The Avengers: The Early Years

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This is a revised and updated version of material first published in the Strange Skins Avengers Special (2004).

It’s a popular myth that The Avengers grew directly out of the Ian Hendry vehicle Police Surgeon. It may have had the same star, the same producer and many of the same writers, but the new series was unconnected with Police Surgeon. In fact, Hendry’s Avengers character was altered from Dr David Dent to Dr David Keel; for fear that viewers would confuse the former with Hendry’s Police Surgeon character, Dr Geoffrey Brent. Police Surgeon ran for 14 half-hour episodes in 1960/1961, but the star, the producer and the head of drama at ATV, Sidney Newman, were all in accord that the series was going nowhere. Ian Hendry was an immensely popular TV actor and Newman was keen to find a new vehicle for the star as soon as possible. Looking for inspiration to the rising popularity of spy novels by the likes of Ian Fleming (this was still 2 years before Bond hit the big screen), Newman’s team cooked up the idea of a series teaming an everyday doctor with a dark, shadowy spy figure.

In The Avengers, Dr David Keel, determined to find justice after the murder of his wife by heroin smugglers, finds himself plunged into the twilight world of international espionage agent John Steed. For the role of Steed, Newman turned to an actor that he had met during his time in his native Canada, Patrick Macnee. Hendry and Macnee plunged themselves into the series – much more of a straightforward spy drama than what was to follow. The character of John Steed starts out very differently from the character which we all now know and love. He wore a mackintosh, the stock-in-trade of the early sixties TV lawman, carried a pistol and smoked heavily, a trait which continued well into the Cathy Gale era.

A short while into the run of the first series of The Avengers, Sidney Newman took Patrick Macnee into his office for a talk, concerned that the character of the cold, steely spy was not really working. Macnee went away and thought about how the character could be developed, coming up with the idea of making John Steed less of a low-rent James Bond and more of an English country gent, complete with tweeds and lumbering pet dog. In some episodes, though by no means all, he’s even seen sporting the iconic bowler hat and umbrella. In these early episodes, this element is substantially down-played, but it is the seed that led to the development of the ‘classic’ Steed that we all know and love.

For his part, Hendry was given free reign. He was one of the most powerful actors on British TV and was well aware of the fact, tearing up scripts and rewriting them, bawling out writers and directors. The only person never to receive his wrath was Macnee, with whom he got along famously. The first 26 episode season of mac-wearing, cigarette-smoking thrillers was just completed before an actors’ strike struck the British TV industry, stalling the new series momentarily. Unfortunately, a further blow was waiting for the series upon its return to production – Hendry’s popularity had led to his being offered a lucrative film contract, which involved his moving on from TV work. Tellingly, the final episode of the first season of The Avengers, Dragonsfield, featured John Steed alone.

Filmed live, very few episodes exist of the first season of The Avengers. For a long time, the series was thought to be gone altogether, but over the years a number of episodes have been discovered. The episodes The Frighteners, Girl on the Trapeze and Tunnel of Fear exist in their entirety, but although a film can was discovered of the first episode Hot Snow, it contains only the ‘first act’ – up to the first advert break. Nevertheless, these discoveries have allowed us to once more see a wider picture of the genesis of what is perhaps British TVs most successful series. Audio company Big Finish, best known for their Doctor Who releases, have in recent years recreated many of the missing episodes (sometimes only from partial scripts) starring Julian Wadham as John Steed and Anthony Howell as Dr David Keel.

The Avengers was in a state of change even before the departure of Ian Hendry. In order to allow the star more time for other projects, it was planned to switch to a formula which alternated between stories with Steed and Dr Keel, and stories which featured new character Venus Smith (Julie Stevens), a nightclub singer who assisted Steed in some of his adventures. The plan was to introduce Venus in the final episode of season one, but the actors’ strike which struck the end of this production block meant the cancellation of this story. By the time season two went into production, Hendry had had a change of heart and decided to leave the series altogether. This left producer Leonard White with a problem because the production was already geared toward three stories each for Keel and Venus, the scripts for which already existed.

The Venus episodes were no problem, but it was too late to rewrite the Keel stories. To alleviate this problem, a new character, Dr Martin King (Jon Rollason) was created. King was a virtual clone of Keel, brought in with no proper introduction to speak Keel’s exact lines. The three existing Keel stories (Mission to Montreal, The Sell-Out and Dead on Course) were filmed with King, but it quickly became apparent that this strategy was not going to work, and no further scripts were produced for King. Unwilling to commit to an entire season of stories featuring Venus Smith, it was decided to create a new story to fit into the more physical, action-orientated stories. In a tremendously brave move for the time, it was decided that this character would also be female, and so Mrs Catherine Gale was born.

