My heroes — please stop dying

 

(c) ITV / ABC / Thames

 

It’s not been a good few weeks for that small band of people whom I regard as my heroes.  Last month saw the passing of a musical hero, B.B. King, while earlier this month a cinematic one, Sir Christopher Lee, shuffled off this mortal coil too.  Meanwhile, a week ago, a literary and artistic hero, Alasdair Gray, had a close call with the Grim Reaper – the venerable author, poet, playwright, illustrator, painter and muralist suffered serious leg and back injuries after falling down a flight of stairs at his Glasgow home.

 

And now I’ve heard about the death of a televisual hero: the actor Patrick Macnee passed away at his home in California yesterday at the age of 93.  It’s a sad coincidence that Macnee has departed just three weeks after Christopher Lee, since the pair of them attended school together (at Summerfields Preparatory School in Oxford) and also performed together several times, including playing Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson in two TV movies in the early 1990s, Incident at Victoria Falls and Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady.  Macnee and Lee had also been the last surviving members of the cast of Laurence Olivier’s celebrated film adaptation of Hamlet, made in 1948.

 

In the 1960s, of course, Patrick Macnee imprinted himself on Britain’s cultural consciousness as the suave and unflappable John Steed in The Avengers (1961-1969): a series that even now, in this era of critically-acclaimed telly like The Sopranos, The Wire and True Detective, some folk would identify as the best TV show of all time.

 

(c) ITV / ABC / Thames

 

It started as a conventional thriller series where Macnee’s Steed – clad in a grubby trench-coat that was the antithesis of the dapper outfit he’d later become famous for – fought against criminals, gangsters and general bad guys in partnership with Ian Hendry’s Dr David Keel.  When Hendry left the show after its first season, however, The Avengers mutated.  Steed acquired a new partner, Honor Blackman’s Cathy Gale, a lady who was a dab hand at judo, had a fondness for wearing leather and gave as good as she got – all of which made her a revolutionary female character by the TV standards of the time.  And Steed himself had a sartorial overhaul.  He ended up wearing a Saville Row suit and bowler hat and carrying a brolly – the epitome of stereotypical, gentlemanly Englishness – and thus a 1960s icon was born.  No wonder that when The Avengers was shown in France, it was retitled Chapeau Melon et Bottes de Cuir (‘bowler hat and leather boots’).

 

Also changing in style were the stories.  The Avengers’ scripts became increasingly outlandish, so that by the mid-1960s Steed was battling invisible men, flesh-eating plants from outer space, household cats that turned into killers, and a troupe of clunking, unstoppable robots called the Cybernauts.  Responsible for many of the show’s bizarre storylines was the show’s main writer, co-producer and guiding light, Brian Clemens, who himself passed away at the beginning of this year.  Coincidentally, a few days ago, I was having a chat on Skype with the journalist, author, blogger, producer and comedy impresario John Fleming and he mentioned having interviewed Clemens back in the early 1980s.  Clemens’ imagination, Fleming recalled, was so fecund that even during the interview the writer kept coming up with story ideas, off-the-cuff.

 

(c) ITV / ABC / Thames

 

By the time Honor Blackman’s Cathy Gale had been replaced by Diana Rigg’s fey, bemused-looking Emma Peel and the show was being broadcast in colour, The Avengers had become so gloriously baroque that there was something almost insolent about its stylishness.  It was a cocktail of smooth, not-a-hair-out-of-place heroes and crazed, despicable villains, of fancy sets, fancy camerawork and fancy colours, of elaborate (but bloodless) fight-scenes and stunt-work, of vintage cars and country houses, of jokes and sexual innuendo.  It was espionage, action, violence, comedy, surrealism, science fiction, horror and kinkiness rolled into one.

