Friday, 14 August 2015

The Tara King-era "Avengers" episodes are back on TV - but my heart will always belong to Mrs. Peel

I’m always vexed by any mention of the modern superhero film series entitled The Avengers. How very dare they misappropriate the title of high water-mark of '60s televisual high campery, the actual The Avengers. I was too young for the Ian Hendry/Honor Blackman version of the show – I was vaguely aware of it, but I had no idea what was going on – but I paid full attention when 22-year old Diana Rigg joined the cast as Mrs. Emma Peel in 1965.

I’d like to pretend that this was purely to do with the increasing sophistication of the scripts, the visual style, the science fiction elements fuelling many of the stories, the brilliant theme tune, the great title sequence and the casual Bond-like violence that usually saw six eminent scientists (or politicians or high-ranking defence personnel or leading businessmen) sequentially and bafflingly bumped off within the first five minutes of an episode. In truth, it probably had as much to do with hormones – I was 12 when the frequently leather cat-suited Mrs. Peel first burst upon the scene.

Diana Rigg was wonderful! Sassy, sexy, funny, hard as nails, hyper-intelligent, supremely independent, violent – and yet always extremely feminine. To top it off, she wore great clothes (leather – actually PVC – for her first series, and bold psychedelic patterns for the second) and possessed a marvellous voice: strong, deepish, crisp, and without a trace of affectation despite sounding effortlessly upper-middle class. And she had a terrific, full-throated laugh. She was pure class. (Although she sounds as if she hails from deepest Surrey, Diana Rigg was actually born in Doncaster and her father was a railway engineer who moved the family to India when she was two - Hindi was her second language.)

The fact that Mrs. Peel was married and yet we never heard anything about her husband (there may have been hints that he was missing, probably somewhere exotic) made her safe and respectable, somehow: there was oodles of sexual chemistry between her and John Steed, but there was never a hint of hanky-panky. She wasn’t some unattainable film creature – her glamour was of the approachable sort, and one could imagine her ending up married to a stockbroker in Weybridge (in the days when that was acceptable, before feminists readers start foaming at the mouth). But you just somehow knew she’d be eternally out of your league. Whatever, she was fun. And, despite the fact that the name “Emma Peel” is a play on M (or “Man”) Appeal, she was very much a Strong, Independent Woman. Yes, she got rescued a lot by Steed, but that was mainly because she looked so damned appealing in distress (she did something heart-melting with her eyebrows) – and she often rescued Steed in return. In terms of pure intelligence and prowess at chop-socky, one just knew she was superior to her colleague.

Diana Rigg left the series in 1967, after two all-too-brief years. Her mysterious husband, Peter Peel,  turned up, briefly, at the end of her last-ever episode (filmed in 1968): we only saw him from behind, but he looked suspiciously like Steed, dressed like him, and drove the same kind of vintage open-topped car.

I don’t wish to be rude about her replacement, the Canadian actress Linda Thorson, who took over as Steed’s new partner, Tara King. The plots remained as silly and inventive as they had been, and there was an attempt to keep the spirit alive – but, as viewings of episodes from season 6 (just concluded on the True Entertainment channel) revealed, the new relationship lacked oomph. Partly, it’s because Tara King (a professional agent, rather than a Peelite amateur) is definitely Steed’s junior, partly because he’s looking a bit older (with longer, brilliantined hair), so the hint of a sexual relationship feels ever so slightly seedy. Of course, Linda Thorson is lovely – but a bit too girl-next-door, with annoyingly droopy eyes and (in later episodes) an inflexible – and somehow suburban - bubble-cut. Her RADA-trained posh accent is spot-on (as was Diana Rigg's), but it doesn’t sound genuine (it isn’t – her normal accent is Canadian).

Linda Thorson was slightly more curvy than Diana Rigg (she often wears bum-freezer tops and trousers and is frequently filmed running away from a camera held just above ground level – presumably to emphasis her bottom) and her fight scenes are invariably unconvincing. The show is still fun and perfectly viewable (if you avoid the cringe-makingly unfunny funny endings) – but the strange, heartless, febrile atmosphere of the previous two series has evaporated. (Significantly, the best one I’ve seen so far features Peter Barkworth as a double-agent, Joss Ackland as an army officer who’s gone tonto with a nuclear bomb, and Brian Blessed as a sergeant who, naturally, bellows his tits off – it sound cruel, but its success may partly derive from the fact that Tara King spends the whole episode in the grip of a powerful narcoleptic nerve gas.)

Here's an awful trailer announcing the arrival of pre-bubble cut Tara King (she got better):

As for the final Avengers girl, Joanna Lumley, who appeared in The New Avengers as high-kicking secret agent Purdey, a revival which lasted between 1976 and 1977, she did her best, but was on a hiding to nothing, given just how fucking awful the whole thing was. Steed has moved from his piney Central London mews pad to a country mansion (!), the scripts are dire, the plots lumpy, the direction uninspired, the clothes silly, the cars crappy, the stunt doubles spectacularly unconvincing, and the acting is generally abysmal (yes – welcome to the 1970s!)

