Wait, wait, wait-- that's not how this starts at all.
Ah, that's better-- wait, what?
*Sigh.* Okay, pull back...back...and--
There we go.
This is the first nine minutes or so of the only remaining bit of tape from the very first episode of The Avengers, broadcast in January 1961. Even accounting for the worn, sepia tones of the 16mm transfer (from the videotape of the original broadcast), the look and tone of the program is quite different from the images above: the car-crowded, narrow streets, captured in lingering long shots; the wet pavement of the sidewalk stones, and the worn cement of the city walls, both reminders of the working-class-focused British New Wave of which this episode is a contemporary; the beefy man in the heavy overcoat, captured in a series whose duration is considerably longer (and pace slower) than the quicker, more surreal cuts the program would be known for only a couple of years later. The hard, swinging jazziness of John Dankworth's score is also noticeably different than the light, playful theme that Laurie Johnson would introduce in 1965, and that hard swing has to do a lot of the heavy lifting in this initial moment: like John Barry's subsequent Bond theme (but without any of the latter's cool disdain), Dankworth's horns give momentum to what is, after all, just a shot of a man approaching a doctor's office. Mystery arrives when that man in the overcoat jumps the wall.
As the program moves to the interior stage sets, that initial feeling of realism continues: the office receptionist, Peggy, surreptitiously making out on the job, the plain clothes of the protagonists, the brown walls of the office visually and metaphorically shaping the inhabitants they enclose. A close-up on a hand turning a doorknob brings the mystery back, and reinforces the more noirish aspects of the narrative: cut from the rest of the body, the disassociated arm feels more immediate, more menacing. It belongs to the beefy man from the first shot, who sneaks around the room as the music takes on a sinister, bassoon-driven edge. After playing with one door lock, the beefy man hides in the waiting room as he hears voices approaching. There's a clever shot of Peggy reflected in round door mirror, allowing her and the beefy man to occupy the same frame while in different rooms (she looks a lot like future Avengers co-star Linda Thorson). She returns to Dr. David Keel, with whom she's been flirting, while Keel's partner sings to himself while doing paperwork in his office. Our beefy villain remains in the waiting room, lit from the side, through the pixalated plastics of the door window, in such a way that (enhanced by the burning glow of the 16mm transfer), it looks like he's stalling in purgatory. A cut back to Peggy and Keel bantering in his office reveals our first bit of character knowledge: they are engaged, and talking about how to decorate their new home, but like the befuddled star of a British sitcom, the doctor has forgotten to get a ring. The high-key lighting, combined with the flowered wall-paper, and the tight, medium-framing on the couple, give this space a warmth and coziness that contrasts strongly with the chiaroscuro shadows of Mr. Beefy in the waiting room, or the pleasant professional clutter of the doctor in the other office.
All of this warmth and coziness is broken by the return of the menacing bassoons, as the program returns to an intercutting of the menacing Beefy and the other doctor. The mystery man opens and closes his mouth, licks his lips, and moves in for the kill. Hitchcockian suspense (defined as the audience knowing more than the protagonists about what dangers might await) builds, as the balding medical partner opens, then closes, the waiting room door, and instead interrupts our young couple across the hall. With his sweater vest and pipe, the other, older doctor radiates on a kindly mentor quality, and congratulates the young couple on their engagement. The phone rings in the other room-- still in the shadows, our mystery man stares at it in frustration, the low-angle framing enhancing the size of the phone, and calling attention to the man's furrowed brow. The effective use of the low-angle continues as Peggy enters the room, and we see her only from the waist down, all the emphasis on the telephone ring. She doesn't notice the man hiding in the shadow of the door frame on the right, nor the package beneath the file she picks up, as she makes an appointment for the woman on the phone. An expressionist close-up of the killer's face-- half fleshy jowls, half quivering shadow--is briefly seen before another lingering point-of-view close-up on that package. It becomes almost comical-- as the nurse leaves, the man tries again to swipe the package, but is thwarted by the phone ringing again. This time it is Mrs. Simpson on the line, and she insists on talking to Dr. Keel, who enters the room and chats on the phone as Peggy kisses his forehead to distract him. As the phone call ends, and the two leave the beefy man behind in the waiting room, a puzzled David takes the package that is the object of that man's desire, inquiring as to what it is. The camera moves into close-up on the man behind the door, who waits.