Three actresses were in the running: Nyree Dawn Porter (favoured by Sydney Newman), Fenella Fielding and Honor Blackman. Newman did not want Blackman, but Porter was unavailable and Leonard White pushed for her over Fielding. Cast in the role, Blackman embraced the concept of the strong female role, as did the producers, dressing her in hard-wearing but feminine leather outfits. The effect on the audience (particularly the male contingent thereof) was electric. It had been feared that the viewers would not warm to such a strong female character, but exactly the opposite occurred. The female viewers found an element of personal fantasy in the idea of a woman who holds her own both mentally and physically with men, and the male viewers found a completely different element of fantasy. The idea of male viewers being drawn to a dominant female on TV had never been explored before.

Mid-season, Leonard White departed as producer, to be replaced by John Bryce. With the character of Mrs Gale proving such an immediate success, it quickly became obvious to the producers that Venus Smith was a weak link, and that the series could carry on with Gale episodes alone. After six stories, the character of Venus Smith was dropped mid-season and the series carried on with only Steed and Cathy Gale stories. Actress Julie Stevens had also become pregnant, which was another contributing factor to the departure of the Venus Smith character. The script-writers, predominantly male and unused to writing for such a character, often portrayed Mrs Gale as a peculiar hybrid character of both strong and traditional female roles. She is seen, for example, stripping down a rifle whilst wearing a dress. Blackman fought against any script that portrayed Mrs Gale as too much of the screaming female companion to Steed, and she had the backing of Patrick Macnee.

Always a very forward-thinking individual, the liberally-minded Macnee had instantly embraced the idea of being teamed with a woman who was portrayed on an equal footing with Steed. Macnee and Blackman got along famously and their on-screen chemistry is obvious from the start. A slight retrograde move in season three was that John Bryce believed that the character of Steed was becoming to overtly foppish, appearing weak and ineffectual in the shadow of the strong Mrs Gale. To this end, Steed regresses a little to be more like the Steed of season one. He is manipulative and deceitful, often using Mrs Gale in schemes to which she has no prior knowledge. This is not a great move, as Steed occasionally comes across as cruel, and is a character to which the audience finds it difficult to connect. By the beginning of the Emma Peel era, all elements of the manipulative Steed have been eradicated.

These factors aside, season three presents us with a wealth of stories that are much closer to that which we naturally associate with The Avengers. Honor Blackman as Mrs Gale is allowed to shine in the classic Don’t Look Behind You, a virtual solo piece in which she is imprisoned and mentally tortured by an old nemesis. Of the many episodes from this era that were later remade (this one as The Joker with Emma Peel), it remains unique in being far superior to its higher-budget, filmed successor. By now, The Avengers was firmly established as a TV favourite, and one of ITV’s top-rated shows. It had a tremendous overseas sales record and was even beginning to attract attention from the notoriously difficult to crack US market. However, Honor Blackman had been offered the plum role of Pussy Galore in the forthcoming Bond film Goldfinger and would be unable to continue. The search for a new Avengers girl was on…

To be continued…

EPISODES

Season One (with Dr David Keel)
Hot Snow; Brought to Book; Square Root of Evil; Nightmare; Crescent Moon; Girl on the Trapeze; Diamond Cut Diamond; The Radioactive Man; Ashes to Roses; Hunt the Man Down; Please Don’t Feed the Animals; Dance with Death; One for the Mortuary; The Springers; The Frighteners; The Yellow Needle; Death on the Slipway; Double Danger; Toy Trap; Tunnel of Fear; The Far Distant Dead; Kill the King; Dead of Winter; The Deadly Air; A Change of Bait; Dragonsfield.

Season Two (with Dr Martin King, Venus Smith and Cathy Gale)
Mr Teddy Bear: Propellant 23; The Decapod; Bullseye; Mission to Montreal; The Removal Men; The Mauritius Penny; Death of a Great Dane; The Sell Out; Death on the Rocks; Traitor in Zebra; The Big Thinker; Death Dispatch; Dead on Course; Intercrime; Immortal Clay; Box of Tricks; Warlock; The Golden Eggs; School for Traitors; The White Dwarf; Man in the Mirror; Conspiracy of Silence; A Chorus of Frogs; Six Hands Across a Table; Killer Whale.

Season Three (with Cathy Gale)
Brief for Murder; The Undertakers; Man with Two Shadows; The Nutshell; Death of a Batman; November Five; The Gilded Cage; Second Sight; The Medicine Men; The Grandeur That Was Rome; The Golden Fleece; Don’t Look Behind You; Death a la Carte; Dressed to Kill; The White Elephant; The Little Wonders; The Ringer; Mandrake; The Secrets Broker; Trojan Horse; Build a Better Mousetrap; The Outside-In Man; The Charmers; Concerto; Esprit de Corps; Lobster Quadrille.

 

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