May 2nd 2020

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Gearing up to ditch free-trade policy

EDITORIAL Post-covid19, create a national development bank

CANBERRA OBSERVED Keelty water report misses the point on water shortage

ENERGY Pandemic has exposed our overreliance on imports

CARDINAL PELL Locating the golden thread

CARDINAL PELL High Court practically shouts 'not guilty'

FAMILY Dismantling myths around family tax benefits

REFLECTION Covid19 and the Church past, present and future

OBITUARY R.I.P. Bruce Dawe: poet of the people

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Doctors of WHO let the covid19 dogs out

INDUSTRY POLICY The rise and fall of Australian manufacturing and covid19

ASIAN AFFAIRS Politics done by stealth in the UN: China and the WHO

HUMOUR Get them hug-dealers off the streets

MUSIC Farewell to an Aussie jazz legend: Don Burrows

LOCKDOWN TV CLASSIC Unique, unsurpassed: The Avengers





NATIONAL AFFAIRS Crucial to get Virgin Australia flying again

Books promotion page

Unique, unsurpassed: The Avengers

by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, May 2, 2020

With the recent death of Honor Blackman at the ripe old age of 94, it seems a fitting time to discuss one of the most magnificent things to ever appear on the small screen – The Avengers.

Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman

The Avengers revolves around the adventures of the very English John Steed – played by the very English, if slightly rakish, Patrick Macnee – a secret agent for an unnamed government department with seemingly no formally defined role or superiors, who solves problems for the government with the aid of a bevy of beautiful assistants. Or at least, that’s how the show went.

It began with Ian Hendry, a friend of Macnee’s, who was a rising star. He’d finished up the very popular Police Surgeon after only one season, but the station brought him back in a slightly different role in The Avengers as Dr David Keel, a medical doctor investigating his fiancée’s murder.

He is assisted by the shadowy Steed and the two become partners. Hendry was the real star to begin with, but he left for a career on the big screen, and so Steed was repositioned as the lead.

At first, the new series tried giving Steed a variety of partners, but they ended up homing in one: Honor Blackman as Dr Catherine Gale, an anthropologist widowed in the Mau Mau uprising, with a talent for judo and a taste for leather attire. The leather was a practical decision, as much as anything else, as it tended not to tear during fight scenes.

The character of Steed also evolved from the shadowy spook to the urbane and genteel man about town. Inspired by his racehorse trainer father and the idealised Edwardian gentleman, Macnee was given free reign to completely craft the character. He did so with gusto, even having his suits made on Savile Row to his own design, and adopting the image we now know as Steed, with his three-piece suits, bowler hat, Chelsea boots and whangee-handled umbrella.

As for the performance, later actors who worked with Macnee said there was none – he really was John Steed, a consummate gentleman who you knew had an interesting past, but who’d never be so indelicate as to bring it up.

With Cathy Gale, not only was a template created for future partners, but a TV revolution. The Avengers gets the credit for not only the first female action lead but one where the woman is the equal, and in some ways the superior, of her male partner. Gale was tough, resourceful and independent.

When Blackman left the series to star as one of the greatest Bond girls, one of the few who can outmatch 007, Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, a replacement was needed. This replacement needed to have Man Appeal, and so Emma Peel – a deliberately punny name – came into being.

Diana Rigg starred as Mrs Peel, a chemist/inventor, industrialist heiress and entrepreneur in her own right, an adventurer whose husband disappeared flying over the Amazon. With her the series became increasingly surreal and fantastical, with diabolical masterminds and bizarre schemes aplenty, and it was shot on 35mm film, making it visually stunning.

Mrs Peel was a catsuit-wearing style setter, a counterpoint to Steed’s old-fashioned charm by being just as charming, but much more resolutely modern with computers and technology aplenty.

When Diana Rigg left – also to star as a Bond girl, the only one Bond marries – she was replaced by Linda Thorson as Tara King, in a touching handing over of the role. King is the first professional, but since she’s much younger than Steed the relationship dynamic is quite different, and the tone changes.

The Avengers didn’t go for the gritty cynicism of Callan or the serious thoughtfulness of Danger Man – although it probably influenced Patrick McGoohan’s surreal spy sequel, The Prisoner. It was also a counterpoint to the violence and bluntness of Bond. Not for The Avengers the overt philandering of 007, or the nasty violence of Fleming’s books. Macnee had seen friends killed in the war and he didn’t want to play that game; and, like a true gentleman, he preferred not broadcast the exact nature of his relationships.

Instead, the whole thing is almost like an elaborate game, a bit of sophisticated fun for the well informed. Rather than take aim at the Cold War or lament the realities of espionage, it gives them their due, accepts their reality and their necessity, and moves on. It is patriotic and principled, suggesting a way of being, a way of manliness and womanliness, that is provocatively apolitical, but surprisingly profound, based on good manners and good sense.

Central to the series’ genius is this understated but clear-sighted charm, one it promotes as the proper way to be, and one well worth having.

Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).

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