as nightclub singer Venus Smith, and Honor Blackman as judo-expert anthropologist Dr Cathy Gale. Blackman paved the way for the heyday of the series with her leather outfits, something that hadn’t been seen on TV before. A sexy woman dressed all in leather, Yowza!
I tried to make it through season 3 as Blackman really came into her own as the tough female co-star, even as Steed’s character evolved from a typical businessman into a Saville-row-kitted and oh-so-bespoke English gentleman who happens to kick butt and fight for the defense of the Realm. Mr. Bond, I’m afraid Mr. Steed is taking the mickey out of you. And Macnee’s bowler-wearing spy is also the inspiration for the Kingsman film series too, and probably Austin Powers, now that we’re talking about it.
Still, season 3 remains a bit of an incoherent mess, with mysteries presented and solved without rhyme or reason. Bad writing? Bad filming and editing? Too much story for its 48min time allotment? Whatever the cause, season 3 offers a glimpse of things to come, which is delivered in astonishing style in season 4. Season 4, episode 1, debuted in October 1965 and featured “talented amateur” Mrs. Emma Peel (Diana Rigg). It was a game changer.
In fact, while we’re used to subsequent seasons of TV shows making changes and adding new characters to existing programs, the leap from season 3 of The Avengers to season 4 is nothing less than breathtaking. From the opening titles – and new theme song – to the prologue where Mrs. Peel is shown as tough, dangerous, and sexy, it’s an entirely new show that is launching a thousand imitators every minute it runs. As a veteran of TV shows, I can’t think of a similar experience of having a mediocre and muddled show leap into being fantastic from season to season, and it’s fantastic.
The backstory is that the show actually changed ownership between seasons 3 and 4, sold to the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). The Avengers became one of the first British series to be aired on prime-time US television and its budget increased significantly, allowing it to move from black & white video to black & white 35mm film (and eventually, color). In an ironic note, production moved from ABC’s Teddington television studios to the Associated British film studios in Elstree. Better cameras also allowed significantly more sophisticated shots and more exterior footage.
In his book, The Complete Avengers: The Full Story of Britain’s Smash Crime-Fighting Team!, author Dave Rogers shares the amusing anecdote that the name “Emma Peel” came from the writers wanting to name the new character “man appeal”, which was shortened in the series notes to “m. appeal” and then “m. peel”. Enter Mrs. Emma Peel.
I’m still watching season 4 of The Avengers, catching up on 1965’s must-watch TV (if nothing else than to see Diana Rigg in her trademark leather catsuit!) and am really enjoying the heck out of the series. Interestingly, there was a film version of The Avengers released in 1998 and starring Ralph Fiennes as Steed, Uma Thurman as Peel, and no less than Sean Connery as Sir August de Wynter, a mad scientist with designs on the world’s weather. it’s pretty awful. But the original show, now that I’m finally into season 4? It’s just entertaining as heck.
Tip: Check JustWatch to see where you can catch up on this great 60s spy thriller TV series.
Thanks, Dave, for another quality review!
Born in ’55 I remember the Diane Rigg iteration of the series fondly & have been toying with doing what you’re doing, starting from the beginning. Thanks for the heads-up regarding season 4, I’ll likely be starving for it by then!
As for Honor Blackman… "Goldfinger," of course.
Because it’s easy to confuse Ms Blackman with Anne Francis, for me at least, I’m reminded of Ms Francis’ ’60s series, "Honey West." It’s a trip down memory lane, ’65 Mustangs & the like. I posted all 30 episodes at FileFactory if you have an account there. "Honey West" suffered from being an hour’s worth of plot crammed into a half-hour time slot. Anne Francis transcends any shortcomings.
All the best, Dave, & keep on keeping us informed! Once again from Loveland, another Dave.