Today’s weird old title sequences are for The Avengers. You remember The Avengers don’t you? Steed, this dapper bloke in a bowler hat, and his lovely sidekick Mrs Peel fight weird sci-fi crimes together?
You see The Avengers changed a lot over its six series. Originally envisioned as a vehicle for rising star Ian Hendry from Police Surgeon, it began with Dr David Keel (Ian Hendry) investigating the murder of Peggy, his office receptionist and wife-to-be, by a drug ring. A mysterious trenchcoat-wearing stranger named John Steed (Patrick Macnee), who was investigating the ring, appeared on the scene and together they set out to avenge her death in the show’s first two episodes – hence the show’s title ‘The Avengers’. Afterwards, Steed asked Keel to continue partnering him when needed to solve crimes.
In this first series, Steed was the secondary character – he doesn’t even appear in some episodes. He also isn’t the dapper man about town we all grew to know and love, either. He was a hard-edged, ruthless character, willing to do what it took to get the job done, with Hendry’s Keel providing the moral centre for their work. In keeping with this blunt, down-at-heel approach, the show got some equally down-at-heel titles, with Hendry and Macnee lurking around on street corners in their trenchcoats, and – oh f*ck no – a jazz theme tune.
But slowly, the show began to change – and get a whole load more weird title sequences.
Series two and three
Come series two and Hendry’s ego got the better of it. With production cut short on series one by a strike, he’d headed off for the movies, and figuring he was going to make it big, abandoned The Avengers. That left Steed in charge. Quick! Call for Mrs Peel.
Not so fast, sonny Jim. With Steed as the lead, the show continued one of series one’s themes: the idea that Steed has a team of ‘Baker Street irregulars’ to help him. So, along came three helpers for Steed: one man – Dr Martin King – and two women – Venus Smith and the wonderful Cathy Gale:
- King (Jon Rollason) was a thinly disguised rewriting of Keel, and only appeared in three episodes – all left over from the first series thanks to that strike – since he was intended to be a transition character between Keel and Smith/Gale.
- Nightclub singer Venus Smith (Julie Stevens) appeared in six episodes. Her episodes featured musical interludes showcasing her singing performances. The character of Venus underwent some revision during the second series, becoming younger-looking in demeanour and dress, in part because Stevens was also the a host of various kids TV programmes.
- Dr Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman) was a self-assured, quick-witted anthropologist who was skilled in judo and had a passion for wearing leather clothes. Widowed during the Mau Mau years in Kenya, she was the “talented amateur” who saw her aid to Steed’s cases as a service to her nation. Like King, Gale was in some cases a hasty rewrite of Keel’s character, but this worked in her favour, since it made her more of an equal to Steed than Smith was or indeed any other female character on television before her. As a result, she quickly became a household name and the whole show changed to match.
There’s not much on YouTube of Martin King, but here’s Venus Smith:
It was during this series that the show’s format began to evolve towards the more well known formula of later series, with Steed acquiring his more distinctive outfits, although not as ostentatiously as in later series. At Macnee’s occasional insistence, Steed was also shown to have kept that ruthless edge of his, even if it was now a little hidden, although he also asked that Steed should never use a gun – his own military service during WW2 had turned him off them. So Steed acquired an umbrella that was also a sword.
It’s worth noting at this point that in keeping with the practice of the time, the episodes were transmitted live with some pre-recorded footage added occasionally so that costume changes, etc, could be done. With Cathy Gale needing to be able to defend herself, Honor Blackman was given a crash course in judo by a former member of the French resistance, and soon adopted her trademark leather costumes to deal with the practicalities of having to perform her own fight scenes.
Sometimes, these fights could go wrong. In this scene, Blackman kicks the wrong way, splitting wrestler Jackie Pallo’s nose and making him go cross-eyed. He completed the scene, but fell unconscious for seven minutes afterwards:
By the start of the third series, Smith was dropped and Gale became Steed’s only regular partner. The series established a level of sexual tension between the characters, although, as part of the evolving format of the series, writers were not allowed to let the characters go beyond flirting and innuendo.
Despite this, the relationship between Steed and Gale was progressive for 1962-63. In the episode The Golden Eggs, it is revealed that Gale lived in Steed’s flat; her rent according to Steed was to keep the refrigerator well-stocked and to cook for him (she appears to do neither). It is also stated, however, that this was a temporary arrangement while Gale (for reasons not stated) looked for a new home, and that Steed was actually sleeping at a hotel.
The titles changed frequently for these two series, with a more generic sequence that featured none of the leads as well as ones featuring the “guest assistant” that was similar to the first series’ titles.
