Remembering a Spy Called Steed

Last week on June 25th, 2015 another fine English chap died after a long and interesting life. Best known for his role as John Steed in the TV show The Avengers, Patrick Macnee became the embodiment of the perfect English gentlemen, suave and debonair, but capable of cool and calm action when the situation called for it.

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Born in London, England on February 6th, 1922, Macnee’s early life is rather a colorful story. His parents divorced after his mother began to identify as a lesbian and began to live with her wealthy partner, whom Macnee referred to in his autobiography as “Uncle Evelyn.” She paid for the Macnee’s education, first at Summerfields preparatory school, where Christopher Lee, who died two weeks ago, was an exact contemporary. They acted together in a production of Shakespeare’s Henry V; Lee remembered being “comprehensively outclassed” by Macnee. He later attended the prestigious Eton College, where he was a member of the Officer Training Corps and was one of the guard of honor for King George V at St George’s Chapel in 1936. He was later expelled from Eton for selling pornography and running gambling circles for his fellow students.

Macnee studied acting at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, but shortly before he was to perform in his first West End leading role, which would have had him acting alongside Vivien Leigh, he was called up for the United Kingdom Armed Forces. He joined the Royal Navy as an ordinary seaman in 1942 and was commissioned a sub-lieutenant in 1943, becoming a navigator on Motor Torpedo Boats in the English Channel and North Sea. He caught bronchitis just before D-Day; while he was recuperating in hospital, his boat and crew were lost in action. He left the Navy in 1946 as a lieutenant.

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Dr. David Keel and Steed investigate in a much darker version of “The Avengers.”

Macnee achieved fame with the role of John Steed in British TV show The Avengers (1961−69), and became an icon of 1960’s campiness and decadence, but the role of Steed did not start this way. Originally known as Jonathan Steed, the character was a supporting role rather than a lead during the show’s first season. The series was originally conceived as a vehicle for Ian Hendry, who played the lead role of Dr. David Keel, a man seeking to “avenge” the murder of his wife and uncovering numerous dire and clandestine plots with his investigations into her death. Steed was a mysterious “agent” who assisted Keel in his quest for the truth, but Hendry left the show, and the second season of The Avengers took a very different direction and a huge paradigm shift into the camp spy thriller that made it so popular.

With the second season of The Avengers, Steed may have become the central lynchpin character of the show, but the crucial element in the show’s success was the decision to pair him with Cathy Gale, a strong female lead played by Honor Blackman. Gale in her leather catsuit and high-heeled boots, tackled the majority of the gunplay and judo moves; Macnee made the decision that Steed should not carry a gun. He later claimed that he was sick of firearms after “a war in which I’d seen most of my friends blown to pieces.” However, the Internet Movie Firearms Database lists seven instances where Steed uses a firearm, all in the original series. Macnee was also instrumental in developing Steed’s uniform of suit, bowler hat and umbrella—an outfit which even in the 1960s was becoming anachronistic—to contrast with Blackman’s trendy get-up.

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Cathy Gale was Steed’s partner from 1962 to 1964, and was replaced in 1965 by Emma Peel, the most famous of Steed’s female co-detectives, played by Diana Rigg.

Rigg AvengersThe name of the character derived from a comment by writers, during development, that they wanted a character with “man appeal.” In an early attempt to incorporate this concept into the character’s name, she was called “Samantha Peel” shortened to the awkward “Mantha Peel”. Eventually the writers began referring to the idea by the verbal shorthand “M. Appeal” which gave rise to the character’s ultimate name. Emma Peel, whose husband went missing while flying over the Amazon, retained the self-assuredness of Gale, combined with superior fighting skills, intelligence, and a contemporary fashion sense. During this era of the show science fiction and fantasy elements (a style later known as spy-fi) also begin to emerge in stories. The duo encounters killer robots (“The Cybernauts”), telepaths (“Too Many Christmas Trees”) and giant alien carnivorous plants (“The Man-Eater of Surrey Green”).

