Patrick MacNee died this week, aged 93.
I grew up with two groups of Avengers. There were the comics group – Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Scarlet Witch, Mantis, The Vision – who are now part of some of the most successful movies ever. Then there was the British spy TV series The Avengers, featuring Patrick MacNee as John Steed. I was never quite sure what either team was supposed to be avenging, but I loved them both.
The Avengers TV series was a product of the 1960s. It started out as a fairly serious spy series featuring Ian Hendry as Dr. David Keel, and MacNee as John Steed, a mysterious stranger who draws him into the world of international espionage. Hendry was replaced with Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, a leather catsuit wearing emancipated woman with a mysterious past who could kick ass, and acted as Steed’s partner and equal in their activities. Blackman passed the torch to Diana Rigg as Mrs. Emma Peel. The series shifted in tone, becoming more lighthearted and stylish. Steed adopted the garb of a city gent, tailored suits and a bowler hat. Emma wore fashions straight from Carnaby St as the two waltzed through matters of national security, drinking champagne and trading witticisms with wry lop-sided smiles. The hardcore cold war spy motifs softened, replaced with more science fiction elements, and the whole thing became just a little bit psychedelic – giant hypno-discs, robots and lava lamp lighting in mysterious labs. Like the decade, you can see the influences of feminism and psychedelia weave their way into the series.
We made paper machier models of people at school when I was 7, from a washing liquid bottle with a scrunched up newspaper ball for a head. I added a cardboard ring to mine and painted his head black like a bowler hat so he could be Steed. (And my brother made Mike Gambit.) In my early teens, my family used to love watching Last of the Summer Wine, a comedy show about three old guys dicking around in rural Yorkshire. There was the pompous one, the filthy one and the other one and… yeah. The Avengers were on BBC 2 at the same time, so I’d go through to the unheated room where the spare TV was in Scottish winter and get my fill of this cool, stylish, trippy, slightly kinky other world.
I wasn’t the only one.
Joss Whedon and Warren Ellis were probably fans. I imagine that Melinda May in Agents of SHIELD, and Jakita Wagner in Planetary owe rather a lot to Emma Peel.
Chris Claremont is a dyed-in-the-wool Avengers fan. There’s an episode of The Avengers featuring a modern incarnation of the Hellfire Club, where Emma Peel gets crowned queen, and appears in corset, knickers and boots. The X-Men villains the Hellfire Club, and their White Queen, Emma Frost came straight from that episode. I bought a comic featuring Emma Frost yesterday – their legacy’s alive and kicking.
Grant Morrison‘s definitely a fan – he created a six part “Steed and Mrs Peel” miniseries with 2000AD artist Ian Gibson, which did a great job of capturing the effortless charm of the titular heroes and their strange world. Gibson did a fantastic job of capturing MacNee’s likeness while still looking like an Ian Gibson drawing – MacNee’s a cartoonist’s dream with his jowly cheeks, prominent chin, dimpled smile and amused sideways liddy stare. Mark Waid’s recently picked up the baton with this one, and the series is going again.
The Avengers was a lot of fun, but looking back it was something more. Emma Peel was a sex symbol, but also a feminist icon. Steed was James Bond without being a dick. Go and watch some Mad Men to remind yourself of the state of gender politics at the time. Then consider that Steed’s female partners were never portrayed as anything other than equals in the show. They weren’t love interests (although there was a certain amount of innuendo suggested that they slept together). They didn’t need rescuing. They held their own in fights, they got their share of the wisecracks. They’re doing better than many shows made today, 50 years on.
The series was revived in the 1970s as The New Avengers, with MacNee teamed up with Purdey (Joanna Lumley) and Mike Gambit (Gareth Hunt) a younger slightly rougher guy to act as a foil to Steed’s ageing gentlemen character. This ran for two seasons, and continued the very British science fiction/spy vibe from the heyday of the Emma Peel episodes.
Both of the original partners played Bond girls. Honor Blackman played Pussy Galore in Goldfinger. Diana Rigg played Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the only woman to marry James Bond (and then get shot). This movie also featured Joanna Lumley as one of the villain’s plague carrier pawns. However, the Avengers series has launched some stellar careers for its stars. Lumley went on to star in the awesome sci-fi-on-the-cheap TV series Sapphire and Steel, before re-inventing herself as a comedian via a Ruby Wax special which lead to Absolutely Fabulous with Jennifer Saunders. Diana Rigg has played a huge variety of roles, and is currently appearing in Game of Thrones as Olenna Tyrell.
I had to have a go at drawing them. I’ve opted for a style similar to my Universe Gun psychedelic style, but with solid blacks and finer pen work. I’ve done a few “fake life drawings” recently, where I Google an image and then draw it using pencil and paper in front of the computer. Here I wanted to give my interpretation of the characters. The figures are pencilled from scratch, with the faces drawn first out of my head and then photos used for reference on head shape, features etc. It’s less exact than copying a photograph, but a better learning exercise.
Patrick MacNee, I raise a poncy glass of champagne to you in your passing. You left the world of fiction a much better place.
See you in seven, you suave Saville Row Suit-wearing super-spies! Dr Mike 2000, 27 June 2015