 

If anything, Macnee’s chemistry with Rigg was even better than his chemistry with Blackman. And Rigg’s slinky costumes didn’t hurt the viewing figures, either – never more so than in the episode A Touch of Brimstone, wherein when she donned black boots, a corset and a spiked collar, with a snake as a de Sadean accoutrement.  It didn’t surprise me that when Rigg and Daniel Radcliffe appeared as themselves in a 2006 episode of Ricky Gervais’ TV comedy series Extras, the pervy young Radcliffe asked Rigg sheepishly, “Have you still got that cat-suit from The Avengers?”

 

One of the show’s many stylistic touches was that whenever Steed entered a public place – a street, a store, a railway station – that place was always shown to be deserted, so that Steed was always alone.  Clemens and his production team had decided that, even by 1960s standards, Steed’s suit-bowler-and-brolly look was too odd and anachronistic for him to be depicted, convincingly, rubbing shoulders with the Great British public.  This policy made the show seem even more surreal.

 

(c) ITV / ABC / Thames

 

The final seasons of The Avengers had Steed working with a new partner, Tara King, played by Linda Thorson.  She was less popular than her predecessors and there was less of a fizz between her and Macnee.  Simultaneously, though, the programme-makers inserted hints that she had the hots for Steed, which was a terrible idea.  The whole thing about Steed and his lady partners is that they’re just that, partners.  Despite the amount of flirtation going on they’re never going to end up in bed together.  Clemens was unhappy about the casting of Thorson, whom he thought lacked a sense of humour, and for that reason he added another character to the show, Mother.  Played by the portly character actor Patrick Newell, Mother was Steed’s pseudonymous boss — an ‘M’ to Steed’s James Bond.  With him around, Steed at least had somebody with whom he could make jokes and enjoy a little banter.

 

That said, I remain fond of the late-1960s Avengers because it was still offbeat and inventive and there still wasn’t anything else like it on television.

 

Macnee got a chance to reprise the role of Steed in 1976 when Clemens and co-producer Albert Fennell launched what would be a two-season series called The New Avengers.  This time Steed was partnered with Joanna Lumley’s Purdey – a character whom Clemens named after a type of shotgun – and Gareth Hunt’s Mike Gambit.  The young, virile Hunt was added to the cast because it was felt that Macnee, now in his fifties, was getting too long-in-the-tooth to handle the show’s action sequences.  Despite a few wrinkles, though, Macnee / Steed was as debonair as ever.

 

(c) ITV / The Avengers (Film and TV) Enterprises Ltd

 

The New Avengers is less fondly remembered than The Avengers and it suffered from financial problems, with the result that more expensive, fantastical episodes like The Eagle’s Nest and Last of the Cybernauts, which were in the same spirit as The Avengers in its glory days, were gradually phased out in favour of cheaper, more generic, espionage-themed ones.  But Macnee, Lumley and Hunt made a likeable and entertaining team and Lumley’s no-nonsense ballerina-cum-martial-arts expert Purdey became a mid-1970s icon.  (As a kid of 10 or 11 at the time, I can remember the Purdey Effect in the school playground.  Schoolgirls who’d formerly burst into tears when obnoxious schoolboys stole their packed lunches or pulled their pigtails would suddenly turn around and karate-kick their tormentors in the goolies.)

 

And I love a sequence in The New Avengers episode House of Cards where a visitor to Steed’s home notices framed photographs of Cathy Gale, Emma Peel and Tara King on his shelf and asks the distracted Steed about them.  Thinking that she’s looking at three other pictures, of three horses that he once owned, he says of Gale: “We went through some tricky situations together.  Faithful.  Reliable.”  Of Peel: “Very spirited and very special.  Fantastic creature.  Had to take a whip to her, though, sometimes.”  And of King: “Liked her oats too much.  I sold her to an Arab prince.  I think he eventually had to shoot her.”

 

Elsewhere, Macnee had a busy film and TV career, including supporting roles in Joe Dante’s fun werewolf movie The Howling (1979) and Rob Reiner’s mockumentary about the world’s worst heavy metal band This is Spinal Tap (1984), in which he played record-company owner Sir Denis Eton-Hogg.  And as Roger Moore’s side-kick Sir Godfrey Tibbett, he was one of the few good things about the 1985 James Bond movie A View to a Kill.

