Friday, September 30, 2011


Why The Avengers Matters

Fifty years old this year, The Avengers is remembered not just because it’s the most Sixties show of the Sixties, or outrageous fun, but because, unexpectedly, it mattered. And there’s no better date to show you why than September 29th. Because exactly forty-nine years ago tonight, The Avengers – Mr Teddy Bear introduced viewers to Honor Blackman as an intelligent, independent woman who flung men over her shoulders. I’d like to say that TV was never the same again, but staid, submissive roles for women still can be; but this changed Britain by showing that they didn’t have to be.

In British cultural history there’s nothing like the Sixties, and in the Sixties there’s nothing like The Avengers. The decade’s TV is bursting with spies, thrillers, comedies, sci-fi, subversion of the establishment and celebrations of tradition – but only The Avengers did all of that at one, and more. You can’t place it in just one genre: it’s an extraordinary series, with extraordinary “agents”, and I’d call it “A fantasy of Britain” in the much more detailed article I’ll publish here at some point. But not tonight. Because tonight I’m thinking of the most important thing that made The Avengers extraordinary: that it rode old-fashioned Britishness and Swinging modernity with equal excitement – you might call it a hugely successful Conservative-Liberal coalition – and that equality was sexual in a way that no other TV show had ever managed. Or even tried.

Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale; Diana Rigg as Emma Peel; Linda Thorson as Tara King; Joanna Lumley as Purdey; all strong, independent women in their different ways, in a series that for the most part just ignored sexism and simply made women equal. All symbols of modern Britain, all partnered with the best of old Britishness, Patrick Macnee’s John Steed, a mysterious dandy in a bowler hat. It was sheer genius to make all the women ahead of their time and the man from a bygone age. And as well as lifting a glass of champagne to those brilliant women tonight, lift one to Mr Macnee, who was there first and did what few male stars would have done – let alone male action stars – by being both generous and secure enough in himself to let someone else step into the spotlight, and not just another man, but a woman who’d do most of the action (of all the many serendipitous accidents of history that created The Avengers, perhaps a special hurrah for Mr Macnee being raised by lesbians).

And now you’re enthusiastic to see this amazing series, where to start? Well, I can help you with that

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