I have always adored the 1960′s fantasy spy adventure series The Avengers. Seven years after that series had ended, John Steed was set to return and foil the plans of yet more diabolical masterminds…
The New Avengers
It doesn’t matter what the English and Americans may have thought of Linda Thorson’s Tara King, the French clearly loved her as the show was repeated in France over and over again.
In 1975 this led to French TV producer Rudolf Roffi acquiring the services of her and Patrick Macnee to make a TV commercial for Laurent Perrier champagne. Roffi had been a fan of the show and asked MacNee whether he would consider another series. MacNee felt that a remake could never recapture the special qualities of the original, so Roffi approached Brian Clemens, who explained that although he would like to do another series, he couldn’t get the financial backing for it. Less than a fortnight later Roffi contacted Clemens again with a deal worth £2 million. This sudden, surprising offer spurred Clemens into action and within three months he and Albert Fennell (together with Avengers composer Laurie Johnson who would provide an updated version of his Avengers theme for the new show) formed Avengers (Film & TV) Enterprises Ltd. In association with the Parisian company IDTV, plans were drawn up to bring John Steed back to television in 26 new fifty-minute episodes called The New Avengers.
One key change was that the Avengers would now be a threesome. Whereas in the original series Steed had almost always been partnered with a woman, in the new series he had two partners: Mike Gambit, a top agent, crack marksman and trained martial artist, and Purdey, a former trainee with The Royal Ballet (to which she ascribed the high-kicking skills she frequently used in the series).
During auditions held in late January 1976, actor Gareth Hunt was chosen to take the part of Mike Gambit. Very much a mystery to the audience, before joining Steed and Purdey Gambit had been a Major in the Paras and had had a short-lived career as a racing driver. He now resided in a high-tech, fully automated apartment in London decorated in ultra-modern (for the Seventies) furnishings. A very tough but usually quiet man, Gambit enjoyed a good rapport with Steed and even more so with Purdey – with whom he openly flirted – but there was something deeper about Gambit, that the viewer couldn’t quite penetrate. Although in the years since the series aired it has been argued that there should never have been a third member, at the time Clemens felt that there should be a younger man to do Steed’s “legwork” as Patrick Macnee was 53 years old when the series entered production and was now apparently suffering slight arthritis in his knees.
Finding the right female lead has always been crucial to The Avengers success and hundreds of actresses applied for the much-coveted role of Purdey before Clemens and Fennell plumped for Joanna Lumley, though Clemens said later that he had wanted her right from the start, after meeting her on the set of The Abominable Doctor Phibes several years earlier.
In previous seasons of The Avengers, Steed’s female partners each had their own individual characteristics and personalities. Lumley’s Purdey was an amalgamation of the best elements of her predecessors. Her character had the sophistication of Cathy Gale; the allure, athleticism, and humour of Emma Peel, yet also the softness, vulnerability and femininity of Tara King. Originally called Charley, there was a perfume of the same name on the market at the time, so Lumley came up with ‘Purdey’ – after the world-renowned shotgun.
At the time neither Lumley nor Hunt were particularly well-known. She was a 29-year-old ex-model who had had a small part in the 1969 James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (which, coincidentally, had starred Diana Rigg) plus a short run in Coronation Street. Thirty-five year-old Gareth Hunt was still fairly new to professional acting having previously been seen in the Doctor Who story Planet of the Spiders in 1974 and as Frederick the footman in the final season of Upstairs Downstairs.
Steed, understandably, remained pretty much as before though had mellowed and become much less jocular. As he did for a large part of the original series, Steed once again acted without a direct superior and in many ways his character takes on the duties of “Mother” from the Tara King era of the 1960s series. He is more of a mentor to Gambit and Purdey, taking on a paternal role towards them.
As the younger stars were expected to handle all the rough stuff, Lumley and Hunt were put through physical training prior to filming to get them fit. In traditional Avengers style the girl was to develop an efficient, nimble fighting technique. In Lumley’s case this was to take on the form of balletic, but devastating, high-kicking actions. Gambit was a martial arts expert and, unlike the original series, the stars themselves did most of the action shots. Both actors were seen to do much of their own stunt work, with only the really dangerous work (such as rolling cars over) being left to professionals such as Cyd Child (who had previously doubled for Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson) and Joe Dunne. MacNee however steered clear of the rough and tumble telling Hunt; “the biggest stunt I do is get in and out of the car!” As the series progressed he was able to increase his role’s visibility, losing weight to improve his athleticism and ‘keep up’ with his new partners.
