Friday, July 3, 2015

A properly British secret agent: Deceased Artiste Patrick Macnee

In discussing the career of Patrick Macnee's colleague (and former schoolmate) Christopher Lee, I noted that Lee was best known for playing Dracula but was also cast in a host of roles. Macnee wasn't – his range wasn't as wide as Lee's, but his charm and amiable bearing made him the kind of performer that viewers felt they “knew,” especially those of us who grew up with him on TV five times weekly, in reruns of of one of the best spy series ever.

Macnee was a seasoned stage actor who could also take on character parts, but he will forever be known as John Steed, the utterly unflappable “Avenger” who was always dressed formally and never once descended to the vulgarity common to the more active 007. Steed is now viewed as an icon of the Swingin' Sixties, but he was also a “man out of time,” a figure from Britain's past who just happened to be operating in the moddest of all mod worlds.

As I researched this piece, one thing became clear: Macnee was respected, and in some cases deeply loved, by his costars and crew members. From all accounts, he was as genteel as his signature character (if a bit less well-dressed). He also lived a full life, from his childhood (he was raised by his mother and her female partner) to his participation in WWII (he earned an Atlantic Star for his service in the Royal Navy).

As mentioned above, Macnee attended the Summer Fields prep school along with Christopher Lee; both young men appeared in a school production of Henry IV. The old schoolmates later reunited in public when Lee appeared in two episodes of The Avengers and Macnee played Watson to Lee's Holmes in two adventures based on Conan Doyle. Here's a Vestron Video (ah... VHS) ad for the first of the two movies:

Macnee worked steadily through the decades, from the Fifties through the Nineties. Before he donned the bowler hat and took up his ever-ready “brolly,” he appeared in numerous movies (his most prominent role being the young Jacob Marley in the Alastair Sim Scrooge (1951)). he also lived in both the U.S. and Canada, where he had roles on dozens of TV series, including Kraft Theater, Alcoa Theater, General Electric Theater, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Rawhide, and Twilight Zone.

After The Avengers ended he continued to work regularly in the movies and TV and onstage. His best-remembered supporting roles were in The Howling, the original Battlestar Galactica, the dreadful A View to a Kill (Roger Moore and he had played Holmes and Watson in Sherlock Holmes in New York), and This Is Spinal Tap. He was a game performer, who would be willing to deliver comedy monologues...

...or shill for a number of products. Here he promotes the Swiss Chalet chain of restaurants in Canada.

Macnee was indeed a trooper and, when he finally became a TV star around the world, he was already in his mid-40s (much like Jonathan Frid – minus Frid's evident distaste for the program that made him famous). The Avengers ran for six seasons during the Sixties and one in the Seventies, but it actually amounted to five different series. Every time Macnee's partner changed, the tenor of the show changed as well. This "telescoped" documentary offers a helpful and entertaining guide to the show:

The first “Avengers” were John Steed and Dr. David Keel (Ian Hendry, continuing a role he began in a series called Police Surgeon), a man seeking his fiancee's murderer (the reason the show was called The Avengers). After Hendry left, a second iteration of The Avengers appeared with Steed partnered with Mrs. Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman), who was one of the first women in a crimefighting TV show to participate in the fight scenes.

Mrs. Gale wore leather outfits, was Steed's intellectual equal, knew how to judo flip her attackers, and wore “Kinky Boots”.... (this song is insanely catchy, and has no trace of Harvey Fierstein or Cyndi Lauper about it)

The Blackman-Macnee iteration of the show looks claustrophobic to modern audiences (and even fans of the later Avengers) as it was very stagebound. It was immensely popular in the U.K., though, and made its two leads into stars. Scope out the rather dazzling roster of presenters and guests they were among in this clip from the Variety Club Awards.

The two Steed and Peel seasons were the show's undisputed high point, and are in fact the most repeated episodes in the series. Diana Rigg's Mrs Peel was a refined, elegant Amazon who possessed a great physical prowess – spawning the later National Lampoon contest in which hapless males vied to be kick in the balls by her – with seductive beauty and a propensity for getting into kinky situations and outfits.

Steed and Peel faced an array of unusual villains, as the show included fantasy elements for the first time, and a glorious pop art aesthetic. One of the aspects that didn't bother diehard fans but seemed to become an “issue” for certain slower American viewers was the fact that the show never explained who the leads worked for (where were they getting their assignments?).

In the later seasons this was fully clarified, via a portly old gent codenamed “Mother” – their very own “M” – who briefed the Avengers on their assignments, but during the color Peel season all that was necessary was for Steed to inform Peel that “we're needed.”

Full episodes of The Avengers are available on disc and in various locations online. Perhaps the best introduction to the series (b&w Peel season) “A Touch of Brimstone” and (color Peel season) “The Winged Avenger.” The show caught on instantly in the U.S. and was also a big success in France and Germany. To promote the series in Germany, Macnee and Rigg did this good-natured but rather slow interview, in which the host translates everything they say (his question to Rigg about whether working on the show is considered serious acting by her peers is actually a pretty good one).

The most interesting rare footage from the Steed-Peel years to be found is a photo shoot in which Rigg was paired with various Olympic athletes and Macnee was teamed with Twiggy for a mega-mod pic or two.

Macnee and Rigg worked together one more time after she left the series – he appeared on her short-lived American sitcom Diana as her ex-lover. The odd thing in the clip linked to in the last sentence is that the audience sounds weren't "sweetened," so you can hear someone coughing when there's no laughter.

Rigg followed Honor Blackman and Ian Hendry in leaving the show to “pursue a movie career.” (In the years to come she established herself as a very serious performer, but right after The Avengers she was prominently seen in... spy movies). Linda Thorson came on board as Tara King, the first single female Avenger and thus (finally!) a love interest for Steed.

Thorson was endearing as Tara, but had very tight boots to fill as the successor to Rigg. Macnee and Thorson did the requisite amount of publicity, a necessary evil given the that the show was still running around the world. The couple did commercials as their characters, even until the mid-1970s, but their most bizarre appearance has to be this guest stint on a German variety show.

Here they speak limited German, participate in not one but two terrible sketches, and peform a song and dance with the host. Thorson got the raw end of the deal, as she is wearing a blackface mask (!) as this clip begins....

In 1976 Macnee starred in The New Avengers which teamed Steed with a younger duo (Gareth Hunt, Joanna Lumley) who could more realistically perform the fight sequences. The show might've been a fair spy show on its own but, when compared to the original Avengers, it was pretty tepid.

The series debuted in the U.S. in 1978, and Macnee once again made the rounds, appearing on things like The Mike Douglas Show to talk about men's fashion (at least that's all there is in this short clip).

The two most touching Macnee clips involve tributes paid to him by his former costars. The only time he was seen with the full contingent of female Avengers was at a reunion held to promote the 50th anniversary of the show (seen briefly in the documentary embedded above).

All of the actresses (and the other two male Avengers) took the time to participate in a This Is Your Life episode dedicated to Macnee. One gets the sense that Macnee was much admired by his costars, most especially Rigg.

The last, and best, clip to feature a round-up of the series regulars, is a segment from the 2000 BAFTA awards in which the “Avengers girls” were presented with an honorary award. Macnee introduces the segment with his customary style and charm. Blackman and Lumley were able to attend in-person, and Thorson and Rigg sent taped messages. Again, Rigg zeroes in immediately on working with Macnee as being the best part of the series for her.

Farewell to a gentleman's gentleman who was admired by the ladies as well.

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