Sunday, May 27, 2012

Classic TV: The Avengers (1961)

To most people, the British Invasion of the 60's centered on pop music, with the emergence of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Moody Blues, Herman's Hermits, The Who, and so on. However, music was not all that was imported from across the pond in those days. In fact, the UK had a fair number of television programs that crossed over to the US around that time. At first, it was shows like The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, which paved the way for its distributor-producer, ITC, to make a greater impact with spy shows like Secret Agent (aka Danger Man), and The Champions, crime dramas such as The Saint, and children's fare, using puppets (i.e. Stingray & Thunderbirds).

The spy explosion of the 60's also opened the door for The Avengers to cross over, but by the time it arrived here, the series had already made a couple of casting changes.

When The Avengers bowed in 1961, its stars were Ian Hendry & Patrick Macnee. In fact, Macnee would be the constant through the course of the entire series, as his character of agent John Steed became ultra popular rather quickly. Hendry left, and Honor Blackman was cast in his place as Catherine Gale. In recent times, the A & E network acquired episodes from the Blackman era, but I'm not so sure about the Hendry run.

When ABC in the US acquired The Avengers, Blackman had left to make movies, and was succeeded by Diana Rigg as presumed widow Emma Peel. You can imagine how sales of black leather jumpsuits skyrocketed as a result. I say presumed, you see, because after a couple of years, Rigg left the show, and the exit was in the form of Mrs. Peel learning that her husband was in fact alive. So much for the flirting between Mrs. Peel and the wisecracking Steed. Enter Tara King (Linda Thorson), who at first looked to be a little on the demure side, but, as you'll see in the following video montage, was repackaged as a near-ringer for Mrs. Peel, and they again began to play up a potential relationship between the two partners in peril. Unfortunately, this incarnation of the series came to an end, leaving viewers wondering what might've been.

In the mid-70's, reruns aired in NYC on WOR, channel 9, early in the evening, and when I could, I'd watch in lieu of the evening news. I was hooked. At the end of the decade, the series was revived as The New Avengers, as Patrick Macnee returned to the role that made him an icon, this time joined by Joanna Lumley (years before Absolutely Fabulous) as the sexy, mono-named Purdey, and Gareth Hunt, who doesn't have as deep a resume, it would seem, as Mike Gambit. CBS picked up New Avengers as part of a rotation for its CBS Late Movie package, and, as with reruns of The Saint that the network had also acquired, I found myself falling asleep and missing chunks of episodes.

Having never bothered with Absolutely Fabulous, I'd be considered biased by saying that Joanna Lumley looked a lot hotter as Purdey, but that's just the way it is.

Interestingly, musical director Laurie Johnson's score was released on an album issued by----get this---Hanna Barbera's record label. I kid you not. It makes one wonder, though, whether or not the animation giant was angling for a licensing deal to adapt The Avengers into an animated series, but nothing ever came of it, even if it were in the talking stages.

The classic era of Steed & Mrs. Peel also found its way into comics, first with a short run at Gold Key in the 60's, and then, more than 2 decades later, a miniseries first published by Eclipse (and since reprinted by another publisher), and written by Scottish writer and fan of all things 60's, it would seem, Grant Morrison. I actually had that miniseries at one time.

As I noted when I reviewed "Marvel's The Avengers" earlier this month, the comics giant put their name on the film to avoid confusion with the 1998 adaptation of The Avengers, which starred Sean Connery, Uma Thurman, and Ralph Fiennes, and is considered one of the worst films of the decade, if not of all time. I don't think that would preclude anyone from trying again, although some might think Mike Myers may have been influenced somewhat as he prepared the spy spoof "Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery", as Powers was a parody cross between James Bond and Maxwell Smart, with a dash of Steed thrown in for good measure, at least in this writer's opinion.

Anyway, for those of you who've never seen the Ian Hendry era, here's a sample open/close:

Writer Dennis Spooner is better known for his work with ITC.

Now, I'm sure you recognize this from the Rigg era:

Rating (covering only the Peel-King era and what I saw of New Avengers): A-.


magicdog said...

Loved "The Avengers" - at least the Diana Rigg years!

My dad was a fan of the show back when it first came over to American TV. He got me watching it too! To this day, when he speaks of Diana Rigg's exit from the series, you'd think he was in mourning! Her impression was so great in that show and her chemistry with Patrick Macnee was unequaled.

Half the fun was the study in contrast between the characters: he'd drive old fashioned cars and dressed in dapper gentleman's attire, while she was driving around in sports cars and wearing hiphuggers and catsuits!

I think Emma Peel was so popular because she was so accomplished, she was a scientist, well read, sophisticated, beautiful and could defend herself in a fight.

Did you know how the character got her name? After Honor Blackman left, TPTB wanted a more feminine character (Blackman was a bit tougher by comparison). The phrase they used was "Man appeal" or M. appeal. So came forth, "Emma Peel"!!

Diana Rigg has said in interviews that the main reason she left the show was money - the cameraman apparently made more than she did!

I did see the "New Avengers" show back in the day and it wasn't bad, but it wasn't the same.

I also had a look at some of the pre-Diana Rigg episodes, but I found them terribly boring.

hobbyfan said...

I think the original Avengers was simply standard crime drama, and then they amped it up by replacing Ian Hendry with first Honor Blackman, then Diana Rigg (they went campy during her run), and finally, Linda Thorson.

I wouldn't mind getting my hands on some classic DVD's......