The Return of Steed
Last updated : 9th December 1996
Back to the New Avengers intro page
Although the original 1960's series The Avengers is already supported by several WWW sites (see Credits) I thought I would start with a brief outline of this series' final years to provide a little background to The New Avengers.
As is well known, The Avengers' mix of witty scripts, outrageous plots, megalomaniac characters, high production values and, of course, the eternally-popular characters of John Steed, Cathy Gale, Emma Peel and Tara King proved a spectacular international success, with perhaps only the American show Man from UNCLE coming close. The sheer quality applied to The Avengers saw the programme easily outshine the often humdrum offerings from Lew Grade's ITC. The nearest this 'competition' got was probably with The Champions which although quite enjoyable lacked much of the humour and budget(!) of contemporary Avengers episodes.
Like ITC, though, TV station ABC (later to become Thames Television) who funded The Avengers wanted to break into the lucrative American market. Whilst this had always been a goal for ITC often using American actors in lead parts in an attempt to lure US viewers the Grade company never really cracked it. The Avengers, however, easily achieved popularity in the States mainly because the last thing the production team wanted were shades of Americana the Avengers was to remain a through-and-through British show. This staunch Anglocentricity is, I suspect, one of the reasons why Americans watched it perhaps curious to view the batty British way of life. The show was so popular that it became the first Brit programme to be rewarded a primetime slot in the US.
The American TV company ABC (no relation to the UK company) were happy to inject considerable funds into the show this led it to move into colour and all-round production values were increased. However, in effect, the programme became dependant on the American support. This eventually led to its downfall.
Diana Rigg's Emma Peel was a national status symbol (and another kind of symbol, of course!) and when she decided to leave after the first colour season, things were never going to be the same again. She had found filming the show very physically demanding (often working over twelve hours a day) and was uncomfortable with the public attention. Of course the production team and, initially, Patrick Macnee begged her to stay, but she had made up her mind.
At the end of filming of the colour series, the producers decided to take a long break to find a replacement for Diana. To compound problems, however, Thames Television had expressed concern over the direction the latest series had taken. They pointed out how extreme the show had become, in terms of surrealism. My own feelings are that the show had also started to become rather formulaic many episodes seemed to involve a scientist creating some cunning new weapon and using it to wipe out enemies or competitors. The Avengers would then step in and find themselves subjected to the weapon though they always escaped, of course!
Arguments between Thames and series producers Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell led to their dismissal with John Bryce brought in to replace them. Quite why he agreed to cast Linda Thorson, a 21-year-old Canadian with no professional acting experience whatsoever, is something that has never been fully explained. Filming of the sixth season began under Bryce and soon ran into difficulties his lack of knowledge of that precise, magical Avengers formula meant two aborted episodes before Clemens and Fennell were humbly invited back. Though Clemens was aghast at the choice of Thorson, it was a decision he was stuck with as there was simply no time to recast.
Out with the Old...
And it would seem that Linda was one of the reasons that this was to be the final Avengers season. UK and US reception of the new character was, shall we say, mixed. It was also felt that the overall quality of the stories was slipping, too. Certainly much of the subtlety in the wit was replaced by rather laboured 'comedy'. Ratings declined and due to unfortunate programme scheduling in the US The Avengers found itself battling against the hugely popular Rowan and Martins Laugh-In. Even back then the US television industry was all about ratings and American ABC soon informed Thames Television that they would not be seeking further Avengers episodes after the current run of 33.
I think a lot of what has been said about the final season of The Avengers is quite unfair and/or inaccurate. It is true that the attempts at comedic banter were often unwelcome but many of the stories themselves held up very well against (and in some cases exceeded) those from Diana Rigg's seasons. As to Linda Thorson, she has come in for much flak over the years. Considering her lack of experience at the time, I think that once settled in, she did amazingly well. I suspect people are too quick to compare her character to that of her 'irreplaceable' predecessor. In fact it was the studio's wish that she should be dissimilar to Mrs Peel. And remember that no actress, with however much experience, would find The Avengers an easy production. Which is, of course, why Diana had left!
With American financial support gone and Thames unable to provide additional funds it was soon announced that the Avengers would cease. But a special extra scene was shot for the final episode 'Bizarre' in which Steed and Tara accidently launch themselves into space in a home-made rocket. Their boss, Mother, is left on the ground to announce, rather optimistically, "They'll be back".
