50 years of The Avengers

Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg in The Avengers
Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg in The Avengers

On January 7, 1961 in UK the first episode of the show “The Avengers” was broadcast.

One of the first protagonists of the show was a doctor whose fiancè is killed by a drug dealer in the first episode. He was played by actor Ian Hendry, who had already played a doctor who worked for the police in 1960 in the show “Police Surgeon” that however lasted for 13 episodes only.

“The Avengers” creator Sydney Newman appreciated Ian Hendry’s performance and wanted him for the new show where his character, Dr. Keel, had to work with a spy called John Steed, played by Patrick Macnee.

Sydney Newman was for his own admission mostly a catalyst of creative talents but clearly he was really good at his job because two years later he directed the creation of another legendary TV show: “Doctor Who”.

Unfortunately today of all the first season only the first part of the first episode and two complete episodes still exist. That can look absurd to us today but at the time TV productions were ephemeral, with very limited repeats, so if a TV show wasn’t sold abroad after a while it was trashed.

The first season went on with Dr. Keel and John Steed working in various spy stories. Though it didn’t have a big success the show was renewed for a second season but the new character of Cathy Gale, played by actress Honor Blackman, was created to work with John Steed, who had become more important than Dr. Keel during the first season.

The new season was more successful and Cathy Gale worked with Steed in the third season as well, then Honor Blackman preferred to leave to build herself a career in the movies.

For the fourth season a new character was created: the expression “man appeal” was shortened to “M appeal” and from that the name Emma Peel was created. The casting was complicated and eventually actress Elizabeth Sheperd was cast but her performance in the scenes that were shot was unsatisfactory and she was quickly fired. At last more search led to the casting of Diana Rigg, who contributed to turn the show into a legend.

To sell the the show abroad the episodes started being shot on film so they could shoot scenes in external locations and not just in studio. The sales abroad didn’t detract from the show British style, on the contrary if during the previous seasons you could see Steed ruthless in accomplishing his missions from that season forward his gentleman side was highlighted.

In the fourth season the title theme with the music composed by Laurie Johnson was created and it became one of the icons of the show: the pictures were remade from season to season but the score was just changed a little through the years.

Diana Rigg wanted to leave the show at the end of the fourth season after discovering that she was payed less than a cameraman. Considering the success that the show was having in the USA too the producers tripled her salary and the actress played Emma Peel for one more year.

The fifth season was shot in colour and was broadcasted in 120 nations generally having a great success.

The sixth season brought various changes. Producers Brian Clemens and Albert Fennel were replaced and John Bryce, who had already been a producer during the Cathy Gale era, came back at the show’s helm. Linda Thorson was cast to play Tara King, the new John Steed’s colleague.

Some financial issues made the production of the first sixth season episodes difficult and the results were disappointing. Brian Clemens and Albert Fennel were quickly recalled: they tried their best with the material already produced but the season didn’t have the same success as the previous ones, also because the audience didn’t like Tara King as much as Emma Peel.

At the end of the season the financing from the USA that had kept the show alive stopped so it came to an end in 1969.

The show popularity around the world however remained high and in 1976 an international production led to the show “The New Avengers” where Patrick Macnee reprised his role as John Steed being the mentor of his two young colleagues Mike Gambit (played by Gareth Hunt) and Purdey (played by Joanna Lumley).

The two seasons of this new show were set partly in UK, partly in France and partly in Canada with variable results and an attempt to update the original series atmosphere to the ’70s that wasn’t always successful.

In 1998 the movie “The Avengers” came out but with negative results as it failed in recreating John Steed and Emma Peel’s charm and the atmosphere of their adventures. After 50 years since its debut the original series keeps on being inimitable and loved very much around the world so let’s celebrate it with a bottle of champagne!

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