Some things in life are given. The sky is blue, chocolate makes you fat, and the black and white episodes of The Avengers from 1965 and 1966 are the most sublime action adventure TV programmes ever produced. The Avengers was, and still is, the only British-made show ever to be shown in prime time on a US network. So if you think The Tomorrow People was better, stop reading now and go and milk your cat.
But what of these tributes?
What to say if you liked them.
Enjoyably light reflections upon an iconic show of the swinging, psychedelic 1960s.
What to say if you didn’t like them.
Another cliché-ridden bigging-up of sixties culture. Ok so they were fantastic sunny days and everyone ate beautiful flowers – get over it.
What was good about them?
• The clips, of course! ITV being ITV showed as few black and white shots as possible, though it made an exception for THAT scene from The Hellfire Club in which the usually cat-suited Diana Rigg is dressed in black leather boots and a basque, only to be whipped to within an inch of her nine lives by Peter ‘Jason King’ Wyngarde. Cor!
• The talking heads. All the principals are happily still with us, including the redoubtable octogenarian Patrick Macnee (John Steed). Only the BBC was able to give us an interview with Dame Diana aka Mrs Peel, though that was from the archives, recorded for a 1997 Face To Face. Ms Rigg doesn’t much like talking about her frivolous past, now she’s a serious thesp. She HAS got over it.
• The attempt to place the show within a cultural landscape. Well, only the BBC 4 show did this, chiefly through the contributions of BFI consultant Dick Fiddy (imagine Simon Pegg plus 10 years and 10 pounds and you’ve got him) such as “it … grew out of the Cold War. We thought there were spies out there fighting an undercover war we didn’t know about.” Over on ITV, the show was presented by Joan Collins, on loan from Madame Tussauds, whose most telling insight was to remind us that while The Avengers began airing in the early 1960s she was making a film with Bob Hope & Bing Crosby, The Road to Hong Kong (the last and worst of the series).
• The revelations! ITV gave us a couple of corkers. Macnee based Steed upon his rakish father, a race horse trainer, Shrimp Macnee, ‘a tiny man with a big stomach full of gin’, and a character from an obscure 1939 film Q Planes starring Ralph Richardson. (Macnee’s mum was a lesbian and he was brought up by her and ‘Uncle Evelyn’ – this wasn’t in either of last night’s shows, we just happen to know it.) And Macnee and Linda Thorson (Tara King) were on drugs for the entire 1969 series. Ok, ok, so they weren’t screaming at LSD lizards crawling across the ceiling – they sometimes took slimming pills to help shed their crime-fighter podge. BBC4 gave us an interview with John Bates, fashion designer, who put Emma Peel in mini skirts and lycra and white leather boots with black patent stripes (steady!), revealing that it was the first TV series to launch its own spin-off clothing line.
What was bad about them?
• If The Avengers is, as stated by both retrospectives, The Beatles of television, why isn’t it repeated more often then? A rerun of the first colour series is currently on BBC4 but the last time it was shown on free-to-air television was 17 years ago on Channel 4. (Actually, the French are to blame, as always. Canal Plus closely guard the rights.)
• And ITV mysteriously failed to mention a couple of things. No word of The New Avengers. Though probably it’s best to forget the Purdy bob and Mike ‘Anyone For Coffee?’ Gambit. What ITV skirted around big time was that if it hadn’t been for a massive injection of American network cash there’d have been no way little British ABC could have afforded to shift the production out of the studio and on to location, off easy-to-wipe 2in videotape and on to ‘color’ film, and, thereby, immortality.