Hard to imagine at the start of yet another dreary summer of superheroes at the multiplex, but once upon a time "The Avengers" didn't mean lurid musclebound rubber-nippled Ãœbermenschen battling malevolent Norse gods across a hole in the time-space continuum over the streets of Manhattan, but an urbane middle-aged toff and a catsuited Carnaby Street dolly bird bantering their way across Swingin' London. That other "Avengers" was a big hit in the US. It was, indeed, the last British telly show to play in primetime on one of the Big Three American networks (ABC). Thereafter, the upscale Brit hits were confined to PBS, and the lowbrow stuff was snapped up by Yank producers for local adaptation - see everything from "Three's Company" and "Sanford & Son" to "Dancing With The Stars" and "The Office".
But for a while Americans liked "The Avengers", and it lingered in the memory so warmly that, three decades later, Hollywood opted to do a big-screen, big-budget remake. Patrick Macnee, the original John Steed, sportingly agreed to do the usual cameo - in this case, as a ministry bureaucrat rendered invisible in some research mishap and now consigned to a cramped office in a Whitehall basement. As I say, he was invisible, so we heard Macnee's affable drawl (he had a smile in his voice, even when beating up the bad guys), but the audience never saw him, which was probably just as well - because, if they did, they'd remember the sheer affability of MacNee's Steed. He was never a conventionally handsome leading man â€” he had a bit of a dumplingy face â€” but he brought a bonhomous ease to the role of the unflappable secret agent: the bowler, the brollies, the buttonholes and the Bollinger seemed like natural extensions of his charm; you can understand why groovy birds like Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson would dig such an ostensibly squaresville cat.
He wasn't supposed to be the star. "The Avengers" began in 1961 with Ian Hendry as a mystery-solving doctor David Keel. Macnee returned to England from an indifferent theatrical career in Canada to play the role of Dr Keel's assistant "John Steed". But then the star departed, and Steed found himself carrying the show with a succession of glamorous gal sidekicks - Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, Linda Thorson as Tara King. They were very literal sidekicks in that they kicked to the side, being masters - or mistresses - of martial arts, doing most of the heavy lifting while Steed occasionally boinked someone over the head with his bowler. Many years ago, Dame Diana told me "Emma Peel" came from "M Appeal", as in "Man Appeal". But Steed always called her "Mrs Peel", just as he called her predecessor "Mrs Gale", because he was a gentleman. And the ladies always called him "Steed" because they were one of the boys, as in that English public-school thing whereby grown-up chaps who know each other well address each other by their surnames ("I say, Holmes!" "Yes, Watson...").
"The Avengers" was created by Sydney Newman, the greatest of all Canadian TV producers (he also inaugurated "Dr Who"), but hit its high-water mark under Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell. In the early days, they didn't have a lot of money, but they spent it wisely. The difference between the two principals was defined in what they wore and what they drove: Steed favored a vintage Rolls or Bentley, the ladies the latest convertible sports car. After seeing Mrs Peel drive one, my dad bought a Lotus Elan - a beautiful ride with a fiberglass body that crumpled to dust when a truck brushed us ever so lightly on the Route National 7 in France. The ladies wore fab gear from Carnaby Street, while Macnee, ditching the trenchcoats he'd worn in the first series, opted for a slightly heightened version of an English gent's get-up that he designed with help from Pierre Cardin. Laurie Johnson wrote one of the best telly-spy theme-tunes and the opening titles are pure style: Mrs Peel shooting the cork off the champagne bottle, Steed's unsheathed sword-stick swiping a carnation and sending it flying through the air for Mrs Peel to put in his buttonhole.
The budgets weren't huge, so after a while you notice that not only the quiet mews where Steed keeps his flat but also every busy London thoroughfare is entirely deserted. No money for extras. But who needs them? When the rest of the world picked up on the show, you can tell from the title what its appeal was: The French dumped the then obscure "Avengers" name in favor of "Chapeau melon et bottes de cuir" (Bowler hat and leather boots), the Poles favored "Rewolwer i melonik" (A revolver and a bowler), and the Germans "Mit Schirm, Charme und Melone" (With umbrella, charm and bowler). Our old friend Herbert Kretzmer teamed up with Laurie Johnson to write Macnee and Blackman a novelty song called "Kinky Boots". Macnee wasn't any kind of singer, but he's game, and it was a modest hit in the Sixties, and a bigger one in the Nineties.