"Some man brought it to the door," we can Peggy say through the waiting room door. Cut back to the banality outside that room-- Peggy handing David his umbrella and doctor's kit as he puts on his jacket, reminding him of their appointment to go ring-shopping. He leaves, Peggy grabs the package, the camera follows her, and then curves around back to the hallway, and the waiting room; the former is empty, but the menace inside the latter is palpable. The man leaves the room, and overhears Peggy talking to David's partner as she hands him the package ("a late Christmas present, probably another sample," he says dismissively). He leaves, climbs back over the wall, returns in a reversal of the opening shot (the car horns blending with Dankworth's jazzy score, as if to mock the man's failed efforts), and pulls away. Who was that overcoated man?
It's an opening that tells us everything and nothing about what follows. There are hints of the plot, but no sense of who the mysterious man was, or what was in the package. There is, instead, a fascinating concentration on the everyday that surrounds the man, the world into which his violence will spill (for the resolution of some of these plot threads-- and the shock that kicks off the series and gives it its title-- click on part two in the corner of that YouTube page). Above all, there is tone: the juggling of the visual and the narrative tones-- suspense and romance, light and dark, the banality of the everyday versus the violence that's literally around the corner-- is very well-handled, and feels like the real melody of the scene, playing off the clipped exposition of its "lyrics." It's smart and mysterious and fascinating.
But it's not really The Avengers, is it?
Not, anyway, the show that we think of when we think of that particular title. For most viewers, certainly in America, The Avengers means mod fashion, surreal and satiric plotting, witty blends of English tradition with high-tech fooferal, and above all, a striking vision (particularly for the mid-sixties) of gender equity: whether "your" Avengers includes Cathy Gale, Emma Peel, or Tara King, chances are it does not center on Dr. David Keel, his fiancee, or their involvement with a dark and amoral spy named John Steed (Patrick Macnee). And yet, it was Keel-- or rather, Ian Hendry, the actor who played him-- that the show was initially built for. Hendry had come to stardom in an eariler British television program, Police Surgeon, and according to Marcus Hearn's thoughtful coffee table book, The Avengers: A Celebration, the head of Drama for Associated British Television (ABC)/ITV, Sydney Newman, wanted another series with Hendry, and dispatched producer Leonard White to invent one. Not wanting to stray too far from Hendry's newly established persona, White and story editors John Bryce and Patrick Brawn decided to once again make him a doctor involved with crime fighting. There wasn't a large budget, and it was shot live-to-tape, both of which necessitated imaginative direction (Hearn notes the importance of Peter Hammond in establishing the program's increasingly abstract response to a lack of full-scale sets, and the style that derived from it). While there was humor, and a distinct Englishness to it, it was still a tough detective world that owed as much to policiers as Ian Fleming.
So the question is, how do we get from Keel to Peel? And why does this linger as our definition of a show that had at least three different iterations in its initial six series run?
The first part of that story has to do with scarcity. Because of the older technologies used in the first season (and lack of preservation in those pre-VHS/DVD/Blu days), only two episodes from the first, Keel-driven series still exist for viewing: everything else must be pieced together via script, stills, and anecdotes. While in some ways, the lack of material makes Series One even more fascinating, it also means there's no way it generates the same enthusiasm as later years.
The second part has to do with luck (good or bad, depending on your point of view): soon after the first season aired, there was an actors' strike in Britain, and while Leonard White and his writers were busy generating new scripts during the strike, Hendry signed a film contract and left the show. Faced with a backlog of scripts but no star (precisely the opposite of their first series problem), White and his company returned to the post-strike Avengers with a quick stop-gap plan: they'd cast a temporary "stand-in," Dr. Martin King (Jon Rollason) for Keel for three episodes, necessitating little change in the already-written stories. They alternated King as John Steed's partner with a young night-club singer, Venus Smith (played by Julie Stevens with, as Hearn notes, a Vidal Sassoon haircut, making her the first of the program's many fashion-forward stars). Smith appeared in only six episodes: Cathy Gale was on the horizon.
Gale was played by Honor Blackman, whose dry humor played beautifully off of Patrick Macnee's ebullience. "We did an episode every two weeks," she tells Hearn, "and I had to find time to learn my lines, rehearse my fights and go to the gym. I learned my judo all out of time. I should have started with simple throws and then graduated, but they kept giving me stomach throws because it's about the only judo throw that looks dramatic."
