Mrs. Peel, we're needed

Charles Taylor savors the fizzy, inimitable charm of TV's "The Avengers," and reviews the new movie based on the show, directed by Jeremiah Chechik and starring Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman and Sean Connery.

Published August 17, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

"'The Avengers' is about a man in a bowler hat
and a woman who flings men over her shoulder."
_____________________________-- Patrick Macnee

It was also about the couch. During Diana Rigg's first season as Mrs. Emma Peel on "The Avengers," her partner, John Steed (played by the estimable Patrick Macnee) lived in a bachelor flat appointed in a manner suiting an upper-class Brit with a military past: dark wood, a model ship, the occasional shield or sword or marble bust. And yet it's the couch I remember best, a large black one (or so it seemed, since the show was then in black and white) outlined in white piping, deep enough for two to comfortably stretch its length, their heads at opposite ends.

The couch made all that other manly folderol fade into the background. There's a picture of it in Macnee's recent memoir, "The Avengers and Me" that sums up its appeal. Steed and Mrs. Peel stretch out along its length, facing each other, he absorbed in some official-looking papers, she in one of the varied projects or sciences that occupied her. It's the most quotidian of images: a quiet evening at home. And yet there's nothing drab or routine about it. They're both dressed casually yet immaculately, he in a dark polo sweater and creased trousers, she in a sleeveless top and checked slacks, both in boots (propped up on the couch yet -- a no-no in my parents' house). Drinks are within easy reach on the table behind. It's a picture of contentment without complacency, comfort that doesn't sacrifice style, companionship that doesn't preclude individuality. To a kid encountering "The Avengers," it made grown-up life seem pretty damn good.

The people who insist that television influences kids are such overwhelmingly killjoys and do-gooders that I'm loath to admit they have a point. (I just don't happen to buy that TV's influence is inevitably pernicious.) Certainly "The Avengers" influenced me. The show's irony, style and sophisticated flippancy -- and the teasing, indefinable chemistry between Macnee and Rigg -- planted ideas that I believe in to this day. That equal friendships are possible between men and women without either denying their sexuality. That style is a form of ethics. That work should be play. That tradition and innovation can be integrated. That surfaces are both delightful and untrustworthy. That luxury and indulgence don't necessarily dull your responses. And that a drink before going out never hurt anybody.

To me, the Macnee/Rigg shows are "The Avengers." In Britain, "The Avengers" lasted six seasons, spanned almost the whole of the '60s and saw Steed teamed up with a variety of partners. America saw only the two Rigg seasons and the final one with Linda Thorson as Tara King. I've never seen the two seasons that preceded Rigg, with Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale (though A&E aired them earlier this decade), and probably unfairly, I've never given Thorson a chance.

"The Avengers" is definitely not the atrocity of the same name currently stinking up a theater near you. Luckily, there's a way to see examples of the real McCoy, in three boxed sets (a fourth will follow) that will cover the entire 1967 season -- the first season in color and Rigg's last -- lovingly remastered. The past few months have also seen the publication of Macnee's becomingly modest memoir (written with "Avengers"-ologist Dave Rogers, whose "The Complete Avengers" is a trove of information on the show's history, production and merchandise); Toby Miller's endearing academic exegesis "The Avengers"; and Alain Carraze and Jean-Luc Putheaud's lavish and handsome book "The Avengers Companion."

Macnee summed up the show more accurately than he may have realized. We get hooked on stories with recurring characters not for the plots but because the characters' habits and personalities endear them to us. Each new adventure becomes a chance for the characters to fulfill their personalities. "The Avengers" took that concept to outrageous extremes, particularly in the second Rigg season, by trading in the fantastic and bizarre -- each week brought a new evil genius with some comic-book baroque plan for ruling the world -- and then refusing to take any threat seriously. This approach let the show slip the noose of Cold War xenophobia that's long been the bane of espionage fiction.

