Friday, 11 September 2020

Dame Diana Rigg Tribute: The Avengers Retrospective (Television, 1961-69)

Avengers Emma Peel Diana Rigg John Steed Patrick Macnee

[This article is being republished in honour of the late Dame Diana Rigg, Avengers star and a personal hero of mine, who died yesterday. If you'd like to read my tribute to her co-star Patrick Macnee, you can do so here.]

The name 'Avengers' tends to be associated with comic book superheroes these days, though for  British TV fans of a certain distinction, it instead recalls an iconic and much loved '60s show which beat the comics to the title on these shores by two years. The series was Sydney Newman's first major hit, with his second being the altogether more widely recognised Doctor Who. Starting out as a gritty spy thriller, the British Avengers came to define the swinging sixties through its playful embrace of abstract imagery, empowered women in risqué clothing, and intrinsically English sense of humour.

In its most popular incarnation, the series paired gentleman spy John Steed with a trendsetting, judo-throwing female partner. The most famous of these was Emma Peel, played by Mrs. Bond-to-be Diana Rigg. The series crossed over extensively with the Bond franchise, as Steed's previous partner, the high-kicking Cathy Gale, was played by Honor Blackman, aka Pussy Galore, while Steed himself (aka Patrick Macnee) had a supporting role in A View To A Kill. Bond and Who may have lasted longer, but few creations have been as influential to national culture as The Avengers was to sixties Britain.
Although John Steed later became the lead character, and the only one to endure the series' entire original run and disappointing '70s revival, The New Avengers, he started out playing second fiddle to Dr. David Keel (played by Ian Hendry), a medical doctor seeking to avenge (geddit?) the murder of his wife. These early stories, of which few survive, presented Steed in a very different light to how he is now remembered. Far from the gentleman, he was a shady detective investigating the criminal underworld. His iconic uniform of bowler hat, umbrella and perfectly cut three-piece suit only appeared in the fifteenth episode - the fondness for classic Bentleys coming much later - and even then didn't stick around until later. For most of the Dr. Keel era, Steed is seen wearing the trenchcoat stereotypical for the type of character he was at the time. Unfortunately, due to the era's common practice of recording over previous episodes' videotypes, the vast majority of the Dr. Keel era has been lost. Fortunately, certain DVD collections have included the first twenty minutes of the pilot, 'Hot Snow', for those curious enough to seek it out.

Though still rougher around the edges than it would later become, The Avengers as it is known today began to take shape in its second season, in 1962, when Ian Hendry departed and was replaced by Honor Blackman. Blackman's Cathy Gale was the first 'Avengers girl' and arrived more or less fully formed. Her character type had never been seen before: a confident, witty woman as commanding with her sexuality - expressed through a penchant for black leather catsuits - as devastating with her martial arts. Even today, it's rare to see such an active female character, able to contribute more to storylines than being captured for the final act. She had a full backstory - moreso than Steed, who was developed more gradually - specialised skills (anthropology, judo) and a clear personality, being noticeably more confrontational and abrasive than the demure women filling space on television elsewhere. A second female character, nightclub singer Venus Smith, was more traditional, but only lasted for six episodes of Gale's first season.

Gale's progressive character was rumoured to be the result of the writers choosing to give her the lines and story beats originally planned for David Keel rather than rewriting existing scripts. Whether a gamble or laziness, the decision paid off, with the character quickly becoming a much-discussed icon of her time and propelling the series' popularity into the stratosphere. Macnee and Blackman even recorded an endearingly terrible song (toot toot!) together entitled 'Kinky Boots', whose video you can see below, referencing Gale's fetishistic dress sense. A movie was planned to follow Honor Blackman's second season, although she opted to accept the role of Pussy Galore in Goldfinger instead.

Her departure left the producers with a significant vacancy to fill, and their first choice was Elizabeth Shepherd. She was to play the role of Emma Peel, a name famously devised when the writers opted to focus on creating a character with 'man appeal', later abbreviated to 'm. appeal'. Shepherd filmed two episodes, but struggled to spark much chemistry with Patrick Macnee. Going back to the drawing board, a second round of auditions produced Diana Rigg, who soon became lifelong friends with her co-star.

