Friday, 7 January 2011
The Avengers Turns 50
The Avengers ultimately stemmed from a suggestion of Howard Thomas, managing director of the television company Associated British Corporation (ABC), to Sydney Newman, Head of Drama, that perhaps they should develop thriller series, not unlike the movies of Alfred Hitchcock or the novels of Ian Fleming, which were then popular. Mr. Newman then created Police Surgeon, a show starring Ian Hendry as Dr. Geoffrey Brent, a surgeon who worked for the London Metropolitan Police and often got entangled in their cases. Police Surgeon met with only middling success at best, yet it was clear from letters sent by viewers that its star Ian Hendry was popular. Sydney Newman then created a new vehicle for Ian Hendry. In this new series Ian Hendry would play a different character, yet one who was also a surgeon. Dr. David Keel was investigating the murder of his fiancée, Peggy, at the hands of a drug ring, when he met a mysterious figure named Steed (Patrick MacNee) who investigating the same drug ring. The two became partners and continued to fight crime together even after they solved the drug ring case.
The Avengers proved to be extremely popular, so that there would be no question it would continue. It was even decided to add a female partner to the team, although it would not be Catherine Gale, but Venus Smith (more about her later). Any plans for the second season of The Avengers would soon be put on hold, however, as the actor's union Equity went on strike, bring film and television work to a halt. Worse yet, during the strike Ian Hendry decided to leave The Avengers to pursue a movie career. Dr. David Keel's place as Steed's partner would be taken by two women, who would each be featured in different episodes. The aforementioned Venus Smith (played by Julie Stevens, later a children's show host) was a nightclub singer with a gift for resourcefulness but little in the way of a background in espionage or investigation. Steed's other new partner would be rather more interesting. She would be Mrs. Catherine Gale.
Cathy Gale (played by Honor Blackman) had a doctorate in anthropology and was a expert photographer. She was skilled in the use of firearms and the use of the martial art of judo. Quite simply Mrs. Gale was a female character as never seen before on British or American television. Quite simply, she was the first female action hero in the history of either British or American television. Often clad in her leather fighting suit (assumed by the public to be black, although in actuality it was green which showed up as black in monochrome), Cathy Gale became the more popular of John Steed's new characters. Indeed, by the second season Venus Smith was gone and Cathy Gale was Steed's sole partner.
It was in its second season that The Avengers would become the show we now know. While the episodes featuring Venus Smith were generally standard espionage and crime thrillers, episodes featuring Cathy Gale could often be downright bizarre. Indeed, the first episode of the second season aired, "Mr. Teddy Bear," featured an assassin going by that particular nom de guerre because he often communicates through such toys. "Warlock" involved a new formula for fuel and a group practising black magic. "The Golden Eggs" featured egg shaped containers which held a deadly virus. In its third season The Avengers would feature even more strange adventures. "November Five" involved a group intent on re-enacting the Gunpowder Plot, only this time with a nuclear device. "The Grandeur of Rome" involved a group intent on reviving the Roman Empire. "Espirit de Corps" involved a plot to return the Stuarts to the throne of Scotland.
If The Avengers had proven successful during its first season, it proved even more so in its second and third seasons. The British press was often filled with news on The Avengers. Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman were the celebrities of the day. Before the third season had even ended there was talk of bringing The Avengers to the big screen. While the movie never came to fruition, an American television network expressed interest in bringing The Avengers to the United States. The Avengers fad led Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman to record a novelty song , "Kinky Boots (referring to the footware that Mrs. Gale often wore)." Although not a hit, the song may have inspired the name for classic rock band The Kinks.
By the end of its third season The Avengers was one of the most popular shows in the United Kingdom, if not the most popular. Unfortunately, it was after the third season that Honor Blackman stated her intention not to return to The Avengers for a career in film. Her decision made headlines in the United Kingdom, and for many it seemed impossible that the show could continue without Cathy Gale. With a deal with an American network a possiblity, ABC took The Avengers off the air so that they would have time to revamp the show as a filmed series (previously it had been shot on videotape). Julian Wintle was brought in as the show's new producer. He brought in Brian Clemens (who had already written several episodes of the show) and Albert Finnell as story editors and associate producers of the series.
It would be with its fourth season that The Avengers finally reached the United States. As early as 15 December 1963, when The New York Times devoted an article to the show, America had taken notice of The Avengers. It was only a matter of time before the series would reach the States. The National Broadcasting Company had shown some interest in The Avengers, but expressed its doubts that such an outré series, especially on so British, could succeed in the United States. Eventually the producers secured a deal with the American Broadcasting Company (ABC-US hereafter), consistently the third rated network, to begin showing The Avengers starting in January 1966.
If audiences had thought The Avengers had been a bit out there in its second and third seasons, it would be more so in its fourth season. John Steed and Emma Peel would face increasingly bizarre menaces, often of a science fiction nature. In "The Cybernauts" Steed and Mrs. Peel battled remote controlled, extremely powerful robots. "A Touch of Brimstone (never aired in the United States during the show's initial run)" featured a revival of the Hellfire Club, complete with a climax in which Steed engages in a sword duel and Mrs. Peel is clad in a black Edwardian corset and stiletto heeled boots. Perhaps the strangest episode was "Man-Eater of Surrey Green," in which John Steed and Emma Peel faced an alien, sentient man-eating plant capable of mind control. The fifth season would bring one of the biggest changes to the show.It was the first to be shot in colour. This was largely due to ABC-US, as the American networks were switching to colour In other respects, however the fifth season was similar to the fourth season. Indeed, if anything else episodes of The Avengers became even more way out. "From Venus with Love" featured murders by an extremely powerful laser. "The Winged Avenger" involved killings apparently committed by a comic book character. In "Who's Who" John Steed and Emma Peel find that they have switched bodies with two petty crooks.
