It’s one of my earliest memories from childhood; sitting with my parents in the little living room of whichever RAF home we were in then, waiting for our favourite programme to start. A little flickering screen in the corner. And then that music, Laurie Johnson’s strident theme, the brass section blasting out four notes which seemed to quite literally trumpet the programme’s title. The Avengers! The Avengeeeeers! Then the black and white credit sequence, cutting edge cool in the 1960s. And finally the episode itself, a delicious slice of surreal cold-war spy fluff as John Steed and Emma Peel took on the villains in their own spectacular style. These days of course, the same title conjures up images of brawny superheroes clad in latex and blessed with underwhelming ‘special’ powers, but in those far off times, it meant something quite different.
There had of course been an earlier series with Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, but I don’t really remember that as clearly. The second series is imprinted so perfectly in my memory, that even now, more than fifty years later, I can recall entire scenes, even lines of the witty dialogue. I know that I was absolutely besotted with Diana Rigg who seemed to me the very epitome of feminine mystique – lithe, pretty, intelligent and powerful enough to fell a villain with one perfectly timed karate chop (even if, in long shot, you could sometimes see that she had been cunningly substituted by a burly bloke clad in an ill-fitting leather jumpsuit.) And of course, I saw all the later incarnations. I never really warmed to Linda Thorson as Tara King, but I did like Joanna Lumley as Purdey in The New Avengers, almost as much as I despised Gareth Hunt as the perpetually smirking ‘bit-of-rough’ Mike Gambit.
Through it all, Patrick MacNee’s John Steed remained unchanged, suave, stylish, outfitted in Saville Row’s finest suiting, his trademark bowler hat in place and his deadly weapon (an umbrella) poised ready to take out the toughest opponent. (Apparently, the umbrella was McNee’s idea. He’d been a naval officer in the war and had emerged from the experience with an intense dislike of violence of any kind, so much so, that he steadfastly refused to be pictured with a gun. ‘I’ll carry an umbrella,’ he suggested at an early script meeting and everyone went along with that. It was an inspired idea.)
Of course, the problem with a successful show like The Avengers was the danger that it might typecast the stars. Rigg had no problem escaping its clutches, becoming a major star of the theatre, but McNee didn’t manage much else but some forgettable television and an occasional film cameo; a shady psychiatrist in Joe Dante’s The Howling, a delightful turn as Sir Dennis Eaton-Hogg in This Is Spinal Tap, even a decent showing in a Bond film, opposite Roger Moore in A View To A Kill. But John Steed would remain his signature role, as much a fantasy image perhaps as those created by his female co-stars. In real life, you suspected, you’d actually hate someone like John Steed. With his Gentlemen’s Clubs, his impeccable manners and his old style courtesy, he was, even in the swinging 60s, something of a dinosaur – but MacNee’s charming manner made you believe that underneath it all he was a really nice chap, that should you bump into him in real life, he’d be every bit as charming as his fictional counterpart.
It’s always a jolt when you read that one of your earliest heroes has died. MacNee was 93 years of age, which by any standards is (as Steed himself might have observed) a jolly good innings. Back in the day, we tended to sneer at television shows. It’s only recently that TV has had something of a renaissance and we wax euphoric about the likes of Breaking Bad and True Detective. But The Avengers was an example of television at its most groundbreaking. Re-watching that opening credit sequence on YouTube still gives me the same thrill I had when I was a little boy. And if Patrick MacNee will always be John Steed in the nation’s memory, well that’s no bad thing. Because in his own way, he was one of the greats.