From Studio to Stage
But it wasn't to be at least, not for some time. In 1971 actor Leslie Philips directed a stage version of the show. Patrick Macnee was asked to revive his role but turned it down, considering The Avengers as unsuitable for a stage production. Simon Oates (best known for his role as Dr John Ridge in the BBC's apocalytic Doomwatch) took on the part of Steed with Sue Lloyd as his partner Hannah Wilde.The story, written by Brian Clemens and Terence Feely, concerned one Madame Gerda (Kate O'Mara) and her gang of leather-clad female students who use their Giant Computer Brian to invent a method of rendering them invisible while they infiltrate the country's spy network. Hardly original, eh? The lavish detail of the show which included the use of a helicopter and Bentley car led to numerous production and prop problems. Indeed the show folded after six weeks. Most agreed it was just too ambitious for its own good.
Whatever the English and Americans had thought of Linda Thorson, the French obviously loved her as the show was repeated in France over and over (and still is today, by the way). In 1975 this led to French TV producer Rudolf Roffi acquiring the services of her and Pat Macnee to make a TV commercial for Laurent Perrier champagne. Roffi, it seems, had been a fan of the show and asked Pat whether he would consider another series. Pat expressed his view that although undoubtably popular, a remake could never recapture the special qualities of the original. Roffi went away....
.... and approached Brian Clemens who explained that although he would like to do another series, he just couldn't get the financial backing for it. Roffi went away....
.... and barely a fortnight later contacted Clemens again with a deal worth £2 million. This sudden, amazing offer spurred Clemens into action and within just three months he and Albert Fennell teamed up with Avengers musician Laurie Johnson to form Avengers (Film & TV) Enterprises Ltd. This was the first independant television company in the UK. In association with the Parisian IDTV plans were drawn up to bring John Steed back to television in 26 new 50-minute episodes under the title The New Avengers. Although £2million was a huge amount of money to spend on a TV series in 1976 it would actually cost nearer £4.5 million!
But of course, this all depended on Patrick Macnee's agreement. Without him the show had no future, according to Clemens. Quite right, too! Despite this being the New Avengers, Clemens understandably felt it should acknowledge its roots. After examining a few proposed scripts Patrick, thankfully, changed his mind and declared his enthusiasm for the project.
One fundamental change with the new show was that the Avengers would now be a threesome. During auditions held in late January 1976, actor Gareth Hunt was chosen to take the part of Mike Gambit. It has often been argued that there should never have been a third member. But Clemens felt that there should be a younger man to do Steed's "legwork" as Patrick Macnee was obviously older now (in fact during the final two Avengers seasons an all too obvious stunt double was regularly used in his place.) and was now apparently suffering slight arthritis in his knees.
The most difficult part of forming any Avengers series had always been that of finding the right female player. Hundreds of actresses applied for the much-coveted role before, after some screentests and much deliberation, Clemens and Fennell plumped for Joanna Lumley, though Clemens subsequently admitted that he had wanted Joanna right from the start, after meeting her on the set of the Vincent Price horror film The Abominable Doctor Phibes several years earlier. There seems to be contradiction here: Joanna has stated on more than one occasion that although she was not only desperate to get the part and always firmly believed she was the right choice, she never believed the producers would actually opt for her - "I really had to fight just to get an audition they just refused to see me!". It's now universally agreed that she was exactly the right choice! Originally her character was to be known as Charley, but as there was a perfume of the same name on the market at the time, an alternative was sought. Joanna herself came up with 'Purdey' - after the world-renowned shotgun.
At the time neither Lumley nor Hunt were particularly well-known. Joanna was a 29-year-old ex-model who had had a miniscule 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 and the occasional appearance on the excruciating gameshow Call My Bluff. 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' of 1974 and as Frederick the footman in the final season of Upstairs Downstairs. Gareth once said that he was surprised to have been awarded the Avengers role: "Actors like Patrick Mower were in with a very good chance." If it is true that Mower applied for the part, then I must admit that I'm surprised he didn't win it. With all respect to Gareth, "heart-throb" Mower was an established actor at the time and very popular with female viewers, so seemed like a natural choice. Yet according to documents recently released by Brian Clemens, Mower doesn't appear to have even had an audition.