Where Gale was sharp and aggressive, Peel had a wry sense of humour and flirtatious manner to complement her deadly fighting skills, with karate as her martial art of choice. Diana Rigg's performance was instantly iconic, warmer and more feminine than Honor Blackman's Cathy but the character no less resourceful, brilliant or self-reliant. Peel, and Rigg's portrayal, became the progenitor and measuring stick for all the warrior women characters who would follow. Few reached the same high mark, none surpassed.
While Steed flirted a little with Gale, the suggestiveness in his friendship with Peel went to new heights, frequently teasing fans with unheard whispers, nights spent at each other's flats, frequent dinner dates and holidays abroad. The relationship worked because, as far as the programme was willing to show, it was strictly platonic. Prior to meeting Steed, Peel lost her fighter pilot husband in the Amazonian jungle, and Steed was supposedly too much of a gentleman to take advantage, even if the subtext to their interactions suggested otherwise. This was taken to such an extent that Steed only used Mrs. Peel's first name once, in the heartbreaking conclusion to her final episode where they also shared the most delicate but perfect kiss goodbye.

(The pair had kissed once before, but were not exactly themselves at the time. See the 'top ten episodes' below.)

It was during the Peel era that The Avengers transformed from popular British television series to breakout global sensation. Mary Quant had invented mini skirts a year earlier, but it was costume designer John Bates' decision to make them a staple of Peel's wardrobe which made the item an icon of its time. Although Peel was often seen in her first season wearing leather outfits similar to those worn by Cathy Gale, Bates later exchanged these for fabric-based catsuits (known as 'Emma Peelers') instead. When the series was first broadcast in colour in 1966, Peel's brightly coloured costumes became must-haves of the era, albeit dating quickly.

The Avengers was the first series to be filmed in colour in Britain, although host channel ITV continued to broadcast in black-and-white for three more years. The series was heavily financed by American channel ABC, whose colour broadcasting technology was far in advance of any in Britain. As one of the first British series to air in America, the series' budget rose sharply, reflected in increasingly elaborate sets and special effects. Where the Keel and Gale eras were relatively grounded, the Peel era embraced the psychedelic madness of the sixties, leading to the term 'spy-fi' being coined to describe its distinctive mix of action, humour and genre-spanning plots.

Rigg left the series on bad terms after discovering its feminist themes did not quite extend behind the camera: despite being the series' co-star, she was being paid less than the cameraman. A rise was negotiated, but with a movie career beckoning, she bowed out in 1967. Two years later, she would play Teresa di Vicenzo, one of the most important leading ladies in the James Bond series.

Her replacement, Canadian Linda Thorson as Tara King, was not met with the critical adoration which welcomed Gale and Peel. Upheaval behind the camera didn't help her case, and her casting was speculated to be the result of the actress being the girlfriend of new producer John Bryce. In a series of catastrophic moves, Bryce made Thorson bleach her hair to distinguish her from the brunette Peel. This led to Thorson's hair starting to fall out, which is why she wears so many wigs in the early episodes. On the instruction of network notes, Bryce also attempted to pull the series back to its grittier roots.

The three episodes Bryce produced were deemed inadequate, leading to his sacking and former producers Brian Clemens and Albert Fennel being recalled. While the single-season Tara King era is associated with the series' rapid decline, Thorson grew into her character - giving her a younger, more vulnerable demeanour to the all-powerful Emma, which didn't go down well with feminists - and though the quality of the episodes is wildly inconsistent, there are a number of gems ranking among the series' best.

Declining US ratings meant the series was no longer financially viable, and cancellation followed in 1969. A 1976 revival entitled The New Avengers launched the career of Joanna Lumley, also a Bond girl from the Diana Rigg-starring On Her Majesty's Secret Service. The series was significantly more violent than the original and lacked much of its charm and style, even with Patrick Macnee still going strong alongside new male Avenger Mike Gambit, played by the late Gareth Hunt. As for the 1998 movie starring an aggressively miscast and mischaracterised Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman as Steed and Peel, let's just pretend for everyone's sakes that never happened.

