This is a revised and updated version of material first published in the Strange Skins Avengers Special (2004).
Such was the great impact and popularity of The Avengers that it was inevitable its success would impact upon other shows on British – and indeed World – television for many years after the show had ceased to be. The most immediate impact was undoubtedly on its 1960s contemporaries. Adam Adamant Lives was the BBC’s attempt to emulate the success of rival ITV’s top-rated show. Created by Sydney Newman, the man who had been instrumental in the development of The Avengers at ABC and had gone on to help develop Doctor Who for the BBC, Adam Adamant Lives can be seen as almost a clone of the series that inspired it, with the added sci-fi twist of an Edwardian adventurer frozen in time and thawed out in swinging 60s London. Despite having a much smaller budget than the co-funded Avengers, Adam Adamant Lives proved a great success for the BBC and catapulted its star Gerald Harper to fame.
The impact of The Avengers was also felt at ABC’s independent rivals ITC, with shows such as The Protectors and The Champions all carrying resonances of the series. Department S, with its twin male lead of a two-fisted hard man and his foppish counterfoil, presaged what was to come in The New Avengers. Their adventures also feature the degree of weirdness that would not look out of place in an episode of The Avengers and Peter Wyngarde (a veteran Avengers guest star from A Touch of Brimstone and Epic!) made such an impact as Jason King that the character went on to his own spin-off series. Even Doctor Who, a series that had been running almost as long as The Avengers, doffed its hat to the series in the early 70s with Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor spending his Earth-bound adventures tootling about in a Victorian roadster with a hip female assistant by his side.
The later 70s saw a downturn in the popularity of what was later dubbed ‘spy-fi’ on TV, with the dry machismo of The Professionals being the order of the day, but in the early 90s, Brian Clemens partly resurrected the format with Bugs, a sort of computer-savvy Avengers for the new millennium, which ran for four series on the BBC. Shorter-lived, but more quirky was Virtual Murder, a BBC series created by Harry Robertson about the bizarre cases investigated by amateur sleuth John ‘JC’ Cornelius and his partner Samantha Valentine, which ran to a mere six episodes. American TV also had a crack at the genre in the late-90s with Spy Game from Sam Raimi’s Renaissance Films. Spy Game acknowledged its debt to The Avengers in one episode with a guest appearance from Patrick Macnee, but the series was unfortunately cancelled mid-season and ran to only 13 episodes.
Between the cancellation of The Avengers and the production of The New Avengers, a stage play of the former series appeared in 1971 featuring Doomwatch star Simon Oates as John Steed and Sue Lloyd as his original character Hannah Wild (quite why it was thought that Steed could be recreated by another actor but not Mrs Peel or Tara King is anyone’s guess). The play has a good pedigree, having been written by Avengers veterans Brian Clemens and Terence Feeley, and directed by Leslie Philips (no, not that one). Alongside Simon Oates, looking the part as John Steed, Kate O’Mara assumed the role of lead villain as Madame Gerda. The play ran at the Birmingham Theatre (in Birmingham, would you believe) for just over a week, then transferred to London’s West End at the Prince of Wales theatre. It gained a number of damning reviews and box-office response was not good enough to merit the hoped-for national tour of the play.
In 1978, Brian Clemens was struggling to keep The New Avengers afloat, after finance deals in both France and Canada had fallen through. He approached CBS with the concept of continuing the series as an Anglo-American production and initially the major network seemed interested, but as is the way of US TV, they then started to pull their weight over the show’s style. Firstly, they wanted a totally US-set production; then they wanted to recast Gambit and Purdey, finally going so far as to express a dislike for the character of Steed. Realising that the show they were after was not The New Avengers, so he restructured the series for a US pilot called Escapade. The 90-minute pilot starred Morgan Fairchild as Suzy and the amazingly-monickered Granville Van Dusen as Joshua, the ersatz Steed character. The pilot film for Escapade achieved poor ratings, never going to series and Brian Clemens gave up on trying to launch The New Avengers, or something similar, in the USA.
Two years earlier, a British movie had been released that, although unconnected with The Avengers, was as close as we were likely to see for a couple of decades… possibly closer. Trial by Combat (released in the USA as A Choice of Weapons) starred Sir John Mills as the Steed-like Colonel Bertie Cook, who is charged with tracking down a mysterious secret order called The Knights of Avalon that is using various forms of medieval combat to bring vigilante justice to ne’er-do-wells. Starring alongside Sir John Mills are a whole pantheon of British genre stars including Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasence and Brian Glover, and although the film was shot on a very low budget, it makes it quite clear that an Avengers movie would have been achievable without a massive amount of money. In fact, you could easily have replaced Colonel Bertie Cook with John Steed and turned Trial by Combat into one.
