Tuesday, January 3, 2012

THE AVENGERS (Ground-breaking cult TV of the 60s pt 2)

“The Avengers” is an outstanding ABC* spy-fi (spy fiction with elements of science fiction) adventure series starring Patrick Macnee (1922 – present) as the impeccably stylish secret agent John Steed, and Dame Diana Rigg (1938 – present) as the fearless and independent-minded Emma Peel. The show ran from 1961 – 1969 and was filmed in black and white until 1967, when colour was introduced to marvelous effect. Rigg played Peel from 1965 – 1968, after Honor Blackman, who played Catherine Gale, left the show.

Peel is the epitome of femininity; intelligent, elegant, and beautiful, all while fighting off enemy spies so she can complete a friendly game of chess with Steed. Her classic Lotus Elan sports car and leather cat suits embody the ideal of an emancipated modern woman.

Steed is the quintessential British upper-class gentleman-spy: he wears a smart suit (designed by Pierre Cardin), carries a concealed sword in his umbrella, and has a custom metal bowler hat (for fighting, of course). Suave, sophisticated, full of gadgets and witty one-liners, Steed is televisions version of James Bond, minus the regular visits to the STD clinic. Steed and Peel never kiss but occasionally flirt. They complement each other perfectly as they fight international espionage plots and still have time left over to pop open a vintage bottle of champagne at the end of each episode.

The playful Mod clothing and extraordinary set design establish the unique visual character of the series. Framed photographs of eyes on walls, round-shaped brightly coloured furniture, and big-buttoned A-line jackets blend with walking bass lines and beatnik drums to create a collage of the swinging 60s. Peels dynamic and bold-coloured Mod garb was designed by Alun Hughes.

The titles of the episodes are as whimsical as the show, spoofing titles of films and television shows. For example: “The Girl from AUNTIE” spoofs of spy-fi show, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” “Mission Highly Improbable” lampoons secret agent show “Mission Impossible,” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station” parody’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” 1966 film comedy with Buster Keaton in his last film appearance).

“The Joker” (season 5 episode 15, 1967)

In which Steed trumps an ace –

And Emma plays a lone card

Pendergast, a criminal whom Peel had sent to jail, has devised a scheme to lure her to an isolated mansion in the countryside. She arrives at the Victorian-Gothic style manor expecting to spend the weekend playing bridge, but instead finds Ola, a menacing young woman who tells her that the host has been delayed and will arrive later. The mansion is reminiscent of those found in Hammer horror films (a la Vincent Price) with its wood paneling, antique furniture, and candelabras. The eight-foot tall playing cards throughout the dinning room and one as a revolving door on top of the staircase break the horror film spell and become absurdist. After Ola leaves to “care for a sick friend,” Peel can tell she isn’t alone in the house when the card door keeps revolving.

Far be it for Peel to be intimidated. A stranger appears at the door asking to use the phone instead he takes his knife out and asks, “How would you like me to tuck you in (to bed)?” She twists his arm and says, “How would you like me to break your arm?” as she kicks him out the door.

The attention to detail in the application of colour in this episode is dazzling. Peels Chinese red silk pajamas make her shoulder-length auburn hair radiate. The tablecloth and the wall paper in the dinning room are the same shade of red as hearts on the cards and the roses Pentergast leaves around the house for Peel to find. Ola wears a sweater which is the identical blue to that of the candles and the clothing on the cards.
The gramophone record which Pentergast plays repeatedly in order to taunt Peel is a German song called, “Mein Liebling, Mein Rose.” The producers could have gone through the trouble to find someone who could sing it with proper German grammar and without the fake accent. The correct title should have been, “Mein Liebing, Meine Rose.” There were a few parts in the song which had flawed grammar.

“The Avengers” has classic wit and charisma which makes it addictive. The chemistry between Steed and Peel clicks perfectly. Peel pioneered the role of strong female characters. In the mid-sixties, it was unprecedented to have a woman who could fight (and win) her own battles. Female roles were weak and mousy; they often were victims who would get kidnapped by just grabbing their wrists and walking away. We didn’t get another tough and robust female role like that until 1977 with Princess Leia from “Star Wars.” After Leia, it took at least another decade for resilient females to become visible. The proliferation of these women, such as Trinity from “The Matrix” (1999), can be traced back to the immaculate Emma Peel.

These are three influential shows from the sixties, each different, yet similar. Their similarity lies in what they utilized and contributed to the future of film and television.

“The Avengers” gives us Emma Peel, who rebels against the accepted norm of female behaviour. She thinks for herself and does for herself; she is her own person. The Art Direction is one-of-a-kind: vibrantly coloured sets, absurd props with absurd plots (like Peel being tied to the mini railroad track as the train approaches) seem cartoon-like (in a good way).

The shows use of lighting, camera effects and odd props generates a feeling that this can’t be real. Is it all a dream?

*ABC (Associated British Corporation) Television Films Limited

STRANGE INTERLUDE: My Dream, Time-Travel inspired band, "Hypnagogic Telegram" is going VIRAL on Youtube. Timelord Rock. Trock. I play a timeghost (zeitgeist) that inhabits the wardrobe closet in the TARDIS. I come out in costumes from various eras to dance & sing. If Doctor Who would have a band, it might sound like this.
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1 comment:

  1. Very nice article about some of the influences of THE AVENGERS, a programme which influenced pop culture, and indeed fashion, the likes of which are still being felt and seen today. THE AVENGERS was not, however, a BBC production; it was produced by ABC (Associated British Corporation) Television Films Limited.


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