Mrs. Peel, We’re Needed
by Erik Arneson
January 7, 1961 to September 14, 1969
- Patrick Macnee as John Steed
- Diana Rigg as Mrs. Emma Peel
- Ian Hendry as Dr. David Keel
- Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale
- Linda Thorson as Tara King
Fans of “The Avengers” groaned when the 1998 feature film starring Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman turned out to be a dreadful attempt at recreating the original series’ special magic, but they can take solace in the fact that it didn’t slow down the re-release of the original BBC series on home video.
Brilliant and bizarre villains met resourceful and charming heroes during many twisted plots during “The Avengers'” six memorable seasons. Provocative episode subtitles like “Steed becomes a strapping Jock– Emma lays a ghost,” provide insight into the sometimes crazy, always eventful world of these British spies who never take themselves too seriously.
John Steed and Emma Peel are without doubt the most famous pairing in “The Avengers” saga, but no discussion of the show would be complete without a look at some of the others. In 1960, Ian Hendry was the popular star of the not-so-popular series “Police Surgeon.” The show’s producer and a network executive decided to move Hendry to their new spy show, which also happened to star Patrick Macnee. Soon, although several first-season shows didn’t include Steed, Macnee’s character won a place of prominence in viewers’ hearts.
After an actor’s strike in 1961, “The Avengers” hit the airwaves for a second season without Hendry, who left to pursue a film career. The fateful decision to make Steed’s new partner a woman was made by show creator Sydney Newman. Honor Blackman, who later starred as Pussy Galore in the James Bond film Goldfinger, thus became Cathy Gale.
Gale, a self-defense expert, remained Steed’s partner for two seasons, when a young widow named Mrs. Emma Peel took over. Elizabeth Shepherd actually created the role, but lasted only an episode and a half. Diana Rigg took over, as she put it, “for a giggle,” and the producers moved the show from videotape to film, allowing greater flexibility in terms of location shooting. “The Avengers” entered its peak of popularity, and in fact became the first British television show to be purchased by an American network.
Peel, often dressed in skin-tight outfits, became an icon for both feminists and the show’s male viewers. In hand-to-hand combat, she was the match of any man. On the screen, she was fascinating to watch, whether she was chasing down a madman or imitating the MGM lion. Rigg’s work earned her Emmy Award nominations in the Best Actress category in both 1967 and 1968.
Unlike Blackman, Rigg didn’t do her own stunts. According to one report, the producers couldn’t find a stuntwoman for Rigg during the fourth season, so they did the next best thing– hired a stuntman. Billy Westley donned a wig and Emma Peel’s clothes in many episodes, but clever editing masks the many sex changes.
American audiences got their first look at “The Avengers” in March 1966 with “The Cybernauts,” an episode which featured Steed and Peel taking on killer robots; it has earned a reputation as a classic. The show’s fans would go on to see the duo take on a variety of criminals, including a man-eating plant, diabolic mindreaders, and (in “Murdersville”) an entire town of assassins.
Rigg’s departure– precipitated by a disagreement over money, her balking at being recognized in public and a feeling that Macnee was among her very few friends on the set– led to an ill-fated attempt to replace Mrs. Peel with Linda Thorson’s Tara King.
The King episodes yielded notably inconsistent results, and “The Avengers” ended its memorable 161-episode run. Despite the final season’s numerous problems, the production team of Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens had been called back in after three fairly disastrous episodes. Unfortunately, the series was airing opposite the enormously popular “Laugh In” in the U.S., giving “The Avengers” an uphill climb to renewal even if it had been at its best.
Rigg, meanwhile, went on to earn two Tony nominations for stage work in the 1970s and appeared in several movies, including “The Great Muppet Caper.” Later, she signed on as host of the PBS series “Mystery!”
Even after its cancellation, “The Avengers” found new life with a short-lived 1971 stage show in London’s West End, a handful of adaptations produced for South African radio, a brief mid-1970s television series called “The New Avengers”– which Macnee starred in and later admitted that he wished he hadn’t– and the 1998 film.
Today, the Peel episodes (seasons four, filmed in black and white, and five, color) are the best-known, thanks to the refined chemistry between Macnee and Rigg, as well as the fact that the Cathy Gale episodes weren’t aired in the U.S. until 1991. All but one episode from the first season are presumed lost forever; many were aired live and the tapes of the others have never been located.
Throughout the 1980s, rumors persisted that the show would return to television, but it never happened. And if the Fiennes-Thurman movie is any indication, that was a wise choice.