Death of an Avenger

Yesterday was notable, aside from a Supreme Court decision with which I strongly disagree, in seeing the death of a man who has been a major influence on my life (and who probably wouldn’t have been at all pleased to know it, from what I know of his social views).

Patrick Macnee (1922-2015) is best remembered as the only permanent star of what I consider one of the greatest TV series ever produced, the BBC series The Avengers (not to be confused with the Marvel Comics books and movies). The Avengers appeared on American TV just as I was entering an uncomfortable adolescence, and left me with an enduring love for slender, auburn-haired women (Diana Rigg), and three-piece suits (Macnee).

Yes, it was a breakthrough show for a trope I’m now thoroughly sick of – the delicate little woman who beats up 200-lb men in groups – but it was new and interesting back then, and hey, it was Diana Rigg. I was desperately in love with her.

The show was not intended to be what it eventually became, the spritely, half-comic show we remember. It started in 1961 as a gritty, realistic program. It was a spin-off of a series called Police Surgeon, starring actor Ian Hendry. In the first episode of The Avengers, his character, Dr. David Keel, loses his fiancée, murdered by drug dealers. He is recruited by a shadowy semi-official character named John Steed (Macnee) to help him apprehend the criminals. Keel signs on enthusiastically (it’s his way to “avenge” the woman he loved), but is often put off by the ruthless methods of Steed, who at this stage was as much a thug as a charmer, and had no distinctive style of dress.

After one season, Hendry left the series to pursue an undistinguished film career, and the producers tried pairing Steed with various other partners, male and female. Nobody clicked until they brought on Honor Blackman as Dr. Cathy Gale. Due to time pressures (or laziness), they didn’t bother to re-write the scripts to change from a male to a female persona. So Cathy Gale became a fighting woman. Wardrobe dressed her in “cat suits” (leather unitards, more or less), because dresses were difficult (and embarrassing) to fight in. This created the model for Mrs. Emma Peel (Diana Rigg), who came on when Blackman left for a movie career in the third season. She dressed similarly, but her cat suits (“Emma Peelers”) were generally made of cloth. Aside from being stunningly beautiful, she radiated intelligence, and often seemed to be amused by the silly things the scripts called on her to do.

Meanwhile, John Steed had developed his own style, as the perfect “City gentleman” in three-piece suit, bowler hat, and an umbrella (often concealing a weapon) ever present.

Rigg left the show (provoking suicidal thoughts in at least one Midwestern boy) after two seasons, to be replaced by Linda Thorson as Tara King. Thorson might have been perfectly fine as an Avenger, except that the show runners decided to give her horrible hair, dress her stupidly, and make her a far less effective fighter than her predecessors. They had decided to turn the show into an exercise in camp, and it suffered. Everybody hated the hapless Thorson, except for the French, which only makes it worse.

So the series died in 1969. In 1977-79 there was a New Avengers series, in which Macnee reprised his role as John Steed, assisted by Joanna Lumley as Purdey and Gareth Hunt as Mike Gambit. Personally I quite liked it, but it didn’t do very well with the rest of the world (except for the French).

But through it all John Steed carried on with style. He continued to work through the rest of his long life, and never gave less than full value for money as an actor (as far as I could tell).

Rest in peace, Mr. Macnee. Our brollies are at half staff.

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