Because Patrick Macnee was getting on a bit, the producers drafted in all-action hunk Gareth Hunt to play Mike Gambit. Unfortunately, as Hunt looks like a no-neck, beer-swilling, lower-class rugby league player (imagine John Inverdale with a make-over), the playful suaveness of the original Avengers goes out the window. The whole sorry enterprise is further marred by the ghastly double entendre-laden interplay between Gambit and Purdey: you feel that, in real life, the fabulously posh former model would happily have kneed the leering, smutty oaf in the groin (although, as she once dated “vibrant gravedigger” Rod Stewart, maybe not). There was – I swear – more sexual chemistry between Arthur Mullard and Hylda Baker during their epoch-defining Top of the Pops appearance performing their unforgettable version of “You’re the One that I Want”. Anyway, it was all a horrible, charmless mistake – and not in any way Miss Lumley’s fault.

I had been meaning to write about The Avengers for several weeks, what with Patrick Macnee's death and the re-emergence of the two Tara King series on TV - only to be beaten to the punch by Simon Heffer last weekend in the Telegraph (yes, he’s back). While his article is obviously inferior to my own, it's still entertaining, and can be found here.


  1. Sets made of cardboard, one take-only acting, stock footage and back projection for external scenes, unconvincing fights and implausible plots and yet there was a great charm to most of the British action series of the 60s and early 70s. You may have missed Honor Blackman in the first series and it has been lost for years apparently but you can still enjoy her single 'Kinky Boots', a song inspired by her character's choice of footwear.

    Mind you, even at the time I thought there was something not quite the full ticket about Peter Wyngarde as Jason King in Department S.

    1. Actually, Honor Blackman episodes from series 2 are still available on YouTube - for instance, here:

      And even some episodes from Series One, which starred Ian Hendry as Steed's boss, survive:

      They're shot on video rather than film, and are therefore very wordy and look cheap as a result. Mind you, it also forced Patrick Macnee to do some acting for a change.

      Peter Wyngarde - well, any man who carries his pipe inside his
      boot is definitely a wrong 'un, as Wyngarde went on to prove.

    2. can you believe I have just deleted one of the finest commentaries of The Avengers the modern world might ever have enjoyed ?
      It's now past 3am and I have run out of steam. I might try again tomorrow.....bugger, bugger, bugger.

      However, I am enjoying a recent discovery: Rod Stewart's Great American Songbook - it's in six or seven volumes and available on Amazon for about 30 pence a pop - rush out and spend, spend, spend.
      You won't regret it. It's FAB.

    3. I await the eventual appearance of your Avengers commentary with baited breath, Riley!

      I'm sorry to admit that I would rather be struck deaf in perpetuity than listen to Rod Stewart working his way through the Great American Songbook - it's not spending the money I would regret, but the time spent listening to it. I've never got on with that sort of music, and have been unable to take Rod Stewart seriously since he began wearing leopard-spotted spandex leotards in the mid-'70s in order to waggle his scrawny little bottom at TV audiences while serenading them with "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy".

    4. My Avengers comments will be with you in due course, but I will now take issue with your denigration of Mr Stewart .I have seen him strut and ponce about on stage twice and he was jolly good. I agree that's he's a bit of a twat and no man should ever wear spandex, BUT he does know how to sing, and even though you might not appreciate his rendition of those old standards they make the world go round. As a single chap, living in my rustic bothy, offering gruel and cider to my guest wenches I can report that when I spin those discs on my gramophone they melt....thank you Rod

  2. There used to be a tv channel in America devoted to airing oldies like this along with the likes of Bilko.One could just hole up in a hotel and watch them all day long.Come to thing of it it I may just do that.

    1. I'll admit it sounds better than watching CNN and local soap operas all day long, which I've been known to do on foreign business trips.

  3. I had forgotten that Jason King stuck his pipe in his boot [ Cuban heels, presumably]. I suspect he also stuck a selection of drill-heads for his Black&Decker in there as well. And some sand paper to smooth out the edges. When out-of-character he probably strode around Brighton in a full DIY Accessories Belt. I wish I had not been reminded of this incident because the physical consequences were dire.

    1. Peter Wyngarde (i.e. Jason King) was known in acting circles as "Petunia Winegum", and had a ten-year relationshiop with Alan Bates. I was tickled to learn that he is still with us, aged 87, and did a voice-over for a BBC Timeshift TV programme on Sherlock Holmes last year.

      You may enjoy this sketch from an old Harry Enfield show - the pipe is evidently a homage to Wyngarde:

  4. Wow guy, when you get it wrong, you reeeaallly get it wrong. The best fight scene in the entire series, goes to Tara King in the optics factory in " My Wildest Dream" Didn't look "staged" as many of Emma's did. Nuff said

  5. Couldn't disagree more with you about " Tara King". She definitely needed a better costume designer ( except in " My Wildest Dream.....she was " hot" in the optics factory fight scene). She definitely needed a better hairdresser too. Her eyes, however, were the first thing that drew me to her. She was my favorite, perhaps because she was a true " underdog" but she never carried herself that way; making me love her even more.