The Avengers was a British television series featuring secret agents in 1960s Britain. The programmes were made by TV company Associated British Corporation, and created by its Head of Drama Sydney Newman. It was an early example of the spy-fi genre, combining secret agent storylines with science fiction elements. Running from 1961 to 1969, it is the longest running espionage series produced for English-language television, though the American series Mission: Impossible had more episodes (171).
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.
The Avengers was a successor (but not, as sometimes stated, a direct sequel) to Hendry's earlier series Police Surgeon, in which he played a similar character. While Police Surgeon did not last long, viewer letters had praised Hendry's work in it. Hendry was considered the star of the new series, receiving top billing over Macnee, and Steed did not even appear in two of the episodes. Because of the practice in the British television industry (followed until the 1970s) of junking and deleting episodes of old programmes deemed no longer of commercial value, most episodes of the first series are considered lost, save for two complete episodes recently located and the first 15 minutes or so of the premiere episode.
In the first series broadcast in 1961, 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. As seen in the surviving episode The Frighteners, Steed also had a group of helpers scattered among the general population who provided information, not unlike the "Baker Street Irregulars" of Sherlock Holmes.
The other regular character appearing in the first series was Carol Wilson (Ingrid Hafner), the nurse and receptionist who replaced the slain Peggy. Carol assisted Keel and Steed in cases, without being a part of Steed's inner circle in the way that Keel was. Hafner had played opposite Hendry as a nurse in Police Surgeon.
Production of the first series was cut short by a strike. By the time it was settled and production could begin on the show's second series, Hendry had quit to pursue a film career. 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. Rollason later had a regular role on Coronation Street.
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. She was excited to be participating in a "spy" adventure alongside secret agent Steed (although at least one episode - "The Removal Men" - indicates she isn't always enthusiastic). Nonetheless, she appears to be attracted to him and their relationship appears similar to that later displayed between Steed and Tara King. 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.
Gale was unlike any female character ever seen before on British TV and became a household name. Reportedly, part of her charm came from the fact that her earliest appearances were episodes in which dialogue written for Keel was simply transferred to her. By the start of the third series, Smith was dropped and Gale became Steed's only regular partner. The series established a level of sexual tension between the characters, although, as part of the evolving format of the series, writers were not allowed to let the characters go beyond flirting and innuendo. Despite this, the relationship between Steed and Gale was progressive for 1962-63. In the episode "The Golden Eggs", it is revealed that Gale lived in Steed's flat; her rent according to Steed was to keep the refrigerator well-stocked and to cook for him (she appears to do neither). It is also stated, however, that this was a temporary arrangement while Gale (for reasons not stated) looked for a new home, and that Steed was actually sleeping at a hotel.
During the first series, hints were dropped that Steed worked for a branch of British Intelligence, and this was expanded in the second series. Early on, Steed received orders from a series of different superiors, most notably men referred to only as "Charles" or "One-Ten". By the third series, however, Steed was seen working on his own, the origins of his orders remaining a mystery.
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. Blackman became a star in Britain with her black leather fighting suit and high-heeled boots (nicknamed "kinky boots") and her high-kicking fighting style.
After two series in this format, a movie version of the show was in its initial planning stages by late 1963. The early story proposal would have paired Steed and Gale with a male/female duo of American agents, to make the movie appeal to the American market. Before the project could gain momentum, Blackman was cast opposite Sean Connery in the Bond film, Goldfinger, requiring her to leave the series.
After more than 60 actresses had been auditioned, the first choice to play this role was actress Elizabeth Shepherd. However, after shooting one and a half episodes, Shepherd was released, as her on-screen personality did not seem as interesting as that of Blackman's Gale. Another 20 actresses were auditioned before the show's casting director suggested that producers Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell check out a televised drama featuring the relatively unknown Rigg. Her screen test with Macnee showed that the two immediately worked well together, and a new era in Avengers history began.
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 duo dealt with giant alien carnivorous plants (The Man-Eater Of Surrey Green), being shrunk to doll size (Mission . . . Highly Improbable), pet cats being electrically altered into 'miniature tigers' (The Hidden Tiger), killer automata (The Cybernauts and Return Of The Cybernauts), mind-transferring machines (Who's Who???), and invisible foes (The See-Through Man). The series also poked fun at its American contemporaries with episodes such as The Girl From AUNTIE, Mission ... Highly Improbable and The Winged Avenger (spoofing The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Mission: Impossible and Batman, respectively). 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.
Comedy was also evident in the names and acronyms of the organizations. In The Living Dead, two duelling groups examine reported ghost sightings: FOG (Friends Of Ghosts) and SMOG (Scientific Measurement Of Ghosts). The Hidden Tiger features the Philanthropic Union for Rescue, Relief and Recuperation of Cats — PURRR — led by folk named Cheshire, Manx, and Angora.
