It’s not clear exactly when the pendulum in Britain lurched from postwar austerity to the Swinging ‘60s, but there can be no doubt one vastly popular television export did much to herald the mod, the miniskirt and the Mini — and relegate rationing to the dustbin of history.
Along the way it would put catsuits on the catwalk, turn brollies and bowler hats into lethal weapons, and convince U.S. and Canadian viewers that behind every quaint English village green there lurked wildly eccentric villains plotting world domination over copious cups of tea.
Sixties cool, thy name is The Avengers.
One of the U.K.’s most successful TV productions, it was a spy series unlike anything U.S. viewers had ever seen, with rarely a pistol waved, police officers never to be seen, Champagne always at the ready and backdrops bristling with hedgerows, country lanes and sprawling manors.
Throw in a frisson of will-they-won’t-they sex appeal between the gentlemanly John Steed (Patrick Macnee) and the gorgeous Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) and producers at ABC Television Britain had a sensation on their hands. It began airing in Britain in 1961. By 1963, it was airing in Canada. Once that other ABC, the U.S. one, picked it up in 1965, it became a smash on both sides of the Atlantic, with bemused U.S. executives never quite sure how a show with none of the typical action-spy tropes — yet plenty of dotty bad guys and far-out plots — could hold an audience.
To their credit, the U.S. netword didn’t meddle with the “unashamedly British” format, treating it like a house of cards that would collapse if the wrong one was, er, yanked. As Marcus Hearn details in his 2010 book, The Avengers: A Celebration, audiences stateside revelled in the images of Britain as a throwback fantasy world of cricketers, bike-riding spinsters and drowsy pubs.
“It was the England that probably never was, but that we all wish we could go back to,” director Brian Clemens tells Hearn.
For all its quintessential Englishness, however, it was a Canadian who brought The Avengers to life. As head of drama at Britain’s ABC Television in the late 1950s, ex-CBC producer Sydney Newman (who would go on to help created Doctor Who) was committed to social realism on screen and greenlit The Avengers as a star vehicle for Ian Hendry, who played a doctor righting wrongs alongside then second-fiddle character, John Steed, a shadowy spy. The first episode aired in January 1961.
By season 2, it had moved away from its Brit-noir feel and embraced a proposal by Newman and others — considered risky at the time — to bring on a female performer to replace Hendry, who had left for films. “We wanted to see a woman playing the lead in a series, not a support,” co-creator Leonard White recalls. “In those days this was very rare.”
It proved a triumphal template: Steed’s slightly suggestive charms, played off against his formidable female partners, became a hallmark of the show and made stars of Rigg, who died last September at the age of 82, and, before her, Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, an anthropologist with a nice line in leather outfits and judo chops. Like Hendry, she left to pursue a movie career and will forever be remembered as Pussy Galore in the Bond film Goldfinger. She died in April 2020.
By season 4, at the end of 1964, the character of Mrs. Emma Peel had been established — the pairing most familiar to international viewers — and the beginning of a cosier relationship between Steed and his partner. It would also see a shift to evermore outlandish science-fiction-oriented plots as producers left gritty realism at the curb.
“If someone from real life walked into it, the whole thing would have collapsed,” producer Clemens said.
When it came to the costumes, however, The Avengers was very much a part of Swinging London, chronicling a stunning decade in fashion. Steed’s dandified Edwardian wardrobe was influenced by French fashion icon Pierre Cardin, for instance, while Blackman’s catsuits were refined for Rigg by designer Alan Hughes, whose Crimplene fabric creations were dubbed “Emmapeelers.” Carnaby Street drooled.
It’s fitting this beloved spy series should end, as it began, on a Canadian note. Toronto actress Linda Thorson, who’d moved to London as a teen to study drama, beat out 200 other hopefuls to replace Mrs. Peel. She was introduced in the sixth and final season as Tara King, Agent 69, and would take the heroine in a more feminine direction over the 33 episodes in which she appeared — “an innocently impertinent charmer,” as one 1968 critic wrote. And unlike her predecessors, she was a professional — albeit a rookie — spy.
Filling the kick-butt boots of Emma Peel was no easy task, but Thorson’s “kinky eccentricity” won the day and the show continued with some of its most unconventional episodes to date. By the late 1960s, though, some British critics were warning the series had become “totally predictable,” and its U.S. ratings took a pounding when ABC slotted it alongside the blockbuster Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.
And so with a final episode, appropriately titled Bizarre, one of the most influential British shows of all time was cancelled in 1969. “The running had to stop for the urbane John Steed,” a press release announced. “No more will his steel bowler bop, no longer will he hold the ungodly at bay with his brolly.”
But perhaps a better eulogy for The Avengers is an earlier episode — All Done With Mirrors.
As Thorson, who is the last major surviving cast member and whose recent credits include Schitt’s Creek, summed it up in Hearn’s book: “We were in our town time and space, almost as if The Avengers took place on an island. It was marvellously unpredictable, full of serendipity and madness.”
There’ll always be an England, they say. And there’ll always be a place for The Avengers’ special brand of Swinging ‘60s madness.
— Andre Ramshaw