The Avengers: King’s Gambit

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

There were big changes behind the scenes of The Avengers beyond the departure of Diana Rigg from the series. The top brass at ABC decided that the fantasy elements of the show had become too OTT (ironic, as this was exactly the element which attracted the American audience) and in a bold, but ultimately very foolish, move they paid off Clemens and Fennell and brought back John Bryce, producer of most of the Cathy Gale era of the show. Cast as the new assistant to John Steed was a young Canadian actress called Linda Thorson. It has been suggested that the producers, still stinging from Diana Rigg’s pay demands, had brought in an actress who was sufficiently young (Thorson was 20 at the time) and unknown (she had never appeared on TV before) that they need not worry about such demands. That aside, it is still true that Linda Thorson named her own character, Tara King.

Bryce had very definite opinions as to the direction of the show. For starters, he disliked Laurie Johnson’s theme, and planned to bring back a reworked version of the Johnny Dankworth theme, possibly with a vocal by Linda Thorson. He also was of the opinion that the role of the female lead had become too strong and wished to make Tara King a weaker, more traditional female character. He felt that Thorson, with her curvaceous figure, was too fat and ordered her to lose weight. He also disliked her hair, and demanded that the naturally straight-haired brunette adopt a bleached blonde perm. Thorson took to the bleaching very badly, so badly in fact that her hair began to fall out.

Things were going equally badly on the production side. Bryce had three stories lined up; Invitation to a Killing was his proposed 90-minute introduction to the Tara King era of the show, followed by The Great Great Britain Crime and Terry Nation’s Invasion of the Earthmen. All three stories were in various stages of completion when it came to ABC’s attention that something was wrong. Bryce was horrendously over budget on the series and drastically behind time. Realising that they had made a terrible mistake, the ABC top brass sacked John Bryce and begged Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell to return. Clemens was, by then, working over at ITC on The Champions, but he agreed to return to the series on the condition that he and Fennell could run things ‘their way’.

Things were in crisis when Fennell and Clemens took over. They had three incomplete stories and a number of scripts that had already been paid for. Invasion of the Earthmen was almost complete, so this was assembled as the first complete story. Have Guns Will Haggle was a story assembled using some of the footage of Invitation to a Killing and Split! was an old script left over from the Emma Peel days. The existing footage from The Great Great Britain Crime would later be used in the episode Homicide and Old Lace, along with footage from several other stories.

Six episodes were put together and Diana Rigg was invited back to hand over the baton to Linda Thorson in The Forget-Me-Knot, completing the American order. These were shipped out with a ‘Target Range’ title sequence which is unseen on the British prints, except for certain copies of Split! Before filming recommenced, the production team and the actors were allowed the luxury of re-assessing their situation. Most of John Bryce’s concepts were thrown out of the window, Tara King became a tougher young lady and Linda Thorson was allowed to return to her natural brunette (initially a wig, but the cropped look in All Done with Mirrors is her real hair after recovering from the bleaching). A new title sequence was filmed featuring suits of armour and lots of flowers (very 60s) which was added to the whole series in the UK and the remaining episodes in the US.

The remaining episodes picked up where the Emma Peel seasons had left off. Weird and inexplicable goings-on were once more the order of the day. A new element brought into the show was Mother, Steed’s wheel-chair bound superior played with wonderful bombast by Patrick Newell. Mother had first been introduced in The Forget-Me-Knot, but Clemens felt that the character added new vigour to the series and he appeared in almost all episodes after the re-commencement of production. At the suggestion of Patrick Newell, he was frequently accompanied by a statuesque female bodyguard, initially unnamed, but eventually christened Rhonda, after the actress who played her, Rhonda Parker.

The relationship between Patrick Macnee and Linda Thorson, though it sparkled on-screen, was less close in real life than that between the starring actor and his previous two leading ladies. Perhaps this was to do with the thirty year age difference between them, or perhaps due to the rough start to which this era of the series got off, but things were never as smooth behind the scenes as the producers had hoped, and scripts were increasingly written to keep the two of them separate. The final blow to series came with the withdrawal of its American sponsorship. In the US, the series had been scheduled opposite Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In, one of TV’s top-rated shows of the late sixties and its low audience meant that it was no longer required. The Avengers was an expensive show to produce and British financing alone was insufficient. After eight years at the top of its game, The Avengers was over… or was it?

In 1975, six years after the cancellation of the original Avengers, Patrick Macnee and Linda Thorson were approached to appear in a TV commercial for French champagne, and duly obliged. Rudolph Roffi, the French TV executive  who produced the advert, was quite impressed with the performance of his stars but was taken aback when he learnt from Brian Clemens that the reason no Avengers was being produced was that no one in UK TV would back it. Determined to put this right, Roffi sought the backing himself and contacted Clemens with regard to the possibility of making a new series. Clemens formed a new company called Avengers (Film & TV) Enterprises Ltd, with partners Albert Fennell and Laurie Johnson in order to produce the new show. They contacted Patrick Macnee – as the show would not be The Avengers without Steed – who was soon on board, bit rather than bring back one of the established ‘girls’ they started a search for an actress.

