The Avengers was a British television series featuring secret agents in 1960s Britain. The programmes were made by TV company Associated British Corporation, and created by its Head of Drama Sydney Newman. It was an early example of the spy-fi genre, combining secret agent storylines with science fiction elements. Running from 1961 to 1969, it is the longest running espionage series produced for English-language television, though the American series had more episodes (171).
The Avengers began with a medical doctor named David Keel (Ian Hendry) investigating the murder of Peggy, his office receptionist and wife-to-be, by a drug ring. A mysterious stranger named John Steed, who was investigating the ring, appeared on the scene and together they set out to avenge her death in the show's first two episodes. Afterwards, Steed asked Keel to continue partnering him on an as-needed basis to solve crimes.
The Avengers was a successor (but not, as sometimes stated, a direct sequel) to Hendry's earlier series Police Surgeon, in which he played a similar character. While Police Surgeon did not last long, viewer letters had praised Hendry's work in it. Hendry was considered the star of the new series, receiving top billing over Macnee, and Steed did not even appear in two of the episodes. Because of the practice in the British television industry (followed until the 1970s) of junking and deleting episodes of old programmes deemed no longer of commercial value, most episodes of the first series are considered lost, save for two complete episodes recently located and the first 15 minutes or so of the premiere episode.
In the first series broadcast in 1961, Steed began as a secondary character, the protagonist being Keel; as the series progressed, Steed began to be established as a co-star, carrying the final episode solo. While the two stars used wry wit while discussing the crimes and dangers, the series benefited from the interplay — and, often, the tension — between Keel's idealism and Steed's hard professionalism. As seen in the surviving episode The Frighteners, Steed also had a group of helpers scattered among the general population who provided information, not unlike the "Baker Street Irregulars" of Sherlock Holmes.
The other regular character appearing in the first series was Carol Wilson (Ingrid Hafner), the nurse and receptionist who replaced the slain Peggy. Carol assisted Keel and Steed in cases, without being a part of Steed's inner circle in the way that Keel was. Hafner had played opposite Hendry as a nurse in Police Surgeon.
Production of the first series was cut short by a strike. By the time it was settled and production could begin on the show's second series, Hendry had quit to pursue a film career. Macnee was promoted to series star and Steed became the focus of the series, initially working with a rotation of three different partners.
Dr. Martin King (Jon Rollason), a thinly disguised rewriting of Keel, saw action in only three episodes, as he was only intended to be a 'transition' character between Keel and the two new female partners. He appeared in three unused scripts left over from the first series. Rollason later had a regular role on Coronation Street.
Nightclub singer Venus Smith (Julie Stevens) appeared in six episodes. She was a complete "amateur", meaning that she did not have any professional crime-fighting skills as did the two doctors. She was excited to be participating in a "spy" adventure alongside secret agent Steed (although at least one episode — "The Removal Men" — indicates she isn't always enthusiastic). Nonetheless, she appears to be attracted to him and their relationship appears similar to that later displayed between Steed and Tara King. Her episodes featured musical interludes showcasing her singing performances. The character of Venus underwent some revision during the second series, becoming younger-looking in demeanour and dress. Stevens was better known in Britain as a host of various children's and teen-age television programmes.
The first episode of the second series introduced Steed's third partner, and the one who would change the show into the format it is most remembered for. Honor Blackman played Dr. Cathy Gale, a self-assured, quick-witted anthropologist who was skilled in judo and had a passion for wearing leather clothes . Widowed during the Mau Mau years in Kenya, she was the "talented amateur" who saw her aid to Steed's cases as a service to her nation.
Gale was unlike any female character ever seen before on British TV and became a household name. Reportedly, part of her charm came from the fact that her earliest appearances were episodes in which dialogue written for Keel was simply transferred to her. By the start of the third series, Smith was dropped and Gale became Steed's only regular partner. The character was born on 5 October1930 at midnight, either in Africa or she grew up in Africa. In London, she lived at 14, Primrose Hill. The series established a level of sexual tension between the characters, although, as part of the evolving format of the series, writers were not allowed to let the characters go beyond flirting and innuendo. Despite this, the relationship between Steed and Gale was progressive for 1962-63. In the episode "The Golden Eggs", it is revealed that Gale lived in Steed's flat; her rent according to Steed was to keep the refrigerator well-stocked and to cook for him (she appears to do neither). It is also stated, however, that this was a temporary arrangement while Gale (for reasons not stated) looked for a new home, and that Steed was actually sleeping at a hotel.
