The Avengers: Tea, Cake and Diabolical Masterminds
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
A huge amount has been written about The Avengers TV series in the fifty-plus years since it debuted, though as it’s not been in production for decades there are many people to whom it’s an unknown quantity. Which is to say that in terms of historical facts, if you know your Avengers, those I’m about to include will not come as a surprise. But I feel it’s worth restating where the series came from and how it was made to give context to an analysis and background for the unaware.
In simple terms, The Avengers was a British drama series broadly in the thriller/espionage school. “Broadly”, because where it started and where it went are by no means the same thing.
The history: First broadcast in January 1961, The Avengers initially starred Ian Hendry as Dr David Keel, and Patrick Macnee as John Steed in the roles of ‘civilian suddenly entangled in stuff he shouldn’t be’ and ‘shady security service operative who uses him to defeat the bad guys’. Hendry, fresh from starring in Police Surgeon, was initially the series’ focal point - it was he who had something to avenge in the murder of his fiancée, though as he did that in the second episode it’s frequently been noted that the rest of the series was really pretty seriously misnamed.
Through season one, the situations in which they found themselves involved ranged from the relatively mundane (theft and murder) to those playing off concerns of the time - the theft of radioactive material for example - and some that hinged on conspiracies and plots. Most of the first season’s episodes are now lost from the archives, meaning it’s hard to gauge to what extent these early outings feel like the series as it developed, (though audio drama company Big Finish are in the process of releasing new audio versions which do a great job of conveying the atmosphere and ‘feel’ of the episodes). The development of Keel from incidental player to active protagonist is essentially a given; he is as likely to bring a situation to Steed as vice versa from very early on.
To those who came to the series later, it seems almost inconceivable that Steed was ever second fiddle. After season one Hendry disappeared, while Macnee featured in every subsequent episode of the original series (which ran until 1969) and its 1970s offspring The New Avengers. But by any sensible measure, it was Hendry’s departure that allowed the series to become The Avengers as it’s now remembered. Because after Hendry came the women.
As the series morphed into ‘Steed and Sidekick’ in season two, the producers tried three different characters in the sidekick role, one man and two women. The man, Doctor Martin King, was Keel-with-a-different-backstory, and is largely forgettable and forgotten. Of the women, Venus Smith was a nightclub singer; naive and somewhat attracted to Steed and the exciting lifestyle he brought with him. She was in some ways much in the mould of the random innocent of the week which would form The Man from UNCLE’s staple format, but finding ways to involve her in the stories created an unnecessary limitation on the series.
At the opposite end of the scale from Venus was Cathy Gale, AKA The Woman Who Changed Everything (and not just in The Avengers).
In the early 1960s, the world had never seen anything like Honor Blackman’s Dr Cathy Gale. A mature, independent, intelligent woman, an anthropologist by training, who actively chose to assist Steed from a sense of duty, rather than out of attraction or happenstance. It’s famously been reported by the production team that for budgetary reasons the early Cathy Gale episodes were basically Keel stories with the character’s name changed. So she was saying lines originally written to be spoken by a man, which defined her role and the balance of power in her relationship with Steed. While it would be nice to think otherwise, this certainly sounds more likely for the time than a conscious attempt at demolishing gender barriers on the part of the producers.
In many ways, the impact of Cathy Gale (whose first appearance opened season two) distracts from the wider changes going on. Season two is in almost every respect a different programme than season one. The tone starts shifting towards what people will eventually think of as “what The Avengers was always like”, Steed’s entire character begins its transformation from slightly thuggish pragmatist to upper class idealist (though he never loses a willingness to fight dirty in extremis even as late as The New Avengers), and the type of adventures start to lose the hard edge of the Keel stories. The series is still grounded in the land of ‘mundane’ crime and espionage, but a quirkiness becomes apparent that definitely wasn’t there before. This process continues through the shifting sidekicks of season two and into the 100% Gale season three. Steed remains the professional agent, Gale the interested but committed amateur, but each bring their own skills and knowledge to the relationship - by the time of her departure, the idea of the male and female partnership of equals was firmly established.
It’s interesting in this context to explore the persistent notion of The Avengers as early feminist landmark. It’s true that Gale is a Doctor, qualified in a field of her own choosing, so an intellectual heavyweight, and at the same time as a judo expert more than physically able to hold her own against the predominantly male antagonists of the series. She’s also willing to argue with Steed over his methods and manner, and occasionally demonstrate a tactical skill that matches his own.