Gale makes her appearance in the first episode of series two, circling back for good after those already-mentioned alternate partner episodes aired. Aside from Blackman, and the increasingly stylish visuals, the most important thing about Gale as a character is that they didn't bother to rewrite the earlier Keel scripts to make her more stereotypically "feminine": White and Sydney Newman wanted a strong female co-lead, and Macnee notes that "they didn't alter the scripts at all, which were written for a man, so she thought, I'll play it as if I'm stronger than a man. Which indeed, she was."
The timing was excellent: debuting in December 1962, just two months after Dr. No and The Beatles' "Love Me Do" made their simultaneous Oct. 5 debuts in England (and just a few months before the Profumo scandal would break, making fictional spycraft seem prudish by comparison), Cathy Gale would become a symbol of burgeoning British youth culture, and Blackman would become a pop icon. There were Avengers fashion shows featuring Blackman and Macnee, plans (never carried out) to market Mrs. Gale's famous leather fighting togs, and even a failed Blackman/Macnee pop single called "Kinky Boots" (which would only find radio success ironically, in a 1990 Britain on the cusp of another mod revival).
In fact, of course, the idea that England's centuries-old traditions of class prejudice had suddenly vanished was a canard that effectively couched the stifling realities in a country where birth still trumped ability in virtually every case...Still, there was a loosening, and it was accompanied by another shift that made the rise of the Baileys and the Quants and Stamps possible. English society, the British were more and more frequently being told at the dawn of the sixties, was becoming more permissive...Satire, a brand of hipster comedy initially practiced by Americans like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl but alchemized into a vital, all-encompassing movement by young Brits, was all the rage.
As Leonard White (who left to produce another show, Armchair Theatre) and Sydney Newman (who left for the BBC) gave way to a new group of producers and writers, this sense of visuals carrying the narrative-- but also, crucially, of the narratives themselves becoming more outlandish and knowing--would reflect this growing taste for satire and self-reflective pop culture. Which means the third part of this story has to do with the growing synergy between broader cultural trends and changing means of television production.
Story editor John Bryce was promoted to producer at the tail end of Series Two, and brought back script writer Brian Clemens, who would grow to have a tremendous influence on the key middle years of the show (along with story editor Richard Bates). The episodes remained exciting and action-packed, but the thrust of each one was, to paraphrase Honor Blackman's judo description above, less the tight and quick stomach blow of drama than a jujutsu move, finding a way to use the energy of the spy genre against its more conservative formulations, and casting an affectionate, slightly sardonic eye on the Motherland. The stock exchange, the military, the fashion industry, and English public school all came in for increasingly surreal ridicule, and by the middle of the Third Series, New Statesman writer Francis Hope, not entirely approvingly, pinpointed where the show was going: "Plots may offer opportunities for reaching out and making contact, sentimentally or realistically, with the outside world, but style forbids it" (quoted in Hearn).
That's a statement resting on the cusp of two different moments of aesthetic revolution: the more social realist movement of the Angry Young Men and the British New Wave from the mid-fifties to the early sixties; and the more difficult-to-pin-down, consumerist, pop movement that would take the Beatles as its chief avatar. You can hear both the curiosity and the repulsion in Hope's tone, but it's also a serious question worth asking: what does it mean to come at the world entirely through style? It's what the next two series-- the series' apex--would explore. And it could only happen because of James Bond and America.
Honor Blackman had only been signed to a two series contract, and had always intended to leave the show after that; when the opportunity to play Pussy Galore in Goldfinger arose, she was off (leading to one of the first great in-jokes of The Avengers, when Steed puzzles out a letter "from Mrs. Gale": "But whatever is she doing at Fort Knox?"). At the same moment, the program shifted production to the more upscale Elstree studios, increased its budget, shifted producers from John Bryce to Julian Wintle, and made the most fateful decision of its run: they would shift from videotape to 35mm film.
Hearn notes that the goal was to crack the elusive American market, and it was thought that if they could shoot at least 13 episodes on film, they had a chance of doing so. Brian Clemens was promoted to associate producer (along with Albert Fennell, who, Clemens notes, "came from big movies, so he managed the unit and took care of all the day-to-day problems...Apart from that the creativity was left to me"). New, more film-experienced directors were brought on, and so was composer Laurie Johnson. The gamble paid off commercially, as the American ABC network bought the show, but more importantly, it paid off creatively: Clemens' interest in blending spy stories with everything from drawing-room comedy to science fiction to kinky horror paid all kinds of dividends, as did his understanding of how this modern sensibility necessarily existed in tension with a satiric nostalgia: "It was the England that probably never was, but that we all wish we could go back to." (If there's a real, interior soundtrack for the Diana Rigg years of The Avengers, it's less Laurie Johnson than The Kinks' The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society).
