THE AVENGERS – The Complete Series Five

RIP, Macnee

Patrick Macnee was The Avengers. He was there at the very beginning when Sydney Newman, ABC’s Head of Drama, cancelled a crime drama starring Ian Hendry, called Police Surgeon, and asked its producer Leonard White to concoct a new drama from a simple title… The Avengers. White and Macnee knew each other from mutually nurturing their early careers in Canada. In 1960 Macnee was about to quit acting for producing, but White’s phone call asking him to play the sidekick to Ian Hendry’s Dr. David Keel in The Avengers, completely changed his life.

It also gave birth to John Steed; that iconic gentleman spy with the immaculately tailored suits, matching bowler, and umbrella. It was Newman who first provoked Macnee to transform Steed into an extension of himself and replace Steed’s trenchcoat uniform of the first series. Macnee took a cue from his friend, director Michael Powell: “Patrick, you’re an eighteenth-century man.” Macnee worked with his tailor and costume designer Audrey Liddle to devise the iconic look; part Beau Brummell and part Old-Etonian but with a mod 1960s twist.

It was an image that endured throughout The Avengers and remains instantly recognisable to this day. Macnee and Steed seemed forever invulnerable. Yet, at the grand old age of 93, last week Macnee joined those choirs of heavenly, avenging angels. He will no doubt be quaffing a glass of champagne to toast the Steed who lives on, immortalised in 161 episodes of The Avengers and 26 episodes of The New Avengers.

A sample of that immortality can be found in Studio Canal’s high-definition re-release of The Avengers on Blu-Ray. This month they continue with the first series made in colour. Starring Diana Rigg as Emma Peel and Macnee as John Steed, those agents extraordinary using their wit, style, and champagne to defeat all manner of diabolical masterminds, the iconic fifth series achieved international acclaim and, most importantly, conquered the U.S. television schedules.

When The Avengers started shooting in colour on 5th September 1966, its original incarnation as a videotaped, black-and-white studio-based noir, a feverish, often claustrophobic mix of Graham Greene’s Our Man In Havana, Dashiel Hammett’s The Thin Man and the James Bond novels, had been transformed into a genre-defying television success.

It was now a series shot on film (freed from the shackles of television studio tape production) and using location filming to confidently embrace new styles and themes. The production modes of the series epitomised what James Chapman noted as “the technological changes that occurred in the television industry moving from ‘live’ performance to film, and from black-and-white to colour” spanning the 1950s to the end of the 1960s.

The Avengers managed to keep pace with the popular zeitgeist across the 1960s, and evolved from the realist Ian Hendry and early Honor Blackman taped episodes into something far more flamboyant, far more recherché. As it grew, so did the market for television product and the sophistication of small-screen production. By switching from tape to film in 1965, the international market, and crucially the lucrative U.S market, was wide open to the charms of The Avengers.

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The caption card ‘The Avengers in Color’, on each episode filmed in the following year, emphatically heralded the result of a drive by executive producer Julian Wintle to crack those markets. There had been some resistance, on financial grounds, from Associated British’s Howard Thomas, to move the series into colour even though some British series were filmed in colour prior to this (notably episodes of ITC’s The Adventures of Sir Lancelot and Gerry Anderson’s Stingray). The BBC announced colour broadcasts for the new BBC2 service in 1966 but regular ITV and BBC colour transmissions weren’t established until 1968.

Across the Atlantic, however, NBC had already announced a primetime schedule for autumn 1965 almost entirely in colour. By 1966, NBC and its fellow networks ABC and CBS were broadcasting in colour, and The Avengers production team, with Howard Thomas, flew to New York to cut a deal with ABC—who bought the monochrome series made the previous year, financed the production of 26 colour episodes, and optioned a second series in colour.

This significant deal, announced in January 1966, guaranteed an unprecedented coast-to-coast primetime slot for a British series. Colour also elevated The Avengers out of the resolutely monochrome mise en scène of the 1950s and into a lush, never-never-land of self-conscious playfulness and surrealism. American viewers would be the first exposed to the heightened style of the fifth series.

The established formula of the monochrome episodes, wherein the flirtatious partnership of agents John Steed and Emma Peel thwarted all manner of Cold War double-agents and infiltrators, disconsolate British scientists, angry executives, dilettante playboys, and autocratic technocrats, would be developed further in the colour episodes. The duo, played by Macnee and Rigg, took on all the implications of combating ‘crimes against the state’ alluded to in the voiceover announcement during the introductory sequence “The Strange Case of the Missing Corpse”, filmed especially for the U.S. broadcasts.

The success of The Avengers in the mid-1960s was born out of the audience’s identification with Steed and Mrs. Peel, and their English adaptability in the face of rapid and often confusing change, in an era where technology and consumerism usurped the traditional values attached to class, culture, and gender. The stylistic devices of the opening titles of the colour series defined this partnership succinctly.

