When one thinks of the internationally popular 1960s TV series “The Avengers”, more often than not one will recall the show’s fanciful, mind-altering, highly stylised storylines, along with its arch play on those ultimate symbols of middle-class Englishness, the bowler hat and brolly. There is something about the image projected by this show that always seems to bring to mind stereotypical representations of English life -- of cream teas and scones and English bowling greens, summer days in idyllic small villages with rose-lined cottages; while at the same time it seems to encapsulate our ideas of the then emerging new mood of the Sixties: the playful, psychedelic anarchy of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper; the era’s vibrancy and looseness -- the fresh lick of paint brought to contemporary culture of the time and its accompanying new-found freedom of expression, especially for Women in the age of the Pill, can be perfectly summed up, it seems, in Emma Peel’s purple one-piece cat suit and Cathy Gale’s fetish-leather and kinky boots. The French refer to the series by the phrase ‘Bowler Hat & Kinky Boots’. It neatly compacts the two sides of the ‘60s: the staid traditionalism on one side and the ‘anything goes’ sexuality of the other, both somehow enhancing each other’s appeal in the form of the supremely knowing, always wry relationship between the super-dapper John Steed and his succession of ever-capable (and beguilingly sexy) female sidekicks.
But now go right back to the very first episode of “The Avengers” in 1961, and you will get a huge shock. If there is one show that didn't arrive on our TV screens fully realised, but instead had to eke out its eventual position in popular culture piece by piece and accident by accident, then this show is it! A new box set from Optimum Releasing, comprising the scant remains of Series One and the entire Series Two (all of the series, right up to and including that of the troubled Linda Thorson era, are set to be released with freshly remastered transfers throughout 2010) provides us with a fascinating document of a show in a constant state of transition in its early years. The creative team behind the original show, principally Director of Drama programming Sidney Newman and producer Leonard White, concocted it simply as a replacement vehicle for their ’star’ actor at the time, Ian Hendry. Internal politics long since lost in the mists of time had been responsible for ending his last show for ABC, a sort of “Dixon of Dock Green” surrogate for the commercial channel called “Police Surgeon”, and a new show, ideally one where Hendry got to essay what was essentially a reprise of his former role in a slightly different guise, was now needed -- and quickly!
Only one episode now remains of “Police Surgeon” and it is included on disc One (the Ian Hendry years) of this Eight disc set as a background forming ‘extra’. In it, Hendry is the Police Surgeon of the title, a doctor Geoffrey Brent, and the storyline of the episode “Easy Money” is a quaint ’50s morality piece concerned with the plight of a young leather-jacketed tearaway, who really just needs a firm, paternalistic guiding hand to set him back on the straight-and-narrow. The young ‘lout’ in question, Jim Clark, is played by -- of all people -- a young Michael Crawford (who appears to have the as-yet unborn spirit of Frank Spencer struggling to escape from him in the form of the occasional lip quiver and a familiar quavering upper register) and his collar has been well and truly felt, when we first join him, for the heinous crime of robbing eight half-crowns from a cigarette machine. The young tyke seems to get off the charge at first with the unwitting help of Dr Brent who unknowingly provides him with the means of concocting an alibi (he was at the races guv! And thanks to Brent thoughtlessly discarding his evening paper in the interview room, teenage Crawford can reel off the names of all the winners!). But the good doctor runs in to Jim again (Brent having by now realised his mistake) at the café next door to the station, and over a nice cuppa, Brent patiently and painstakingly roots out the causes of the youth’s nascent delinquency, and soon establishes that there is still a chance for the lad to do the right thing and take the law abiding path in life.
The episode offers us an interesting glimpse of late-fifties TV morality (it aired in 1960) and locates the emerging teen culture and its associated delinquency with an unwillingness by the younger generation to accept the stoicism of their parents who had lived through the austerity of post war Britain and, according to the Crawford character, had emerged with precious little to show for it. Money is the true liberator for the younger generation. The episode even begins with one young police officer preparing to leave the Force after becoming the recipient of a tidy win on the pools -- again, the quest for easy money threatening to unpick the seams of society. Clark wants the lavish lifestyle of the crooks and small-time gangsters he sees prospering all around him on the back streets of Bayswater London; until he witnesses one of this new breed of ’heroes’ of his tormenting an old man in the cafe, and his true decent nature finally reasserts itself.
But what does all this slice-of-life, kitchen sink morality drama have to do with “The Avengers”?
