Each week, for 50 minutes the dashing, exquisitely turned-out duo of John Steed (with sardonic grin, immaculate suit, bowler hat & umbrella, driving an antique racing-green Bentley) and Mrs. Emma Peel (100% liberated, bantering with Steed and giving as good as she got in a variety of eye-catching, sexy cat-suits and leather gear) were seen solving all manner of political espionage, bizarre murders, and dastardly take-over plots by power-mad weirdos of all shapes & sizes. Viewers were treated to a non-stop rush of kooky, wonderful and eccentric villains doing very naughty things, whereupon Steed and Mrs. Peel would wade in, suss out the baddies and kick their smug faces in, with an over the top fight sequence straight out of You Only Live Twice. It was thrilling, funny, and classy entertainment.
The Avengers started its life as a gritty crime drama starring Ian Hendry and Patrick MacNee in 1960-61. It was usually videotaped but sometimes actually transmitted live, and the direction had a gutsy edge to it, which admittedly was a style in vogue at the time. Of all the Ian Hendry episodes, only one now exists as a 35mm film telerecording, which means this era will always be an enigma to the majority of potential fans.
Hendry left after the first series, and the program started its second season on videotape full-time. MacNee's John Steed was now the main protagonist, assisted by a liberated, strong-minded woman called Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman). Every one of the episodes from this and the next season were immediately transferred onto 35mm film, so even though the videotapes were eventually wiped, from the beginning of season two all subsequent Avengers episodes still exist today.
It was the Cathy Gale era of The Avengers which really broke the mould, paving the way for many of television's most independent, emancipated women. Gale was Steed's equal in every way, played by the exquisite Honor Blackman; each week there were increasingly weirder situations and villains; the programme was becoming a very diverting and individual quantity. The second and third series were excellent television in their own right; indeed there are as many die-hard Cathy Gale fans as there are Emma Peel ones - this was a very popular and much-imitated show, even in 1963. The producers rightly saw, however, that this could be improved upon, and they obtained backing for season four of The Avengers to be shot on film.
Season four of The Avengers had to be bloody good. It was what the whole world would see as its first-taste of an already phenomenally- successful (and much-talked-about overseas) British TV show. It was either gonna be a massive worldwide hit, spawning season after season of additional episodes, eventually going into colour production, or it was going to be a massive worldwide flop and (so the story goes) be cancelled within the year. Put another way, season four had a lot to answer for. The very fact that there was ever a post-Mrs.-Peel series of The Avengers attests to the success of this season, and rightfully so: this is what laid the groundwork for the near-perfect color season five, Tara King, The New Avengers, and beyond.
After a brief hiccup with the casting of Elizabeth Shepherd as Emma Peel, the program was re-mounted featuring the now famous Diana Rigg, and the show was never quite the same again. Series four had a wonderfully atmospheric style about it; the black & white film really suited the direction and storylines. The Avengers was now being sold to America, and was even shown on primetime network TV there, where it created a sensation with Rigg's outspoken, no-nonsense character wearing sexy leather costumes and beating up the villains with gleeful abandon. Episodes like "A Touch Of Brimstone," "The Gravediggers," "The Cybernauts," "The House That Jack Built," and "Too Many Christmas Trees" were genuinely brilliant and memorable, outclassing anything the American networks themselves had to offer. The show was an international smash hit.
Arguably, the Honor Blackman episodes were what made The Avengers, and the Ian Hendry teleplays were still fondly remembered by many, but even so, they never quite crystalized the whole ethos and atmosphere of an idea as masterfully as season four did. This Avengers is a marvellously honed package full of wry humor, action, catchy music, and iconographic imagery like no other show of its kind: the beautifully crafted title sequence; Steed's old bentley; the tag scenes, always featuring the duo alighting on some form of groovy transport together; the impressive array of eccentric supporting characters and villains, and of course their bizarre plots and schemes to wreck life for little-englanders everywhere. Sixties freaks will enjoy the heady grooviness of it all, kitsch fanatics will really love the odd characters and witty dialogue, and vintage TV buffs will swoon at the atmospheric black & white photography on offer here. In short, this series has something for everyone.