The Avengers TV series
The 1960s saw the emergence of a new type of television series - the secret agent thriller. Programmes such as 'Danger Man', 'The Saint', and later on, 'The Man from U.N.C.L.E.', were popular for their action, stylish heroes and glamorous women. Perhaps the most popular of these shows, and one that even now has a great following, was 'The Avengers'. First shown in 1961, 'The Avengers' has seen many changes in its long history, and twenty-seven years on, the name at least was revived in a new film. As with many long-running television shows, there have been many 'TV tie-in' items issued for the series, and these are now keenly sought by collectors and can command surprisingly high prices.
David Keel and John Steed
In the first 'Avengers' episode, 'Hot Snow', we are introduced to Dr. David Keel, played by the fine actor, the late Ian Hendry, who had recently starred in the popular television series 'Police Surgeon'. He has just announced his engagement to his secretary when she is murdered by drug dealers, and Keel swears that he will track them down as the police are unable to capture them. In the hunt for the villains, he meets a mysterious character, John Steed, played by Patrick Macnee. Keel teams up with Steed in the successful pursuit of the murderers, and the original 'Avengers' partnership is born. In the first series, it in fact Keel who is the main character, and Macnee gives Hendry credit for being the 'inventive genius' behind the series in its early days. Indeed, it is not clear initially whose side Steed was on, although we are led to believe that he is a British secret agent, and in the early series of 'The Avengers', he is a rather dark and sinister figure. Patrick Macnee himself greatly influenced the development of the character of John Steed, particularly his well-known Edwardian style of dress. The traditional look of Steed, with his bowler hat and umbrella, is later contrasted with the very modern outfits worn by his female accomplices. Steed, however, is the only character that survived through all the regenerations of 'The Avengers', right up until 'The New Avengers', made in 1976.
The first series with Keel ran for twenty-six episodes. The stories established the style of 'The Avengers' early on with some bizarre problems for Steed and Keel created by writers such as Denis Spooner and Brian Clemens, who wrote many of the later scripts. The rapport between Macnee and Hendry was a remarkable feature of the early shows, as was the imaginative direction of Peter Hammond. The quality of the early programmes is all the more impressive considering that they went out 'live', with the actors being required at times to fight up to their necks in water, and reappear minutes later fully clothed for the next scene. Only one printed item featuring the original Keel/Steed partnership was produced - the "TV Crimebusters Annual" for 1962. This is a very rare item, and a copy in Very Good condition could fetch £30.
After the first run, Ian Hendry decided to pull out of the series, and the way was left open for a new assistant for Steed in his fight against crime. This was a turning point for the series, as Steed was given a female companion who was able to tread a new path for a woman in the 1960s - as a tough crimefighter.
Enter Cathy Gale
Steed's new partner was the beautiful but deadly Cathy Gale, played by Honor Blackman. Both she and Patrick Macnee were trained in judo for the series, and Honor Blackman's expertise gave rise to an unusual 'Avengers' tie-in. "Honor Blackman's Book Of Self-Defence", although not strictly an 'Avengers' item, is a fascinating addition to an 'Avengers' collection. It gives practical advice on self-defence, liberally illustrated with pictures of Honor Blackman and her hapless victims.
The book also gives some background to Cathy Gale's introduction to judo, and the clothes that she wore in 'The Avengers'. Originally Honor Blackman experimented with various weapons concealed about her but although the gun in her garter was popular with male fans, it was rather a draw-back having to lift her skirt when confronting the villains. Hence 'self-defence' was adopted as her fighting weapon. The leather outfits also arose partly through necessity, as she required a material that was tough and hard-wearing for' her fight scenes. Her leatherware soon became the major part of her wardrobe, and leather was also featured in Emma Peel's and Tara King's outfits in later series.
The Cathy Gale character was a breath of fresh air after the helpless women who were often portrayed at the time. The imaginative approach of Honor Blackman helped establish 'The Avengers' as a popular television series, and two seasons of twenty shows were produced with her at Steed's side.
