The Avengers: A Celebration: 50 Years of a Television Classic

anegers peel
The Avengers: A Celebration: 50 Years of a Television Classic was written and compiled by Marcus Hearn and published in 2010. This is an another enjoyable illustrated coffee table book from Titan, this time devoted to the classic 'spy-fi' sixties television series that made stars of Diana Rigg, Honor Blackman and Patrick Macnee. The book charts the six series of The Avengers produced in the 1960s (sadly no seventies 'New Avengers' with Joanna Lumley and Gareth Hunt here) with many lavish colour and black and white stills of the stars, episodes and from behind the scenes.
Although this is primarily an illustrated celebration of the show there is a decent amount of text to accompany the photographs and you'll pick up some interesting bits and pieces about the history and production of this fondly remembered series.
The Avengers was about the urbane bowler hatted John Steed (Patrick Macnee) - a government agent for the 'Ministry' who battled various villains in some often bonkers and surreal plots. Steed's female agent partners in the show were Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman), then Emma Peel (Diana Rigg), and finally Tara King (Linda Thorson). Although Honor Blackman did it all first, it is Diana Rigg as Emma Peel who is most associated with the heyday of the show, her playful banter with Patrick Macnee and leather catsuits making her something of an icon in the decade.
The book is about three quarters photographs and stills and many of these were previously unpublished. It contains a chapter for each of the six series of The Avengers although - understandably - Diana Rigg does seem to feature a lot more than Blackman or Linda Thorson. The book tells us that when The Avengers began it was based around Steed and Dr David Keel (Ian Hendry) in 1961. After a middling start, they decided to bring in a female character as one of the main leads and they cast Honor Blackman as martial artist, widow and anthropologist Cathy Gale.
Blackman gave the show a big boost and represented a new type of female character for the television of the era. She left to do Goldfinger and was replaced by Royal Shakespeare Company actress Diana Rigg. Elizabeth Shepherd was originally cast as Emma Peel but departed after filming a couple of episodes because it wasn't working out.
Although Diana Rigg was unknown she impressed everyone in the tests and had an immediate ease and chemistry with Patrick Macnee. The arrival of Rigg ushered in the most iconic and famous period for the show and her double act with Patrick Macnee (and general elegance and poise as she sipped champagne and karate chopped villains) helped the series to go from strength to strength. It became a hit in America and was shot on film - adding an even more stylish gloss to the wonderful costumes and sets.
One thing I did find interesting was that Steed started the series as a slightly more generic character but then became much more of a dandy with Savile Row suit, bowler hat and gadget laden umbrella. The stills of Macnee as Steed are enjoyably British and 1960s. The range of photographs here is very impressive and they provide an evocative pictorial celebration of the series.
the avengers steed

I think one of the charming things about The Avengers when you watch it now is that it makes no concessions to reality whatsoever and immerses you in a complete fantasy world. This quality is captured well in the choice of images. Certainly, the Diana Rigg years provide the most iconic sections here and the actress seemed to fit the world of The Avengers perfectly with her looks, style and tongue-in-cheek approach to the whole thing.
Rigg and Patrick Macnee made a great onscreen duo and the images of them from episodes and behind the scenes snaps are excellent. You don't get a strict episode guide or complete history of the show here but you do get a good overall feel and the book works its way through in chronological order.
Generally though what text there is helps to give the reader a potted history of the show as we flip through and we learn that the series began to creak when Diana Rigg left to do stage and film work (including, like Honor Blackman, a Bond film) and was replaced by Linda Thorson as Tara King. Thorson was not as feisty or dashing as Blackman and Rigg and somehow just not iconic in the way her predecessors were.
They decided to bleach her brown hair to make her a blonde but it damaged her barnet to the extent that she mostly wore wigs as Tara in the show. There are some great stills of Thorson though, including a wonderful closing one of her and Macnee. The book explains that when the series suffered a drop in its American ratings it was duly cancelled.
Although the book runs to 160 pages you can't help wishing you'd got just a little bit more and perhaps a tad more text too. The decision to ignore The New Avengers, the seventies series with Macnee, Joanna Lumley and Gareth Hunt, is understandable but I personally wouldn't have minded a chapter on this at all. The New Avengers is one of the funniest television programmes I have ever seen. I don't think I've ever actually seen the nineties Avengers film with Ralph Fiennes and Urma Thurman but it was by all accounts a train wreck and, like The New Avengers, absent from the book.
The 1960s was a memorable era for British fantasy television and The Avengers, at its best, was as much fun as anything to emerge from this swinging decade. The Avengers: A Celebration: 50 Years of a Television Classic is a suitable tribute and well worth getting hold of for anyone interested in the show.
- Jake


c 2014 Alternative 007

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