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As Mike Myers has recently proved with the increasingly successful character of Austin Powers, there is something irresistible about 1960s spies. In books, on television and in films, in the 1960s, spies were everywhere. British television produced its fair share, and none had more enduring appeal than the debonair John Steed, who was the cornerstone of that quintessentially English show - The Avengers.
In the Beginning...
Ask most people about The Avengers, and they'll usually tell you about a colourful, whimsical show in which Patrick Macnee played the star, John Steed, and Diana Rigg in a leather catsuit beat up the bad guys. And while it's true that this period probably represents the show's peak (not least because it was shot in colour), it all started long before that...
In the dark, shot-in-black-and-white days of 1961, Steed was but a sidekick, a mysterious undercover agent who teamed up with Dr David Keel1 (Ian Hendry) to avenge the killing of Keel's fiancee by a drugs gang - hence the show's title. Steed then recruits Keel as a general crime fighter, and together they tackle various criminal threats. So far, so Starsky and Hutch2. The majority of the plots were fairly straightforward crime-thriller material, with the occasional radioactive isotope or suspended animation experiment thrown in for variety.
Steed's character was that of a quintessential, even exaggerated, English gentleman, always immaculately turned out in bowler hat and morning suit, complete with a brolly (umbrella) which as often as not concealed some covert device, or simply a sword - he was of course an expert fencer.
Cherchez la Femme
Ian Hendry left after one series, leaving Steed as the star. He now needed sidekicks of his own, and these came in the form of another young doctor, Martin King (John Rollason) and a nightclub singer Venus Smith (Julie Stevens). Neither of these characters lasted long however, and it was Steed's other sidekick who set the tone for the series - anthropologist and judo expert (and, incidentally, blonde bombshell) Cathy Gale, played by Honor Blackman3. The plots in the second season swung away from straight crime and more to the espionage side of things, with assassins, saboteurs, smugglers and spies the adversaries. The sexual chemistry between the two stars was an undoubted aid to the show's popularity.
It's Getting Weird in Here...
Season Three, which ran from 1963 into 1964 started seeing increasingly offbeat and outré situations - possibly because James Bond's villains were upping the ante with their world-dominating antics. Cathy Gale's wardrobe tended, at this point, towards the more trendy, and Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman recorded a novelty record together called 'Kinky Boots' - which although it was not a hit in the 1960s, made it to number five in the British charts in 1990. Ms Blackman, however, recalls it with horror.
The Goddess Diana
Honor Blackman left the series after two seasons to become a Bond girl (and one of the best, at that). It's nevertheless debatable whether that was a wise move on her part, because the fourth season was the first to be sold into the vital American market. From 1965-66, with Steed still in place, the sidekick role was taken by the beautiful actress Diana Rigg in the part of Mrs Emma Peel. Like Cathy Gale, she was an independent, intelligent character, the equal of Steed, and the two characters clearly respected one another. The plots in which they were involved became increasingly off-the-wall and science fictional or even fantasy-based, with the whole thing taking place in a sort of surreal exaggerated England where everyone was posh. Indeed, co-producer Brian Clemens once said (in a pre-political correctness interview):
We admitted to only one class - and that was the upper. Because we are a fantasy, we have not shown policemen or coloured men. And you have not seen anything as common as blood. We have no social conscience at all.
The Golden Age
Seasons five and six are, for many, the Golden Age of the Avengers. With an American distribution deal, the series was shot in colour for the first time. Fantasy and surrealism became a weekly feature, with the intrepid duo battling invisible spies, dream manipulators, and an army of robots called the Cybernauts.
The guest cast for these years is varied and impressive - Michael Gough (Batman's butler), Burt Kwouk (Kato), Ron Moody (Fagin), Christopher Lee (Saruman, Darth Tyrannus, Dracula and more other film roles than even he can remember), Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin, Van Helsing and many more), Charlotte Rampling, and many more stalwarts of British television and cinema.
Hail to the King
Like Honor Blackman before her, Diana Rigg succumbed to the siren call of the Bond movie, and left the series to star in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Her place was controversially taken by the fresh-from-drama-school Linda Thorson, as 'Agent 69', Tara King. Season Seven continued the whimsical theme of recent years, with the addition of Steed's boss, 'Mother', whose office could turn up in the most unlikely places (including the top deck of a London bus and floating in the middle of a swimming pool...). It seemed, however, that with the departure of Mrs Peel, some of the magic had gone, and the series ended on 21 May, 1969.
New - Improved?
Seven years on, The New Avengers rose from the ashes. Steed was still in charge, and, for the first time since the early years, he had a male sidekick in the shape of Mike Gambit, played by Gareth Hunt4. The uncharitable might suggest that this was to take account of Steed's advancing years when it came to fight scenes, but that would miss the point somewhat - Steed was never a fighter. Most of the fisticuffs in the series involved the female characters - Steed would usually lean in and tap a baddie on the back of the head with the handle of his brolly.
To maintain the series glamour, Joanna Lumley turned in a career-shaping performance and spawned a million copycat haircuts as Purdey, taking the opposite route from her predecessors, having already been a Bond girl before joining the show5. Despite a return for the Cybernauts and a case involving a giant rat, the series was less whimsical than before and lacked the light touch of the Diana Rigg era. Although it was successfully sold around the world and got respectable viewing figures, it failed to catch the public imagination. The last episodes were shown in 1977.
Apparently a film was made. We don't like to talk about it.