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PART ONE: THE EARLY YEARS (61-64)
When most people think of THE AVENGERS, they often think of the Emma Peel episodes and tend to ignore the magic that the entire series is. What began as a cheap weekly live-broadcast B&W thriller managed to become a major color series with quite high production values and also the first British TV show ever to be exported to the US.
THE AVENGERS began in 1961, as an attempt to cash in ABC's previous medical thriller POLICE SURGEON. The former stared Ian Hendry who became one of the biggest TV stars of the time. The show failed to be a hit however. So Hendry and his co-star Ingrid Hafner were called in to do a replacement called THE AVENGERS. The weekly show would pair up the widowed Dr. Keel (Hendry) with charming secret agent John Steed (Patrick McNee) as they hunted down criminals and diabolical masterminds while walking on the noir-like soaked London streets wearing raincoats. Hafner starred in some episodes as nurse Carol. Only two of these episodes are known to exist, and they have been rarely seen. After many videotaped episodes, the show became a hit and Hendry decided it was a perfect time to start a movie career. He quit the show and so did Hafner. This left co-star McNee all by himself.
The second season started in 1962 and McNee was paired up with Dr. King (Jon Rollason), a temporary replacement. After shooting left-over season one scripts, King was dropped and Julie Stevens as jazz singer Venus Smith was brought in to be Steed's new female partner. A bad one by the way. Not only was Stevens a young unexperienced actress, but the character itself was a manipulative innocent teenager that would always become the damsel in distress and have to be saved during the climax. Weak material here. However, the writers decided to pair Steed up with a different kind of female partner. One that would be written as a male character on the script, and play it like a man. And so was born television's first true independent woman: Mrs. Catherine Gale. Played to perfection by Honor Blackman, the high-tempered Cathy would always have "battle of the sexes" arguments with Steed, hit him with outrageous answers and punchlines, ("Good morning Cathy, what's for breakfast?" "Cook it and see!") and always try to erase his sexist side. Also notable were Cathy's leather catsuits that launched an entire fashion in England, as well as her weekly judo fights with male thugs. The many Cathy Gale episodes have remained in obscurity during the years for the fact that they were videotaped on low production values and transfered into poor prints with lackluster sound. This makes them almost unwatchable. And the bad guest acting and all the technical bloopers that were never fixed during editing didn't help. But all the purists who try to avoid these episodes are actually missing a great load of fun. If you overlook all the negative elements, you are left with entertaining stories that always surprise you with all the wit, poison, and humor from McNee and Blackman. You would also be surprised at how superior the material is since back then the show took itself seriously.
Some episodes speak for themselves: MANDRAKE is a slow-paced but well done suspense with a great fight scene with Blackman and wrestler Jack Parlo. THE LITTLE WONDERS is a funny episode featuring Lois Maxwell (a.k.a Miss Moneypenny) as a wicked machine-gun shooting evil nun. DRESSED TO KILL is a well done variation of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians. THE MAN WITH TWO SHADOWS was one of the first spy stories to use the look-alike element. And THE CHARMERS is perhaps one of the best episodes ever.
It is true that these shows don't even come close to the wonderful filmed seasons that would start in 1965 and they do not hold up to today's standards when compared to other shows of the time. But the biggest reason you should go back to watch these episodes is Cathy Gale herself. A wonderful actress (Blackman) and a wonderful character, Gale is one of the most important female characters of all time. She is for sure my favorite out of all of Steed's partners. Long live Cathy Gale!
PART TWO: KINKY BOOTS AND BOWLER HAT (65-68)
THE AVENGERS was already a popular show in England during the early 60s. However, it all backfired when Honor Blackman decided to leave the series in order to star in GOLDFINGER. When season three ended, ABC decided to pull the plug on THE AVENGERS and sold the series to Telemen Limited. Albert Fennel and Brian Clemmens were both recruited to keep up the standard. Plus, a big revolution happened: The series moved from videotape to film and the budget was also sightly improved.
But even knowing Patrick McNee came back, the studio faced a major problem: Cathy was gone. Since Blackman had already made the character so popular, it was decided a new partner would be created to be paired up with Steed. So Elisabeth Shappard was cast as Emma Peel (Man appeal! Get it?) and production started. But it was soon noticed Sheppard's cold beauty and persona was not right for the role. So Sheakespeare stage actress Diana Rigg was cast as a replacement. The show premiered in 1965 as a completely different deal.
