The stars of stage and screen go the way of all flesh like the rest of us, but for those with whom we feel a special connection, it can be difficult to avoid a sense of shock and a need to mourn when they’re gone. So it is with Patrick Macnee, who has just died at the age of 93. Reading about his life in the days since his death, one struggles to detach the character from the man. The character, of course, is John Steed, who he played in The Avengers.
To read about the life of Macnee, and that of Christopher Lee, who has also recently died, is also to learn of experiences that suggest their like probably won’t come round again. Lee’s life story contains the most improbable collection of anecdotes that simply couldn’t be made up. Macnee, a serviceman like Lee, had a racehorse trainer for a father and a mother who outed herself as a lesbian many decades before the historic era of equality this generation is living through. He was apparently also expelled from Eton for selling pornography and being a bookmaker for his fellow students. It is difficult to conceive of Damian Lewis, Dominic West and particularly Eddie Redmayne being any way comparably raffish when they studied there. And it is especially satisfying to note that Macnee and Lee acted opposite each other in Henry V at the age of 11.
In recent years, when expressing devotion for The Avengers, one has almost felt a need to refer to it as The “Real” Avengers. If that sounds worryingly like adopting the same taxonomy reserved for splinter Irish republican terrorist groups, it was necessitated by the colonisation of the multiplex – and impressionable children’s minds – by a certain identikit comic book superhero franchise trading under the same name. For most hardcore fans, later incarnations of John Steed plus trusty companion might have been dubbed “Continuity” Avengers, for how they measured up to the show’s apotheosis, the mid-60s era when Steed’s sidekick was Mrs. Emma Peel, played by Diana Rigg.
It feels necessary to also comment on the show’s action. It is axiomatic that the fights in the shows from the 1960s were so much better than those of contemporary action shows. That’s in part because they succeeded in being both more and less real at the same time. They were more real in that people stayed down when hit hard (though maybe they were occasionally laid out cold a little too easy), and they didn’t feature improbable levels of proficiency in kung fu and any other fighting technique you care to mention, which this writer has always been suspicious of. And those earlier fights were less real because of they were staged less convincingly, which can perhaps be attributed to the resources available to TV productions back then and the extent to which the craft of filmmaking has advanced in the intervening decades. But that is part of their charm. People nowadays often describe the violence of Tarantino ‘cartoon-like’, but that viewpoint depends on what type of cartoon you’re looking at. For those of us raised on Tom and Jerry and The Road Runner, the fights in shows like Batman and The Avengers genuinely had similar fantastical components. In The Avengers, blood was never drawn, and nobody showed any scars and bruises. It not only added a certain style and élan to the fight sequences, but also had the benign effect of reassuring you that it wasn’t real in any way.
While he never carried a firearm, with his chainmail lined bowler hat and sword concealed in his umbrella, Steed was still credibly formidable. As for Mrs Peel, she was perfect in every way. Beautiful, stylish, self-reliant and widely accomplished, she was arguably Steed’s superior. In one episode where Steed and Mrs. Peel were working undercover in a department store, Steed at one point says: “I asked the chief predator where to find you and he said, “Our Mrs. Peel is in ladies’ underwear.” I rattled up the stairs three at a time”. Suffice it to say I would have done the same myself. If there is a more admirable and desirable female role model in TV history, I haven’t come across her. Part of the genius of The Avengers is that it succeeded in championing opportunities for women without explicitly advertising that it was doing so. Watching it again these last few days, its portrayal of male-female relations stands up as being more enlightened than anything else from its time, and it hasn’t dated badly. Diana Rigg’s period in the show also happily coincided with a celebrated period in London’s history, and to my eyes it looks better than the London I regularly visit today.
Macnee was generous about the contributions others made to the success of The Avengers. In one interview he said it “did something different and did it better.” That succinctly describes what made the show special, but he could take credit for the creation of Steed as this suave and immaculately dressed character. He even picked out the suits himself. His career might not have regularly hit great heights after The Avengers, but if you’re going to be burdened by close association with a previous character, you could hardly do better than for that character to be John Steed.