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'The New Avengers' - The Television Series

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The New Avengers (1976-1977) was a sequel series to The Avengers (1961-1969), a classic 1960s spy-fi television series. It told the continuing story of British spy John Steed and his two new assistants, Purdey and Mike Gambit. They work for the Ministry, an official government organisation that investigates threats to the nation and the world.

Characters

There were three recurring characters in the series. In the episodes' animated opening sequence, each of the three Avengers was represented by a coloured lion; these then combined to form The New Avengers' Union Flag-bedecked lion.

The Red Lion: John Steed (Patrick Macnee)

Avenger girls can come and go, but if Patrick Macnee fell down a manhole tomorrow, it would be the end of 'The Avengers' for good.
- Brian Clemens, Producer of The Avengers and The New Avengers

The only character to be revived from the original series, John Steed has been promoted and is now a more senior, central figure at the Ministry. He usually gives Purdey and Gambit their assignments but, often reminiscent of the good old days1 of old fashioned spying, he relishes the opportunity to go out into the field when he can, usually to come to his young protégés' rescue.

Steed now lives in a country estate, nicknamed 'Steed's Stud'. His house has a hint of his old Cathy Gale era (1962-4) flat, as there is a flight of steps in the corner. Steed appears to be undecided about whether or not he wishes to find someone special to settle down with, admitting that he has only ever been married to his job.

The White Lion: Purdey (Joanna Lumley)

Purdey will be... tough, yet vulnerable, with a huge sense of humour. The 'Avengers' girls will have gone full circle with Joanna, so much so that she won't have to burn her bra, she can put it back on2.
- Brian Clemens

A girl with one name, Purdey was once a professional ballerina so she has the ability to kick the foreheads of even the tallest men without jumping. She lives in a basement one-room flat. A bead curtain divides her bedroom from her lounge, where she has a dance mirror in front of which she practices various ballet moves. She is also fond of tap-dancing, tennis, motorcycling and marshmallows (although marshmallows don't form an important plot point in any episode). Usually, anyone she fancies either ends up dead or is a traitor.

Joanna Lumley is perhaps best known for sitcom Absolutely Fabulous3, in which she plays a character so inebriated she is unable to walk three feet in a straight line. She is often referred to as the only Avengers star to appear in a James Bond film before The Avengers4; however, she only had a blink-and-you'll-miss-it part in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. More notably, Joanna Lumley had unsuccessfully auditioned to play Hannah Wild in the short-lived Avengers stage show5.

Me Tarzan? No, that's not right... Me Jane...? No – me Purdey!

The name 'Purdey' was inspired by James Purdey & Son gunsmiths, a company formed in 1814 that has a reputation for the finest shotguns and hunting rifles. This was after it was learnt that the character's original name, 'Charly', was a brand of perfume. Shortly before the series began, Joanna Lumley cut her hair quite short, much to the production team's horror. Thus she created the famous, and much emulated, 'Purdey Bob' hairstyle.

The Blue Lion: Mike Gambit (Gareth Hunt)

The working class member of the team, Mike Gambit joined the navy when he was 14 and has since become proficient in martial arts. His flat, the epitome of 1970s masculine style, is full of automated gadgets including a concealed bed that appears at the push of a button. His hobbies include car racing and dodgy Irish accents.

The character of Gambit was introduced as it was felt that, at 54, Steed was too old to do the action sequences that the series needed, although in The Avengers it had always been the girls who had performed the bulk of the action in any case. Gambit also had a flirting/bickering relationship with Purdey which was reminiscent of the earlier Steed/Cathy dynamic and often resulted in the best lines. He also regularly flirted with any other women he encountered.

'Champagning' at the Bit: Creating The New Avengers

The Avengers was a television series that had lasted for 161 episodes over six years and was broadcast all around the world. Most episodes ended with Steed and his companion celebrating cracking each case with a glass of champagne. Although in Britain and America the era in which Diana Rigg played Emma Peel is considered the highlight, curiously in France the final series, in which Linda Thorsen played Tara King, was by far the most popular. Thorsen even had a French Number One hit record.

In 1975 French television executive Rudolph Roffi contacted Brian Clemens. Roffi wanted to make a champagne advert featuring Linda Thorsen as Tara King; in the end the advert featured both Patrick Macnee and Linda Thorsen in their roles of John Steed and Tara King. After this advert was made, Roffi asked why The Avengers was no longer in production, to which Clemens replied that he and his partner Albert Fennell had tried to revive the series but no British television company was interested in funding it. Roffi then offered to give £2 million towards the show and so Brian Clemens, Albert Fennell and composer Laurie Johnson formed their own independent television company, The Avengers (Film & TV) Enterprises Ltd, to make the series in association with IDTV Paris.