Emma, the widow of test pilot Peter Peel and daughter of industrialist Sir John Knight, was a modern, adventurous, intelligent, and sexually confident woman capable of fending off assailants with her karate skills, while dressed in up-to-the moment fashions. John Steed, Pierre Cardin be-suited with accompanying bowler and brolly, represented a traditional image of the British gentleman and the post-war re-emergence of the Edwardian dandy. Over a glass of champagne we see these two dynamic figures meet, flirt, and engage in a display of mock fighting to a thrilling salvo of cocktail jazz from composer Laurie Johnson.

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The Avengers was representative of the new England; brutally efficient with certain malcontents who wished to maintain a pre-Sixties status quo, and hip-enough to register the equality between men and women. The colour series took the fantasy elements prominent in the black-and-white Rigg series and exaggerated them with the use of intense colours, high-fashion elements, a bevvy of prominent British character actors playing a wealth of eccentrics and diabolical masterminds, and a knowingness about the relationship between the television audience and the programme itself.

One of the major elements of the fifth series was the development of ‘Avengerland’; a surreal, alternate vision of 1960s England that Steed, Mrs. Peel and their criminal opponents inhabited. The episodes made in 1966 regularly rejected realism and many of the Cold War economic and political connotations that informed the villainy and espionage of previous incarnations of The Avengers.

The series now constructed an England that director Federico Fellini would’ve been proud of. It was an England of the mind, of the imagination, where increasingly the threats to Steed and Mrs. Peel became more and more artificially generated. Abstract and anonymous threats often developed within psychedelic, surreal variations of technocratic science fiction themes such as time travel, cloning, and miniaturisation.

‘Avengerland’ was therefore a postmodernist accumulation of style signifiers and archetypes. Christopher Sharrett, in commenting on Fellini’s work, called this effect “the sum and substance of postmodernity [where] the piling up of signifiers merely creates new attractions and commodities” and where, by extension, the colourful escapades in ‘Avengerland’ were created “by removing [them] from all social/political/economic context.” The series, as writer Dennis Spooner once observed, “showed England as the world thinks it is, and England as England would like it to be.”

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This was also a realm that deliberately excluded regional accents and ethnicity, and where streets, country lanes and villages conformed to a traditional image of England; perhaps one that reflected the world of Ealing comedies from the previous two decades. These ‘values’ were placed in direct contrast to the worlds of company shareholders, boardroom dilettantes, and technocrats, where England was a bastion of innovation and progress epitomised by Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ speech of October 1963.

Science fiction and fantasy rubbed shoulders with the show’s own comedy of manners and sense of British fair-play, epitomised in everything from the tag sequences, the ‘Mrs. Peel We’re Needed’ introductions and the witty captions that summarised each episode, to parading a gaggle of malcontent British scientists, astronomers, executives, aristocrats, ministers and secret agents who believe they’ve been treated unfairly in the rush to embrace the ‘swinging sixties’ modernisation of the nation.

Government ministries and quangos with strange acronyms and executive boards of multi-national companies were also the arenas where rivalry, revenge, and competitive zeal depended on exploiting stress and fear (“The Fear Merchants” and “Death’s Door”), dealing with deadly nannies (“Something Nasty in the Nursery”), or bringing illustrations to murderous life (“The Winged Avenger”). There was even room for pastiches of alien invasion films, the Frankenstein legend and The Invisible Man.

Producer/creator Brian Clemens and his production team escalated this Fellinesque retreat from rationality in stories such as “Epic”, “Escape in Time” and “Something Nasty in the Nursery”. Many episodes displayed a pop-art style married to increasingly self-referential narratives that commented on the art of storytelling and film-making.

“The Winged Avenger” was a clever mix of thriller and comic-book (the legendary Frank Bellamy supplied the comic strips for the episode), while delivering a tongue in cheek, meta-textual nod to the Adam West Batman series—as demonstrated in Steed’s showdown with the villain. Hitting his adversary over the head with Roy Lichtenstein inspired psychedelic pop-artwork declaring ‘POW!’, ‘BLAM!’ and ‘SPLAT!’, the sequence flipped back and forth between live action and comic-book recreations. Composer Laurie Johnson even quoted the Neal Hefti and Nelson Riddle scores from the Batman series. On this Blu-Ray set, a commentary to “The Winged Avenger” covers writer Richard Harris’s contribution to the original black and white series of The Avengers and the comic book influences that went into the creation of this episode.

Equally, “Something Nasty in the Nursery” edged the series towards outright surrealism, psychedelia, and childhood fantasy. Evoking the subversive traditions of Lewis Carroll, the villains used hallucinogens to twist the childhood memories of important government ministers completely out of shape. It was also a self-aware episode that allowed the audience in on the artificiality of the storytelling through exaggerated mise en scène and music cues.