After two series in this format, a film version of the show was in its initial planning stages by late 1963. The early story proposal would have paired Steed and Gale with a male/female duo of American agents, to make the movie appeal to the American market. Before the project could gain momentum, Blackman was cast opposite Sean Connery in the Bond film, Goldfinger, requiring her to leave the series.
So for the fourth series, the last to be filmed in black and white, a new female partner appeared: Mrs Emma Peel (Diana Rigg). The character, whose husband went missing while on a South American exploration, retained the self-assuredness of Gale, combined with superior fighting skills, intelligence, and a contemporary fashion sense.
After more than 60 actresses had been auditioned, the first choice to play this role was actress Elizabeth Shepherd. However, after filming one and a half episodes, Shepherd was released, as her on-screen personality did not seem as interesting as that of Blackman’s Gale. Another 20 actresses were auditioned before the show’s casting director suggested that producers Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell check out a televised drama featuring the relatively unknown Rigg. Her screen test with Macnee showed that the two immediately worked well together, and a new era in Avengers history began.
In contrast to the Gale episodes, there was a lighter comic touch to the fourth series, both in Steed and Peel’s conversations and in the ways they reacted to other characters and situations. The harder tone of the previous series almost completely disappeared. Additionally, many episodes were characterised by a futuristic, science fiction bent to the tales, with mad scientists and their creations leaving havoc in their wake.
The relationship between Steed and Gale differed noticeably from that of Steed and Peel, with a layer of conflict in the former that was rarely seen in the latter — Gale on occasion openly resenting being used by Steed, often without her permission.
And, of course, with Gale gone, some new titles were needed. Goodbye stupid jazz, hello to the brilliant Laurie Johnson, who wrote a brilliant new theme as well as the theme to The Professionals. For the benefit of the US market, for which this was the first series, there was an explanation scene added before the titles:
That American sale not only meant that the show could be filmed instead of broadcast live during the fourth series – indeed, British video standards were incompatible with US standards so the producers had no other choice – it meant colour became mandatory for the fifth series. That meant new, colour titles. And that meant these, the most famous and iconic of all The Avengers‘ many weird old title sequences. What is Steed doing with his brolly at the end? And, no, Diana Rigg couldn’t do kung fu, as you might guess from both the title sequence and the fight scenes clips I’ve added afterwards:
Eventually, Diana Rigg left – you guessed – for a Bond movie: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, in which she ended up marrying James Bond. So at the start of the sixth series, she was recalled under her contract to send Mrs Peel on her way. At the end of the episode, Peel’s husband, Peter Peel, was found alive and rescued, and she left the British secret service to be with him, “passing the torch” to her successor on the stairway to Steed’s apartment with the remark “He likes his tea stirred anti-clockwise.” (From Steed’s viewpoint looking out the window to the driveway below, Peter remarkably resembles Steed, only with a moustache.) It is, notably, the only scene in which Steed calls Mrs Peel “Emma”.
The replacement was a trained but inexperienced agent named Tara King, played by Canadian actress Linda Thorson. Thorson played the role with more innocence in mind and at heart; and unlike the previous partnerships with Cathy and Emma, the writers allowed subtle hints of romance to blossom between Steed and King – despite the icky age gap. She also played a number of the episodes as a blonde under the production team’s orders, in an effort to differentiate her from Diana Rigg. However, after her hair started to fall out from all the peroxide, the team relented and allowed her to remain a brunette.
Another change returned the series to its roots by having Steed once again take orders from a British government official, this time “Mother” instead of “Charles”, who was in fact a man in a wheelchair (Patrick Newell). And rather than judo or kung fu, King tried to get by with ‘feminine wiles’ and dirty tricks when it came to the fight scenes.
The revised series continued to be broadcast in America. The episodes with Linda Thorson as King proved to be highly rated in Europe and the UK. In the United States however, the ABC network which carried the series chose to air it opposite the number one show in the country at the time, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. Steed and King couldn’t compete, and the show was cancelled in the US. Without this vital commercial backing, production could not continue in Britain either, and the series ended in May 1969.
The final scene of the final episode (Bizarre) has Steed and King, champagne glasses in hand, accidentally launching themselves into orbit aboard a rocket, as Mother breaks the fourth wall and says to the audience, “They’ll be back!” before adding in shock, “They’re unchaperoned up there!”
Needless to say, a whole new title sequence was needed for the six series, for which two were made. The first appeared on all episodes but one, which for some reason was left on the episode Split. You can see why they went with the first one:
I should at this point state for transparency’s sake that I’ve nicked big chunks of this article from Wikipedia: this is purely to save myself time (I’m lazy), since I have seen all the surviving episodes several times and used to have The Complete Avengers by Dave Rogers sitting on my book shelf when I was just a kid, so I knew all this stuff already. It just takes a long time to type.