At its peak, the series not only inspired the zeitgeist of the swinging sixties, but set a number of crucial benchmarks for the growing British television industry. Most importantly, it changed the way women were portrayed on screen, with the term 'Avengers girl' becoming synonymous with brilliant, fierce and funny women who could easily best the likes of James Bond in a fight. The New Avengers' Purdey (Joanna Lumley) summed it up best when she coolly stated: 'I didn't need to [burn my bra]. I knew I was emancipated.'

In John Steed, men had a figure reminding them how magnificent the 'old-fashioned' qualities of gentlemanly comportment and good manners could be. In Cathy Gale, Emma Peel, Tara King and Purdey, women had role models inspiring them to fight for their place in a better future. Today we might only think of comic books when the Avengers name is brought up, yet behind every Lisbeth Salander, Hermione Granger, Beatrix Kiddo, Buffy Summers and Natasha 'Black Widow' Romanova, four words continue to resonate.

'Mrs. Peel, we're needed.'

Avengers Peel Rigg Steed Macnee


10. Forget-Me-Knot: Truth be told, this episode isn't very good at all for the most part. It is noteworthy for featuring two Avengers girls in one, however, with Tara King being introduced on the eve of Emma Peel's departure, and the final scene between Steed and Emma (to which Bond paid homage for Q's farewell in The World Is Not Enough) is too beautiful and perfect to not find a place on this list.

9. The Superlative Seven: Taking the familiar format of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, The Avengers escalates it with a hefty dose of weird and three fabulous guest stars in Donald Sutherland, Brian Blessed and Charlotte Rampling.

8. All Done With Mirrors: The Tara King era produced a fair number of stinkers, but 'Mirrors' is classic Avengers through and through. Tara's at her best - it was the first episode where Linda Thorson got to show off her own hair for a start - while the plotting is tight and the direction stylish.

7. Epic: Possibly the silliest episode of television ever made, 'Epic' doesn't make an ounce of sense but is hysterically, joyously mad from start to finish. It's visually gorgeous too, especially Emma (who has been kidnapped by unhinged movie director, ZZ von Schnerk) recreating the MGM lion. Words cannot described quite how much fun this is.

6. The Man-Eater Of Surrey Green: A black-and-white Emma Peel episode riffing on Day Of The Triffids. It's undoubtedly ridiculous, with rational scientist Emma noting the discovery of vast areas of vegetation on the moon (!), but in finest Avengers tradition, is an absolute hoot. Plus, you get to see a hypnotised Emma in combat with Steed, which can only be a good thing.

5. Stay Tuned: Another strong outing from the Tara King era, this time heavy on atmosphere, fiendish villains (one of whom is played by Roger Delgado, aka Doctor Who's first Master) and a sinister mystery. 'Stay Tuned' also marks the only appearance of 'Father', the female counterpart to the male head ('Mother') of the intelligence agency Steed and Tara work for.

4. The Nutshell: A second season Cathy Gale episode which encapsulates everything so delightful about The Avengers. Full of bonkers technology, exciting twists, overwrought acronyms and diabolical masterminds, it's one of the series' most accessible and entertaining black-and-white episodes.

3. A Touch Of Brimstone: Emma Peel as the Hellfire Club's 'Queen Of Sin'. 'Nuff said.

2. Who's Who: Mind-swap episodes are ten-a-penny in television history, but this one distinguishes itself by having enormous fun swapping the personalities of the sophisticated Steed and wry Emma with uncultured, hippyish villains Basil and Lola. Steed's fury at discovering Basil has swigged all his champagne and smoked his cigars is classic. 'A man who would bite the end off a cigar is capable of anything!' It also has the juicy Steed-Emma snog everyone was waiting for, even if their minds are elsewhere.

1. The House That Jack Built: The Avengers might be flippant with plot and freewheeling in spirit, but its character work is hugely underrated. There is no better example than 'The House That Jack Built', an Emma-centric episode which delves deeply into her past when a man bearing a dark grudge lures her into an abstract labyrinth of a country house with plans to drive her insane. The scene where she suppresses her fear to reason her way out of a seemingly impossible predicament represents the character at her most irresistibly inspiring.

No comments: