The Avengers was produced from January 1961 to September 1969 and during its run it had two theme tunes, 5 main characters, countless strange villains and some very weird situations. But above everything else, it had some great chemistry. It was that chemistry between the main characters that made it the success it still is today.
The first season started out with two main characters, Patrick MacNee as John Steed and Ian Hendry as Dr David Keel. Johnny Dankworth, who would later write the music for Tomorrow’s World as well as much else, was commissioned to write the theme, and the music he wrote symbolized the more serious nature of the plots of the original few series.
The opening titles were striking – a series of clear black and white cards, sometimes mixed over the stage where the opening scene would take place. Ian Hendry was given top billing in the first season and the series firmly revolved around him ‘avenging’ the murder of his practice nurse girlfriend. Hendry had previously starred in a short series called “Police Surgeon” for ABC in 1959 and was playing a very similar character in the new series. The first two episodes, which served as a pilot, were filmed on videotape, while the next seven were transmitted live. The rest of the season was recorded on videotape.
After 26 episodes had been produced, a strike by British Actors Equity halted production temporarily. Still at the start of his career, Ian Hendry took the opportunity to leave the series to pursue film work. When production restarted, producers hired Honor Blackman to partner Steed in the role of Cathy Gale. This was reflected in the still-serious and stark title sequence.
Cathy Gale didn’t appear in every season 2 episode, with either Venus Smith (Julie Stevens) or Dr. Martin King (Jon Rollason) partnering John Steed to fill the gaps. The opening titles in these circumstances would just credit Macnee. The Dankworth theme music remained in place but the plots slowly started to develop towards the quirkiness that was to set the series apart.
By season three, the bit players had been removed and Cathy was the full-time partner. Importantly for ABC, the show was now being exported worldwide – except to the United States, where 405-line monochrome standard videotape had become unpopular with the networks as they moved to 525-line colour. ABC did export season three, but the US ABC network as buyers demanded in return that the next season was recorded on film, and that the show would become colour. But season four was to see the loss of the second lead actor: Honor Blackman had secured the role of Pussy Galore in the next James Bond film, Goldfinger and departed to begin filming at Pinewood.
ABC began searching for someone to take her place. The character was re-written in anticipation of a new actress, and even Howard Thomas, MD at ABC, was engaged in the casting process. A name was chosen on the basis of what they were looking for in the new character and the new actress: she must have Man Appeal – ‘M’ Appeal – Emma Peel. The ‘M’ appeal was found in actress Diana Rigg, and the show was on its way from being a success to being a classic.
Season four marked a relaunch for the series. The Dankworth theme no longer suited the mood of the stories, which were quirkier than ever before, and Laurie Johnson was commissioned to compose a new theme. The opening titles also changed to a series of still pictures of the two stars, Macnee & Rigg, in typical Avengers-like poses. Whilst season four was in black and white, the next season would see the programme being filmed in colour, despite ABC Weekend and the rest of ITV still being in monochrome themselves.
Season five also saw another change in the opening titles, with a filmed sequence involving the two stars. During the season, the ABC endcap was significantly different. It would start “ABC Production” minus the famous triangle logo and end showing that ABC stood for Associated British Corporation – a name invented by ABPC to fill the letters and avoid confusion with US ABC.
Diana Rigg decided to leave the show at the end of the penultimate season and producers brought in Linda Thorson to play the role of trainee Tara King, a character she created and named herself. But NBC scheduled the popular ‘Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In’ against the new series on ABC-US and the ratings went into freefall.
The production team was replaced and the character of Tara King was toughened up but that didn’t help ABC-US’s ratings and the show was cancelled in 1969.
ABC Weekend had also moved on to become Thames Television, and the show was no longer networked in the UK, ABC’s parent company having chosen to hold on to the rights rather than deed them to the part-owned Thames.
Since coming to an end, the show has received many plays in syndication worldwide including showings in the UK on Channel 4 and Granada Plus. The show can be found playing in its Blackman, Rigg and Thorson variants in all Francophone countries where it has become a popular cult hit. The series has been released several times on sell-through video and is known for being the height of British style and eccentricity throughout the world and in its home country. The Avengers has become a continuing legacy of ABC and all it stood for.