The appeal of The Avengers’ stylish, lascivious vision of Britishness

The appeal of The Avengers’ stylish, lascivious vision of Britishness

Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.

“The strange thing about the English character is that they understate everything. It’s considered bad form to comment on the food, money, romance, any of those things. So you underplay it.” —Patrick Macnee, The Avengers: The Inside Story

The British Invasion didn’t begin and end with The Beatles, or even with the hordes of fabulously attired young rockers who trailed behind. At a time when the United States was seeing ideological disagreements and generation gaps become increasingly bitter and violent—provoking a “grass is greener” complex on a national scale—the mania for all things U.K. spread quickly from pop music to cinema, art, and fashion. In the mid-’60s, America became practically besotted with the English, evidently impressed by how the public faces of Great Britain seemed comfortable with contradictions—holding dry wit and art-school absurdity in equal esteem, and allowing reserved clothing and mod gear to coexist with minimal mutual affront.

By the time The Avengers debuted in the States in 1966, the show had been airing in the U.K. for five years, and was already a phenomenon overseas. In 1960, Sydney Newman created the flop dramatic series Police Surgeon, starring Ian Hendry as a doctor who keeps getting drawn into criminal intrigue. In 1961, Newman and Hendry modified the concept, casting Hendry as a more ordinary doc named David Keel, who joins forces with secret agent John Steed when Keel’s fiancée is killed by gangsters. Shot live-to-tape, The Avengers relied heavily on the interplay between the dashing, earnest Hendry and his co-star Patrick Macnee, who played Steed as “the lascivious dandy… the whimsical but efficient killer on behalf of his country.” (That’s according to Newman, in Macnee’s memoir, The Avengers: The Inside Story.) Hendry left The Avengers after the first series, replaced by a rotating cast of partners for Steed in the second series, until Honor Blackman’s leather-suited, judo-kicking Cathy Gale captured the public’s imagination, and became Macnee’s official co-star. In its third series—which aired in 1963 and ’64, at the dawn of the “Swinging London” era—The Avengers came into its own, with more tongue-in-cheek humor, more outlandish world-domination plots, and more contrast between the vigorously youthful Mrs. Gale and the bowler-hatted, umbrella-sporting Steed.

Just before The Avengers switched from tape to film—hand-in-hand with its pickup by the ABC network in the U.S.—Blackman quit the show to play Pussy Galore opposite Sean Connery’s James Bond in Goldfinger. Enter Diana Rigg as Emma Peel (a play on “m. appeal,” with the “m” meaning “man”). Rigg had a lot to live up to, given Blackman’s popularity, but Mrs. Peel quickly became another fan favorite, and the episode “Death At Bargain Prices” is a major reason why.

Originally broadcast in the U.K. on October 21, 1965 (and in the U.S. on April 11, 1966), “Death At Bargain Prices” arrived early in The Avengers’ fourth series, after the show had taken a full year off, first in preparation for a movie that never happened, and then to find a replacement for Blackman, and to adjust to shooting on film. Director Charles Crichton—best-known for helming a handful of classic Ealing Studios comedies, and later in life co-writing and directing the John Cleese classic A Fish Called Wanda—is quoted in Macnee’s memoir as saying that he fell in love with shooting The Avengers on film, and put Macnee and Rigg through their paces, forcing them to hit exact marks so he could play around with zoom lenses and cockeyed angles. Crichton’s exactitude paid off. If nothing else, “Death At Bargain Prices” is strikingly stylish for an hourlong television episode, beginning with its atmospheric opening shots of an empty department store festooned with giant inflatable Bugs Bunnys and Yogi Bears.

The scene-setting comes to an end when an agent named Moran gets killed in Pinter’s department store, after stumbling onto a meeting he wasn’t supposed to see. So Steed invites Peel to meet him at Pinter’s, and gives her an assignment to go undercover as an employee and find out what’s going on with the new owners, who seem to be running the store into the ground. Meanwhile, Steed, posing as an efficiency expert, follows the leads Peel feeds him, finding out what’s in the head of Pinter’s new honcho: the wheelchair-bound Horatio “King” Kane, currently consigned to “the department of discontinued lines.” It turns out that Kane and his henchmen have abducted a nuclear physicist and have instructed him to convert the entire building into a nuclear bomb, designed to go off when any customer takes an elevator to the basement to buy a washing machine.

