TV Rewind: The Avengers

Originally published on So So Gay on 2 August 2015.

These days, if you ask someone if they enjoy the Avengers, they’ll undoubtedly start talking about the Marvel superheroes and villains that have appeared in a number of hugely successful blockbuster films. However, launching a couple of years ahead of these comic book creations, The Avengers was a hugely successful television show in its own right, back in the 60s.

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John Steed (Patrick Macnee) & Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman)

Making its début in 1961, the show initially focussed on the investigative adventures of Dr. David Keel (played by Ian Hendry) and his assistant John Steed (portrayed by the late Patrick Macnee). However, the show soon changed track following the departure of Hendry, with Macnee’s Steed promoted to lead role (and who went from rugged agent to the stereotypical English gentleman), and the introduction of a string of capable female assistants. During its run, Steed and his companions would solve numerous strange deaths and foil countless evil plots, all in the name of king and country as secret service operatives.

At a time in TV history when it was almost unheard of and undoubtedly reflecting the more liberated mores of the 60s, The Avengers was notable in its use of strong female lead characters. Starting with Honor Blackman’s leather-clad Cathy Gale, she was followed by Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, Linda Thorson as Tara King, and then finally Joanna Lumley as Purdey in the sequel series The New Avengers. With perhaps the exception of the young and naive Tara King, these characters were frequently portrayed on a par with Steed, both intellectually and physically – Cathy Gale was a judo expert, while Emma Peel knew kung fu. Steed was as likely to be rescued by his assistant as he was to be their proverbial knight in shining armour.

A quintessentially British show that was later dubbed spy-fi, due to its mixture of spy adventure and science fiction story lines, it is a unique product of the era it was filmed in – something perhaps never better underlined than by the flop of a film made in 1998 that tried to bring the show to a new audience. During its run, the changing dynamic duos dealt with everything from espionage and groups of murderous men, to cyborgs, telepaths, and even carnivorous alien plants!

Viewed with a modern eye, The Avengers may be full of terribly plummy-voiced actors with ‘jolly hockey sticks’ style mannerisms, but what keeps it fresh are the quirky stories, the obvious chemistry between the leads, and the witty repartee – the show’s pinnacle generally agreed upon as the Emma Peel years.

Emma Peel [upon entering Steed’s apartment to find a dead body]: ‘You really must have a word with that cleaning lady of yours.’

John Steed: ‘He tried to kill me.’

Emma Peel: ‘Antisocial!’

In addition to being exceptionally well cast, the show is effortlessly stylish and possesses an iconic theme tune. From the assortment of sets to the classic cars and striking 60s fashion, the show has dated rather respectably for a programme that is over half a century old. While The Avengers may have embraced the more liberated attitudes of the time with regards to its female cast, it sensibly avoided utilising datable vernacular or relying on current events for inspiration. Instead, the writers created fantastical situations from classic set-ups (a murder plot here, a missing person there), all interlaced with a sense of fun and frivolity even in apparently dire situations. With over 160 episodes made, there are hundreds of hours of glorious spy-fi fun to be had with Steed and company, which stand up to both new sets of eyes and repeat viewings for existing fans.

The Avengers currently airs on True Entertainment (Freeview channel 61) throughout the week.

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