Is there any television series that is more quintessentially 1960s than The Avengers? Okay, granted there’s The Prisoner but was Number Six ever as much fun as John Steed? Did he have such iconic partners as Emma Peel or Cathy Gale? Thought not. No, all due respect to Patrick McGoohan but The Avengers remains the ultimate ‘60s TV series. But looking back on this collection of episodes from the show’s early days its shocking to see just how different The Avengers was when it first started out from the show it would eventually become.
The Avengers started life back in 1961 as a vehicle for Ian Hendry, star of the short lived series Police Surgeon. Hendry’s character, Dr. David Keel, teamed up with government agent John Steed (Patrick Macnee) to avenger the murder of his fiancée (hence the title) and fight crime on a regular basis. Back when the show started it was a far more tough and gritty affair than the flamboyant spy series we all know and love. Originally Hendry’s David Keel was the star with Steed as his rough and tumble, trench coat wearing sidekick, a far cry from the quintessential Englishman of legend. Only two and a half episodes still exist from the David Keel years and all have been collected in this set include a surviving episode of Police Surgeon.
After one series Hendry bailed to pursue a film career. Macnee was promoted to star status and saddled with a selection of rotating sidekicks only one of which was ever any good. Dr. Martin King (Jon Rollason) was a transparent David Keel clone which is no big surprise since all the episodes he appeared in were originally written for Ian Hendry. Meanwhile Julie Stevens’ Venus Smith was a night club singer, amateur spy and all round waste of space. The episodes that featured Venus were often more about showing off Stevens’ singing voice than her acting talent.
It was only when Steed was partnered up with Honor Blackman’s alluring Cathy Gale that the series really started to come alive. Gale was a revolutionary female character at the time; smart, confident, independent, quick-witted, capable of defending herself and had a fondness for wearing leather. British television audiences had never seen a woman like Cathy Gale before and were eager for more of her. By now Steed had ditched the trench coat, pick up his suits from Savile Row and pop on his bowler. Steed and Cathy sizzled on screen together even if their relationship never went far beyond some first-class flirting.
With the lead characters virtually established the series also began to slowly move away from being a gritty crime show and into more fantastical territories. Pop art sets, Cybernauts, diabolical masterminds and primary colours were still a few years away but by this point The Avengers was already well on its way to becoming one of the defining programs of the ‘60s and a classic of British television.
Shame the theme music was so crap. Someone get Laurie Johnson on the phone, pronto!
Rating: * * * *