With the recent passing of Diana Rigg and Honor Blackman. Two of these shows’ most iconic stars. I felt it was a good time to write about what this show was about for me and how it had such a massive influence on me, fashion, television, movies and equality for women – not bad for a little UK black and white ITV television series that started way back in the early 1960s.
The show began in 1961 on Uk Television. It focused on Dr Keeler, played by Ian Hendry and his partner John Steed, played by Patrick Macnee (a role that would be his forever). This was made back in the days of live television so it was filmed in real-time, with breaks for ads and all the mistakes etc included. As a result, very little has survived of these early episodes. although one did emerge recently, Tunnel Of Fear and has been released on DVD with a plethora of extras to compensate for the fact that its just one episode.
The Avengers for me has nothing to do with marvel and the various comic superheroes (as entertaining as they are). No, the avengers always was and always will be a British television series that started back in the early 60s. It featured the suave, sophisticated, strong and debonair British intelligence agent John Steed. Almost always bowler hated and with his trusty secret agents’ umbrella by his side. He rarely used a gun and could disarm almost anyone with just a smile and a flick of his umbrella. I loved him and still do! He personifies the English gent smart, caring and always kinky! Patrick Macnee has appeared in all the Avengers shows (and he sort of appeared in the ill-fated movie). If you think of the Avengers you have to think of him and quite frankly I’m not sure anyone else could play the part of John Steed.
Also by his side since the second series was a beautiful, intelligent, witty female who wore outrageous fashions and could knock a bad guy out with a single karate chop.
The two most famous were Honour Blackman. The leather-clad Cathy Gale and Diana Rigg the also leather-clad (for season 4 only) Mrs Emma Peel.
There were others in later series. The lovely Linda Thorson as Tara King in the sixth and final series and of course the statuesque Joanna Lumley as Purdy with that hair cut in the resurrected series the new avengers.
I should perhaps also mention there was an Avengers movie in 1990 with the talented Uma Thurman playing the part of Emma peel. But more of that later…
How It Began For Me
Now when these episodes were first shown I wasn’t even born (honest lol). So I first came across the Avengers when the New Avengers Started in the seventies. To be honest, although I watched them (as British television in the seventies was mostly rubbish lol) it didn’t have a massive impression on me. I enjoyed it. Loved Purdeys hair and that was it I certainly didn’t watch every episode.
No for me, my love affair with the show began in the 1990s. Channel 4 started showing the episodes late at night and intercut them with small interview clips of Patrick and Honor Blackman etc. I couldn’t believe how groundbreaking this show had been. Watching, for the first time a strong, confident leather-clad woman (Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale) throwing a hitman over her shoulders as if it was nothing was a revelation to me. I had to devour all the other episodes and watch them all on video cassettes. Definitely started wearing more leather trouser suits after that.
The Leather Years of the series were seasons 2 and 3 with Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale and season 4 with Diana Rigg as Emma Peel. For me these were the shows best years.
Honor Blackman As Cathy Gale
Back in the early 1960s as television in the UK began to develop. The avengers started with two agents, both men, Patrick Macnee (who else) and Ian Hendry as Dr Keeler. It proved a hit with viewers and a 2nd and then 3rd series was announced. Keeler jumped ship as his film career began to take off and the producers scrambled around for his replacement. At the last minute, they decided upon the Ealing movie star, Honor Blackman. No time to rewrite the scripts so her character was still effectively Dr keeler. So her lines were written for a man. She fought, fired guns and also smoked and drank like a guy. Back in the 60s, this was quite shocking to see. But in a strange way, it bought her female character up to the forefront of equality and showed viewers women could do whatever a man could, maybe better!
The Leather Years
The producers knew there would be quite a lot of fighting in this action-heavy show. Of course, back then the shows were recorded live and no chance of a retake if her dress split. So they had to come up with a strong material that would match her strong character but also survive the rigours of chucking a stunt man over her shoulders.
They tried using suede. But in these black and white heavily lit sets it didn’t look good. Thankfully Patrick Macnee suggested they try using black shiny leather. Honor was quite a leather lover in real life and eagerly agreed to wear it. In fact, it became the image of the avengers-probably still to this day. They designed leather trouser suits, skirts and catsuits for her. By the end of the 3rd series, she was virtually wearing some leather in every scene.
I loved the leather outfits she wore and they complimented Steed’s pinstripe suits perfectly. For me, it epitomised the avengers. English, full of intrigue and kinkiness just like a leather catsuit!