As a matter of interest here is a list of the other actors and actresses who were given strong consideration for the respective roles: Tommy Boyle, Ian Charleson, Lewis Collins, Sara Douglas, Gabrielle Drake, Michael Elphick, Jan Francis, Prunella Gee, Lisa Harrow, Jan Harvey, Louise Jameson, Barbara Kellerman, Rula Lenska, John Nettles, Diane Quick, Carolyn Seymour, Malcolm Stoddard and Diana Weston. Many fans of the old series would, of course, loved to have seen either Honor Blackman or Diana Rigg return to the show. However Brian Clemens considered both of them to be too old. And it's very doubtful that Diana would have wanted to reprise her role, anyway.
As the younger stars were expected to handle all the rough-and-tumble, both Joanna and Gareth were put through gruelling physical training exercises prior to filming to get them fit. In traditional Avengers style the girl was to develop an efficient, nimble fighting technique. In Joanna'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 old series, the stars themselves did the action shots. Both Jo and Gareth were seen to do much of their own stuntwork, with only the really heavy stuff (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. It was refreshing to see that, this time round, even when doubles were used, it was very difficult to tell! Yet Patrick seemed bemused by the young pair's enthusiasm for the rough stuff, teasing Gareth "dear boy, the biggest stunt I do is get in and out of the car!"
The other immediately noticeable change was that of the show's title theme. Although opening with the familiar bouncy drums and brass chords from the old series, this soon gave way to a more modern-sounding, punchy, military-like beat with orchestration. The result was a very catchy (perhaps quasi-disco?) theme. Although not to all tastes, being very "seventies", much of the incidental themes Laurie Johnson composed for the show were equally memorable, too, capturing the quirkiness and/or dynamism of the on-screen situations.
New Avengers, new format
Alongside the fact that there were now three players, Brian Clemens decided to make changes to the format of the actual stories. 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. I suspect that this is one of the biggest problems for fans of the old series who felt alienated by the new show. Yet, as we shall see, the New Avengers still retained a lot of the magical elements that had made its ancestor so popular. In fact, in my own opinion, the humour much of it made from witty one-liners or banter between Gambit and Purdey was much more successful this time round, if a little corny occasionally. And by continuing in the tradition of the best episodes of the original series, the audience still didn't quite know who Steed and co were actually working for.
In the January of 1976 work was just about to commence on writing scripts. As Clemens and Albert Fennell were pretty much in sole charge at the time, they issued a document detailing precise guidelines on how stories should work (though, in fact, it was Clemens himself who would write most of the episodes veterans Dennis Spooner and Terence Feely were the other main contributors) and how the show should be filmed. They wanted stories with pace and good use of outdoor locations (early Avengers stories had been pretty much studio-bound). In terms of actual filming, episodes were to have crisp, sharp editing (to reinforce the impression of paciness) and absolute minimum use of extras. There was a suggestion that although Steed should remain as before, it would be interesting to explore his character further.
One of the biggest talking points about the Blackman and Rigg episodes had been the women's clothes. As is well-known, both these characters had shown a preference for leather gear though as this proved impractical later seasons had adopted mini-skirts and designer tops. This time round the lack of any innovative fashions was perhaps a disappointment. Although Joanna Lumley often wore some very attractive outfits (many of which were quite out of character for the 1970's!) and Steed retained his familiar Edwardian garb, Gambit was usually blighted with regulation brown flared suits. The New Avengers was never going to do much for the catwalks unlike its predecessor. One of the problems was that designer Catherine Buckley had been employed to design Purdey's clothes but just didn't have the resources to come up with four new outfits a week. All this was of concern to the French backers and we'll come back to this issue.
In previous seasons of The Avengers, Steed's female partners each had their own individual characteristics and personalities. Joanna Lumley's Purdey was an amalgamation of the best elements of her predecessors. Her character had the sophistication of Cathy Gale; allure, athleticism, humour and venom of Emma Peel, yet also the softness, vulnerability and feminity of Tara King. Basically Purdey was an incredible creation and one which Joanna settled into from episode one well done, Jo!
The original idea was that Purdey was actually Steed's niece, though this was dropped at the early scriptwriting stages.
Gambit, on the other hand, remained much of a mystery to the audience. Before joining Steed and Purdey he 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 times!) furnishings. A very tough but usually quiet man, Gambit enjoyed a good rapport with Steed and even more so with Purdey whom he fancied! But there was something unfathomable about Gambit, something deeper that the viewer couldn't quite penetrate.
On the other hand it could be argued that his character was rather curtailed in order to allow that of Purdey's more 'breathing space'.
