The Avengers: a half century of John Steed & Co.

Better late than never, we felt we should note this was the 50th anniversary of The Avengers, in which the English gentleman agent John Steed and his various associates battled forces that threatened the U.K.

Actually, when the show began in January 1961, Patrick Macnee, who played Steed, had second billing and Steed wasn’t yet in gentleman agent mode. Receiving top billing was Ian Hendry as Dr. David Keel. The show began with Keel’s financee being murdered. The mysterious Steed pops up and two proceed to avenge the death of the financee.

For the second season, Dr. Keel was gone and Macnee was now the clear star. Eventually, he’d partner with Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman), who favored leather clothing and was skilled at judo. Blackman went off to play Pussy Galore in 1964’s Goldfinger. Below, Cathy Gale tells Steed goodbye and the dialogue provides a hint of Blackman’s upcoming 007 role:

Diana Rigg took Blackman’s place as yet another “talented amateur,” Emma Peel. At this point, the U.S. television network ABC to import the U.K. series and the Steed-Peel combo clicked with American audiences. Also, the show apparently got a bigger budget. Production switched from videotape to film, freeing up the crew to shoot sequences outdoors and not just be confined to a studio. The original John Danworkth theme was discarded and a snappier theme, composed by Laurie Johnson, was recorded.

Macnee and Rigg had an appealing chemistry, helped along by scripts from the likes of Brian Clemens and Philip Levene. David McDaniel, who penned some of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. tie-in paperback novels worked Steed and Mrs. Peel into The Rainbow Affair, though the duo aren’t named.

However, after a couple of seasons, bigger things beckoned for Rigg. She, like her predecessor, would be the female lead in a James Bond movie, 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Another replacement, Tara King (Linda Thorson) rounded out the original show.

It’s hard to keep a good agent down. Macnee’s Steed had a return engagement in the 1970s in The New Avengers, this time with two partners, Gareth Hunt’s Mike Gambit (to take over some of the rough stuff from Steed) and Joanna Lumley as Purdey. The show was overseen by Clemens and Albert Fennell, who had produced the last few seasons of the original show. Laurie Johnson returned, composing a new theme. The New Avengers was shown by CBS in the U.S. as part of The CBS Late Movie. The New Avengers only lasted two seasons, though Diana Rigg did make a cameo as Mrs. Peel.

The Avengers was also something of a farm team for Eon Productions. Besides Blackman and Rigg, various character actors from the show got cast in Bond movies, such as Philip Locke (Vargas in Thunderball), Julian Glover (Kristatos in For Your Eyes Only) and James Villiers (Bill Tanner in For Your Eyes Only). And members of The Avengers crew, such as director of photography Alan Hume and art director Harry Pottle would get hired to work on Bond movies. Thus, it was appropriate that Macnee finally be cast in a 007 film, 1985’s A View To a Kill.

Inevitably, The Avengers would be considered for a feature film. The result was the uneven 1998 namesake film with Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman facing off against a villain played by Sean Connery. Macnee got a small voice-only cameo. Today, the original series remains fondly remembered while the film….well, the less said, the better.

Happy 50th, Mr. Steed. Here’s a look at the different main titles of The Avengers and The New Avengers:

3 Responses

  1. Thanks for commemorating one of my favourite shows. One quick point, however: Diana Rigg’s “cameo” in ‘The New Avengers’ consisted of recycled ‘Avengers’ footage rather than newly filmed material. Rigg found out during her first season on the show that she was being paid less than some of the crew and threatened to walk. Patrick Macnee, ever the gentleman, stood up for her and gave her some leverage to negotiate a better deal, but she’s no more fond of the ‘Avengers’ top brass than Sean Connery is of EON, and certainly wouldn’t have been in a mood to return and shoot new stuff a few years later.

  2. MacNee and Rigg had a chemistry that was unmatched by any other team, imho. My favorite 60’s adventure show!

  3. A little trivia, actress Elizabeth Shepherd (The Tomb of Ligeia, Omen II) was hired first to play Emma Peel. She was trying to conform to the idiosyncrasies of what would be the most classic character of the series. She had her hair cut real short almost butch-like, and rumors have it that she was constantly rewriting dialogue on the set and costing the budget with her outrageous wardrobe request. She filmed the first episode “The Town of No Return” and half of “The Murder Market”. However, according to a Q&A session she gave at a movie convention (Monster Bash), Shepherd felt that she was not in-sync with what the producers wanted. She bowed out of the series gracefully (to the relief of the producers), and Diana Rigg walked into the iconic part. Reshooting all of Shepherd’s scenes from those two episodes. As of this writing there is a search to find any existing footage of Ms. Shepherd’s scenes.

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