During the first series, hints were dropped that Steed worked for a branch of British Intelligence, and this was expanded in the second series. Early on, Steed received orders from a series of different superiors, most notably men referred to only as "Charles" or "One-Ten" (Douglas Muir). By the third series, however, Steed was seen working on his own, the origins of his orders remaining a mystery.
Another change during the Gale era was the transformation of Steed from a rather rough-and-tumble trenchcoat-wearing agent into the stereotypical English gentleman, complete with Savile Row suit, bowler hat and umbrella, the latter two full of tricks, most notably a sword hidden within the umbrella handle and a steel plate concealed in the hat. With his impeccable manners, old world sophistication, and vintage automobiles, Steed came to represent the traditional Englishman of an earlier era. By contrast, his female counterparts (Gale, Peel, King) were youthful, forward-looking, and always dressed in the latest mod fashions. Gale's innovative leather outfits originally came about for practical reasons due to the many athletic fight scenes. Blackman became a star in Britain with her black leather fighting suit and high-heeled boots (nicknamed "kinky boots") and her high-kicking fighting style.
After two series in this format, a film version of the show was in its initial planning stages by late 1963. The early story proposal would have paired Steed and Gale with a male/female duo of American agents, to make the movie appeal to the American market. Before the project could gain momentum, Blackman was cast opposite Sean Connery in the Bond film, Goldfinger, requiring her to leave the series.
Steed was obviously a military man and in Death of a Batman, it was revealed that he was with I Corps in WWII and in Munich in 1945. In the episode The Nutshell, we get a look at the secret organisation that Steed belongs to, and it is Gale's first visit to their HQ. In the 4th season episode "The Hour That Never Was", Steed goes to a reunion of his RAF regiment. In reality, Patrick Macnee served in WWII as a naval lieutenant and came away with such a distaste for firearms that he insisted Steed never use one throughout the series.
For the fourth season, the last to be filmed in black and white, a new female partner appeared in October 1965: Mrs. Emma Peel (Diana Rigg). The name of the character derived from a comment by writers, during development, that they wanted a character with "man appeal". In an early attempt to incorporate this concept into the character's name, she was called "Samantha Peel", shortened to the awkward "Mantha Peel". Eventually the writers began referring to the idea by the verbal shorthand, "M. Appeal" and thus the character's name of "Emma Peel" was born. The character, whose husband went missing while on a South American exploration, retained the self-assuredness of Gale, combined with superior fighting skills, intelligence, and a contemporary fashion sense.
After more than 60 actresses had been auditioned, the first choice to play this role was actress Elizabeth Shepherd. However, after filming one and a half episodes, Shepherd was released, as her on-screen personality did not seem as interesting as that of Blackman's Gale. Another 20 actresses were auditioned before the show's casting director suggested that producers Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell check out a televised drama featuring the relatively unknown Rigg. Her screen test with Macnee showed that the two immediately worked well together, and a new era in Avengers history began.
By contrast to the Gale episodes, there was a lighter comic touch evident, both in Steed and Peel's conversations and in the ways they reacted to other characters and situations. Earlier series of the show had a much more hard-edged tone, with the Blackman episodes including some surprisingly serious espionage dramas (when viewed through the prism of the later, better-known period). The harder edges of the previous series almost completely disappeared, as Steed and Peel visibly enjoyed topping each other's witticisms.