As one would expect, Steed remained pretty much as before though had mellowed and become much less jocular (in fact the wittiest lines were usually given to Purdey and Gambit). Although usually assuming seniority to the other two and delegating tasks to them, he resepected and appreciated their skills and treated them as equal to himself.
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 beautiful hand-made sports Jaguar replete with flared (what else?!) wheel-arches and finished in British Racing Green. A truly gorgeous machine (but, in practice, a real brute to drive, as Pat and the production team soon discovered!) capable of nearly 200mph.
As Brian Clemens desired to uphold a British flavour, he had approached car giant British Leyland which, at the time, was controlling many of Britain's greatest motoring names: Jaguar, Rover, Triumph, MG, Austin, Morris, Wolseley to name a few. Another superb creation (on paper, at least) due for imminent launch was the Rover SD1 and BL were keen to lend Avengers Film & TV a pre-production model for Steed's use.
Gambit also owned a Range Rover but was more often seen in his sporting Jaguar XJS perhaps because it was easier to do handbrake turns in this?! (Both vehicles are still in production today, albeit in slightly different forms). Purdey also enjoyed sports cars and initially used an MGB but later switched to a Triumph TR7.
As most UK readers will know, British Leyland's reign had a devastating effect on all its 'children' companies and low morale and stupid in-fighting within the conglomerate often led to shoddy build and poor reliability. The Rover SD1 was a prime example of this (in fact even when this model came to the end of its run in 1986, Rover still hadn't got it sorted out!) and the Avengers team found that the one loaned to them often broke down, hence its very few appearances in the show. Similar problems also afflicted Gambit's Jaguar XJS and, in fact, there were two Jags used for filming each acting as a 'back-up' for the other!
Mad monks and neo-Nazis
Filming commenced in the April of 1976 with the sensational 'Eagle's Nest' which concerned a group of neo-Nazis posing as monks on a remote Scottish island with a plan to revive Hitler. This was classic Avengers material megalomaniacs, eccentric characters, strange locations, tongue-in-cheek humour, and a special guest star (Peter Cushing in this case). This was also the first to be transmitted in the October of 1976. Most critics agreed that this opener was just as good as the original show and were, ironically, relieved that little seemed to have changed.
However, right from the start there were problems. Firstly, 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 at either 7-30, 8-00 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 resulted in The New Avengers never achieving the ratings it deserved.
There were also huge problems within the production company itself. IDTV and Avengers Film & TV seemed 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 (and correct, I believe) in upholding a firmly British flavour.
I suspect these arguments led to the French witholding some funds. Some people (both performers and staff) have claimed over the years they never got paid for the some of the work they did on the show. Brian Clemens once memorably described the French backers as "a load of crooks...I'd love them to sue me for saying that they owe me a lot of money". He claims to have lost £70,000 a terrific amount in 1976. One immediately noticable effect of the lack of finance was that the idea of having a famous guest star in each episode was soon dropped!
Steed steps back?
On top of all this Pat Macnee felt that he was being rather pushed into the background as far as the scripts went. Personally I don't believe this is the case. Naturally Pat's screen-time would be reduced as there were now three players instead of two but I still feel his role was substantial even if he didn't always get to do the "meaty" stuff Steed was often seen delegating this to Gambit. But if you watch 'Eagle's Nest' you'll see that he actually gets more screen-time than Gareth. Fortunately, however Pat felt, there was no animosity between himself and Gareth and it seems all three all got on very well and indeed remain friends to this day. Had it not been for this friendship, it would seem that Pat would have walked out. Pat discuseed his feelings with Brian Clemens and changes were made to later scripts to beef up Steed's role. Pat was, for the moment, happy.
Despite all the tension, thirteen episodes were produced for the first season and, on the whole, were excellent. 'Last of the Cybernauts...?' featured a third outing for the metal monsters from the old series. This time, however, the concept was advanced further with a man (played by Robert Lang) given cybernetic limbs to replace ones he had lost during a previous encounter with our heroes. Now with his terrifying strength he was determined to avenge himself!
Other highlights of the first season included 'Target' in which a training ground for agents used target dummies which fired back! Although normally armed merely with ink, enemy agent Draker (an intense but dry performance from Keith Barron) decides to sabotage the course using Curare-dipped pellets.
'Faces' was a clever, though perhaps a little too far-fetched, story concerning government agents being replaced by doppelgangers recruited from a sanctuary for down-and-outs.
