Avenging the past

I’d rather hoped that being freed of the daily grind would give me the opportunity to watch some of the DVDs that I’ve assiduously stockpiled over the years. But it doesn’t seem to have turned out that way, with only one film watched so far this year. I’ve had slightly more success with television episodes – the 50 minute running times fit in rather easier than two hour plus long movies – and I’ve been indulging my interest in vintage TV through the boxset of series 1 and 2 of 60s classic The Avengers.

Actually when I say series 1, there are only two and a bit episodes out of 26 left of the first year – a systematic tape-wiping casualty rate that leaves the better-known deletion of early Doctor Who serials by the BBC look half-hearted by comparison. In any case, series 1 was unrecognisable from what we would come to think of as The Avengers, being initially a spin-off series for Police Surgeon star Ian Hendry.

That show’s format had proved restrictive, so instead Hendry played another doctor, David Keel, this time out to avenge the murder of his fiancée by a drug gang (hence the ‘avenging’ of the title – something you’d never learn about the show otherwise.) The story brought him into the orbit of the intelligence services for which he would go on to ‘freelance’ for them as one of their ‘talented amateurs’, a neat little plot device that allowed the writers to drop the character into any story they wanted.

Keel’s plain trenchcoated intelligence contact – initially a minor but recurring role – was given the name of John Steed, and the actor Patrick Macnee was cast. His impish and mischievous playing of the otherwise anonymous part quickly started stealing first scenes and then whole episodes out from under the star, and so it was small wonder that when production was halted because of a strike by the actor’s union Equity in late 1961, Hendry used the opportunity to depart and take up the tempting movie offers that had been piling up.

That left the producers with a pile of unmade scripts but no star. They initially tried to move forward via the path of least resistance – creating a new character imaginatively called Dr Martin King (they really weren’t trying much here, let’s be honest) to speak Hendry’s lines. But with the character lacking the Keel character’s tragic origins, and the actor (Jon Rollason) serviceable but bland – not helped by the anonymised scripts – it was clear that this was a very short term patch and King was written out after three episodes. Long term it seemed that the production team intended an expanded role for Steed and the introduction of a new female colleague, christened Venus Smith. She would be another of the pool of ‘talented amateurs’, young, enthusiastic, glamourous – and a singer, which would allow the show some musical interludes and escape the dourness of the Hendry era.

In the meantime there was still the pile of Keel-era scripts to get through, so the team tried a middle way to ease the transition to Venus – still having to use the scripts substantially unchanged but replacing Rollason with an actress by the name of Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale to say Keel’s former lines.

The production team didn’t realise it, but this simple expediency had created something genuinely original. In a pre-Women’s Lib era when women on television were invariably playing wives, daughters, girlfriends or mistresses, the sudden appearance of a female character who was at the very heart of the story, who was as tough-talking and capable as the men, and able to outwit and even outhit the men when required had an extraordinary and immediate effect.

Venus Smith was dispatched after six episodes and Cathy Gale was here to stay, the writers keeping the Keel-esque characteristics but also quickly drawn to the new potential of sexual chemistry. Over the course of series 2 Gale and Steed’s relationship quickly moved from antagonistic (inherited from Keel/Steed’s dynamic) to a genuine warmth and fun. By 1963 the series even had a startling (for the times) scene of domestic bliss with Gale and Steed sharing breakfast, and while the dialogue sought to make clear that no sexual impropriety was involved it was still shocking for contemporary audiences. Gale was positioned as a ‘housekeeper’ of sorts but true to her original unconventional character it was quickly made clear that she did not shop and she did not cook – she was too busy conducting forensic chemical analyses.

With two such striking characters and two such strong performers, suddenly the rest of the show looked very drab by comparison and needed lifting from grim realism. That sparked stories to match the stars, such as biotoxins hidden in golden eggs and mafioso hiding out in the surreal surroundings of a circus dressed as clowns. The show still had a long way to go before becoming the wild, quintessentially 60s series that people remember – but it was on the way and this boxset shows it evolving before our very eyes, week to week.

