"MRS. PEEL, WE'RE NEEDED."
There Will Always Be An England: Patrick Macnee died this past summer, but thanks to my DVD collection, he will never fail to live on as the embodiment of the perfect British gentleman, bowler and brolly in tow. I cannot overstate the impact the show had on me when The Avengers, a whimsical, tongue-in-cheek, sophisticated mystery/thriller television series, finally made its way to American television in 1965. The show had been running in Britain since '61, with Macnee, as imperturbable secret agent/private investigator John Steed, paired with Honor Blackman (Soon to be Pussy Galore in Goldfinger), who portrayed his assistant Cathy Gale. While I have seen some of the Cathy Gale episodes, the Avengers that came to the States to take advantage of the Anglophilia brought on by the British Invasion were John Steed and "gifted amateur" Mrs. Emma Peel, played to perfection by Diana Rigg in 51 glorious episodes.
Below: Steed's and Mrs. Peel's insouciance was often codified through champagne flutes; the show's opening and closing credits circa 1967.
When Honor Blackman left for Hollywood and American producers expressed interest in picking up the series, auditions were held to find a new partner for John Steed. Although a name for the character had been written into the teleplays, a press officer injected that the new Avenger had to demonstrate "Man Appeal"--shortened to "M Appeal". She suggested Emma Peel as the name and the production team jumped at it. The character was established as the wealthy daughter of a shipping magnate and the wife of test pilot Peter Peel. She might as well have been the embodiment of Swinging England in the mid 60s. Her Carnaby Street ensembles, doffed only for leather jumpsuits when it was time to fight, made her the coolest, baddest chick on the planet. And Mrs. Peel could fight! She was a master of the karate chop and effortlessly threw men twice her size over her shoulder with her judo savvy. She tooled around London in a Lotus, lived in a palatial pad, and rarely broke a sweat no matter how daunting the challenge. Filming for the new series began with Elizabeth Shepherd, a Hitchcock blonde, portraying Mrs. Peel, but she was dismissed after two episodes were filmed, episodes that revealed a decided lack of chemistry with Patrick Macnee. Young actress Diana Rigg was screen-tested by the show's producers Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell, and the results were spectacular. Rigg could play sexy or comic or tough--whatever the scripts called for, and the connection with Macnee was palpable. Below: A fan's tribute to the many "looks" of Emma Peel. Check out her wardrobe!
Patrick Macnee's John Steed was a far more civilized version of James Bond. In fact, he was more like Ian Fleming than Bond. Impeccably tailored at all times, Steed represented man reaching his apotheosis. As Hamlet would say, he was "the paragon of animals". Cultured, sophisticated, urbane. He could call forth flowers or a bottle of vintage champagne as if by magic. He could fling his steel-tipped bowler with deadly accuracy to overcome a dastardly ne'er-do-well or turn his umbrella into a rapier. The suave, debonair master spy drove an enormous vintage green Bentley. He lived in a well-appointed flat with the trappings of a men's club. No matter how insidious the plot against him, Steed, employing his ingenuity, would find a way to turn the tables on madmen and their nefarious henchmen. He might have to dust off his bowler or straighten his collar, but he never appeared even minutely ruffled. Throughout every adventure he was quick with a bon mot or a witty retort. He was pretty much perfect--an exemplar of charm.
The England depicted in The Avengers and other regions of the UK bore little semblance to reality. It was a realm populated by anachronistic stereotypes, whimsical shopkeepers, rich eccentrics, mad scientists, nannies and butlers, fussy bureaucrats, religious fanatics, dotty "experts", and other oddballs. There was rarely a sign of London, no people of color, no "normal" everyday citizens to set off the bizarre behaviors of the characters in any Avengers episode. My favorite scene comes from a very early episode called "The Gravediggers", which was filmed on an estate that included a miniature train that toured the grounds. Part of the story takes place at The Sir Horace Winslip Hospital for Ailing Railwaymen, so we know anything is possible! Of course, Emma Peel winds up tied to the tracks, waiting for Steed to rescue her to the piano accompaniment of a silent film! The settings for the stories were frequently little towns with quaint names out of Agatha Christie. In Norfolk there was Little Bazely by the Sea. There was also Pringby, Little Gorsby, Surrey Green, Norborough Station, Lower Storpington, Little Storping-in-the-Swuff--even a Scottish castle. None of these exotic locales seemed connected to reality in even the remotest way!