After “Police Surgeon” was taken off air, Ian Hendry was quickly re-established in ABC’s prim-time slot with its replacement drama, again playing a doctor (now a general practitioner rather than a police surgeon, but otherwise essentially the same character with a different name), called, this time, doctor David Keel. The world of Avengers ‘Mark 1’ is similar in many ways to the world of “Police Surgeon“. It’s early-1961 but it’s still, to all intents and purposes, the 1950s in feel. After the breezy jazz-styled theme tune of Johnny Dankworth (played in over laughably primitive printed title cards), the first episode establishes that Dr David Keel is about to be married to his fiancée Peggy, the daughter of Dr Tredding who owns the practice in which he works. But fate is about to deal them a harsh hand … A drugs courier delivers his wares to the wrong doctor (a mix up over the spelling of the name Tredding) and Peggy becomes the unintended recipient of the package of Heroin, leading in turn to her being cold bloodedly murdered. Gunned down in the street by a professional marksman while looking in a department store window, she dies in Keel’s arms.
We only have twenty-minutes of this first episode to judge it by. Frustratingly, John Steed isn’t introduced in this only remaining Act. Indeed, most of this first series has subsequently been wiped and only two full episodes remain. Optimum Releasing assemble what remains in order of episode production and it reveals a much grittier crime-based drama than we’re used to associating with John Steed. Patrick Macnee is very much a secondary character to Ian Hendry’s leading man in this version of the show. Of the two remaining full episodes we see here, Macnee’s John Steed appears in only one!
Ironically, the other full episode, “Girl on a Trapeze”, offers us a glimpse of the show’s later male/female partnership dynamics and the story is the equal of the espionage-based capers that make up a large portion of the more revered Cathy Gale era episodes, with Dr. Keel and his secretary becoming involved in a defection drama, centred around a visiting Russian circus, after Keel witnesses a faked suicide at London Bridge. Ingrid Hafner as Carol Wilson gets plenty of action in this engaging story and even gets to save the day at the end in an elaborate deception. Wilson and David Keel make a capable team, but it is the other full episode here, “The Frighteners”, that gives us our only glimpse of how the main bulk of the series might have played out, and how Steed and Keel actually interacted.
The criminals who the duo engage with in this series seem to be rather low-rent types in the main. The first episode’s title, “Hot Snow”, is a colloquial drugs reference: ‘snow’ being what the early-‘60s seedy underworld criminals in the show call Heroin. It’s hard to imagine the teleplay writers deploying such authentic-sounding slang in later seasons as that which appears throughout these first episodes. Steed and Keel tend to flit about a damp-looking night-time London in trench coats (a far cry from Steed’s bowler hated gentleman image) getting involved in various shady crime operations rather than thwarting the kind of diabolical masterminds that populate the average Diana Rigg episode. In “The Frighteners” Keel provides the hard-boiled leading man action dramatics, while Steed is a mysterious secret agent whose ultimate agenda seems to be mostly unknown. He’s not above a little sharp practice, it seems. In one telling scene he turns the methods of one of the ‘frighteners’ of the title (a criminal group who are employed to beat up and scare people by their wealthy clients) against him when he gives the impression of being perfectly willing to torture the culprit for information on his organisation; Keel himself threatens the gang master with acid at one point, but this turns out to be a ruse -- but you do get the impression that Steed would have really gone through with it if necessary.… Not something one could countenance the Steed of later years ever doing.
After the first series ended production in December 1961, an actors’ strike delayed work on the start of the next batch of episodes. The team attempted to take advantage of this interruption, though, to buy themselves some time and get some episodes written in advance. TV broadcasting at this time was an entirely different beast from what we know today, being somewhere between live theatrical drama and feature film. Each show was recorded, at Teddington studios, on video tape and ‘shot-as-live’ (some episodes in the first series were performed live and never recorded at all), with no retakes, and no stoppages between scenes. Basically, once the cameras started rolling they didn’t stop again until the episode was over. Any fluffed lines, missed cues or other accidents were part of the finished show and that was it for all time!
Given these limitations “The Avengers” seems to have been an astonishingly daring venture. There is nothing stagy or static about these early shows. Of course, they’re a long way from the glossy filmic splendour of the 35mm-shot Diana Rigg episodes, but the elaborate studio sets, the frequent costume changes, the sophisticated camera moves and elaborate shots that require actors to hit their marks precisely, must surely have necessitated a huge amount of rehearsal and concentration from the entire cast and crew, not to mention the choreographed fight sequences that often have to take place! The limits of live broadcast were constantly being pushed in the series, mainly due to the participation of innovative directors such as Peter Hammond, who was justly remembered for his clever use of mirrors in order to make the small sets look bigger. Remarkably, some of these episodes even require and make use of the presence of live animals on set, and Steed is even given a Dalmatian (called Freckles) as a pet in several stories! No wonder, then, that there are so many instances of scenes starting with actors being caught waiting slightly too long for their cue, boom mikes descending into shot and cameras bumping into sets!
