Friday, 26 June 2015

R.I.P. Patrick Macnee

Although he appeared in about 30 films, including the James Bond film "A View to a Kill" in 1985, Patrick Macnee is best known to his fans for one role: that of the secret agent John Steed, or simply Steed, in the television series "The Avengers" (1961-1969) and "The New Avengers" (1976-1977). For this reason my tribute to Patrick Macnee consists of a brief overview of his performance as John Steed.

Steed with David Keel (Ian Hendry)

During these series he had a succession of rotating partners. It might surprise some fans of "The Avengers" to hear that in the first season John Steed was the junior partner, the assistant of Dr. David Keel. Ian Hendry had recently starred in a popular television series called "Police Surgeon", and "The Avengers" was intended to cash in on this, by portraying him as a medical doctor who used his forensic skills as a government agent.

Due to the barbaric habit of reusing videotapes after they had been broadcast on television, only two out of 26 episodes still exist from the first season. Audio versions of the episodes are currently in production, in which voice actors use the original scripts.

The government agency that Dr. Keel and Steed worked for was never explicitly named. In a few episodes we saw Dr. Keel receiving instructions from an unnamed superior, but this character was only shown occasionally in the second season and disappeared completely in the following three seasons.

Steed with Martin King (Jon Rollason)

After the departure of Ian Hendry at the end of the first season the original intention was to replace Dr. Keel with another medical doctor, and Jon Rollason was selected to play the role of Dr. Martin King. Three episodes were filmed, but the television studios felt that Jon wasn't a suitable replacement. It was decided to change the direction of the series. In the first season Steed had a network of informants and assistants among the general population. In the remaining episodes of the second season Steed worked closely with two of his female assistants in solving crimes. These two women were referred to as amateurs, since they were not government agents.

Steed with Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman)

The first amateur was Dr. Cathy Gale, played by Honor Blackman. In the second season her trademark weapon was a gun which she concealed in her garter belt. In the third season it was more common for her to use judo in battling criminals, an easy task because Honor Blackman already practised judo. Many of her early episodes had scripts written for Ian Hendy or Jon Rollason, and she simply used their lines. Later episodes show her character becoming more feminine. Beginning in the late second season there were episodes in which she wore black leather, and this became her standard clothing in the third season.

Steed with Venus Smith (Julie Stevens)

The second amateur was Venus Smith, a nightclub singer played by Julie Stevens. Unlike Cathy Gale she wasn't a fighter. Her activities were usually undercover spying, and Steed frequently had to rescue her. Cathy Gale was the liberated woman, Venus Smith was the damsel in distress. A good mix.

In the second season Dr. Martin King appeared in three episodes, Venus Smith appeared in six episodes and Cathy Gale appeared in the remaining 17 episodes. The Martin King episodes had been filmed first, but they weren't broadcast until the middle of the season. Venus Smith's episodes were scattered evenly throughout the season. Since it was obvious that Cathy Gale was the more popular character, she was the only one to be brought back for the third season and appeared in all 26 episodes.

Steed's character began to change towards the end of the third season. He started out as a gritty detective-like spy, almost always wearing a heavy raincoat. He slowly began to adopt the bowler hat and umbrella that became his trademark appearance for the following seasons.

Steed with Emma Peel (Diana Rigg)

In the fourth season Diana Rigg joined the series as Emma Peel, usually called Mrs. Peel, the most famous out of all Steed's partners. There were hints that she worked for the government, so she didn't have the amateur status of the previous assistants. When the series was broadcast in the USA there was a voice-over during the opening credits that called her a "talented amateur", but this was a careless blunder. She was obviously intended to be a clone of Cathy Gale. Emma Peel wore leather outfits and battled with simulated karate moves, since she knew no judo. However, there were disagreements behind the scenes. Honor Blackman had enjoyed wearing leather outfits, but Diana Rigg found them unpleasant and requested a new look. In the fifth season she wore trendy tight-fitting outfits custom made for her.

The series' style changed dramatically in the fourth season, and even more in the fifth. It had started out in 1961 by presenting realistic spy thrillers. In the fourth season the stories became very camp. There were high tech gadgets, and enemy organisations were using barely credible covers for their illegal operations. In each episode people were killed in ridiculous ways. Steed usually made a whimsical remark about the deaths, while Mrs. Peel just grinned. The series was heavily criticised at the time for the way it made fun of death. In the fifth season there were repeated science fiction elements, such as killer robots and man-eating plants.

There is some disagreement about the correct numbering of the seasons from the fifth onwards. Some people say that the fifth season had 24 episodes, whereas others say that it only had 16 episodes, and the sixth season had eight episodes. If you watch the 24 episodes it's obvious that the last eight have a different style to the previous 16. They're slightly less camp. However, I'll follow the consensus of Avengers fans and refer to it as a single season. I'll merely split it into season 5a and 5b.

Steed with Tara King (Linda Thorson)

In the sixth and final season of "The Avengers" Steed's new partner was the young agent Tara King, played by Linda Thorson. It was emphasised that she had been the top graduate of a secret agent training school, so she definitely wasn't an amateur. She admired Steed because in her training he had been presented as the example of a good agent. She looked up to him as a father figure, but there were also hints of a romantic attachment, something missing from all of Steed's previous partners.

In the sixth season we met Steed's superior officer, a wheelchair-bound man called Mother. The organisation he worked for still wasn't named. He had a mobile office which kept being found in the most ridiculous places, such as the top floor of a double decker bus. The sixth season used great amounts of humour and became so camp that it seemed to be parodying itself.

Steed with Gambit (Gareth Hunt) and Purdey (Joanna Lumley)

In 1976 a Canadian company financed a relaunch of "The Avengers", which they called "The New Avengers". This was something that divided the fans. There was initial optimism at the return of Steed and their beloved series, but it soon became obvious that it was a very different program. Steed functioned as a supervisor for the new agents Gambit (Gareth Hunt) and Purdey (Joanna Lumley), giving them their missions in the same way he had received missions from Mother in the sixth season. He outranked them, but when it came to the action he seemed like a junior partner, standing back while they won the battles. The stories themselves carried on in a similar vein to the original Avengers series, camp with over-the-top action and hints of science fiction.

Yesterday Patrick Macnee passed away at the age of 93. He will be severely missed by his family, friends and fans..

Patrick Macnee
6 February 1922 – 25 June 2015

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