(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