'Sleeper' was a rare foray into 'street-level crime' for the Avengers. A new form of sleeping gas is stolen and dispersed over London. While the City helplessly sleeps the gang go on a bank-busting spree.
The final first-season story was 'Dirtier by the Dozen' which saw a terrific performance by John Castle as a mad commando leader deciding to lead his bored men into a war which they themselves have started.
The first season did have a couple of duffers, though. 'To Catch a Rat' saw Ian Hendry return to the Avengers after fifteen years, though not as Dr Keel. The episode concerned a man pursuing double-agent 'White Rat' and was disappointing because it could have been written for any 'secret agent' series, really.
'Gnaws' was a blatant stab at the movies with a scientist accidently dropping a growth serum down the sink. You can imagine the rest... One of the few episodes that did not work as an Avengers story.
Overall, though, the series was welcomed by the critics and perhaps did better in this respect than Brian Clemens had dared hope. 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. The two overseas companies demanded several episodes should be made in their own countries. Clemens was very reluctant to agree to this but, on reflection, I suppose it was only fair after all the series was being heavily financed with French and Canadian money. At least that was the agreement... Arguments over style and content the French wanted more glamour, sexuality and violence while Clemens and the cast (quite rightly) did not saw the well of francs rapidly dry up. According to Pat Macnee, Rudolf Roffi the man with the money actually disappeared at one point and was never see again! One concession to the French was that later episodes saw Purdey donning Parisian clothing designs. Bright and colourful, as one would expect, the success of these really depended on individual taste. I quite like them.
As far as the viewers were concerned, however, the biggest apparent change this time round was the loss of a lot of the humour exhibited in the first season. Episodes were usually darker, less light-hearted and the show leaned more heavily towards straight espionage, losing much 'Avengersness'. Despite all this the second season still managed to produce a few excellent stories. 'Dead Men are Dangerous' was a most psychological episode as a traitor (played with just the right amount of menace by Clive Revill) Steed had badly wounded years before returns to England to systematically destroy Steed's being. Brian Clemens has cited this segment as being his favourite. (Mind you, he wrote it!)
'Angels of Death' concerned a health farm frequented by top Government and Military personnel. However the 'treatment' the nurses (the 'Angels') provide is actually a form of subliminal brainwashing which, when triggered later, causes the victim to go mad and die apparently of natural causes.
Although 'Obsession' was not one of the better stories a plot concerning Purdey's ex-fiance attempting to destroy the Houses of Parliament using a hijacked rocket: again, not really an Avengers story it is interesting to see the pairing of actors Martin Shaw and Lewis Collins who, of course, went on to Clemens' next project, the hugely popular Professionals. Towards the end of this segment Collins' Kilner character says to Shaw's Larry Doomer "Maybe we should work together again sometime a good team" In fact this was a co-incidence: although plans for The Professionals were in hand by then, at the time Clemens was aiming on teaming up Jon Finch and Anthony Andrews.
'Obsession' was the final England-based episode. 'The Lion and the Unicorn' saw the series move to France. Despite a promising opening a stunning car chase (originally made by Avengers Film & TV as a promotional film for the Rover SD1) followed by a humorous interrogation of a renowned French assassin, the story rather fizzled out during the second half. 'K is for Kill' comprised two episodes, the first containing some unused footage of Diana Rigg in a flashback scene. The story concerned Russian soldiers planted in France years before being 'activated' by a rogue satellite signal. On waking they automatically assume a World War has started and begin attacking out-of-date targets. The plot itself is quite engaging, though struggled to fill two episodes.
Finally came the four "disastrous" (Brian Clemens' term he hates them!) Canadian stories. Clemens no longer had control over the series and was forced to use Canadian directors, production staff and support actors.
On reflection I feel that three of the four weren't as bad as Clemens makes out. In some cases what we did see was an injection of the humour that had been largely absent from the second season.
Starting with 'Complex', what at first seemed a very routine story involving the threesome trying to discover the identity of a highly dangerous Russian agent, turned out to be anything but! A similar concept was later used in an episode of The X-Files
'Gladiators' found the Avengers on the trail of a KGB agent who was recruiting international muscle-men to enhance their strength and fighting skills with the eventual plan to smash Canada's security system literally bare-handed. Quite violent at times, this was, nevertheless, an entertaining story.