Below: Steed to the rescue! A feat of derring-do! Beautiful prints of The Avengers can be found on Amazon and the Dailymotion site. This one is "The Gravediggers": https://youtu.be/tnU0x8sLyUs
One of the reasons The Avengers holds up fifty years on is the quality of the acting. Many future British dramatic or comedy stars or celebrated character actors made appearances in the Mrs. Peel episodes. They also appeared in Beatles' films, Monty Python, and many other terrific films and television series. They include the likes of Steven Berkoff, Michael Gough, Ronald Fraser, Gordon Jackson, Patrick Cargill, Penelope Keith, Geoffrey Palmer, Peter Bowles, Julian Glover, Mervyn Johns (Bob Cratchit in the Alistair Sim Christmas Carol, which also had a stripling Patrick Macnee as the younger Jacob Marley), Donald Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling, Arthur Lowe, Cecil Parker, Peter Cushing, Freddie Jones, Brian Blessed, Nigel Green, Jack Gwillim, Frederick Treves, Ron Moody, Jack MacGowran, Roy Kinnear, Barbara Shelley, Carol Cleveland, Nigel Davenport, and others. A Who's Who of UK stage performers and character actors. What talent! Two more reasons for the show's success. First, one must acknowledge the absolutely perfect musical component. Laurence Reginald Ward Johnson's contributions (Laurie Johnson as the credit reads) to The Avengers cannot be ignored. The theme music is sublime, the incidental music both suspenseful and whimsical. The second reason is the show's willingness to go without dialogue for long stretches...far longer than one would see today. In effect, it trusted its audience to be patient and created a kind of Pure Cinema in the Hitchcock style.
Below: An example of Laurie Johnson's music and the mystery created by silence.
Today, when I rewatch the episodes for the umpteenth time, I can't help but smile at the literate scripts. Brian Clemens, Philip Levene, and a few other writers never took themselves too seriously. The villains were lovable in their obsessions to achieve world domination through such organizations as FOG (Friends of Ghosts), GGGG (Granny Gregson's Glorious Grogs, SMOG (Scientific Measurement of Ghosts), PURRR (Philanthropic Union for Rescue, Relief and Recuperation of Cats), GONN (The Guild of Noble Nannies), and the QQF (Quite, Quite Fantastic, Inc.)! There were many others. Despite the humor, the show was often quite suspenseful--a difficult tandem to be sure. Steed and Mrs. Peel, both, found themselves in impossible traps or facing overwhelming odds and the other would find a way to save the day with aplomb. The second Mrs. Peel season was in color (not that my family would own a color set for years to come!). But it was also her last season. Diana Rigg left the show to work with the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) and was soon filming Peter Hall's A Midsummer Night's Dream with a brilliant cast. She went on to a wonderful acting career, primarily on the stage. Now in her late 70s, she has recently contributed her skills to Game of Thrones. I saw her in Moliere's The Misanthrope back in 1975 and in My Fair Lady a few years ago. But she did a little bit of everything. She was both Laurence Olivier's evil daughter Regan in King Lear and a Bond Girl! She became Dame Diana Rigg about twenty years ago. If I were asked to pick the perfect woman as depicted in the world of art, it is Emma Peel I would select thanks to Diana Rigg's luminous performances. The final Mrs. Peel episode (a double one) is both poignant and charming. But wait until you've seen all the others. As I said, Patrick Macnee passed a few months back. He actually showed up in a Bond film too, but he is still primarily known for playing John Steed. A third partner was given to him following Rigg's departure, and then the series was reintroduced in the mid-70s with Steed overseeing two young agents, one male and one female. Most of his career was devoted to film and television productions of modest success, but he will be remembered fondly forever for being the embodiment of the gentleman spy. The Avengers is my favorite television series ever. I expect it always will be.