19 October 2011

The Avengers

Another one of my favorite, and memorable TV shows from the 1960s was The Avengers. When I saw the show in syndication in the 1970s, the episodes that aired where generally the fifty episodes that starred Diana Rigg as Emma Peel. I loved everything about this show, the witty dialogue, the OTT scripts and the way women were treated as more equal to men. Long before the original Charlie's Angels hit American TV, Diana Rigg's Emma was high kicking and taking on evil men. Rigg was this classy, smart woman who appeared to be a domesticated housewife. But she was superspy (the series became more James Bondian after the early success of that classic film franchise) who was better than a man in many things, including the ability to take them on in some grand fight sequence.

Of course, it was Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale that created the template of Emma Peel. Gale was a self-assured, quick-witted anthropologist who was skilled in judo and had a passion for wearing leather clothes. The character of Gale was the most unlike women British TV had seen, though part of that could be directed at the scripts. Before the end of first season, which was lead then by Ian Hendry as Dr David Keel and Patrick Macnee, a strike at the BBC lead to a delay in the start of season two. Hendry left to pursue a film career, leading to the recasting. But scripts were already written for that character, so instead of changing them, they were assigned to Blackman's role as Dr. Cathy Gale.

Honor Blackman stayed for seasons two and three, before leaving to play the one role she'll always be remembered for her in America, that of Pussy Galore in the James Bond film Goldfinger.

While I've seen only of the handful of episodes from The Avengers early seasons -most of the series first 3 seasons have been lost due to the BBC's habit of the time of re-using video tape (which is also why a lot of the first and second Doctor episodes of Doctor Who are gone as well)- but I can see how much the writers were basing Emma on Cathy, though as the series progressed more towards science fiction and high camp, Rigg's Emma Peel became more outrageous. But to me, at that young age, she was the coolest of cool. She was a women living in a man's world and proved to an impressionable me that when the going got rough, she did not always have to wait for a man to save her.

When Rigg left -to do, ironically, the Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service- her replacement, Tara King (LInda Thorson) proved a disappointment. In someways, it was not Thorson's fault the series would end after her first season. Emma Peel had broken taboos in TV on both sides of the Atlantic, and Tara King was just a pale replacement for Rigg's energetic performance.

The Avengers would see a revival for 2 seasons of 13 episodes in 1976-77, but it failed to capture any of the Emma Peel era style. Besides, script supervisor Dennis Spooner felt the original series had mined all the best stories during the 60s, there was nowhere to go. So this version reverted back to it original format of  being a spy thriller. But it also faced financial issues with production, as it was a collaboration with the UK, France and Canada. It did, however, introduce the world to Joanna Lumley as Purdy and Gareth Hunt as Gambit. Lumley, who was amalgamation of Cathy Gale, Emma Peel and Tara King, went on to play Patsy Stone in Absolutely Fabulous (after a stint in the little seen here sci fi show Sapphire & Steel).

I never saw the big screen treatment done years ago, mainly because of the horrible reviews it got, but also because I knew at the time, it could never match the cleverness of the original.

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