Monday, April 06, 2020

Honoring Blackman

Like you, perhaps, I first heard about it from The Spy Command:
Honor Blackman, who made an impression with audiences as Pussy Galore in [the 1964 film] Goldfinger, has died at 94, The Guardian reported. She “died of natural causes unrelated to coronavirus,” the newspaper said.

Blackman’s Pussy Galore was the lead female character in the 1964 Bond film that turned the gentleman agent into a global phenomenon.

She made her mark in his very first scene. Sean Connery’s Bond sees Pussy Galore’s face after waking up from a drugged dart.

“Who are you?”

“My name is Pussy Galore,” she responds.

“I must be dreaming,” Bond says. …

The movie helped launch the 1960s spy craze, Within a year of
Goldfinger’s release there were new spy TV shows such as I Spy (relatively realistic spies), The Wild Wild West (spies in the Old West) and Get Smart (comedy spies). Other spy film series, such as Matt Helm and Derek Flint would go into production.
I followed the link from that post to an obituary in Britain’s Guardian, which reminded me that Blackman was “born in east London to a middle-class family—her father was a civil servant—[and] credited the elocution lessons she received as a birthday gift as allowing her to progress in her acting career.
After studying at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, she had small roles in films and TV shows such as Titanic drama A Night to Remember (1958) and the Edgar Wallace vigilante series The Four Just Men (1959-60).

She secured her breakthrough when she was cast in 1962 as the leather-clad crimefighter Cathy Gale in the hit British show
The Avengers, alongside Patrick Macnee as the bowler-hatted John Steed. Blackman had to learn judo for the role, and her tough persona allied to then daring costume choices—boots and figure-hugging catsuits—ensured she quickly assumed star status. One of its unlikely results was a hit single, ‘Kinky Boots,’ recorded in 1964 with Macnee, which became a Top 10 hit in 1990.
Blackman’s three-season run on The Avengers (1962-1964) was “ultimately overshadowed by Steed’s more famous subsequent partner, Emma Peel (played to perfection by another future Bond Girl, Diana Rigg), but,” as The Double O Section observes, “Gale’s and Blackman’s place in television history cannot be overstated.
Cathy Gale was television's original badass, leather-clad female spy, paving the way not only for Mrs. Peel, but for Honey West (producer Aaron Spelling was inspired to create the show by Avengers episodes he saw in England, and reportedly first offered the role to Blackman, who turned it down), The Bionic Woman, Alias’s Sydney Bristow, and every other leading lady of espionage to throw an attacker over her shoulder, as well as non-spy heroines like Xena and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Quite simply, there had never been an action-oriented female protagonist on television before Honor Blackman's groundbreaking performance. She changed the game. In part, this was due to Blackman inheriting scripts that had been originally written for another male partner for Steed (following his first season foil, Ian Hendry's Dr. David Keel), which were hastily rewritten for her, but kept the character involved in the action in a way women hadn't been previously on TV. But in a larger part, it was due to Blackman's undeniable and very physical presence: she played Cathy as a woman definitely not to be trifled with! And she learned judo for the role, impressively dispatching stuntmen twice her size on a regular basis on episodes that were at the time taped live. Her obvious talent even led to the publication of a book,
Honor Blackman's Book of Self-Defense.
Later in the day, Terence Towles Canote posted a lengthy account of Blackman’s acting career. He recalled, for instance, that she “made her television debut in 1951 in the BBC production Joseph Proctor's Money …” She went on to win recurring roles on Probation Officer and The Four Just Men, and to do guest spots on small-screen series such as The New Adventures of Charlie Chan, Suspense, The Third Man, Danger Man, and The Saint. In 1972, Blackman was cast in “Dagger of the Mind,” an unusual second-season episode of Columbo that sent Peter Falk’s Los Angeles police detective off to work with Scotland Yard in London. Canote adds that in the 1990s “she began playing Laura West in the long-running sitcom The Upper Hand.”

Blackman’s film work stretched beyond Goldfinger to include Quartet (1948), Green Grow the Rushes (1951), The Square Peg (1958), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), Fright (1971), Age of Innocence (1978), Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001), and I, Anna (2012).

“The fact is that Honor Blackman was an enormous talent,” writes Canote. “What she brought to her many roles was more than beauty and elegance, but also intelligence, determination, professionalism, and, when the role called for it, even physical prowess. Much like Cathy Gale and Pussy Galore, Honor Blackman was a remarkable woman in real life, well known for her political activism. Honor Blackman wasn’t simply a talented actress, but she was also a lady through and through”—a compliment she would surely have prized.

POSTSCRIPT: I forgot to mention one other TV crime drama on which I’d seen Honor Blackman perform. She guest-starred, along with Maurice Evans, on a March 1969 episode of The Name of the Game titled “An Agent of the Plaintiff.” Watch a clip here.

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