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.


(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