At the other end of the scale there’s her backstory - a widow who moved to Africa because her husband took her there and only returned to the UK and embarked on her Doctorate after his death. There’s no indication that but for his death she wouldn’t have lived out her life as a dutiful colonial wife. (As I wrote that I had a mental image of Honor Blackman delivering Joyce Grenfell’s ‘Lumpy Latimer’ monologue...if you know it you’ll know why.)
Likewise, the leather bodysuits are clearly more practical for judo interludes than, say a dress or skirt, but they also regularly show off Blackman’s shape to great effect. That requirement for practicality muddies the question of whether Gale was as much sex symbol as sex equality symbol. Certainly I know women who point to her as the latter, but it tends to be for the surface details more than for the underlying character. Regardless, as I noted earlier, to whatever degree it was true intellectually, in cultural terms Dr Cathy Gale was revolutionary.
Blackman having been offered the role of Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, it was in the transition from Dr Cathy Gale to her replacement, Mrs Emma Peel, that The Avengers finally completed its own transformation from a relatively traditional crime/spy series to an iconoclastic piece of quinessentially 1960s pop art. This is also the point at which I officially feel comfortable making it ‘a Pornokitsch thing’. It would take the addition of colour at the start of season five to make the look match the content, but from the start of season four all the elements are in place. If you ask someone who knows the series to summon up a mental image of The Avengers, in 90+% of cases, it will be the Mrs Peel era they’ll see.
Played by Diana Rigg, Mrs Peel was cut from similar cloth as Dr Gale, but of a slightly different pattern. The presumed widow of explorer Peter Peel, missing for years in the Amazon, she had a career of her own running her late father’s business, and also managed to be a genius in many fields, as well as a formidable fighter when required.
Again, in terms of her position as a feminist icon, Mrs Peel has rough edges: she (successfully) ran a major business, but it was created and built up by a man; and she leaves Steed and apparently the entire life she has built for herself the second that her missing husband is found to go and join him. Also again, the question of the outfits arises. Yes, they’re practical and comfortable (and designed to be so at the actor’s own insistence), but they also hug and in some cases accentuate her shape. It’s a tough call. Especially as they’re so widely regarded as feminist figures of their time perhaps it should be accepted that Gale and Peel are just such, with the level of examination applied after the fact only serving to diminish and undermine their actual impact.
What’s fascinating about both Gale and Peel is that even if they were presented as sex objects to the TV audience, they quite categorically weren’t sex objects in their fictional world. They may occasionally have been underestimated because of their gender, and equally occasionally cast in the role of victim, but they’re almost never leered at: occasional atypical episodes notwithstanding their looks are rarely commented upon but for an occasional bit of gallantry from Steed, and for all that they both frequently physically fight with men there’s never even a hint of sexual violence. If anything, maybe this is The Avengers’ gift to feminism - a depiction of a world in which it almost isn’t needed.
At this point it’s impossible to avoid discussion of the apparent exception to all these rules, A Touch of Brimstone, from Rigg’s black and white year, the closest the series gets to leering lasciviousness regarding one of the female leads. The story of the Hellfire Club (yes, the one that inspired Chris Claremont when he was writing The X-Men), an exclusive club for society’s bored elite, the story starts off depicting a series of practical jokes perpetrated by the club’s members which escalate into murder and potentially a coup. The Hellfire Club environment, given over to debauchery and excess, is ultimately expressed in Mrs Peel’s Queen of Sin outfit and the cry of Club Chairman The Honourable John Cleverley Cartney; “She’s yours to do with as you will”, shortly before a fight scene in which he takes a whip to her.
What to make of an episode that so totally objectifies its female lead, yet does so by putting her in a costume designed by the actor herself? To begin with, I feel safe in saying that this doesn’t actually undermine the other rules of the series’ presentation of women - the Hellfire Club is a closed environment that consciously (albeit stereotypically) echoes a previous era, and treats everyone, women and men alike, according to the supposed rules of that time. If anything, the episode is more a comment on class than gender; ‘gentleman’ Steed is accepted into the Club because he fits, and can meet their OTT membership challenges, not just because he’s a man. Mrs Peel, who at the absolute least is from the upper middle class, is given a ‘Queenly’ role, while the episode’s other featured woman character is clearly of a lower class and gets no such recognition. And “do with as you will” aside, the Queen of Sin is actually a dominant figure, channelling all of Rigg’s usual cool control as she surveys her ‘court’.
