It was a baptism by fire. It was a very complicated show. The final rehearsing and taping was just a fantastic jigsaw puzzle that required guts and good fortune to get right. The camera crew were absolutely magnificent…. The Avengers was in three acts and we had vinyl records for the music. I can remember the floor manager counting down the seconds– 10, 9, 8, 7… 3 ,2, 1– and seeing the needle come down on the record and hearing the theme music. Then they’d cut to camera one, who was trained on the caption 'The Avengers’, then another on a different caption and so on. The camera crew were wearing shorts and singlets, with sneakers on. As were the cable men. Everyone was absolutely stripped down for action. And, after the first commercial break, it was absolute hell as everything had to be reassembled and the cameras had to be moved, this had to be ready for that…. We were skating on thin ice, and it worked, the energy came through. If the phone didn’t ring, if the gun didn’t go off, we forgot it in a sense because there was so much energy and passion and it carried us through – it was all part of the experience. (Recording engineer on The Avengers Bob Fuest, quoted in The Ultimate Avengers by Dave Rogers, 1995, Boxtree).
It was one of those slightly spooky coincidences that the death of Patrick Macnee, who played the secret agent character Steed in The Avengers which ran for most of the 1960s, came in a week when, holidaying at home, I have been bingeing on the 50th anniversary box set of DVDs of this landmark show.
As all the obituaries over the last day or so have pointed out, this series broke several moulds, not least in the, for its time, the very progressive idea of having female characters who as well being beautiful and sexy, were at least the equal of their male counterparts in intelligence, guts and even in fighting.
It was a show that had a big impact on me more or less right from the start when I was very young and I was sometimes allowed to watch it if I couldn’t sleep on a Saturday night. I’d slip into the living room in my pyjamas and my dad would grin and give me an “oh, come on then” kind of comment and I would sit on his knee and I would watch enthralled on the flickering black-and-white set. (By another coincidence my Dad also died on a June 25th – many years ago – at almost exactly the time that I heard of Macnee’s death).
But those infant memories were in the very early days, with the programme evolving from a straightforward police investigation series: Macnee was co-star to Ian Hendry, who is pulled into the life of a crime-fighter when his fiancee is murdered by drugs gangsters in the first part of the very first episode – hence the name of the series. The actors’ union Equity called a strike of actors on the ITV network at the end of the first series and no-one could tell how long it would last, so in the meantime Hendry accepted a film offer, thus paving the way for Macnee to get the starring role alongside several female co-stars. Only that first part of the very first episode – discovered in an archive at the University of Southern California in 2001 – and two full episodes from the first series have survived and therefore made the box set. Seven episodes in the first series were broadcast live.
Can you imagine that? I’m just in awe of how they got away with it! An audience of millions and you’re doing a complicated action series within the confinements of a television studio, with cumbersome cameras, cabling and hot lighting of the time. You can see the actors sweating! You can also see quite a few shots in the top of the frame of boom mic’s, and sometimes other gear in reflection. But what an achievement! Even when the show wasn’t live, it was recorded ‘as live’ in an hour on videotape, which is almost impossible to edit and so fluffs and mistakes of the sorts alluded to above the captain.
Nowadays, there’s a big song and dance made about television soaps and the like when they do an occasional live show, It usually is part of an anniversary celebration and all credit to them for doing it and taking such a risk. But technology has moved on so much today, not least in the size and dexterity of cameras.
Fortunately, all the episodes from series two onwards survived, and you can see the series developing into ever more creative ideas, often involving fantastic conspiracies behind seemingly orthodox scenes and characters. A science-fiction element was also added to the mix. Of course, this was in a period when real-life spies and other Cold War intrigues were often making the news; there were suspicions of Communist and grand-scale criminal plots and, in Britain at least, right-wing takeovers of a country which was at times seemingly almost ungovernable, facing numerous financial crises and riven by industrial conflict. The period also saw the U.S. moonshots and the close prospect of a human being landing on the moon. It was a period of ‘gee-whizz’ rapid scientific breakthroughs, with both anxiety and fascination in the developments of computers and robots (both often featured in the plots), fear that we would all be wiped out in a nuclear holocaust, as well as the rapid change in social attitudes. If the ‘swinging sixties’ didn’t manifest itself much where I lived in a workaday town in the midlands of England, the stylishness, and sexiness of the time was at least represented ‘on the goggle box’ on a Saturday night. Even the music was cool - Johnny Dankworth in first couple of series for main theme and some jazzy stings'.