Not surprisingly her leather outfits took 60s London by storm and several fashion shows of the time featured an Avengers theme. Honor and Patrick even appeared at some of these shows.
Unfortunately, as they began preparing for the 4th series Honor dropped a bombshell. She was leaving to start filming the James bond film, Goldfinger
Now although she did go on to have a long movie and television career. For many, she will always be remembered for her leather-clad portrayal of Cathy Gale. And how she showed that a woman could be a match for any man.
Diana Rigg As Emma Peel
With Honor heading off to kidnap 007 at such short notice, and with Patrick Macnee’s pleading failing to change her mind. They needed to find her replacement and fast!. This was not an easy task because a lot of the show’s success was the developing chemistry between Patrick and Honor.
They began filming with the lovely actress Elizabeth Shepherd. She was filmed wearing a red leather catsuit and continued to halfway threw the second episode. Allegedly, there is no surviving footage of this just a few pictures. Apparently, that all-important chemistry wasn’t there on the screen and she was fired in favour of new up and coming Shakespeare actress Diana Rigg.
Diana and Patrick hit it off immediately as can be seen from her first episode. It was a match made in heaven. Always hinting that there was a lot more went on between them when the cameras were turned off. For the fourth series, they had already spent the wardrobe budget on all the fabulous leather outfits for Honor. So they just adjusted them to fit Diana and she wore leather in each 4th series episode. Usually towards the end of each episode before the fight scene.
For a lot of people , when they think of The avengers it is the 4th series leather outfits they recall. With Diana looking fabulous in them. The series was a massive success, not just here in the UK but all around the world. With this success came the American stations wanting to broadcast the next series in the USA. This meant a lot more money for the shows budget. Although Diana Rigg was woefully underpaid compared to her co star and as she recalled she was paid less than the camera man!
With the great ratings and the brilliant chemistry between the two lead actors Diana was able to negotiate a better deal. Unfortunately for fans like me she requested that her new fashions would not be leather!
She has stated that she wasnt fond of wearing it as it became too hot and unpleasant. She also didn’t like the rather interesting fan mail she was receiving as a result of wearing such kinky outfits. So sadly series 5 does not feature her wearing any leather (apart from a single episode – You Have Just Been Murdered). She wears more stretchy material in what became known as her emmapeeler outfits.
The stories were great and the chemistry between Diana and Patrick was fantastic with the 5th series getting great ratings and one of the first programmes to be filmed in colour it was all going so well. But unfortunately Diana Rigg wanted to move on to pastures new and yes she too was called up to star in a Bond movie – On Her Majesties Secret Service. Alongside new Bond George Lazenby. Just as with Honor Blackman she is regarded as one of the best bond girls. The avengers loss was Bonds gain.
It was the end of an era and try as they might over the coming years they never managed to capture that magic again – well not yet anyway!
Linda Thorson As Tara King
I have to be honest here and admit I haven’t seen all the Linda episodes. Partly because I don’t think the TV companies have given the series justice with the repeats so I probably missed many. But from episodes, I did see I fear it hasn’t aged as well as the earlier series. Linda played the part as that of a young woman smitten by the much older Steed and therefore there was a much more ‘traditional’? Relationship between them, something we had seen a thousand times before and not the more intriguing relationship he shared with Emma and Cathy. There was no would they / wouldn’t they get together it was much more a case of she definitely would kind of thing.
Also the scripts for this series were becoming less witty, eccentric, intriguing stories more odd, silly and surreal sixties hippy stories. I lost count of the number of times poor Linda was knocked out with sleeping drugs only to be rescued by the end titles by steed.
Also unlike Cathy and Emma, she was more ‘girly’ she didn’t fight that much, preferring a gun. And she even carried around a handbag! Cathy gale kept her pistol (for emergencies only) discreetly, but sexily, slipped into the top of her stockings, covered over by her leather skirt – much better!
No for me the character of Linda felt like a step back. She was much more the usual girl, needing constant support from the man and whilst she looked lovely she would always be hanging onto Steeds arm or umbrella.
Maybe another disappointment for me was she hardly wore any leather. A trend of moving away from the kinkiness of leather and getting tied up that began with Diana Rigg during the 5th season continued here with Linda only wearing some leather in a few episodes. In the famous handover episode (Episode 1 series 6: The Forget me Knot) where Emma Peel famously meets her replacement, Linda, on the stairs to steeds apartment. She is wearing some long opera length leather gloves and some kinky rubber look thigh-high boots. Sadly this look didn’t appear much in the forthcoming series. I suspect partly due to budgetary constraints as the show was suffering ratings-wise. And getting all that leather gear wouldn’t have been cheap.