Banned for years in the USA, A Touch of Brimstone has acquired a mystique that no other episode shares, but one based largely on the much-viewed stills of Rigg in the Queen of Sin costume, so I’d suggest its reputation is misplaced. The assumption those images generate is of sexism and S&M run rampant. The truth is that like many of the best Avengers stories (and it’s legitimately regarded as one of those), it’s got a lot more going on under the trappings than most people give it credit for.
So what is it about the Peel era that basically defines “Avengersishness’ for a generation? Essentially, and I say this as both a positive and a negative, it found itself a formula. Where once had been drug dealers, kidnappers and common-or-garden murderers there were now a string of British eccentrics with innocent obsessions turned up to eleven. Where once we’d seen the seedy undersides of the world now we saw hyper-stylised environments with increasingly abstract looks - the world of The Avengers is a world with no clutter, no random passersby, arguably no soul. Even in the early Peel black and white episode The Town Of No Return, an environment which seems real and reliable is revealed to be entirely false, while as the series progressed, enclosed settings such as department stores and hotels helped constrain the narratives to fit the style. Similarly, the plots and pastimes depicted became less and less grounded, to the point where by the time colour came along, an eye test involving identifying different types of hat barely raises an eyebrow.
A series that started out so grounded that its pilot hinges on the murder of an innocent woman by drug dealers was now taking place in a world that barely even seemed real at all. It’s telling that even when Gale plots were remade with Peel, they didn’t feel wholly out of place, making it clear that at least elements of the formula were coming together earlier than is usually recognised.
While it’s safe to say the series at this point had a formula, I’d take exception to those who dismiss it as formulaic. The tools in its kit are deployed with variety in execution, the style and substance generally balance, and the overall experience is delivered with wit and charm enough to carry the audience along.
Where I think ‘the formula’ is a negative is really at the structural level. The short intro scenes in which Steed finds quirky ways to tell his partner “Mrs Peel, we’re needed” feel trite after no more than a couple of iterations, and the closing tag scenes in which the pair depart the scene via a series of odd modes of transport rarely feel like they belong to the episode they close. Add to that the emphasis on stylised imagery and sets, and prop touches such as Steed’s hat and umbrella and Peel’s geometric outfits and it’s easy to see where the negative “too formulaic” view comes from. Several countries even referenced elements such as the hat and the leather boots in their translated names for the series. It’s unfortunate that creating such a visually unique style for the show opens the door to such easy but largely unfair criticism of the series as a whole.
It’s here in the Peel years where the series starts to feel ‘genre’ as we might think of it now. It came from genre of course - crime thriller is where it started - but now it started to play with sci-fi and even fantasy concepts. Laser weapons appeared; the humanoid robot Cybernauts featured in both the Peel seasons, plots hinged on concepts such as weather control, an electrically-charged killer, invisibility, time travel, and in the most sci-fi episode of all, an actual man-eating plant from outer space. Clearly by this point ‘realism’ was something that happened in other, far less interesting series.
It’s only made overt in one episode, but as well as borrowing from other genres, The Avengers of this period was also borrowing from another media - comic books. Steed and Peel are almost super-heroic in their positioning - a problem arises, usually caused by a Diabolical Mastermind (a phrase the series took to heart), and the Dynamic Duo leap into action. Everything is larger than life, in primary colours, and just a bit simplistic. The one overt comic book reference, in The Winged Avenger, is to the Adam West Batman TV series, at a time when most of the world thought that was what super-heroics looked like. The combat of this era is also a little comic book. Mrs Peel’s fights are generally not like Dr Gale’s - they’re not as brutal, involving less judo and more spinning bad guys around, and generally look a bit less serious, if no less effective.
There’s a lightness of touch all round that marks this phase of the series’ development. The interplay between the leads is witty and knowing, with more than a hint of innuendo. But it’s never crass, and only serves to make them feel like the kind of people the audience wishes they knew. Steed is charming, quick-witted and noble, Peel is stylish, intelligent, and brave. They’re idealised figures operating in a world that seems only to exist to give them fun stuff to do.
Behind the scenes, however, as has been documented at length, things were a lot more turbulent. Over the years the series had seen more than its share of instability, and at the point where Rigg decided it was time to move on, things got really messy. An entire new production team was hired and fired before the core of the previous team was brought back. The replacement for Mrs Peel was a subject of huge controversy, much of which was never really settled, and whether one of British TV’s most successful series would even continue looked seriously to be in doubt. It was really only the fact that the USA had been pre-sold a new run that ensured something was cobbled together. And that’s not a phrase that should ever apply to as precisely-tooled a concept as The Avengers had become.
