The Avengers: ‘M’ Appeal

The Avengers Banner 2

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

With the departure of Honor Blackman and the imminent move into filmed production, The Avengers was changing. Out went the producer John Bryce, and in came Julian Wintle, Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens, a team more experienced in working on film. Between them, they created the character of John Steed’s new partner. She was originally called Samantha (or Mantha for short), but this was a compromise name which no-one was really happy. It was the show’s publicity officer Marie Donaldson, who took the phrase ‘Man Appeal’, shortened it to ‘M Appeal’ and from there she christened the new character. The actress originally cast in the role of Emma Peel was Elizabeth Sheppard, an experienced TV actress much in the physical and stylistic mould of her predecessor. The tall, slim and blonde Sheppard was thought an ideal foil for Patrick Macnee, but things were not as clear-cut as they seemed.

Filming began on Town of No Return, the first episode of the new series, with Patrick Macnee and Elizabeth Sheppard as John Steed and Emma Peel. The producers quickly became nervous of their choice of new lead actress. Though an undoubtedly beautiful and talented actress, the frisson which seemed to sparkle between Sheppard and Macnee in real life seemed to be lost on camera. Also, Sheppard appeared to be intent upon unachievable suggestions as to the style and character of her role; the bill alone for her fashionable Bonnie Cashin wardrobe sent ructions through the production office. Finally, when Town of No Return was completed and edited, it became clear that the on-screen relationship between Steed and Mrs Peel, as played by Elizabeth Sheppard, was flat and lifeless. Reluctantly, she was released from her contract and the search was back on for a new Emma Peel.

Patrick Macnee was pulled off filming for the second story The Murder Market while the casting process kicked in again. Among those up for the part were such notables as Moira Richmond, Rosemary Martin and Shirley Eaton. According to Patrick Macnee in his book ‘The Avengers and Me’, even his then-girlfriend Kate had an audition. But in the end it was Diana Rigg, a little-known actress rushed in at the end of the casting sessions, that unanimously wowed the production team and won the role of Mrs Emma Peel. On-screen, Rigg and Macnee’s relationship proved to be everything that her predecessor’s was not. They positively sparkled together and the production team quickly became aware that they had picked a winner.

Stylistically the series had altered also. Clemens had ushered out the gritty, spy drama style of the Gale era, in favour of a quirky streak of eccentric Britishness. This was not a 100% artistic decision – the very important US market at this time, flush with the big-screen eccentricity of Bond, was enamoured of this hip new style, which they themselves had yet to master. To match this new look, the dour strains of Johnny Dankworth’s rather dated Avengers theme were replaced by an eccentric whirligig of break-neck harpsichord and soaring strings by Laurie Johnson. This theme was to typify The Avengers for years to come, becoming one of the most instantly recognisable TV themes of all time. The opening crash of brass alone seemed to positively yell, “It’s The Avengers – brace yourself!”

Several episodes of the TV adventures of The Avengers share the ignominy of having been edited. Many provinces from around the world, especially the snip-happy Australian censors, loved to cut out the odd bit of violence; but only A Touch of Brimstone has the honour of being banned outright in both the USA and Australia, variously accused of S&M, perversion and sexual deviancy. The episode revolving around the infamous Hellfire Club seems fairly mild by modern standards and it provided the series with some of its best-known imagery. Few features on this era of The Avengers go without a picture of Diana Rigg in her iconic ‘Queen of Sin’ outfit (including, I suspect, this one). In fact, many of the series’ icons stem from this season, including the established Steed look of brolly and bowler and the series’ only recurring villains, the Cybernauts.

The fourth series of The Avengers was an unparalleled success, both in the UK and in the US, meaning that the production of a fifth season was unquestionable. There was a further frontier to be conquered, however. It was now 1966 and most American TV was now being produced in colour (even if very little British TV had yet adopted the system, for budgetary reasons), and so when the fifth season of The Avengers hit the screens, it proudly pronounced to us that it was The Avengers – In Colour’ even if most of its home audience couldn’t appreciate it as such. Despite the show’s success, it wasn’t all peaches and cream; The Avengers was one of British TV’s most expensive productions, and only the vital orders from the US networks kept it afloat. But the US buyers were still cautious of scheduling an imported show on primetime and would only purchase The Avengers in small blocks of shows. For this reason, the production ceased mid-way through season five, to await further orders from the US, causing confusion which remains to this day as to the order of the seasons.

