|Seventies British heroes: Purdey (Joanna Lumley), Gambit (Gareth Hunt) and Steed (Patrick Macnee): THE NEW AVENGERS. Images: Lumiere/Studio Canal.|
In the closing scenes of their final sixties adventure, those stylish British super spies- THE AVENGERS- the debonair John Steed (Patrick Macnee) and his loyal and loving young partner Tara King (the lovely Linda Thorson)-had decided to have a little celebratory drink in a space rocket, which swiftly sent them into Earth’s orbit! How they ever got down from there I don’t know, but I’m jolly glad they did, otherwise we would never have had the enjoyable seventies successor series: THE NEW AVENGERS, now back on the UK’s ITV 4 channel in weekday afternoon screenings.
Masterminded and produced by British film and TV series legends Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens, good friends and strong talents in their field, adding their inimitable quality mark to the franchise since it went into its mid-sixties made on film era, and creatively making it the beloved and enduring institution it would become over the next forty-five years, THE NEW AVENGERS launched into series action in 1976, after a brief but hugely successful revival of the Steed and King characters, reuniting actors Macnee and Thorson, had taken place in 1975, for a lively French champagne commercial, filmed at London’s Elstree Studios, funded by film entrepreneur Rudolph Roffi
(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-NLN3SJKhgand http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yzRyw4NGzRQ). Thus the seeds were born, as well as major financing (£2,000,000) from an enthusiastic Roffi (utilising French and Canadian partners, always great supporters of THE AVENGERS and so many of the sophisticated and iconic elements that appealed to its countrymen and women (on the negative side, though, the money men would try to have a say, often wrongly, in the direction the series should take: decisions often resisted or wisely avoided by the producers). Sounded out by Fennell and Clemens, their friend Macnee quickly signed up for a new set of daring adventures as the older but never bettered, bowler hated English gent spy with the occasional ruthless streak: John Steed.
Gearing up for what would be a two-year production period, Clemens created the new series bible outlining how the show’s format would be tweaked for the seventies series, but still maintaining many of the fantasy elements and charm of the original, alongside some tougher edged characteristics that hadn’t been present before. This time around there would be Nazi villains living in Scotland, a villain with the Midas Touch, killer birds, and even a giant rat!
Always striving to bring the series that new edge in both storytelling and marketing/publicity, the producers decided that the next AVENGERS girl hero, though following the fine traditions of previous female icons like Cathy Gale, Emma Peel and Tara King, would be an even more independent and sexy woman than ever before. Welcome aboard Charly, a glamorous brunette, sophisticated and with a very unique style to her. She would later be described as “a male chauvinist pigs dream”, with lots of hints of thigh and stocking tops. The nationwide hunt for the actress – a top role that would be a definite career launcher- involved Fennell and Clemens interviewing hundreds of talented actresses, of which a shortlist was soon drawn (including DR WHO companion-to-be Louise Jameson and UFO’s former purple wigged Moonbase commander, the glamorous Gabrielle Drake). Ultimately, and correctly, it was the very glamorous and spirited actress/model Joanna Lumley who won the day and the part.
Worried that Macnee, then 54, might look a little too old for the action scenes alongside the sprightly Charly, and not wanting their lead to have any possible injuries linked to stunt work, it was decided to add an additional new Avenger to the mix. A younger Alpha Male in the form of ex-solider/mercenary, ladies man and all round top-agent, Mike Gambit, who would also prove to be a potential love interest to Charly in what the producers hoped would be a fun will they or won’t they? running plot for audiences, showing some old style charm and witty banter. Royal Shakespeare Company trained actor and all-round nice guy Gareth Hunt would be cast for the role and soon got on famously as part of the new trio, especially with Lumley. And Macnee liked his talented new co-stars so much, he wondered if the show really needed Steed in the series anymore. Regardless of his early worries, no AVENGERS series would ever be the same without him, and everybody knew it. Macnee quite rightly engineered affection, respect and loyalty, and in THE NEW AVENGERS Steed’s experience and sometime underhand devious but charming nature and charismatic slyness would continue to make the character ever popular.
Prior to filming, Hunt and Lumley would undergo a rigorous and punishing fight and stunt training regime-at one point going on a military assault course that almost killed them physically, especially the ultimately gutsy Lumley, who proved a trooper throughout the stunts and action filming that lay ahead. Soon the actress would develop her own unique fighting style- her shapely legs combining ballerina dance and deadly high kicks, alongside Judo and Karate. She’d also have the regular, dedicated help and support from long-time AVENGERS series stuntwoman and actress Cyd Child, who previously doubled Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson so effectively in the sixties era, whilst Syd Wragg taught her and Gareth Hunt the art of Karate. Soon legendary STAR WARS stuntman Colin Skeaping would often don the dresses and the blonde wig doubling Lumley in certain motorbike driving sequences.