The first 'Avengers' novel produced to accompany the series featured the Steed/Gale partnership and is now a rare item. Simply entitled "The Avengers", and written by Douglas Enefer, this novel highlights Steed's rather brutal character, which was softened somewhat by the time Emma Peel arrived. The emphasis is on fast cars and fast action and as the first 'Avengers' novel it is an important part of any collection. Another fascinating item from the Steed/Gale series is "Meet The Avengers - Star Special 15". This was published by World Distributors and is a 40-page black-and-white magazine in which Patrick Macnee tells us that he is David Niven's cousin and descended from the Earl of Huntingdon. There are also some fascinating on-set shots from the series.
Mrs. Peel - we're needed
The announcement by Honor Blackman the end of her second series that she would not be continuing in her role as Gale meant a new actress was required to play opposite Patrick Macnee. Diana Rigg, a highly accomplished actress who had been a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company was chosen, and for me the episodes with her as Emma Peel were the highlights of 'The Avengers' series.
Emma Peel was a wealthy widow, whose husband had been killed in an aeroplane in the Amazon. His body, however, was never found and this gave the script writers a way out for Mrs. Peel when Linda Thorson took over as Tara King in 1968. The two seasons with Diana Rigg (the first in black-and-white, the other one in colour) concentrated very much on traditional English settings and characters. This was combined with an eye to style during the fashion boom of the mid-sixties. Emma Peel was presented in various outfits that were stylish and very modern. In retrospect, some of the more bizarre clothes look dated to say the least, but at the time 'The Avengers' was a trend setting programme with a keen sense of fashion. As regards the characters that populated 'The Avengers' world, scarcely an episode passed without the appearance of some manic retired general, or top-ranking civil servant with some outlandish and usually deadly hobby. The settings also emphasised the 'Englishness' of the series, and I can still not drive through a country village with a village green and a duckpond without being reminded of Steed and Mrs. Peel uncovering some dark deeds in a rural churchyard ('The Gravediggers'), or on a treasure hunt in Steed's Bentley ('Dead Man's Treasure').
The cars in 'The Avengers' have always been a major feature of the series. Steed's Bentley and Emma's Lotus Elan are perhaps the best remembered, not least because they were reproduced in miniature in a boxed set by Corgi in the 1960s. A Mint boxed set, including the Steed and Mrs. Peel figures, could now cost in excess of £150.
The 'Emma Peel' series spawned a number of books which are now keenly sought by collectors. The first 'Avengers' annual, dated 1967, was very well produced and is the most difficult 'Avengers' annual to find in good condition. It contains excellent background information about Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg and reached a very high standard for what was basically a children's annual. It also contains a number of informative features on the cars and filming the episodes. The stories are also quite good, although the strips featured are not particularly well drawn, and there are many excellent colour and black-and-white pictures from the series.
There were also a number of paperback novels produced. The first two of these, "Deadline" and "Dead Duck", published by Hodder and Stoughton, were actually written by Patrick Macnee in collaboration with Peter Leslie. The next four novels, published by Panther, were all written by John Garforth.
Following the success of the 'Emma Peel' series, 'The Avengers' was sold to America and the four Garforth titles were also published there by Berkley. Five other novels were published in the series (numbered five to nine), but these titles were not available in Britain and so are much more difficult to find in this country. The American versions of the Garforth novels are also hard to find. Like the first four books, the fifth novel in the series, "The Afrit Affair", features Emma Peel. The remaining titles feature King, although numbers eight and nine curiously have pictures of both Emma and Tara on the cover. 'The Avengers' also appeared in comic form in both the girls' comic "Diana", and in the long-running "TV Comic". They appeared in "TV Comic" annuals for 1968 and 1969, but not in any "Diana" annuals.
Other 'Avengers' strips appeared in "The Avengers No. 1" featuring 'The Mohocks', a vicious gang who rolled one of their victims over a waterfall in a barrel. The second comic, "John Steed - Emma Peel", was a colour comic published by Gold Key 1968. Both items are very rare and would sell for around £60 in Very Good condition. Another printed collectable from the Emma Peel' series. is "The TV Times Diana Spectacular" from 1969. Extremely rare, a Very Good copy of this would sell for £40.
