The wonderful world of the AVENGERS
THE AVENGERS has demonstrated more exotic exits from life than the whole James Bond fantasia. Yet psychiatrists have called it the best non-corrupting programme for children.
At £50,000 an episode, it has been one of Britain's most expensive television programmes, and one of the most profitable. The current series, the sixth, practically girdled the globe. It has been sold to 90 countries. It has not only sold in America, but has been shown in the middle of what they call prime time.
This is a remarkably concrete achievement for a consciously make-believe product, and for the folk hero of this highly sophisticated fairy-tale, Patrick Macnee, a source of inner satisfaction. His story has been almost a fairy-tale in itself.
He is the Old Etonian who once beachcombed a surf strip in California, came back to Britain to discover that the good life begins at 40, and six years later finds himself a coast-to-coast idol in America.
But to examine the anatomy of The Avengers, to discover what has made it so different, it is necessary to look beyond the John Steed image created by Macnee with his bowler, brolly and lethal bonhomie.
It has been a team effort, but was essentially the creation of Brian Clemens and Bob Jones. Clemens was the most intimately involved. Once a freelance writer for the series, he became co-producer with the final say on scripts, casting and sets.
He has a very clear idea of the fantasy world he has helped to create. "We admitted," he says, "to only one class - and that was the upper. Because we were a fantasy, we have not shown policemen or coloured men in The Avengers. And you have not seen anything as common as blood. We have no social conscience at all.
"If we did introduce a coloured man or a policeman, we would have had the yardstick of social reality and that would have made the whole thing quite ridiculous. Alongside a bus queue of ordinary men-in-the-street, Steed would have become quite a caricature."
The show could contain sex, but it was never blatant, he thinks. It was psychological sex - a salaciousness at the back of the mind rather than through the eye.
"We didn't kill women in The Avengers. There may have been hundreds of bodies scattered about, but we didn't dwell or linger on them.
"We didn't regard ourselves as a violent show. Perhaps that is why psychiatrists have said that we have the ideal presentation of violence for children. We have tried to achieve the effect that once an actor has been killed, he gets up, collects his money and goes home."
It was during Honor Blackman's time as Cathy Gale that The Avengers became something of an after-dinner cult.
Clemens realised that the only way to get into the American market (which, incidentally, gives the company their profit - no American showing, no more Avengers) was to create something with which the Americans themselves could not compete.
"We became terribly British. A car is a car is a car, and not an automobile. A lift is a lift is a lift, never an elevator. It is this Britishness that fits the fantasy world so appealing to the Americans."
The decision paid off handsomely. The Avengers was the first fully net-worked British series to show coast to coast in America in the autumn at prime time. Two years running it was nominated for an Emmy (the TV equivalent of an Oscar) for the best dramatic series.
"Ideas were easy," says Clemens. It was more difficult to find writers with what we called an Avengers mind. It was a bizarre approach that we looked for.
"My own technique, when I thought of an idea, has been to dream up 12 good dramatic moments and lead in and out of them. I must have 12 for a 50-minute script. If I'd only got six I was only halfway there. And this series chewed up scripts at the rate of one every 10 days."
With the script delivered, Clemens called in Bob Jones, the art director - the man who provided the surrealism that was the hallmark of a typical story.
Says Jones: "I've been in films and TV since 1953. I lost most of my hair and two stones in weight filming The Dam Busters, but when I first came to The Avengers two years ago I felt as though I'd never worked so hard in my life. Now I'm used to it, but it needs a very special mental approach."
No set was a literal interpretation of the script. "If it was a solicitor's office the chap couldn't be an ordinary solicitor. We'd have him ride a penny farthing bicycle round his desk, or make him a collector of top hats - hundreds of 'em.
"I'd say to a writer: 'What's this chap's background? Let's make him quite mad - have him live in a tube station'."
Steed was once reduced to Tom Thumb size, so the art department made a 72-foot long fibre-glass desk, and an enormous phone to scale that actually worked.
They made an egg-timer 14 feet high so that Tara King could be trapped in the bottom half as the sand trickled through remorselessly threatening to bury her.
"It was both a dream and a nightmare for an art director because every idea you thought of nearly always had to be a working model," says Jones.
"I've had Steed drop down a manhole into an underground room decked out as faithful reproduction of The Oval cricket ground at Kennington in 1880, with wickets, pads, the lot.
"I've built a complete death factory, computer-programmed to kill agents. There were about 40 ways of dying, and each one had to work.
"I remember one episode called Legacy of Death, where the script simply described a baronial hall. I did a stylised set, hung with black velvet. Because the man was supposed to be a lover of Chinese antiques, I had a Chinese red ceiling, servants dressed in Chinese tunics, ornamental daggers. And, as the centrepiece, a man lying in his coffin.
"I designed the coffin with a lilac-coloured plastic glass lid, and it was designed so that it would actually lift itself of its own accord on to a catafalque.
"I've designed a bathyscape - that bubble thing that takes you down to the sea-bed - its interior completely equipped and decorated as a Georgian parlour. It looked crazy."
In colour, they could achieve more with Steed's bowler and brolly than British viewers could appreciate yet. He had about a dozen brollies in different colours. And they have loaded those brollies in their time with a swordstick, a tape recorder, a camera.
There have been at least three fights in every episode, often staged in a luxury apartment decorated with really expensive ornaments. The art department then had to make reproductions which could be smashed.
Another vital aspect in promoting The Avengers here and abroad - the series has now sold to the 90th country, Yugoslavia - was merchandising.
It started when Honor Blackman went into black leather. By the time Diana Rigg came into it as Emma Peel, with even more way-out gear, there were tie-ups with 14 fashion manufacturers in Britain. This was The Avengers image from top to toe, and it made a major impact.
Every big store in Britain and hundreds of boutiques aimed at what is known as "the tweenage market" - those from 16 to 21 - and they were bang on target with what became known as The Avengers Pack.
It was a fashion innovator, and the promotion value to the programme was incalculable, with the stores dreaming up window displays.
In the last series, with Linda Thorson as Tara King, the image was not so way-out. But how could it be, with the present freak-out by "tweenagers" into hippy gear of their own?
The Tara King image has been promoted with style, and panache. It has been voguish, involving a tie-up with the largest British manufacturers of expensive cashmere. It was top-quality, upper-class merchandise, to reflect the quality of the programme itself.
The television company, Thames, earn royalties on the sales - just how much they are not prepared to reveal - and the stars take a percentage, too.
Then there was the publishing side. There is still an Avengers strip cartoon syndicated to at least 15 countries. There are four paperbacks published in Britain and syndicated to France, Germany, Holland and Spain.
In America, eight paperbacks have been brought onto the market. There have been almost any number of comic books.
And there was The Avengers Annual, aimed mostly at the Australian market, but cropping up almost anywhere the programme has been screened.
The latest contained an illustrated inventory of Steed's "hidden helps" - a brolly with a false case for a nylon scaling ladder, a shoe with a steel toe-cap and an instep blade, a bowler with steel brim, a fountain pen that is a spring-loaded missile projector.
There are toys, dolls, miniatures of Steed's Bentley (now it's a Rolls), and of the Lotus used by his partner. There are shooting sticks with water pistols inside. There are games - and I am told a new shooting game is due out any day.
A programme is considered reasonably successful if merchandising lasts a year, but The Avengers has outstripped most.
They are thinking of moving into the grocery business next. Which indicates that if there is anything more profitable than a licence to kill it is a licence to sell.
From: TV Times, England, March 27th 1969.
back to 1969