Sadly even with the plethora of digital channels these days, this isn’t a series you’ll ever likely see repeated on air. For one thing, the technical quality of the black and white recording is poor even after digital restoration and certainly well below modern broadcasting standards. For another, its on-screen production values are lower than those of a modern local theatrical reparatory company.

In Mission to Montreal for example, the camera makes an early impact into the scenery with a loud crash and violent shaking of the picture; the boom mic makes so many appearances in shot that you almost expect it to be given lines of dialogue and a credit in the end titles. In The Golden Eggs the camera makes an ill-advised close-up of some snow on a window ledge to reveal it as little balls of polystyrene packing; whip pans spectacularly miss their intended end target and have to creep backwards, hoping no one had noticed, to find the intended actor midway through speaking their lines; the whole set goes dark at one point, unremarked by the characters, only for the plot to require the lights be cut two minutes later revealing the earlier darkness as someone suffering severely premature cue-itus. Best of all, several low-shots of actors clearly reveal the banks of studio lights clearly visible where the ceiling of the set should be behind them.

Everything was studio-bound. Along with the usual dialogue fluffs and poor staging that leaves actors blocking others who are speaking their lines, it’s astonishing to us today that such things should be left in and aired to audiences of millions. But in the early 60s, all television was shot as a “live play” – studio time was too expensive to allow reshoots, and post-filming editing and cutting was simply not an option: what they got on the day was what had to be used. Doctor Who fans love to trawl through their own contemporary serials and spot the mistakes (the giant ant head-butting a camera at full run is a particular classic) and “Billy fluffs” of the star (William Hartnell), but that was (a) a kid’s programme and (b) involved a lot of complicated special SF effects; The Avengers, by contrast, was a prime-time, highly-publicised ITV adult drama and hence more accurately demonstrates the true state of TV production at the time, which if anything is shown to be far more error-prone than Doctor Who.

To put it kindly, the standard was not good – British television looked like a deeply untalented amateur by comparison with the slickly professional television programs coming out of America like Perry Mason and Gunsmoke. But the development of The Avengers also showed how quickly things changed, for by the time the show switched to colour in 1966 – just a little over three years later, remember – the production was as glossy and high-quality as anything America could manage. It was a fascinating time in the history of broadcast media, and The Avengers allows the viewers to see things evolving before our eyes. It’s a fascinating sub-text, and of course the show itself whatever its flaws and gaffes is never less than entertaining.

Sometimes it’s the gaffes that really do add to the appeal and charm. At the end of Conspiracy Of Silence, for example, the script calls for a close-up of a caged lion that the production had brought into the studio for the day. The director understandably wanted a big finish to the episode, but the lion was bored and apathetic (it had been so immobile up till this point that it had been impossible to tell that it wasn’t just a large stuffed toy in the cage.) So as the camera pushes in closer on the lion, you can hear the voice of the animal’s handler whispering the lion’s name “Cheshire” ever-louder in the hope of making it look the right way and give an impressive roar. The animal is unmoved by the increasingly desperate and clearly audible entreaties: the lion couldn’t have spoken any more eloquently about the situation if it had been physically capable of rolling its eyes …


  1. Nice to read such a heartfelt recount of my second favourite TV series (after Doctor Who, naturally).

    I’ve started a Classic TV club at my school, and my first screening was ‘The Town of No Return.’ I would have loved to show something like ‘Mr Teddy Bear’, but some of the Cathy episodes are rather dark! I’m glad to report that when I stopped the episode half way through – I couldn’t show it all in one lunch time – there were some very disappointed sighs, and promises to come back for Part Two.

    Also, in case you weren’t aware- this is coming up: http://blogs.chi.ac.uk/theavengers/

  2. andrewlewin

    Thanks for your comment, and also for the link to your blog – you’ve written some fabulous reviews of the three particular episodes I was mentioning only in brief (Mission to Montreal, Golden Eggs and Conspiracy of Silence) – really hadn’t expected to find anyone writing top quality new reviews of such vintage material.

    I can’t tell if you’re in the UK or not, but if you are then look out for Mastermind on BBC2 – one of the specialist subjects on Friday 4 February is The Avengers.

    If you get the chance, another good series of this era to check out is Danger Man – the original half hour black and white episodes in particular – starring Patrick McGoohan. Also very classy entertainment.

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