Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Best TV Crime Drama Openers, #14

Series Title: The Avengers | Years: 1961-1969 | Starring: Patrick Macnee, Diana Rigg, Honor Blackman, Linda Thorson, Ian Hendry | Theme Music: Laurie Johnson

It was The Avengers I had in mind when I remarked, in the opening installment of this weekly blog series, that I would be writing “almost exclusively” about the main title sequences of American TV shows. This is the exception, a stylish, quick-witted spy-fi drama that was apparently the last English series to appear on U.S. television during prime-time hours. The Avengers is also said to have been the longest-running TV espionage series in history, though Mission: Impossible (1966-1973) claims more episodes--171 versus 161. But hey, who’s counting?

Created by Canadian film and TV producer Sydney Newman, The Avengers went through several versions over its protracted course, with the only constant being John Steed (Macnee), a suave, bowler-hat-wearing, and umbrella-wielding secret agent who was on the payroll of an unnamed branch of British Intelligence. What most people won’t remember (I certainly didn’t) is that Steed was in fact introduced as a secondary character--sans chapeau and umbrella--during the first year of The Avengers. The original protagonist was a physician turned detective, Dr. David Keel, played by UK actor Ian Hendry, who’d appeared previously in a short-lived 1960 series called Police Surgeon. In the debut season of The Avengers, the realistic Steed came to the aid of the idealistic Keel after the latter’s receptionist-fiancée was murdered. The two men then set out together to avenge that killing--thus the series’ title. However, Hendry quit after the first season to go off and make movies (he played a small-time gangster in 1971’s Get Carter, opposite Michael Caine, for instance). And Macnee was promoted to The Avengers’ lead.

In 1962, the producers decided to pair Steed up with a woman. But not just any woman--a future Bond babe, Honor Blackman (Goldfinger, 1964). After road-testing Blackman’s judo-adept, widowed anthropologist character, Dr. Cathy Gale, along with a couple of lesser partners for Steed, the series finally made Gale its co-star, playing up her enviable self-confidence, her sometimes difficult relationship with Steed, and their double-entendre badinage. (There always seemed to be a sexual undercurrent at work between Steed and his younger female associates, though the show steered carefully away from overt romantic links.) In addition, the Steed character was modified a bit, made less rough and more sophisticated. It was all integral to the fine-tuning of this series.

The real change, though, came in season four (1965-1966), after Blackman, like Hendry before her, departed The Avengers for big-screen work and Cathy Gale was replaced by the partner with whom most fans of this series associate Steed: Mrs. Emma Peel.

Actually, there were two Mrs. Peels. The producers’ first choice to play the part was English actress Elizabeth Shepherd, who might have cut a fine figure, but lacked the sort of vital presence Honor Blackman had brought to her own role. After filming fewer than two full episodes, Shepherd was given her walking papers, and the casting director brought in a then little-known 27-year-old actress named Diana Rigg. Laurence Marcus and Stephen Hulse write at the Television Heaven site that, with Rigg’s arrival
a genuine television phenomena [sic] hit sixties television screens with all the impact of a high velocity bullet. Macnee and Rigg’s chemistry was wry, witty, sexually charge and immediate. Rigg’s character of Mrs. Emma Peel (derived from the show’s costume designer, who suggested that what was needed was someone with “M[an] Appeal”), was a sleek and stylish combination of intelligence, beauty and humour, who dovetailed so perfectly with the more seasoned Macnee’s John Steed character that the combined charisma produced was a near tangible force which ensnared the viewing audience instantaneously.

