Friday, January 7, 2011

The Avengers Turns 50

It was fifty years ago tonight, on 7 January 1961, that the greatest television show of all time (in my humble opinion) debuted. The Avengers was an espionage series which centred upon  a top professional (John Steed, played by Patrick Macnee) and a talented amateur (his partner of the moment) who protected the United Kingdom (and often the world) from various threats. Alongside Danger Man, The Avengers was one of the shows which precipitated a spy craze in the United Kingdom, preceding the release of Dr. No by a year and ten months. It would also prove phenomenally successful, running nine years--longer than any spy drama on British or American television. Worldwide it could possibly be the most famous spy drama of all time.

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.

As the first season of The Avengers progressed, the series gradually took shape as we know it today. From the beginning, John Steed claimed to be a secret agent, a fact which would be well established later in the series. In other respects, however, The Avengers differed somewhat from the show we now know. At the beginning of the series, John Steed dressed in a trench coat, much as Dr. Keel did, but it was during the first season that he started to dress in his familiar bowler, suit, and umbrella. It must also be pointed out that at the start of the series, while Keel and Steed were definitely partners, Ian Hendry was definitely the star. As the show progressed, however, John Steed began to play a larger and larger role until he was actually featured in episodes without Dr. Keel. In the early days of the show most episodes were grounded somewhat in reality, although somewhat tongue in cheek. Eventually, however, Dr. Keel and John Steed would encounter the sort of  outré cases which the show would become famous. "Dead of Winter" involved a Nazi war criminal trying to create a new Fascist part and cryogenic suspension. "The Deadly Air" centred on germ warfare. Sadly, only one episode, of the first season of The Avengers, intact, "The Frighteners," as well as the first twenty minutes of the first episode "Hot Snow."

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.

Naturally the producers started work on creating a replacement for Cathy Gale. John Steed's new partner was initially named Samantha (Mantha for short), but eventually bore the name Emma Peel (suggested by press officer Marie Donaldson with the idea that Steed's new partner would need Man Appeal--M Appeal). Emma was the young widow of pilot Peter Peel and the daughter of a rich shipowner. She was skilled in both karate and judo (and later kung fu). It would later be established that she became chairman of her father's company, Knight Industries, at the young age of 21. She was knowledgeable in everything from thermodynamics to firearms. Initially British actress Elizabeth Shepherd was cast as Mrs. Peel. After watching rushes for the episode "Town of No Return," however, the producers realised she was ill suited for the part. Twenty more actresses were tested for the part until casting director Dodo Watts pointed the producers in the direction of Diana Rigg, a young actress who had given an impressive performance in the episode "The Hothouse" of Armchair Theatre--Diann Rigg. In the end, Diana Rigg was cast in the role of Mrs. Emma Peel. Emma Peel would be a very different character from Cathy Gale. She was younger and hence more carefree. It was partly for that reason that Emma Peel would not wear the leather fighting gear of Mrs. Gale, instead preferring stretch jersey.

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.

Diana Rigg had decided to leave the series to pursue other projects. before the fifth season had even ended. Emma Peel had proven to be wildly popular in the United States and even in the United Kingdom. As a result it would be difficult to replace her. The producers went through 200 actresses before reducing it to three: Mary Peach, Tracy Reed, and Linda Thorson. Screen tests of each of the girls were shot and then sent to Dan Boyle, the head of ABC-US. Miss Thorson would play Steed's new partner, Tara King. Unlike Steed's previous partners, Tara was not technically not a talented amateur, but a professional. That having been said, in some respects she was the least experienced of  Steed's partners. She was fresh from training as a spy. Tara was the daughter of a wealthy farmer who had not only attended an expensive finishing school, but also knew most skills associated with the outdoors.

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.

That would hardly be the end of The Avengers. The series would enter syndication in the United States where it run for many years, and it would often be repeated in the United Kingdom. During its run The Avengers had produced a good deal of merchandising, including novels, comic books, toys, jigsaw puzzles, and games. Two years after the show had ended its run, a stage play based on the series opened in Birmingham. It starred Simon Oates as John Steed and Sue Lloyd as his new partner Hannah Wild It ran for ten days there before moving to London's West End, where it had a very short run. A more substantial revival of the series would be a radio show based on the series which ran in South Africa from 1971 to 1973. Around 83 serials of the radio show were produced, of which only 19 survive.

Perhaps the most famous continuation of The Avengers would the the TV series The New Avengers. Once more featuring Patrick Macnee as John Steed, this time he had two partners: Purdey (played by Joanna Lumley, later of Absolutely Fabulous) and Mike Gambit (Gareth Hunt). The series ran for two seasons. The New Avengers would not be the only show which drew upon The Avengers for inspiration. In 1978 Brian Clemens wrote a pilot for CBS called Escapade which was directly inspired by The Avengers.In the pilot Granville Van Dusen played Joshua and Morgan Fairchild played Suzy, two secret agents who must investigate the sale of state secrets. The pilot did not sell.

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.


Fabienne said...

Greatest TV show of all times, I couldn't agree more!
Thank you for a wonderful article...

Millie said...

WOW! This was an amazing post!

The Avengers is just such brilliance!

And even though my utter favorite is Cathy Gale, it's always an extremely fun show to watch, no matter what!

Really fascinating post! :-D