The idea of a film version of The Avengers had been on the cards for a very long time. During the TV series’ most popular era, there was frequently talk of Steed and Mrs Peel making the jump to the big screen. One can easily imagine how a mid-budget motion picture with the original cast of Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg might have gone down a storm in the picture houses of the land, especially when the series was B&W. Many years later, when Brian Clemens was shopping around for US financing to revive The New Avengers, a movie version of the series was one of the options with which he presented the studios. And then further down the line, in the late 80s / early 90s, rumours were rife that Hollywood superstar Mel Gibson had acquired the rights to the series and was planning to star in ‘The Avenging Angel’, a film focussing primarily, it would seem, on Steed, to be played, of course, by Mel himself.
It wasn’t until 1993 though, that the idea of an Avengers movie became a reality, when the rights to the series passed to TV and movie impresario Jerry Weintraub. Weintraub assembled the TV episodes into a workable franchise package, cleaning up the shoddy prints of the early Cathy Gale era stories. This package was seen in the UK on the satellite network Bravo in the early 90s. But Weintraub was a long-time fan of the series, and his mind naturally turned to the idea of bringing The Avengers to the big screen. Weintraub had been impressed by the work of a young scriptwriter called Don Macpherson, having seen his work on a script adapted from the Harry Fielding novel Jonathan Wilde. Luckily, Macpherson was also an enthusiast and so was happy to accept the invitation to be involved, though no studio deal had yet been signed.
There was a meeting arranged between Weintraub and Macpherson, at which time the writer did not have any plot ideas. Legend has it that he came up with the story on the plane he took to the meeting. Macpherson was also surprised to find not only Weintraub at the meeting, but also a number of Warner Bros studio executives. It was at this meeting that the deal for the Avengers movie was struck. Macpherson’s plot concept was a suitably Avengers one, if not a terribly original one. The idea of a megalomaniac holding the world to ransom using a weather machine had already been exploited in both The Man from UNCLE and the James Coburn spy spoof Our Man Flint, as far back as the 60s. In the 90s, it was an idea that was more at home in the comedy realm of Austin Powers than in the light camp of The Avengers. For a director, Weintraub selected Jeremiah Chechik, having seen his movie Benny & Joon. Chechik also claimed to be a long-time fan of the series, having watched it from the Cathy Gale days in his native Canada.
For a movie as explicitly character-driven as The Avengers, casting was all-important. The two actors who were eventually cast in the cardinal roles of Steed and Mrs Peel were pretty much the first choices of both Weintraub and Chechik. In retrospect, this was perhaps not a great idea – putting the roles out to casting might have turned up a pair with a more exciting on-screen spark. For the role of Steed, they selected Ralph Fiennes, a fine actor indeed, but rather sleight for the fine-living Steed, and a trifle too laconic for the sharp dialogue. Chechik was perfectly happy to accept Weintraub’s suggestion that Uma Thurman be cast in the role of Emma Peel. Thurman, of course, is American and so opted to play the part in an English accent, which she appears to have lost the ability to do in the intervening years since The Adventures of Baron Münchausen.
Other roles are filled with a suitably eclectic assortment of performers: superb character actor Jim Broadbent as Mother, comedian Eddie Izzard as Bailey and drugged-up Mancunian pop casualty Shaun Ryder as his assistant Donovan. For the prime role of villain Sir August deWynter, they were extremely lucky to get the service of none other than Sean Connery. Connery apparently took the role high on the prospect of playing a villain for the first time, though he did insist on re-writing most of his dialogue in a brainstorming session with Chechik and Macpherson at his villa in Spain (so he’s only got himself to blame!) Oh, and Patrick Macnee’s in there too, in a throwaway voice-over as Invisible Jones.
Studio expectations of The Avengers were high, it was not a cheap movie, and it needed to bring in a substantial profit to be financially viable. Early material looked promising. Photographically the movie is gorgeous; Anthony Powell’s costume design and Stuart Craig’s production design both present something potentially wonderful. But disastrous test screenings confirmed the worst. Worried that the movie was overlong and confusing, the studio had 25 minutes of footage cut, losing a substantial opening scene of the Emma Peel clone destroying a top-secret lab and ironically making the film even more confusing, but this did little to correct the picture’s core problems. Fiennes and Thurman had little on-screen chemistry and were working from a script that seemed to have little understanding of its source material. The Avengers was released in ‘98 without advance press screenings, simultaneously in both the UK and US. Critics smelled a rat, and they were right for once. The movie tanked at the box office and played in the cinemas for less than a month.
And that was that for The Avengers, as far as the visual medium is concerned. As was mentioned in the first part of this feature, audio specialists Big Finish adapted some of the early missing episodes, but they have also gone on to produce audio adaptations of some of the comic strips stories from TV Comic and Diana, starring Julian Wadham as John Steed alongside either Olivia Poulet as Emma Peel or Suzy Woodward as Tara King. The rights to The Avengers currently lie with the French company Studio Canal and there have been several discussions over the possibility of resurrecting the series to satisfy the constant needs of the streaming networks, most recently with Hollywood writer and director Shane Black, but nothing is set in stone at this time. I’ve no doubt that we will see a new version of The Avengers at some time, either sooner or later. Will it work? Who can say; there’s only one way to find out.