Oh, there was "us" and "them" in "The Avengers," but often "they" were treated as friendly competitors. Queen and country may have benefited from Steed and Emma's exploits, but the duo was doing it for fun, not patriotism and its moldy connotations of duty. The summons that Steed sent to Emma at the beginning of most episodes -- the message "Mrs. Peel, we're needed" on engraved cards and microscope slides, on traffic lights and over her TV set -- was an invitation to a party. Why else, in the episode "From Venus With Love," do they change into evening clothes before visiting a crime scene? The credits sequence for the 1967 season illustrates the hedonist's version of beating swords into plowshares: Steed uses his umbrella sword to snare himself a boutonniere; Emma uses her gun to uncork champagne. Steed and Emma's adversaries were crazed free-agent baddies for the same reason the two had no defined links to British intelligence: It freed them from the dullness of bureaucrats. That was the territory of Le Carri and his heavy-spirited legion of gray men on both sides. "The Avengers" belong to the world of '60s pop, with its ironic juxtaposition of the familiar with the outlandish. (Among the things you could count on was at least one British eccentric per episode.)

"The Avengers" still seems fresh, when so many other ironic entertainments seem emotionally cowardly because the show was parodying the very genre devices it used (still a new idea at the time). "The Avengers" was able to preserve what we loved about the espionage genre while acknowledging the hackneyed conventions we couldn't ignore. Or, as Miller puts it, "Repetition offers dependable characteristics alongside the frisson of surprise that makes for distinctiveness." (Miller's book is sweet because he so clearly adores the show, yet, being a good academic, feels bound to make his often trenchant points using words like "tropes" and "signifiers.") Clichi trounces clichi in this exchange from "The Bird Who Knew Too Much," as Steed and Emma sift through pellets of birdseed in search of microfilm:

Steed: Do you know they brought over the whole Eastern rocket program in the eye of a needle?

Emma: Ingenious.

Steed: Except for the fact that the courier laid down and rested in a haystack.

Emma: You mean they ...

Steed (finishing her thought): They're still looking for it.

The show's arch tone defused any danger the pair faced and that allowed Emma to be such a groundbreaking character. Already strong, independent and intelligent, she went even further by refusing to be a victim. True, Steed rescued her now and then, but what seems more important is the way the writers put Emma in traditional damsel-in-distress situations only to have her respond without a sign of fear. Emma treated each threat as a mere annoyance, as something essentially beneath her. In "Escape Through Time" she faces a 16th century inquisitor who tells her that her Marie Antoinette get-up has been designed to inflame men with lust. Emma quips, "You should see me 400 years from now."

In a 1984 piece in London's Daily Telegraph, Maureen Paton wrote, "Back in the sixties all my class at school, boys and girls alike, fell hopelessly in love with Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in 'The Avengers.'" The genius of Rigg's portrayal was that she did what generations of male heroes had done: made sexiness inseparable from competence, confidence and professionalism. Emma does show fear in the course of the episodes where, separated from Steed, she's stranded with some maniac in a remote place. But those flashes of fright never seriously challenged her nerve or resolve. Rigg had the ability to turn absurd comic-book spy capers into high-style comedy. Like a perfect chardonnay, she was dry, crisp and tart in just the right combination. The only thing missing was the chill.

Wonderful as Rigg was, she leaves Patrick Macnee in constant danger of being overlooked. His "The Avengers and Me" is touching precisely because he's completely free of the resentment other actors have shown toward the roles that made them famous. Macnee knows he never topped John Steed, but he's grateful to have played the part, and for the affection he's earned because of it. Macnee played Steed with a glancing slyness -- innuendo held in check -- that he made seem amazingly easy. He's the Ginger Rogers of this partnership -- the one whose timing and snap and plain likability are essential to the final mix. If Emma's brand of irony lies in the way she sidesteps female vulnerability, Steed's lies in his subversion of the traditional English gentleman. In the course of the duo's investigations, Steed walked into every lion's den with undiminished good cheer and impeccable manners -- both masking the threat of someone not to be trifled with. He's a Wodehouse swell rewritten by Ian Fleming. In "Murdersville," he enters the pub of a small town where Emma, who's gotten word to him, is being held captive. Steed puts a sudden end to the small talk with the cheery non sequitur, "Mrs. Emma Peel." A startled barmaid sends a glass crashing to the floor. Steed smilingly explains, "Wanted to see your reaction." The fight that ensues is almost an afterthought. Steed's cunning and cheek have gotten the upper hand before a single blow has landed.