'Forward Base' is, in my opinion, the best of the four. In typical old-Avengers style the opening scenario is of a fisherman in Lake Ontario when suddenly the little boat becomes grounded on a piece of land that wasn't there before! Years later he is cycling across the same stretch when just as suddenly he finds himself up to his neck in water the ground having vanished again! Add to that much humour that had been absent from the second season and this story was certainly superior to much of teh second season....
... But this was followed up by what is surely the worst ever Avengers story. 'Emily' begins quite promisingly but quickly degenerates into one long car-chase across Canada and includes some very corny scenes. Just dreadful, really, and all the more surprising as it was written by Avengers veteran Dennis Spooner.
'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 awarded 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.
But the show proved more of a success in America, it seems. In 1978 TV producer Quinn Martin (The Fugitive, The Invaders) approached Clemens with a request to write a US-based New Avengers pilot story, with the intention of creating a series. Keen to keep the Avengers alive in some form or another, Clemens quickly came up with 'Escapade Avengers USA' . But this version did not include Lumley, Hunt or even Macnee!?! Instead American performers Granville Van Dusen (who he?!) and Morgan Fairchild took on similar roles to that of Steed and Purdey. On top of this, I suspect the Americans must have tinkered around with the story quite a bit as what ended up on the television screen was, according to Dave Rogers, a lot of bed-hopping and an unimaginitive story involving a computer with a supercillious personality and security secrets being sold off to enemy agents. Doesn't sound like the sort of material Clemens would have written. Thankfully, perhaps, the project never got beyond the pilot both Clemens and Martin agreed that it just didn't have the right magic Avengers mix.
So sadly that was it. There have been several attempts over the years to produce further Avengers/New Avengers series, but none of these have ever come to fruition. During filming of the 'Clemens-less' Canadian stories, London Weekend Television approached him and Fennell to ask them to come up with something to rival Thames Television's spectacular police series The Sweeney. Within mere weeks The Professionals was in production. This hard-hitting action series was initially intended to be a grittier, more realistic version of The New Avengers, though soon revealed itself to be quite a different affair altogether. Gareth Hunt recalls being considered for one of the lead roles but filming for the show had to start while The New Avengers was still shooting in Canada. By 1979 the worldwide success of this new show led LWT to offer part-funding for a third run of The New Avengers. Despite the failure of the Quinn Martin effort, there was still interest within American company CBS. Jo, Gareth and, surprisingly, Pat all expressed their happiness to return to the show. Clemens had to find further financial backers but I suspect that given the cost and lack of outright success of the previous episodes there were no other interested parties. A new series, therefore, failed to appear.
In 1980 he tried again but this time with a film in mind (there had been a few abortive attempts to make an Avengers film in the sixties). Disturbingly although Pat Macnee and Gareth Hunt were confirmed as having roles, Joanna Lumley was dropped from the idea and a new female partnew was being sought. Whether she had simply not wanted to be part of it, I don't know but will endeavour to find out. In the meantime I wonder if this is further evidence to back Joanna's claims that Clemens had been very reluctant to use her in the TV series? Anyway the film itself (scripted by Clemens and long-time Avengers associate Dennis Spooner) was to be called 'The First Avengers Movie'. Obviously the hope was to produce further films! The plot opened with an aircraft making a normal landing on an airfield, but when the ground crew open the plane's doors they find the pilots bodies have been picked to skeletons! As ever, financial problems led to the project being abandoned before it ever got before the cameras.
The next attempt to revive the format was in 1985 when Clemens struck a deal with the American Taft Entertainment Group to create a new TV series. This time, however, he ajudged that the show would have a better chance if it returned to the something akin to the format of the Diana Rigg era. At the time many of her episodes were being screened across the States and the UK and proving popular. Amazing, then, that the proposed new series (which would still retain Pat Macnee) was rewarded little interest from other American TV stations. The deal fell through.
But even to this day, perhaps partly due to the fact that television has become so bland, interest continues in reviving the series. In 1988 a story began to circulate that Avengers fan Mel Gibson was considering an offer made to him by American TV producer Jerry Weintraub (who had also acquired the rights to the original Avengers) to take on the role of Steed. However Gibson (himself an Avengers fan) immediately turned the role down, stating that the only person suited to the part was Pat Macnee. Weintraub Entertainment went bust soon after, anyway. Note that Brian Clemens (or any of the Avengers 'old guard') had had no part in this project and had certainly not given it his approval.