And of course, the rest is history... Diana Rigg brought the charm and kindness that Blackman lacked, altrough she lacked Honor's strenght and toughness. Patrick McNee also played a very different Steed: He went from a James Bond-like sexist macho man to a more kind gentleman spy. The new AVENGERS became so popular that it was exported to the US. Yes, the fourth season was indeed revolutionary. But what made it so much better than the previous seasons? The most obvious answer would be Emma Peel, or the bigger budget, but I would give credit to the writers. This time, the scripts were much sharper and the show never took itself very seriously. And then there is the wonderful chemistry between McNee and Rigg. The Steed/Emma relationship was subliminally romantic and funny. They always enjoyed great lines togheter.
Some season four episodes are good even for today's standards: THE GRAVEDIGGERS has a hilarious silent film spoof climax. THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT was a clautrophobic "girl alone in a house" sort of thriller. THE CYBERNAUTS brought a strong sci-fi element. TOO MANY CHRISTMAS TREES brought the Steed/Emma chemistry to he highest calibur. And let's not forget a TOUCH OF BRIMSTONE that gets the award for sexiest episode ever.
The UK didn't order a season five, but the US did. The series moved from B&W to color, the budget was even higher, and the action increased as well. Gone were the sloppy season four fights and the large male stunts used to double Rigg. Now, the fights were better coreographed, and Cyd Childs (Who looked a lot like Diana Rigg) would be in charge of the kung fu moves that would take out the female baddie of the week. Included were the "we're needed" introductions that were made in order to format the show a-la MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. The US backers also demanded Emma Peel to be more femenine and Rigg decided to replace her leather catsuits with jumpsuits that woulkd go down in fashion history as Emmapeelers.
No doubt season five was fun, but the show went from spy adventures to spoof comedies. Just look at the plot lines: THE HIDDEN TIGER dealt with cats progammed to attack their owners. ESCAPE IN TIME was about time-traveling! And FROM VENUS WITH LOVE was about an alien beam that would kill scientists! You just couldn't watch the show as a thriller anymore.
Even Rigg got tired and decided to leave the series. Linda Thorson was cast as Tara King for season six. Of course, the only reason was that Linda was the girlfriend of then-producer John Bryce. The character of Tara King was the femenine partner that the US backers wanted. The girl was so dependent of Steed that she carried a brick on her purse. It looks like Venus Smith all over again. The fact that Linda was a totally unexperienced actress didn't help. Season six began, with quite good rantings that kept up the standard.
Most fans usually hate season six because of the absence of Emma Peel, but I dare say this season was a great deal of underrated fun. Not as silly as season five or as serius as the first three seasons, this era of the show saw Steed and Tara on trully good adventures. LOOK... teamed them against killer clowns (?). SPLIT! dealt with agents shifting personalities through brainwashing. And STAY TUNED is one of those rare episodes where Steed almost cracks!
Even the character of Tara King became more tolerable as the season progessed. She even had a Steedless episode (ALL DONE WITH MIRRORS) where she put both Emma and Cathy to shame. She soon didn't need the brick (*sight*) and her intelligence was also improved. In France, she is ten times more popular than Emma.
However, the show's rantings in the US were poor due to the bad time-slot of putting the show against LAUGH-IN. The US didn't order more episodes and without the US support, THE AVENGERS ended.
THE AVENGERS was indeed a revolutionary and magic TV show. Many later sows (HART TO HART, REMINGTON STEELE) owe a lot to it.
Sure there is the 1976 revival and te dreadful 1998 movie, but that is another story...
To this day, The Avengers remains a cult favourite. It is still released
onto video and watched by fans today; whether a new generation of fans has
been introduced to it is unknown but I do know that people like myself who
watched it the first time round are tuning in again.
The one constant through the series was Patrick Macnee who played John Steed. He was joined by various females throughout the show (my favourite being the lovely Emma Peel played by Diana Rigg).