By the time Diana Rigg joined and the fourth season opened in 1965 I was allowed to stay up to watch it and have fond memories of seeing the show with my brother and parents and sometimes with family friends at holiday times, and then, next day, re-enacting the dramas with my brother! The programme fired my imagination in a way that no other did or has.
Yes, I enjoyed Thunderbirds, but they were obviously puppets! Yes, I loved Doctor Who – especially the ones set in contemporary Britain, where again since the forces hid behind apparently bland exteriors. But clearly, there were men inside those Daleks and Cybernauts costumes, and although I enjoyed and relished in the fantasy and admired the skills that clearly went into it, I found the suspense of disbelief little harder.
But The Avengers made me wonder that, when I walked into a normal store, or say the barbershop, if there could be some sinister goings-on in that office at the back. A dead body perhaps, in a crate, or machine guns and explosives to be used in two against the country. What did those whispers and sly looks mean? Was that a note handed by one assistant to the other, telling him to kill one of the customers, who was in fact a secret agent, or had unwittingly discovered their fiendish schemes? Because, dear reader, as a child there are all sorts of things that you cannot quite understand. Grown-ups stop talking about something when you come into the room. There are clearly things that are not to be mentioned in front of children. Sometimes the grown-ups say one thing and you know they mean another thing. There are meaningful looks that you can’t decode.
So, the whole world is a bit of a mystery and, if you like, a conspiracy of confusion and distraction. It is not too much of a leap of imagination to imagine something far more extraordinary going on. But the show itself demonstrated a perfect arc of development on what was at the start a fairly low budget, studio-based show, to – thanks to money from one of the U.S. TV networks who needed the series on film because of the different standards of videotape and transmission used and who wanted something slicker and with higher production values – a 35mm movie production standard and techniques, including lots of exterior/location work. This was first in black and white and then in colour for the second Diana Rigg series (season five) – nearly three years before the ITV network in the UK broadcast in colour.
After Rigg’s departure – the second female co-star to depart to take part in a Bond movie, it got much more camp six and silly and playful laughs from 1968 and I didn’t enjoy those shows at the time and don’t now. I enjoyed even less its revival in the 1970s as The New Avengers. Not that there wasn’t any merit at all in the series but it had lost its special charm, magic and imagination by 1968.
Possibly, yes, it is a matter of nostalgia as well. In 1968 I moved to secondary/high school and we also moved house and I was losing childhood innocence. But one of the glories of the box set is that it not only provides the usual audio commentary, photo galleries, publicity releases, TV listings, magazine interviews of the time and even at out of the audience ratings, but are also PDFs of all the scripts and the full production schedule.
Sometimes, when I’m in full anorak mode – undoubtedly ‘sad’ though this is – I’ve run it alongside the video of the episode. I definitely don’t think I’m wrong in believing that the ideas and creativity in the show was superior to anything before or since (especially given the production limitations of the time) and certainly something that sustained over so many episodes, series and different incarnations. It certainly did also did strike a blow for feminism and other progressive ideas up until at least the introduction of the Linda Thorson character, Tara King, and provided a certain dissonance with the gender roles and lives portrayed in the commercials which funded the programme!
I think it all went wrong really when the American network provided too much of the money and it became more important to serve its interests than it did the British audiences and advertisers. It also became an important export for the country when it was desperately needed. One of the nice things about it is that, unlike so many popular showers – and The Avengers really was a very popular show! – is that none of those involved are anything but immensely proud in being associated with it. Macnee acted on stage and in many other roles and Diana Rigg is of course one of our most respected actors on stage and screen, yet she has never dismissed her time on The Avengers. Many of the writers, directors, editors and others in the production team(s) went on to further great distinction.
Perhaps the best demonstration of its hold on my imagination is that I can still rarely go past a church without wondering that, if I looked around the door in the Vestry, I would see that the sound of bells ringing, organ playing and choir singing was produced by a tape recorder, and the church was deserted, apart from the ‘newly arrived’ vicar, who would be pointing a gun at me!