The first and most important goal was to secure Patrick Macnee's involvement. Although Clemens had considered Steed, played by the 54-year-old Patrick Macnee, to be more in the Mother6 role, Macnee wanted to play a central part in the action. After the co-stars were announced, Joanna Lumley and Gareth Hunt underwent a commando training course, martial arts sessions, fitness training and, additionally for Lumley, an hour of ballet training each day. This was done under the supervision of stunt directors Cyd Child and Ray Austin, both of whom had worked on The Avengers - Cyd Child had been the stunt double for both Diana Rigg and Tara King, yet Lumley and Hunt would now do their stunts themselves, except Purdey's motorbike stunts as they could not get insurance for Joanna Lumley to do them.

Cars for the Stars

When the series was in production in early 1976, British Leyland offered to provide all the cars needed for the heroes in the new series. This was on condition that all the cars driven by the heroes would be new British Leyland models and that the company would be allowed to incorporate some of the car stunt work into their adverts. The producers leapt into agreeing to this offer, so soon Steed said bye bye to his beloved Bentley and his Rolls Royce was replaced with a Range Rover. In fact both Steed and Gambit drove Range Rovers and Jaguars. Steed obtained a classy Jaguar coupé in British Racing green as well as a rather more mundane yellow Rover saloon. Purdey drove a MGB and Triumph TR7, both in yellow.

This deal ended up being something of a poisoned chalice as the British Leyland vehicles all experienced reliability problems.

Pilot Light

The series began filming at Pinewood Studios in April 1976. By then an important change had been made; Nielsen-Ferns Toronto, a Canadian syndicate, was willing to contribute the other half of the funds required to make a full 26-episode series. The bad news was that Britain's ITV companies were unwilling to support The New Avengers.

ITV was run on a federal franchise basis, comprising a number of local television companies that broadcast programmes to their individual regions. At the time, The Avengers (Film & TV) Enterprises Ltd was the only truly independent television company without a network; with only one programme that none of the ITV companies had been interesting in funding themselves anyway, they were unable to secure a primetime slot. Instead, different regions of the ITV network decided to broadcast the programme on different days and at different times. None of the scheduled showings were at the desirable times that had been hoped for.

The pilot episode, 'The Eagle's Nest', was a delightful tale that guest-starred Peter Cushing and showed the initial ambition of the new series. Unfortunately it was soon realised that the team were not able to afford to make episodes on this scale. The plan to have famous guest stars was dropped and the number of characters per episode was reduced dramatically. Similarly, unlike the original series which was renowned for its clothing, the number of costumes was kept low as even the wardrobe department was forced to economise whenever possible.

Blocked

After the first block of 13 episodes there was a short production break before the final 13 episodes were made. It was during the break that the French and Canadian companies began making demands in order to assert more control over the series that they were funding. They both wanted episodes filmed in their countries and the French company in particular wanted Purdey to be either sexier or replaced.

Purdey is short of lip gloss, and her wardrobe is dull and drab... I think the stories could be sexier, more violent also.
- Rudolph Roffi

While the French television company was demanding more sex and violence, in America, potentially the series' biggest customer, audiences were demanding less violence on screens. Patrick Macnee argued:

Ours is a surrealistic Grimm's fairy tale sort of terror. If we start pumping bullets into people's stomachs, we're done for. And it’s a joke that the French should be asking for more violence when the Americans are so interested in the show. They've got the biggest no-no against violence – viewers are even striking against 'Starsky and Hutch'.

Joanna Lumley was also angered by the French criticism, stating:

We don't want to see bottoms and breasts, do we? I think the public have had quite enough of that on TV and everywhere else. Aren't people bored of actresses who lick their lips to be sexy? It will be a pity if 'The New Avengers' has to jump on the bandwagon because of the influences from other programmes.

In the end a compromise was reached. Three episodes of the 13 in the second block would be filmed in France under Clemens and Fennell's supervision, with the final four episodes to be made in Canada by the Canadian syndicate. These four would later be marketed as The New Avengers in Canada. Joanna Lumley remained as Purdey; however she was given a French-influenced wardrobe and a new hairstyle by John Frieda, and both Purdey and Gambit were given more love interests. Patrick Macnee had also changed; he had worked hard to lose weight in the hope that Steed would have a more active role.

I believed I had something more to contribute to the part. In fact, it wasn't until the second 13 stories that my voice was heard and I became more in keeping with the original Steed. I confess that I didn't like being 'retired' to Steed's Stud; nice house and all that, but rather boring.
- Patrick Macnee

The lucrative American market was put off by the amount of sex and violence in the show7, with CBS broadcasting the series at 11.30pm rather than the primetime slot the original series had enjoyed. The block also failed to get an ITV network showing - the regions broadcast it randomly, with many regions changing the date and time it was shown at whim.

The changes that the French and Canadian companies had insisted on resulted in declining viewing figures, plus Clemens and Fennell lost control over the direction the series was heading. Yet while the last four episodes, The New Avengers in Canada, were being made on the other side of the world without their control, they were approached by London Weekend Television (LWT). LWT's rival Thames Television's series The Sweeney (1975-78) had proven popular so LWT challenged Fennell and Clemens to create something similar; the result was The Professionals (1977-83). With interest and control over The New Avengers waning and the producers being challenged to make The Professionals instead, The New Avengers came to an end.