There was also a notable fetishistic undercurrent in many episodes (most notably the black-and-white episode "A Touch of Brimstone", in which Mrs Peel dressed as a dominatrix to become the "Queen Of Sin"). Tight-fitting fashion for Gale and Peel was one of the notable features of the shows; Macnee and Blackman had even released a novelty song called "Kinky Boots". (Some of the clothes seen in The Avengers were designed by John Sutcliffe, who also published the AtomAge fetish magazine).
Another memorable feature of the show from this point on was its automobiles. Steed's signature cars were 1926–1928 Bentley racing or town cars, including Blower Bentleys and Bentley Speed Sixes, while Peel drove a Lotus Elan. Mother was transported in Rolls-Royce cars and Tara King preferred an AC 428 and a Lotus Europa. (Some of this had already begun in the Gale episodes, as Gale occasionally used a Triumph motorcycle.) During the first Peel series, each episode would end with a short, comedic scene of the duo leaving the scene of their most recent adventure in a variety of unusual vehicles.
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 US television. This made it one of the first British series to be aired on prime-time American television, alongside traditional US shows. A change was made to the opening credits of the first Peel series with the addition of a brief prologue explaining the concept of the series and introducing the characters. The decision of the US's ABC to schedule The Avengers was made easier by the "British Invasion" of pop music and fashion, dating from the huge success of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and others who followed them into the American market.
Previously the series had been shot on 405-line videotape, with very little provision for editing and virtually no location footage. This meant that, to all intents and purposes, the Blackman episodes were shot live in the studio. A number of these were wiped, the survivors being in the form of 16mm film telerecordings (see below).
The US 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 US 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 1967, although it would be two years before British viewers could see it that way. These colour episodes came with a new stylised opening sequence, involving Steed unwrapping the foil from a Champagne bottle and Peel shooting the cork away, especially advertising the episodes with a title of The Avengers In Colour.
The episodes with Steed and Peel began with a comic visual 'tag line,' with a caption displayed on-screen using the format of "Steed [does this], Emma [does that]." For example, the episode Death At Bargain Prices dealt with trying to prevent an atomic bomb from being detonated inside a London department store. The opening caption informed the viewer that "Steed fights in Ladies' Underwear".
This episode, the first of the 1968/69 series, also introduced Peel's successor, an inexperienced agent named Tara King, played by Canadian actress Linda Thorson, in dynamic style (when Steed is called to Headquarters, he is attacked and knocked down by trainee agent King who mistakes him for her training partner). Thorson played the role with more innocence in mind and at heart; and unlike the previous partnerships with Cathy and Emma, the writers allowed subtle hints of romance to blossom between Steed and King. King also differed from Steed's previous partners in that she was a fully fledged (albeit inexperienced) agent working for Steed's organisation; his previous partners had all been (in the words of the prologue used for American broadcasts of the first Rigg series) talented amateurs. Another change returned the series to its roots by having Steed once again take orders from a British government official, this time "Mother", who was in fact a man in a wheelchair (Patrick Newell, who had played different roles in two earlier episodes). Mother's headquarters would shift from place to place, including one episode in which his complete office was on the top level of a double-decker bus; several James Bond films of the 1970s would make use of a similar gimmick for Bond's briefings. Also added as a regular was Mother's Amazonian and mute assistant, Rhonda (Rhonda Parker); with occasional appearances by an agency official code-named "Father", a blind older woman.
Also, Steed is paired with Lady Diana Forbes Blakeney in one episode titled "Killer," while King is on a short vacation.
The revised series continued to be broadcast in America. The episodes with Linda Thorson as King proved to be highly rated in Europe and the UK. In the United States however, the ABC network which carried the series chose to air it opposite the number one show in the country at the time, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. Steed and King couldn't compete, and the show was cancelled in the US. Without this vital commercial backing, production could not continue in Britain either, and the series ended in May 1969. The final scene of the final episode ("Bizarre") has Steed and King, champagne glasses in hand, accidentally launching themselves into orbit aboard a rocket, as Mother breaks the fourth wall and says to the audience, "They'll be back!" before adding in shock, "They're unchaperoned up there!"
Raymond Austin choreographed the fight scenes for some of the earlier episodes, introducing kung fu to the series. Later he became one of the mainstay directors of both the Avengers and the New Avengers.
Johnny Dankworth composed The Avengers' original theme tune, a syncopated jazz number, which was reworked for the third series. When Rigg joined the series, the new title sequence was accompanied by a fresh theme by Laurie Johnson, a catchy, brassy tune designed to promote the "English eccentricity" of the show. Johnson also provided incidental music, and subsequently collaborated with Clemens on other projects, including the theme for the later New Avengers revival.
