1 9 6 1 – 1 9 6 9 (UK)
161 x 50 minute episodes
When The Avengers began in March 1961 it bore little resemblance to the flippant show we came to know and love – The quintessential British spy series set in a picture postcard Britain of castles, stately homes, village pubs and cricket greens.
The title is attributed to creator Sydney Newman, who said, “Call it The Avengers – I don’t know what the **** it means, but it’s a hell of a good title!”
The series starred a sophisticated spy who even out-Bonded James Bond. Immaculately turned out in a three-piece suit, he drove a vintage Bentley, played polo, archery and fenced and fought baddies while wearing a bowler hat and carrying a furled brolly.
Jonathon Steed was a character who first appeared in the series Police Surgeon starring Ian Hendry.
Old Etonian (and first cousin to David Niven) Patrick Macnee virtually stole the show, and in 1962 he replaced Hendry’s character (Dr David Keel) as the lead character.
The early Avengers episodes were largely cops-and-robbers fare, and regular characters included Keel’s secretary, Carol Wilson, and Steed’s bosses, One-Ten and One-Twelve.
Steed was briefly paired with Dr Martin King and nightclub singer Venus Smith before being provided with a permanent female colleague, Mrs Catherine Gale (played by Honor Blackman, who also played Pussy Galore in the 1964 Bond film Goldfinger) – a beautiful blonde with a PhD in anthropology.
She was to be the first in a line of elegant, sexy and lethal partners. Catherine Gale was a widow (her husband was killed in a Mau Mau raid in Kenya), a judo expert, a skilled mechanic, an expert photographer and the original girl on a motorcycle. She wore a leather combat suit, thigh-high ‘kinky’ boots and a sexy hairstyle that never lost its composure. She was always cucumber-cool.
Cathy – who worked for the British Museum – was a perfect match for Steed in his Savile Row suits, embroidered waistcoats and Chelsea Boots. According to writer Brian Clemens, the character was quite butch because Ian Hendry left the show, and the budget wouldn’t run to more scripts, so she played a man’s part.
Honor even succeeded, albeit inadvertently, in knocking out wrestler Jackie Pallo during rehearsals for a graveyard battle. As they fought with a shovel, Pallo toppled into the empty grave, banged his head and was rendered unconscious for ten minutes.
In 1964, Blackman left the show, and Steed – who lived first at 5 Westminster Mews, then at 3 Stable Mews in London – found a new partner, Emma Peel, played by the delectable Diana Rigg (pictured above).
Once again, Mrs Peel was a sleek, sexy action-widow (her deceased husband, Peter Peel, had been a test pilot) with a wicked karate chop and a nice line in sixties Mod fashion; stretch jerseys, catsuits, hipster pants and exotic dresses with flesh-revealing keyholes or suspenders.
Diana was mystified to find that she received a lot of fan mail from schoolboys . . .
The relationship between Emma and Steed was ambiguous. He always addressed her formally while she called him ‘Steed’. She never touched him, although he patted her from time to time like a good horse.
For the final series of 33 episodes, Steed lost his second companion in 1968 (after Diana Rigg left after a row over wages) when Emma returned to her husband (believed to have been killed but found alive in the Amazonian jungle).
She was replaced by twenty-year-old Tara King (Linda Thorson), a single farm girl with no martial arts skills but a solid punch and very handy with her brick-laden handbag!
Unfortunately, Steed and Tara lacked the chemistry of the previous couplings, and the character of ‘Mother’ was introduced.
Played by twenty-stone Patrick Newell, the wheelchair-bound Mother was Steed’s chubby “controller”.
The show was cancelled in 1969. Tara King accidentally pressed the lift-off button on a rocket, and she, Steed and Mother soared off into space theoretically never to be seen again.
Its loss was mourned all over the world. The show they called Chapeau Melon et Bottes de Cuir (“Bowler hat and high leather boots”) in France and Mit Schirm, Charm und Melone (“With umbrella, charm and bowler hat”) in Germany was so missed that six years later The New Avengers came to be.
As Macnee was now 54 and far from lithe, the main role went to Gareth Hunt as Mike Gambit (Ex SAS) and Joanna Lumley as the gorgeous and super-leggy Purdy.
The original series boasted some terrific tongue-in-cheek humour, such as cover agencies with names like PURRR (The Philanthropic Union for Rescue, Relief and Recuperation of Cats) or GONN (The Guild of Noble Nannies).
The escapist fantasised espionage series was truly unique, and the illusion was perfect – This England had no factories, no poverty and (unfortunately) no sex.
In fact, the following rules were specified by the producer, Brian Clemens:
“No woman should be killed and no extras should populate the streets. We admitted to only one class, and that was the upper. As a fantasy, we would not show a uniformed policeman or a coloured man. And you would not see anything as common as blood in The Avengers“.
Honor Blackman died peacefully of natural causes in April 2020, aged 94.
You will note there is no reference here to the remade Avengers movie (1998) starring Uma Thurman. That is because there were only two good things about the film: 1) Uma Thurman, and 2) At least they kept the old theme music.
Dr Martin King