“Extraordinary crimes against the people and the state have to be avenged by agents extraordinary.”
These words, spoken in voiceover by an official-sounding Englishman, accompanied a brief black-and-white pre-title sequence for the initial 1966 American season of The Avengers. As a debonair gent wearing a bowler and twirling an umbrella approached a striking woman in black leather jumpsuit, then knelt down to remove a bottle of champagne from the hand of a corpse stretched out on a chessboard, then poured two glasses, the voice continued: “Two such people are John Steed, top professional, and his partner Emma Peel, talented amateur–otherwise known as The Avengers.”
Mrs. Peel then inserted her pistol into her boot and the two clinked glasses.
It’s hard to believe, but it’s the 50th anniversary of the ageless Avengers.
Hard to believe for two reasons: Unlike other programs from the Swinging Sixties that seem hopelessly dated, The Avengers episodes are no less entertaining today than when they were originally produced and shown. And in the U.S., it’s really the 45th anniversary, since the show wasn’t picked up here until the production of its so-called “Series Four,” Patrick Macnee’s Steed having already gone through three partners (Ian Hendry, Julie Stevens and Honor Blackman) since the show began airing in the U.K. 1961–prior to being paired with the one and only Diana Rigg.
For it was with the now Dame Rigg’s Mrs. Peel that Macnee’s Steed made their indelible mark in America, first with a year of black-and-white episodes, then with another year in color. Macnee embodied “the absolute essence of the English gentleman,” as “Series One and Two” producer Leonard White put it. The younger Royal Shakespeare Company-trained Rigg perfectly fit the “‘M’- [for ‘man’] appeal” pun of her character’s name, being both beautiful and intelligent, and able to easily proceed from adorable bemusement to deductive certainty as she figured out the episodes’ mysteries.
And what wonderful mysteries they were! Two unforgettable examples from The Avengers‘ first year in color, “Series Five”: In The Living Dead, the appearance of the apparent ghost of a dead duke who had died years earlier in a mining disaster brings out both representatives of both FOG (Friends of Ghosts) and SMOG (Scientific Measurement of Ghosts) to investigate what turns out to be a particularly fiendish plot. In The Hidden Tiger, P.U.R.R.R.–the Philanthropic Union for the Rescue, Relief and Recuperation of Cats–is contacted while searching for what seems to be a lion or tiger that is clawing people to death in the English countryside.
“The Avengers presented an idealized view of an England that probably never really existed,” says Marcus Hearn, author of the coffee table book The Avengers: A Celebration–50 Years Of A Television Classic, for which Macnee wrote the foreword.
“For example, the producers were strict about never showing crowded streets or any members of the emergency services,” continues Hearn. “The result was often rural-based stories that presented the myth of a sparsely populated country where Steed and Mrs. Peel were the only people standing in the way of eccentric but impeccably-mannered villains. This imaginary ‘Englishness’ was undoubtedly appealing to American audiences, but it was just as appealing to British audiences living through an era of great social upheaval in the 1960s.”
Hearn actually discovered the show when it was rerun in the 1980s, “which was when I think it really gained cult status,” he notes. “I recognized immediately that, rather like the 1960s Batman series or The Prisoner, The Avengers existed within its own stylized world. I think that’s just as compelling now as it was when the shows were originally broadcast.”
As Hearn relates, “That stylized world was heavily informed by 1960s fashions and attitudes, so it’s no surprise The Avengers came to a natural end in 1969. It was revived for a sequel in the 1970s, and of course for a film [The Avengers, the 1998 feature based on the series that starred Ralph Fiennes as Steed and Uma Thurman as Mrs. Peel], but neither succeeded in fully recapturing the magic of the mid- to late-’60s episodes. How could they? Even though this was an imaginary world populated by outlandish characters, the transgressive spirit of 1967 was intrinsic to the classic episodes. The Avengers could only have been made in the 1960s, and we should cherish it as one of that decade’s greatest pop culture treats.”
Macnee likewise recalled in his foreward, “We were a bunch of merry men and women, some of the finest craftsmen, creators and curators of a place that existed somwhere in our imaginations.”
The show, said The Guardian, remains “the purest and most enjoyable form of escapism.” According to The Washington Post, it “defined the role of television hero and heroine for a generation.”
Rigg passed off her role as Steed’s accomplice at the end of her second year to Canadian actress Linda Thorson, who played Tara King in The Avengers‘ final “Series Six,” which lasted from 1968 to 1969. It was followed a decade later by the sequel, The New Avengers, starring Macnee and two partners played by Gareth Hunt, and Joanna Lumley–later to star in Absolutely Fabulous.
Coinciding with the show’s 50th anniversary, a huge celebration is being held June 25 and 26 in England at the University of Chichester. Blackman and Thorson, as well as producers White and Brian Clemens, are among the 23 actors and production team members scheduled to appear so far, and Macnee, Lumley and theme composer Laurie Johnson are submitting video contributions.
Author Hearn will also participate in the event, which will be hosted by broadcaster/actor Paul O’Grady. It’s being touted as the largest cast and crew reunion of The Avengers in 40 years, the aim being “to recognize the fun and playfulness The Avengers has become known for, alongside a series of in-depth interviews, screenings and panel discussions examining the cultural influences and historical impact the show has had across the international stage.”
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