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Great stories beautifully told- it can only be THE AVENGERS!
on 26 November 2010
"Sophisticated as champagne. As hard as Diamonds. And as cool as a pistol barrel."
So said the publicity blurb for the first colour season of the evergreen classic series THE AVENGERS, whose unique British-ness appealed not only to its home grown audiences but also to viewers worldwide, and where it proved to be an unexpected, but ultimately much welcome hit in the US.
Now its time to open the chilled champagne and remember yesteryear as TITAN PUBLISHING releases a lovely 50th anniversary tribute coffee table book to this stylish and always imaginative British adventure series, which delves into all the key facets that made the show so great and so iconic: its timeless and unbeatable blend of comedy (both scripted and visual), drama, and exciting action, with the all definitive glamorous, intelligent and dangerous AVENGERS girls (Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson) more than resplendent in its pages, which boast a lovely interior design by Peri Godbold and a superb pictorial selection, all beautifully scanned and printed to the highest quality possible.
And THE AVENGERS importance within the era in which it was born shouldn't be underestimated, either. It wasn't just a series that was a firm part of the swinging sixties landscape- the era of Twiggy, Roger Moore, the Beatles, Biba- it actually helped define the sixties landscape! And there are examples of that in the book, like the producers brilliant abilities to predict future fashion sensations like the launch of the mini-skirt, the series unique and skillful comic book like use of colour, the creation of an individualistic Britain on TV unlike anything of the time, plus the wonderful chemistry, often sexual frisson, and good manners of an equal friendship/partnership of man and woman that excited the world as they partook in highly original, exciting, action packed adventures unlike anything ever seen on the small screen at that time, a true spy-trend setter before the likes of James Bond and those men from U.N.C.L.E., with just the occasional adult hint of leather kinkiness thrown in for good measure!
Linked to the shows constantly engaging success, we also mustn't forget the contributions from the shows hugely talented producers: from Leonard White to John Bryce to Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell (the latter two masterminding the shows most popular eras), they all had their fingers on the audience's pulses in delivering the best stories possible with each season.
But the rock that holds it all together, and always in a way that looks so effortless, is the magnificent Patrick Macnee- a much better actor than he has ever given himself credit for (and who provides an intelligent and splendid foreword to the book). Right from the start, there couldn't have been a better lead actor chosen to play the part of ministry man/spy John Steed, a man gifted with style and iconic distinction (and one of the few people on the planet who can make wearing a bowler hat look effortlessly cool!), whose portrayal was undoubtedly a more exaggerated version of his real life persona but all the better for it- making Steed a refined and professional character, with a mild but not obnoxious whiff of the snobbish private school education and privileged background, mixed in with an intriguing cocktail of killer instinct, physical agility, good humour and, with some of his earlier harder edged, cruel traits toned down from the early series, what would eventually be a fine showcase bravura heroism.
And as to his unique relationships over eight years with his female AVENGERS partners, well, that's the stuff of TV legend, and another reason for the shows enduring success- all of them proving equally different, unique and special, showing great friendship and equality, with nothing too overtly sexual. Starting with Honor Blackman's Cathy Gale, Steed clearly found her fascinating and desirable but she chose not to get involved (the same situation occurring in real life for actor Macnee, who found his one and only attempt to woo the then recently married Blackman cleanly and professionally snubbed off by the actress), whilst with Diana Rigg's Emma Peel, her and Steed were surely brief ex-lovers. Then, finally, to his platonic relationship with fellow agent Tara King (Linda Thorson), a young and impressionable figure whom Steed looks after almost like a protective older father figure. With each lady, and throughout each season's episodes, Steed remains the perfect gentleman, and happily keeps the champagne and fun flowing by the end of every dangerous mission.
Delving deep into the archives to bring us the best and the brightest aspects from the show, respected TV historian/journalist Marcus Hearn delivers some fine accompanying behind the scenes notes on the series original, ever evolving production history, plus its many standout moments, though ultimately it's the great images from the series that are the finest aspect of this terrific publication.
