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Avengers, The: A Celebration

Review by: 
Marcus Hearn
Publication Date: 
Titan Books
Bottom Line: 

 Since its tentative inception by producer Leonard White, Head of Drama Sidney Newman and a host of ABC executives in the early sixties, “The Avengers” has become a byword for British TV drama at its most stylish, sophisticated and witty. Most of all, it provides an inimitable pictorial representation of the cultural development of the 1960s, from the show’s evocative beginnings as gritty English noir, starring Ian Hendry and Patrick Macnee as mac-wearing investigators David Keel and John Steed, stalking the crumbling backstreets of post-fifties gangland London; to the riotous psychedelia of its kooky denouement in 1969 – its final scenes pitching Steed and his partner Tara King aboard a rocket-ship bound for outer-space: the show spanned an entire decade, and its development seems to mirror the emergence of Britain from the black and white world of post-war rationed austerity, into vibrant, colourful, ‘swinging’ capital of consumer-driven affluence as represented by the modish youth culture of Carnaby Street. The show was always uniquely concerned with its presentation and appearance; from the very start it was well-served by high quality production stills and a small catalogue of behind-the-scenes photographic representation, which -- in the case of series one -- is now an invaluable record of the era, since apart from a handful of surviving episodes, the series in its first incarnation no longer exists, all the video recordings having been long ago wiped. As the show reached the zenith of its popularity around the world in the mid-sixties, its visual documentation branched out to make full use of the new forms of consumer-led visual expression then becoming popular. The show itself went into colour, bringing the optimism and playfulness of the decade to the world in broader comic-book strokes. But its two stars, Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg also began promoting the show and the brand of The Avengers, by participating in a round of modelling sessions, fashion shows and lavish location shoots which, in combination with the show’s copious production stills and its unit photography, now forms just as evocative a summation of the period as the episodes of the series itself; the complete archive of this photographic record forms some ten thousand images.

With 2010 being the fiftieth anniversary of the show, and as the last two box sets of the sixties’ series are released fully restored on DVD by Optimum, Titan Books bring us Marcus Hearn’s luxurious coffee table hardback record of The Avengers as captured in the photography of the 1960s, comprising the best of a wide selection of digitally restored images gleaned from throughout the programme’s history, some of which have never been seen before.  

The book is organised by a simple and sensible format and, after a nostalgic Forward written by Patrick Macnee and a brief overview and introduction from author Marcus Hearn, is split into six chapters marking each Avengers series. Each chapter consists of Hearn’s summery of that series, covering the background to its production and making use of archive interviews given by the stars at the time and new interviews with the surviving members of the crew. The first chapter establishes director Peter Hammond as being a pivotal force in the forging of an early visual style for the programme – a factor which was crucial to its prospects for success given the cramped conditions under which the programme was filmed ‘as live’ in a single recording session at Teddington Studios. A telling shot in chapter two gives us an overhead view of the subdivided studio floor during the recording of the series two episode “Death of a Great Dane”, and reveals what must have been a frantic and nerve-racking process. This first chapter reveals some magnificent black and white stills photography from episodes now lost, and there are several full-page black and white images which illustrate the show’s noir beginnings handsomely. After the text introduction to the series, the rest of each chapter illustrates each individual episode with either a single evocative image or with a spread of portraits and production stills. We can see from the selection in the first chapter how Steed transforms from a mysterious trench-coated figure, first glimsped lurking in the shadows of a shabby-looking street, to a rather rakish, more flamboyant character by later episode “Tunnel of Fear”, where he’s seen flirting with a dancing girl from an exotic troupe while undercover as a fortune-teller at a Southend funfair. The accompanying captions flesh out the context of the images with quotes from interviews and brief plot summaries.

By series Two and Three, we can see how the show has transformed itself into an exciting, attractive and increasingly stylish adventure espionage show that managed to turn the departure of its leading man Ian Hendry into an opportunity to reflect the changing spirit of the times with the casting of Honor Blackman in the role of judo expert and anthropologist widower turned super-spy, Cathy Gale.  This phase of the show is represented by far more  publicity shots designed to promote a specific image of the show to potential viewers, rather than just the on-set production stills of the unit photographers. We also see the emergence of other types of publicity materials such as magazine covers, sales brochures and flyers – all of which are also visually represented among the images included here. Chapter two also reminds us that Steed briefly had a second Avengers girl simultaneous with Mrs Gale, in the form of Julie Stevens who played night club singer Venus Smith for six episodes, and is pictured here displaying her new Vidal Sassoon hairstyle for the episode “Box of Tricks”.  The character was not brought back for series three after new producer John Bryce had overseen the emergence of Cathy Gale as a national phenomenon.

Cathy Gale was the first strong, independent woman on British television to be represented in an unfailingly positive light, the character’s dress sense develops from quite a fifties style in an early 1963 publicity shot for the episode “Bullseye”, to the familiar leather-clad heroine of later series three episodes such as “November Five” and “Mandrake”, for which a special all-leather fighting suit was designed by London Couturier Frederick Starke. The most interesting production shots for fans of the show will undoubtedly be the colour images from these early episodes, since they give us a much more vivid appreciation of a period which we only know from its grainy black and white videotaped recordings. There are some fascinating behind the scenes images as well, one of which illustrates Honor Blackman and Patrick Macnee rehearsing a sequence in the episode “Warlock” with choreographer Pat Kirshner.