All they needed was a new co-star. Elizabeth Shepherd-- the woman decked out in orange at the top of this post-- was first cast as Peel, but was soon replaced by Diana Rigg, a Royal Shakespeare Company veteran who'd come to their attention, ironically enough, via the Armchair Theatre program Leonard White had left The Avengers to produce.
Without even seeing a snippet of Shepherd's performance, you can see in the clip above why they would have made the switch: before we even see her face, Rigg's voice-- a perfect blend of drollery and authority--establishes the character of Emma Peel. Legend has it that ABC (UK) publicity woman Marie Donaldson came up with the name, a pun on the producers' desire for a character with "Man Appeal" (or "M. Appeal"). Like Cathy Gale before her, she has a husband, this one who's disappeared under mysterious circumstances, which circumscribes her relationship with Steed to one of professional respect and friendship. But c'mon: watch them in their color credits sequence, or in our first glimpse of Mrs. Peel in this clip, her fencing blade a none-too-subtle come-on as it pokes at Steed's Windsor Knot: this is a team with a Nick-and-Nora like sex appeal. She won't stop looking at him as he moves to pour the coffee, her blade lightly swipes his behind, and he responds only with a bit of perfectly timed entendre: "Not enough flexibility in the wrist....There doesn't appear to be any cream."
borrowed the name), but all of it was done with such wit and grace that it seemed not so much silly as sophisticated (although it was a delicate balance: the show's play worked better in black-and-white--with all its abstractions--than in literalized color, and Brian Clemens noted the crucial context: "If we went on location and filmed Patrick queuing up at a bus stop with real people he'd have looked like a pantomime dame. The Avengers had to exist in their own fantasy world, and if someone from real life walked into it the whole thing would have collapsed").
Or to use Hope's phrase, style forbids it. It couldn't last, of course-- by the end of Series Five, Rigg (who stated in interviews that she and Macnee were always more interested in personality than plot) had tired of "looking at the Avenger bird in the mirror" and left to pursue theater opportunities and, like Honor Blackman before her, star in a James Bond movie (the brilliant On Her Majesty's Secret Service) (ironically, Blackman herself was starring opposite Sean Connery at the time in Shalako, the first film he did after leaving the Bond series). Clemens left after Series Five, too, and John Bryce returned, promising, somewhat ominously, "The way-out story is to be replaced by a more realistic type of tale with an emphasis on tension and excitement in place of light-hearted plotting." That one "tension and excitement" season with Linda Thorson as young agent Tara King is not bad, but it is flawed: calling for a return to "reality" misses the way in which the show eventually chose to think about its world through a looking glass, and having Thorson play an official government agent overlooks how well the middle years of the program found a visual and tonal correlative for the central idea of the program: that extraordinary "ordinary" civilians could be drawn into a world of surreal spycraft through a blend of personal need, and the sly personal charms of John Steed.
Which, in a sense, brings us back to that very first episode of The Avengers. I suggested up top that the first series of the show wasn't "The Avengers" as so many know it, but in a way it is, because central to both the first and the later iterations of the show is that question of tone, and the recognition that traditional logics of plot ("the plot we always swallowed," Rigg noted) fail-- or at the very least, transform-- in the face of the logic and charm of the image. Comparing the 1961 and 1965 clips of The Avengers, one sees a program that actually becomes more "mysterious"-- in the deep, rich, strange sense of the word--the more open and less noirish its imagery becomes. It's an affirmation of the show's true spirit, which is not Raymond Chandler or Ian Fleming, but Oscar Wilde (who would've made an excellent showrunner) who inverts, and thus reinvigorates, the whole notion of "snooping" when he notes, "It's a shallow person who doesn't judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible." After all, The Avengers suggested, in a world of mad geniuses, colorful fashions, corporate intrigues and old-fashioned-but-hip values, what's more "realistic" than Steed and Peel?
This blog post is part of Snoopathon: A Blogathon of Spies, hosted by Movies Silently.