“Look — (Stop Me If You've Heard This One) — But There Were These Two Fellers...”
Turning on my television, one Sunday morning, I found an unfeasibly young-looking John Cleese, wearing a bow tie, trying to prevent a woman from entering a room containing shelves filled with eggs, on which were painted clown faces, as a mark of copyright. (There is a real Clown Egg Register, but they moved to using ceramic eggs in the 1980s.) Later, I saw a group of henchmen taking orders from Punch & Judy puppets, before killing their targets using slapstick, and also a comedy writer, played by Bernard Cribbins, wildly spouting one-liners before he is killed, in a room filled with scrunched-up pieces of paper, filled with aborted attempts at writing a joke.
Yes, I also thought “The Avengers” – the “actual” “Avengers,” not the Marvel Comics one - was supposed to be about espionage, but this episode, using the long title above, came during the show’s sixth and last season in 1968-69, by which point it had become a parody of espionage shows, of Britain in the Swinging Sixties, and of itself. In the United States, “The Avengers” was shown on ABC, the same network as the Adam West “Batman” series, and even if the punches and gunshots were real here, the overall tone was much the same. In fact, the story of the show shares some similarities with a later ABC show – “Happy Days.”
When it began in 1961, “The Avengers” was the story of a police surgeon, Dr David Keel (Ian Hendry), who is contacted by John Steed (Patrick Macnee) to solve cases, with stories that played the idealism of the former against the professionalism of the other. Hendry was the star, and Macnee did not spear in every episode. A few episodes of this first series still exist, and they are very engaging, with quite a bit of grit and grime you do not expect if you have only seen the later episodes. In the early 1960s, UK television dramas were filmed as if they were live broadcasts of a stage play, with multiple cameras, sets and a few film inserts, with as much tension coming from this set-up as from the stories themselves – a couple of fluffed lines will make their way through, but it doesn’t matter.
Ian Hendry would leave “The Avengers” for a film career, and the show was changed – Steed’s character became more defined as working for a branch of British intelligence, and his trenchcoated look was swapped for Saville Row suits. A couple of different helpers were tried, but the impact of Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, a tough, leather-suited anthropologist with skills in hand-to-hand combat, defined a new sexual tension that became integral to the show - Macnee and Blackman would later record the novelty song “Kinky Boots” together.
When Honor Blackman would leave for her own film career, starting with “Goldfinger,” “The Avengers” stopped production for six months, in order to work out how to proceed. This is where the “Happy Days” analogy comes in, as “jumping the shark” comes from the moment Arthur Fonzarelli jumped over a shark tank on a motorcycle, and the show stopped being about Richie Cunningham. With “The Avengers” handed over to a team that dealt more with film than TV, the show was consciously turned into the most expensive advertising campaign for British tourism, with stately homes and countryside on view. This attracted ABC, who began commissioning episodes of “The Avengers” for the US, with the UK seeing them later – this change of affairs turned the studio-bound show into a Technicolor action spectacle shot entirely on film, and shot like a feature film, with the equivalent of a million-pound budget for every episode.
The characters changed again. John Steed was the epitome of a gentleman spy, with the origin of his orders no longer explained, apart from saying that he, and his sidekick, “were needed.” Plots could now incorporate science fiction, comedy, or whatever the writers wanted, anything as an excuse to show off the style of the show. A need for Blackman’s replacement to be someone also with “man appeal” – “m. appeal” - created Emma Peel, with Diana Rigg’s character holding their own as much as Cathy Gale, with superior skills, including in chemistry (both scientific and sexual – Macnee thought Steed and Peel did go to bed together away from the camera).
The last series of “The Avengers”, with Linda Thorson’s more innocent Tara King replacing Rigg’s Peel, was supposed to be a return to a grittier type of story, but this swung wildly with stories in the older style, which led to the episode featuring John Cleese and Bernard Cribbins. When ABC cancelled the show, no-one in the UK recommissioned it, and the show died - until French and Canadian investment led to “The New Avengers” in 1976.
By the end of the 1960s, the influence of “The Avengers” was very much in evidence – we would not have the ATV/ITC string of more outlandish shows like “The Persuaders!”, “The Champions,” “Jason King” and “Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased)” - although they can also claim their lineage from “The Saint,” starring Roger Moore, which itself became more frivolous over time. The superficial gloss of “The Avengers” is fascinating to watch back, reflecting its time perfectly, but now I know what the show was like when it started, that has also become a good watch, even if it is entirely unrelated to what it would become.