Friday, 10 January 2020

The Avengers star Patrick Macnee obituary, 1922 - 2015 (Archive)

[These articles were originally written around 2014-15 for a separate outlet whose redesign has resulted in several of my pieces being lost. I'm republishing a number of my favourites on this blog for posterity.]

Patrick Macnee, best known for starring as John Steed in the ’60s British television phenomenon, The Avengers, died of natural causes on June 25th 2015, aged 93, at his home in California.

Some of you may have read the article I posted about the impact The Avengers had in pioneering powerful female characters on television. For those who still remember the show, often the first thing that comes to mind is Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel, the show’s karate-chopping, catsuited co-lead between 1965-1967 who became an immediate fashion and feminist icon of her time. While the show’s array of brilliant and beautiful female characters may live most vividly in the popular memory for their impact on culture and beyond, it was Macnee’s John Steed who was its constant anchor, lasting its entire run from 1961-1969 before returning for two more years between 1976-1977 with the New Avengers revival.

My article focused on the show’s positive impact for women, but it should never been forgotten how important Macnee’s role as Steed was in providing a role model for young boys to look up as well. On the surface, Steed is often interpreted as representing the good in old-fashioned values where his female partners represented modernity and youth. While that is true, it overlooks what a nuanced, progressive character Steed actually was. He embodied all the wonderful aspects of the traditional English gentleman, always gracious in manner, quick of wit and exquisite – barring a few questionable casual shirts in the Tara King era – of dress, showing how a masculine role model could evolve to work alongside women as equals.

He was cheeky and flirtatious, instantly loveable thanks to Macnee’s avuncular charm, but never patronising or domineering. He respected his female partners as effortlessly as they respected him. Just as Honor Blackman’s Cathy Gale, Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel, Linda Thorson’s Tara King and Joanna Lumley’s Purdey gave women figures to strive towards, so too was Patrick Macnee’s Steed an exemplar for all good men to aspire to. Diana Rigg, in particular, has credited Macnee for his support during a difficult time towards the end of her tenure on the show when she discovered that, despite being the star, she was being paid less than the cameraman.

Looking back at Macnee’s unconventional childhood, one can perhaps find the roots of the positive values he brought to the show and his character. Like Steed, Macnee had something of the eccentric aristocrat about him from birth, with his mother Dorothea, socialite niece of the 13th Earl of Huntington, going into labour at a party and rumoured to have given birth to him in a carriage halfway down Bayswater Road. His parents divorced when his mother came out as a lesbian, and it was she and her partner Evelyn who raised the young Patrick and paid for his education at Summerfields, where he became acting acquaintances with Christopher Lee, and then Eton.

His father was no less eccentric, a racehorse trainer nicknamed ‘Shrimp’ for his lack of height, who was sent home from India in disgrace after urinating from a balcony onto the Raj and his officials at a race meeting. It was his fondness for fine clothes that inspired the same quality in Steed. Patrick inherited his parents’ knack for challenging social mores and was expelled from Eton for selling pornography and bookmaking for his fellow students. In other words, the friend we all wish we’d had.

After serving in the Motor Torpedo Boats during the Second World War, saved from D-Day thanks to a bout of bronchitis, he began his screen acting career in Powell and Pressberger’s 1943 classic, The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp. After seeking new opportunities in North America, he returned to England in 1960 and was cast in his defining role as Steed a year later. The part dominated the rest of his career, though he also made high-profile film appearances in This Is Spinal Tap and A View To A Kill (joining Blackman, Rigg and Lumley as Avengers alumni going on to star in Bond movies), along with television guest spots in Columbo and The Love Boat among others. He also popped up in the video for Oasis’ seminal ’90s Britpop hit, Don’t Look Back In Anger.

It will nevertheless be as Steed that Macnee will undoubtedly be most fondly remembered by his many fans. As sad as it is to discover his passing, I am proud to have had him as a personal hero growing up, the inspiration for many ridiculous memories of putting on a bowler hat and grabbing an umbrella before running outside to recreate and invent various episodes of The Avengers in the garden. The tributes pouring in show such memories are shared just as fondly among many others across the world. Patrick Macnee, you always kept your bowler on in times of stress, you conquered every diabolical mastermind who crossed your path, and looked more worldly and debonair in a suit than any man has before or since. You were and are my hero, the original Avenger, and my bowler will forever be doffed to your memory.

R.I.P. Patrick Macnee, 1922-2015.


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