In January 1976 Clemens and Albert Fennell were pretty much in sole charge and issued a document detailing precise guidelines on how stories should work (although Clemens himself would write most of the episodes, established screenwriters Dennis Spooner and Terence Feely were the other main contributors) and how the show should be filmed.
Dennis Spooner (who had written for the original series) had said that at the end of its run The Avengers had gone as far as it could in terms of parody. For this reason Clemens intentionally aimed for straight, Len Deighton-type spy stories. In terms of actual filming, episodes were to have crisp, sharp editing (to reinforce the impression of pace) and minimum use of extras. Whereas the old series had been very much rooted in fantasy, this time there would be at least a hint of believability and ‘grittiness’ to the stories.
Despite the desire for more ‘real’ stories, the first series featured several episodes using science fiction themes similar to those of the later Avengers seasons. The new trio had to deal with suspended animation (The Eagle’s Nest), robotics (The Last of The Cybernauts?), mind transfer (Three-Handed Game) and even a giant rat (Gnaws). The second series also featured science fiction elements, such as the artificially-intelligent super-computer of Complex, the Russian soldiers revived from suspended animation in K is for Kill, the submersible Russian community in Forward Base and the super humans of The Gladiators.
One of the biggest talking points about the original Avengers episodes had been the women’s clothes. This time round the lack of any innovative fashions was noticable. One of the problems was that designer Catherine Buckley had been employed to design Purdey’s clothes but didn’t have the resources to come up with four new outfits a week. Although Joanna Lumley often wore some very attractive outfits and Steed retained his familiar suit, bowler hat and unbrella, Gambit was usually blighted with regulation brown flared suits, in differing shades of unpleasantness. So, unlike its predecessor, The New Avengers was never going to do much for the catwalks.
As with the old series, vehicles were to play an important role in The New Avengers. Although Steed retained his cherished Bentley, it was rarely seen during the series (being safely stored in his garage), as he preferred more modern transport for tackling the villains of the new decade. He had now acquired a Range Rover and, perhaps as a direct replacement for the Bentley, a hand-made sports Jaguar replete with flared wheel-arches and finished in British Racing Green. Gambit also owned a Range Rover but was more often seen in his sporting Jaguar XJS. Purdey also enjoyed sports cars and initially used an MGB but later switched to a Triumph TR7.
Filming commenced in April 1976 with The Eagle’s Nest, concerning a group of neo-Nazis posing as monks on a remote Scottish island with a plan to revive the preserved body of Hitler. This was classic Avengers material – megalomaniacs, eccentric characters, strange locations, tongue-in-cheek humour, and a special guest star (Peter Cushing). This episode was also the first to be transmitted – in October 1976 – and critics agreed it was just as good as the original show.
Unfortunately, right from the start there were problems. First and foremost, being an independent company, Avengers Film & TV had no influence over the day and time The New Avengers should be shown. Ideally, of course, this would have been a Friday or Saturday evening at around 9pm. In the event, however, the various ITV regional companies could not agree on a common timeslot. So, depending on your own TV region, The New Avengers appeared on Tuesdays, Fridays or Sundays somewhere between 7.30 or 8.30 pm. Even after a particular TV company had chosen a slot, it was often changed mid-season, the early times and lack of network screening certainly affecting potential ratings success.
There were also huge problems within the production company itself. IDTV and Avengers Film & TV were constantly at odds with each other over the style and direction the show was taking. The French insisted on Purdey’s clothes being of their own design, while Clemens was adamant in upholding a firmly British flavour. Production staff and actors have claimed over the years that they never got paid for the some of the work they did on the show. Clemens once described the French backers as “a load of crooks… I’d love them to sue me for saying that as they owe me a lot of money”. He claimed to have lost at least £70,000 – a huge amount in 1976 – and one immediately noticable effect of the lack of finance was the idea of having a famous guest star in each episode was soon dropped!
