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
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
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
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.
Erik Arneson is a published writer of mystery short stories and
serves as chief of staff to the Majority Whip in the Senate of