 

He also turned up on American television, including a 1975 episode of Columbo called Troubled Waters, in which he plays the pompous captain of a cruise liner where a murder is committed.  Peter Falk’s crumpled Lieutenant Columbo happens to be on board, taking a holiday with ‘the wife’; and he resolves to find the murderer.  This, though, does nothing for Macnee’s blood pressure.  Throughout the episode, Falk winds up Macnee more and more by constantly referring to his beloved ship as a ‘boat’.

 

I think the last I saw of Patrick Macnee was in the 1995 video for the Oasis song Don’t Look Back in Anger, in which he’s seen chauffeuring the famously-mouthy Mancunian Britpop band to an English country house.  Later in the video, he’s shown standing in silhouette, wielding that iconic brolly.  I was never much of a fan of Oasis or their retro-1960s rock sound, but I can understand why they wanted to hang out with Macnee.  No doubt they hoped that some of John Steed’s majestic 1960s chic would rub off on them.

 

(c) ITV / ABC / Thames

 

The man who made The Avengers assemble

 

(c) The Guardian

 

Barely had I finished writing a tribute to the recently-deceased actor Rod Taylor than I read about the death of writer Brian Clemens.  So before I post anything else on this blog, here is yet another eulogy.

 

Clemens was a TV and film writer who was never short of ideas and was astonishingly prolific.  He’ll be remembered primarily for being the main creative force behind The Avengers.  No, I’m not talking about the American comic-book and movie franchise about the group of superheroes who include Captain America, Thor, Ironman and the Incredible Hulk.  I’m talking instead about the long-running British TV show featuring an altogether cooler group of superheroes: Dr David Keel, Cathy Gale, Emma Peel, Tara King, Mother, Purdey, Mike Gambit and their leader, the debonair, bowler-hatted, brolly-wielding John Steed (played by the impeccable Patrick Macnee).

 

What started out as a conventional action / thriller show with Macnee and Ian Hendry’s Dr Keel as a pair of crime-fighters gradually mutated, under Clemens’ guidance, into a television phenomenon that did everything on its own terms.  It became determinedly non-realistic and restlessly inventive.  It was also funny, silly, fantastical, baroque, occasionally gothic and even a little kinky.  This was no more so than in the mid-1960s when The Avengers had begun to be broadcast in colour and Macnee was now partnered by Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel.  (The kinkiness factor was dialled up to 11 in the episode A Touch of Brimstone, wherein Rigg dons a costume comprising a spiked collar, whalebone corset, black leather boots and a snake.  Funnily enough, this attracted the highest viewing figures of any episode in The Avengers’ eight-year history.)

 

(c) ABC / ITV / Thames

 

The show’s cocktail of humour, espionage, science fiction, fantasy and surrealism has been imitated from time to time – including by the attempted Hollywood film adaptation of it in 1998 starring Ralph Fiennes as Steed, Uma Thurman as Emma Peel and Jim Broadbent as Mother, which Clemens had nothing to do with and which he, quite rightly, detested.  However, it’s never been equalled.  Indeed, I don’t think anything else has come remotely close to equalling it

 

My all-time favourite Avengers episode is The Superlative Seven, which like so many others was scripted by Clemens.  It sees Steed invited to a mysterious fancy dress party – Steed turns up dressed as Napoleon – which takes place on an equally mysterious remote-controlled jet plane and is attended by six other guests with remarkable skills and abilities: one is a champion bullfighter, another is a first-class swordsman and so on.  The plane eventually delivers its passengers to a spooky, fogbound and seemingly deserted island where the party-guests start to be murdered one by one, Agatha Christie style; and Clemens even manages to work in a sub-plot about a sect of superhuman assassins.  On top of everything else, The Superlative Seven features a guest cast that includes Charlotte Rampling, Donald Sutherland and Brian Blessed.  Wow!

 

In the early 1970s, after The Avengers had finished its original run, Clemens worked in films.  With Terry Nation, he wrote the psychological thriller And Soon the Darkness about two English girls, played by Pamela Franklin and Michele Dotrice, being stalked by a killer whilst on a cycling trip across rural France.  He also wrote Blind Terror, in which another girl, played by Mia Farrow, is stalked by another killer in another rural setting, this time the English countryside.  The twist in Blind Terror is that Farrow is sightless and during its opening scenes the film is horridly clammy whilst Farrow potters around in the house of some relatives she’s staying with, unaware that those relatives have all been murdered; and the culprit isn’t far away, either.

 

In 1971 Clemens also wrote the script for Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde, an inventive reworking of the story by Robert Louis Stevenson – as its title suggests, its cheekiest innovation is to have Dr Jekyll undergoing not only a personality-change but also a sex-change when he drinks his famous potion.  And three years later Clemens tried his hand at directing as well as writing.  For Hammer Films, he made the ahead-of-its-time Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter, which has as its vampire-killing hero not some sanctimonious, dark-clad, rosary-bead-clutching priest or doctor – as had been the norm up until then – but a swashbuckling mercenary-for-hire played by Horst Janson.  Janson carries a samurai sword, smokes pot and has as his sidekicks a witty hunchback (John Cater) and a saucy babe (Caroline Munro) whom he’s freed from the stocks – she was imprisoned there for dancing on a Sunday.  I’ve read that when a teenaged Peter Jackson started experimenting with homemade movies in New Zealand in the late 1970s, one thing he attempted was a Super8 version of Captain Kronos.

 

(c) Hammer Films 

 

In the mid-1970s, Clemens and his long-term producing partner Albert Fennell re-launched The Avengers as The New Avengers, which partnered Macnee with Gareth Hunt and Joanna Lumley.  The show had less impact than its predecessor and it was plagued by money problems – Clemens and Fennell had to recruit French and Canadian financial backers, with the result that later episodes of this most British of shows were set in such unlikely places as Paris and Toronto.  Still, I’m highly partial to such New Avengers episodes as The Eagle’s Nest, House of Cards and Last of the Cybernauts.  Also, the show made an icon out of Joanna Lumley, playing the high-kicking ballerina / martial-arts expert Purdey.  And the reworking of the original Avengers theme that composer Laurie Johnson did for The New Avengers is one of the most stirring TV theme-tunes ever.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xrsRJh9DhNM

 

(c) The Avengers (Film and TV) Enterprises Ltd

 

What had been planned as a third season of The New Avengers in 1977 eventually morphed into a very different show – the supposedly hard-boiled spy / action series The Professionals.  With The Professionals Clemens and Fennell had another big hit on their hands; but despite the presence of actors as good as Gordon Jackson and Martin Shaw, and despite another superior (and this time rather jazzy) theme tune from Laurie Johnson, I’ve never had much time for it.  Even at the age of 14 or 15, it seemed to me a bit too macho, right-wing and thick-headed.  Come to think of it, The Professionals was much in keeping with the mood of those late 1970s / early 1980s times in Britain.

 

For me, a better example of Clemens’ TV work was the anthology series Thriller, which he’d masterminded in the early 1970s.  For a while, Thriller was an important staple of the Saturday-evening TV schedules – broadcast at 9.00 PM, just after the watershed, there was something grim and ominous about it for a kid like myself.  Only occasionally did Thriller stray into the realm of the supernatural and try to be deliberately frightening, but even the crime stories that made up the bulk of its content seemed unrelentingly bleak and disturbing.  (Typical of this approach was the episode I’m the Girl He Wants to Kill, about a witness to a murder who gets trapped in an office building overnight with the murderer.)  Thriller was yet more evidence of Clemens’ endless knack for churning out irresistible and ingenious plotlines.

 

Responsible for many memorably-flamboyant moments in an artistic medium, television, which traditionally hasn’t been noted for its flamboyance, Brian Clemens died last Saturday at the age of 83.  He was, by the way, a descendant of one Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain, which is why he named his two sons Samuel Joshua Twain Clemens and George Langhorne Clemens.