Additionally, many episodes were characterised by a futuristic, science fiction bent to the tales, with mad scientists and their creations leaving havoc in their wake. (This became known as Spy-fi.) The duo dealt with giant alien carnivorous plants (The Man-Eater Of Surrey Green), being shrunk to doll size (Mission . . . Highly Improbable), pet cats being electrically altered into 'miniature tigers' (The Hidden Tiger), killer automata (The Cybernauts and Return Of The Cybernauts), mind-transferring machines (Who's Who???), and invisible foes (The See-Through Man). The series also poked fun at its American contemporaries with episodes such as The Girl From AUNTIE, Mission ... Highly Improbable and The Winged Avenger (spoofing The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Batman, respectively). The show still carried the basic format — Steed and his associate were charged with solving the problem in the space of a 50-minute episode, thus preserving the safety of 1960s Britain on a regular basis.
Comedy was also evident in the names and acronyms of the organizations. In The Living Dead, two duelling groups examine reported ghost sightings: FOG (Friends Of Ghosts) and SMOG (Scientific Measurement Of Ghosts). The Hidden Tiger features the Philanthropic Union for Rescue, Relief and Recuperation of Cats — PURRR — led by folk named Cheshire, Manx, and Angora.
There was also a notable fetishistic undercurrent in many episodes—most notably the 4th season's "A Touch of Brimstone", in which Mrs. Peel dressed as a dominatrix to become the "Queen of Sin". In this, Rigg wore a self-designed ensemble of corset, laced boots and spiked collar. Tight-fitting fashion for Gale and Peel was one of the notable features of the shows; Macnee and Blackman had even released a novelty song called "Kinky Boots". (Some of the clothes seen in The Avengers were designed by John Sutcliffe, who also published the AtomAge fetish magazine).
In her fourth episode, "Death at Bargain Prices", Mrs. Peel takes an undercover job at a department store. Her uniform for promoting space-age toys is an elaborate leather catsuit plus silver boots, sash, and welder's gloves. The suit, minus the silver accessories, became her signature outfit which she wore, primarily for fight scenes, in early episodes (and in the titles).
Peel's avant-garde fashions, featuring bold accents and high-contrast geometric patterns, emphasized her youthful, contemporary personality. She represented the modern England of today—just as Steed, with his vintage style and mannerisms, personified Edwardian era nostalgia. According to Macnee in his book The Avengers and Me, Rigg disliked wearing leather and insisted on a new line of fabric athletic wear for the 5th season. Pierre Cardin was brought in to design a new wardrobe for both Rigg and Macnee. In America, TV Guide ran a four-page photospread on Rigg's new "Emmapeeler" outfits (June 10-16, 1967). Eight tight-fitting jumpsuits in a variety of bright colors were created using the stretch fabric crimplene.
Another memorable feature of the show from this point onwards was its automobiles. Steed's signature cars were vintage 1926–1928 Bentley racing or town cars, including Blower Bentleys and Bentley Speed Sixes, while Peel drove a sporty Lotus Elan convertible which, like her clothes, emphasized her independence and vitality. Mother was transported in Rolls-Royce cars and Tara King preferred an AC 428 and a Lotus Europa (some of this had already begun in the Gale episodes, as Gale occasionally used a Triumph motorcycle). During the first Peel series, each episode would end with a short, comedic scene of the duo leaving the scene of their most recent adventure in a variety of unusual vehicles.
The relationship between Steed and Gale differed noticeably from that of Steed and Peel, with a layer of conflict in the former that was rarely seen in the latter — Gale on occasion openly resenting being used by Steed, often without her permission. There was also a level of sexual tension between Steed and Gale that was absent when Peel arrived. In both cases, the exact relationship between the partners was left ambiguous, although they seemed to have carte blanche to visit each other's homes whenever they pleased and it was not uncommon to see an episode in which Steed spent the night at Gale's or Peel's home, or vice-versa. Although nothing "improper" was displayed, the obviously much closer chemistry between the Steed and Peel characters constantly suggests that something of the sort is happening in the background.
Most of the 5th season episodes begin with Peel discovering a cleverly positioned card from Steed that read: "Mrs. Peel, we're needed". And, along with that episode's title, a comic tag line caption using the format of "Steed [does this], Emma [does that]." For example, the episode The Joker had the opening caption: "Steed trumps an ace, Emma plays a lone hand". These opening touches were dropped after the first 16 episodes, after a break in production, due to financial problems. They were deemed by the U.K. networks as disposable if The Avengers was to return to ITV screens.
