Slight re-fry, but Kristinbytes reminded me that for a large chunk of the show, The Avengers followed an arrangement where professional spy John Steed recruited an assortment of highly-skilled individuals who were otherwise amateur investigators (and yes, I include Venus Smith in that). He would drop them in the proverbial muck as he went about his work of bringing various miscreants to justice.
Also, as iconic as Diana Rigg was in the role of Emma Peel there is more to The Avengers than you might imagine. Not least, the shift from hard edged social justice to surreal fantasy. Also, some of her episodes were remakes of earlier shows, but I’ll let you track them down to compare notes.
So, this is a quick overview of a British institution. Namely the women of The Avengers, the girls who kept that rouge-ish John Steed in check through various adventures. You can tell me if I have missed anyone?
So get that brolly, put on your kinky boots and here we go!
Peggy, played by Catherine Woodville is arguably the most important of The Avengers girls. In the first episode, Hot Snow, she is the receptionist and fiancee of Dr David Keel. She is gleefully planning their forthcoming nuptials - until she is brutally murdered. If Peggy had not been killed they would not be The Avengers. Woodville appeared in other roles in later episodes and married Patrick Macnee in 1965.
There isn’t much left of this first episode, but what survives is available on DVD.
Dr David Keel
Ok, Dr David Keel is a bloke. But The Avengers was originally his show and he occupies the role that would later be given over to the likes of Cathy, Emma and Tara. Actor Ian Hendry played a similar role in Police Surgeon and it was his popularity with audiences that prompted Sydney Newman to create The Avengers as a new live broadcast vehicle for his talent. Steed helps Keel bring the people who murdered his fiancee to justice then continues to call on the doctor in his crusade against the criminals who would otherwise get away.
And yes, the good Doctor Keel made it into the comic books.
The death of his fiancee left Dr Keel with a staffing problem. Luckily he was able to hire Carol Wilson. Played by the late Ingrid Hafner, Carol managed to do the paperwork and help out with the odd bit of Avenging as well.
Dr Cathy Gale
Season two opened with Steed sharpening up his wardrobe. Keel has moved off to unspecified pastures but we are introduced to Dr Cathy Gale, a widowed anthropologist. There seems to be a bit of a love-hate relationship between Gale and Steed. Played by Honor Blackman, she isn’t keen on the way the chap in a bowler volunteers her for dangerous missions. However, she soon picks up an uncanny ability to wack people who get in her way. She is the original action girl. You might almost think that they wrote the scripts for Ian Hendry and then got Blackman to carry on regardless. At the time, Blackman’s physical gusto was seen as a trailblazing approach to women on the box. There could be hints of things to come in the way Gale became combat ready.
When not Avenging, Macnee and Blackman teamed up for a little musical interlude. Come season three, leather clothes and kinky boots are a regular fixture of Cathy’s wardrobe. The show started to move away from grim streets to more fanciful fields. Did Steed ever find out why Cathy was pussyfooting around Fort Knox?
Still in season two, we were also introduced to Venus Smith, played by Julie Stevens. Venus is a perky cabaret singer who regards Steed as a friend and seems delightfully unaware that he is dropping her in appalling peril, anxious though she might be to help do the right thing.
There seems to be an irrational dislike of Venus in Avengers fan circles. She isn’t a professional crime-fighter and is not as physically skilled as Cathy or Emma. In many ways, Venus seems wholly unprepared to deal with the murderous miscreants she encounters. To my mind that adds to the sense of peril. She is unusual for the show as an innocent abroad.
Dr Martin King
The late Jon Rollason joined the season two crew for three episodes as Dr Martin King, almost a clone of David Keel. In many respects he is a reluctant recruit but takes pleasure in seeing the bad guys go down. He comes to Steed’s aid when he is accused of being a traitor. Rollason would later appear in the classic Doctor Who adventure The Web of Fear which is 50 years old this month. He was also a playwright.
Season four saw a new look for The Avengers. Episodes hereon would be filmed rather than shot on video tape. The show also took on an arch-campy, highly stylised view of the world. Often there would be a science-fictiony element to episodes. We were also introduced to another widow, Mrs Emma Peel, the daughter of an industrialist, black-belt and renaissance woman. The name is a pun on Man Appeal or M-appeal.
Originally, the producers cast Elizabeth Shepherd as Mrs Peel but decided she wasn’t right during filming. There was a scramble to find a replacement and Diana Rigg was invited to step into the leather catsuit. An icon was born.
There is something flirtatious about Emma’s relationship with Steed. She is comfortable in his company and in her final episode asks him “Are you the man who ...?”
The Avengers first made their crossover into the world of comics during the Dr Keel days, but young Emma Knight got her own solo strip in the British girl’s weekly June. In The Growing Up of Emma Peel she was shown travelling the world with her father and picking up all the skills that would help her in the future.
Mrs Peel has also been played in that movie by Uma Thurman and on radio by Dianne Appleby. An off camera appearance in The New Avengers is voiced by Harry Palmer’s favourite squeeze Sue Lloyd. She tells Steed that she is no longer Mrs Peel. He replies that she will always be Mrs Peel to him. (Update: Just been watching this episode, K is for Kill, the only two-parter. They use a couple of archive clips of Diana Rigg for a flashback and then the phone conversation with Steed. She is still a snappy dresser in 1977 it seems.)
Apparently actress Linda Thorson got to choose her character’s name when she joined The Avengers for season six. For the first time Steed is partnered by a trained agent. Tara King is besotted with Steed and he seems to enjoy that.
Troubles in the production team saw Brian Clemens return and recall Diana Rigg for a departing story which sees Peel reunited with her not-so-dead husband and Tara reporting to Steed. Which way do you stir his tea?
Season six also saw the introduction of Mother. Played by Patrick Newell, he was Steed’s superior. Wheelchair-bound he would turn up in a variety of unlikely places to pass on instructions or strange warnings. His second in command, Father, was a blind woman. He predicts Steed and Tara will return when shot into orbit at the end of the season. Well, we know Steed got back!
Was Rhonda actually her name in the show? Rhonda Parker played Mother’s amazonian helper and bodyguard. She never spoke and on the one occasion she was about to say something, Newell’s character cut her off.
Lady Diana Forbes-Blakeney
For one season six episode only, Steed is partnered by Lady Diana Forbes-Blakeney, played by Jennifer Croxton. (Was she supposed to be a relative, slightly dim? I can’t remember). The episode is Killer and the dynamic duo take on a computer assassin.
Former Bond-girl Joanna Lumley lent a leg or two for black-belt ballerina Purdey in the 1976 revival The New Avengers. Sticking with the trained agents, she’s a bit more flippant than her predecessors, mesmirises everyone round her and gets natty one-liners as she high kicks her way through various adventures. She was originally going to be called Charlie, but then Charlie’s Angels launched in the States. Lumley is said to have chosen the name Purdey after the shotgun manufacturer but we never find out if it is her first name or surname.
The late Gareth Hunt joined Purdey in The New Avengers as Steed-in-waiting Mike Gambit. A one time racing driver, Major Gambit, formally of the Parachute Regiment is a highly trained agent who joins Steed to do the things highly trained agents do. He fancies Purdey though it is not clear this is reciprocated.
Suzy and Joshua Rand
A weird post-script, Quinn Martin’s Escapades with Morgan Fairchild as Suzy and Granville Van Dusen as Joshua Rand was planned as an American version of The Avengers. They had plans to involve Patrick Macnee as Steed if Escapades went to series. Clemens returned to the UK complaining that QM had messed things up. There is a pilot episode out there if you are feeling masochistic.