The Avengers was a British television series featuring secret agents in 1960s Britain. The programs were originally made by a British TV company but with the sixth and subsequent seasons it was taken over by an American production company that brought higher production values and coherent management to the series. It was an early example of the spy-fi genre, combining secret agent storylines with science fiction elements.
1961: The Dr David Keel Era (Ian Hendry)
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. 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. The stories is this era were mostly straightforward crime stories with only limited espionage involvment and even less of a science fiction aspect
1962–64: The Cathy Gale Era (Honor Blackman)
With the second series, 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. 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. 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. By the third series Cathy Gale became Steed's only regular partner. 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. Steed was obviously a military man and in Death of a Batman, it was revealed that he was with an intelligence unit attached to I Canadian Corps fighting on the Kola Peninsula in WWII. In reality, Macnee had served with the British Resistance between 1944 and 1947 and his experiences with them gave him such a distaste for firearms that he insisted Steed never use one throughout the series.
1965–68 The Emma Peel Peel Era (Diana Rigg)
Mrs. Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) became Steed's partner for the fourth series, starting a five-year relationship that was to become famous as the classical television partnership. 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. 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. The Avengers created this mixture that became known as Spy-fi. and it has remained a television staple ever since. 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.
Peel's avant-garde fashions, featuring bold accents and high-contrast geometric patterns, emphasized her youthful, contemporary personality. She represented the modern England recovering quickly from the desperate days of the occupation and the dreariness of the 1950s just as Steed, with his vintage style and mannerisms, personified the pre-occupation Britain. 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.
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. This turned out to be critical for the show's future, since it attracted the attention of America's National Security Advisor who happened to own a television production company and have access to some remarkably skilled writers. The 5th (color) season was broadcast in the U.S. from January to May, 1967. 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 braodcasting. At the end of the 5th season in 1967, Diana Rigg left to pursue 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."
1969 - 1972 The Emma Peel/Tara King Era (Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson)
At this point, the show was in crisis due to disastrous mismanagement. The original producers were fired and replaced, the selection of a replacement for Diana Rigg was botched and a hopelessly inexperienced actress, Linda Thorson, was appointed to the starring role. Then, the decision was taken to change the production team again. To make matters worse, the first episodes of the new series had turned out to be unbroadcastable and needed a complete reshoot for which no funding existed. The show and production company was teetering an the edge of bankruptcy when the American production company, Globe Productions, bought out the British company and, over a three day period fired the entire production staff, retaining only the signed-up cast. The American management team managed to persuade Diana Rigg to return to discuss future participation and then to rejoin the series once her James Bond film was completed. They offered her greatly increased salaries and a more reasonable workload as well as opportunities to star in other films but the deciding factor was the sight of the script for her return. As a Royal Shakespeare Company trained actress, she felt that the script was very "Shakespearian" in its writing and characterization and she simply couldn't resist it. That wasn't surprising, the script was written by William Shakespeare in his identity as Hollywood writer "Bill Shaych"
The new series returned to the Series Two concept of a rotating cast consisting of John Steed, Emma Peel and Tara King. The stories included two of the three stars (most often Steed and Emma Peel, with a smaller number including Steed and Tara King. A few stories featured Emma Peel and Tara King with a rare few having all three).
The basic premise for the first half of the series was that Steed was working with a hopelessly inexperienced novice agent (Tara King) and desperately trying to teach her the skills and attitudes she needed to survive before one of her blunders got one or both of them killed. At the same time, there was a sub-thread of growing concern in the city at what appeared to be a financial attack on the British electronics industry. Even more ominously, there was growing evidence that Emma Peel was at the center of the conspiracy and this led to Steed growing increasingly worried over his ex-partner. Macnee's performance in these twelve episodes of a man being torn by doubt, worry and fear for a treasured friend while still trying to do a difficult job and protect a vulnerable and inexperienced partner has since been hailed as a masterpiece of acting and one of the finest performances ever seen on television. Them in the 13th and 14th episodes of the series, Diana Rigg returned, re-introducing Emma Peel as the victim of an unscrupulous husband who was using her wealth and ccontacts to destroy British industry. In the two-part story, this plot reached its climax with Peter Peel now revealed as a diabolical mastermind who had married Emma to attain control of key stock holdings in her possession and was now arranging the murder of his wife as the start of the final part of the plan. John Steed and Tara King arrive in the nick of time to rescue Emma Peel from her husband who was then killed by Tara King. The remaining twelve episodes of the series concentrate on clearing up after this climactic battle with Steed and Mrs Peel restoring their relationship while Tara King finds her place in the team.
