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Sunday, November 07, 2010

TV Tie-ins: The Avengers

The archetypal sixties secret agent show, The Avengers has the unique distinction of being the only British programme ever to get a prime time slot on American network television. The overwhelming international success of its later years tends to overshadow its relatively humble beginnings as a largely studio-bound show shot on videotape, at which point the storylines were confined to the conventional TV thriller-fodder of the time.

The lead character from the beginning was John Steed, a government agent, who was partnered on a rotating basis by one of a group of sidekicks; David Keel, a young doctor, Venus Smith, a nightclub singer, Martin King, another medic, and Cathy Gale, a widowed academic martial arts expert. Pretty soon Cathy Gale became Steed’s full-time partner and the others were dropped.

During this era the distinctive look of The Avengers began to evolve. Steed’s clothing shifted gradually from the stereotype trenchcoat of the TV spy to the immaculate tailoring which would become his hallmark, and Cathy’s penchant for leather catsuits mirrored her self-confident, assertive personality, making her a true partner for Steed rather than the ineffectual sidekick the female lead would have been in most television programmes of the time.

For most aficionados, however, The Avengers was at its height in the two seasons that paired Steed with Emma Peel, the widow of a test pilot believed killed in a plane crash. The bantering relationship between the characters hinted at a greater affection, and, more importantly, a partnership of true equals; hardly surprising that Emma Peel became an early feminist icon. The stories became more quirky and surreal, taking full advantage of the move from videotape to film; as well as improbable cold-war espionage plots, like a parrot being taught to recite top secret missile plans, the pair tangled with killer robots, mind-swapping devices, shrinking rays, and a deranged cartoonist who took on the persona of his superhero creation.

When Emma left, after being reunited with her husband who had been discovered alive and well in the jungle, Steed was partnered with Tara King, a young, novice agent fresh out of training school. The relationship was now more that of a mentor and student; although Tara was just as capable of taking care of herself as her predecessors, Steed’s obvious affection for her was more avuncular than before. This final season also introduced Steed’s boss, an irascible overweight paraplegic, codenamed Mother, who provided extra comedy relief. The stories continued to be as inventive and bizarre as ever, including a toxin which induced fatal sneezing fits, a drug which made its victims say the opposite of whatever they meant, and a device which could rot wood to dust in seconds.

The format was revived in the seventies as The New Avengers, of which more shortly.
The show continues to be celebrated in books and with the release of restored DVDs and it seems likely to continue in the near future as the 50th anniversary of the shows debut is almost upon us: the first episode was first broadcast on 7 January 1961 and already 50th anniversary spin-offs (such as Marcus Hearn's The Avengers: A Celebration) are already hitting the bookstore shelves. Here, we'll have to contend ourselves with a celebration of the 48th anniversary of the release of the first Avengers spin-off novel.

The Avengers by Douglas Enefer
Consul Books 787, 1963, 126pp, 3/6. Cover design by Sam Sulliman [FC: Patrick Macnee, Honor Blackman]
Britain's most highly successful television thriller series—The Avengers (A.B.C. Television). Based on the television series which has thrilled millions, Douglas Enefer's new novel, presenting those same characters you have come to know on the television screen, brings the kind of reading pleasure that is only rarely available. Those characters who have thrilled millions on television, now between the covers of a thrill-a-page novel.