Kane is the very model of the “talking killer,” who reveals more than he should because, in his own words, “I’m proud of my scheme! I want them to know!” But Kane’s conversations with Steed are also quintessential Avengers, because they’re about the vanishing way of life Kane is trying to preserve through violent threat. “A man can possess a Michelangelo and still appreciate a Picasso,” Kane says, by way of acknowledging that not everything modern is awful. But he also says this while praising the solidly well-built products of British industry’s past, and decrying the cheap plastic crap of this new age. The King would rather be surrounded by old-fashioned motorcars than inflatable Yogi Bears.

Visually, Steed and Peel represent the two sides of that same divide, but they don’t behave as such. Steed raises the occasional eyebrow at Peel’s fashionable duds, or at the giant eyeball she uses for a peephole on her front door, but he trusts her implicitly. And as with the Macnee/Blackman chemistry, the interplay between Macnee and Rigg was central to The Avengers’ success. Steed and Peel were flinty and flirty, often teasing each other about their quirks. Writer Brian Clemens—the major creative voice on The Avengers—integrates that friction into the script for “Death At Bargain Prices,” parceling out plot details while the two stars spar. Often, what’s most memorable about “Death At Bargain Prices” isn’t the way the heroes piece together Kane’s plot, but rather the way Steed browses for bowlers—telling a clerk, “I’d like 12 of these, on account!”—and the way Steed and Peel share information while playing with marionettes that look like little versions of themselves. (Beneath their tiny hat and wig, the puppets are actually Colonel Steve Zodiac and Doctor Venus from Gerry Anderson’s Fireball XL5 marionette adventure show.) 

“Death At Bargain Prices” takes place almost entirely at Pinter’s, on a set wholly constructed on a soundstage, relying on editing and camera movement to make it look like a huge, multi-story store. Clemens gives Crichton plenty to work with by transferring Peel to different departments from act to act, necessitating a change in scenery and costume. While working in the toy department, Mrs. Peel dons her own version of the superheroine-like leather catsuit that Cathy Gale so often wore, thus giving Rigg her iconic look. And while Peel is working in the lingerie department, Steed delivers one of the most famous lines in Avengers history to her: “I asked the chief predator where to find you and he said, ‘Our Mrs. Peel is in ladies’ underwear.’ I rattled up the stairs three at a time.” In that same scene, Steed sneaks a peak at Peel’s cleavage, before she peevishly covers up her plunging neckline.

Innuendo and outright fetishization were major parts of The Avengers from the early going, as the writers and Macnee had fun with the idea of the ordinary-looking Steed as some kind of incorrigible rake. In “Death At Bargain Prices,” for example, while investigating the theft of cheese and honeyed bumblebees, Steed shamelessly hits on Pinter’s pretty grocer, ordering ingredients for a meal that he then offers to cook for her, “without the half an onion” (if you know what he means). And just before the final battle, Peel gets bound and gagged and rolled up in a rug, while still wearing her foxy leather suit.

In The Avengers: The Inside Story, Macnee is unapologetic about the way his show so often played up its sex angle, by placing its women in what could easily pass as S&M gear.

“I’m the first to admit it—I was a very kinky man. If you come from a public school background, you grow up with the association of pain and off-beat-type approaches to sex. So consequently I was brought up in that range. I was brought up surrounded by a lot of strange women, and this made me the ideal man to make a series with these women, because nothing they did surprised me. The most important aspect of the way I played Steed was in reaction, not action.”

Steed and Blackman even went so far as to record a novelty song, “Kinky Boots,” about the dominatrix outfits Cathy Gale wore:

But the secret to The Avengers’ ribaldry was that it isn’t just about sex: It’s also about power. Gale and Peel didn’t just flummox men with their beauty; they also had brilliant minds, and they kicked gents’ posteriors, routinely. Fairly early in The Avengers’ run, Macnee asked that Steed cut back on gunplay, and instead use more unconventional weaponry, including blades in his bumbershoot and weights in his cap. His sidekicks followed suit, frequently relying on physical strength and agility to get themselves out of jams, all while showing a cocky fearlessness. The big fight at the end of “Death At Bargain Prices” is a case in point: Peel distracts a gun-wielding thug with jazzy snapping, then kicks his weapon out of his hand, effectively emasculating him. Steed, meanwhile, pelts his adversaries with ping-pong balls, and parries a carving knife with a cricket bat.

