You might make a fair case that six is a little young to start watching the adventures of John Steed, top professional, and Mrs. Emma Peel, talented amateur. On the other hand, there are a hundred-odd episodes of this show to see, and I want to watch them again, along with my boy.
You might also make a fair case that we could have not only waited a little, but also started with the earlier, less well-known episodes, instead of going with the ones that Americans know best. That’s fair. Generally, I don’t enjoy the second and third seasons quite as much, despite some great moments. My favorite episode of the entire show is a Tara King one, but my second favorite is “Brief For Murder,” from season three. But we have so many things to watch and so little time, and so I passed on picking up the first two sets from Studiocanal / Optimum last year. I think I made the right choice; as soon as I got the sets of the film series from Amazon UK, one of the many missing installments of the first series, “Tunnel of Fear,” was found. Maybe when I have a little more disposable cash, and somebody issues “Tunnel” on a new box set, I’ll buy that edition!
Anyway, The Avengers was made by the Associated British Corporation, one of the many different commercial television companies in the UK. ABC broadcast in one of Britain’s TV regions from 1956-68 before merging with Associated Rediffusion and becoming Thames TV. Many of these companies were looking for international sales and ABC approached the American networks with The Avengers, which was made, as most British TV programs were at the time, as a mix of videotape interiors and black-and-white 16mm film exteriors. They got some positive interest, but were also told that they really needed to make the program entirely on 35mm film if anybody in America was going to buy it.
Every TV company in Britain was told this. Very, very few listened. Associated British, in one of the greatest television decisions of the decade, decided to go all-in. They were in the process of recasting and rethinking anyway, as Honor Blackman, who played Steed’s principal co-star Cathy Gale – there were three others as well – had left the series, and they needed a new actress with M-Appeal, somebody who looked stunning in black leather fighting evil henchmen twice her size. Elizabeth Shepherd originally won the role of Emma Peel, but after several weeks of filming, having completed “The Town of No Return” and most of a second episode, the producers agreed that she was not right for the role after all. Diana Rigg became the new Emma Peel, and she was rushed in for retakes of the second episode. “Town” was left abandoned for several months, remounted midway through the block of 26 stories, and chosen to launch The Avengers‘ fourth season, in September 1965.
I should pause here and note that The Avengers has one of the most confusing and remarkable production histories of any TV drama from its era. The current school of thought is that the correct order for the series should be the original production order, as the various British TV broadcasters showed the series in different orders, on different days of the week, and the American order was different still. But this is my silly blog and we’re going to watch them in the order that I got to know them, which is the broadcast order… until we get to the arrival of Tara King and things got real weird, anyway.
And yes, there is an American order! It doesn’t matter all that much for now, because the black-and-white Avengers was made for British television and sold to the ABC network later, but its sale is super-important. The Avengers was not quite an all-conquering ratings giant like we’d like to imagine it was, but ABC bought it as a midseason replacement for the medical series Ben Casey, which was cancelled after five years. ABC also picked up ITC’s The Baron as a replacement for Burke’s Law at the same time, so in 1965 there was definitely some financial interest in looking overseas for programming that was less expensive than making new shows in Hollywood.
This seems to have been started by CBS, who jumped on the sixties spy bandwagon by purchasing ITC’s Danger Man and giving it the new name of Secret Agent, and would continue here and there for the next six years or so, with The Saint, Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased), The Champions, The Persuaders! and other British dramas all showing up in the prime-time schedules, usually programmed against something that was going to win the night no matter its competition, but The Avengers lasted longer on American television than any of the others. US broadcasts began with the third episode of season four, “The Cybernauts,” on March 28 1966. “The Town of No Return” didn’t screen here until September; it was the last of 21 episodes (five weren’t shown), while the first of 26 in the UK.
I’ve written a lot and didn’t leave myself much time to talk about the episode. Our son, happily, enjoyed it, especially the fight scenes. I paused with each commercial break to ask him a few questions to keep him focused. Where did he think all of the people are? Why are the village schoolchildren all on vacation in the middle of the year? This wasn’t a very complicated story, and a good one to start on. It has a pretty small cast of very recognizable faces, including Patrick Newell (later to play a regular character in this show), Juliet Harmer (who would soon play the sidekick in Adam Adamant Lives!), Alan MacNaughtan (The Sandbaggers), and Terence Alexander (a regular guest star face in darn near every British show from the period). The director was Roy Ward Baker, and the story was written by Brian Clemens, who we’ll hear a lot about as this blog goes on. But a thousand words is plenty for now. We’ll see another episode next week.