Sadly the avengers came to an end in 1969 with steed and Linda heading up into orbit in a space rocket. I guess everyone (including its stars) thought that was that! How wrong we were!
Joanna Lumley As Purdey
Luckily the repeat screenings of the existing episodes around the world kept the avengers alive. It was proving to be particularly popular in France and Canada. Maybe the English locations and the quirkiness appealed to them. Whatever finally happened some finance was gathered to resurrect the show in the 1970s and it appeared on British TV screens as The New avengers in 1976.
Patrick Macnee reprised his role, of course, as the debonair steed. And really didn’t look all that different to his younger days. Amazing what a well-tailored suit, umbrella and bowler hat can do for a man! Obviously, with a nod to his passing years ( he was now 53) they introduced a younger chap to do all the running and fighting for him hence Gareth Hunt as Mike Gambit. But the stand out of the show was the casting of the superb Joanna Lumley (yes the same actress who later found fame as Patsie in absolutely fabulous).
Joanna introduced a stronger female character. More like Cathy and Emma, and less Tara. She developed a sort of ballet karate technique to take out the bad guys. The real ace up her sleeve was her hair! Well at least in the first series. She had a fantastic blonde short bob cut and for the next few years asking for a Purdey at the hairdressers was common practice. You could see women everywhere with this hairstyle it was so popular.
Purdey was very much a nod back to the early days with Cathy Gale and Emma Peel. She was an independent woman, more than capable to take care of herself and beat up the bad guys with minimal help from the two males. She enjoyed teasing Gambit and looked up to the older father figure of Steed. The stories also went back to the show’s roots. Some of the stories following on from old episodes and the show did well. Hence a second series was ordered. Sadly by the second series, the show seemed to have run out of money and the backers had disappeared. It wasn’t a cheap show to make-its champagne budget alone would have been huge LOL. It finally staggered to an end with episodes set in Canada.
I am not sure why it didn’t do better. Maybe having 3 heroes completely changed the dynamic. I always felt Gambit was a bit superfluous to requirements and again Purdey never wore any leather. Just lots of seventies flares and chiffon. Far too ladylike for me. The avengers has to have a large dose of kinkiness for me and the television viewers it would seem!
Although there have been a thousand shows trying to copy the magic of the avengers there have been no new series since the new avengers finished in 1977.
Uma Thurman As Emma Peel
Once Channel four over here in the UK started showing the old avengers again on TV (this is when I first really came across the show) it really began to achieve the recognition it deserved. With short interviews with the original cast shown before and after each episode. And the Cathy gale leather-clad episodes having been found and cleaned up were showing in some cases for the first time since they were first broadcast. The viewers found a new love for the show. The stars were wheeled out for book launches and of course video releases. I can remember my excitement at getting the boxed video cassette set of classic episodes, with free still photographs included!.
Of course, it wasn’t long before rumours of it being resurrected began again. Then In 1997, it was announced that a big Hollywood movie would be made. Oh no I thought. It will just be an action blockbuster movie with none of the quirky kinky leather fun I wanted.
To be fair it sounded pretty good on paper. The story would feature an evil masterminds plan to control the weather. Us Brits love the weather so tick for the quirkiness. The bad guy was going to be played by Sean Connery. Very hopeful! Then a publicity picture was released of the lovely Uma Thurman in a black leather catsuit standing next to a red telephone box. Ohhh maybe they were going to get the show right after all.
But what of Steed? I don’t think anyone could, and still can’t imagine him played by anyone other than Patrick Macnee. Although he was also going to be in the movie we wouldn’t actually be able to see him! No, Steed was to be played by English actor Ralph Fiennes. With bowler hat in place, he looked like he would do. So I eagerly awaited the movie.
The film came out in 1998, but Sadly the film turned out to be a disaster and seems to have killed off any chance of the show ever being revived again.
Despite the good cast, Uma Thurman in a leather catsuit and the lavish budget the film just didn’t have the chemistry that made the avengers so great. I don’t know if that’s because despite their best efforts no one can replace Patrick and Diana or Honor. Maybe the whole two agents fighting bad guys is now over and done with. I don’t know. But the movie bombed. Which was a real shame.
Obviously rumours persist that maybe it will be remade again. Others say why remake it. I still feel there is room for a show with a strong female character every bit an equal to her partner steed. And of course she needs to have a sense of humour, great fighting skills and a wardrobe full of skin tight black leather for every occasion.