An attempt to get Diana Rigg to appear as Emma Peel in the new series was unsuccessful, although old footage of her on the phone from two 1960s episodes of The Avengers (The Winged Avenger and The Hidden Tiger) were used to allow the character to make a cameo appearance in the episode K Is For Kill Part One: The Tiger Awakes. It’s rumoured that actress Sue Lloyd provided the voice of Mrs Peel for these sequences, although no-one seems to know for sure! Ian Hendry, who played Steed’s original partner, David Keel, also guest-starred in one episode, To Catch A Rat, but not, unfortunately, as Keel.
Overall, the series was welcomed by the critics and perhaps did better in this respect than Brian Clemens had dared to hope but behind-the-scenes problems continued and arguments over style and content (the French wanted more glamour, sexuality and violence while Clemens and the cast did not) saw the input of francs rapidly diminish.
In order to complete the planned 26 episodes, finance was sought from other sources and extra backing was provided by the Canadian firm Nielsen-Ferns and the triumvirate of companies embarked on a second series (again 13 episodes) in the Spring of 1977. Now the problems really came to a head as the two overseas companies demanded several episodes should be made in their own countries. Clemens was reluctant to agree to this but, as the series was being heavily financed with French and Canadian money, the production team had little choice.
Titled The New Avengers in Canada, the final four episodes (Complex, Gladiators, Forward Base and Emily) were, according to Clemens,”disastrous”. During filming of the Canadian stories, London Weekend Television asked Clemens and Fennell to come up with something to rival Thames Television’s spectacular police series The Sweeney. Within weeks The Professionals was in production and with his time dominated by this new series Clemens no longer had control over the day-to-day running of The New Avengers and was forced to leave it in the hands of Canadian directors, production staff and support actors. Emily was, in fact, the last episode to be filmed though, depending on your television region, not necessarily the final one to be transmitted.
The second season was, again, handicapped by not being given a proper network showing across the UK and the slight changes in the format and nature of stories were two factors that seemingly lost the show many viewers. Two series totalling 26 episodes were produced, which were aired on CBS in the United States, CTV in Canada, ITV in Britain, RTÉ in Ireland, TF1 in France and in syndication elsewhere. Despite being asked for a third series, the lack of outright, immediate success made the securing of financial backers difficult and so The New Avengers came to an end.
In 1995, the series was picked up by the BBC, and received a genuine network transmission in the UK for the first time. Joanna Lumley subsequently claimed that this was the only screening for which she received repeat fees. At the time, French company Canal Plus held transmission prints for the series, but upon delivery the BBC considered that several early episodes were not of “broadcast quality”. As a result, the final four episodes were actually the first to be screened, whilst better prints were made up. Nevertheless notable variations in picture and audio quality across the series remain and it awaits genuine remastering from the original 35 mm negatives/inter positives. The series began a repeat run on BBC Four on 13 November 2008. This was the first time the series had been networked since its screening by the BBC in 1995.
The perceived opinion amongst many fans of the original Avengers series is that The New Avengers wasn’t a patch on its predecessor. However episodes such as Eagle’s Nest, Midas Touch, House of Cards, Last of the Cybernauts…?, Cat Amongst the Pigeons, Faces, Angels of Death, Complex and Forward Base are good examples of the old and the new blending together well. One of the biggest stumbling blocks appears to be Gambit – and the change from a duo to a trio somehow upsetting the balance. Personally I find that a bit of a lame duck argument. If anything, I think it made for an interesting dynamic and helped to make the series something different, rather than a straight copy of the original which would have attracted comparisons and accusations of unoriginality. It’s fair to say that there are some dreadful episodes, but even the original series had its share of clunkers, so The New Avengers can’t really have that held against it either.
I’ve always seen The New Avengers as a transitional stage between The Avengers and The Professionals. All made by pretty much the same people, adapting their styles for the mood of the time. Personally, I can see the positives and negatives in both the original and the new series – but I love them both for similar reasons; the slightly loopy plots, the (generally) great writing, the vast array of British acting talent on display, the tremendous leading actors, the warmth, the wit and the banter. At the end of the day The Avengers and The New Avengers are meant to be fun and for me they always deliver that in spades!