Marcus Hearn | The Avengers: A Celebration: 50 Years of a Television Classic

It’s a large-format, beautifully-produced volume loaded with production and publicity stills and other visual memorabilia from the show along with to-the-point text by Marcus Hearn that explains the show’s somewhat convoluted production history and puts the pictures in context.

 

160 pages. Titan Books, 2010. $29.95 (hardcover)
 
I wasn’t much of a television fan as a kid but I made an exception for one show: The Avengers, which starred Patrick Macnee as the elegant, bowler-hatted John Steed and Diana Rigg as the dashing Mrs. Peel. It was never clear what they were avenging but they sure had style and their very dry tongue-in-cheek humor hinted at a kind of sophistication otherwise lacking from my world. If you’re a fan of Frasier, you may remember that this was also the favorite show of the young Niles and Frasier also.
 
The Avengers: A Celebrationwas created for people like me. It’s a large-format (11.4” x 10.2”), beautifully-produced volume loaded with production and publicity stills and other visual memorabilia from the show along with to-the-point text by Marcus Hearn (I would judge this book overall to be about 75% pictures) that explains the show’s somewhat convoluted production history and puts the pictures in context. It offers a great trip down memory lane and, unless you are already a fierce expert on the show, will also teach you a few things.
 
To start off, there were six “series” of The Avengers and in the first there was no central female character. Instead the show, which began filming in December 1960, was structured around the characters of Dr David Keel (played by Ian Hendry, who left after a year for the movies) and intelligence agent John Steed (Patrick Macnee, who would stick with the show until its end). Ingrid Hafner played Dr. Keel’s practice nurse Carol Wilson, and both she and Keel cross paths with Steed because he is involved in investigating the death of Keel’s fiancée (their efforts to avenge this death provide the show’s title).
 
The second series, which began filming in May 1962, began with the character of Dr. Martin King (Jon Rollason) as a substitute for Dr. King. It didn’t go well, and producers Leonard White and Sydney had the inspired idea of casting the second lead with an actress. Enter Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, an anthropologist, martial artist and widow (her husband had been murdered on their farm in Africa) who was thus conveniently free from domestic duties and able to concentrate on setting London to rights. Gale was a type of character unprecedented on British television (probably on television anywhere), and Blackman stayed for two series before leaving to play Bond girl Pussy Galore (I’m still wondering how that name got past the censors).
 
Series four and five, which began production in late 1964, star Diana Rigg (straight from the Royal Shakespeare Company) as Emma Peel (after one episode with Elizabeth Shepherd in the role). Rigg built on and improved the character created by Blackman while Steed’s character was somewhat softened in these series, and the relation between them was allowed to become somewhat more flirtatious. Series four was sold to ABC and became a hit in the U.S. as well as in England, and the fifth series was filmed in color to accommodate ABC’s switch to color broadcast in 1966 (color broadcasting did not become widespread in England until 1969). Another significant benefit of the American contract: the show began to be shot on 35 mm film because the British and American video formats were incompatible. The Avengers became even more stylish in its fifth season, spawning its own fashion line (“Avengewear 67”) while continuing to put on scripts which combined science fiction and fantasy elements with the spy/detective theme (hence the description of the show as “spy fi”).
 
Diana Rigg returned to the stage (and to a film career which would include a role as James Bond’s tragic bride in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) after series five and series six got off to so rough a start that producer John Bryce was fired after three episodes. Macnee’s new co-star was the Canadian actress Linda Thorson who played the novice agent Tara King, a less active and more traditionally feminine character which represented a clear departure from the Gale/Peel characters. Although successful in many parts of the world, ratings for this season declined in the U.S. (due in part to the show being scheduled opposite the popular Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In) and it was cancelled, with the final episode being produced in 1969.
 
The Avengers: A Celebration covers only the original series (no New Avengers, nothing about that dreadful 1998 film) and does a great job of preserving on the page the distinctive feel of this unique show. And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go look at some more pictures of Emma Peel in her leather catsuit. You can see a video flick-through of this book on the publisher’s web site http://titanbooks.com/blog/video-flick-through-avengers-celebration/. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply