TOO BRIT TO QUIT “Avengers” still intrigues American audiences

Mrs. Peel, you’re still needed.

We Americans continue to lag behind in the “Avengers” race. Audiences entered late in the series’ life when it was first broadcast Stateside in 1966. By then its fifth season, John Steed (Patrick Macnee) had already gone through four partners (one unseen).

The show and its 1976 revival “The New Avengers” (starring, among others, “Absolutely Fabulous” star Joanna Lumley) slipped from ABC to CBS and independent station reruns into television purgatory. Cable channel A&E ran a retrospective in the 1990s, including the pre-Emma Peel days. Mostly, though, Americans relied on bootleg tapes circulated here, while contented brethren in Canada and Europe watched pristine videos or broadcasts on England’s Channel 4 or cable shows like Bravo Canada. Even with the movie in theaters, Americans can only get part of one glorious season through A&E video.

Cruel irony indeed, that the one show that breathed, heralded and defined camp aesthetics continues to elude our pop-culture legacy. Timeless fashions, vintage cars, heroes and heroines that transcended contemporary mores, it still holds up brilliantly more than 30 years later.

This would normally be the stuff of even the most blunted marketing sensibilities. After all, the international phenomenon rated far higher than, say, “Star Trek, ” a franchise which spawned spinoffs, movies, books and obsessive annual conventions. It lives in cyberspace, with mammoth Web sites devoted to history, photos and music. Toby Miller, a New York University associate professor of cinema studies, just reprinted his dense 1997 sociocultural analysis simply titled “The Avengers” (British Film Institute, $19.95).

It could be the show’s deliciously uncommon nature that makes it so elusive Stateside. The closest American television has come, just in the partnership of the sexes, is “Moonlighting” and “The X-Files.” Some might argue that nothing has emerged to compare with the innovative and surreal series.

Accounts differ as to what came first, the title or the plot, but the premise originally centered on Dr. David Keel (Ian Hendry), whose fiance is killed by a bullet meant for him. Aided by the mysterious John Steed, Keel seeks the gang and becomes involved in other crime-solving. The British spy drama had been intended as a star vehicle for Hendry, who had just finished up “Police Surgeon.” Thrillers and spies were in, and producers decided to set him in a clever, tongue-in-cheek version.

He left for a film career and an actor named John Rollason did three shows before he disappeared.

That’s when the show creators decided to make screen history: a woman as a partner, not a sidekick or damsel in distress. Honor Blackman as anthropologist Cathy Gale coolly stepped in, bringing more levity and leather. Less about gangsters and more about fanatics, the scenarios revolved around the tensions between the dying traditions of a shrinking British empire and postmodern industrial state.

The leather came about, ironically, for modesty reasons. “The Avengers” was filmed live, which meant no stunt doubles during Blackman’s judo scenes. During practice, her pants split, her dress burst at the bosom and her skirt flew up. Leather proved durable, and lent itself nicely to humorous bondage references.

Gale and Steed may have had the most antagonistic relationship of all the partnerships. The agent had to cajole, bribe and trick the reluctant blonde into lending a hand. She became emotionally involved with suspects, argued with Steed and constantly rebuffed his lascivious advances. Gale suffered him, but in a way this made the fierce widow more of Steed’s equal.

Then, Blackman announced she would leave for a five-year film contract, with her first role being Pussy Galore in “Goldfinger.” The producers were in a mad scramble for a replacement, and Emma Peel (whose name came from M-appeal, or man appeal, as the new character needed to have) was cast: lovely, lithe and blonde. Actress Beth Shepherd did one episode, then was promptly fired.

Shakespearean-trained Diana Rigg coolly assumed the role of Mrs. Emma Peel, superheroine. She conquered the world, then America, in blazing color one year later. Her feminized catsuits emphasized the sinewy, sensuous leanness that oozed grace and lethal force. She was postmodern timeliness, leather and stretch jersey to Steed’s Edwardian lavishness and bowler hat.

What made Peel amazing was her complete fearlessness and sheer indifference. In “The Fear Merchants, ” a syndicate of killers who played on victims’ phobias tried to probe the captive Peel’s innermost fears. They, of course, found nothing.

Miller’s book notes that only 20 percent of female characters on U.S. television between the ’50s and ’70s were employed. True, “talented amateur” Peel was more of a dilettante than an employed woman, although she did handle a business empire. She also fenced, published scientific papers on psychoanalysis, rattled off details from manufacturing to ornithology, and dispensed villains with a karate chop and a kung-fu toss.

In “The Master Minds, ” Peel and Steed submitted a questionnaire to infiltrate a genius organization. When Steed inquired how she scored on her intelligence quotient, she replied in clipped tones, “Well above average.” “Better than mine?” Steed persisted. “Roughly the same. That’s hardly surprising since I also did your paper for you.”

That was the other element of pure joy, that the two freely swapped gender responsibilities and deliberately flouted audience expectations. “Silent Dust, ” for instance, had Mrs. Peel wielding the oar of a gondola with Steed contentedly sitting underneath a lace-edged umbrella. They generously traded off saving each other’s lives, always with the requisite pun.

It didn’t matter that their undercover identity was often blown. Most of the time they seemed to be playing pretend anyway, their wry witticisms undercutting the pompous guard of England’s colonial past or the machine-mad assembly-line modernists of the 20th century. Fans constantly rumbled about sexual undercurrents, but it was their companionable interdependence that sizzled with chemistry.

After two mind-blowing seasons and an Emmy nomination (she lost to Barbara Bain in “Space 1999”), Rigg left the show. Her wispier successor, Tara King (Linda Thorson), and a wheelchair-using boss called “Mother” joined the show. Although some fans prefer the feminine King years, the show became more dated in its look – even the sartorial Steed grew horrid sideburns. The show ended in 1969, eight years after its first airdate. “The New Avengers” (whose Lumley character, Purdey, is said to have inspired Gillian Anderson) waved its ’70s flares, then expired after 26 episodes.

“The Avengers” thwarted all convention: tradition, attire, gender, storytelling and film. The move from live production to film liberated, if not outright unleashed, “The Avengers.” Stylized editing and camera angles unfolded the plot with an economy of clues. Bizarre juxtapositions graveyards with spy telescopes poking up, gunshots exploding in an empty toy store jarred and delighted, and still hold up today. The most minor characters, most of them you knew were doomed by their very garrulity, radiated passionate eccentricities: the storekeeper and honey fanatic, the gentleman chimney sweep, the major who rode miniature trains about his home.

Co-producer and script editor Brian Clemens once pointed out, “because we were a fantasy, we have not shown policemen or coloured men. And you have not seen anything as common as blood. We have no social conscience at all.”

If the movie can bring back the series to America, it will have done its job. Otherwise, we’ll have to strap on some leather boots and do some serious kicking around here.

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times TimeOut section