Ask people what they associate with The Avengers and they’ll mention Steed and Mrs Peel, bowler hats, leather boots, fantastical schemes to take over the world and copious amounts of champagne. All are valid points and reflect the show in its 1965-67 heyday, but for some the series’ defining moment had already passed.
Series Three marks the show’s transition to the formula for which it became famous. Steed’s character is expanded on a little: he is an agent for some secret government department. He is teamed with academic Cathy Gale, played by Honor Blackman. The cheroot-smoking, leather-clad Cathy is a judo expert and a ‘ton up’ motorcyclist. She’s also slightly older than Steed’s subsequent foils, making theirs more a relationship of equals. Daringly for the time, they are frequently seen letting themselves in and out of each other’s flats.
Patrick Macnee’s performance strikes the perfect balance between the shadowy man of mystery and dandy gentleman spy. He’s charming but not entirely trustworthy, letting Cathy in on his motives a little at a time or after considerable prompting on her part. The scenes where Cathy rumbles Steed’s schemes give their relationship more complexity than the more straightforward Steed-Peel dynamic.
Let us return to the premise that this is where the seeds of The Avengers’ success were sown. At least once a season, the female sidekick goes off to a strange house to be tormented by an unseen nemesis. This series staple begins with the classic ‘Don’t Look Behind You’, a creepy thriller by Brian Clemens, tautly directed by Peter Hammond. Clemens would bastardise this and the script of ‘Dressed to Kill’ to diminished effect in ‘The Joker’ and ‘The Superlative Seven’. Other highlights of this series include ‘The Grandeur That Was Rome’, ‘The Wringer’, ‘The Little Wonders’, ‘The Nutshell’ and the superb ‘Esprit De Corps’.
There’s no denying that Series Three lacks polish. It was mostly recorded live and there are line fluffs aplenty. The incidental music was played over the action, complete with glitches on the tape. The sets wobble. But on these unfussy foundations the series’ global fame was built. Honor Blackman would bow out at the end of the series to appear in Goldfinger. The Americans would invest heavily in The Avengers, turning Diana Rigg into a household name before she, too, was lured to 007 and Hollywood. To think that it all started with these mostly studio-bound episodes.
In fairness, the Cathy Gale era isn’t completely overlooked: there were repeats on Channel 4 and Bravo in the early Nineties and Series Three was released on DVD by Optimum in 2010. Audio drama maestros Big Finish recently re-recorded the lost episodes from the first season and are adapting Grant Morrison’s ‘Steed and Mrs Peel’ comic adventures. Now would be a great time to bring the Steed and Cathy pairing back and introduce audiences to the unique style of this pivotal time in the series’ history.