The arrival of Rigg coincided with the show's sale to U.S. television. This made it one of the first British series to be aired on prime-time American television. ABC-TV paid the then-unheard of sum of $2 million for the first 26 episodes. The 4th season of black-and-white episodes with Rigg aired in the U.S. from March to December 1966.
A prologue, made only for the American transmissions, was added to the beginning of all the 4th season episodes. This was to clarify some initial confusion audiences had regarding the characters and their mission. In the opener, a waiter holding a champagne bottle falls dead onto a human-sized chessboard; a dagger protruding from a target on his back. Steed and Mrs. Peel (dressed in her trademark leather catsuit) walk up to the body as the voice over explains: Extra-ordinary crimes against the people, and the state, have to be avenged by agents extraordinary. Two such people are John Steed, top professional, and his partner Emma Peel, talented amateur. Otherwise known as The Avengers. During this voice over, Steed picks up the wine bottle, pours out two drinks and Mrs. Peel replaces her gun in her boot. They clink glasses and the couple depart together. Fade to black and then the 4th season opening titles proper begin.
The 5th (color) season was broadcast in the U.S. from January to May, 1967. The American prologue of the previous season was rejigged for the colour episodes; this opened with Steed unwrapping the foil from a champagne bottle and Peel shooting the cork away, preceded by the caption The Avengers In Color (required by American Broadcasting Company for colour series at that time).
Previously the series had been shot on 405-line videotape, with very little provision for editing and virtually no location footage. This meant that, to all intents and purposes, the Blackman episodes were shot live in the studio. The tapes used were subsequently wiped although all season 2 and 3 episodes survive as 16mm film telerecordings. The early shows looked cheap and studio-bound; but with the fourth series, suddenly there were lots of outdoor location shots which greatly improved the look of the series. It was reported at the time that the average budget for each episode was just £56,000; a pittance. All location work on the first Rigg series was filmed mute, with any sound dubbed on at a later stage. Any dialogue scenes had to be filmed in studio, leading to some jarring jumps between location and studio footage.
The U.S. deal meant that the producers could afford to shoot the series on 35mm film. In any case, the change was essential because British videotapes were incompatible with U.S. standards. The transfer to film meant that episodes could be shot like films, giving the show much greater flexibility. After one filmed series (of 26 episodes) in black and white, The Avengers began filming in colour in 1966, although it would be three years before British TV began full colour broadcasting. Rigg was originally not very pleased with the way she was treated on the show by its producers. During her first series she found out that she was being paid less than the camera man, and demanded a raise which put her more on par with her co-star, or she would leave the show; the producers gave in, thanks to the show's great popularity in the US.
At the end of the 5th season in 1967, Rigg left to pursue major stardom in other projects, including a Bond film. No farewell episode had been planned. She was recalled, under her contract, to appear in the first episode of the 6th season ("The Forget-Me-Knot") which explained her departure. At its end, Peel's husband, Peter Peel, was found alive and rescued, and she left the British secret service in order to be with him, "passing the torch" to her successor on the stairway to Steed's apartment with the remark "He likes his tea stirred anti-clockwise." (From Steed's viewpoint looking out the window to the driveway below, Peter remarkably resembles Steed, only with a moustache.)
Rigg and Macnee have remained lifelong friends.
The first episode of the 6th season (1968-69) bid farewell to Emma Peel and introduced her successor, a trained but inexperienced agent named Tara King, played by Canadian actress Linda Thorson, in dynamic style: when Steed is called to Headquarters, he is attacked and knocked down by trainee agent King who mistakes him for her training partner. Thorson played the role with more innocence in mind and at heart; and unlike the previous partnerships with Cathy and Emma, the writers allowed subtle hints of romance to blossom between Steed and King. King also differed from Steed's previous partners in that she was a fully fledged (albeit inexperienced) agent working for Steed's organisation; his previous partners had all been (in the words of the prologue used for American broadcasts of the first Rigg series) talented amateurs.Another change returned the series to its roots by having Steed once again take orders from a British government official, this time "Mother", who was in fact a man in a wheelchair (Patrick Newell, who had played different roles in two earlier episodes). Mother's headquarters would shift from place to place, including one episode in which his complete office was on the top level of a double-decker bus; several James Bond films of the 1970s would make use of a similar gimmick for Bond's briefings. Also added as a regular was Mother's Amazonian and mute assistant, Rhonda (Rhonda Parker); with one appearance by an agency official code-named "Father", a blind older woman played by Iris Russell who had appeared in the series several times previously in other roles.