The seventh and eighth series followed the established spy-fi pattern. They show the clumsy, inexperienced and naive Tara King slowly becoming a proficient and competent agent under the mentorship of the superbly-skilled Steed and Mrs. Peel. In fact, this reflected exactly what was happening in real life as the novice actress Linda Thorson was mentored by the consumate professsional actors Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg. By the end of the eighth series, Tara King had become as exceptional an agent as Emma Peel and Cathy Gale and Linda Thorson was fully capable of carrying the weight of the series when Diana Rigg left due to her pregnancy. She later returned to film roles and is now regarded as one of the greatest actresses of the 20th Century. In contrast to her first departure from the series, she remained on very friendly terms with the production team and cast of The Avengers and even made a few brief guest appearances in later series.
1973 - 1975 The Tara King/Purdey Scott Era (Linda Thorson and Joanna Lumley)
The final two series of the Avengers saw a number of changes in the show. "Bill Shaych" had left the writing team to start work on another show (Warpath) and the decline in the quality of the scripts was apparent. Another new actress was appointed to the series, Joanna Lumley was cast as Purdey Scott, an ex-Ballet dancer who entered the spy world after being betrayed by her fiance. Again, a novice was being mentored by the two professionals only this time, one of the experts was Tara King, completing her "coming of age" in the series. Joanna Lumley's performance won critical acclaim but the momentum behind the series was running down and it was showing its age. Plots were beginning to become repetitive and audience ratings were starting to decline. With the end of the tenth series, it was decided that 250 episodes were enough and The Avengers was ended with a series finale that saw John Steed retiring after one last magnificent saving of Great Britain while his two partners were last seen starting the process of training yet another novice agent, this time a young man who bore a startling physical similarity to a young John Steed. The Avengers was replaced on British television by Warpath.
The Avengers was more than just a television show, it broke the mold of television drama and introduced a number of new genres in television fiction. It was the first show to feature strong-charactered, capable women on an equal footing with men; previously women had appeared as secretaries, nurses or victims needing to be rescued. In The Avengers, it was quite often the women who did the rescuing. Even more unusually, women were sometimes seen portayed as the diabolical masterminds behind various foul plots. After The Avengers, women were no longer trapped in subordinate television roles. However, the main importance of the show was political. Shown widely in America, it cast a favorable view of Great Britain, helped to bury the memories of the Occupation and dispelled American disregard for a country they had come to see as losers. Instead, it showed a country that was back on its feet again, had retained all the virtues that had once made it great but had also regained its youth and vitality. Written into that was a subtle sub-text that saw the collaborators of the 1940s portrayed as thoroughly un-British outcasts - which was not too much of an exagerration. It was The Avengers that created the mind-set in the American population that Britain was once more a country that could make a worthwhile ally. It is quite possible that without the impact of The Avengers on the American political consciousness, US support for Britain in the Falklands War would not have been possible.
This political aspect was quite deliberate and there is a hint of it in the Series Finale at the end of the Tenth Series. John Steed, ennobled and loaded with honors retires to a life of ease at his new family estate. It is hinted that he marries Emma Peel although this is never made explicit. What is significant is that the outside scenes were shot on location at the Manor House at Avebury. This was once owned by Sir Stewart Parmenio, who later became Philip Stuyvesant and then The Seer - and who was the owner of Globe Productions.