Thursday, June 25, 2015

Mr. Steed, You're Needed: Remembering Patrick Macnee & The Avengers

Patrick Macnee died today at the age of 93. Many of you probably know him as superspy John Steed from the 1960s British television show The Avengers. Those of you who know me also know that The Avengers is my favourite TV show of all time and, short of Emma Peel, John Steed is my favourite TV character of all time. Patrick Macnee also happened to be one of my favourite actors. Even though I realise that Mr. Macnee was very old, I am still crushed, so much so that I do not feel up to writing a full fledged eulogy this evening. That having been said, I feel that I have to express my grief at Mr. Macnee's death and my appreciation of the place both he and The Avengers occupy in my life.

Indeed, The Avengers and John Steed have been a part of my life nearly from the very beginning. I first discovered the show when I was only six years on a rainy Sunday afternoon. One of the Kansas City stations were rerunning The Avengers in those days before sport overtook weekend television. I am not sure which episode I saw that day. I am thinking it was probably "The House That Jack Built", although it could have been "From Venus with Love". Either way I was hooked.

Quite simply, The Avengers was very different from anything I had ever seen before. Oh, having been born in the mid-Sixties I had seen spy shows before. By the time I was six years old I had seen The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Wild Wild West. I had even seen at least one British show before--I remember my family watching The Saint when it ran on NBC. The Avengers was different from any of them. For one thing, there was this drop dead gorgeous woman who could easily dispatch men twice her size with a karate chop or a kick, and look good while doing it. Diana Rigg numbered among the very first crushes in my life. For another thing, there was this dapper English gentleman in a bowler and suit, who faced diabolical masterminds with nothing more than his wit, charm, and umbrella. John Steed was one of the heroes of my childhood. Unlike Batman he didn't need all those gadgets. Unlike the other superspies he didn't need a gun. That made him just about the coolest character around in my mind.

I watched The Avengers loyally every Sunday until such time as either we could no longer receive that particular Kansas City station (our reception of the stations in St. Louis and KC could be iffy at times) or they stopped showing The Avengers. Regardless, the show left a strong impression on me, much stronger than many other shows from my childhood. When The New Avengers started airing on CBS Late Night I watched it. I didn't like it as much as the original show, but I still enjoyed it. If nothing else Patrick Macnee was still John Steed. Eventually CBS Late Night would begin airing the original episodes of The Avengers, so I was able to see the show for the first time in years. Once more I was in love with Emma Peel and John Steed was the hero that I wished I could be.

Since that time I have had ample opportunity to watch The Avengers. Not only did A&E air it for years, but they even aired the episodes with John Steed's partner before Emma Peel, Cathy Gale (played by Honor Blackman), for the first time ever in the United States. For a time BBC America aired The Avengers. Of course, over the years I got several episodes on VHS, until I owned most of the run of the show.

It is impossible for me to entirely assess the impact of The Avengers on my life. It is probably much of the reason that I am an avid Anglophile. Oh, I have no doubt growing up knowing I was largely English in descent played its role, as did The Beatles, The Who, and other British bands that were popular in my earliest years, but it would be largely The Avengers that would engender in me an interest in British television and film, as well as British culture. Without The Avengers, I might never have discovered Danger Man, The Prisoner, Are You Being Served, Red Dwarf, and many of the other British shows I love.

Beyond making me an even bigger Anglophile I might have otherwise been, I think that more than any other show The Avengers is responsible for making me regard women as equals. Some American shows, such as Star Trek, gave lip service to this idea, but The Avengers actually put it in action. John Steed was never intimidated by his female partners who were every bit as skilled and as accomplished as himself.  Indeed, John Steed, who to all appearances was the traditional English gentleman, seemed to appreciate that the women who fought along his side were deadlier than most men. He never spoke down to Cathy Gale or Emma Peel, and it was more often they who rescued him than the other way around. John Steed treated his female partners as equals, and I do believe that made a big impression on my young mind.

As John Steed, the one constant on The Avengers and the show's central character, Patrick Macnee was largely responsible for its success, not to mention the impression it made on young viewers such as myself. He played John Steed as the quintessential English gentleman. In his bowler and impeccable suit, John Steed was entirely unflappable, whether he was facing man eating plants, killer kitty cats, a new incarnation of the Hellfire Club, or indestructible Cybernauts. Over the years Steed and the talented amateur with whom he was working at the moment would face a number of different threats to the United Kingdom and the world, and all the while Steed did it with a sense of humour, charm, and plenty of aplomb. Patrick Macnee would play other characters over the years, but his greatest role is still the one he played the longest, that of John Steed.

It should come as no surprise that Patrcik Macnee in real life appeared to be not much different from John Steed on The Avengers. He always displayed plenty of wit and charm, and he always seemed to be the perfect gentleman. In interviews he always credited Honor Blackman and Dame Diana Rigg with the success of The Avengers, even though it was obvious to the rest of us that the show would not have worked with anyone but himself as John Steed. Patrick Macnee's considerable sense of humour even extended to himself. In his autobiography Blind in One Ear: The Avenger Returns, Mr. Macnee was brutally honest about his life and himself. displaying a good deal of self deprecating humour. Reading the book one got the feeling that not only did Patrick Macnee have no real ego, but he didn't even realise just how special he really was.

I never had the opportunity to meet or interact with Patrick Macnee. I only knew him from the many television shows and films in which he appeared over the years, as well as the many interviews he gave. It is perhaps silly then that I am mourning as if I have lost an old friend or relative. Regardless, Patrick Macnee had an impact on my life in a way that few other actors would have. Without him as John Steed and The Avengers, I might not be who I am today.


Ken said...
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Ken said...

Patrick had a 'happy go lucky' attitude to life that many of his generation shared believing they would never survive service in the Forces during WW2. After his final scene filming with Diana Rigg, Patrick retired to his dressing room and shead a few tears. He seems to have genuinely liked by all of those he acted with.