 

(c) ABC / ITV / Thames

 

Cinematic heroes 2: Ian Hendry

 

(c) BBC

 

“Do you know, I’d almost forgotten what your eyes look like.  They’re still the same.  Piss-holes in the snow.”

 

If those words, uttered by a sneering Michael Caine in Get Carter, the classic British gangster movie from 1970, aren’t engraved on Ian Hendry’s tombstone, they might as well be – for I imagine they’re what most people think of when they hear Hendry’s name mentioned today.  They come at the end of a tense scene where Caine’s Jack Carter encounters scuzzball Eric Paice, played by Hendry, at Newcastle Racecourse in High Gosforth Park.  Hendry was originally lined up to play Carter, the virile hero / anti-hero of the celebrated Geordie-land equivalent of Mean Streets.  However, by 1970 heavy drinking had taken its toll on his health and physique.  So instead he was given the supporting role of the weasely but memorably villainous Paice.

 

Hendry was resentful at losing the lead role to Caine.  The night before the race-course scene was filmed, an attempt to give it a read-through in the hotel where the cast were staying was reportedly a disaster due to Hendry being three-sheets-to-the-wind.  It’s said that Caine kept his professional cool in the face of Hendry’s drunken uncooperativeness, although he may have enjoyed the irony of the film’s climax, which sees Carter force-feed Paice a bottle of whisky before clubbing him to death with a shotgun.  Director Mike Hodges, meanwhile, thought Hendry’s resentment was a bonus because it heightened the tension between Carter and Paice onscreen.  Every cloud has its silver lining.

 

While researching this entry, I read a lot about Hendry’s alcohol problems, which came as a surprise to me.  When I was a kid in the 1970s, by which time his drinking was well out of hand, he seemed nonetheless to be ubiquitous.  He turned up on TV all the time – I remember seeing him in The Persuaders, The Sweeney, Thriller, Van Der Valk, Churchill’s People, Crown Court, Supernatural, The New Avengers and Return of the Saint – and he was in a fair number of films too.  Mind you, the taxman was giving him as much trouble as the drink, which was possibly an incentive to keep working no matter what physical and mental state he was in.

 

Born in 1931 in Ipswich, the county-town of Suffolk, Hendry worked originally in property management and also did two years of national service after World War II.  But he’d been interested in amateur dramatics since his schooldays and had even done a spell working as a circus clown’s sidekick – an experience that left him with an enduring love for the big top – and in 1953 he packed in the office job and enlisted in London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, where his fellow students included Vanessa Redgrave and Judi Dench.  After graduation from the school he spent the remainder of the 1950s doing stage-work and getting bit-parts in films, including one in Jack Clayton’s 1959 adaptation of John Braine’s novel Room at the Top.

 

(c) ABC

 

It was on television, however, that Hendry got noticed.  In 1960 he secured the lead role in a short-lived show, Police Surgeon, and a year later he was the lead in another show, The Avengers, which was anything but short-lived – it lasted until 1969, becoming ever more whimsical, surreal and outlandish along the way, and it made a 1960s icon out of its ultra-suave, bowler-hatted and brolly-carrying hero John Steed and an international star out of the actor who played him, Patrick Macnee.  It’s still talked about in some quarters as the greatest television series ever made.

 

In its earliest incarnation, though, Macnee only had second billing and Hendry was the real star – he played the show’s tragic hero, Doctor David Keel, whose efforts to investigate and avenge the murder of his fiancé by a criminal gang (hence the title The Avengers) bring him into contact with Steed.  Once the case is solved, Keel and Steed form a crime-fighting partnership.  Nearly all the videotapes of the episodes from the show’s first season were wiped, but looking at what remains (bits of the very first episode are viewable on youtube), it’s surprising how much like a standard British crime melodrama the original Avengers is – Steed hasn’t yet acquired his trademark suit, bowler and brolly and wears a decidedly non-debonair raincoat.