Diana Rigg was now one of TV’s most sought-after actresses, but she was still only being paid £150 per episode, fairly paltry even by 1967 standards. She demanded a 200% pay rise, bringing her fee more in line with Macnee’s. Initially, the producers were reticent, but they knew that they needed the Macnee / Rigg partnership to secure the US deal and reluctantly agreed. Nevertheless, Rigg made it clear that she was unhappy with the hectic schedule and the invasive publicity and this would be her last year. The Avengers leapt to new heights of popularity, both in the US and UK, where the fifth season was the highest rated of its run.

True to her word, Diana Rigg departed after filming a the final episode of the fifth season, but was asked to return for a hand-over episode The Forget-Me Knot at the beginning of Season 6, for reasons that will become apparent in the next instalment. Though the show was on the crest of a wave, things are never as easy as they seem in Avengers-land, and new complications were just around the corner.

To be continued…

EPISODES

Season Four
The Town of No Return; The Gravediggers; The Cybernauts; Death at Bargain Prices; Castle De’ath; The Master Minds; The Murder Market; A Surfeit of H²O; The Hour that Never Was; Dial a Deadly Number; The Man-Eater of Surrey Green; Two’s a Crowd; Too Many Christmas Trees; Silent Dust; Room without a View; Small Game for Big Hunters; The Girl from AUNTIE; The Thirteenth Hole; Quick-Quick Slow Death; The Danger Makers; A Touch of Brimstone; What the Butler Saw; The House That Jack Built; A Sense of History; How to Succeed… at Murder; Honey for the Prince.

Season Five
From Venus with Love; The Fear Merchants; Escape in Time; The See-Through Man; The Bird who knew Too Much; The Winged Avenger; The Living Dead; The Hidden Tiger; The Correct Way to Kill; Never, Never Say Die; Epic; The Superlative Seven; A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station; Something Nasty in the Nursery; The Joker; Who’s Who?; Return of the Cybernauts; Death’s Door; The £50,000 Breakfast; Dead Man’s Treasure; You Have Just Been Murdered; The Positive-Negative Man; Murdersville; Mission: Highly Improbable.

Season Six
The Forget-Me Knot.

BONUS: THE AVENGERS ON THE RADIO

Difficult though it is for those of us in Europe or North America to comprehend, it is a fact that South Africa did not have a National Television service until 1976. Such were the enormous distances involved and the fragmented communities to be served, that it was impossible for country-wide transmissions to be made with the technology available at that time.

So what did the South African people do for entertainment on those long, steamy African nights? No, not that. They listened to the radio! South Africa had a fine commercial radio service, and still does, providing entertainment for the people in every form; from comedy to documentary, from drama to music programmes.

With this in mind, it’s perhaps not surprising that the one and only foray of The Avengers into the medium of radio should come from the booming industry of South African radio. Due to the lack of TV, the series was unknown in South Africa, and to this day, if you ask someone of a certain age in that country who played John Steed they will not reply Patrick Macnee, they will say Donald Monat.

The Avengers radio series was produced by a company called Sonovision in 1971 and 1972 and broadcast on the now sadly defunct independent channel Springbok Radio. It was sponsored by the Lever Brothers detergent company, in particular its new product Cold Water Omo, hence the voice heralding the opening of each show with the words “From the makers of Cold Water Omo,” as if the detergent manufacturers themselves made the programme.

Information on the development of the series is pretty sparse. In fact, information on the series in general is fairly fragmented – there does not even exist a definitive episode guide to the series, and out of the eighty shows recorded; only a fraction are known to survive! What is known is that in early 1971, it was decided by someone who had seen the series in Europe – possibly David Gooden, future series producer and owner of Sonovision studios – that The Avengers was a likely candidate for radio broadcast across the South African nation. A test programme (a sort of radio pilot) was recorded at the A.F. Stanley studios in Johannesburg. The part of Steed in this test show was not played by Donald Monat, though the English ex-pat actor recalled in an interview that he was involved in the pilot, possibly playing the villain.