With the renewed duo of central characters firmly in place, and a production team and writers unafraid to experiment, The Avengers quite literally carved a totally unique world for its perpetually cool, unruffled, champagne-quaffing heroes which was as surreally ‘British’ in its own way as the distorted world which Alice had stumbled into beyond the silvered surface of the looking glass.
By this point, U.S. television networks were beginning to sniff around The Avengers. The popularity of the James Bond films engendered a growth of international espionage series on the boob tube, including The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and I Spy. In March 1966, ABC-TV added to those selections The Avengers, which with Macnee and Rigg as the stars had become less a serious spy drama and more a satire of spy dramas. Americans were no less charmed than their British counterparts by the deceptively dandified, wryly humorous John Steed and the curvaceous, leather-catsuited, and clever Emma Peel, a successful industrialist and martial-arts expert whose test-pilot husband was presumed to have perished after a plane crash (more on that shortly). They also took to the show’s increasingly tongue-in-cheek but enjoyable plots. Explains Wikipedia:
[M]any episodes were characterised by a futuristic, science fiction bent to the tales, with mad scientists and their creations leaving havoc in their wake. The duo dealt with giant alien carnivorous plants (The Man-Eater of Surrey Green), being shrunk to doll size (Mission ... Highly Improbable), pet cats being electrically altered into ‘miniature tigers’ (The Hidden Tiger), killer automata (The Cybernauts and Return of the Cybernauts), mind-transferring machines (Who’s Who???), and invisible foes (The See-Through Man). The series also poked fun at its American contemporaries with episodes such as The Girl From AUNTIE, Mission ... Highly Improbable and The Winged Avenger (spoofing The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Mission: Impossible and Batman, respectively). The show still carried the basic format: Steed and his associate were charged with solving the problem in the space of a 50-minute episode, thus preserving the safety of 1960s Britain on a regular basis.
With its fifth season on British television, The Avengers finally became a color production. That change was heralded by the debut of a new main title sequence, which played up the playfulness of its principal characters (embedded above). The previous, black-and-white opener had certainly borne some style, with its photo fades and introduction of Emma Peel through the exchange of a carnation between the partners. It also had that fabulous and now very familiar theme music, originally called “The Shake” and composed by Laurie Johnson, that’s been described accurately as “brassy, fun, sexy, powerful, but also suave and cultured, like the show’s protagonists.” But the new introduction, beginning when Emma Peel shoots the cork out of John Steed’s champagne bottle, and then proceeds to share a glass of the bubbly, was considerably more mischievous and not at all self-conscious. Steed goes on in the sequence to demonstrate his sometimes deadly facility with a sword-concealing bumbershoot, repeating the exchange of a flower--this time inserted by Mrs. Peel into her partner’s buttonhole--while she strikes a chain of offensive fighting stances. There’s nothing particularly slick about this opener; it feels like something the two actors might have put together on a slow Saturday in front of a camera. Yet you know there was considerable thought behind its casualness. Rarely have I seen a main title sequence that is so artful in its artlessness.

Unfortunately, what we now think of as the “classic” period of The Avengers--the Emma Peel years (1965-1968)--didn’t last. Diana Rigg, evidently upset at the pay she was receiving for her work on the program, decided to leave it (she, too, later became a Bond girl, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969). But not before she shot a transition scene, in which her still-younger spy-doll replacement, Tara King (Thorsen), was introduced. The departure of Rigg’s character is explained by the story of how her long-lost pilot husband, Peter Peel, is found alive after so many years. She leaves active espionage duty in order to be with him. But not before dropping a coy mystery into John Steed’s lap. As Steed watches through a window, he sees her get into a car--driven by a man who looks remarkably like Steed himself. (YouTube has the clip here.)

ABC continued to run The Avengers through 1969, but its decision to put it up against the very popular Monday night show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In on NBC doomed it. When ABC canceled the series, its UK production company threw in the towel too, as it had come to rely so heavily on the American subsidies.

The series was revived, though, in 1976 as The New Avengers. Steed was of course older by this time, so producers chose to pair him with not just one young partner, but two: accomplished marksman Mike Gambit (played by Gareth Hunt) and the single-monikered, ballet-trained Purdey (Joanna Lumley). The theme music boasted the same opening fanfare, but was otherwise altered, given a more hard-driving tone (you can watch the revised opener here). It was a good try, with the suggestive repartee handed over from Steed and Peel to Gambit and Purdey. However, it struck me as a patched old tire, still capable of spinning but with much of the air let out. The show was finally canceled in late 1997. American TV producer Quinn Martin (The Fugitive, Banyon, The Streets of San Francisco, Barnaby Jones, etc.) apparently invited one of the show’s producers, Brian Clemens, to develop a pilot for an Americanized version of The Avengers, titled Escapade (with Granville Van Dusen and Morgan Fairchild), but it didn’t sell.

Just as well. Some classics are best left untainted by modernization, and The Avengers--with its lighthearted opening sequence--is decidedly a classic.

READ MORE: The Forever Avengers; “Peeling Off the Trench Coats,” by Jason Whiton (Spy Vibe); “The Avengers: ‘A Touch of Brimstone,’” by David Foster (Permission to Kill).


Martin Edwards said...

I started watching the series when Emma Peel had arrived and I was ten years old. Still remember vividly some of the best episodes. Very witty and gripping.

David Cranmer said...

A couple years back I bought all the Emma Peel episodes on dvd. Wisest purchase I made in a long time.

Anonymous said...

The utube doesn't seem to work?

J. Kingston Pierce said...

I just went through and double-checked. All of the video links seem to be working. Please let me know which YouTube video you are unable to watch.