Yet somehow, out of the mess came a final season of thirty-three episodes which managed to achieve some of the most memorable of the entire series.
On screen too, even for a programme that had experienced several significant transitions, to the viewer the shake-up at the start of season six was still radical.
To begin with, there was an actual handover from Mrs Peel to her replacement, Tara King, played by Linda Thorson. Mrs Peel was allowed a closure of sorts to her own story as she went off with her rescued husband and literally handed over the care of Steed to Tara - a unique situation for any of the ‘sidekicks’. Tellingly, rather than being planned this was part of an attempted fix crafted by the returning production team in an attempt to give the new series a kick-start - they really did inherit a mess.
More significantly, for the first time we regularly saw Steed and King being given orders by a superior, because in the biggest change to the core dynamic instead of a talented amateur in the sidekick role, Tara King was also an agent, albeit a very junior one.
More about the dynamic was changed by this production decision than just giving the show an agency structure: with the exception of Venus, Steed’s relationships with his previous partners had been more or less as capable equals. Here, he had a subordinate, and an inexperienced and frequently inept one at that. It says a lot that, apart from in her farewell story, Steed always calls Emma, ‘Mrs Peel’, whereas he standardly refers to her substitute as ‘Tara’. Where the relationships between Steed and Gale and Steed and Peel had always enjoyed a level of unfulfilled sexual tension, Tara King at best hero-worshipped Steed, at worst was definitely in love with him. And simply in terms of their ages, even if she had been the most able agent in the business, there was no possibility of the same balance as previously.
It should go without saying that a lot of the case for The Avengers as a feminist work falters badly at this point in its history, even though the notion of a female secret agent feels like it should be an empowering one.
Creatively, though, it’s as if they let the brakes off. This run of episodes, despite often being produced under the most tortuous of circumstances, includes some wildly creative stories. It also contains some true stinkers, making for an uneven experience when viewed in a run. But when they were on, they were really on.
The Prisoner spoof Wish You Were Here, the strongest Tara episode All Done With Mirrors, and Take Me To Your Leader, which involves the pursuit of a briefcase that gives its own directions to its couriers, all work on their own terms and shore up the weaker outings around them.
Conversely, too many episodes don’t actually feel like The Avengers. A late season entry such as Take-Over is so straight that it could be an episode of Danger Man or Department S, while others are so offbeat they verge on the incomprehensible.
Episodes such as Look - (stop me if you’ve heard this one) But There Were These Two Fellows typify the issue that fans have with the season - it’s intensely polarising, partly because the line between eccentricity and insanity is never walked more finely, partly because introducing slapstick to the series breaks the traditional stance that even the craziest schemes are treated entirely seriously. It’s one of the things that keeps earlier stories feeling clever rather than silly, and keeps the series as a whole camp rather than crass. It’s frequently hard to credit that the same production team which had steered the show so confidently through the Diana Rigg years had lost their vision to this degree. True, they inherited elements from the abortive original production team, notably Thorson, who gets a lot of the stick for the problems with her season, but it’s useless to deny that she’s frequently given less-than-outstanding material to work with.
Whether rooted in the production difficulties or the adjustment to a more agency-focused set-up, it’s also a sad fact that the stories in this run often feel a bit too samey - secrets are leaked from one ministry or agency or another almost weekly, countless secret installations or peace conferences have to be protected, one or other of our heroes comes under suspicion with depressing frequency. The details and execution vary, but it’s hard to distinguish one ‘mole in the agency’ story from another. And the upshot is that it feels like the ‘Avengersness’; the eccentrics, the convoluted plots, the incongruous visuals; are just bolted on rather than intrinsic characteristics.
It’s unfortunate that a series which even today represents ‘Britishness’ for several generations, which basically broke every TV rule it felt like breaking and established a raft of new ones, ended with a final season that was far from its finest. In the circumstances, the production team and performers did an amazing job to make anything at all, but they needed to produce something that looked effortless if it was going to live up to what came before, and too much of the uphill struggle behind the scenes made its way on to the screen.
There’s nothing like The Avengers. Even The New Avengers isn’t like it in any meaningful way, kitsch and charming though it very occasionally managed to be. It’s worth cherishing for its highlights and it’s usually worth at least a look during its lows. And above all, The Avengers has categorically earned its place in our cultural history.