 

A strike that held up work at the production company, the Associated British Corporation, and the promise of a successful film career persuaded Hendry to depart at the end of the first season and once he was gone The Avengers morphed into the telly legend it is today.  Steered by producers Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens – Clemens was also the chief writer – it grew increasingly and gloriously baroque and Hendry was replaced as Macnee’s partner by, in turn, Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson.  I suspect the show wouldn’t have followed the iconic path that it did if Hendry had stayed on board – mind you, at least then we’d have been spared the truly horrible movie version with Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman in 1998.

 

Post-Avengers, Hendry’s 1960s films included Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Sidney Lumet’s The Hill (1965).  The latter was the first of several quality (if not so financially successful) movies that Lumet made with Sean Connery, who was trying to forge a serious movie career away from the Bond films.  It was set in a British army correction camp in the Libyan desert during World War II and Hendry excels at playing an evil-bastard sergeant who crosses the line in persecuting the camp’s inmates.  Interestingly, five years later in the 1970 film The Mackenzie Break, Hendry played another screw at a wartime prison camp – the twist being that the inmates are German soldiers attempting to escape from a British POW camp in northern Scotland.

 

(c) MGM

 

Meanwhile, in 1963, Hendry married the actress Janet Munro, who’d made her name appearing both in Walt Disney movies like Darby O’Gill and the Little People and Swiss Family Robinson and in sci-fi ones like The Trollenberg Terror and The Day the Earth Caught Fire.  When the Daily Mirror found out about their romance, Hendry’s star was so much in the ascendant that the newspaper reported it on its front page.  Munro, like Hendry, had a weakness for alcohol and a carelessness with money and their relationship seemed to encourage rather than banish their demons.  She died of a heart attack in 1971, a year after she and Hendry had separated, and her death propelled Hendry even further into alcoholism.

 

In 1969, he appeared in the science fiction film Doppelganger, the first venture into live-action filmmaking by producer Gerry Anderson, who was then famous for his TV-puppet shows like Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons.  Supposedly, Anderson was simultaneously shocked by Hendry’s drunkenness and taken by his charm – in the studio pub, Hendry had a habit of walking up to him on his hands (a trick he’d possibly picked up in his circus days) and saying to Anderson, “Evening, boss.”

 

After Get Carter, Hendry remained busy but an increasing amount of his work was on television – and although he was a regular face in British movies, it was clear by now that he wasn’t going to achieve stardom and would have to settle for ‘trusty-old-character-actor’ status.  Slightly frail and haunted-looking in appearance and with thinning hair – indeed, according to one account of his life I read, Hendry’s refusal to wear a toupee had damaged his chances of getting lead roles – he was equally adept at playing rodentine villains like Paice in Get Carter, harassed victims and, occasionally, heroes with more than a hint of vulnerability.

 

In the early 1970s Hendry started turning up in horror films, which he may have seen as one more nail in his career’s coffin but which helped to cement him in the affections of weird people like myself.  He was the luckless hero of the second segment of the 1972 anthology film Tales from the Crypt, whose stories were based on strips from old American horror comics like Vault of Horror, Haunt of Fear and Tales from the Crypt itself.  The film doesn’t do justice to its source material, although Hendry’s segment about a man who seemingly survives a horrific car crash and then can’t figure out why everyone he encounters runs away in terror – it’s because he’s actually… dead! – comes closest to capturing the comics’ visceral, in-your-face style.

 

He was also the hero of 1973’s Theatre of Blood, a comedy-horror movie that I could rhapsodise about all day.  It features Vincent Price as an insane and hammily over-the-top Shakespearean actor who starts murdering the snobbish London theatre critics who’ve bad-mouthed his performances, using murder methods borrowed from the Bard’s plays.  Hendry plays the youngest and least obnoxious critic, who halfway through the film has a sword-fight with Price modelled on the one between Tybalt and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet and then, at the end, nearly gets his eyes put out as the Earl of Gloucester did in King Lear.  Hendry gets rescued by the police, however, and is on hand to pronounce judgement on Price when he finally plunges to his death through the roof of a burning theatre-building: “Yes it was a remarkable performance… he was madly overacting as usual, but you must admit he did know how to make an exit.”

