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The Avengers: The 1960s Television Show

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Emma Peel and John Steed

Emma Peel and John Steed

Classic Television: The Avengers

The television series The Avengers is a blend of espionage, fantasy and occasional science fiction that has always appealed to those who enjoy witty, off-beat television.

While this British programme acquired a huge international following back in the Sixties, for many it had been nearly forgotten until its revival in its cinematic incarnation in 1998 and its re-runs on BBC4 and ITV4 in the UK and BBC America in the USA. It has, however, always been a cult favourite and considered by many to be among the best of its genre from that era.

The series aired in the United Kingdom from January 1961 until May 1969, and comprised 161 episodes. The Avengers became one of the most popular television series of all time, when it was bought by television companies from 120 different countries.

The majority of the show's popularity was due to the pairing of Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg as agents John Steed and Emma Peel. While this duo are probably the best remembered and most loved, there was certainly more to the series than just Steed with Peel.

This is my homage to television at its best...the style of the Sixties lives on in The Avengers.

First Series Opening Credits

Season / Series One

Ian Hendry & Patrick Macnee

The Avengers was a replacement for the short-lived TV series Police Surgeon, produced by ABC-TV in the UK, and ran from September to December 1960. It starred Ian Hendry as Dr. Geoffrey Brent, but when it was suddenly cancelled he was asked to pair up with Patrick Macnee. Thus, The Avengers was born with Hendry playing Dr. David Keel and Macnee, John Steed. At this point, Hendry was considered the star of the show with Macnee as his mysterious, sometimes ruthless sidekick.

The first two episodes featured Steed and Keel avenging the shooting death of Keel's fiancée, Peggy, by members of a drug ring. Unfortunately, only the first twenty minutes of this introduction are known to exist (from the episode Hot Snow), along with two other full episodes from this first season: The Frighteners and Girl on a Trapeze.

UPDATE: A third complete episode has been discovered from Season 1 - Tunnel of Fear.

Series Two Opening Credits

1962: Enter Honor Blackman

Series Two & Three: Cathy Gale

During the first season of The Avengers, an actor's strike halted production at episode 26 and it did not resume for almost a year. Once production was due to recommence, Ian Hendry had decided to leave the show for a movie career. The producers asked Patrick Macnee to continue which he agreed to do. Macnee, thus, became the lynch pin of the series.

With this decision, actor Jon Rollason temporarily replaced Hendry for three episodes at the beginning of season two, playing Dr. Martin King. However, it was decided that a woman should be Steed's new crime-fighting partner.

Cathy Gale would become the first liberated female character created for television. Honor Blackman won the role (albeit Nyree Dawn Porter was the producers' first choice), and her first filmed episode was Death Dispatch in June, 1962.

Honor Blackman completed 43 episodes during her tenure. By 1964, for reasons which are still unclear, she had decided to leave and accept the role of Pussy Galore in the upcoming James Bond extravaganza, Goldfinger. This left The Avengers without a female lead, but after several months the production team started to look in earnest for a replacement.

Eventually, an actress was found and she would take the series to new levels and the television world by storm...

Cathy Gale In Action

The Avengers Arrive In The United States

While The Avengers had been running on British television since 1961, it had never been seen in the USA.

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With financial backing from the Americans, the series transferred to film - albeit in black and white. With this transfer and sale, the American audience needed an introduction to The Avengers.

Below are the full credits to the black and white Diana Rigg season including the introductory sequence used at the beginning of each episode shown in the USA, but not seen in the UK.

This also introduced Diana Rigg to American viewers.


1965: Mrs Peel...We're Needed!

Series Four: Diana Rigg

Initially, Elizabeth Shepherd was chosen for the role of Mrs. Emma Peel towards the end of 1964 (see below). However, this decision backfired when, after completing some filming, the producers released her, leading to an urgent recast of the role.

Consequently, additional searches had to be undertaken and one focused on an actress who had recently appeared in a British television drama called The Hothouse. Diana Rigg only auditioned "for a giggle" and felt that she would never be seriously considered for the role of Mrs. Peel. But, as TV history recalls, she not only won the part but was also about to take the television world by storm!

The Avengers had arrived. This period of the show's history was to feature a lighter comic touch in contrast to the much more hard-edged tone evident in the Blackman episodes. Steed and Peel's humour-laden conversations became a mainstay of the programme as they visibly enjoyed trying to top each other's witticisms.

This less serious style lent itself ideally to episodes that were now characterized by an overt science fiction tone, with dastardly masterminds creating havoc each week. Peel and Steed had to deal with giant carnivorous plants, being shrunk to miniature, killer robots, mind-transferring machines and invisible enemies. The series also parodied its American contemporaries, with episodes such as The Girl From Auntie and Mission...Highly Improbable, for example.

In addition to the humour, there was also an underlying fetishism aspect in many of the episodes - particularly one controversial episode for the time called A Touch of Brimstone. Mrs Peel, dressed in a dominatrix outfit (designed by Diana Rigg ), had the American censors in uproar and Rigg's Queen of Sin was not seen in the US when the series first aired there. Tight-fitting leather fashion for Mrs. Gale, and to some extent, Mrs. Peel was one of the classic features of the show, although Rigg only wore leather on a few occasions, preferring instead her more flexible Emmapeelers in later episodes.

Diana Rigg's arrival coincided with the programme's sale to US television. This resulted in making it the first British series to be aired on primetime American television and a change was made to the opening credits of the first Emma Peel season. A brief prologue was added, referred to as the "chessboard sequence", explaining the concept of the series and introducing the characters to the American audience.

Global sales and fame followed...

Is That You, Mrs Peel?

Elizabeth Shepherd as Emma Peel

Every Avengers fan knows that Diana Rigg was Mrs. Emma Peel. But were you aware that she was not the first actress to be hired to play the role?

Elizabeth Shepherd filmed all of the first aired episode The Town of No Return and part of another episode The Murder Market, but it was soon announced that her services were no longer required.

Why? Well, no-one is certain of the actual reasons, but the consensus seems to be that she simply was not right for the part. This decision to get rid of her appears to be compounded by her penchant for an extravagant wardrobe, along with a tendency to rewrite dialogue on the set.

The producers, therefore, made the risky choice of re-casting the role, but history shows that the selection of Diana Rigg was worth the risk. (All filming was re-recorded with Diana Rigg and it is uncertain whether the Shepherd takes still exist).

Above, you can see what Mrs. Peel may have looked like had Elizabeth Shepherd stuck around.


Emma Peel Becomes the Queen of Sin

A Touch of Brimstone (1965-66)

The much talked about episode filmed in 1965 in which Diana Rigg's character becomes the racy Queen of Sin.

Banned in the US at the time, but shown in the UK in an edited version - due to the use of whips - unsurprisingly, this is the all-time highest-rated episode in The Avengers history at the time of its initial broadcast.

And guess who created that notorious outfit? The answer: Diana Rigg herself!

Ms. Rigg recalls that one of the worst parts of filming this particular episode was spending the whole day holding a snake and told by the owner that it might urinate on her at any moment!

Below: Diana Rigg looking her finest!