The boots were too kinky for ABC in America, which dropped more than a few episodes because of what it felt was a faintly degenerate frisson - for example, the episode in which Mrs Peel in stiletto heels, a corset and a spiked collar is whipped by Peter Wyngarde. If you're keeping score of Brit secret agents, Wyngarde is the fellow who, after Steed's bespoke three-piece, took the foppish English adventurer to the next level and as "Jason King" inaugurated the velvet and ruffles revived by Mike Myers for Austin Powers.
As kinky as its US network found it, Steed and his birds never kissed or made out or crumpled the sheets. He'd hold the door for them, and offer a glass of champagne, and evidently they reciprocated once in a while with a nice cuppa, given that Mrs Peel handing over the reins to Tara King explains that he liked his tea stirred counter-clockwise. And yet, despite a total lack of sex or even light petting, Macnee had an undeniable sexual chemistry with all his leading ladies - as one reflected on glumly when the 1998 Hollywood version cast dour old Ralph Fiennes, who gave the impression he was faintly repelled by Uma Thurman.
Back in the Sixties, was Steed, as Austin Powers would say, shagging like a minx? Just ahead of the umpteenth rerun, Channel Four in Britain reunited Macnee and Honor Blackman for an interview in which they were asked whether they ever, you know, did it.
Macnee replied that you wouldn't call a woman "Mrs Gale" if you were sleeping with her. Besides, he said, offering a more general principle, "if you're working with a woman every day, you don't sexualize with her."
Then he smiled and purred to the camera: "I'm joking, of course."
The women were missuses because their husbands were either deceased or vanished. Mrs Gale's had been killed during the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, and Mrs Peel's had gone missing up the Amazon. Tara King, played by Linda Thorson, a Canadian actress straight out of drama school, was single and so had yet to find a man in order to lose him to revolting colonials or the Amazonian depths. At any rate, the widowed and waiting gave the secret-agent partnerships a strange kind of restrained eroticism both at odds with the age and indisputably part of it.
Miss Thorson remembered her late co-star as a "paradox". "He was the best-dressed man on television," she said, "and a nudist in real life." Which is true. He was the embodiment of an English gentleman but spent most of his life in the California desert at Rancho Mirage a stone's throw from Sinatra, Dinah Shore and Bob Hope. His character Steed was an old Etonian, but unlike the real Macnee had not been expelled from the school for running a lucrative trade in porn mags. He was a kinsman of the Earl of Huntingdon, but his mother left his father and he was raised by mum and her lesbian partner, whom he called "Uncle Evelyn" and who paid for him to go to Eton.
He ended the war as a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, then started acting, and like Christopher Lee a fortnight ago wound up as an extra in Laurence Olivier's Hamlet. I wish the long-lived Macnee had enjoyed a golden age like Lee's. That avuncular voice was so ageless and distinctive. But his post-Avengers career boils down to little more than an agreeable turn as record company exec Sir Denis Eton-Hogg in This Is Spinal Tap and as Sir Somebody Somebody-Else in one of the worst Bond films A View To A Kill, in which he plays a racehorse owner and, if memory serves, Bond villain Christopher Walken's brilliant scheme involves a mechanical contraption that makes the race jumps higher so the horse falls.
On balance, I prefer the gentleman adventurer to the chemically-enhanced superhero, especially when the long underwear is wearing as thin as it is in the current franchises. But ours is not a time for affable amateurs, and, as the appalling Fiennes version demonstrated, style and charm are hard to fake. I always enjoyed the moment when Patrick Macnee would call up his partner and, to the accompaniment of a Laurie Johnson motif, say, "Mrs Peel, you're needed..."
John Steed, you're needed... Rest in peace.