Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Avengers, The

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UK tv series (1961-1969). ABC. Pr John Bryce, Brian Clemens, Albert Fennell, Leonard White, Julian Wintle. Exec pr Fennell, Gordon L T Scott, Wintle. Dir Robert Asher, Ray Austen, Bill Bain, Roy Baker, Charles Crichton, Robert Day, Peter DuFell, Gordon Flemyng, Cyril Frankel, Robert Fuest, Richmond Harding, Sidney Hayers, James Hill, John Hough, Roger Jenkins, Quentin Lawrence, Don Leaver, John Moxey, Leslie Norman, Gerry O'Hara, Cliff Owen, Peter Scott, Don Sharp, Peter Sykes. Writers Geoffrey Bellman, Clemens, Terence Dicks, Terence Feely, Malcolm Hulke, James Mitchell, Terry Nation, Dennis Spooner, John Whitney, Martin Woodhouse and many others. Created by Sydney Newman, Leonard White. Novelizations The Avengers * (1963) by Douglas Enefer; The Avengers: Deadline * (1965) and The Avengers: Dead Duck * (1966) both by Patrick Macnee and Peter Leslie; The Avengers #1: The Floating Game * (1967), #2: The Laugh Was on Lazarus * (1967), #3: The Passing of Gloria Munday * (1967) and #4 * (1967), all four by John Garforth, #5: The Afrit Affair * (1968), #6: The Drowned Queen * (1968) and #7: The Gold Bomb (1968), all three by Keith Laumer, #8: The Magnetic Man * (1968) and #9: Moon Express * (1969), both by Norman Daniels; The Saga of Happy Valley * (1980) by Geoff Barlow (an unauthorized but tolerated novel, with names changed to Steade and Peale); John Steed – An Authorized Biography: Volume 1, Jealous in Honour * (1977) by Tim Heald (first volume of an immediately aborted series); Chapeau Melon et Bottes de Cuir * (graph 1990 France) by Alain Carrazé and Jean-Luc Putheaud; Too Many Targets * (1993) by John Peel and Dave Rogers; The New Avengers #1: House of Cards * (1976) by Peter Cave, #2: The Eagle's Nest * (1976) by John Carter, #3: To Catch a Rat * (1976) by Walter Harris, #4: Fighting Men * (1977) by Justin Cartwright, #5: Last of the Cybernauts * (1977) by Cave and #6: Hostage * (1977) by Cave. Starring Honor Blackman (Cathy [Catherine] Gale), Ian Hendry (Dr David Keel), Gareth Hunt (Mike Gambit), Joanna Lumley (Purdey), Patrick Macnee (John [Jonathan] Steed), Patrick Newell (Mother), Diana Rigg (Emma Peel), Julie Stevens (Venus Smith), Linda Thorson (Tara King). 161 50min episodes in 6 seasons (season 1 26 episodes, season 2 26 episodes, season 3 26 episodes, season 4 26 episodes, season 5 25 episodes, season 6 32 episodes) plus 26 50min episodes of The New Avengers. B/w (seasons 1-4) and colour (seasons 5-6 and The New Avengers).

One of the most successful tv fantasy series of all time, this had its origins in the perfectly mundane crime series Police Surgeon (1960), which starred Ian Hendry as police surgeon cum detective Dr David Keel. The first series of TA was a direct continuation of this but with the format altered: episodes were now 50 mins long (as opposed to Police Surgeon's 25min episodes) and a new character was introduced: secret agent John Steed. With Steed came the first whiff of fantasy and, when Hendry left, Macnee took over as the central character, being given an attractive – but deadly – female sidekick in the shape of widow Cathy Gale. (In a few early episodes Gale was one of two alternating sidekicks, the other being Venus Smith.) Gale departed at the end of season 3 and was replaced by Emma Peel, another widow. Season 6 – the last season of TA proper – saw the replacement of Peel (her husband had been discovered miraculously alive) by Tara King, a far younger woman than her predecessors, and not a widow. This change in nature of Steed's sidekick destroyed an integral part of TA's appeal – that the sidekick was a female who was in no way subservient to Steed – and the show finished. A revival was attempted in 1976-1977 with the UK/Canadian/French coproduction The New Avengers (pr Clemens and Fennell), with Macnee effectively backstaged – he was now in his mid-50s – to look on paternally as a younger duo, Purdey and Mike Gambit, performed most of the action. It would be tempting to say that the revival failed because TA was a product of the 1960s ill suited to the 1970s, but this is belied by the continuing popularity of repeat screenings of the earlier series. The truth is that TA's success – both critically and popularly – relied on four factors: its imaginative Surrealism (i.e., its fantasy); the style of Steed; the style of Gale and later, most especially, Peel; and the frisson of sexuality attached to the relationship between Steed and, in succession, these two highly independent women. Once any one of these qualities was removed, the rest foundered.

It is, therefore, reasonable to divide TA's history into four parts: the pre-Gale years, which have no real fantasy interest; the Gale Years; the Peel years; and afterwards. It is no coincidence that the Peel years saw TA's greatest popularity – when "Avengers" outfits, in imitation of Peel's, were manufactured and eagerly bought – for this was the period when the show's fantasy was at its height.

Increasingly during the Gale years the plots became more fantasticated – even surreal. Often the fantasy involved was the kind of Technofantasy that had been made popular by the James Bond movies and the tv series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968): there is an evil conspiracy to destroy the British Way of Life, if not the world, using some implausible and despicable scientific device. This trend reached its peak during the Peel years. But the fantasy involved not just the plotting: far more impressive – again, especially during the Peel years – was the ambience, for TA became a series that was no longer set in the real world, and quite often stressed the artificiality of the locale where its events were taking place (e.g., by using overt stage flats in place of real buildings). In this Otherworld there was no general population – merely characters important in some way to the plot – no grime, no bloodshed (indeed, no real violence), and in the end no one who was not as upper-crust as Steed and Peel themselves. In such a milieu it seemed by no means preposterous that anything and everything could happen to the plot – and generally did: one's disbelief had already been suspended.

The final series of TA never achieved this. Because of the balance of seniority/juniority between the characters of Steed and King, their relationship had inevitably to become a real one rather than the fantasy of that between Steed and Peel. This umbilicus to the real world led to a shattering of the illusion. A new character, Mother (Patrick Newell), Steed's improbably fat, wheelchair-bound boss, was introduced in an effort to recapture some sense of unlikelihood, but giving the mysterious organization for which Steel worked any face at all solidified what had been best left misty. Some desperate plotting attempts were made to fantasticate events as compensation for the loss of fantasticated environment (e.g., a briefing with Mother might be, for no conceivable reason, in a mini-submarine beneath the Thames), but such effects – which might have appeared reasonable in earlier years – now seemed just silly. Although TA was still doing moderately well in the ratings, it was wisely decided to let it close. [JG]

further reading: The Complete Avengers * (1989; exp vt The Ultimate Avengers 1995) by Dave Rogers; The Avengers Program Guide * (1994) by Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping.

see also: Adam Adamant Lives! (1966-1967).


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.