Deadline by Patrick Macnee (ghosted by Peter Leslie)
Hodder 757, (Nov) 1965, 188pp, 3/6. Cover: photo [FC: Patrick Macnee]
Titan Books 1852-86561-X, Aug 1994, 188pp, £3.99. Cover: photo [FC: Patrick Macnee, Diana Rigg]
Someone is tampering with speeches reported in the continental editions of British newspapers: antagonising other nations and causing anti-British riots abroad. John Steed and Emma Peel are called in to go undercover at The Courier newspaper in Fleet Street. Their mission: to identify and track down the Brotherhood, a band of neo-fascist ruthless criminals who will stop at nothing—not even murder—to bring down the Government and seize power.
Dead Duck by Patrick Macnee (ghosted by Peter Leslie)
London, Hodder 826, (May) 1966, 160pp, 3/6. Cover: photo [FC: Patrick Macnee]
Titan Books 1852-86572-8, Oct 1994, 160pp, £3.99. Cover: photo [FC: Diana Rigg, Patrick Macnee]
When Steed and Mrs Peel witness a sudden death at a neighbouring table in a five star restaurant, they become involved in a bizarre puzzle: why are people dropping dead after eating duck? And what is the connection between a doctor, a gamekeeper and a painter? Their investigation leads them to a ruthless conspiracy, and a plot being hatched in the wilds of the East Anglian marshes.

The Floating Game by John Garforth
Panther Books 2175, (Jan) 1967, 127pp, 3/6. Cover: photo [FC: Diana Rigg, Patrick Macnee]
The American Mafia moves in on Britain—using a mocked-up 'Russian' spy ring as a front. Very clever. Emma and Steed rush around after Soviet operators who simply don't exist! But the best laid schemes of mice and men and Mafia... Russian agents, the real thing, move in on the Mafia's fake set-up...

The Laugh was on Lazarus by John Garforth
Panther Books 2176, (Jan) 1967, 128pp, 3/6. Cover: photo [FC: Patrick Macnee, Diana Rigg]
Emma mixes it by night with zombies in a famous London cemetery, while Steed is given his come-uppance by three exquisite Oriental dollies who know all the vicious tricks. The fun is fast and furious. And very lethal.

The Passing of Gloria Munday by John Garforth
Panther Books 2203, (Mar) 1967, 128pp, 3/6. Cover: photo [FC: Diana Rigg]
A siren in distress rescued by Steed in his vintage Bentley is taken to Blackpool and murdered by a tycoon in electronics whose posse of pop pirates threaten to clamber aboard the ship of state; whereupon Emma Peel sings falsetto and George Washington sweeps the floor... and the battle against the pop dictators is on!

Heil Harris! by John Garforth
Panther Books 2204, (Mar) 1967, 124pp, 3/6. Cover: photo [FC: Patrick Macnee]
Did Hitler die in a bunker or is he celebrating his 78th birthday today and living in exile in Hertfordshire...?
That's the question worrying Steed after meeting a certain 78-year-old Herr Harris who dreams of catastrophe and is clearly connected with mystic rites being practiced in the Herts countryside. But Steed soon finds the world facing a far graver danger... Emma Peel—elected dictator of Great Britain!
In the US, the Panther novels were reprinted by Berkeley Medallion, who continued to publish further novels which were not published in the UK. The US Berkeley series ran as follows:

1 The Floating Game by John Garforth (Apr 1967)
2 The Laugh was on Lazarus by John Garforth (May 1967)
3 The Passing of Gloria Munday by John Garforth (Jul 1967)
4 Heil Harris! by John Garforth (Sep 1967)
5 The Afrit Affir by Keith Laumer (Apr 1968)
6 The Drowned Queen by Keith Laumer (Jun 1968)
7 The Gold Bomb by Keith Laumer (Sep 1968)
8 The Magnetic Man by Norman Daniels (Dec 1968)
9 Moon Express by Norman Daniels (Feb 1969)

A further novel, The Saga of Happy Valley by Geoff Barlow (Albion Press, 1980), published in Australia, was a unlicensed and featured the characters John Steade and Emma Peale.

2 comments:

Stephen Gallagher said...

There was also an authorised (I assume, since it was published by St Martin's) 1990 novel; THE AVENGERS: TOO MANY TARGETS by John Peel and Dave Rogers.

Kid said...

As you'll know, of course, Emma Peel's name was a play on the phrase "M Appeal", the "M" standing for "Man". And nobody had that more than Dianna Rigg.