The show was full of wit in addition to the action, intrigue and adventure. Steed-in his bowler hat and with his umbrella-faced all kinds from mad scientists to robots. Always calm, Steed brought down his foes usually with the help of his bowler hat or umbrella.
What more can I say about The Avengers? It was unique, it was funny and it has stood the test of time very well.
An absolute masterpiece in British television, The Avengers is a
timeless, witty, fantastical series which is as, if not more, popular
today than it was more than 40 years ago.
This series has something for everybody - gangsters, diabolical masterminds, glamorous girls, car chases, fights and endless glasses of champagne.
It is interesting to see how the series developed from its humble beginnings in 1961. Playing it straight in the early days it gradually became more and more way-out with wackier and wackier plots and characters. The Cathy Gale and Emma Peel eras are regarded by many to be the high point of the series although there are high spots in virtually every point in the show's history.
Only one episode exists from Series 1 with the mysterious, shadowy Steed being a much more sinister character to Ian Hendry's open Doctor Keel. Then we have much verbal sparring and innuendo between Steed and the delicious Cathy Gale and her kinky boots. Film and eventually colour were introduced with the feline Emma Peel and her high kicks and the show closed the 60s in gaudy, cartoonish style with the naive Tara King and her snazzy Lotus Europa.
This is British television at its best and a true legend in broadcasting. The 1970s version, The New Avengers, has it's own charm in a way but is best regarded as a totally separate entity as this original series was...well...original!
The adventures of a suave British agent John Steed and his sexy female
This highly popular and long running spy show was the brainchild of Canadian born producer Sidney Newman. It began life as a medical crime drama called "Police Surgeon" starring Ian Hendry as Dr David Keel a pathologist working for the London police. When this failed to take on with the public, the character called John Steed was created. In the first episode of the revamped show renamed "The Avengers", John Steed helps Dr David Keel to avenge the death of his wife because he happened to be after the same man. Steed and Keel would collaborate many more times to rid the streets of criminals. The new show took on much better but Ian Hendry departed after the first series and was replaced by Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, the first of the better known sexy sidekicks that would put the show firmly on the British TV show map. Blackman lasted two series and was then replaced by Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, a sexy auburn haired leather cladded woman who was expert at karate as well as having skills in a wide range of subjects such as chemistry. By now John Steed's English gentlemen image had been fully opened up, his bowler hat and umbrella was inspired by the film "Q-Plains". Steed's image also consisted of suave suits and he drove vintage cars, first a 1927 4 and a half litre Bentley and occasionally a speed six Bentley (circa 1926) and later a 1927 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost in the Linda Thorson series. In one or two episodes, Steed could be seen driving a 1927 Rolls Royce Phantom One. Emma Peel drove a 1966 Lotus Elan and Tara King was often seen behind the wheel of a Lotus as well.
By now the show had cracked the American market and it's success lead to the use of colour film for the last two series. Diana Rigg left in 1967 and her replacement was a young Canadian actress called Linda Thorson who played a young agent called Tara King. There was initial doubts about her suitability to the part, but the script writers modelled the character as a young agent who Steed was grooming and her skills developed as the series progressed. The series was a tremendous success in the UK, but in America it was less so. Therefore in 1969 the show was cancelled. However, in 1976, a revival series entitled "The New Avengers" surfaced co-produced by original producers Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens and a French production company (see separate review). Alas, financial problems saw the show cancelled after a year.
"The Avengers" is without doubt one of British TV's finest hours. In almost every episode superb character actors were drafted in to support Macnee and his co-stars. The plots were usually tight and the combination of fantasy and a unique brand of British humour rose the show well above the average sixties spy show. The most representative segments of the show are without doubt the Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson series. The Honor Blackman series has dated badly because the primitive video tape production techniques are less effective than the later filmed episodes and the style of the show was never really opened up until Diana Rigg joined the show. The writers most associated with the look of the programme are Brian Clemens and Philip Levene. There is only one episode of the Ian Hendry series left in existence and the majority of these were transmitted live.
Finally, here is a list of my recommended episodes, all are available on DVD.
Diana Rigg series: "The Gravediggers", "The Master Minds", "What The Butler Saw", "Room Without A View", "Epic", "The Living Dead" and "The Forget Me Knot" (in which Emma Peel left and Tara King joined).