Many of the classic behind the scenes talents that had helped Fennell and Clemens make the show such a critical and artistic success the first time around would return for THE NEW AVENGERS, including top directors like Sidney Hayers, Ray Austin (who had become a very respected visualist and had previously helmed some of the previous classic stuntwork for Rigg and Thorson) and Robert Fuest, all making vital contributions once again in creating the shows new visual stamp and fast paced storytelling. On the writing side, Clemens old writing pal Dennis Spooner would bring his considerable skills to bear in crafting suspenseful and humorously inventive stories to the series, later to become acknowledge classics, alongside another experienced TV veteran Terence Feely. But no AVENGERS series would ever be complete or feel the same without the musical charm of composer Laurie Johnson, giving Steed and co. the familiar series motif against a more upbeat and patriotic style, whilst his incidental scores would add some snazzy, if now slightly dated, disco beat. Alongside the also filming and equally ambitious Gerry Anderson sci-fi epic SPACE: 1999, THE NEW AVENGERS was one of the few big league in-production series helping to keep the hard-pressed British film industry and its talented people in employment.
Just before series principal photography began, Lumley decided that a complete overhaul of her character was required (early test footage of which can be seen in the first title sequence for the series). Apparently pretty much without Fennell or Clemens knowledge or consent, she would have her brown haired curly locks cut into a more severe and attractive bob style, her hair now a distinct fairer tint. She also wanted to change her characters name from Charly to Purdey, thinking it more stylish and distinctive to the series, named after the equally unique and expensive type of British shotgun. Though at first wary of her new style, the producers ultimately liked Lumley’s ideas for the character and went with them (her unique hairstyle soon becoming much desired by women across the country when the series eventually made its debut). Sadly, as the episodes went on, the stockings and suspenders element to the character would be abandoned due to impracticalities whilst filming action sequences.
With those first few episodes completed, the series was quickly finding it’s footing and carving a unique identity for itself, with enjoyable stories blending action, fantasy and distinctly British quirkiness. Patrick Macnee was truly back into his groove as Steed and rapidly lost the weight he had gained in the interim years between series. The chemistry between him and his younger leads was noticeable and highly enjoyable, with Steed becoming the father figure to both of them, especially Purdey, who I always thought when watching the series had a definite crush on him. Lumley too impresses as Purdey, bringing gung-ho enthusiasm, tomboy charm and vital sex appeal. Hunt is underrated in a difficult role opposite such a powerful presence as Macnee. His good looks and ability to handle action confidently carry him through the series, whilst also enjoying some clichéd bed-hopping medallion man antics with beautiful women the likes of Lindsay Duncan and Sue Holderness.
Though striving to be fresh, the new series never failed to pay tribute or capitalise on its origins, either, including the noteworthy return of old enemies, the robotic Cybernauts, who had proved so popular in the Steed/Peel era, making a distinctive comeback that would be just as dangerous and exciting as before, accompanied by the memorable whip-cracking noise of their metal killing hands. Further nice referencing to the past and the heroines in Steed’s life subtly occurs throughout the series. Cathy Gale and Tara King are mentioned as one point, and Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel even makes a comeback via specially chosen stock footage, during the opening scenes of the French set two-parter K is for Kill.
Keeping further continuity, Steed still drove his beloved Bentley (as well as modern cars like a Range Rover and a Jaguar), though he no longer resided in his charming London mews apartment, instead relocated to a grand house and stables out in the British countryside (another visual element that THE NEW AVENGERS would showcase so well throughout its run). Thankfully, his gregarious nature remains intact, as do the constant beautiful women seen coming in and out of his property in various episodes. Thankfully, too, there would be no more of the Thorson era’s Mother character around to send him and his team into their missions, but the spy service with whom they worked would be realised in some detail through the series, grounded more in the grittier traditions of shows like CALLAN than what had been seen in the more fantastical eras of the Rigg/Thorson adventures. Despite the reshuffle and new look, the organization continues to lose its agents at an incredible rate-surely as high a body count as the shows sixties incarnation!