Escapade

After The New Avengers ended, CBS sold two unfilmed New Avengers scripts to America's CBS Television. In 1978 CBS with Quinn Martin/Woodruff Productions adapted one of these to make a pilot episode entitled 'Escapade' for a proposed Avengers USA series. So heavily re-written as to be almost unrecognisable, it starred Granville van Dusen as 'Joshua' instead of John Steed, and Morgan Fairchild as 'Suzy', replacing Purdey. Emphasising sex and a computer named 'Oz' it failed to generate any interest. In 1980 LWT and America's CBS briefly considered co-funding more New Avengers, but the amount they were willing to spend was approximately £25,000 less per episode than the estimated amount it would cost to make each one.

Opening Sequence

Each episode started with an exciting pre-credits sequence, at the end of which the action would freeze at a dramatic moment, usually when someone was falling, jumping or dying. Then the familiar fanfare of Laurie Johnson's Avengers music would begin, before transforming to the updated version of the theme tune, sounding like a funky military march. At the end of the credits sequence the action would resume exactly where it left off.

There were two different opening credits sequences. For the first few episodes of the first block, the sequence showed clips of the main cast from the pilot and other early episodes as well as test footage, culminating in a picture of Steed flanked by his two young apprentices. This sequence was assembled quickly and was used only until the real opening credits sequence was finished. This featured breakthrough computer animation showing Steed, Purdey and Gambit transforming into the red, white and blue lions, before they combine to form the Union Flag lion logo.

Episodes

Block OneBlock Two
  1. The Eagle's Nest
  2. The Midas Touch
  3. House of Cards
  4. Last of the Cybernauts…??
  5. To Catch a Rat
  6. Cat amongst the Pigeons
  7. Target!
  8. Faces
  9. The Tale of the Big Why
  10. Three Handed Game
  11. Sleeper
  12. Gnaws
  13. Dirtier by the Dozen
  1. Hostage
  2. Trap
  3. Dead Men Are Dangerous
  4. Medium Rare
  5. Angels of Death
  6. Obsession
  7. The Lion and the Unicorn
  8. K Is For Kill Part One: The Tiger Awakes
  9. K Is For Kill Part Two: Tiger by the Tail
  10. Complex
  11. The Gladiators
  12. Forward Base
  13. Emily

Episodes 'The Lion and the Unicorn', 'K Is For Kill Part One: The Tiger Awakes' and 'K Is For Kill Part Two: Tiger by the Tail' were filmed in France. 'Complex', 'The Gladiators', 'Forward Base' and 'Emily' were the four Canadian episodes, also known as The New Avengers in Canada.

Notable Episodes

Last of the Cybernauts…??

The last episode to feature the Cybernauts, The Avengers' only recurring enemy.

To Catch a Rat

This episode starred Ian Hendry as Gunner, a man who lost his memory following an assignment to catch a traitor 17 years ago. Ian Hendry had been the original star of The Avengers when it first began, 17 years earlier.

Target!

The idea of a training course that kills is a delightful Avengers idea, and this episode inspired the opening sequence of the 1998 The Avengers film.

K Is For Kill Part One: The Tiger Awakes

The opening minutes of the episode features a scene set in 1965. This shows Steed's classic Bentley as well as Steed on the phone to Mrs Peel.

Conclusion

The New Avengers is often compared negatively to The Avengers, which seems a little unfair. The Avengers was made with the full backing of one of ITV's most powerful companies with extensive funding by American television. In contrast The New Avengers was made by three friends who had to beg and borrow money from all corners of the world from backers who kept pulling the production in opposite directions. The circumstances behind the two series could hardly be more different, yet The New Avengers in its short life proved it was a worthy successor to the earlier, classic series.

Rather than live in the past, The New Avengers adapted the show and evolved it into one suitable for 1970s audiences who now preferred grit over style. The series was aware of its budgetary limitations but was undaunted by them, even experimenting with cutting edge technology such as computer graphics in the opening credits. It proved a worthy final chapter in the adventures of John Steed8.

1Including having photographs of previous assistants Cathy Gale, Emma Peel and Tara King on display.2Or alternatively use her bra as a double-barrelled slingshot when trapped unarmed near a minefield surrounded by mercenaries, such as took place in 'Dirtier by the Dozen'.3She has also campaigned for Gurkha rights, of course, as well as being the first and only woman to date to play the Doctor in Doctor Who. She has also appeared in two Pink Panther films; Trail of the Pink Panther and Curse of the Pink Panther.4Avengers stars Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee went on to appear in Goldfinger, On Her Majesty's Secret Service and A View to a Kill respectively.5Running in 1971, this had Simon Oates playing John Steed.6In the final series of The Avengers the character of Mother was Steed and Tara King's boss, choosing assignments and sending Steed on his missions.7The second block of The New Avengers contained so much sex and violence that the recent DVD release rated it 'PG – Parental Guidance, some scenes may be unsuitable for small children'.8Film? What film?

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