A similar route was taken with “Escape in Time”; a strange story about a man who provides a service to criminals that allows them to escape from the authorities into any era of past history. Featuring a superb guest cameo from Peter Bowles, and filled with massive chunks of gaudy, dream-like visual and physical comedy, it separated the series from any plausible reality using Expressionistic imagery and set design to create the villain’s lair and worldview.

“Epic” was probably the furthest Clemens and his team took this approach. A wonderfully surreal blend of Sunset Boulevard and Fellini’s , again thoroughly divorced from realism, and driven by completely glorious performances from the triumvirate of Peter Wyngarde, Kenneth Warren and Isa Miranda. This episode constantly broke the fourth wall by deconstructing Emma Peel’s life as a film created by director Z.Z. von Schnerk; sets constructed within set designs, visuals evoking German Expressionism, the self-referential use of the studios used to film The Avengers, and spoof narratives, all pulled apart and glorified the very idea of making films and television programmes.

An episode commentary from the legendary Peter Wyngarde on “Epic” demonstrates he was clearly not that concerned about remembering the more intricate details of the episode. Rather he regales the viewer with tons of anecdotes about his theatrical career, working with Ralph Richardson, breaks off to put in a performance as George Sanders, and later recites various songs and poems. It’s as arch as the episode itself.

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Macnee and Rigg were also allowed to stretch and play against their own characters in the memorable “Who’s Who?” The social etiquette embodied by the two main characters was contrasted with their body-swapped, rather bourgeois alternatives, played by the equally sensational double-act of Freddie Jones and Patricia Haynes. Cleverly, the ad-breaks were also structured to feature a very tongue-in-cheek recap for the audience, again reminiscent of the voiceovers used by William Dozier for Batman, as to who was exactly whom as the story continued.

There was also a surreal comic strip flavour to espionage thriller “The Positive-Negative Man”, and a simple joy in “Dead Man’s Treasure” in its cross-country car chase and treasure hunt driven by Laurie Johnson’s bouncy incidental music. Here the series consolidated the pastoral image of English country lanes, forming the geography of ‘Avengerland’. They were routes to research institutes, laboratories, bogus railway stations, astronomical societies, and underground cities where disgruntled technocrats were either perfecting a laser weapon, a miniaturising ray, or radio waves to turn domestic cats into rampaging killers.

Clearly, ABC were not entirely convinced Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell could sustain this postmodern approach to the series, and espoused a return to the realism of the show’s early days. Clemens and Fennell found themselves replaced by former producer John Bryce and, with Diana Rigg’s departure in September 1967, this particularly stylish chapter of The Avengers came to a close.

Studio Canal’s Blu-Ray edition provides one of the best viewing experiences of these episodes. Colour is stunningly rich and vibrant; there is a detailed, thick, layered quality to the images. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is rich, clear, and boasts depth in reproducing dialogue and Laurie Johnson’s scores. ‘The Avengers in Color’ captions are intact—chopped out of the episodes when Lionsgate released them on Blu-Ray last year—and unlike Lionsgate, Studio Canal have wisely spread the episodes out over seven discs rather than cramming them onto three, which weakened healthy detail and solid contrast. Purists may be relieved to know that there is no sign of the 5.1 remixes created for the Lionsgate set.

Seven discs allow Studio Canal to include the extra features from their original DVD release (bar the PDF script material), and an exclusive to the set: an additional interview with Diana Rigg.

Special Features

  • Exclusive audio commentaries with scriptwriter/producer Brian Clemens on “Murdersville”; guest star Peter Wyngarde on “Epic”; scriptwriter Richard Harris on “The Winged Avenger”; Diana Rigg’s stunt double, Cyd Child, on “Return of the Cybernauts”.
  • Filmed episode intros by Brian Clemens to “The Bird Who Knew Too Much”, “The Living Dead”, “Epic”, “The Correct Way to Kill”, “The Superlative Seven”, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station”, “The Joker” and “Murdersville”.
  • Archive German TV interview with Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg.
  • Episode trims from “The Fear Merchants”, “Escape In Time”, “From Venus With Love” and “The See-Through Man”.
  • The Avengers – A Retrospective (produced for the Lumiere VHS releases).
  • ATV newsreel footage (Diana Rigg receives TV Award).
  • The Avengers – “They’re Back” archive trailer.
  • Granada + points for each episode.
  • Episode Reconstructions for lost Series 1 episodes “One For The Mortuary”, “Death on The Slipway”, “Tunnel of Fear” and “Dragonsfield”.
  • 1960s German Titles.
  • Stills gallery for featured episodes (literally hundreds of images).
  • Interview with Diana Rigg (extract from British Legends Of Stage & Screen).

The Avengers: The Complete Series 5

Associated British Corporation 1966-1967
Studio Canal Cat No OPTBD1751 / Cert: PG / Combined Episode Running Time: 1240 mins approx / Colour / Feature Aspect Ratio: 1:33:1 / 2.0 Mono LPCM / Region B / English language / English HOH Subtitles
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