The Avengers (1961-1969) is a festive concoction of leather-clad espionage, noir, and ’60s pop art kitsch. The mix of British espionage and mod culture that the Austin Powers movies parodied for slapstick humor, The Avengers did with higher stakes. The series investigates the familiar moral ambiguities of the James Bond world, but it does so with an eye to unsettling the gender role norms Bond infamously kept in place. It treats the demimonde of shadowy agents and ministries with a sense of off-kilter absurdity that serves as self-reflexive commentary on modern existence — and the message is highly-entertaining and with enough teeth to matter. The idea that you can’t always trust authority (and that truth itself is a matter of debate) wasn’t new. But the élan with which the program laughs at that predicament was.
The DVD box set, The Avengers ’62, includes 14 episodes, shot in black & white from the show’s second season (early seasons US viewers may remember from syndication on A&E in the ’90s). We follow our urbane hero, John Steed (Patrick Macnee), a ministry agent whose status and specific assignments we’re often not fully privy to, as he fights for Britain against mostly unnamed Cold War enemies and avenges innocents caught in the middle of organized crime. Chatty, witty banter is more important than knowing all the details of the cases he handles with various sidekicks.
This season is the first to feature a female sidekick, Catherine Gale (Honor Blackman), and her immense popularity eventually made her the co-focus of the series until Blackman left the show to do Goldfinger (1964) and Diana Rigg took over as Emma Peel (1965-7). Viewers swooned over both of them because they were at once assertive head-kickers and sex objects, explicit models for later series like Xena or Alias. Their status as stylish commodities tempers their agency, but they did pave the way for later independent women characters and TV “tough girls” of all kinds. Blackman insisted her character was “the first feminist to come into a television serial; the first woman to fight back.” It is significant that both “Mrs. Gale” and “Mrs. Peel” were presented as widows, a status that gave them the freedom to engage in detective work without being shackled to domesticity (though Peel’s long-lost hubby eventually showed up, looking exactly like…Steed).
The episodes included here highlight the signature combination of adventure plotline and flirtation between Steed and Gale. We’re first introduced to her in “Mr. Teddy Bear”, a quirky story of a Slavic hitman she tries to flush out into the open by hiring him to kill Steed. This set-up prompts a Peter Sellers-like scene where she practices martial arts flips on Steed, who is ever flippant in the face of death. She keeps him on his toes and they keep their cool sexual banter and double entendres rev up. Weirdness ensues when we learn that the hitman interacts with customers through a talking teddy bear and closed circuit TV. Steed is crafty enough to evade the assassination attempt, just in time to save Gale when she is captured by the bad guy. Gale is supposed to be smart, with a degree in anthropology and time spent in Kenya, and able to hold her own. Producers apparently imagined her as a combo of Margaret Mead and Grace Kelly. And, at least in this season, her flirtation with Steed is not consummated; though they share a kiss in a later season, we’re never sure what the exact nature of their relationship is. That ambiguous plotline keeps the sexual tension humming along, but it also keeps her from being stereotyped as a man’s possession. Yet she is still often a captive who needs saving by Steed (though later in the series, Peel doesn’t really need Steed’s help).
Nevertheless, Gale is contrasted with a number of almost agent-less wives. In “Death on the Rocks”, she and Steed foil diamond smugglers, but not in time to save several women from being murdered — by a female assassin posing as a beauty technician who gives the women face mask treatments. As the wives are killed by their attempts to adhere to beauty regimens, a gun-toting Gale saves herself from the same fate. As Gale and Steed pose as a married couple in the diamond seller circle, more sexual banter flies fast and furious. Her somewhat greater access to agency is also defined by class, as several episodes contrast her status position with that of working class women.
In “Propellant 23”, in which Steed and Gale are in France to recover a liquid that could be used for some kind of weapon of mass destruction, Gale cracks the case of where the liquid is. Meanwhile, a French flight attendant ends up dead, falling prey to the narratives of sentimental romance offered by a British playboy who is actually an evil spy.
The program’s cynicism is turned more powerfully on questions of moral authority than on romantic themes, however. In “The Sell-Out”, an episode with a less popular sidekick, Dr. Martin King (Jon Rollason), Steed gets the somewhat reluctant doctor to help him trap a traitor in the espionage community who is trying to compromise some UN negotiations with a visiting French diplomat. As Steed tries to figure out who the turncoat is, it turns out to be one of his superiors. As he starts to question all those around him, one of his colleagues bemoans power without checks, noting the infamous problem of “who’s guarding the guards.” The series makes numerous references to the moral fog prevalent in war and spying, no longer being able to tell the good guys and the bad guys apart.
Not least because of such social critiques, The Avengers is an important piece of TV history (still the highest-grossing Brit TV export), and it is a vital sign of its times in the ’60s. The show’s still rabid fan base attests to its bona fides: this cult hit has legs (and not just those of Blackman and Rigg). TV critics and scholars enthusiastically debate whether it’s escapist tripe or smart, ironic satire of the espionage genre. Raymond Williams said it made him think of “a petrol commercial.” Meanwhile, Toby Miller, in his sprightly study of the series and the insight it can offer us into cultural politics, discusses the show’s witty postmodernism as “jokey troping that breaks up identity, certainty and knowledge.” He describes the pop art cult hit as “the Pet Shop Boys do espionage.”
I too vote for the smart satire, particularly since this is satire delivered with trippy style. Noting the show’s happy embrace of commodity culture, Miller points out that Macnee helped sell the show to US network executives when it later got picked up in the states by describing it as a show about “a man in a bowler hat and a woman who flings men over her shoulders.” Steed is like a dandy throwback to Edwardian England in his bowler hat and suits, toting his umbrella as a weapon of fashion and of combat. The series brought kicky fashion trends and an S&M vibe into the mainstream (Blackman’s leather outfits and high boots and later Rigg’s “emmapeeler” jumpsuit), as immortalized by a music single Blackman and Macnee cut in 1963, “Kinky Boots”. The fashion statements are also captured by a photo gallery in the otherwise sparse DVD extras. While the DVD set suffers from a few sound and video crackles from the original master tapes, it does fans a service by collecting and releasing these episodes