And it begins with the lost era of Ian Hendry as first created by Canadian TV supreme Sydney Newman (who also devised DOCTOR WHO) - the fuse spark that sets the classic series off on a gritty, hard edge as his character of Doctor David Keel seeks revenge against the killers of his wife and then, joining forces with Ministry spy John Steed, going on to fight all manner of villains as THE AVENGERS.
With only one and a bit surviving episodes from his period, its great that the series is so well represented in visual form- of which some of the Keel/Steed episodes of that era look quite intriguing- with images not only of Hendry, who left the show after its opening year to pursue a film career, but also with the second seasons re-tailored scripts involving his temporary replacement, another Doctor, Martin King, played by Jon Rollason, and a little look in for nightclub singer/occasional helper to Steed, Venus Smith (played by Julie Stevens, later to be recognized for her sterling work on BBC television children's series in the seventies like PLAY SCHOOL and PLAY AWAY).
And then the series starts to take the shape we know and love today, with the entrance of Cathy Gale, the first and quite possibly best of THE AVENGERS women- though all of them would have their own unique charms and talents, and all capable of sending any baddies that get in their way with a thump or chop that would send them into the middle of next Tuesday! - as played by the splendid Honor Blackman. The importance of the actress in the role shouldn't be underestimated. Her characters inception, based at the time on several incredible real-life women, as amateur investigator Cathy Gale was a further unique new creation and a revolutionary figure on television at that time- a single minded, independent, determined and intelligent woman who was more than an equal to any man, and a worthy successor to Doctor Keel in stories that blurred the line between espionage and fantasy. The later Rigg/Thorson eras may be the most acclaimed for clever, often bizarre story ideas of this type, but there were quite a few similar genre crossing tales within the Blackman years that are equally worthy of recognition (with many of them great enough to be re-worked for the colour Rigg year by their writer, Brian Clemens (whose recent knight hood, though too long in coming, was well deserved!)).
Some fantastic rare colour and black and white images can be found in the book, beautifully reproduced in its pages, with the in their prime cast looking fantastic amongst intriguing behind the scenes shots (especially enlightening in the shows early years when the actors had to endure the horror and adrenaline pumping challenges of "As Live" studio filming), out-takes, classic episodic scenes, examples of the shows appeal at the time and its popularity with viewers, the press launches and personal publicity appearances, studio title sequences filming, etc, etc. It's a definitive visual portfolio for the series and its enduring history.
As well as the Keel era, Honor Blackman/ Cathy Gale get a very good representation here, too, of which its especially nice to see so many great colour images-Honor was certainly formidable in her role and is still as glamorous as ever, even now in her eighties. There's also the incredibly stylish photographic work linked to the other periods of the show, of which the Diana Rigg period is a true fashion showcase delight, and let's not forget the youngest AVENGERS lady, the spy in training, totally loyal to Steed, Tara King, as played by the nubile and bright eyed Linda Thorson.
Adding further fascination, there's also a look at the original incarnation of Emma Peel, as played by Elizabeth Shepherd for one and a bit episodes of the black and white series film re-launch, who, despite the best intentions of the actress and the producers, in her light red/orange leather outfit and too similar to Cathy Gale blonde looks, was neither distinctive enough nor quite right for what was needed in seeing in a unique new definition to being an AVENGERS girl.
As you immerse yourself into this treasure trove of loving crafted TV nostalgia, I guarantee you'll have iconic composer Laurie Johnson's memorably playful but strong theme tune for the series in your head in no time at all whist flicking through the books large pages.
THE AVENGERS: A CELEBRATION is a lovely tribute to the cast, writers and production teams that worked on a series still so well remembered and loved for its charm, wit, sophistication and original, often ground-breaking storytelling. It's a super stylish book for a super stylish series, that's well worth purchasing.