The sustained popularity of the King episodes in France led to a 1975 French television commercial for a brand of champagne, featuring both Thorson and Macnee reprising their roles. The commercial's success spurred financing interest in France to create new Avengers episodes.
As a result, the series was revived as The New Avengers, with Macnee reprising his role as Steed, this time with two new partners, Mike Gambit (Gareth Hunt) and Purdey (Joanna Lumley). This new series aired on ITV in the UK, CTV in Canada, CBS in the United States and TF1 in France in 1976 and 1977. The final four episodes were almost completely produced by Canadian interests and were filmed in that country; they carried the title The New Avengers in Canada.
The Avengers was not picked up immediately in America, even through syndication. This was partly due to its 'live-studio' look, which American television had left behind several years earlier. Episodes were often videotaped the same day they were transmitted (a few were even performed live), and as such there was little opportunity for retakes; as noted by websites such as The Nitpicker's Guide to the Avengers, these early episodes were fraught with technical errors (for example, during the episode "Immortal Clay", the camera hits something during a scene making it appear as if a sudden earthquake had occurred) and fluffed dialogue (in "School for Traitors", Julie Stevens stumbles trying to introduce Steed to another character, prompting Macnee to ad lib a joke to cover the error).
The very 'Britishness' of it was another 'strike' against it. In addition, the more relaxed standards of British media would have required some moments to be censored in America; in Mr Teddy Bear, Steed is seen stripping down to his underwear for decontamination, and in Death Dispatch Mrs Gale is seen talking to Steed on the telephone while wearing nothing from the waist up but a black-lace brassiere. Other aspects were more restrained because of British television rules, for example the physical combat limitations. Gunshots had to miss missed and striking someone with a closed fist was not allowed, as a result the Avengers defeated their opponent by throwing them repeatedly into walls, making them stumble and fall after pushing them into furniture and slapping them in the face with an open hand. Compared to the more realistic combat in the Batman TV series, it was immediately recognisable as being too British.
North American audiences saw the Gale and Smith and King episodes of the series for the first time in the early 1990s, when they were broadcast on A&E. Until recently, no Keel episode of the series had been shown outside of Britain; to date only two complete episodes from the show's first series are known to exist, the rest having been "wiped" years ago (an incomplete copy of the first episode was recently found in the United States, containing only the first 15 minutes, up to the original commercial break). 16mm film copies of the Gale-era episodes survive (the original videotapes no longer exist) and have been released to DVD, as have the complete filmed series of Peel and King episodes.
A recent newspaper report suggested that Macnee himself was responsible for tracking down the original negatives of both series for remastering, because he was tired of seeing inferior copies.
In 2006, A&E issued the complete Peel era (with the DVDs now packaged in slimline cases); a bonus disc was included in the new edition, featuring the first DVD release of the two complete first-series episodes, plus the extant 15 minutes of the premiere. In April 2006, a complete set of Gale-era episodes broadcast in 1962 was released, and it was stated that this was the final collection of unreleased Avengers episodes.
There were seven series of The Avengers (divided into six by some sources), running from 1961 to 1969. Only two episodes of the first series still exist in their entirety.
In addition, a short story by Peter Leslie entitled "What's a Ghoul Like You Doing in a Place Like This?" appeared in The Television Crimebusters Omnibus, edited by Peter Haining, 1994.
The Macnee novels Deadline and Dead Duck were reprinted by Titan Books in standard paperback in the early 1990s, the first time these books were distributed in the United States. In 1998 Titan reissued the books in trade paperback format (with the same covers) to coincide with the film's release.
Very few Avengers-related comic books have been published in North America, due in part to the fact that the rights to the name "Avengers" are held by Marvel Comics for use with their superhero comic of the same title (Marvel also holds the rights to the New Avengers title). Nonetheless, Gold Key Comics published one issue of John Steed and Emma Peel in 1968 (subtitled The Avengers only on the indicia page), which included newly-coloured and reformatted Avengers strips from the British weekly comic 'TV Comic'. A three-issue miniseries entitled Steed and Mrs Peel appeared in the early 1990s under the Eclipse Comics imprint.
Plans for a motion picture based upon the series circulated during the 1960s, 1980s and 1990s, with Mel Gibson at one point being considered a front-runner for the role of Steed. Ultimately, the 1998 movie based on Rigg and Macnee's characters from the TV series, starring Uma Thurman and Ralph Fiennes, received poor reviews from critics.
Currently 21 complete serials survive, all from original reel-to-reel off-air recordings, as well as three episodes of "Escape In Time", from a mixture of sources, including:
Four other scripts were written, but it is not known if they were ever used: