Saturday, 6 July 2013

'THE AVENGERS' and Diana Rigg

PURE CLASS

Moét and Chandon, red carnations, mad scientists and kinky boots. It can only be one of the best TV series ever made.

Lady Diana. (Image courtesy Studio Canal)
I bloody love The Avengers. I was lucky enough to go to the 50th Anniversary event celebrating the 1960s series at Chichester University on 25 and 26 June 2011. It was the best TV-themed event I’ve ever been to. A beautiful English town in the middle of summer, Chichester was the perfect setting. Umbrellas hung from trees on the campus and, having made the effort with a tailored three piece suit, bowler hat and brolly, I got to play John Steed, stylishly posing in the background of an interview with Honor Blackman for the local BBC news. Only a cameo, but it was huge fun.

Master of ceremonies Paul O’Grady arrived in a helicopter with Linda Thorson, who played ingénue secret agent Tara King. The chopper was parked on a playing field for the whole weekend. O’Grady and Thorson both left in it on Sunday night, no doubt toasting each other with glasses of champagne as the helicopter rose into the air.

So what makes The Avengers so utterly, completely brilliant that just hearing that wonderful, jazzy theme music always puts a smile on my face? I think it’s because, particularly with the Diana Rigg episodes, the series is how we like to think the ‘60s were, even though we know they really weren’t. However, The Avengers IS the story of the ‘60s as it was constantly changing, gradually morphing from a gritty, film noir crime thriller into a colourful, syncopated comic strip celebrating the best things in English culture: fine clothes, cups of tea and lovably eccentric people. The series’ constant evolution also makes it very Mod.

The mention of Mod is appropriate as The Avengers is very musical. There’s a sparkling rhythm to the way Steed (Patrick Macnee) and Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) converse and interact with each other. They move the action along fluidly, taking in great and not so great jokes – ‘counter, counter, counter intelligence,’ ‘top, top, top secret’ – in a way you don’t expect from an adventure series.

ITV’s filmed action shows were the first programmes to be made in colour in the UK. In some of them, like The Saint, you can tell it’s early days as the lighting is really flat. On The Avengers (and its closest sibling The Prisoner) the cinematography has been approached as if the director is making a feature film. As I’ve often said, in The Prisoner and The Avengers we have nothing less than cinema for the small screen.


Paul O'Grady, myself and Linda Thorson at
The Avengers
50th Anniversary event in 2011.
(Image courtesy Chichester University)
Sir Patrick Macnee, wearer of the Steed bowler, is an underrated man. Producer of the highly regarded documentary series about Winston Churchill for Canadian television as well as an actor, in the early episodes of The Avengers recorded on videotape his remarkable gifts, as a performer who can save a scene when his fellow actors forget their dialogue, are plain to see. By 1967, his double act with Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel was a delightful example of light humour, a couple whose company you wanted to enjoy who chould have been in a sophisticated screwball comedy.

Diana Rigg is FABULOUS as Mrs Peel. Moving like a dancer in those chic catsuits, she’s either vaguely amused by the effect she has on men or oblivious to it all together, viewing everything with the same adorable half smile and ironic detachment. In the episode ‘The Bird Who Knew Too Much’, after throwing a villain off the diving board into a swimming pool, Mrs Peel herself dives in, sparing the time to perform a graceful somersault in mid air. Pure class.

And she’s still being classy today. In this year’s series of Doctor Who, Mark Gatiss’s script ‘The Crimson Horror’ was so obviously The Victorian Avengers. Diana got the point of the script straight away, changing sides to deliver a Northern villainess, Mrs Gillyflower, who was an Avengers bad guy all the way down to her buttoned-up boots. In the wrong hands, the alien force she controls could destroy the world, the Doctor tells her. ‘You know what these are?’ she says, showing him her open palms. ‘The wrong ‘ands.’

Sublime.

At the Chichester Celebration, I asked Brian Clemens, producer of the filmed episodes, about what Steed’s feminist sidekicks were like to work with. ‘Honor [Blackman] was always very professional,’ he said. ‘Diana was a cow. She’s still a cow.’

Ah, well. You can’t have everything. Patrick McGoohan could be a bastard too.

99% flawlessness will do.


3 comments:

  1. What?! Clemens said that about Diana??

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  2. He sure did. He wrote to her on behalf of Chichester University and she replied with a letter along the line of 'Why should I be interested?' and 'Who's interested in "The Avengers" anyway?' Brian had no qualms about reading the letter out on one of the panels. When the press got hold of it, Diana denied she'd ever been invited.

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