I remember the first time I saw The Avengers. Diana Rigg was kicking some bad guy’s butt pretty hard, and I was hooked in an instant. Next Halloween I dressed as Emma Peel, and she has been an idol ever since. And while the 1998 film version is best left in dim memory, the television show has aged fairly gracefully. Marcus Hearn’s new book, The Avengers: A Celebration is an extremely well detailed journey through the creation, heyday and eventual demise of the classic show, and a treat for those like me who haven’t seen the entire show, for avid fans who want to know the inside scoop, and for those interested in the inner workings of this interesting period of television history.
When television first became popular in the 1950s, the majority of the television shows were run along fairly realistic narratives. But when the film industry began to woo viewers back to the cinema, television writers needed to find new and more interesting material to keep their audiences interested. So the 1960s saw a surge in the variety of genres. And as budgets and creativity increased, so did the interest in more elaborate storylines. Hence the growth in crime shows, especially ones that could play on the popularity of films such as the James Bond series. The British seemed to have a knack for sophisticated espionage stories, and so “The Avengers” was born.
Among the many things Hearn (The Hammer Story, The Cinema of George Lucas) explores that I was ignorant of, is that the first series of the show (in Britain, seasons are referred to as series,) featured Patrick Macnee’s suave John Steed as a kind of sidekick for a doctor; however, it quickly became clear that Steed was a far more interesting character, both for the writers and the audience. By the time the second series rolled around, a different actor was playing the doctor, but even that change did not work. The writers then decided than a woman character would be far more interesting.
Three difference women played Steed’s counterpart through the series. Though Rigg is the most well known, before her there was Honor Blackman (who is still very well known in Britain,) and after Rigg there was Canadian actor Linda Thorson. But we all remember Emma Peel, as she was the brightest, sexiest, and toughest of the three. Peel broke down a lot of barriers for women characters in television: she was as smart and tough as Steed, and her abilities were never questioned because of her gender. This step forward would unfortunately brought to a halt in the final series with Thorson’s character, who was weaker and made to be more “feminine”.
The book makes no apologies for being a celebration. Not that it ignores any controversies in production, but it is on the whole entirely positive about the series, from conception to finale. This is not necessarily negative; given the influence on the show, it can be hard to see it as anything but a positive endeavour. At this point, British television was only just beginning to make waves in the much larger market of the United States, and characters such as Steed and Peel were a welcome antidote to the usual American fare of cowboys and dirty police detectives. The chapters of the book are relatively short, and yet still contain great detail and interviews with most of the key players. As well, the photographs are not merely decorative. Short descriptions of the context of each range from anecdotes to facts to quotes from media critics, and they augment the chapters far more than such photographs usually do in nonfiction work. Hearn also does not deny the more than occasional outrageousness of some of the plots of the show, plots that perhaps led to the change in cast and the show’s eventual cancellation (though as Hearn points out the real culprit was the American ratings system, which pulled audiences in too many directions to sustain the imported show.)
While this book will undoubtedly appeal the most to fans of the series, it is also a clever examination of the inner workings of the creation of television during its explosion of creation. I wonder why Hearn did not choose to include an epilogue on the series brief revival The New Avengers, which brought back Macnee with two younger detectives (one of them a young Joanna Lumley.) With the current trend of reviving and remixing old television shows, it’s great to read the history of a show whose brilliance and fun really can’t be equaled or recreated.