At the end of her second season, Diana Rigg left the series. Her replacement was the scarcely known Linda Thorson, who played Tara King. In Emma Peel's final story, "The Forget-Me-Knot", Emma's husband turns up alive in the Amazon jungle. Emma says her farewells to Steed, and on her way out, she passes Tara King on the stairs.
The episodes with Linda Thorson never seemed to work as well as the earlier adventures. Another character first seen in "The Forget-Me-Knot" was Steed's boss, 'Mother', who was crippled during his time with the Secret Service and is now an irascible figure in a wheelchair. For me he turned up rather too often in the series but, having said that, it is true that he was actually quite popular with most 'Avengers' fans.
Tara King was a very different character from the previous 'Avengers' girls. She was not a judo expert like Cathy Gale, or a karate practitioner like Emma Peel, but relied more on cunning and craft to escape from the regular tricky situations. Like Diana Rigg, Linda Thorson had been to R.A.D.A. but, taking on the role of Tara King at twenty-one, she did not possess the experience of her predecessor. She certainly has many fans among regular 'Avengers' followers who collect the items of Tara King memorabilia with great enthusiasm.
These printed collectables include the four U.S.A. novels mentioned previously, and the two 'Avengers' annuals for 1968 and 1969. Both the annuals are well-produced, with many colour and black-and-white photographs from the series. The 1969 annual is the easier of the two to find, and features some excellent line drawings of Steed and Tara King. The 1970 and 197l "TV Comic" annuals also have Tara King adventures, and are still quite easy to find.
The final Tara King episode, broadcast in September 1969, ends with Tara accidently pressing a button in a space rocket to end her into orbit with Steed, where Steed at least remained .for the next seven years.
The Avengers Anew
The return of John Steed in 'The New Avengers' was one of the big television vents of 1976. For the first time, there were three 'Avengers'; Steed, as dapper as ever, the beautiful Purdey, played by Joanna Lumley, and the powerful Mike Gambit, played by Gareth Hunt. The stories are as bizarre as ever, with the team foiling a plan to revive Adolf Hitler in suspended animation in 'The Eagle's Nest', and shooting down a giant rat in the sewers of the very tongue-in-cheek 'Gnaws'. The addition of a third member to the 'Avengers' team was greeted by regular fans (including me), with a degree of apprehension. The main reason for the inclusion of Mike Gambit seemed to be that Patrick Macnee, at 53, was perhaps going to find handling the action scenes a bit hard going. Although Macnee is a little overweight in the early episodes, he soon trims down, and most of his fight scenes are short, with Steed disarming his opponents with his steel-rimmed bowler, or the sword hidden in his umbrella. Mike Gambit's fight scenes, however, are handled with real style and our introduction to Gambit's fighting capacity in the first 'New Avengers' story, 'The Eagle's Nest', is most impressive.
Joanna Lumley as Purdey was a great success, although a criticism levelled at the time was that she was not 'sexy' enough in the role. Personally, I think that she made the most of the scripts which were sometimes a little patchy, and occasionally pulled out the odd surprise such as the touching scene with Steed 'when he rescues her in the excellent 'Hostage'.
'Hostage' 'was one of six episodes that was turned into a novel to tie-in with the series. The idea of making a novelisation of an actual episode was a new departure for 'The Avengers', as.previous novels had always been new stories. The six 'New Avengers' novels were produced in both hardback and paperback. Most of the hard-back editions were sold to public libraries, and it is very difficult to find a copy that is not 'ex. lib.', usually complete with date stamps and library labels. However, they tend to be in quite good condition, presumably because most readers bought their own paperback copies.
As well as the novels, there were two 'New Avengers' annuals dated 1977 and 1978 by World Distributors. Both these annuals have some interesting articles, and plenty of photographs, although the strip stories, particularly in the 1978 annual, are rather poorly drawn. Surprisingly, the second annual is much harder to find than the first, although neither should pose much problem for the keen collector.
The other item of note was the excellent "TV Times Avengers Special", produced in 1976. This was full of hundreds of pictures in colour and black-and-white from all the previous incarnations of 'The Avengers', as well as liberal spreads of the new ones. There are articles by Patrick Macnee, and an interesting item by the first 'Avenger', Ian Hendry.