 

Playing Price’s daughter in Theatre of Blood was none other than Diana Rigg, one of Hendry’s replacements in The Avengers.  And incidentally, the penthouse flat that Hendry’s character occupies during the film would later, in real life, become the home of Jeffrey Archer – to give him his full Wikipedia title, the “novelist, failed politician and former jailbird Jeffrey Archer.”

 

(c) United Artists

 

In 1974, Hendry appeared in Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter, an ahead-of-its-time Hammer horror-swashbuckler written and directed by his old Avengers comrade Brian Clements, who kindly billed him as ‘guest’ star on the credits.  Playing the film’s title role was the German actor Horst Janson, who’d been one of the prisoners in The Mackenzie Break.  Hendry also turned up in the opening sequence of Damien: Omen II (1978) with another great British character actor, Leo McKern.  Hendry and McKern have little to do, apart from die in a freak and presumably Damien-inspired accident, but it’s nice to see the pair of them share some screen-time.

 

Among Hendry’s later television credits was a guest appearance in the The New Avengers, the late-1970s revival of The Avengers that again starred Macnee, with Joanna Lumley and Gareth Hunt as his partners this time.  In the episode To Catch a Rat, Hendry doesn’t play a returning David Keel but a British secret agent who’s spent nearly two decades in a psychiatric hospital suffering from amnesia.  When a blow to the head cures him of the amnesia, he realises he has knowledge of a traitorous double-agent who’s been operating all this time at the heart of Britain’s intelligence establishment, and Macnee, Lumley and Hunt have to rescue him before the traitor has him killed.  Producers Fennell and Clemens saw to it that Hendry was first seen working undercover as a trapeze artist in his old love, a circus tent.  They also ensured that Macnee hailed Hendry at the episode’s end as an ‘old friend’ and told him, “It may be 17 years late, but welcome back…”

 

In the late 1970s Hendry was declared bankrupt and professionally he fared little better than he did financially.  His last film role was an uncredited part in the 1980 prison movie McVicar, although it would’ve been sadder if his film CV had ended with his previous cinematic appearance, which was in 1979’s dreadful Joan-and-Jackie Collins sex / disco / gangster epic The Bitch.  Meanwhile, on television, his 1980s roles were mostly confined to crime shows like Bergerac, The Chinese Detective and Antonia Fraser’s limp lady-detective series Jemima Shore Investigates.  His final role came in 1984, when he appeared in three episodes of Brookside, the flagship soap opera for the recently-launched Channel 4.  (When it started broadcasting, one of the first things Channel 4 did was repeat the mid-1960s episodes of The Avengers, thus introducing them to a new generation – myself included.)

 

Hendry died from a stomach haemorrhage on Christmas Eve, 1984, at the age of 53.  His last TV appearance was as a guest on an episode of This is your Life honouring his old Avengers co-star Patrick Macnee.  The episode also had contributions from Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg, Linda Thorson, Joanna Lumley and Gareth Hunt.  Hendry looked in terrible shape when he came on stage to greet Macnee, but at this gathering of Avengers alumni it would’ve been tragic if he, the original star of the show, hadn’t been there.

 

In this, the Internet era, there’s been a revival of interest in Ian Hendry.  He has an extensive official website devoted to him at http://ianhendry.com/ and a fan one at http://ian-hendry-true-brit.webs.com/.  Also, earlier this year, the first-ever biography of the actor, Send in the Clowns: the Yoyo Life of Ian Hendry by Gabriel Hershman, was published to good reviews: http://www.lulu.com/gb/en/shop/gabriel-hershman/send-in-the-clowns-the-yo-yo-life-of-ian-hendry/paperback/product-20974696.html.