Also, Steed is paired with Lady Diana Forbes Blakeney in one episode titled "Killer," while King is on a short holiday.
The revised series continued to be broadcast in America. The episodes with Linda Thorson as King proved to be highly rated in Europe and the UK. In the United States however, the ABC network which carried the series chose to air it opposite the number one show in the country at the time, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. Steed and King couldn't compete, and the show was cancelled in the US. Without this vital commercial backing, production could not continue in Britain either, and the series ended in May 1969. The final scene of the final episode ("Bizarre") has Steed and King, champagne glasses in hand, accidentally launching themselves into orbit aboard a rocket, as Mother breaks the fourth wall and says to the audience, "They'll be back!" before adding in shock, "They're unchaperoned up there!"
The production team changed during the series' long run, particularly between the third and fourth series, but the influence of Brian Clemens was felt throughout. He wrote the second episode and became The Avengers most prolific scriptwriter. Succeeding producers Leonard White and John Bryce, Julian Wintle became the producer of the 4th series with Brian Clemens credited as Associate Producer and Albert Fennell credited as "In charge of production".
Raymond Austin became the fight arranger for series 4 and 5, introducing kung fu to the series. Later he became one of the mainstay directors of both the Avengers and the New Avengers.
Johnny Dankworth composed The Avengers original theme tune, a syncopated jazz number, which was reworked for the third series. When Rigg joined the series, the new title sequence was accompanied by a fresh theme by Laurie Johnson, a catchy, brassy tune designed to promote the "English eccentricity" of the show. Johnson also provided incidental music, and subsequently collaborated with Clemens on other projects, including the theme for the later New Avengers revival.
See main article: The New Avengers.
The sustained popularity of the King episodes in France led to a 1975 French television advert for a brand of champagne, featuring both Thorson and Macnee reprising their roles. The advert's success spurred financing interest in France to create new Avengers episodes.
As a result, the series was revived as The New Avengers, with Macnee reprising his role as Steed, this time with two new partners, Mike Gambit (Gareth Hunt) and Purdey (Joanna Lumley). This new series aired on ITV in the UK (1976/1977), CTV in Canada, CBS in the United States (1978) and TF1 in France in 1976 and 1977. The final four episodes were almost completely produced by Canadian interests and were filmed in that country, they carried the title The New Avengers in Canada.
The Avengers was not picked up immediately in the US, even through syndication. This was partly due to its "live studio" look, which American television had left behind several years earlier. Episodes were often videotaped the same day they were transmitted (a few were even performed live), and as such there was little opportunity for retakes, these early episodes were fraught with technical errors (for example, during the episode "Immortal Clay", the camera hits something during a scene making it appear as if a sudden earthquake had occurred) and fluffed dialogue (in "School for Traitors", Julie Stevens stumbles trying to introduce Steed to another character, prompting Macnee to ad lib a joke to cover the error).The Avengers with Rigg were shown on WABC-TV overnights circa 1980's
The very Britishness of it was another issue. In addition, the more relaxed standards of British media would have required some moments to be censored in the U.S.; in Mr Teddy Bear, Steed is seen stripping down to his underwear for decontamination, and in Death Dispatch Mrs Gale is seen talking to Steed on the telephone while wearing a black-lace brassiere. Other aspects were more restrained because of British television rules; for example, the physical combat limitations. Gunshots had to miss and striking someone with a closed fist was not allowed. As a result, the Avengers defeated their opponent by throwing them repeatedly into walls, making them stumble and fall after pushing them into furniture, and slapping them in the face with an open hand. Compared to the more realistic fight scenes in U.S. shows like I Spy and The Wild Wild West, The Avengers was immediately tagged as being "too British".