Linda Thorson series: "Love All", "Requiem", "The Morning After", "The Rotters" and "Bizarre" (the very last episode in the series saw Steed and Tara take off in a rocket).
Definitely 60's and it is obvious. Yet this is still one of the most fun
shows ever made. John Steed is the epitome of British class, right down to
the Bentley in British Racing Green (notwithstanding the Tara King years).
Then there is Emma Peel, mmmmm Emma Peel. Aside from Diana Rigg's obvious physical charms her real appeal is the strength of her character. Totally confident, cool, classy, and capable (driving a Lotus Elan was also a big plus) Diana Rigg created a female character (which was resisted by the producers tooth and nail I understand) that surprised me even though I first saw the show over 20 years after it went off the air. Emma Peel was devoid of the traditional female stereotypes that permeate the airwaves always in need of rescue and if not are total cartoons. She could kick ass and frequently saved Steed's butt in the process. Mass media still has a major allergy to original, tough female characters which is a testament to the originality of the character.
Something was lost after Tara King took over. It was a return to the stereotypes and the show lost something for me, that and I didn't like Steed's new car, just didn't have the same class as his former Bentley.
Still I highly recommend watching it, fun plots, wry humor, over the top villains, great characters, and an impossible lack of blood. How can you not have fun watching this?
Bowler hat and leather boots, that's the French title for this series which
has been very successful here and and the 140 episodes or so are available
on DVD !! I remember seeing some of the episodes when I was a boy in England
during the 60's. I was stunned by Emma Peel's physical beauty and "childish"
humour. Watching some of the Dvd's today, my view hasn't changed and I was
just as pleased ! The best episodes were those made with Peel, both in
colour and black and white. Not only were the scripts and stories well
thought out and very mysterious, the picture quality was absolutely amazing
and I liked the opening sequence and music with the two wine glasses on the
screen. The episodes made with Gambit and Purdey were of LESS good quality
than those with Diana Rigg despite being made almost ten years later ! I
remember very well an episode with an empty milk float running across an
airport runway - God knows what the story was called.
In France, this series has a cult status and everyone has their favourite lady ( Honor "Pussy" Blackman, Linda Thorson, Joanna Lumley, or Diana Rigg ). Steed comes over as the typical English gentleman with the bowler hat. Highly recommendable on an entertainment level and much better than most of the rubbish on our screens today !
One of my all-time favourite series, which hits its peak with the colour Emma Peel episodes. Style, humour, character and a wonderful hitchcockian macabre atmosphere.
Macnee is one of the greatest, most charismatic, leading men to ever grace Television. Rigg has become iconic in TV history, also appreciated was the groundwork set by Honor Blackman for strong females roles.
Great show. Great music. Great production values once it hit it's fifth series. Great atmosphere all round.
The best in terms of plot.
The best in terms of invention.
The best in terms of style.
The best in terms of acting.
The best in terms of direction.
The best in terms of documenting a classic era.
The best in terms of showcasing all kinds of brilliant actors in early stages of their careers (Peter Bowles, John Wood, Donald Sutherland...ad infinitum...)
The best in term of originality & freshness.
Just the very best!
The Avengers is universal and atemporal,the series never shows"the swinging
london" but the soul of the mid-sixties is there.
Patrick Macnee as the classic dandy in Pierre Cardin suits is just
"cool",his first female partner was Cathy Gale(Honor Blackman)she was great
but the real lady of the show was "Emma Peel"(the irreplaceable Diana
Rigg)her wardrobe,sophistication and witty sense of humor makes
The chemistry between Macnee and Rigg is just incomparable! but happiness is
not forever,Rigg leaves the shows in 1967(she joined the series in 1965);the
last "Emma Peel episode" is full of melancholy.The replacement seem to be
impossible but "Tara King"(Linda Thorson)appears
and The Avengers was never the same,in May of 1969 the series was
Diana Rigg,like Honor Blackman("Pussy Galore")also was a"Bond girl",but she
always be the best female partner for John Steed.
The show is quintessence "british" with great dialogues,fantastic
"the Avengers" works against dull Tv american series from the
In " 2002" the new generation re-discovered "the avengers",and I'm very
happy to be part of it.
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