The heroes ultimately stop the giant TNT plunger that is the Pinter’s elevator before it can descend into detonation, then ride off against a rear-projection backdrop, on bicycles they’ve liberated from the store’s stock, considering the bikes apt payment for the job. In the larger universe of The Avengers, though, Steed and his partners’ work was never done. They even encountered familiar villainous faces week to week, as the same actors took on different roles. Some Avengers fans have dubbed these characters “doppelgängers,” and though there was no thematic intent behind the repetition—most long-running TV shows in the ’60s re-used actors—it did add to the overall sense of an ongoing fight between the same set of squares and the decidedly cooler good guys.

Yet The Avengers wasn’t opposed to tradition, either. There’s a scene in “Death At Bargain Prices” where Peel rants that the Pinter’s staff has mislabeled the china, and throughout the episode, Steed and Peel seem generally appalled at the Kane regime’s sloppiness when it comes to running a classy retail operation in fashionable downtown London. Their consternation speaks to a culture where service, efficiency, and forbearance all have value. That’s also what was so particularly compelling about Steed as a character: He was iconically English, but modern.

In his memoir, Macnee describes the feeling of inventing Steed from nothing:

“The script for ‘Hot Snow,’ the first episode in December 1960, said: ‘Keel is about to push the bell button when the door is flung open. Steed stands there.’ Just that, nothing else. No description. Nothing. So I just made him up. … He was never a character in literature, like Bulldog Drummond, Simon Templar or James Bond, or a persona somebody else had first created in another medium. Steed was never written down. ‘Steed stands there.’ And I was the man.”

Macnee became Steed by switching on a dime from quip to deadly strike, like a less macho but no less manly James Bond. And judging by the breeziness of Macnee’s memoir, the writers also captured something essential about the actor by giving Steed such a blithe, “okay by me” air.

Clemens, Crichton, and the rest of the crew had a lot to do with building the environment around Steed. “Death At Bargain Prices” is prop- and set-dressing-heavy, but all to a purpose. Whether Mrs. Peel is hiding in the fake underbrush of Pinters’ camping display….

… or Steed is hiding out among bowler-clad mannequins….

… the episode emphasizes both the artificiality of this world and how well Steed and Peel can adapt to it. They’re part of a larger mechanism, both inside the department store—which at various times functions like a computer, a lair, and a bomb, as well as a place of business—and outside of it, where they serve the crown.

Television, movies, comic books, and bookstores were all spy-crazy in the ’60s, but it was an era of high camp as well, which meant that for every stab at finely shaded psychological realism, there was a bit of nose-thumbing—until for a while, there seemed to be more of the latter than the former in popular culture, to the point where all that was left was to spoof spoofs. The Avengers had a sense of its own ridiculousness, but in a way, the show was a lot like The Beatles: smart and accessible, while also experimental and loveably goofy. In fact, when the Avengers stars won a 1963 Variety Club Of Great Britain Award, they shared the dais with The Beatles, which says something about how important both were to defining the country’s culture at that time. In the U.S., ABC played up The Avengers’ camp elements, giving each episode a silly, suggestive subtitle. (For “Death At Bargain Prices,” the subtitle is “Steed Fights In Ladies’ Underwear; Emma Tries ‘Feinting.’”) But while The Avengers had plenty of American fans, it couldn’t surpass the viewership of the more serious-minded Mission: Impossible, which beat The Avengers both times the latter was nominated for an Emmy for Best Dramatic Series (just as M:I’s Barbara Bain beat Diana Rigg for Best Actress, two years running).

Granted, The Avengers’ vision of Britishness, while rooted in some truths about the national character, was pure fantasy. But it’s an attractive fantasy: this land where the heroes are tasteful yet fashionable, reserved yet lascivious, demure yet effective. Of late, the U.K. has embraced the World War II-era poster “Keep Calm And Carry On” as a motto, but the citizenry could just as easily seize on the last thing Emma Peel said to John Steed in her final Avengers appearance: “Always keep your bowler on in times of stress, and a watchful eye open for diabolical masterminds.”


Next time on A Very Special Episode: The Six Million Dollar Man, “The Return Of Bigfoot”

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