When the strike was over and “The Avengers” production team reconvened to start on the second series, they had rather a serious problem. Their lead actor was no longer available! During the strike Ian Hendry had landed himself a film deal which meant he was no longer free to carry on with the show. Patrick Macnee had become equally as popular as Hendy over the course of the first series’ run of episodes though, so the decision was made to carry on and make Macnee the lead instead. But the team already had three episodes fully written which had been produced under the assumption that Hendry would still be involved with the show; there was no question of wasting these scripts, since the punishing schedule (scripts being written one week and filmed the next!) simply didn’t allow for such luxuries. But Newman and Leonard White were still determined to ring the changes and experiment further with the format of the show. When the first episode of the second series, “Mr Teddy Bear”, hit the screen on the 29th of September 1962, audiences were presented with a very different but wonderfully intriguing new spin on what they might have been expecting after the first series. John Steed now had a feisty female partner called Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman), a widowed anthropologist and top judo expert to boot!
This first episode to be screened in the UK is already a world away from the gritty, straightforward crime drama of previous episodes. The story, like most others in this second series, is still concerned with espionage themes, but this particular episode is actually closer in nature to the more fantastical plots of later series when the show was in its heyday. One memorable sequence has Mrs Gale enter the sanctum of a mysterious assassin whom she intends to pay to have John Steed murdered, in order to flush out the identity of this ingenious killer, only to be confronted with a cuddly toy Teddy Bear seated on a desk (in a room furnished with creepy looking dolls). She then proceeds to converse with the toy for several minutes in what must be one of the most surreal sequences in British TV history! The assassin, of course, is relaying his voice through the toy by way of a walkie-talkie. With its ingenious twists, its marvellously outlandish villain and, most of all, its sparkling, edgy repartee between Steed and Mrs Gale (whom he still calls ‘Cathy’ at this early point in their relationship) this episode immediately lifts the series onto a different plane from the previous series. Even Gale’s leather action suit makes an early appearance here. It’s quite obvious from the interaction between the two characters in this episode (“Why aren’t you dead!” says Gale angrily in one famous exchange, after Steed casually reappears after having apparently been offed by the assassin) that there is a tremendous sparkle between Macnee and Honor Blackman and the writers would go onto play on this for all it was worth -- and its actually the character stuff between these two that everybody remembers rather than specific plots or action sequences.
The irony is that although this was the first episode UK viewers of the second series saw after the series break, it was not the first episode of the series to be recorded. It was not even the first Cathy Gale episode to be shot. The producers still had all those scripts originally written with the assumption that Ian Hendry would be resuming his role as David Keel in hand. The tone of the show with Honor Blackman in the role as Steed’s partner was too different to rewrite all these scripts quickly, so instead Newman and White cast another male actor, Jon Rollason, to come in for three episodes and play a second male doctor partner for Steed, called doctor Martin King (no relation to Tara King one presumes!). These episodes were then threaded throughout the series, so that, confusingly for viewers at the time, Steed’s partner would change from week to week! But it gets worse. Few people these days (unless they’re Avengers aficionados) remember that Steed also had a second female partner in this series. For six episodes, shot sporadically throughout the series run, sometimes concurrently with the Honor Blackman episodes to save time, Steed was teamed up with a night club singer called Venus Smith (Julie Stevens). The relationship between these two is hugely different from that of Steed and Gale. Smith is a simple, girlish ingénue, easily manipulated by Steed , often being put in extreme danger without any understanding of what she is getting herself into. It’s actually rather a cynical dynamic, at least in the first few episodes in which the character appears. Julie Stevens’ inherently bubbly and likeable personality only makes Steed seem even more of a cad in these episodes.
The show’s creators were clearly experimenting with the format in this second series. At the beginning, they would have had no idea if audiences would accept a female character who was fully the equal of the male lead, who often was more clued up than him and who could take part in fight sequences without ever requiring any male assistance. Nothing like it had ever been seen of British TV before. The Martin King episodes were obviously there to placate fans of the David Keel era, while Venus Smith was an experiment that relied on a more traditional female character, and also allowed the incorporation of musical numbers into the show. Venus gets to sing at least two songs per episode; they're all terrible of course, but as a format idea it actually works fairly well. Of course, as it turned out, Honor Blackman quickly took the nation by storm, and the actress was signed up for the rest of the series. Poor Julie Stevens completed her allotted six episodes (spread thinly throughout the series run) and then disappeared into obscurity, resurfacing only as a tricky pub quiz question (name all the “Avengers” girls) designed to catch out unwary Avengers innocents.
With all these different experiments in progress throughout the series, the show must have seemed rather patchy at times to viewers. But Optimum Releasing have adopted the interesting and justified strategy of arranging the episodes in order of production rather than transmission for this box set release (since there is no official transmission order and in any case episodes were screened in a different order from region to region). This really does allow us to see how the character of Cathy Gale changed subtly, episode by episode, as Honor and the production team refined their conception of her. It also means that disc Two starts off with three rather mediocre (in comparison to what follows them) Martin King episodes, rather than the groundbreaking Honor Blackman adventure, “Mr Teddy Bear”.