Sadly so much time has been allowed to pass that Macnee is now certainly too old to play Steed. Even Clemens, who still wishes to bring the show back, agrees that he would have to recast the part. The latest, much publicised, news is that an American film version is in pre-production with Ralph Fiennes and Nicole Kidman snapping up the highly-coveted roles. Popular UK actor Sean Bean was another contender for a while, but my vote falls to Pierce Brosnan! This was Pat Macnee's choice too, as it happens! As for a new Mrs Peel..... how about Liz Hurley? Is she a good enough actress, though?
After The New Avengers
Once filming of the Canadian episodes had completed, the three actors soon went their separate ways. Pat Macnee returned to his home in Palm Springs, California (where he still lives today). Over the years he has appeared in numerous films and TV shows. Notable appearances include Michael Sloan's 1983 revival of The Man from UNCLE where Pat replaced the late Leo G Carroll as Solo and Kuryakin's boss. (Sloan has been one of a number of people to express interest in remaking The Avengers.) In 1985 Pat starred in Roger Moore's final James Bond film, A View to a Kill. Today he remains very active in American television, his most enjoyable role coming in 1984 with the lead in the Dallas-spoof Empire. As regards to The New Avengers, Pat does seem to have been a little inconsistent over the years. As discussed earlier, he had expressed his keenness to make another season in 1979, but since then has had little positive to say about the show.
Joanna Lumley went on to star in the popular weird sci-fi series Sapphire and Steel (1979 to 1982) alongside David McCallum. Like many actors, Jo provides much support for various charities and this led her to co-present the BBC's annual Children in Need for several years. Television roles continued throughout the 1980's, though usually low-key. In 1993 Jennifer Saunders asked her to star in her new sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. Right from the start this was a huge success with Jo playing Patsy Stone, an eternally-enebriated, domineering and shallow 'fashion advisor'.
Unfortunately Gareth Hunt has had a much more difficult time. He seems to be chiefly remembered for his series of coffee commercials from the early 1980's and, indeed, TV appearances are extremely rare, though he has secured several minor film roles in the years since The New Avengers. He did return to TV in 1993 with the dire sitcom Side by Side in which he played a builder. He has now left acting, hopefully only temporarily, to pursue business interests.
But the Avengers connections continued. In 1994 the small company Video Gems released several episodes of the show. To celebrate this Jo and Gareth teamed up for a small press conference and were interviewed together on the moronic Big Breakfast. It was hinted at that the two might get together again in further adventures as Purdey and Gambit but, as usual, whatever plans were made came to nothing. However, according to Dave Rogers, a film script was written more details on this when I get them. Sadly Video Gems only managed to release eight episodes before going bust in April 1996. French company Lumiere took up the reins and released a further four before being taken over and having their video operations shut down.
Throughout the years most of the ITV stations have played reruns of the show (often edited-down) at roughly five-year intervals. But it did not achieve a network showing until it switched to the BBC in 1995 where, with the strange exception of 'Obsession', the Beeb thankfully opted to show full-length episodes. Joanna commented that this was the first time she had received any repeat fees! The Beeb showings proved quite popular, attracting an audience of around 2 million. By coincidence Channel 4 Television were rerunning the colour Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson episodes at the same time, though these were gaining just 1.5 million on average.
Success or failure?
Talk to most fans of the old Avengers series and they usually say that The New Avengers wasn't a patch on its forebear. In fact some of the 'old guard' try to pretend the New series never existed! Unfortunately this is exacerbated by Pat Macnee who, it seems, doesn't have a good word to say about the show particularly the second season which, to him, seemed to be trying to emulate Starsky and Hutch. Hmmmm..... not sure where he gets that impression from. Look again at 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'. I would challenge anyone to deny these stories uphold many of the elements from the old series and would have thought older fans would have delighted in these stories. The biggest problem the 'old' fans have seems to be that of Gambit for them the third character somehow 'upsets the balance'. I can understand this but not actually agree with it (does that make sense?!). I think this added an extra facet to the format in terms of the relationship the characters share. Now whilst Purdey and Gambit's feelings towards one another were quite obvious (and sometimes cornily handled, admittedly), what of the relationship between Purdey and Steed? And Gambit and Steed? Similar to the sixties series, these elements were never fully explored and left for the viewers to decide.
It is certainly true (as discussed earlier) that some episodes were pretty lousy ('To Catch a Rat', 'Gnaws', 'Trap' and the execrable 'Emily') but even the sixties show had plenty of duffers, so, putting it in to context, I don't think the New show did at all badly in this respect. Comments, please, to..... Dave Matthews
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