North American audiences saw the 1962-1964 Gale and Smith and King episodes of the series for the first time in the early 1990s, when they were broadcast on A&E. Until recently, no Keel episode of the series had been shown outside of Britain; to date only two complete episodes from the show's first series are known to exist, the rest having been wiped years ago (an incomplete copy of the first episode was recently found in the United States, containing only the first 15 minutes, up to the original commercial break). 16mm film copies of the Gale-era episodes survive (the original videotapes no longer exist) and have been released to DVD, as have the complete filmed series of Peel and King episodes.
A recent newspaper report suggested that Macnee himself was responsible for tracking down the original negatives of both series for remastering, because he was tired of seeing inferior copies.
In 2006, A&E issued the complete Peel era (with the DVDs now packaged in slimline cases); a bonus disc was included in the new edition, featuring the first DVD release of the two complete first-series episodes, plus the extant 15 minutes of the premiere. In April 2006, a complete set of Gale-era episodes broadcast in 1962 was released, and it was stated that this was the final collection of unreleased Avengers episodes.
The Avengers was broadcast to over 120 countries.
See main article: List of The Avengers episodes.
There were seven series of The Avengers (divided into six by some sources), running from 1961 to 1969. Only two episodes of the first series still exist in their entirety.
A number of original novels were based upon the series in the 1960s, including two that were co-written by Macnee himself (making him one of the first actors to write licensed spin-off fiction of their own shows), and one 1990 release, Too Many Targets by John Peel that featured appearances by all of Steed's partners except Smith and Dr Martin King. The first three novels were only published in the UK, while the 1968-69 novels were only released in the US. Several of the 1968-69 novels feature King, but the covers often show Peel instead.
In addition, a short story by Peter Leslie entitled "What's a Ghoul Like You Doing in a Place Like This?" appeared in The Television Crimebusters Omnibus, edited by Peter Haining, 1994.
The Macnee novels Deadline and Dead Duck were reprinted by Titan Books in standard paperback in the early 1990s, the first time these books were distributed in the United States. In 1998 Titan reissued the books in trade paperback format (with the same covers) to coincide with the film's release.
Very few Avengers-related comic books have been published in North America, partly because the rights to the name "Avengers" are held by Marvel Comics for use with their superhero comic of the same title (Marvel also holds the rights to the New Avengers title). In one issue of the Avengers comic book, author Roy Thomas writes himself and his wife into a cameo where they're at a Hallowe'en party with the comic book Avengers. When he points them out ("And over in that corner are The Avengers"), his wife replies, "Oh wow, which one is Mrs. Peel?" Nonetheless, Gold Key Comics published one issue of John Steed and Emma Peel in 1968 (subtitled The Avengers only on the indicia page), which included newly-coloured and reformatted Avengers strips from the British weekly comic "TV Comic". A three-issue miniseries entitled Steed and Mrs Peel appeared in the early 1990s under the Eclipse Comics imprint.
See main article: The Avengers (film).
Plans for a motion picture based upon the series circulated during the 1960s, 1980s and 1990s, with Mel Gibson at one point being considered a front-runner for the role of Steed. Ultimately, the 1998 film based on Rigg and Macnee's characters from the TV series, starring Uma Thurman and Ralph Fiennes, received poor reviews from critics.
Between 1972 and 1973 scripts from the TV series were adapted for radio by Tony Jay and Dennis Folbigge for broadcast in South Africa, which did not have national television until 1976. Most of the episodes were adapted from the Steed and Peel stories, with a few Steed and Tara King episodes (changing the female character to Emma Peel). Donald Monat played Steed and Diane Appleby Peel, with Hugh Rouse as the tongue-in-cheek narrator. The stories were adapted into between five and seven episodes of approximately 15 minutes each (including adverts) and stripped across the week on the SABC.
Currently 21 complete serials survive, all from original reel-to-reel off-air recordings, as well as three episodes of Escape In Time, from a mixture of sources, including:
Four other scripts were written, but it is not known if they were ever used:
There was also a British stage version of The Avengers in 1971. It starred three actors who had previously appeared as guest stars on the series itself — Simon Oates as Steed, Sue Lloyd as new partner Hannah Wild and Kate O'Mara as villainess Madame Gerda.