Mrs. Peel, You're Needed
During the Reagan Administration, I attended a panel of television writers discussing the pros and cons of writing for syndicated TV. The syndication boom brought about by cable was still in its toddler phase, and the audience questions were the usual sort from budding Paddy Chayefskys: “Do I need an agent?” “Is it mandatory to write on spec?” “Does it help to know someone?” That sort of thing.
Then, someone demanded to know why British television was so much better than American TV. That brought down the house. Every member of the panel exploded in guffaws until long after the inquisitor sat down in abject humiliation. When the writers finally collected themselves, one (George R. R. Martin, I think) choked out an answer, to wit, that what most Americans see of British TV is the result of exhaustive trawling by PBS over decades of televised crap. For every Monty Python’s Flying Circus or The Young Ones, there are innumerable programs that wouldn’t make one laugh with a snootful of nitrous oxide. For every Doctor Who, there are countless dreadful kiddie shows (Teletubbies springs to mind).
And for every Avengers, there is a New Avengers. Having released the original groundbreaking spy series on DVD, A&E Video has turned to the follow-up series that put Patrick Macnee back in his bowler—reaffirming that he and Charlie Chaplin are the only two men on the planet ever to make a bowler hat look cool—and introduced Joanna Lumley, later to be celebrated as the amazingly wasted Patsy on Absolutely Fabulous, to the world.
A quick recap: The Avengers (1963-69) rode the James Bond spy boom in unparalleled style, chronicling the adventures of urbane English counterintelligence agent John Steed (Macnee) as he foiled foreign insurgents and bizarre criminal masterminds with the help of a lovely assistant: Mrs. Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman, who was Pussy Galore in Goldfinger), 1963-66; Mrs. Emma Peel (Diana Rigg, who wore black leather catsuits and introduced many an adolescent lad to his first erection), 1966-68; and Tara King (Linda Thorson, who wasn’t as dynamic as her predecessors but demonstrated that one could fight evil in a baby-doll dress), 1968-69. The series was quirky and stylish, a fresh mix of mod fashion, tongue-in-cheek humor, proto-feminism, and Union Jack patriotism driven by Macnee’s skill with a one-liner and the flirtatious but chaste interaction between Steed and his counterparts, especially Mrs. Peel.
The revival in 1976 demonstrated just how much had changed in the British zeitgeist in the intervening seven years. The New Avengers continued the tradition of outlandish schemes by megalomaniac villains—including the return of the Cybernauts, killer robots who look like walking ashcans, from the first series—but these episodes are interspersed with more straightforward spy business of the Le Carre variety. They’re also infused with an overt sexuality extending beyond the innuendo of the original, as well as a third Avenger, a studly younger guy plainly intended to draw female viewers as Blackman, Rigg, and Thorson had drawn males.
In the new series, Steed has moved up in the hierarchy of his organization (supposedly MI-5, though this is never said). Now less a field agent than a supervisor, the aging Steed has gone from man-about-town to country squire, with many scenes taking place on his horse farm outside London (Macnee is an avid horse fancier). He now intermediates between junior agents and the Ministry, and though he is still active in missions, he lets the younger folk do the heavy lifting while he stands back and looks dapper. Call him Carnaby Jones.
The new rooster is the terribly named Mike Gambit (Gareth Hunt, best known from Upstairs, Downstairs), who exudes testosterone. He drives like McQueen, does kung-fu, and carries a Dirty Harry gun. It’s obvious that the show’s producers convinced themselves that their James Bond pastiche would work better if they, y’know, had a James Bond. But this is 1976, the Roger Moore era when not even Bond was Bond—and Hunt isn’t even Moore. He is good-looking, but in a hard-plastic, male-model sort of way, and his performance is uniformly smarmy and humorless, whether he’s trading ripostes with Macnee, who can do witty banter in his sleep, or double entendres with Purdey (Lumley). Gambit comes off as a really pissed-off hairdresser with a license to kill.
Then there’s Purdey. It was vital to the earlier series that Cathy Gale and Emma Peel be married, albeit to absent husbands, so as to prevent any whiff of hanky-panky between Steed and his partners in derring-do. The new series has no such qualms. Purdey—no last name given—is the Sweetheart of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, a liberated and sexually active (presumably, since this is still British TV in the ‘70s) woman in a bouncy Dorothy Hamill ‘do who fends off the advances of virtually every one of her fellow agents with bon-vivant good humor.
And there’s the show’s biggest problem. Purdey is a magnet for endless and gratuitous come-ons, sniggering references, and outright menace. While Mrs. Peel and Tara would occasionally find themselves captured by the bad guys and placed in some kind of nefarious death-trap, in the first two episodes of the new series, Purdey is threatened with rape no less than three times. Any conversation with Gambit inevitably turns to matters sexual with such obviousness that, rather than a pair of worldly sophisticates, the two of them sound like horny teenagers about to play Post Office.
Still, there’s a great deal to like about The New Avengers. Macnee is as winsome and disarming as ever, so much so that when Steed gets play—and he does—it’s easy to see why. Steed indeed. Though the DVD sets of both series continually bill him second, after the female leads, he is the glue that holds the show together, constant and interesting. And, aside from the embarrassing smutty stuff, the scripts, primarily written by series creator Brian Clemens, remain as intricate and clever as ever, whether they deal with killer robots and guys snuffing people with trained flocks of birds, or with more standard espionage fare, like sleeper assassins and deep-cover double agents.
If only the plots, Macnee, and Lumley were enough (and if only Purdey’s fight scenes didn’t consist solely of delivering Vegas fan-kicks to the chins of thugs who gamely walk into her feet). Those three elements could have made The New Avengers as charming as the original series, which still holds up marvelously. Instead, too much of the show’s currency is wasted by trying to convince us how grown-up it is.