Emma and Steed offered an easy unity of the modern and the classic that was hard to come by in the '60s, while still embodying the decade's belief in creating your own life as you pleased, picking and choosing among the artifacts of the past and the present to achieve a new, seamless synthesis. Steed, ever ready to indulge in a glass of champagne or admire a young lovely who flits his way, wears his bowler and umbrella as both the trademark of a true gentleman and the ironic disguise of a born hedonist. Emma's chic, modern outfits (designed by John Bates and Alun Hughes) and her interest in modern art and design mark her as a member of her generation, while her scientific training links her to tradition.

From the moment they made their debut as a team, the chemistry between Macnee and Rigg has been the topic of endless did-they-or-didn't-they? speculation. (Even the stars themselves are divided: In recent separate interviews in TV Guide, he says of course; she says no.) Although a few quicksilver hints dropped in various episodes make it hard to think Steed and Emma didn't, their relationship seems best summed up by a character in Brian Morton's novel "Starting Out in the Evening": "She loved the way Mr. Steed would look at Mrs. Peel: a gaze that was appreciative but not acquisitive, a gaze filled with desire but without vulgarity ... though they were mad about each other they never touched; they made love only with their eyes." And, Morton might have added, with their banter, the interplay of their minds. We never proceeded past Steed and Emma's bedroom doors, but we got to see them make love every week.

Nothing of that sense of play makes it into the new big-screen version of "The Avengers." Directed by Jeremiah Chechik -- for whom, to paraphrase a colleague, a special circle of hell has since been reserved -- the film flails incoherently from set to set, trying to be kicky and madcap and pop, but with no sense of the show's casual acceptance of the absurd. Perhaps the utter impossibility of figuring out where the two of them are or what they're doing is the result of studio-ordered trimming, reportedly drastic. But you'd have to be mad to look at what's here and advise anyone to include more.

Maybe actors should be given some benefit of the doubt when they're directed by a total incompetent like Chechik, but everyone in "The Avengers" is stupefyingly awful. Ralph Fiennes, on whom Steed's bowler is neither a literal nor a figurative fit, is po-faced and stiff. As for Uma Thurman, this is the first time I've actively disliked her. Trying for comic haughtiness (Emma, haughty?) she comes off as prissy and snobbish. Worse, she violates the cardinal rule of her character: When in danger, she shows fear. The movie's utter charmlessness even stifles Sean Connery, who plays the villain, Sir August de Wynter. You can see why Warner Bros. refused to show this movie to critics before it opened. But why entrust the movie version of a show loved by millions to the director of "Diabolique" and "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" in the first place? The only thing preventing "The Avengers" from being a legendary Hollywood disaster is that the filmmakers have no idea of what legendary means.

In the end, Steed and Emma are as much states of mind as characters. In retrospect, the "Who's Who?" episode sums up the place they hold in the fantasy lives of the show's fans. Steed and Emma find themselves transported into the bodies of enemy agents, the irredeemably seedy Basil and Lola. Once these badduns have realized their scheme and wound up inside of Steed and Emma, an odd thing happens: Steed and Emma start to seem unaccountably shabby while Basil and Lola, hosts to the souls of Steed and Emma, begin to behave with something approaching dignity and aplomb. This is how Steed and Emma seem to those of us who still love the shows, years after their last adventure: as something to live up to, present even when only in spirit.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

MORE FROM Charles Taylor

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Espionage Movies