Memorable guest stars to the show, many of whom had appeared in the original sixties incarnation, would include Jon Finch, Clive Revell, John Carson, Peter Cushing, Ian Hendry, Peter Jeffries, Roy Marsden, Caroline Munroe, and Keith Barron.
|Though the character became even sexier as the first season went on.|
Halfway into the first batch of episodes, the French backers were unhappy with certain aspects of the series and asked for changes, especially wanting Lumley to have more of a French style wardrobe and general added sexiness. Once again, the Producers stood their ground, though the slightly unhappy actress did get some revised costume changes that proved more welcoming to our continental cousins. Preparations were also underway to make episodes in France then Canada going into late 1976, though Kismet would soon unfortunately see to it that these episodes would turn out to be the least successful of the entire series.
By the time of the 1977 screened Series Two, the fantasy elements of the previous year were also starting to be toned down, with episodes regrettably losing some their impetus and vitality, despite a memorable start with and a return to the classic Macnee portrayal of Steed with Brian Clemens opener Dead Men Are Dangerous. International sales of the shows had been solid, especially in Europe, but THE NEW AVENGERS had failed to make the grade in the all-important US territory, despite some elements of the show being specifically tailored to their tastes (the episodes even had US-style pre-credits teasers to hook their viewing customs). Steed and co. did not resonate with audiences in the same way that the Diana Rigg era had done, and many episodes were shown late at night there as it was deemed too violent in the backlash following the success of STARSKY AND HUTCH. The series was coming to the end of its natural life, with the seeds of a new and far grittier action series for UK TV gathering momentum in the producer’s minds: a further thrust into the more realistic and violent eighties with what was to become THE PROFESSIONALS…
Much enjoyed by most critics and loved by audiences, the 26 episode run of THE NEW AVENGERS, to its detriment, was sadly not fully networked in one set day and timeslot by ITV and its regional offspring: a situation that proved very disappointing and disheartening to cast and crew. The series would eventually get a full repeat airing in the London area in the early and mid-eighties and has since been a continuing success on all kinds of satellite and digital TV platforms, and a lasting commercial success on VHS and DVD.
Very much of the seventies, this high quality escapist series remains fondly remembered and one of the best made British shows of the period, notably for its earlier episodes, and particularly for the vital contribution made to the show by Joanna Lumley.
First titles for the American and international prints of the series: The New Avengers Series 1 Opening Titles and Closing Credits - YouTube
French version title:
Second title sequence with animated graphics (UK): The New Avengers Series 1A and 2 Opening Titles and Closing Credits - YouTube
Here's a look at our favourite episodes from the series:
|Steed and Purdey face the Nazi's in series opener The Eagle's Nest.|
THE EAGLE’S NEST
Brian Clemens rousing fast paced comic book adventure launches the series with style, backed with fine direction from Desmond Davis. THE NEW AVENGERS, on the search for a kidnapped scientist (Peter Cushing), travel to the remote Scottish isle of St. Dorca and discover a hideous plot to resurrect the Third Reich and bring back from cryogenic sleep their fearsome leader: Adolf Hitler.
HOUSE OF CARDS
Successfully rescuing a Russian defector, Steed's lethal old-time adversary Perov (the always excellent AVENGERS series regular guest star Peter Jeffries) launches a unique revenge plan against our heroes using sleeper agents, known as his House of Cards.
CAT AMONGST THE PIGEONS
Wanting to eradicate humanity, a deadly maniac known as Zarcardi (the creepy but brilliant Vladek Sheybal), possessing the unique communications talents to controls aviate life, begins to make his mark, of which Purdey is soon trapped in his decaying and deadly estate!
A winning Dennis Spooner script-Daphne Du Maurier meets THE AVENGERS!, with atmospheric direction from John Hough.
|Purdey is attacked by the Cybernised Felix Kane (Robert Lang)...|
LAST OF THE CYBERNAUTS…?
Almost killed in a car accident, and left brutally disfigured, ex-spy Felix Kane (an intensely hateful performance by Robert Lang) plans his revenge against TNA by re-activating the dreaded Cybernauts. A fine script from Clemens with some great character and action moments for our heroes, plus those nostalgic and excellent baddies.
British agents are dropping dead like flies once again, and the only connection is a special training course used by the ministry.
Dennis Spooner's fun and exciting script has some excellent baddies with Keith Barron and Deep Roy, whilst Purdey has a memorable sequence climbing rooftops and fighting against machine gun toting waxwork opponents. One the series best, Spooner even has a mini-homage to his work on the sixties DOCTOR WHO series- at one point blowing up a Police Telephone Box!