By the time the series went into full production, Donald Monat was confirmed as Steed, and the role of Emma Peel was played by Diane Appleby who was also of British origin. The stories for the series were adapted from existing episodes of the TV series, though they were frequently stretched out quite considerably, as the radio shows were recorded in various numbers of fifteen-minute episodes. The original run of the series were all in a standard format of five fifteen-minute episodes, stripped nightly and shown at 7.15pm throughout the week, but later stories ran to lengths of up to seven episodes, irregularly straddling the weeks.

Some of the stories were fairly straight adaptations of their TV counterpart, but others varied quite obviously. The most visible changes are in the fact that many of the episodes adapted were from stories in the Tara King era of the series, but adapted for Emma Peel. This brings us the intriguing combination of Steed and Emma acting opposite Mother (here played by Colin Fish), almost thirty years before a similar situation appeared in the Avengers movie.

Other changes were more subtle. One of the existing stories, Too Many Olés, is based on the TV episode They Keep Killing Steed, but the action is switched from the Home Counties to Spain, something which is a lot easier to achieve on the radio than on television. The radio series did not shy away from what would at first seem to be very visual elements like car chases or fight sequences. These were dealt with in a breathy narrative by Hugh Rouse, a household name in South Africa at the time as a newsreader. He excitedly informs us of any visual action that is taking place in a descriptive but light-hearted detective novel style, which very effectively puts the image right in your head and almost makes you forget that you’re not actually seeing this.

As someone used to the distinctive vocal style of Macnee and Rigg, listening to Monat and Appleby is a strange, though not altogether unpleasant, experience. Monat at first appears a little gravel-voiced and Appleby seems a bit too jolly-hockey-sticks in her delivery, but one quickly becomes used to the situation, and before too long, they are firmly entrenched in the listener’s imagination as Steed and Mrs Peel.

The series certainly sounds like The Avengers. The familiar strains of Laurie Johnson’s theme herald the beginning of each episode (though many years later, Johnson admitted he knew nothing of this and received no royalties!) and the rest of the music, though obtained from stock, was certainly in the frantic mould of the series we all know and love. The sound effects too added a very visual element of action to the proceedings, making the overall package one of non-stop thrills and mystery.

The first six months of the Avengers radio serial were adapted and directed by Tony Jay, then the rest of the run by Dennis Folbigge. The stories had a tremendously swift turnaround, going from the beginning of the scripting process to the finished broadcast in less than a fortnight. There was no rehearsal for the actors, they simply turned up in the studio with their scripts and recorded as much as an entire serial – five fifteen minute episodes – in one afternoon.

Aimed at an early evening family audience, The Avengers became a tremendous success on Springbok Radio, making national stars of Donald Monat and Diane Appleby. The series ran for almost two years, though – as has been mentioned earlier – no definite records exist of the story order, or even which stories were actually made. Although the serials were all recorded, and are known to have been shipped to Australia, New Zealand and even parts of North America for syndicated broadcast, they were believed of little repeat value and almost universally lost forever.

After the series ended its run in 1972, there was one final gasp from our Radio Avengers. In 1975, Springbok Radio celebrated its Silver Anniversary with a one-off radio extravaganza called The Great Gong Robbery, bringing together characters from all its most successful shows… which included Donald Monat and Diane Appleby as John Steed and Emma Peel. Having said that, their appearance is hardly surprising as the show was the brainchild of none other than Donald Monat himself, who both wrote and directed the show.

The Great Gong Robbery was a bunch of knockabout fun for listeners with fond memories of the shows, recorded in front of a live studio audience at the SABC Variety Theatre in Johannesburg. The segment featuring The Avengers saw Steed and Mrs Peel not only retired from active duty, but actually living together. The show was also released on a double LP as part of Springbok Radio’s celebrations, but unfortunately this was to be the last ever heard from radio’s Avengers.

Though the Avengers radio serials were long thought to be lost forever, recent years have uncovered many exciting discoveries and new episodes are being regularly found in the hands of private radio collectors. Who knows? One day we might even get a full set of South Africa’s answer to The Avengers.

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