By series Four, we see the show transform itself from a parochial British TV series into an international broadcasting  phenomenon -- as the series began shooting on film, using the one camera format more usually used in cinema. The publicity materials become accordingly more sophisticated, portraying an image of glamour, sophistication and modernity to the rest of the world. The figurehead of this latest phase was a young Shakespearian actress called Diana Rigg, first pictured in chapter four celebrating the series’ sale to the ABC Network in America alongside Patrick Macnee at a Champaign reception in 1965, opposite a full colour portrait in which she models just one of the many John Bates designed dresses and costumes she was to wear in this ground-breaking series. Fashion became hugely important to the show from this point. We see in publicity shots and production stills how the show reflected the voguish Op Art fashions of the period in both its production design and in John Bates’ modish costuming for Rigg. The frontispiece of the book even has a shot taken around about this time, which displays a department store street window dressed in a selection of Bates’ Emma Peel garments for a VOGUE campaign, since all of the clothes worn by Emma Peel in series four were made commercially available.

The series has since become rightly celebrated for its black and white Op Art imagery, but it is striking how well the colour production stills taken at the time stand up, particularly in showcasing Harry Pottle’s amazing production design for the interior set created for the episode “The House That Jack Built” – which is seen here in full colour as opposed to the stark black and white of the actual episode, displaying an opulent design of black and gold zigzag corridors. ‘Peelites’ will also be heartened to see the full-colour black and white portrait of Diana Rigg dressed in her self-designed ‘Queen of Sin’ costume for the episode “A Touch of Brimstone”, complete with spiked collar. There’s also a fascinating glimpse of ‘the Emma Peel who never was’ in a two page spread of colour photos of Elizabeth Shepherd, photographed on location while shooting her one completed episode (now lost) before being replaced with Diana Rigg. She’s dressed in a vivid red leather hooded outfit by an American designer, Bonnie Cashin, revealing how the character was conceived more in the same vein as Cathy Gale in the beginning.

By series five when the show finally began being filmed in colour, the publicity machine was in overdrive. This era furnishes us with exotic photo shoots which now serve as a glossy pictorial  record of Swinging London in the mid-sixties, as well as serving as publicity for the show itself. Diana Rigg is being shamelessly projected as a sex symbol in shots where she’s pictured riding a white horse across a beach, dressed in designer Alun Hughes’ pristine white catsuit. Macnee and Rigg are pictured outside Pierre Cardin’s store in Paris in one shot, and John Steed would principally be dressed by the Italian-born designer for the whole of series five.  Many of Alun Hughes’ designs would also be available in the shops after a 1967 fashion show at the Mayfair Hotel – stills from which are also seen in this chapter. Perhaps the most iconic images from this chapter sum up best how the show had become a part of Swinging London’s self-projected image rather than simply reflecting it back to the rest of the world: Patrick Macnee is pictured immaculately dressed in a series of Pierre Cardin suits -- some with his traditional bowler and umbrella; but beside him is not Diana Rigg, but the face of ’66: the  supermodel Lesley Hornby, more commonly known as Twiggy – dressed in a variety of Emma Peel’s Alun Hughes-designed clothes. The session was photographed by sixties celebrity photographer Terry O’Neill.

Series six saw Linda Thorson promoted to Patrick Macnee’s side as young agent Tara King. Thorson had a difficult settling in period as the show struggled to find its direction in a world that was now entrenched in the hangover phase after a giddy few years of cultural revolution. The production stills show a programme that was scaling new heights of post-flower power comic book excess, with Thorson’s hair style and dress seemingly changing quite radically with every other episode. The photo shoots, fashion shows and publicity shots are notably absent from this chapter in the show’s history. The photographic record of the period is made up of production stills and behind-the-scenes shots exclusively. However, there are some lovely full-page colour portraits of Thorson, derived from episode production stills, which display the unique personality she brought to the show. The Tara King phase always seems to me not to have aged so well visually as the Emma Peel era, the late sixties fashions in male grooming (Macnee’s pronounced sideburns for instance, which the actor himself describes as making ‘… me look like a back street dealer in pornographic magazines.’) and Tara King’s often flowery female attire, now seem quite dated. The show began to seem more like merely a product of its times rather than floating above them and projecting them to audiences around the world and to future generations. It is fitting then, that the show wound up production in 1969; and that is where this enjoyable pictorial catalogue of an era leaves the show. There are no chapters on the 1970s series “The New Avengers”, or the stage play and film version – all of these being seen as separate entities that exist apart from the original sixties series.

This large format glossy hardback from Titan Books is the perfect accompaniment to the series for audiences who are either discovering the show for the first time on DVD or revisiting it once again after a long hiatus. Marcus Hearn’s text is concise yet informative, offering us the chronology of the show’s development and some of the flavour of its various transformations with the aid of judiciously selected contemporary quotes and evocative behind-the-scenes stills. It perfectly captures the confident energy and stylish elan with which the show pursued its mission to entertain sixties audiences, and reveals exactly why it continues to enthrall audiences still today.

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