Avengerland: The Upside-Down Kingdom
paradigm of a surreal universe, only limited by the endless contours of
human imagination, the epitome of a unparalleled decade, which condensed
the free will of its time in a mixture of magical brush strokes, "The
Avengers" (1961-1969) runs gloriously and imperturbably across its
lush canvas, leaving behind an unforgettable fragrance.
"The Avengers" is timeless, no matter what the calendar might
say. Instead, its contents and how they're approached, its topics, trends,
visual expression and aesthetics in general, are the ingredients that
keep the show as fresh as a newly picked rose, as an eternally flowing
A Grey Scale World
Conceived thanks to the vast creativity of a Canadian producer who had
settled in London, just when the first rays of the 60s shone, "The
Avengers" was launched on British TV as a revamped version of a low-rating
from the very beginning, the new program seemed to veer towards a more
elegant and refined style. Two actors were cast to that end, Ian Hendry
and Patrick Macnee, who gave life to their respective characters, Dr.
David Keel, "the moral innocent" surgeon, and John Steed, "the
amoral sophisticated" super-spy, basing their relationship on the
spontaneity that arose from the instant chemistry between them.
Through twenty-six episodes, the Keel-Steed duo played stories that didn't
travel far beyond that of a conventional cop show context. But the daring
premise stating "take the ordinary and make it extraordinary"
began to flow quickly from the scripts and performances, and would become
one of the reasons that the series became so successful from then on.
After approaching, albeit laterally, some of the 60s concerns ranging
from illegal business dealings, drug abuse and the effects of radiation,
to extortion, 'phone prostitution and political murder, production of
the episodes had to be cancelled due to an actors' strike, bringing a
halt to inventiveness and inspiration. Months later, upon Ian Hendry's
departure, the first chapter of the programme's history drew to a close,
and the future of "The Avengers" was cast into doubt.
Despite the departure of the show's lead, the production team had kept
the figure that would be the classic icon par excellence of the series.
Patrick Macnee, with his immaculate, quintessentially British style, began
to direct the orchestra grasping his umbrella as a baton, and removed
his bowler hat to greet with grace and distinction the arrival of a lady,
who for the first time would be an essential part of the show.
The partnership formed by the young widowed anthropologist Mrs. Catherine
Gale, a role played by actress Honor Blackman, and the spy of the British
Secret Service, John Steed, combined effort and aptitude in their fight
for "putting right what is wrong", and would soon totally rewrite
the way such characters were portrayed on TV.
so it was that in 1962 TV audiences tuned in every week, in increasing
numbers to watch a show where a man and woman interacted with each other
at the same intellectual level; in which the woman, clad in sensual clothes
and dark leather boots, showed both her self-reliance and endurance quite
openly, and the urbane gentleman readily admitted that she was his equal
and not his inferior. Naturally, the relationship would not have been
so successful, if an hidden subtle sexual undercurrent wasn't allowed
to flow, enfolding these two "Avengers" in a legendary cloak
that gave the series an everlasting, matchless image.
Although the presence of Cathy Gale would be the most powerful attraction
of this era, Steed also had other partners, like that smoothly-voiced
man of medicine, Dr. Martin King (played by Jon Rollason) and the young,
bubbly nightclub singer Venus Smith (played by Julie Stevens).
New and interesting topics made their way through the scripts, which,
in view of the meager technology at that time, were videotaped in difficult
conditions - making for some improvisation, and they created quite an
art out of it. The fascination for the hidden, the threat of high technology
missiles, the dangers of industrial espionage, the advent of fake fortune
tellers and medicine men, the permanent threat of nuclear or bacteriological
wars, and the subliminal reference that argued for the preservation of
elephants and whales, have been among others, many of the topics which
not only sought to leave a message, but also to start a precedent for
the unmistakable Avengerish touch.
However, by the mid 60s, "The Avengers" had to say goodbye
to Honor Blackman, who, lured by the brightness of James Bond's star,
left her Mrs. Gale and our crestfallen Steed as well.
Fortunately, all doubts were dispelled when, determined to continue their
success in the U.K., the production team found, after a frustrating and
laborious search, that a very young actress named Diana Rigg was available.
Enough said. Playing her character of Mrs. Emma Peel, once again an emancipated
widow, an expert in karate with an outstanding intellect and wearing clothes
and boots in the best shining leather, Diana Rigg had arrived to increase
the success of "The Avengers" by a power to which mathematics
hardly had a claim.
Things had turned quite different by thenvideotape had made way for
film; the soundtrack music burst in from a new, vibrant composer; and
a trio of illustrious innovators took the reins of the production. The
revamping in general was radical. And of course, the adventures of the
now super-dandy Steed and his Mrs. Peel rocketed through an exclusive
universe, leaving a trail of fantasy behind.
The scripts became mad, full of concealed meaning in that world not officially
called Avengerland; the characters did too, the little details even more
telling. This time, a radio-controlled toy submarine turned deadly, as
also did a few "harmless" pens that certain executives kept
in their coats, or an innocent old lady who rode a bicycle. Men drowned
in torrential rain that only formed small pools around their feet! Man-eating
plants arrived from outer space! A thick tropical jungle could be found
only a few miles away from London! Concentration camps were hidden in
luxurious hotels! A customer could even unknowingly operate an atomic
bomb by buying a washing machine in a department store!!
And once again, behind all this madness, told in the most outlandish
way, bordering on the absurd and married to the chiaroscuro of a Hitchcockian
black and white, such burning issues of the time remained hidden; among
others, infiltration and subversion, automatization, brainwashing, hypnotic
conditioning, telepathy, communication satellites... and of course, Women's
This wave of talent and good taste soon arrived in the countries of mainland
Europe and propagated rapidly across the Atlantic Ocean. Emma Peel and
John Steed, the absolute catalysts of a mutual chemistry of chain-reactions,
were reveling in their most ironic and witty sense of humor and would
soon conquer the North American market.