Originally, ex-Hill’s Angel Jenny Lee Wright was cast as Charley, Steed’s new female counterpart in the series now dubbed The New Avengers, but as the role was put out to audition (a legal obligation), the producers began to favour Joanna Lumley, a young actress and model who had appeared in Coronation Street and the Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Diana Rigg’s first star vehicle after leaving The Avengers) instead. Eventually, Lumley was cast. Lumley took charge of her role from the very beginning. She disliked the name Charley and instead suggested ‘Purdey’ to the producers, after the English shotgun. She also developed her own haircut, the distinctive ‘Purdey Bob’, which became the height of fashion in the late 70s.

Aware of Macnee’s advancing years, and TV’s increasing love of high-action as personified in popular American shows such as Starsky & Hutch, Clemens decided to add another character into the mix; a bluff, aggressive young man who could handle all the rough stuff, while Steed cracked gags and cracked champagne as a sort of substitute Mother. Clemens created the character of Mike Gambit, a product of the 1970s through and through. Gareth Hunt was cast in this new role, resplendent in his bouffant hair and safari suits. This was Steed for the disco generation, stripped of charm and all but the coarsest of wit and all-too-ready to wield a gun at the slightest provocation.

Laurie Johnson composed a piece of title music for The New Avengers, which retained the distinctive Avengers sting then led off into a funky, bass-led orchestral pop theme that, although entrenched very firmly in the 70s, remains one of the most memorable TV themes of that decade. Johnson also provided all of the incidental music for the series, though this bears much more in common with the style of his later work on The Professionals than any of his work on the original series. The New Avengers began production in April 1976, and hit the TV screens in October of the same year. Due to a scheduling hitch, it would not reach US screens until 1978, one of the final nails in the series’ coffin (but more of that later). The series reception was mixed. Many reviewers applauded the fresh new approach to the series, admiring the grittier and less twee approach, but others lamented the loss of the distinctive style of the Avengers, which surfaced occasionally in the series, but all too rarely.

A notable treat for fans of The Avengers was the episode To Catch a Rat, which saw the return of original Avengers star Ian Hendry, though as cold war veteran Gunner rather than Dr David Keel. Also notable was Last of the Cybernauts, which not only saw the return of the popular robotic foe, but was also a rare foray into the realm of continuity, something of an oddity in the world of The Avengers. As a second series went into production, things were starting to go awry. The French financiers did not feel that Purdey was being portrayed as sufficiently sexy, and demanded more spice to be injected into the formula. The producers also had to fulfil a contractual obligation from the original deal with Rudolph Roffi which meant that several episodes were to be filmed in France. This was done, though much of the material with continental actors dubbed over with cod accents now appears laughable and detracts from these episodes. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the French financiers ran out of money before the end of production, leaving the series unfinished.

Luckily (or not, as the case may be) the production was kept afloat by Canadian financiers Nielsen-Ferns Inc., but only under the condition that production could be switched to Canada. Clemens reluctantly agreed, though by this time he was more interested in developing his new series The A Squad (to become The Professionals) than in keeping The New Avengers afloat.

The final four episodes, subtitled The New Avengers in Canada, are disappointing, with only the episode Complex having any real feeling of The Avengers about it. Although the lead actors struggle to inject pep into the leaden scripts, the series was on a very obvious downward curve. Nielson-Ferns Inc. could not afford to finance the proposed third season. Clemens approached the American major CBS about finance, but the show’s poor performance – two years late in an 11.30pm ratings death slot – made them less than enthusiastic. After changes, compromise and lots and lots of talking, the deal was dropped. This time it really was the end of The Avengers as a television series.

To be concluded…

EPISODES

The Avengers – Season Six
The Forget-Me-Knot; Game; Super Secret Cypher Snatch; You’ll Catch Your Death; Split!; Whoever Shot Poor George Oblique Stroke XR40?; False Witness; All Done with Mirrors; Legacy of Death; Noon Doomsday; Look – (Stop Me if You’ve Heard This One) – But There Were These Two Fellers…; Have Guns – Will Haggle; They Keep Killing Steed; The Interrogators; The Rotters; Invasion of the Earth Men; Killer; The Morning After; The Curious Case of the Countless Clues; Wish You Were Here; Love All; Stay Tuned; Take Me to Your Leader; Fog; Who Was That Man I Saw You With; Homicide and Old Lace; Thingumajig; My Wildest Dream; Requiem; Take-Over; Pandora; Get-a-Way; Bizarre.

The New Avengers – Season One
The Eagle’s Nest; House of Cards; Last of the Cybernauts; The Midas Touch; Cat Amongst the Pigeons; Target; To Catch a Rat; The Tale of the Big Why; Faces; Gnaws; Dirtier by the Dozen; Sleeper; Three Handed Game.

The New Avengers – Season Two
Dead Men are Dangerous; Angels of Death; Medium Rare; The Lion and the Unicorn; Obsession; Trap; Hostage; K is for Kill Part One – The Tiger Awakes; K is for Kill Part Two – Tiger by the Tail; Complex; Forward Base; The Gladiators; Emily.

 

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