One problem The Avengers faced in the United States was censorship. The standards of what was acceptable on British television was more liberal than what was considered acceptable on American television. ABC-US rejected "A Touch of Brimstone" entirely. In the episode "Honey for the Prince," Diana Rigg was dressed in a harem outfit and required to wear a jewel in her navel so as to get past the American censors (who were very sensitive about bellybuttons in the Sixties). The content of The Avengers would come under attack from other sources than ABC-US censors. In the 3 January 1969 issue of Time magazine, The Avengers was referred to as "a festival of sado-masochism and murder."
In its fourth and fifth seasons The Avengers was arguably at the height of its popularity. The series appeared in more than 120 countries. What is more, The Avengers had conquered the United States. Although a smash hit series, it was a cult show with a loyal following which critics loved. As the exquisite Mrs. Emma Peel, Diana Rigg was nominated for the Emmy Award for Lead Actress in a Drama Series (incredibly, she lost to Barbara Bain of Mission: Impossible). The Avengers seemed as if it was poised to air for many more years. Unfortunately, it was not to be.
Not only was Tara younger and less experienced that Dr. Keel, Mrs. Gale, or Mrs. Peel, but the actress playing her also lacked experience. Linda Thorson was fresh from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and had never appeared before a camera. Worse yet, Miss Thorson's lack of experience was complicated by the way Tara was portrayed in the early scripts of the sixth season--little more than a damsel in distress. Unlike Cathy or Emma, Tara knew no martial arts. As a result writers may have thought of nothing better than to have Tara scream for help when threatened. Fortunately, as Miss Thorson's television acting skills improved, so too did Tara's fighting skills. By the second half of the sixth season, she fought almost as well as Mrs. Gale or Mrs. Peel.
Another complication in the Sixth season was Thames Television's (formerly ABC) decision to change the direction of the The Avengers. Even though the show was extremely popular, Thames Television felt the series had become too way out. For that reason, they wanted the show to move more towards reality. John Bryce, who had been story editor during the Cathy Gale years, was appointed the new producer. Briani Clemens and Albert Fiennell left, unhappy with the new direction of the show. As it turned out, however, Thames Television proved unsuitable as a producer. Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell were brought back on the show. They promptly scrapped the episodes Bryce had produced.
On the other side of the Pond The Avengers would also face a major problem. ABC-US decided to schedule The Avengers at 7:30 PM EST/6:30 PM CST. There it would air opposite Gunsmoke on CBS, then a top ten show, and the first half of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, then the number one show on American television. It seemed doubtful The Avengers would survive its sixth season.
As it was, the sixth season of The Avengers would prove to be its worst season. In comparison to the other seasons, there were only a few remarkable episodes. While Thames Television had wanted to shift the series more towards reality, The Avengers still featured some bizarre plots. During the season Steed and Tara investigated an academy meant to train teenagers for space travel ("Invasion of the Earthmen") and Tara fell victim to a love potion ("Love All"). The episodes would improve as the sixth season progressed, just as Tara would become more self sufficient, but it was perhaps too little too late. Critics who had once praised the show now attacked it.
Even had The Avengers maintained the quality it had in the days of Emma Peel and Cathy Gale, it is doubtful it could have survived its sixth season. The series was scheduled against two high rated shows in the United States, neither of which it could hope to beat in the Nielsens. Consistently ranking poorly in the weekly Nielsen ratings, it was on 3 April 1967 that ABC-US announced it had cancelled The Avengers. Unfortunately, The Avengers was an expensive show that Thames Television could not finance all alone. Without the money from ABC-US to help with costs, Thames Television pulled the plug on The Avengers.
More recently, 1998 saw the release of a feature film adaptation of The Avengers starring Ralph Fiennes as John Steed and Uma Thurman as Emma Peel. The film was trounced by critics and openly despised by many fans of the series (Miss Thurman was not a popular choice to pay Emma Peel).
Since then The Avengers has continued in its popularity. It continues to air across the world. The entire series is available on DVD (including the remaining David Keel episode), and many episodes can be viewed online. Much of the reason for its success is that The Avengers was, quite simply, a historic show. Alongside Danger Man it was one of the earliest spy series on British television and in part helped precipitate a spy craze that would eventually spread to the United States. It is possible, then, had it not been for The Avengers, such shows as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Wild Wild West might never have come to be. It was also the first show on British or American television to feature a female action hero in the form of Cathy Gale. Indeed, even though The Avengers had not yet aired in the United States (and the Mrs. Gale episodes would not air until the Nineties on A&E), it was Cathy Gale who inspired the creation of the TV show Honey West. The Avengers then paved the way for Charlie's Angels, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, La Femme Nikita, and Alias. Of course, all of this would not have been possible if The Avengers had not been a well written, well directed, and well acted show. The Avengers was a quality production all the way, superior even then to much of what aired on British and American television. Some may think I exaggerate when I call it the greatest television show of all time. I don't.