The Avengers and Me

26 Jun

As a teenager in the 1990s my bedroom walls were, like many, plastered in images taken from popular culture. Only mine were a little out of step with the time. The ceiling was covered in Doctor Who imagery, and on the walls were posters of Christopher Lee as Dracula, and a very large collage I’d put together of Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg in The Avengers. A show which aired some thirty years previously.

I first stumbled on The Avengers during the early 90s, when Channel 4 reran the show on Thursday nights sometime around 11pm. After I came home from my weekly Boys Brigade evenings, I’d sit up doing my homework with the tv on in the background. I had it timed that I would finish just before The Avengers started, and I’d watch it immediately before bed. Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman played the stylish spies embroiled in an unceasing string of subterfuges. They had great screen presence, and I loved the slightly surreal stories they took us through.

In time Channel 4 took to repeating the Diana Rigg episodes, and later the Linda Thorson ones, while over on BBC2 the under-rated 1970s revival The New Avengers got an airing (albeit out of its proper order). I’d acquired a VCR by the time of the Rigg repeats, and dutifully taped the run, watching and rewatching over the following years. The shows got stranger, and yet more convincing. I developed adolescent crushes on Blackman, Rigg and Thorson (I did admit the latter to Thorson when I met her years later at an event in Birmingham, and instantly flushed scarlet).

Through it all was the singularly solid performance of Patrick Macnee, the old Etonian, exemplifying a caricature of the English upper-class. A dapper dresser – pin strip suits, chelsea boots, bowler hat, ruffled umbrella and flower in his button hole. A little more ‘of society’ than Connery’s Bond ever was, this was someone who would exchange witty banter while wrestling a ruffian and quaffing gallons of champagne – a role model indeed.

Patrick Macnee as John Steed in 'The Undertakers' episode of The Avengers in 1963 - note the revolver.

Patrick Macnee as John Steed in ‘The Undertakers’ episode of The Avengers in 1963 – note the revolver.

There’s a myth perpetuated by Macnee that Steed was in marked contrast to Bond and would never carry a gun. And while its true that he would more inventively use his brolly and bowler hat (which was frequently shown to be steel plated), in the early days in particular, Steed would carry a revolver as the job required. The emphasis though was on ingenuity. And Macnee, a dashing dresser but not exactly matinee idol material with his full face, became a sort of sex symbol – aided no doubt by the succession of attractive actresses that played alongside him.

The show left a mark on my consciousness and I freely admit that there were little things that I picked up as a direct result of digesting the show so regularly. Those early episodes contributed to a slight leather fetish, and those images of Rigg in ‘A Touch of Brimstone’ set my pubescent heart a flutter. I think I took a little more care in how I dressed at the time, and certainly after I left school I retained a touch of dandy in my dress sense, and can’t help but think of Steed when I’m out in inclement weather with my umberdoodle. Such are the gentle influences of a classic television series.

Patrick Macnee made the part effortlessly cool, sailing through scenes with a mischievous glint in his eye. With Rigg as Mrs Peel they demonstrated possibly the finest run of sexual tension ever – with a hinted at but never confirmed sense of romantic entanglement. And when Macnee stepped back a little for The New Avengers, we felt his absence – the show was always much better when he had a decent chunk of the action.

And so with Patrick Macnee’s death at the age of 93 an era has passed, but the influence of the show will continue to be felt for years to come (there was a little Steed in Colin Firth’s recent stint in Kingsman), and Macnee’s status is surely secured as one of the great British icons of the 20th century.

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