When Diana Rigg left the series in October 1967, the British network executives decided that the current series formula, despite resulting in popular success, could not be pursued further. Thus they decided that a “return to realism” was appropriate for the sixth series (1968–69). Brian Clemens and Albert Fennel were replaced by John Bryce, producer of most of the Cathy Gale-era episodes.

Avengers Tara King

Bryce had a difficult situation in hand. He had to find a replacement for Diana Rigg and shoot the first seven episodes of the new series, which were supposed to be shipped to America together with the last eight Emma Peel color episodes. Bryce signed his then-girlfriend, 20-year-old newcomer Linda Thorson, as the new female costar and chose the name “Tara King” for her character. Thorson played the role with more innocence in mind and at heart; and unlike the previous partnerships with Cathy and Emma, the writers allowed subtle hints of romance to blossom between Steed and King. King also differed from Steed’s previous partners in that she was a fully fledged (albeit initially inexperienced) agent working for Steed’s organisation; his previous partners had all been (in the words of the prologue used for American broadcasts of the first Rigg series) talented amateurs.

The revised series continued to be broadcast in America. The episodes with Linda Thorson as King proved to be highly rated in Europe and the UK. In the United States however, the ABC network that carried the series chose to air it opposite the number one show in the country at the time, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. Steed and King could not compete, and the show was cancelled in the US. Without this vital commercial backing, production could not continue in Britain either, and the series ended in May 1969. The final scene of the final episode (“Bizarre”) has Steed and King, champagne glasses in hand, accidentally launching themselves into orbit aboard a rocket, as Mother (Steed’s boss) breaks the fourth wall and says to the audience, “They’ll be back!” before adding in shock, “They’re unchaperoned up there!”

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Seven years later John Steed returned to the TV screen with The New Avengers (1976–77), in which he was teamed with agents named Purdey (Joanna Lumley) and Mike Gambit (Gareth Hunt). As he did for most of the original series, Steed is once again acting without a direct superior – in many ways his character takes on the duties of “Mother” from the Tara King era of the 1960s series. Steed is seen as the mentor to Gambit and Purdey, taking on a paternal role towards them (especially in the episode “Hostage”). Gambit is the athletic action hero, while Purdey incorporates the wit and fighting skills of her predecessors. The verbal interplay between Gambit and Purdey, with her humorously keeping his romantic advances at bay, harks back to the Steed/Gale era of the original Avengers.

The show ran for two seasons, but financial problems continued and plans for a third series were abandoned. Subsequently, however, strong sales to many countries – notably CBS in the United States – saw two attempts to revive the show (in 1979 and 1980), though co-financing arrangements proved impossible to agree upon.

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In 1998, Ralph Fiennes played the role of John Steed in the feature film release of The Avengers, with Uma Thurman playing the part of Emma Peel. The film was panned by critics. The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 5% of critics gave the film positive reviews, based on 82 reviews. Metacritic reported the film had an average score of 12 out of 100, based on 19 reviews. The purists disliked it for its disrespect to the original series (particularly the introduction of a romance between Steed and Peel — a carefully ambiguous subject in the series). Newcomers were lost by all of the misfired attempts to capture the mood of the original.

Old MacneePart of the reason that Fiennes was unable to replicate the charm of Steed is the inescapable fact that Steed is essentially Patrick Macnee! Macnee was allowed the freedom to develop the character back in 1962 and infused much of his own personality and idiosyncrasies into what would become the iconic role of the elegant yet decadent gentlemen maintaining his anachronistic element of style against the backdrop of the colorful 1960’s. Given the science fiction elements of The Avengers coupled with Steed’s Edwardian styles, the show actually carries its own strain of retro-futurism making Steed the original anachro-dandy chap of them all. The passing of Patrick Macnee at the aged of 93 is sad occasion for many fans, but his legacy of John Steed, the mischievous gentleman spy will live on in legend.


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