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Avengerland: The Upside-Down Kingdom
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Avengerland: The Upside-Down Kingdom

By Terylene

Speaking of the upside-down kingdom...A 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 spring.

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 cop show.

Steed and Dr Keel, strolling around the extraordinaryNevertheless 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.

Don't shoot Mrs Gale! We're on your side!And 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 then—videotape 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 Lib!

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.

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