Jon Rollason’s Martin King seems a great deal less edgy than Ian Hendry’s doctor lead. For a start, he actually seems to want to medically attend to people in these episodes, which is more than Keel ever seems to do. But likeable though the character is, he’s far too bland when lined up next to his competition in this series. From the moment Honor Blackman turns up on screen in episode Four, “Death Dispatch”, you can see that this relationship is going to fly. The character is much softer and far more tolerant of Steed’s mischievous sense of humour in this first episode. Her hair is more elaborately styled and her dress more conventional, as it would be for most of this series. But the rapport between Steed and Gale is there from the off. And somewhere in the middle of the production of this series, 1692 turned to 1963 and the sixties started swinging! Mrs Gale becomes much harder, less willing to put up with Steed’s manipulations, often willing to give him a jolly good piece of her mind; while he becomes more respectful of her abilities while always maintaining his teasing sense of humour. The frumpy cloaks and funny little hats start to disappear and the leather wear begins to become that much more frequent. The same process take place with the development of Venus Smith. In fact her character is completely revamped after two episodes, a rather rubbish fifties styled wig (which makes her look like Myra Hindly) gets dropped in favour of an up-to-the-minute Mary Quant cut and trendy sixties clothes. The character seems to become about ten years younger as well; she’s much more girlie (more like a Doctor Who companion from the same era) in later episodes, her torch songs making way for annoyingly bouncy renditions of ‘Mocking Bird’ and obscure music hall numbers done in a jaunty jazz style.
The series as a whole is a hodgepodge of shining brilliance mixed with occasional shoddy mediocrity. All the variables that exist in a ‘shot-as-live’ video recording, especially when the material is as challenging as this, are bound to take their toll now and again. Occasionally you feel that the production team give themselves an easy week off and run through a fairly uneventful story that doesn't require too much effort; sometimes the episodes are indeed elaborate and daring but they don’t really come off as they should have. But when it goes right, it results in some of the best quality TV popular drama there's ever been, with some of the best character work that has ever been developed. Roll on series Three!
All of these videotaped episodes have been restored and re-mastered for this new UK DVD release and they definitely look much better than they ever have before. There are is still video damage much in evidence, of course, and these episodes will never look as good as the film episodes, but they still look astonishingly clear nonetheless with a well defined image that is streets better than previous hazy VHS releases. UK fans have waited a long time to have 'The Avengers” on DVD and they've been amply repaid here for their patience. While the rest of the world has been furnished with various releases which have been more or less extra-less, Optimum have put together a great package, mainly centred on commentary tracks which concentrate on the thoughts of the show's early producers and writers who conceived and developed the show in its infancy. Thus Leonard White recounts how the show developed out of the ashes of “Police Surgeon” on a commentary accompanying the surviving footage of “Hot Snow” (and also provides a filmed introduction to the one surviving episode of “Police Surgeon”). The writer Martin Woodhouse gives us an insight into the thinking behind the development of Cathy Gale in his commentary for “Mr Teddy Bear”; Leonard White turns up again to discuss the Terrence Dicks and Malcolm Hulke scripted episode “The Mauritius Penny”, a mad tale of a Pan-European invasion attempt by modern Nazis! Writer Roger Marshall talks about the episode “Death of a Great Dane” and how it came to be remade in the Diana Rigg era as “The 50,000 Breakfast”; finally actress Julie Stevens talks touchingly about her short tenure as Venus Smith in a commentary accompanying her final episode, “A Chorus of Frogs”.
Most of these people are in their seventies or eighties now, so its perhaps not surprising that there are large blanks in their memories and sometimes contradictions in the recall of various participants. There is still plenty of insight and information and occasionally just a little controversy in the opinions of these writers and producers though, and the commentaries will prove a pleasurable listen for all “Avengers” fans. In addition to these commentary tracks and the extras already mentioned, the set includes the first part of a video interview with Honor Blackman (to be continued on the box set for Series Three), a filmed introduction by Julie Stevens for the episode “The Decapod”, plus each disc features PDF files of the original scripts; there are also extensive stills galleries. The box set will also include an insert reprint of the original publicity brochure for the first Honor Blackman season and reprints of Leonard White’s scrapbooks featuring telesnaps of lost series One episodes.
This is a wonderfully nostalgic trip for fans of cult TV and much of it still holds up surprisingly well, despite the obvious limitations of the productions. The real magic though comes from the characters and the performances by Blackman and Macnee which we get to see quietly developing and occasionally blossoming into some magnificent interaction and some great pieces of writing once the writers and producers realise what they are being given here to play with. Marvellous stuff. Highly recommended viewing.