TO CATCH A RAT
An intriguing opportunity to reference the very first season of the series sadly ignored, Ian Hendry, who previously played Doctor Keel-the original AVENGER from 1962- returns to the series, playing a rogue agent with amnesiac restored knowledge of a traitor in British spy-dom. Steed and co. are on the case, but who to trust?
They say we all have a double out there, and Steed and co. find that out for real when key government officials have been replaced by imposters pulled from various sources, manipulated by a higher power. A fun idea for our main cast to enjoy, as our on-screen heroes, especially Purdey, have to become other people who then become themselves! Dennis Spooner juggles action and humour within a solid central idea, with input from Brian Clemens.
Terrorists after London's financial resources bring the city’s population to a sleepy standstill via a new chemical weapon, and only our three heroes, fighting in and out of the deserted streets, stand in their way. Lots of great action, humour and inventiveness on display here.
Ignore the awful homage/spoof title to JAWS, and you’ll delight to Dennis Spooner's excellent tongue-in-cheek episode, well-made by Ray Austin, as our heroes enter the London sewers in search of a rat turned lethally super sized and carnivorous for human flesh after a lab experiment gone wrong! Giant rats were then starting to make a comeback in British TV fantasy- a year later one would terrorise Tom Baker’s DOCTOR WHO, and companion Louise Jameson as Leela, in The Talons of Weng Chiang!
DIRTIER BY THE DOZEN
Our heroes tackle a gang of lethal army men who moonlight as world travelling mercenaries, led by Colonel “Mad Jack” Miller (John Castle). Purdey and Gambit get the military blues as they’re caught in enemy territory.
DEAD MEN ARE DANGEROUS (Season Two opener)
Purdey is captured by one of Steed's vengeance fuelled old friends and rivals (Clive Revill), believed dead after an incident in East Germany years before. Patrick Macnee has lots to do as a threatened Steed, in a shining Brian Clemens start to Season Two.
ANGELS OF DEATH
British agents are killing one another then succumbing to stress-related heart attacks. The only clue is a health resort that all of them had visited at varying points. Gambit and Purdey infiltrate, whilst Steed is soon caught in a deadly maze trap. A fun idea well executed by Terence Feely and Brian Clements, though the story does seem to wrap itself up a little too quickly. The episode is memorable for sexy appearances from sci-fi/fantasy legend Caroline Munro, and Aussie actress on the rise, Pamela Stephenson, playing two lethal spa nurses who give Purdey a fighting challenge.
An old flame of Purdey’s come back into her life- Larry (Martin Shaw)- and her vulnerabilities and affection for him are rekindled. Unfortunately, he’s on course for an explosive vendetta against a Middle Eastern emissary, and has to be stopped at all costs.
A great character vehicle for Purdey (whose pre-spy life as a ballerina is shown in flashback), and Lumley as an actress. The episode also note worthily sees the first on-screen pairing of Martin Sheen and Lewis Collins, eventually making their mark together on another hit Brian Clemens series, THE PROFESSIONALS, a year or so later.
K IS FOR KILL (TWO PARTER)
Having discovered the secret of suspended animation, an army of hidden Russian soldiers emerges in Seventies France to cause mayhem, part of a master plan from their also restored and hidden tactician mastermind.
Perhaps a little stretched out over two episodes, this is nonetheless one of the few standouts of the series made in France, with some excellent ideas from Brian Clemens, and well-staged action sequences. A memorable militaristic and serious score from Laurie Johnson, too.
On holiday in Canada, the team take on a lethal trio of KGB agents versed with super-human strength martial-arts skills.
Still in the wilds of Canada, all is not well in Lake Ontario, as Purdey goes underwater to discover a hidden-in-plain sight Russian facility. One of the better international set episodes of the final season, which closes the series run on an enjoyable, if hardly definitive, note.
A dedicated FACEBOOK page for the series can be found here: http://www.facebook.com/purdeysandgambit
THE NEW AVENGERS is available on DVD here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/New-Avengers-Disc-Collectors-Box/dp/B000HEVTKE/ref=sr_1_1?s=dvd&ie=UTF8&qid=1361355584&sr=1-1
Additional images on the KOOL TV FACEBOOK page: THE NEW AVENGERS 1976-1977
KOOL TV hopes that an eventual digitally re-mastered and restored release of the series will one day happen via Blu-ray.
KOOL TV hopes that an eventual digitally re-mastered and restored release of the series will one day happen via Blu-ray.